Eddie Izzard And The Nature Of Believing

Why do we believe?

Is it a learned skill?

Or is it a gift, like faith or joy or grace?

Can we lose the ability to believe, or never have it to begin with, depending on the hand life deals us?

I've been ruminating on the nature of believing since watching and re-watching the new documentary film, Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story. The 90-minute film, released on DVD last month, deconstructs the career of comedian Eddie Izzard, a man who is, perhaps, the funniest person alive.

Izzard has been a favorite of mine for years. His seemingly stream-of-consciousness ramblings on everything from jam to Jesus are infectiously funny and eminently smart. I've seen Izzard perform live and watched, I believe, everything he's ever committed to film -- from comedy stand-up and feature-film roles (such as the voice of Reepicheep in Prince Caspian) to his virtuoso turn in the (sadly) short-lived TV series The Riches.

He is, in a word, brilliant.

Izzard, who is a transvestite and often performs in women's clothing and full makeup, first won my heart when I watched his 1999 stand-up film, Dress to Kill. It was his mercilessly funny (and frighteningly astute) take on religion and faith that grabbed my attention and my funny bone.

Jesus: "Look Dad, I went down there, I taught 'em to hang out, be groovy, drink a bit of wine, they split into different groups! You've got the Catholics, the Protestants, the Jesuits, the Methodists, the Evangelicals, the free Presbyterians, the locked up Presbyterians ... the Quakers, the Bakers, the Candlestick Makers ... The Mormons are from Mars, Dad, we've had that checked out."

God (in the voice of James Mason): "And what does the Holy Ghost think of all this?"

Jesus: "Oh, he's useless, Dad. Got a sheet over his head these days."

(God, in Izzard's acts, is always Mason. And Moses -- and sometimes also King Henry VIII -- sounds like Sean Connery.)

Here's his take on the history (and present) of Anglicanism:

While he maintains that he is an atheist, Izzard regularly draws on religious history and theology for comic effect. The spiritual, it seems to this fan, fascinates him, even if he doesn't believe.

Izzard's Believe is different from all his other performances. Maybe that's because it isn't a performance. It's real, a behind-the-scenes look at the comic's struggle over several decades to achieve success. Believe paints a compelling -- at turns hilarious and intensely moving -- psychospiritual portrait of Eddie the artist.

In it, we learn how driven Eddie the man is. And, to an extent, why.

"You've got to believe you can be a standup before you can be a standup," Izzard says. "You have to believe you can act before you can act. You have to believe you can be an astronaut before you can be an astronaut. You've got to believe."

Izzard learned this lesson, we are told, while he was a street entertainer in London's Covent Garden in the late 1980s, when he borrowed the ropes and chains from another performer's act and had an audience member tie him up. Once, Izzard explains, he was bound too tightly, so tightly, in fact, that he couldn't escape. He had to dismiss the crowd and ask friends to free him.

The performer to whom the ropes and chains belonged told him, "If you think you can't get out, you will not be able to get out. You have to believe you can get out. It's psychological."

(In an odd aside, while watching footage in Believe of Izzard in Covent Garden in 1987, I realized that I recognized him from the summer I spent on the same London streets performing as a "mime for the Lord" during missions trip when I was 16. Small world.)

Izzard, 48, was born in Yemen and raised in Northern Ireland and Southern Wales. His mother died of cancer when he was just six years old. He caught the performing bug as a schoolboy, shortly after his mother's death.

Driven is the way Izzard comes across in the documentary, and unbelievably so. He just wouldn't give up until he made it. Big. He worked hard, made sacrifices, and took nonsensical leaps of faith to get where he is today.

In a particularly poignant scene toward the end of the film, Izzard talks about his mother.

"I think that performing was about trying to get everyone to love. You're trying to get the love of the audience, and that was the big swap from mom's love not being there," he says, choking back tears. "The big problem is that everything I do in life is trying to ... uh ... get her back. I think if I do enough things that maybe she ... that maybe she'll come back.

"Yeah," he croaks, "I think that's what I'm doing."

Izzard's confession reminds me of something Bono of U2 told me a few years back. Bono's mother, Iris, died suddenly -- of an aneurysm at the funeral of her own father -- when the rock-star-diplomat was 14.

"People think performers -- that it's all about love me, love me, love me. And they're right!" Bono said as we rode a tour bus through Nebraska. "It's not that they want everyone in the crowd to love them. It's usually just one person and the crowd has one face. It could be a lover, it could be somebody who bullied them at school; it could be their teacher, it could be their father. That's my theory. Most great performers are performing for one person."

"Who's yours?" I asked Bono, who had, moments before, plopped down next to a startled male reporter and rested his head in the guy's lap. He was kidding around. Or was he?

"That's why I was just getting comfortable there," Bono joked. "I was trying to figure that out."

Back in 2006, Bono interviewed Izzard for a special edition of the UK newspaper The Independent. The two men talked about losing their mothers at a young age.

"The conclusion I have come to is that the audience is a surrogate affection organism for the loss of my mother's affection," Izzard told Bono. "A mother gives unconditional love (some mothers don't, but my mother did), but an audience's love is totally conditional. You have to deliver. Consequently, I believe my desperation to deliver is to get this love out of an audience. That is what kept, and keeps pushing me."

"Ditto to a similar beginning," Bono replied. "The loss of my mother definitely started me singing and writing, but the audience was probably some sort of attempt at my father. It goes without saying, if we were of completely sound mind and proportion in our thinking, we wouldn't be performers."

Madonna's mother died when she was just a girl. John Lennon lost his mother when he was young, and so did Orson Welles.

Perhaps great art arises from the lost thing, whatever it might be.

My own mum lost her mother when she was three years old. While she hasn't aspired to super-stardom (at least not in a worldly sense), I see that same kind of drive in her demonstrated most vividly in her faith. She pushes herself to trust this loving God, to ingest as much of the Word of God and sound teaching as she can. That search, for her, is all-consuming in much the same way that Izzard's creative impulse is for him.

Maybe the loss of that original, organic, unconditional love --Bono once told me that his first experience of God's grace came from a mother's love -- is what leads some to believe deeply (as it did Bono and my mother) and others to lose their ability to believe altogether.

Izzard had to believe in himself. The power of his believing earned him great success.

Still, the lost thing remains. And Izzard keeps striving for more. To do more. Create more and better. To be more and better.

He is a generous man. Last year, with only a few weeks' training, Izzard ran 1,100 miles around the British Isles -- the equivalent of 43 marathons in 51 days -- to raise nearly $2 million for charity. It seemed as though what kept him going was sheer will and a stubborn belief that he could do it because he said he would.

I wonder, though, as a fan and admirer, whether some day all that hard-practiced believing and will-driven running might bring him to the place where he can believe in the unconditional love of a God who knows him and loves him just as he is.

Until Izzard can move into the space where he can believe, I'll believe for him.

Eddie the man, you are loved. By millions of fans and by your biggest fan: the Creator with a capital C. The same One who made the heavens and the earth, bees and coffee, Rwanda and France, radioactive socks and cupboards.

Only the One loves you the most.