By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Writer and co-director Eric Idle says “there was a sense of chaos from start to finish” during the four onstage Los Angeles performances of his new comedy-mystery radio-drama “What About Dick?” A filmed version assembled from those live dates will be available by download only (at whataboutdick.com) beginning November 13.
Along with Idle, actors Russell Brand, Billy Connolly, Tracey Ullman, Eddie Izzard, Tim Curry, Jane Leeves, Sophie Winkleman and Jim Piddock appear in costume at microphone stands with scripts in hand, creating a surprisingly lively theater-of-the-mind experience.
“It was wonderful,” Eric continues, seated beside Izzard, Winkleman and Connolly in a Hollywood Boulevard conference room. “I loved it.”
“Eric wrote it into the script,” Izzard says. “He said ‘make sure chaos is in there,’ and we tried to oblige.”
The four actors chatted more to each other than to the press during a freewheeling exchange as chaotic as the movie itself.
Connolly: There was chaos built into the shape of the stage, and the number of people on it, and about the furniture. Just to get to where you should be was a little chaos.
Idle: It is the show with the most furniture.
Izzard: I think it was nominated for best furniture.
Idle: It was.
Connolly: Most inspiring furniture.
Izzard: And the danger of tripping over furniture. And also we never leave the stage. It’s like a film with De Niro, it’s like “Apocalypse Now” where no one actually leaves the film, they’re all just hanging in the back of the frame waving.
Connolly: I thought what it needed was one of those little things that squishes out perfume.
Idle: Yes. Smell-o-Vision.
Izzard: If you go to the loos these days, you can be sitting there on your iPad, just doing something, and suddenly (makes perfume-spray sound). It’s up on the wall. It’s weird.
Connolly: I was in the toilet recently and a voice said, “Hi, how you doing?” And it was a guy in a cubicle phoning someone. And I wondered if the person at the other end knew what he was doing when he was talking. Having a crap and talking away.
Izzard: I was just in the toilet here, and there’s a bloke (on a phone) going, “I’m at Bronson and McDougal,” or whatever he was saying. I wanted to shout, “No you’re not. Tell him you’re in the loo.”
Q: Do you think humor is natural or can be learned?
Izzard: I think comedy is genetic. I think it’s built in.
Idle: My great-great grandfather was a ringmaster. Circus people.
Izzard: I think comedy is genetic. I think it’s built in. If some people unfortunately don’t have a sense of humor, it’s either because they’re Republicans or they’re genetically challenged. I think it’s a world thing. I don’t believe it’s national, which is why “The Simpsons” is now around the world and “Python” is now around the world.
Idle: It’s a safety valve, and it’s a reaction to fear. I think it comes from a chimpanzee (impersonates a chimp making sounds through clenched teeth), which is how it evolves DNA-wise into our genes. I think it’s a survival gene that makes us very much human. It’s very much a human characteristic, which means that we are just one little species. I think it’s helped us get this far because it gets the truth out, particularly unpalatable truths in dangerous times. That’s what comedy does.
Connolly: And that’s why there’s so few Swiss comedians. I met a German one once who was awful. He said “you look like an apple pie” and started to laugh. I didn’t know quite what to do.
Idle: It’s funny in German. Apfel-strudel. You look like apfel-strudel. See, it’s funnier, he laughed!
Connolly: That’s because you’re no’ a German.
Winkleman: They’ve said all the good things.
Idle: Just dive in earlier.
Winkleman: I’m polite! Like Eric says, I think it’s a way of looking at the world. I think it protects you, and it’s sort of a buffering zone. If something’s completely awful, you can sort of deal with it if you find something funny about it. And I think Eddie’s right, I think it’s genetic. It’s a great gift, it’s amazing. And being on stage with this lot was very exciting.
Connolly: Half of it is wanting to be funny. The desire to be funny is kind of strange. Most people have a desire to be handsome and attractive and sexy and wanted, a desire to be loved.
Izzard: But we can get wanted and loved and kind of sexy out of comedy, can’t we?
Connolly: You can, but it’s kind of a dangerous area for the sex. Because I’ve found myself many many times in a position where I’ve made a woman laugh laugh laugh (repeats 15 times), but I can’t get to the next stage, because she wants me to be funny.
Idle: I find it the other way around. I find I get a lot of laughs from sex.
Izzard: If someone wrote a book on how to bridge the laughter ability into the sexual ability, that bridge, that is quite a tricky one.
Idle: I do believe it gets you girls. It gets nerdy boys girls.
Izzard: How about if women are very funny?
Idle: That’s not attractive. It threatens men. When women are funny, it threatens men. I think when Tracey was really funny, it was slightly threatening to everybody onstage. The first night, when Tracey killed and just went and got the audience and brought them back by the ears, people were slightly concerned by that.
Izzard: No, that’s just Tracey. She goes at it like she’s an attack weapon.
Idle: No, it’s because she was a girl. She did go on like an attack weapon, but thank God she just went and pulled the audience back.
Izzard: That’s a boy’s quality that she has about her, and I think she’d agree with that. But “I Love Lucy” was one of the biggest things ever, and she was more funny than Desi. Desi was just filling in the lines. But there have been a lot of really funny women. I think that weaker men get challenged by them, I do believe, but I think the smart men think it’s very sexy.
Idle: You never hear a friend of yours say, “You’ve got to meet this girl, she’s got a great sense of humor.”
Q: Are there cultural differences in humor?
Connolly: When I was young, the trouble was radio and television employed only people with standard English perceived pronunciation. Non-accent people. Regional accents were kind of sneered at. So as children we didn’t grow up knowing Scottish comedians. So when you eventually heard one, it was such a plus. “My God, he’s being funny and sounds like me.” I got if from a guy called Jimmy Logan, and Stanley Baxter, that were doing my accent. But it took ages.
Izzard: On the world stage, I am someone who actively goes out and says that humor is a world thing, it is not national. I’m going to be playing all these crazy places like Katmandu and Delhi next year, and Russia and France, and they all seem to get the stuff. It’s only the references they don’t get. So in Switzerland there are comedians, there’s a whole bunch in Germany and Austria. One of them, Michael Mittermeier, just came and played London in English, and I was one of his co-promoters on that. And he did a great job, but he’s just still learning the language. I’m still learning French and doing it in France. The French comedians come to my gigs, and I know I have to get my French better.
But it’s the ability to understand the words, and then just to get the references. So if you’re talking about American things, and you go over to London, they’re going to say, “Well, it’s the same language, but we don’t get you because you’re talking about some sort of congressman over here, or Michele Bachmann or something like this, and they go, “Well, we don’t know these people.” So it’s obviously the language and then it’s the references. But apart from that, it’s human. There will be Swiss people with no sense of humor, but also Swiss people who will be very, very funny. You betcha.
Q: Eric, did you cast Sophie after seeing her on TV’s “Peep Show?”
Idle: I was not at the time familiar with “Peep Show.” Emily Mortimer, an old friend of mine who did the role before, couldn’t do it because she’s doing “The Newsroom.” So we didn’t have this role, and we were getting close to a reading and I would get into panic wondering who and who and who. And my friend (and “What About Dick?” co-star) Jim Piddock, who is playing her father on “Two and a Half Men,” said Sophie would be great. So she just suddenly appeared at the door and there she was, in full bloom. It was wonderful.
Winkleman: Jim told me about it, and it sounded far too good to be true, the lineup and this man at the helm of it and writing it. It was the stuff of legends, it was amazing. And the first day, when we all went to rehearse, I was so nervous, because these people have made me weep with laughter for years. It was thrilling. It was very, very exciting to get this job.
Q: Sophie, will your character Big Suze be in the upcoming season eight of “Peep Show?”
Winkleman: Unfortunately it clashed with the job I’m doing over here (“Two and a Half Men”), so no she won’t. It’s so sad. I’d love to have done another one of those.
Q: Could you talk about the stage setting of “What About Dick?”
Idle: It was set in 1941, at the Orpheum Theater, of them doing a film for radio. That’s what they used to do, all the famous stars—Cary Grant, everybody—would come and recreate on radio the film they had just released, with sound effects and everything. So there’s a tradition of this. I was going to make more of it, but the fact is once you get Eddie and Russell and Billy standing on stage, you can’t really pretend it’s 1941. And you don’t want to haul it all back to references only from that time. So it has this nice stylized look about it, it’s a ’40s radio set, but it doesn’t really get used much.
Q: How important was the audience to your performance?
Idle: “Python” was always live in front of an audience, and that’s the only way you can tell in comedy. It’s much harder in a film, you have no idea. Even when you’re filming it, you don’t know whether you’re funny that time of the day, and then they cut it together. What was great about doing this is they came, they laughed, they were having a great time and we just fed into it. And it tells you where the laughs are, too. So it’s much easier to edit.
Q: How did you decided not to include any cutaway shots to the audience?
Idle: We had tried them, and it was very disconcerting. I was against putting the lights on, because I hate it when I’m in an audience and they put the lights on and it’s in your eye and you’re trying to laugh. I think that anonymity’s very important, They’re in the dark, you’re in the light. So we didn’t have very good shots of the audience, and we tried it, and decided the audience had to come out. And we started looking for reactions from the people on stage, which was nicer, because it meant they would have a little moment where they were laughing. It made it more intimate. It brought the play, which was about all of us being on stage at the same time, it made more of that.
Q: Eddie, could you talk about your very glamorous hands?
Izzard: (Joking) Yes, I have enormous monster gloves on, and that’s just because DNA-wise I probably have a monster way back. No, I’ve got painted nails. Apparently if you’re a transvestite you have to do this. It’s one of the rules or laws. And I also have the flag of Britain, the UK, on one side and the European flag on the other. I’m a British-European transvestite, 10 fingers, political statement.
Q: You’ve been in boy’s clothes the last few years.
Idle: He’s the world’s laziest transvestite.
Izzard: I am. I think it could be said that Sophie here is representing the clothes that I would like to wear (a very sheer cream-colored dress), if I could borrow her body for a while. Transvestism is a whole bag of…
Idle: It’s a railway across Russia, isn’t it? The Transvestite railway.
Q: You once said you were a lesbian trapped in a man’s body. Has she gotten out yet?
Izzard: No, it wasn’t trapped, we were just happily co-habiting. I’m actually okay with it all. The bit that I’ve got is the girly bit. The bit that Sophie here is wearing, that kind of girly bit, that’s what I know. But I do not have…some women and some men have this, which is a design aesthetic that goes with that kind of thing, which I don’t have. But I do have the girly piece of the genetic code that they’re going to find in women and me. I predict that now, that will come out. Because I didn’t choose this, I just have it. And I’ve also got all the boy stuff, though. I’ve got the fighting, I’m going to be in the army. (Billy) was in the paratroopers, I wanted to be in the paratroopers. That’s a big comedy thing, jumping out of aeroplanes and wanting to do comedy.
(At this point, Russell Brand wanders into the room, although he is slated to do a separate interview afterward.)
Q: What was it like to work with Russell Brand?
Izzard: He’s much taller than me, so that was a real problem.
Brand: We weren’t at the same altitude, we couldn’t communicate. We were different frequencies. FM and AM.
Izzard: But there was a very nice bit that Mr. Russell Brand did, which was when he said, “No, I’m an action transvestite.” Remember that, Russell?
Brand: Yeah, that was one of my favorite bits.
Idle: Didn’t make the cut.
Idle: It will be in the outtakes. We have lots and lots of stuff.