It's six years since Eddie Izzard's last full national tour. At his peak, his tours were never more than three years apart so it is a testimony to his following that this prolonged hiatus has not prevented him from stepping out as a stadium comic. In fact, in line with the burgeoning popularity of comedy, quite the reverse has happened and next month, Izzard is to become only the fourth comedian to play the monolithic Madison Square Garden in New York, the other three being Americans, Chris Rock, Andrew "Dice" Clay and Dane Cook.
In New York, Izzard's show is billed as The Big Intimacy Tour: Stripped Too, a concept that the comedian admits he has tried to sell to critics who have pointed out that playing cavernous venues takes away from the intimacy of his warm ramblings. Certainly the most marked development of this show from its West End run last year is that the venue and the amplification have made an impact on the coherence, rather like a super-woofer might do to a song as it pumps out from a car.
Of course Izzard is all about woofers, barkers, growlers and just about any other animal noise you can think of. He is a kind of Doctor Dolittle, giving voice to a cast of animals. The man who gave us dogs who talk back to human owners when they appear to have dropped their stick, tonight brought his audience raptors stopped for speeding, jazz chickens and squids unhappy at the level of towel provision on Noah's Ark.
The debunking of the Ark (a theme echoed in Ricky Gervais' show and a long-standing comedy piñata) is part of the atheistic undertone to the show, again more prevalent in the West End outing and here diluted by extended mimes and soundscapes, including a Roman soldier gleefully but protractedly advancing on his Greek enemy along a phalanx that pierces through the middle of his body.
Despite having the backdrop of talking about "everything that ever happened" it seems that Izzard's surrealism is even more superficial than it has been hitherto. The comedy doodles are gentle and elicit pools of laughter and applause that ebb and flow in the vast ocean-like room, with Izzard, dressed in jeans, a striped shirt and a ringmaster's jacket, stroking rather than stoking his audience.
Slight though much of Stripped is, it is consistent. When Izzard's vagueness grapples with the ludicrousness of perceived wisdoms and formalities he's at his best. Taking on the endless agreements that are required to be made with iTunes and other online services he suggests that the customer would agree to be called "Mr Bingo" just so long as he could get to the goods more quickly. Elsewhere this contrast is used against opera that he describes as "rich people watching large people being shaken by small people" and that occasionally operatic verse could do with a "doing word".
Ironically, of course, while Izzard may consider opera lofty, he has no small ambition himself when it comes to playing on the big stages of life, be that chasing a Hollywood career, a political career, completing 43 marathons in 51 days or gigging across the globe, occasionally in other languages. It was recently pointed out that he appears to want to be a "world comedian" – and the all-encompassing theme of Stripped and its reliance on physicality certainly point in that direction.
All this grandstanding may arguably lead to a dumbing-down of content and a reliance on some old tricks. In the case of the latter, for example, he imagines tonight how God's voice might sound if he did exist, a routine very reminiscent of a past one about the gap between perception and supposed reality in the case of the Romans.
Still, there is no doubt that the themes of Stripped are epic, even if the show itself is not a blockbuster.