At the end of a preview show earlier this summer in Islington's Union Chapel, Eddie Izzard ascended into the pulpit to receive our applause. Almost in spite of ourselves, an audience of hardened hacks and industry movers and shakers were all whoopin' and hollerin' as though we were the brainwashed followers of an American televangelist and he had been delivering the Gospel According to Eddie. Quite simply, Izzard has a mesmerising effect on people.
You fight in vain as he inexorably draws you into a uniquely bizarre world resistant to conventional logic. In Izzard's universe, the Grim Reaper argues heatedly with a corpse over whether he can wear his pyjamas to the kingdom of the dead, and pieces of bread in the toaster conspire deliberately to burn themselves by whispering to each other "stay down, lads". Izzard's act is not a straight up and down "autobahn" observational routine, but a weird and wonderful ramble through the winding highways and byways of his mind. "Surreal" is the word that attaches itself to him like Dali's moustache.
Taking time out from his self-styled "world(ish) tour", which sweeps through New York and Paris before London, Izzard is relishing the success. He is one of life's enthusiasts, and his infectious curiosity shows up in magnetically twinkling eyes and an awesome capacity for conversational tangent-taking.
He recalls that 10 years ago he was "doing crap shows on the street in Covent Garden to two men and a dog - if I was lucky". Now, able to sell out a West End theatre for 10 weeks, he has become a stand-up crowd-puller only rivalled in this country by perhaps Billy Connolly and Victoria Wood.
Not only that, he has recently been wowing New York audiences: David Bowie, David Byrne, Steve Martin and Michael Stipe have all been spotted at his shows, and he is said to have dazzled on Letterman last week. Izzard's own assessment was that he had scored "a 2-0 away win" on the chat-show.
In among the earthquake, wind and fire of hype, however, a still, small voice pipes up: does this idiosyncratic raconteur really justify all this praise? Isn't this just a load of PR sound and fury signifying nothing? Those within the industry apparently don't think so. David Tyler, a leading comedy producer and former stand-up himself, admits that "people say it's all hype, but you can't sell shit. What's good about Eddie is that the product, as it's called these days, lives up to the publicity. People who go to comedy nowadays are so knowledgeable that they would rumble you if it was no good. Like the Labour Party, Eddie understands the need for PR. But also like the Labour Party, he doesn't win just because of that".
Paul Spencer, head of comedy at ITV, calls him "a national treasure. The fact that he doesn't appear to care but clearly does is so appealing. His flights of fancy are also a joy. I doubt if you'd stick with many other comedians who took you on those journeys".
Tyler points to Izzard's inimitability. "He's very distinctive because there aren't any other dyed-blond transvestite comedians in red high heels working the circuit," he laughs, before adding: "More than that, people try to imitate him, but they can't quite do it right, so you have to keep going back to the original."
Izzard is one of those rare comics who is funny without uttering a word; even his umming and ahhing can raise laughs (fellow comedians call this much-copied technique "Eddie-ing"). "You get a sense of pleasure when he just comes on stage," reckons Tyler. "His `ahs' and `ohs' have the same effect as Tommy Cooper's `ha-ha-ha'. Some comedians are very accomplished, but when they stop speaking, they are no longer funny. The best comedy bypasses the brain quickly. When you reach the point where there's no need for words, you know you're watching a brilliant comedian, someone who is funny over and above his material."
Not everything Izzard has done has been accorded such plaudits. The Observer advised him "don't give up the day job" after his performance as Edward II at Leicester Haymarket in 1995, while Cows, his long-awaited C4 sitcom pilot about a family of cows who move into a suburban street, was splatted with silage by reviewers last year. Even Izzard's biog concedes, in a characteristically imaginative simile, that it "was critically received like a long-lost relative who turns up at the wrong house with an overdue Christmas card".
Izzard, unruffled, puts this down as a learning experience. "Cows has gone down as not working. Great. It keeps me on my toes. It's good to have some things not working. I took a risk and didn't pull it off."
Risk-taking has always been a major part of Izzard's appeal. He never goes on stage, for instance, with a pre-planned set. "My act is constantly fluid, a constant work in progress," he observes. "I use a rolling style where new stuff is always replacing old. If you keep repeating yourself, it starts to sound dead, like the way you say prayers or poems. You recite it without being inside the idea of it."
To keep fresh, Izzard feeds off the audience. He is so naturally likable that he could even strike up a rapport with a Roman riot policeman. "That thing of talking directly to people started in the streets," he reflects. "You become a master of crowd manipulation. I was very influenced by Billy Connolly - a big chat in a vast room. Of course, you don't get a word in edgeways, but you don't want to. It's like a chat in a pub where you just listen to a guy telling stories. I love that thing of there being no difference between on and off stage."
People's warmth towards Izzard has also helped him hurdle the potentially tricky barrier of coming out as a transvestite. "There's an instinctive block which means I don't jump on an express train to the mainstream," Izzard surmises, "but people react to character. In the end my personality can jump over the divide - like Boy George's did. There was a big, stocky guy putting up the set for my show in Cardiff. He thought I was going to do a drag show, all torch songs, Barbra Streisand and gay humour. He was thrown because he liked it. People think it's going to be weird, then they see it's just me talking crap."
Almost unprecedentedly for a successful modern stand-up, Izzard has built up his following without bowing down to the great god of television. He explains why he has avoided going down the well-travelled road of TV (over-) exposure.
"If you get too established in comedy, people won't let you do anything else," muses the man who has had prominent roles in such serious work as Christopher Hampton's The Secret Agent, C4's Aristophanes and The Avengers (opposite Sean Connery, no less). "If you try to go directly from comedy to straight acting - like John Cleese did with Silverado - viewers feel let down. People are reluctant to let you get away from comedy.
"I'm trying to plan straight roles," he continues. "Basically, I want to do Woody Harrelson's career, from Cheers to Natural Born Killers. I can play twisted-edge, psychotic characters - I should see someone about it. So I thought, `I never want to get that big comedy baggage'. Not doing telly has become a religious thing for me."
Religion also features in his new live show, Glorious, which majors on the Old Testament. He was attracted to the subject, he says, by "the big beards. It's Elijah and big chariots. I had 12 years of compulsory religious attendance with this strange tea-and-crumpet-type face on - `you must have tea with the vicar or you die'. The big problem I have with organised religion is its lack of a sense of humour. That's why you get fundamentalism. Religion says, `we worked it out 2,000 years ago and we're not going to change it'. But we don't use instruction manuals from 2,000 years ago; we constantly update them. Religion is not a moving thing, and it should be because we keep moving."
When he talks so vibrantly about his act, you can see that it is stand- up which defines him. OK, so he may make a passable baddie in feature films or write not-so-passable sitcoms, but it is live comedy at which he excels. Such an awkward, original, unpindownable mind does not need the limitations imposed by following someone else's script.
At heart, he must know that he'd be mad voluntarily to relinquish the domain where he is the master of all he surveys.
"I want to do stand-up till I drop dead," he admits. "Most people just use it as a way into telly, but you can do stand-up for a very long time, if audiences are happy and you're trying to keep it moving. Groucho Marx played Carnegie Hall at 82. I hope that I can keep adding to my act. If you just stand still, it's a problem."
The British leg of Eddie Izzard's `Glorious' tour opens at the Labbatt's Apollo, Hammersmith, London, W6 (0171 416 6050) on Monday. The video of `Glorious' will be released on 17 NovemberReuse content