‘Believe’ and the Rough Journey of Eddie Izzard

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story is a title that doesn’t fully click until the end of the film. The name comes from a mantra of Izzard’s, that you must believing you can do something before you can do it. The title, and the documentary, is a testament to his unfailing drive and supreme self-confidence, his seeming ability to will himself to success. “Why do you want to be a so-so actor when you’re a brilliant comic?” a critic said at one point. “Because once, I was a so-so comedian,” was his response.

Structurally, Believe has many parallels with Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Both begin with their star at a low point, occupying a hazy area of both fame and irrelevance, before achieving yet another comeback. The ups and downs of Izzard’s story are amazing, and the film makes the conscious choice of focusing more on the bad times than the good. The string of setbacks can be exhausting at times, but Izzard’s resilience, like Rivers’, walks that narrow line between admirable and pathological.

The “inciting” low point for the film is probably worth a movie on it’s own. In the late nineties, fans that had attended one of Izzard’s shows, apparently billed as “all new”, were disappointed when he reused material from his previous tour and DVD. So disappointed that they complained of fraud to a BBC consumer affairs show, who sent in an auditor to determine how many of Izzard’s jokes were old. The furor grew so much that Britain’s Office of Fair Trading issued a warning to Izzard about misleading customers.

From an American perspective, the fraud allegations are astonishing, with the type of government involvement that would never be possible here. That anyone could claim that a comedian using old jokes is “fraud” is, at best, a complete lack of understanding of the creative process. Izzard and his manager are both defensive about the incident, though it’s hard to imagine any comedy fans begrudge them anything.

Here, and many other times in the film, the inclusion of other comedians would have been a hugely helpful. There is a lot of Izzard in this film, but only a few interviews with people that knew him when he was young, and nothing from current peers in the British comedy scene. In discussing the fraud allegations alone, any comic could explain how mixing old and new material is standard practice.

Believe is an unabashedly pro-Izzard film, at times bordering on hero worship. That it was produced and directed by Izzard’s ex-girlfriend works both for and against it — it has deeply personal moments that an outsider may not have unearthed, yet its lack of objectivity keeps it from feeling more substantial. Perhaps the timing is part of the problem, since a mid-career retrospective will inevitably feel anticlimactic. It’s clear that we have decades more to come from Izzard — no matter what, he always bounces back.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Fans of Izzard — and the film makes it clear that there are many — will love it. But there is SO much of Izzard in the film that it might be off-putting for anyone not devoted from the start.

What does it have to say about comedy? Stories about the brutal early days of comedy are easy to find, but Izzard’s rough patches are rougher than most. The film isn’t really concerned with any comedy other than Izzard’s, but its sweeping message is that the road to greatness is long, but finding a voice and sticking to it is the only way to succeed.

Is it funny? There are some nice long chunks of Izzard’s material, interwoven nicely with the narrative. But without other comics, there’s not much funny in the interviews.

Can I stream it on Netflix? Nope, but it is on DVD.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. It’s too hot to be clever.

‘Believe’ and the Rough Journey of Eddie Izzard