Music has long been considered the “international language.” There is no feminine or masculine case when it comes to rhythm, and melody does not need a translator. But on his current 25-country world tour, Eddie Izzard is also proving that people of every nationality also have funny bones — especially if the comic is willing to learn the local language. For his “Force Majeure” show, Izzard will be performing his set in six different languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Russian and Arabic.
It’s the latest challenge for a man who, when not embarking on the largest comedy tour of all time, has been busy making films, running a jaw-dropping 43 marathons in 51 days to raise money for charity and making plans for his eventual entry into politics (he’s even got a date – May of 2020).
He stopped all of that just long enough to speak with amNew York about learning languages and the “American sense of humor.”
Which is harder: Visiting 25 countries on a comedy tour or running 43 marathons in 51 days?
It is quite a marathon doing so many shows all together. I’ve got to stay healthy and well and fit. But I think the marathons are still slightly harder.
Which of the six languages is the hardest?
I think than German is harder than French or Spanish just because they have a masculine, feminine and neuter, whereas the other two have just a masculine and feminine. English doesn’t have any of that. The thing I notice, though is that all German kids speak German, all Russian kids speak Russian. All Mandarin Chinese kids speak Mandarin Chinese. No language can be that hard. Some can be harder, but kids can pick them up. ? If you’re living in the country, then eventually you’ll practice enough and get it.
What do you have to change about your current show to make it “translate” well?
I’ve designed it not to have any differences. I start the show by talking about human sacrifice. If you start the show in Moscow by saying, “human sacrifice,” they go, “yeah, we know that.” In Berlin, in New York, in Los Angeles, they all get it. It’s what you do with it. For me, it’s the first fascism, because who the hell came up with the idea that killing another human being would please gods when they are supposed to have created human beings in the first place, according to the Lore of Godliness. And everyone can understand it. I change nothing.
What does performing in a different language do to the on-the-feet aspects of performance?
It knocks spontaneity back until you can get good enough with your language skills to drop it in. In French, I can ad lib. In German, I can ad lib a bit. In Spanish, I can’t ad lib. It gives me good incentive to keep going until I can ad lib more and more. I had a wonderful ad lib in French, but I don’t know that when I repeat it, it quite translates. I was talking about dinosaurs and saying all they did was make the noise “Grrrr,” just a growling sound. That’s all they did for 150 million years. No hesitation, no reflection. And then I said, “no culpability,” and I had a dinosaur going, “Moi?” Like he was saying “I didn’t kill that other dinosaur.” And just the idea of a dinosaur saying “moi?” made me laugh my bloody head off. It’s beautiful to be able to be in a second language and come up with a perfect ad lib. That was like touching the bloody stars.
Do you find that audiences react differently to the same material in different countries?
Humor is human. People feel that humor is national, they go on about the “American sense of humor” but as soon as you really analyze it, you see that Andrew Dice Clay is an American comedian, but there’s “The Simpsons” and Patton Oswalt and Dennis Miller. They’re all in different places. My stuff links up with “The Simpsons” and Patton Oswalt and Monty Python and Steve Marin’s standup and Richard Pryor’s stand-up, that kind of surreal, intelligent-but-silly. It’s liked all over the world. Monty Python already proved it. I don’t believe that there’s a “national” sense of humor. There’s mainstream sense of humor and an alternative sense of humor in every country. And alternative comedians can link up all around the world — sometimes you might have to learn the language, though by this point English has become a lingua franca like Hellenic Greek once was. English is so much easier.
What’s left that you really want to do?
I’m going into politics in May of 2020 — trying to do a Senator Al Franken journey. I feel I have to do that, for a period of time. I want to do good dramatic roles, more and more marathons and ultramarathons. Triathlons, too. I’ve always wanted to make films, and I’ve always hesitated because I didn’t want to make rubbish. Now I’ve got an end date, so I’ve just got to get these scripts out of me and start to get these films made. It really does focus the mind. My whole life will change.
IF YOU GO: Eddie Izzard is performing at the Beacon Theatre Tuesday through Sunday at 8 p.m., 2124 Broadway, 212-465-6500, $50-$80.