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Eddie Izzard breaks language barriers with his comedy

| Wednesday, May 28, 2014, 9:07 p.m.
Comedian and actor Eddie Izzard
Lorenzo Agius
Comedian and actor Eddie Izzard

Eddie Izzard has a theory about comedy.

To him, the lines that divide us into states, nations and ethnicities aren't enough to stop us from laughing at more-or-less the same things. Even the vast differences between languages aren't enough to stop a good joke or funny story.

“Humor is human. It's universal,” Izzard says. “I believe there's no American sense of humor, there's not a British sense of humor. There's not a Russian sense of humor, in a national way.”

The British stand-up comedian and actor, who will perform May 31 and June 1 at the Byham Theater, Downtown, isn't just asserting his theory. He's putting it to the test.

For his current stand-up show, titled “Force Majeure” (a chance occurrence, unavoidable accident, or “act of God”), he's doing it in French in France, in German in Germany, in Russian in Russia, and in Arabic in the Middle East.

It doesn't even matter that he doesn't really speak most of these languages. He's doing it anyway.

“I went from doing two months of stand-up in German in Berlin to doing a movie, ‘Boychoir,' with Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates,” Izzard says. “My career is in this amazing place. It doesn't even exist in an agent or manager's mind. There's no place where an agent is saying, ‘I want my guy to be doing stand-up in German, and then come back and do a serious dramatic role with Dustin Hoffman.' That's not on the list.

“It's not perfect. The roles I'm getting in drama are good, the ‘Hannibal' (on NBC) reaction is good, but I've still got further to go up that ladder.

“Stand-up, though, is in this amazing place. I don't know anyone else who's particularly trying to compete with (me). I've gone off the map a bit.”

Izzard has built quite a career while treating borders, barriers and boundaries as if they don't exist.

By now, the fact that he often performed in women's clothing, high heels and makeup, is pretty much the least remarkable thing about him. (These days, he tends to dress in a sharp black-and-white dinner jacket — with just a hint of dark-purple nail varnish.)

He was born in the former British Middle Eastern colony of Aden (now Yemen) and grew up in Northern Ireland and Wales. He was a talkative lad, with a wildly eccentric, erudite sense of humor, prone to surreal imagery and going off on inspired, improvised tangents. Languages are a relatively new obsession.

“I did two months in German at the beginning of the year and wrote down my script of the show for the first time ever,” Izzard says. “We sort of had one recorded in English, and someone typed it out. Then, I went through it and said, ‘Well, that's a bit waffle-y, we can cut that out.' I sort of edited it down in script form for the first time ever.

“I've been doing it in German, and then a bit of Spanish, and I've always been practicing the French. And now back in English. And it's working very well, which is a testament to the tightness of the script. But it also implies that you don't ad-lib too much. I'm trying to get the balance of that, which is going to be a fine line for the rest of my career.”

It's a monumental challenge. But each language has been chosen for a reason. “They're linked to my political views of wanting to reach out,” he says. “I'm trying to extend a hand to the German people, 70 years since the war. The French people, (we have) hundreds of years of history with my country of war and scratchiness. Russian people are constantly told that the West doesn't like them. And Arabic ... I was born in Aden, in Yemen, and that would be a great full-circle, the place where my parents met and got married.”

Izzard has discovered that language is not nearly the barrier to comedy that we think it is. But you have to know your audience.

“I talk about squirrels with guns,” he says. “I typically slam together images that are quite surreal. That's my gut instinct as to where comedy lies, comedy that I like. I believe there's a mainstream sense of humor in every country, and a more ‘alternative' sense of humor in every country. So, ‘The Simpsons' can be watched around the world when translated. But they won't get all the references. In England, we might not get someone (referenced) from American television that we don't know. The references are national, but the type of humor is either mainstream or alternative.

“Out of all of it, there was one joke that didn't really work in German,” Izzard says. “I was talking about the fitness of the mind, and the fitness of the body — a healthy body and healthy mind are the Greek Olympic ideal. I said, ‘When we were kids, we were fit, fit, fit. Now, our bodies are like two weasels, covered in gravy, nailed to the back of a tractor.' It gets this laugh in English. If you think about what it means, it doesn't make any sense — it's just a silly image. There's also a certain musicality to the line — ‘Ding-da-da-ding-da-ding.' It kind of flows in a silly, bonkers way.”

Then, Izzard repeats the line in German.

“It took me three weeks to learn that line,” he notes. “As I got (to say) it better, they laughed less. I realized that the image didn't make any sense, and the excellent German was quite staccato and bouncy, like a bumpy road. It's the rhythm. I had to change it into something that sounded like what a body looks like. ‘A washing machine filled with rodents.' I still didn't get a perfect one ...”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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