6 Questions With Polyglot Comedian And Activist Eddie Izzard

We spoke with Eddie Izzard about using language to connect with people, translating comedy and, at one point, human sacrifice.
Eddie Izzard

Comedian, activist and now politician Eddie Izzard is someone who likes a challenge. Born in Yemen, she moved with her family to Northern Ireland when she was a child. Izzard faced adversity from a very young age, and she has said the death of her mother when she was just 6 years old is what propelled her into show business. He’s experienced a great deal of discrimination, having come out as transgender in the ’80s when queerness had yet to gain much mainstream acceptance. And yet nothing has held her back from becoming one of the most beloved comedians in the United Kingdom and around the world. Izzard has been the subject of a 2010 documentary called Believe, and she published an autobiography called Believe Me, which was released last year. She has appeared in movies and TV shows including Victoria & AbdulHannibal and both Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen. And yet, Izzard’s accomplishments extend far beyond performing.

Izzard has devoted herself to a number of causes throughout her life. In 2009, she ran 43 marathons in 51 days for the charity Sports Relief, and in 2015, she ran 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa as a tribute to the 27 years Nelson Mandela spent in prison. The following year, she visited 31 cities in Britain over the course of 31 days to encourage people to vote “Remain” during the E.U. referendum. And just recently, she officially became a politician as she took a position on the British Labour Party’s National Executive Committee. She had run for the position twice before, but was chosen in this case because her predecessor stepped down.

Having said all that, we wanted to talk to Izzard about yet another talent she’s famous for: languages. Izzard had incorporated French into her shows from early on in her comedy career, but a while back, she decided to make it a goal to perform in more and more languages. So far, she’s performed in French, German and Spanish, and has plans to start working in Arabic, Russian and Mandarin Chinese. Babbel spoke with Eddie Izzard about how and why she’s learned to do comedy in so many languages.

1.  You have the distinction of being not just multilingual, but a multilingual comedian. What has made you want to be funny and perform in multiple languages, when so many people have a hard time being funny in just one?

IZZARD: I started performing, in French particularly, with a political idea behind it. I can now perform all through France and French-speaking countries, and in Germany and German-speaking countries, including Austria and Schweizerdeutsch. With Spanish, you get a massive region. You get Central America, South America and parts of the Caribbean. I’m Arabic and Russian as they come. I was born in an Arabic country. It seems positive. It seems a thing that you could do and other people can say, “Hey, that idiot’s doing that. I’m going to have a go at that.”

So now, you may not know this, but the Germans are now performing in English, and the Russians in English, the French, the Spanish, the Scandinavian. English is a much easier way to go. Maybe because of the language, but also a Hollywood career can beckon or they can tour the world with it. French people are now playing in Finland in English, and the Finnish kids are watching in English. So they’re playing in a second language, and the kids are watching in a second language, and that work has never happened in the history of the world before that. I’d like to think that I was a vanguard of really pushing for that.

So there’s the business thing, there’s a strategy thing, there’s a political edge to it, but also it’s great to be able to converse with other people. And I’m now improvising. I’ve just started developing my latest show, which is called Wunderbar, and I’ve been improvising for two months in Paris, and now I’m going to go to Berlin, and then improvise there in German, which is much harder for me.

2. You learned French when you were in school, but how have you gone about learning the other languages you know?

IZZARD: Initially, I just pushed it. I would go on a holiday in France, and I’d have a conversation with a guy behind the bar. I’d have a conversation with the waiting person and try to strike up a conversation in hotels. In shops, you’d get these kind of short little conversations going — didn’t really do much to be honest.

Then I started saying: “Right, I’m going to perform in this, that’s going to be quite a difficult thing to do. What are the standard procedures when you learn your show in a second language?” Oh, there aren’t any. People don’t really do it. So I sort of had to make all of that up, and I started doing lessons one-on-one in a teaching school in Paris. I got up in the morning at 8 o’clock and went in by the bus or in the metro, and with one person sitting opposite me, they would take me through the subjunctive, the conditional, this and that. I find that too much. That was too heavy-duty. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. It was like school again, but the teacher was always on your case and even though I wanted to learn, I just couldn’t get my brain to work on it.

And so, in the end, the real way that I’m learning is what I call French conversation lessons and German conversation lessons. I will be doing this in Spanish as well, where you sit with a person and you talk about anything, particularly in French I’d do this, “Je parle de n’importoi ? Qu’est-ce que c’est, qu’est-ce que c’est, avec Donald Trump ?” The weather, the things, the this, the that. And they can say, “You don’t say it like that, you say it like this.”

In France, I was sitting in cafes for three hours every day. I was going through my show that I would be improvising on stage, and people would correct me or give me better words for things. And the fun thing is that you can just have a coffee, you can have something like that; it’s a real setting, and you’re learning language, and it’s more fun that way. You’re not in a classroom with a board, and you take some of it in, some of it you forget again, you have to pick it back up the next time. I’ve decided that I want to learn like a kid learns, and I think maybe everyone wants to learn that way. It’s a much more fun way of learning.

With my shows, I have a whole different technique, which is that I actually learn the show in English, and it gets translated. My brother Mark is the expert in language — he’s fluent in German, French and Spanish — and with his help, we translate the shows from the back forward. Like when I went to Spain, I didn’t speak any Spanish. So I got there, and I did the whole of my English show, so I did about an hour in English, and then at the end I did a two-minute encore in Spanish. The second night, I did a four-minute encore in Spanish. Then a six-minute. I add two minutes every night, and that’s how I build up a show so that you can  have a sort of bilingual audience coming initially, because I have a certain amount of profile, people know, “Oh, he’s that guy who does it in different languages and stuff.”

That’s how I can build it up, pay the bills, and not go mad by having to learn 60 minutes straight off the bat. I tried that in German and it was really tricky, so I’m constantly developing new techniques.

3. Since you’re starting in English and then translating, has there ever been an issue with any joke not translating at all into a new language?

IZZARD: People say, “Oh, there’s a German, Germans have no sense of humor. The French have a visual sense of humor.” And it’s all rubbish. That’s all rubbish. It’s like saying, “All the Americans do is pop music, not one of them plays jazz, even though they invented jazz.” That’s a crazy thing to say. Or the British, “They just do guitar music, that’s all they do. None of them do classical.” So there’s no sense of music. In fact, there’s multiple different tastes of music in every country, to play or to listen to.

My trick was to just be universal. You only have to take out 10 to 15 percent of your show, or adjust it. And I actually only create universal references in humor now. So things like human sacrifice: “Human sacrifice, that’s crazy, who the hell?” Everyone gets human sacrifice. So I say, “Years ago, somebody said, ‘The weather is bad, the crops have failed, the gods obviously hate us, so we’re gonna kill Steve, and then that’s going to be fine. With Steve dead, rip his entrails open, and the gods will give us fantastic crops.'”

It’s just religious mumbo-jumbo. And everyone did it around the world. We’ve now moved away from that, but if I talk about human sacrifice to the kids in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, L.A., New York, London, Paris — everyone gets it. Everyone goes, “Yeah, why the hell did we do human sacrifice? That was weird thing we humans did. We can be really horrible.”

4. In the past you developed shows English-first, but now you’re in French and then moving into other languages. Does this process feel any different?

IZZARD: Well, it’s different because you’re improvising. I’m just developing the same universal material, but I started in French. I’ve got this version of comedy, which is universal, and now I’m just getting it translated. Some of the keywords in German I don’t know, and I’m going to Germany now to do the same shows that I did in Paris, but now in German. Then I’ll bring it back to London, and I’ll develop it further in London in English. It’s a beautiful thing. Even though I’m doing it myself, I think it’s a beautiful thing because I just sort of came up with this idea of doing it.

I’m proud of my country, but I want to reach out to other countries and say, “Can we learn from you? Can you learn from us? How is it going with you? What are you guys into? What happens?” Because British people have no idea what French kids are into and what German kids are into because that doesn’t overlap. We have a sense of what American kids are into, and probably Americans could find out more about what British people are into, but they don’t do that much, it doesn’t come on the news radar very much, unless it’s Harry Potter or something like that. Then it will wash over. But there’s an easier wash between the English-speaking countries. Australia included, Canada included. You jump into a language, and you just don’t know what French kids are digging.

5. You’re probably most famous in English-speaking countries, like the United States and the United Kingdom, which is ironic because they’re pretty much the most monolingual countries. Do you think the attitude toward multilingualism is changing, even with Trump and Brexit?

IZZARD: English came so easy, but I do not see the English speakers rapidly picking up on the other languages. I do see German as very pragmatic. But a lot of the German kids have learned English; more than previous generations. And now the young French kids are saying, “C’mon, let’s learn it, let’s get the hang of this language, let’s do this, we can do business.”

I don’t, unfortunately, feel that English speakers are going to run toward it. I don’t know what to say to people to get English speakers to learn more languages. The only carrot I can put in people’s faces is business. In the end, if you’d like to make a bit more money, the whole thing is out there. Other countries are learning English because they can trade better, they can pick up the phone and say, “Yes, don’t worry, I’ll call from England, I can call from America, I’ll pick that up, I can deal with that, I’m German but we can sort out what you would like.” This whole kind of thing just makes that easier.

For us, people who believe in languages, it’s the adventure of it. Would you like to go on an adventure? Would you like to see a different world view? You can be in a bar, you can be on a plane, you can be hanging out Non, non pas pour moi, un autre, s’il vous plait, and you can have an accent that sounds like you’re French, and that’s just a wonderful thing. Every night I’ll be playing gigs and I’ll be doing it in Germany. After each gig I love to go and eat — even if I don’t eat much because eating late is not great — just hanging out and speaking German… it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s an adventure.

6. Another challenge that you’ve given yourself is completing 27 marathons in 27 days for Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison, and then a few years before that you ran even more marathons. Obviously these were good causes, but why do you keep doing this to your body?

IZZARD: Here’s the deal — as my manager in LA keeps saying, “Here’s the deal” — if you are a certain kind of person, if you have a certain look, if you have a Kardashian kind of thing, then you can get publicity by going to a thing, getting a new haircut or skirt, whatever it is. You can turn up at things and that generates publicity so you can move your thing forward.

If you’re the rest of us and don’t really want to do that, you have to actually do things that are somewhat distinctive to cut through the mass of people not paying attention. So I feel it’s good to show something. Improvising in French, or developing a show in French or German. If you’re running marathons, and you try to raise money, and you try to get people to pay attention and say, “Hey, that’s quite tough, I’m going to put some money down there,” then do something that’s dramatic and interesting and adventurous, and the gift to yourself is the adventure that you go on. It’s tough, and it’s hard work, and you feel alive, and you really look forward to it.

Right now, I’m doing German conversations, I’ve done some earlier today and I’m doing them later tonight to try to learn my show in German before the 20th. What are we now on, the 6th? It’s only 14 days away and I’m rather scared that I’m not going to be good enough on the night. But, there’s some intensity. A lot of people won’t get it done if they don’t have a deadline. So I set deadlines down, I just say, “Right, better do it by this day” and “C’mon, I’ve got to go do it.” And usually,  it’s just me talking to my head saying, “C’mon, you’ve got to get your act together. Let’s get out there. Otherwise, you’re gonna look really stupid.”

The same with the running, and the politics, same with all of it. You get one life, as far as we know it. If you’re Buddhist, okay, you get multiple lives, but no one’s ever proved that to me or to anyone else. So I know we’ve got this life. So let’s just live it to the full, and try to do something positive.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated December 2020 to reflect the fact Izzard has started using “she”/”her” pronouns.

Photo Credit: Amanda Searle

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