This is the full transcript of our interview with Eddie Izzard. To read the condensed version, click here.
BABBEL: 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: Well, I thought that at a time of some people revisiting 1930s politics and saying, “Hey, let’s separate out. Let’s build the walls. Let’s hate one group of people. Let’s hate another group of people. Let’s try running through the ‘30s and early ‘40s and see where that got us last time. Let’s try and do that again.” I thought, “Seeing as more people voted for Hillary than Trump, seeing as we’ve had two referendums — not just one — why don’t some of us try heading in a more positive direction for humanity and start learning languages?”
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.
If it’s got a business thing behind it, you can make some more money, good for business. Like people opening up in different countries and stuff. It’s an exciting thing because you can find out what the hell French people are saying; French-speaking people, German-speaking people, Spanish-speaking people, so you have that.
I’m an ambitious kid, but it’s also very hard work. A lot of my life has been what I call “running around the outside of the track.” If anyone runs — I think it’s 400 meters of this, practically — people start all spread out, and they go around one of the curves before they get onto the straight. When you’re on the straight, everyone’s running at the same thing. I always make it hard for myself. It sort of gives me longevity.
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 improvising there in German, which is much harder for me.
So it’s got all of these challenges there. It’s positive and sends out a good image, at a time when Donald Trump is sending out such massively negative images to the world. I just thought, maybe it’s a good thing. I’ve been doing it for some time, so I thought before Trump decided to get in the way of humanity, let’s put it that way.
BABBEL: So you’ve worked with English and French for a long time, and there’s also German, and I think I’ve read Spanish, Russian, and adding Arabic to your repertoire. Am I missing any?
IZZARD: German and Spanish were already up and running. Then Arabic was next to come because I was born in Yemen. Then Russian will come after that, and then hopefully, eventually, Mandarin Chinese as well.
BABBEL: Wow. And you learned French starting in school, but how have you gone about learning after that?
IZZARD: That’s a very good point. 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 ? Qu’est-ce que c’est avec le misseaux ?” 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, where I’ve been in Paris in December or January, 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.
When I was performing in Germany — and as I am now going to be improvising on the 20th of this month, and next month in Berlin — they’ve got the der, die, das, declining the nouns, the gender or the dative and all that stuff, all these different endings. I’ve decided not to learn them for each word, because that seems like a whole lot of work. I’ve decided to estimate them. And it’s really “practice makes perfect.”
People say, “Oh, it’s very hard to learn German, it’s much harder to learn, so much harder to learn or somewhat harder to learn Russian, and it’s even harder to learn Mandarin Chinese.” But I’ve noticed that all German kids speak German, all Russian kids speak Russian, all Mandarin Chinese kids or all Chinese kids in those areas speak Chinese. Everyone can do it, it’s just practice.
So that is the key thing. For me, for anyone learning, I think you have to get a gig, you have to get work in those countries. That’s the clearest and easiest and best way to do it. Get work in those countries, and that’s quite a thing to say. First of all, being a waiter would be the easiest thing. Probably not in a big city, but somewhere that’s a lot of stuff going on. And you’re gonna learn slang words. I love slang words. That means you’re really in the zone, and that’s a good place to go. So that’s what I do, French conversation above all.
With my shows, I have a whole different technique, which is that I actually learn the show in all 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.
BABBEL: 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: No, this is what happens with comedy. People don’t know this, this is my theory. But I seem to have already proved it, so I don’t really need to worry about whether it’s true or not, it just is true.
This is it: 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.
That is the same in comedy, if you think about it from an American perspective. You could say Andrew Dice Clay, there’s someone, a blast from the past who’s now doing interesting acting. He was out there with not a great taste for comedy, but he got very famous for doing it. But is that the same as Seinfeld? They’re both American; that’s American sense of humor. Andrew Dice Clay, American sense of humor. Jerry Seinfeld, American sense of humor. Completely different. Miles apart. Monty Python, there’s a sense of humor. We have our sort of racist and sexist comedians as well. And you say, “So each one of those is the same sense of humor?” Obviously not. There is broadly, in every country, a mainstream sense of humor, and an alternative sense of humor — more off the wall sense of humor. It could be political, surreal, this, that, the other, whatever.
The trick, when you’re going from country to country, is that you need to find that audience. First of all, you need to find that audience that has the same taste; that’s quite a tricky thing to do. But the second thing is the references do not travel. It’s not the sense of humor that has difficulty traveling, it’s the references that have difficulty traveling. This is the key point. If you’re an American comedian, and you’re talking about Sarah Palin, and then something about South Dakota, and then you’re on the I-29, I don’t know, some road, and then say, “So I hit him with a Twinkie, yeah?” You put in a whole lot of American references. You go to the next country and in Britain they say, “What is this? Who’s that bloke?” Probably Sarah Palin they might have heard of, but someone else … Bernie Sanders is very well-known in America but still hasn’t probably made huge waves in much of a political way, anyway.
So you can use all those people as reference points, but then everyone wouldn’t get the reference. 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 a weird thing we humans did. We can be really horrible.”
So that’s the thing I noticed. I had this theory, I acted upon the theory and it proves to be true. Which is why now, the French people are touring around the world, as are Germans and Russians, and it’s all changing. You may not have noticed it in America — the people in different countries coming in — but it will happen more and more, and it’s definitely happening a lot in Britain. And it will never go backwards, that’s the beautiful thing about it. More and more people will be touring from different origins. They use English as the linking tool. I am one of the few people going the other way into French, German … But I predict, in a slower level, people will do that, because once they can see that someone does it, then a second person can do it.
BABBEL: So you’re kind of proof of the “local jokes get local laughs” kind of idea.
IZZARD: That is it. Local jokes get local laughs. You go state to state in America and you can say something about some local politician, and you just cross the state lines and you’re dead in the water. It’s completely that. If you just talk about haircuts, sex, men, women, wild animals, and this whole range of things, everyone in the world will totally understand it.
I even think you can go to a native tribe in South America. You could live with them for six months, learn their language, learn about their guides, and their best scenarios, and you can do comedy about that. You probably couldn’t do it about supermarkets and the internet. But you could say “Hey, god, the witch doctor, it’s crazy isn’t it? And the big headhunter, oh he said he caught one this big, I think it was this big because it’s this big. He goes on and on, he’s a bit of a cunt.” So that’s what you can do. But I don’t like adjusting my humor as I go around. I can’t be bothered with that. I thought, “I’m gonna make it universal,” and it works everywhere, except native tribes don’t dig my stuff.
BABBEL: Now that you’re developing a show with French first, and then moving into other languages, do you feel like that’s any different? Besides the linguistic challenge.
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.
Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in French first. You may not know that. He wrote it En attendant Godot. He lived there, he was in the French Resistance, and he did that for a long time. So obviously he spoke very good French, and he thought “I’m going to write Waiting for Godot.” So with that spirit, I’m fighting for humanity and reaching out.
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.
This universal humor thing is a fantastic discovery, even though I’m saying myself, I just figured fantastic. I’ve seen people act upon it — other people, not me — and I just get such joy out of them making the stuff.
BABBEL: There are those who say they feel like they’re acting in different personalities in a different language. Do you get that at all?
IZZARD: No, I don’t. I’ve heard that, yeah. “You have a French personality.” No, I think it’s just me. I am a transgender guy, and people used to say, “Oh, you express yourself better as a woman or female, you have a different personality,” and people used to do that more, and I push back on that as well. I think we can choose to do that. You could be French in the 1950s about this, and relationships, and this and that. But I think that’s a choice. I’m not doing it. Me speaking French, me speaking German, me speaking Spanish; same bloody guy. Same pain in the ass, I’m afraid.
BABBEL: 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. Do you think the attitude toward multilingualism is changing, even with Trump and Brexit?
IZZARD: No, I don’t think English speakers are picking up any quicker on it, it’s just that English is, on a basic level, such a simple language. The getting rid of the masculine and feminine in the German was this accidental idea. My brother had a theory on this, being the language expert, that it was the time when Germanic Anglo-Saxon English was invaded by Norman French — which is actually Viking influence to Norman French, and so the French had a masculine and a feminine because these Vikings had invaded France back in the 800s. I think it was King Rollo, roundabout then. The French gave them Normandy, they gave them the north of France, which is kind of a weird thing to do.
So the French have got this masculine and feminine, and then Anglo-Saxon English was masculine and feminine, and then later it was the Germanic way [masculine, feminine and neuter], and it didn’t fit. The plugs didn’t fit. And [England] was trying to assimilate to a French-speaking ruling class, and a German-speaking working class. Eventually we decided to dump all of the masculine and feminine.
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.”
It’s above all business. Business drives the thing. If you can make money doing it, it’s what humanity, or civilization I should say, is built on — as opposed to casino capitalism bullshit of weird algorithms where the whole stock market crash thing happened in 2008.
So I don’t think actually that the Trump/Brexit thing makes any difference. The progressives would be more interested in learning languages, and the regressives will never learn the languages, and the people in the middle probably won’t, unless they’re forced to go to work and they think, “Oh, I got a job in another country. I’ve got to learn that language.” And quite honestly you can go work in Germany and get by not learning any German. Even in France I know someone. My assistant, she didn’t learn French for some time, and then she picked it up and was better. In six months she got better, and has been learning it for about 30 years.
BABBEL: I had an uncle who lived in Germany for two years and managed to avoid learning pretty much anything, but he was working for the U.S. Army, so that probably affects things.
IZZARD: I’d say U.S. army, that that’s an easy thing. But even working for a German company. I suppose all the German adults are trying to show their prowess, “Hey, look, my German is good.” A lot of Germans adults, especially progressive educated ones, are going to say, “Look, you pick up English, you get holidays free, you can travel around the world and everyone understands you.” It is the default language. A German guy is going to speak English to someone in some other far, far country that’s only got English as a linking language. This happened before in history. French was a diplomatic language for a whole period of time. Particularly the Hellenic world after Alexander the Great, and then the Roman world.
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 worldview? 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.
BABBEL: Another massive challenge that you have done is you ran 27 marathons in 27 days for Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison, and then a few years before that, you did 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, the troops that I’m talking to there is me, 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, rather than Donald Trump trying to do something wholly negative.
Photo Credit: Amanda Searle