Have you ever tried to tell a joke in the language you’re learning and had it fall flat on its face? Us too. Jokes are pretty complex, packed with multiple meanings and cultural touchstones, so translating comedy isn’t always straightforward.
In this episode, executive producer Jen Jordan, head of video production Ruben Vilas and producer Thomas Moore Devlin discuss one question: Is comedy the same everywhere? We also get insight from multilingual comedian Eddie Izzard, who has performed stand-up in multiple languages.
Multilinguish: How To Be Funny In Another Language
First, Thomas talks to Ruben and Jen about untranslatable jokes, and our own struggles being funny in different languages. Then, we discuss Seinfeld, which is a show that was extraordinarily popular in the United States but floundered when it was translated into German. All of this would seem to point to the idea that comedy doesn’t translate easily.
In the second half, Thomas talks to Eddie Izzard about how and why she started performing comedy in multiple languages. Izzard argues that comedy is pretty much the same anywhere, and there’s really no issue of translation. She also talks about why she took on this mission, and how she believes comedy in translation can bring people closer together.
This episode was produced by Thomas Moore Devlin and edited by Ruben Vilas. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. Special thanks to Eddie Izzard for taking the time to talk to us.
Since this episode aired, Izzard has started using “she”/”her” pronouns. Because of this, the pronouns used in the episode are outdated.
Edinburgh Fringe Attracts Visitors From All Over The World – But Comedy Doesn’t Always Translate Very Well | The Scottish Sun
What’s The Deal With Translating Seinfeld? | The Verge
French Comedian Gad Elmaleh Leaves Fame, Fortune And French Behind | PRI
Funniest Joke In The World Revealed! | Laughter Online University
6 Questions With Polyglot Comedian And Activist Eddie Izzard | Babbel Magazine
Thomas Devlin: From the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m content producer Thomas Devlin. Being funny is hard, like really hard. You might be able to get some laughs among your friends once in a while, but becoming a funny person can take years of practice. Now try throwing another language on top of that. In this episode, we explore how to be funny in other languages and look to sitcoms and comedians, including multilingual comedian Eddie Izzard for the answer. Before we get started, a reminder to write and review Multilinguish wherever you listen, and be sure you’re subscribed so you get new episodes as soon as they’re released. Today I’m joined by executive producer Jen Jordan and head of video production, Ruben Vilas. Thank you for coming today.
Ruben Vilas: No problem.
Jen Jordan: Thanks, Thomas.
Thomas Devlin: All right, so we’re going to start. I have these jokes that were translated from Spanish to English. I’m just going to tell them, and you can laugh as much as you’d like. What’s the laziest type of cow?
Jen Jordan: Am I supposed to guess, or—
Thomas Devlin: You can guess. I mean, I can do a long pause.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, I don’t know.
Thomas Devlin: A vacation.
Ruben Vilas: What?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I’m just going to move on to the next one, and then I’ll explain at the end.
Ruben Vilas: Okay.
Thomas Devlin: What did one roof say to the other roof?
Ruben Vilas: Oof.
Thomas Devlin: I like the looks of horror on your faces.
Jen Jordan: I didn’t think I’d be put on the spot. I thought it was going to be more—
Ruben Vilas: It’s going to be like—
Jen Jordan: It’s supposed to be embarrassing for you, Thomas, not for me.
Thomas Devlin: That’s too bad. I miss you. Lastly, what did the one say to the 10? “To be like me, you have to be sincere.”
Ruben Vilas: What?
Jen Jordan: So I’m guessing all of these come from a word pun.
Thomas Devlin: Yes, they are all puns, so the laziest type of cow is vacation because the joke is… It’s vacaciones, which means “vacations.” So the cows are vacas, and thus it’s a pun. The second one, which is what did one roof? It’s ¿Qué le dijo un techo a otro techo?, and it’s Te echo de menos, which is like roof, teecho. Even when I explain these, they’re not phenomenal. The last one is what did the one say to the 10? Actually, did I do this wrong? Who knows. “To be like me, you have to be sincere.” It’s Para ser como yo, tienes que ser sincero. means “without zero.”
Ruben Vilas: Wow. These are like dad jokes from around the world.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, they are. I mean, it’s the easiest examples, and obviously goes the other way. We actually had one our lovely coworkers, Ted Mentele, write about jokes that work in English and not other languages, which are not hard to think of. You’ve got someone says, “Did you get a haircut?” Then the dad, because it’s only a dad, says, “No, I got them all cut.” It depends on a collective noun because—
Jen Jordan: Oh, right, because the singular works with plural. Okay.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, so if you did that in French it just wouldn’t make sense.
Jen Jordan: Because it’s like cheveux in French.
Thomas Devlin: So the central question of this episode that I have is, is humor the same everywhere? Is being funny the same everywhere? So this would be, no. End of episode. It’s over.
Jen Jordan: It’s been decided.
Ruben Vilas: Thanks for inviting us.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. So obviously it’s not that simple, but I wanted to start there because I think it’s a good example or it’s just being funny in another language does not mean just taking what you have and then word by word translating. So I wanted to ask you first, Rubi, because you’re both very funny, and also, English is not your first language.
Ruben Vilas: Thank you.
Thomas Devlin: So I wanted to know, when did you know you were funny in English?
Ruben Vilas: I don’t know. I mean, growing up in Portugal, the humor is very different from American humor, for sure. So yeah, I don’t know when I started being funny. I think I was always funny. I would not call myself funny though. I would call myself annoying. That’s what my wife says and most of my friends.
Jen Jordan: I’ll throw something out there. I think Rubi is funny because he also gets a lot of the context and the culture. I grew up without cable, which is super weird, but it also means I missed out on a lot of the context the kids of the ’80s or the ’90s have, whereas I feel like you’ve managed to absorb at least as much if not way more than I have, even though you didn’t grow up here. I feel like you’re able to make jokes about that, and other people… because a lot of comedy can also be about context and the culture. That’s the part that probably doesn’t translate, in addition to the word-for-word comedy.
Ruben Vilas: I feel like I was also exposed to comedy very early because one of our neighbors would let us hook up his Dish, so we would have access to all these channels. That’s actually how I learned to speak English was watching Cartoon Network when I like five years old or something.
Jen Jordan: That totally makes sense though.
Ruben Vilas: So not only would I want to see these TV shows when I was younger. I was really very into kids’ humor. Cartoon Network back then was pretty wild at that time.
Jen Jordan: It definitely is, and I would be super jealous of you as a kid. We had PBS and that was it.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, I also got that, and I loved Arthur, but it’s very, very different. Before we move on, we’re going to talk a lot about sitcoms because that’s a big example of how comedy does get export, but before, I wanted to ask you, Jen, because you, like me… English primarily.
Jen Jordan: So you were saying I like you. I was like, “Oh, you’re okay.” I don’t want to put that on the record.
Ruben Vilas: Press the button now.
Thomas Devlin: It’s fine. You can delete the file. Have you tried to be funny in another language, and has it worked?
Jen Jordan: No, I would have to do the direct translation, word for word thing, to even kind of make a joke in another language, but the biggest thing for me is I really struggle with emphasis on the right syllables and intonation in other languages. That’s the main thing I struggle with in general when speaking, so I can’t imagine delivering a joke and knowing how to do it in a way that comes out being funny, because I could say the words for sure. I could translate something into French and know that it would be funny, but I wouldn’t know how to say it to get a reaction. Does that make sense?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I think comedy is a good bar for when you know you’ve got a good grasp of not just the vocabulary, but you have to know a lot about a language to really be funny, especially because so much relies on references and double meanings and stuff, which is why it’s hard. I find whenever I speak Spanish, I’ll be very dry. Maybe in a Spanish class I said something that was funny, but that’s kind of like Spanish-class humor, where it’s, we’re all just in this room for 50 minutes together and if you say anything that’s kind of okay in another language, everyone laughs.
Ruben Vilas: I mean, when people are learning languages in a class, normally we’ll be funny always because someone will say something very wrong and people will laugh, not to make fun of them but because they also feel like they’re in the same situation.
Jen Jordan: Exactly. If someone’s laughing at me who speaks another language, it’s because I’m making an idiot out of myself, or I ask for something, like I made a stupid error or something.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, so being funny not on purpose is before you can be funny on purpose.
Jen Jordan: I know we’re probably going to talk more about Gad in the future, but he had this joke that I heard over the weekend where he was talking about putting the emphasis on the right syllables when he was working with an English coach. He’s talking about where to put the stress, and he’s like, “The stress is all around in every syllable.” It was a very Jerry Seinfeld-esque delivery, and I could tell he worked so hard on it. It just made me love him so much more.
Thomas Devlin: That’s Gad Elmaleh?
Jen Jordan: Mm-hmm.
Thomas Devlin: Yes, we will to get him a little bit later.
Jen Jordan: Sorry for jumping ahead.
Thomas Devlin: It’s okay. He is very funny, but first, speaking of Jerry Seinfeld, we’re going to talk about a TV show that is a great example of comedy that for some reason just has not translated and what leads me to answering no to the question, is humor the same everywhere? Seinfeld. Seinfeld in the United States was obviously a huge phenomenon. It’s kind of died down. Obviously, since it’s been over for probably over 20 years.
Jen Jordan: Yeah.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, a long time.
Thomas Devlin: Honestly, I was barely a baby when it was airing, but it was hugely popular, which of course means they want to bring it to other markets so that actors can make as much money as possible. So they did that, and The Verge wrote this piece about the process of turning the show into a German show, and that despite best efforts… They did the work. It just did not work at all.
Ruben Vilas: So what was this? Was this a remake of Seinfeld?
Thomas Devlin: No, it was just literally dubbing the show and trying to get as close as possible. The article, it said—
Ruben Vilas: That seems correct.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah.
Jen Jordan: As someone who’s lived in Brooklyn, you can confirm.
Ruben Vilas: I mean, I lived in Germany for seven years. I’ve seen lots of stuff dubbed in German, and it’s very hard to keep watching.
Thomas Devlin: Interesting, but only when it’s dubbed.
Ruben Vilas: I mean, if it’s not dubbed, it’s fine. I mean, there is a voice part that they do that they dub it, but they don’t take the English track out.
Thomas Devlin: Oh, no.
Ruben Vilas: In some stuff, not a lot of it, but that’s even worst.
Thomas Devlin: Wow. The article, to quote, says that, “The sarcasm and sophisticated plot-based humor did not tend to appeal to large German audiences,” which is a big statement. I feel like—
Jen Jordan: That’s internalization, for sure.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I mean, I guess sarcasm is generally associated with the United States sense of humor, but I don’t know. It’s weird, but I think it’s also important to point out that this is not just like… As you were saying, dub shows don’t work that well, but Seinfeld just didn’t work even in England, which is allegedly speaking the same language. So the fact it didn’t work there also seems to allude that maybe there’s just actually differences. Also, there have been shows that have been successful even when dubbed. For example, the show ALF. Do you know ALF?
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, I know. I used to watch it dubbed in Portuguese because it was kind of a children’s show.
Jen Jordan: But he ate cats, which I thought was terrifying as a child.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, but I mean, I saw both because it used to be on in the morning, on the weekend, I guess. It would be dubbed then. Then years later, it was at night in cable or something, but then it was subbed, not dubbed.
Thomas Devlin: Just for those who haven’t seen ALF, because I was only vaguely aware of it before this, ALF stands for Alien Life Form, and he comes to Earth and becomes part of a family, and he eats cats. It’s a weird puppet thing that—
Ruben Vilas: But Jen, does he ever eat a cat actually, or he just always wants to but never achieves it?
Jen Jordan: I’ve only seen a few episodes, but that’s the only takeaway I had as a child. I had a pet cat, and I was like, “I don’t want to watch this stupid puppet eat a cat.” I don’t know if he ever actually did. I doubt it. It was a pretty tame show.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, I feel like they had the cats in the family, and he always wanted to but never got to it, even though—
Jen Jordan: That was not the intention of the series.
Ruben Vilas: That was not even the theme of the… It’s not like a cat-eating alien.
Jen Jordan: That’s my only takeaway.
Ruben Vilas: It was about family, I think. I’m not really sure.
Jen Jordan: The difference is you’re watching a puppet and there’s more visual, I guess, interest too. It’s a different type of comedy entirely from Seinfeld. Seinfeld is people just complaining and being sarcastic with each other. I would say it’s also incredibly New York focused, but there’s other shows that have succeeded abroad that are very New York focused too. So that’s not really a fair critique.
Thomas Devlin: Yes, this is true, and the best example of that would be Friends, which has… I believe it’s still true that it is always airing somewhere in the world. It’s very successful, even though as a Seinfeld purist, I think Seinfeld’s funnier than Friends. It’s just way more still in the culture. I think it also is on Netflix.
Ruben Vilas: It is on Netflix. Yeah.
Thomas Devlin: For now, until it leaves, but that’s helped it… kind of a renaissance recently.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, I never watched Friends.
Thomas Devlin: Wow.
Ruben Vilas: My wife did.
Thomas Devlin: You had so many deep cuts, then Friends is the one.
Ruben Vilas: I’m sorry.
Jen Jordan: Friends is. I remember though, Elmaleh also talked about this and how Friends is wildly popular, and a lot of people will watch it, even though some of the references must not make any sense when you’re talking about New York or some of the situations they get into, but it is one of those shows that I just don’t… I guess the relationships between them are universal in terms of the life events that happen.
Thomas Devlin: So comedy, it’s complicated. I think we’ve gotten to that point so far because there’s just things that seem to not translate, though also there seems to be kind of a dubbing versus not dubbing situation.
Ruben Vilas: I think also the thing that… like Seinfeld worked in Portugal, because I watched it when I was younger even though it was few years after, but it would also play every day of the week.
Thomas Devlin: That’s a lot.
Ruben Vilas: So that definitely helped create some kind of following, and I remember being in Spain on holidays and trying to sync the TV to get the Portuguese channel to keep watching Seinfeld for that week, and I succeeded.
Thomas Devlin: Wow.
Jen Jordan: I mean, I can kind of see though, when you’re thinking about the ways… When something is funny, it’s funny for more than just the words that are being spoken. So in a culture that maybe prizes or understands sarcasm more so than a German culture… You can translate it word for word in German, but I just feel like… This is generalizing. That it’s just not the same type of humor at all.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, that’s why I think dubbing is not very helpful. I think it’s helpful for kids, for cartoons, because kids don’t have a grasp on English, so that… I mean, they need to watch cartoons, but I think Germany would be better off if they just subbed Seinfeld because if you just do it word for word, it’s a different culture.
Thomas Devlin: Well, speaking of that, we’re getting back to Gad Elmaleh now, who ironically is called the Jerry Seinfeld of France sometimes, which is fitting. I’m just going to stay on that riff. So Gad Elmaleh was born in Morocco, and he was raised speaking a combination of French, Hebrew, and Moroccan Arabic. So all of those together, but mainly he was performing in French for a long time, but then he decided to come to the United States. In an interview with PRI, he was talking about how his plan, originally, was he had 90 minutes with comedy, and he was going to take that. Then he was going to turn it into English, and it just didn’t work at all. He kind of had to start over from the beginning and that’s… Yeah, that’s tough.
Jen Jordan: I mean, I saw another interview. I think I was telling you about on Friday, and 90 minutes, first of all, is an insanely long set of comedy. I don’t care how famous you are. 90 minutes is absurd, and what he mentioned is his act in France, and a lot of comedians’ acts in France were very props focused and very costume focused, so he would literally be… He was talking because he eventually met Jerry Seinfeld and their colleagues, and they have done some stuff together now. Jerry’s like, “How long is your set?” He was like, “Oh, 90 minutes,” and Jerry fell over because that’s such a ridiculously long set. Then he found out music during the set. He’s wearing wigs. He has characters. It’s not like… We’re thinking like Jerry Seinfeld. It’s Jerry and a mic.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, it’s the whole show.
Jen Jordan: It’s only him either being observational and telling stories. It’s very storytelling. It’s very person-focused, and that was not the case when he was famous in France. I think that’s like a truly American thing.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, Carrot Top hasn’t been popular in many years. Who else was there? Who was the comedian who smashed the watermelon on stage?
Ruben Vilas: I don’t know.
Thomas Devlin: That’s going to drive me up the wall.
Jen Jordan: Yeah, I can’t remember, and I know exactly what you’re talking about too.
Thomas Devlin: But yeah, I think it is very much an expectation. If I went to a comedy show and someone started going up with anything besides just themselves, I’d be like, “Oh, no. What’s about to happen?”
Jen Jordan: Yeah, because it feels so outdated and cheesy. You don’t want a vaudeville act. You want someone to tell you stories and entertain you and make you laugh. That’s what I expect from a comedian, and I don’t want more than half an hour to 45 minutes of it.
Thomas Devlin: But after we get back from a break, we are going to hear about a comedian, Eddie Izzard, who argues very strongly that actually no, comedy’s easy. You can translate it. It’s fine. So we’ll be right back.
Ally Zhao: Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. It’s time for another language learning lightning round. So Jen, why do you study a language?
Jen Jordan: Ali, I study a language because in my aspirational best self, Jen knows how to speak another language, and is a good global citizen that understands how to speak other languages in other cultures. That’s honestly it. I mean, I don’t encounter a lot of the languages I’ve studied in everyday life. Russian, French, German are just not languages you hear a lot here. I think it’s a really good thing to do, and I think it’s something that everyone should do.
Ally Zhao: Amazing. Steph, your turn. Why do you study language?
Steph Koyfman: Well, I guess the two languages that I speak kind of well besides English are Spanish and Russian, and Russian, kind of obvious. It’s to connect me to my roots, and I have found that geographically speaking, knowing English, Spanish, and Russian has kind of given me the ability to communicate with a very large percentage of the world. So I like it when I’m able to talk to someone who doesn’t speak English.
Ally Zhao: Ruben, last but not least, why do you study a language?
Ruben Vilas: Mostly because of the place I live. I lived in Germany, and I never learned how to speak German properly. Now I live in Brooklyn, and I never learned how to speak Spanish properly. I also want to challenge myself to go all the way with learning a language. I mean, it’s a matter of where you live and how you insert yourself in the community, I guess.
Ally Zhao: Great. Well, with Babbel, you can choose from 14 languages, including Spanish, French, and Italian. Babbel is designed to get you quickly speaking your new language within a few weeks. We’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50% off a three-month subscription, and new customers can get this offer by visiting Babbel.com/podcast. That’s B-A-B-B-E-L.com/podcast.
Thomas Devlin: And we’re back. So far, as mentioned, we’ve established jokes are hard to translate and it’s difficult. But before we continue and talk about the comedian who thinks that translating is not as hard, I have the world’s funniest joke. No reaction. Anyway.
Ruben Vilas: I’m just so excited.
Jen Jordan: It’s a really big buildup.
Thomas Devlin: So this is an experiment that was done by the LaughLab. It was a researcher named Richard Wiseman who worked at the University of Hertfordshire. Oh, no. Shire.
Jen Jordan: Hertfordshire?
Thomas Devlin: Yes.
Jen Jordan: You know what’s not funny? Is explaining jokes. A lab for jokes sounds like the last place on Earth I’d want to go.
Thomas Devlin: I know. I have read a lot about comedy, and it’s a bit rough when you get into the dissection. But he held this contest-ish thing where he basically had a bunch of people submit jokes. Then he wanted to see if they spread out all these jokes across different countries and demographics, what’s the funniest? So without further ado, here is the joke. It comes from The Goon Show in 1951, and it’s a sketch by Spike Milligan.
Thomas Devlin: Anyway, two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead. What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There’s a silence. Then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Okay, now what?”
Ruben Vilas: Damn, that’s pretty good. That’s very dark.
Jen Jordan: Yeah.
Thomas Devlin: I was not expecting that positive of a reaction, but that is the funniest joke. Any other thoughts?
Ruben Vilas: I mean, I’ve been rewatching The Office while I’m drawing, and there was actually an episode where Dwight buries his great-aunt or something, and then he says, “Now we have to make sure people are dead because we buried some heavy sleepers by accident.” The way they do it is they just shoot the corpse with a shotgun, and I think that’s so—
Thomas Devlin: Same joke.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, same joke. I was like, “Why would you?” Even though I’ve seen this a million times.
Jen Jordan: I mean, it’s a little bit unexpected, which I think is another key to making something funny is doing something unexpected.
Thomas Devlin: But I think it’s… I mean, it’s not the funniest joke.
Ruben Vilas: No, it’s pretty—
Thomas Devlin: All right. Well.
Ruben Vilas: I like this. Thank you.
Thomas Devlin: Okay.
Jen Jordan: It is a little bit dark to be the funniest joke, but I think that says something about the human condition.
Ruben Vilas: That’s true.
Thomas Devlin: My other point was going to be about how basically it’s the funniest joke in that it’s average highest. It translates. It works. Then again, what is the world’s funniest joke? I feel like the times that I laugh the hardest are just the most inside joke, like talking to my family, and we just make a reference that no one else could possibly get. Then we’re laughing for like five minutes, and my dad’s glasses are steaming up because he’s starting to cry because he’s laughing so hard. Obviously, context is important. Not everything is a funny… I mean, humor can change also. If you watch very old comedy, it’s not going to be the same.
Thomas Devlin: So jokes. Jokes is different. Jokes can change. That’s the point I want to get across before moving onto the next part because I think I have trouble myself with Eddie Izzard’s philosophy. Eddie Izzard is a comedian. He’s actually also a member of the British Labor Party’s National Executive Committee right now because he’s just very talented. He’s also before done 27 marathons in 27 days for Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison. Then he decided after he did that, “I’m going to do something even harder,” and he wants to perform a stand-up comedy in as many different languages as he can. So far he’s done Spanish, French, and German, and he wants to do Arabic and Russian and Mandarin Chinese. That’s a lot.
Ruben Vilas: Does he speak all of these languages?
Thomas Devlin: Yes and no, but—
Ruben Vilas: Wait. I’m sorry.
Thomas Devlin: I’ll let you ask your question.
Ruben Vilas: Does he want to do like these shows, like in those? Does he want to do a Spanish show in Spain or in Mexico?
Thomas Devlin: Yes.
Ruben Vilas: Is that his goal? Okay.
Thomas Devlin: He’s generally traveling around.
Ruben Vilas: Is he?
Thomas Devlin: I’ll let him describe how he creates his material.
Eddie Izzard: So I’m just a developing the same material, the universal material, but I start with it in French. So I’ve got this version of comedy, which is universal, I feel. I’m sure it is because I can tell, 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 show 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. So it’s a beautiful thing that even though it’s like I’m doing it myself, I think it’s a beautiful thing.
Thomas Devlin: So I interviewed Eddie Izzard to talk about his multilingualism because it’s just fascinating, and he basically has this plan. He’s not as known in the United States as in England and also all around Europe, but he is just generally well-known. So he’ll go to France and he’ll perform in English. I mentioned not being as famous just because it’s important to know that there are lots of people in France who are just like, “I’ll see this Eddie Izzard in English.” Then at the end he’ll do 10 minutes of French. Then during his stay there, he continues developing it and just turns his show slowly into entirely French, and that’s how he does it.
Thomas Devlin: While he does kind of allude to this idea that he just kind of translates it, I think that’s not entirely accurate because he’s kind of interacting with the audience. Also, I think a lot of what usually you see with comedians is you’re going to see their final product. You’ve got comedians like John Mulaney on Netflix. They’ve got an hour, and it’s easy to think that’s that just like, “Oh, they’ve done that. They wrote that in one go.” Really, it’s a slow process where it’s five minute chunks over time, performed in smaller venues, and you have to kind of to see what the audience is responding to.
Jen Jordan: Yeah. I mean, Eddie Izzard is a special, I think, exemplary type of comedy though because he… So unlike someone like John Mulaney who has, I think, started out as a writer and really tightly scripts his specials… Other interviews I’ve seen with Eddie Izzard, and my gateway to him, is seeing Dress to Kill, which was filmed, I think, in San Francisco and kind of how a lot of Americans came to be more familiar with him because it was middle school. We were watching it in my friends basement. Her older sister had brought out this VHS of this comedy special, and I had never seen… He’s dressed in women’s clothing with lipstick on.
Jen Jordan: It was unlike anything I had ever seen, but the basis of the comedy and the reason it translated from the U.K. to America was because it was all historical comedy that he had sort of made into a skit more or less. But something he says that you sort of touched on is he does use the crowd, and he improvises way more than a lot of other stand-up comedians would do because it’s really dangerous to just feed off of the crowd in improv. It’s terrifying to know you’re going to be up there for an hour, and you’re like, “I’ve got a loose idea of what I want to get through, but otherwise I’m just going to kind of go with what the crowd is feeling.”
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, I also don’t know if it’s that simple to just translate something, like even in Portugal, for example. I feel like it’s not that sarcastic as humor in the U.S., for example. It’s a bit more straight to the point, just trying to be funny with noises, like with the laugh tracks. So I’m not sure if Eddie would go to Portugal and try to do stand-up in Portuguese. If he would do stand-up in English I’m pretty sure it would be great, but I’m not sure if it’s that the translation works.
Thomas Devlin: Wow, to defend him, I’ll let him also speak for himself because he is pretty strongly on the side of comedy. There’s no context he can’t be comfortable in. So here is another clip.
Eddie 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.
Eddie Izzard: 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.
Eddie Izzard: 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.
Eddie Izzard: Monty Python. There’s a sense of humor. We have our sort of racist and sexist comedians as well. 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 a alternative sense of humor, more off-the-wall sense of humor, and it could be political, surreal, this, that, the other, whatever. The trick is when you’re going from country to country, is that you need to find that audience. That’s where you need to find that audience that has the same taste. That’s quite a tricky thing to do.
Jen Jordan: I think what Eddie Izzard is really good at, and he doesn’t kind of directly come out and say it in that clip, but he’s really good at identifying these sort of universal, cultural touchstones and building an act that sort of outlines around those. Then he is experienced and talented enough to kind of work with the audience and build in some of their feedback or more local flavor. Then eventually in their language as well. He talked about this, I think on one of the Nerdist episodes he did several years ago, maybe five years ago, and he talks about how he actually built his act just a little bit more in that context. I think he kind of just glosses over it in that clip, but that’s how has been more successful kind of directly translating from language to language.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, he has a lot of points. There’s this saying, “Local jokes get local laughs,” which is true. If you make a reference… Let’s say you’re in some small town in Massachusetts and you make a references to like a pizza shop, and you know something about it, you can get laughs there, but you’re not going to get further than that. His point, which he states very strongly, which I think is why I bristle against it, because he’s kind of like, “No, you can be funny anywhere, no matter what, and it’s easy.” But I’m like, “No,” but I do get the point about you can make jokes that will be funnier in broader places just because they touch more larger truths about the human condition.
Jen Jordan: Yes, and he mentions finding the right audience as well, which I think he’s done a really good job of building this audience that everyone and then that audience has taken a world history class and can understand some of the basic premise of what he builds a lot of his humor around, which I think is important to note.
Thomas Devlin: Yes, it definitely helps to have people know who you are before you go in.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, but I think that humor is also very cultural. I think that’s why Seinfeld did not work in Germany. If you’re just dubbing it because that’s not humor that Germans know and also why it didn’t work in Britain. Because it’s very different. I think now, things changed because American humor is everywhere and everyone knows American media, like humor or drama or whatever, and it’s not the same if this French comedian you guys talked about, his show didn’t work because people in France think other things are funny. That’s basically it. Yeah. I also think he was comparing people on extremes, like Andrew Dice Clay and Jerry Seinfeld. Yeah. I mean, of course they are different. Andrew Dice Clay is like this very old school, rude kind of humor, and Seinfeld kind of innovated when he arrived, even though now it’s a bit dated. Before it was something completely new.
Jen Jordan: I’m dying to know what a funny German Seinfeld episode would be.
Ruben Vilas: Yes, I would want to watch that.
Jen Jordan: Would it be like spending a day at a bureaucratic office, filling out paperwork?
Thomas Devlin: We are a German company. You know that’s not what it’s like there.
Ruben Vilas: It isn’t.
Thomas Devlin: No. I would say Andrew Dice Clay and Jerry Seinfeld are extremes. I think his overall point is he just gets frustrated with the idea, that you can’t generalize because there will be different people in every country. Again, I think the way he states things makes it seem more black and white than it is, but there is importance here. Also, kind of going into how he develops his material, I think it’s important to look at how he actually learns these languages because that’s wild to be able to do that, because he just kind of has learned them.
Eddie Izzard: 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.
Eddie Izzard: 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.
Thomas Devlin: I think that’s very revealing of his whole process in learning because again, he’s not just translating word by word. He’s speaking to all of these French people. It’s learning by immersion, which is a great way to learn a language, so it’s almost comedy by immersion.
Jen Jordan: I mean, that’s the thing that I picked up is he is doing the thing that we always recommend, which is tailoring your learning to exactly what you need it for. He’s not sitting there learning all of the grammatical structures and how to compose an act in French. He’s learning how to talk to people and how other people naturally talk. The other thing I noticed is he’s learning how to use a lot of the filler words so it sounds more natural. Even if you’re not very fluent you can kind of fake a decent amount of it by knowing how to use the right intonation and also use those filler words that make you kind of drag out a sentence or something. And he’s getting the benefit of being able to immerse himself in that.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s terrifying the way he does it.
Thomas Devlin: That’s part of it. I listened to that, and I couldn’t just sit in a café talking to people for three hours.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah. I mean, I know how to be funny in English because I was exposed to it most of my life, but I don’t even know where to start to be funny in German, to make a joke in German, even though I’m not a great German speaker. I am pretty sure I never told one joke in German or made a funny comment in German, just because it’s terrifying. It’s like you’re trying to be funny in a language you don’t know, so I kind of applaud him for going out there and—
Jen Jordan: Sorry, I have a question, Rubi.
Ruben Vilas: Please.
Jen Jordan: So you have been speaking English for a long time, but you mentioned a while back that you think in Portuguese, but then you speak in English.
Ruben Vilas: Yes.
Jen Jordan: Is that the same when you’re actually making a joke as well? Do you think of the joke in Portuguese and then say it in English?
Ruben Vilas: I’m not sure. Maybe. I mean, I—
Jen Jordan: Quick, tell a joke.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah. I feel like my funny reflexes are well-trained enough now that it will just come out. I mean, I think in Portuguese most of the time, but the only times I realize it is when I’m deep into thought or trying to figure something out. But I think everything else is kind of automatic. When I say something funny to someone, I don’t think I rehearsed it before. I think it just naturally comes out, but yeah, I’ve been exposed to English since I was five years old, so 30 years of English is a long time.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah.
Jen Jordan: Because I’m guessing in a case like Eddie Izzard, he’s being conversational and absorbing a lot of that, but the way he’s adding on five minutes and 10 minutes and 15 minutes, he’s not thinking in French. He’s thinking in English about what he’s learned to say in French, so in a way, you’re still translating your act, even though it’s more genuine, I guess, than word for word translating something.
Ruben Vilas: I think it’s also a personality thing, like I couldn’t do it in a language that I didn’t know, but I would be afraid of that. But his personality’s way more outgoing and risky. So I think that’s also what makes him successful in that.
Thomas Devlin: It’s terrifying to do comedy, as any comedian will tell you, and just the fear that any night you could just bomb, and that’s in your actual language. So I just think to go up and then be speaking in French, and if a joke doesn’t work, you’re like, “Did I say something wrong?”
Ruben Vilas: Yeah. What happened? Yeah.
Jen Jordan: I mean, I think there’s a lot of different aspects that go into humor though. Even when you’re thinking about strictly stand-up comedy, there’s the language, which we talked a lot about, but there’s also the delivery and the timing, and there’s the way you say it, and there’s the physical comedy aspect. Eddie Izzard does all of those, and I think yes, he’s speaking another language and that is super impressive, but he’s also just a funny person and a funny comedian.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, and like the way he talks, you can see that he can turn his thought process around very quickly. Yeah.
Thomas Devlin: So quickly.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah.
Jen Jordan: He’s just got this energy.
Ruben Vilas: Exactly. Yeah, even if he’s going to make a mistake, he probably can capitalize on that while telling a joke in another language.
Jen Jordan: Exactly.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, but I don’t want to keep it too specific to just Eddie Izzard because being funny in another language is something anyone can do, not necessarily as well. You’re not necessarily going to be performing to sold-out crowds in Spain after taking Spanish for a few months, but you can tell jokes in a club to the people around you, and they might laugh, not that I’ve ever been that successful in Spanish. But I think there’s a lot to take away, and I think it’s kind of interesting to think about comedy learning and language learning almost hand in hand because it just is a similar process where you’re just learning a vocabulary of comedy.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah. I mean, that’s basically like learning the thing that you want to learn. The other stuff will come, but if comedy is something that interests you, then I think that’s a good way to learn it. Try and focus on, how would you build a joke in another language?
Jen Jordan: It’s very speaking focused. You’re not doing all the other things that I think a lot of people start with when they start learning a language. They start with learning basic vocab. You’d want to go straight into speaking with a native speaker or listening to the native speaker comedians or shows, like TV shows. It would be a very different learning process.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, for sure.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I want to end on one more quote from Eddie Izzard where I asked him a question that seemed obvious. Why is he doing this? Because he could do English forever and be fine.
Eddie 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.
Thomas Devlin: I really liked this idea of comedy is a way to bridge gaps, and I think that’s part of the reason why he likes this idea so much of comedy not necessarily being different because he wants it to be more unifying force, which it can be.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, that makes sense. That’s nice, I think. Yeah.
Jen Jordan: It’s a somewhat political sentiment, but I believe when you spoke to him he had literally just been elected MP, right?
Thomas Devlin: Yes, he had been, and it was just a rough time. It is political, but I think it’s not that political to say that there are tensions in many countries going on right now. Comedy will not fix that necessarily, but sharing a laugh with people is a great way to come together.
Ruben Vilas: Yeah, it can help.
Jen Jordan: I think comedy is all about finding some common ground too, because otherwise it’s not funny. It’s always like a shared experience.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. Thank you, Jen and Ruben for joining me to talk about comedy and language today.
Ruben Vilas: Thank you.
Jen Jordan: Thanks Thomas. Sorry we weren’t that funny.
Thomas Devlin: Don’t worry because we have a laugh track. Right button this time. Fade to black.
Jen Jordan: Multilinguish is produced by the content team at Babbel. We are—
Thomas Devlin: Thomas Moore Devlin.
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Thomas Devlin: Wait, I have to figure out which. I think it’s the green one.
Jen Jordan: Try it now.
Ruben Vilas: Why did you try it though?
Thomas Devlin: All right.