Photo by Bruno Calvo
Cult British comedian Eddie Izzard usually performs his surreal routines to packed arenas around the world. But for two months this winter (through February 28 at Imperial Club with a final show on February 28 at Quatsch Comedy Club) he's traded in the crowds of thousands for a more intimate venue – and translated his show into German!
Performing in a language that he previously only knew from two years in school back in the 1970s may seem like a fool's endeavour, and it has left the German press a bit puzzled – Tagesspiegel asked if he was “thick-headed or an extremist”. But Izzard isn't exactly known for taking the usual route. And foreign language comedy isn’t new to him either – he first performed in French in 1997.
Continuing on with translations into Spanish, then Russian and Arabic, Izzard has his sights set on the world outside stand up – running for political office at the end of the decade – championing a Great Britain that's part of Europe and not drifting away.
Which is more difficult: running 43 marathons in under two months, or refining and performing your show in German in under two months?
Well actually, the beginnings are comparable, the first 10 marathons were hell and the first 10 days of learning the show was hell. And then the more you do it the better it gets, you just have to get going.
You were learning the lines as if they were a play...
In a play if you're on book [reading from a script] you can still do scenes that are quite emotive, physical, whatever. But no monologue works until you're off book. And this is one motherfucking huge monologue. So nothing worked until it was in my head. Then when it was half in my head it would go out: you're trying to get the perfect phrase out but you're still not living in it.
What's changed in translation?
I haven't taken it apart yet, but I had this theory that in English we have punchlines that end in nouns. In German I had a line that translated as als Salat enden würde and I thought that would be impossible. But I've found you can do three-word punchlines with a noun and a verb in there or even just a verb. It's a curious thing, and the more I go on the more I will know about it and then I can compare and contrast with French.
Isn’t learning all these languages kind of impossible?
I think it's about motivation, so I'm hammering through. I keep saying all German kids speak German, all Russian kids speak Russian all Arabic kids speak Arabic, so it can't be that hard. We all know some people are bit brighter or less bright, but they all get language. You never go to a country and say these people just don't speak the language, they just point at things.
It seems that English is becoming the international language for comedy, with non-native speakers performing and in the audience. In a way your project is about going the other direction...
I am going backward in this, and at the next Edinburgh Festival there's French, Italian, Russian and German comedians performing in English. So things have changed and it'll never go back in the box. As a British-European transvestite [flashes his two EU flag and Union Jack nails] it's my political statement. And it will resonate around America and Great Britain that Brits are doing stand up in German and that Germans are doing stand up in English.
In Berlin you've played the same show in both English and German, does it feel different?
There’s not a huge amount of surreal comedy in Germany. But on the good nights it doesn't feel any different. I'm getting more up to speed on it. I had one line that was “Nowadays our bodies are like two weasels covered in gravy, nailed to the back of a tractor.” which is just silly, but it doesn't translate. I think the German audience is trying to figure out how that feels like a body. I've realized that I should have come up with a line that was more like: “This bottom half of our adult bodies is more like a washing machine that's full of frogs that's been sat on by an elephant.” That's an image you can hold in your head and go, “Yeah, that's silly.” Because actually “nai-led-to-the-back-of-a-trac-tor” is just poetic nonsense. It's my Shakespeare line. It's what Shakespeare would have written, if he'd done comedy.
Comedians have gone into politics before: Have you learned anything from Al Franken's example in particular?
Yes, he talked to Hilary Clinton and she said keep your head down and do proper political work, you don't want to look like you're just some sort of comedian who got elected. Get some stuff done. Then of course people say, “Well you’ve just become one of them.” So that's going to come my way at some point. But you've got to keep the thing that people liked about you if and when you were elected, and be some sort of fresh air machine, because you've brought something different to it.
Why do you want to go into politics in the first place?
Because I don't like extremists. I feel I can see the centre of an argument and I have a vision of a world that's a good world to go towards. I think Europe has got to work in some shape or form otherwise how the hell are the other continents going to do it? And that's what's got to happen, then we have to have an agreement between all of the continents. Then we get to a place where everyone has a fair chance. I can put that vision and the energy that I’ve put into doing all these other things into politics. Hopefully that will end up with something positive, you can't tell until you jump in, just like I couldn't tell with French or German. The extremists come and they have a beguiling simple politics: i.e. if you leave Europe then everything will be fine. Extremists, like Hitler and Stalin, have always had a very simplistic view on life, but it doesn't work that way: real life and real politics is very complex.
EDDIE IZZARD, through Feb 27, 20:00 | Imperial Club, Friedrichstr. 101, U-Bhf Friedrichstr., Mitte
Feb 28, 23:00 | Quatsch Comedy Club, Friedrichstr. 103, U-Bhf Friedrichstr., Mitte