The international itinerary for Eddie Izzard’s newest show, Force Majeure, more closely resembles something Iron Maiden might undertake than most—hell, any—comedians. Along the way, he’ll be performing the same show entirely in English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic, attempting to gain near-fluency in each language as he travels.
We caught up with Eddie ahead of his three-show run at Boston’s Wang Theatre (5.8-5.10) to determine the method to this madness, his theories of comedic universality, and the unique place he’s carved out for himself in the entertainment world.
This show sounds quite dizzying.
Well I have done a European tour. I’ve been to South Africa, I’ve played Moscow. I’ve done two months of the show in German, and I’ve just started doing it in Spanish, and I’ll be doing it in French later in the year. So the tour is up and running. It’s just gone to quite an amazing place with the multiple languages.
What’s your method for learning all these languages? Do you aim for fluency or memorization?
I want to be speaking the languages, and I want to be touring with a good version of the language in the show. So my brother who is the expert, Mark, he translates it into advanced German, or French, or Spanish. It’s a memory exercise, plus there’s obviously comprehension right behind it. With German, by the end of the two months, I was about 40% fluent. I did two years at school 38 years ago, so I was building on this two years and then there’s a massive gap. So by the end I was conversing; I did a two hour interview in German, but it was still about 40% fluent. My French, I’m about 70% fluent, and I’ve had seven lessons in Spanish so I’m about 2% fluent. I’m using this percentage fluency, which obviously is a bit weird, so I can compare and contrast them together.
As I learn the language, it is comprehension plus memory because you have to remember the words you’re saying. And then the actual show is a memory exercise, and I’m linking words together but I do know what they mean. So it’s two parts of the brain. I’m using comprehension more for the learning and talking of the language, and I’m using memory more for doing it at the show, and gradually the idea is that they meet. The German was beginning to meet. I was able to improvise a little bit outside … In French, I’ve got the translation, I’ve got the new show coming up. Seventy percent fluent is good enough. I’ve got to get all the languages up to about 70 %. That is the plan.
Do you have to translate the humor as well?
No. My theory is that all humor is human. Monty Python has already proved this [with their all-German special], and The Simpsons has already proved this. All around the world people may dub The Simpsons, but they’re still using the same story, they’re still doing the same jokes. References are the things that don’t travel. So I stopped using very British references about 15 years ago, and started making the whole show universal. So basically to my kind of audience, they get it sif talk about dinosaurs, does God exist, schools with guns…They got it in Moscow. They go, “Yeah, OK. Does God exist, schools with guns.” They get it all.
The humor is not different. French humor is the same as British, which is the same as American. It’s just mainstream and alternative. These are big groups. Music’s already proved this; there’s mainstream music and then there’s alternative music. Mainstream films, independent films. Mainstream theatre, fringe theatre. So the proof is already out there. I’m just showing it by playing all these 27 countries, and everyone is digging it.
Does this theory of universality also apply to entertainment in general? American entertainment is notoriously Balkanized between TV, film, comedy, etc.
No that’s a different theory. You say the fact that I’m coming from the world of comedy and doing dramas, that’s breaking those rules, or the fact that I’m sometimes doing a film, sometimes doing TV because I think that wall was broken by Americans. I think the American television’s golden-era engine, the great writing that’s going on in America television—which is also in British television, but America’s the big engine in that because you’ve got so much going on. That has made the drawbridge between film and television, almost that television is slightly higher than film now. You can do bloody great, fantastic television and you can do fantastic film, but it’s more likely you’ll do fantastic television because there’s more of it around and it’s easier to fund. So that’s been broken down.
I’ve tried very hard. I’ve never done a comedy show, I never did a sketch show, or playing a character on a sitcom. I deliberately didn’t do that so I didn’t become Captain Comedy. I think my comedy is rather Pythonesque, it’s surreal, it’s kind of beguiling. The fans become really into it, like I was really into Python. I tried to suppress the advance of my comedy career and started dragging up my drama career in order to push into this difference place. Bill Murray did the same thing. Bill Murray had to almost kill his audience, his Ghostbusters audience, to get to what I thought was a very fine performance [as FDR] in Hyde Park on Hudson—and didn’t get nominated, and I think should have. I thought it was very fine. So I’m just trying to follow him.
What’s the primary force behind this separation?
I think Britain, same as America, it’s the producers, the broadcasters, the people who press the button … The audience doesn’t necessarily flow. If you have a good comedy audience and you do a drama—Jim Carrey when he’s doing his dramas—they don’t necessarily jump right over. You have to work quite hard. In the Venn diagram, some of my audience crosses over and some of them are different. If I’m doing Hannibal, I’m getting a great reaction for doing Hannibal. Everyone’s stopping me in the streets, and that’s the most reaction I’ve had on things. But it’s totally different to the comedy, so I’ve now gotten to to the place where it’s good.
I think where the money people tend to say “Well surely he knows comedy and therefore drama,” but I hope people are up to speed enough that they’re now giving me a chance to play in both. You have to earn your chops in drama. You just can’t walk across from comedy. You could actually walk across from drama into comedy much easier than comedy into drama. I think John Lithgow with 3rd Rock from the Sun, people thought, “Wow he’s really funny’ and then he can go back to doing dramas.
It was interesting to see you in Bullet in the Face, which seemed to play closer to your established comedic persona. Did you feel comfortable enough by that point to relax that restriction?
Yeah, that’s exactly right. I felt that I should unlock the gates a little bit. I just play [crime boss Johann Tannhäuser] full, blown out. He’s so serious that he’s silly, and it was a comedy that we’ve been doing. I tried to suppress the comedy in all drama, but it should bleed in. The bottom line in drama is to be real, and the bottom line in comedy is to be funny, and they are different. You’ve got to have that bottom line. So in Bullet in the Face, I don’t know if [Johann] ended up as some whacked out person in reality. I don’t know if ended up being part of this world, but all the dramatic characters, I definitely try to lock them into this world.
What’s been your experience touring through Boston?
Boston’s great. I know a lot about the Revolutionary War. I see Boston as part Old Europe, and it’s part of New America. I go play football on the Common where all the British troops were stationed and been marching around, and I try and imagine it. I can throw myself into that quite easily. If I was around at the time and I was over here, I would’ve been on the American side. I would’ve said “Away with the monarchy.” I’m not into monarchy. So that would’ve been really interesting and a fascinating time … So I’m interested in this program called Turn, it’s on AMC. It’s all about that era.
So, Boston is great. I’ve always had great gigs there. I always sort of get into history and I play football—slash soccer, as you call it, or “world football”—down in the Common.
Boston has a strange relationship with soccer, where we’re known as a sports town and have a major league team with an avid fan base, but it has severely diminished audiences and doesn’t get much publicity.
Right. I’m interested overall in the fact that soccer should be a tremendously American sport. The weird thing is that no one’s enormously got behind the funding of it to make it happen, or maybe the “big three” [basketball, baseball, American football] base got behind and tried to stop it from happening. You can be very tall or very short, and you can be good at soccer. You can be very wide or very thin, and be good at soccer. It doesn’t matter where you come from. Whereas basketball, you’ve got to be genetically huge and tall. And in American football, you’ve got to be genetically big unless you’re the quarterback. So they’re both genetically predisposed things.
But soccer is perfectly American. Like anyone can be President in the United States, with soccer anyone can be anything on that pitch, and you’re fully fit people. Baseball, I think Babe Ruth proved in baseball you can be in any sort of shape, you didn’t have to be in totally good shape if you can knock the ball out of the park. In soccer, you have to be fit as hell, and it’s a great sport. I love it to death.
In your earlier shows, you often discussed the differences between American and British entertainment, with Americans going for popcorn while Britain was very “subsumed.” Have things shifted since then, perhaps with the rise of directors like Guy Richie and Edgar Wright?
Yes, I think they’re more similar now. A lot of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. What Edgar Wright is doing with comedies is what we didn’t do with comedies. We used to just throw a bunch of sketches together and finish. Python took it to another level, particularly with Life of Brian where they were still sketch-worthy but they knew they wanted to put a narrative in. And Meaning of Life, Holy Grail were more sketches and then they finally got a story, it actually didn’t end perfectly, whereas Life of Brian was the one part where Python would drag a story into it.
But Edgar Wright has taken it further. It’s something that America was very good at, getting stories in there and narrative-driven comedy, and then you can play around with it, something that’s still satisfying at the end as opposed to everyone just does a lot of fun things and then just stops. Which was a problem, a disease we had in Britain. If the comedies were good in Britain, they were written by people coming from a dramatic point of view. I think it’s all balancing out and I think probably in the rest of Europe as well, but all in these different languages so no one’s really noticing … Yeah, I think it’s all more of a level playing field and everyone’s learning. I think the Internet has made it all explode, the good part of what’s happened with the Internet.
What sort of journey can audiences expect from Force Majeure?
It starts with human sacrifice to ancient Greek gods, to the Greek ideal of a healthy mind and a healthy body. It’s another crawl through my brain with recommendations on where we should be at the end of our lives; wisdom I think is the thing. So I crawl through history and ideas as I normally do, but in a very intelligent, but completely stupid way that I’ve learnt from Monty Python. Intelligence plus stupidity equals my show.
There is a great deal of tension between some of the countries you’re performing in as part of the Force Majeure tour. Aside from the universality of humor, is there a political implication to the show?
I’m not sure if I’m taking on all the problems of the world in my show and saying “Hey, I’ve solved them, guys. America, this is where we should be.” It’s more that I have crafted a show that anyone from these countries can watch. I was born in Aden, in Yemen, and I won’t be playing there. I want to get in Cairo to learn Arabic and play it. There, I will be talking about our God, the Christian God, who I have feelings on. So the Muslim God, I don’t know, I don’t think it’s wise to go head on and say “Hey, here’s my need to pontificate on your God.” So I’m going to leave that up to them to work that out. I am going into politics in six years so I’m not crazy. I don’t go around saying “Hey, black is white and blue is green.”
I do think about this quite carefully, but the idea of the show is to make people think, and that someone from Moscow could see it in LA, and someone from LA could see it in Spanish in Mexico City, and someone from Mexico City could see it in French in Paris, and it would talk about similar things. It would be if they missed it one place, they could see it in another place. I’d ad lib and change, but essentially it’s the same story that I want people from all over the world to see, because we’re all the same. We’ve had millions of wars, we’ve tried to kill each other in many different ways, but we’re all the same, and we always have been the same. And we had better understand that before the end of the century, otherwise we won’t have a chance. So I’m just trying to make bridges around the world. That’s my idea.
EDDIE IZZARD: FORCE MAJEURE. WANG THEATRE, BOSTON, THU 5.8 – SAT 5.10.