“Humor is humor, and it is not national”

Comedian and actor Eddie Izzard speaks to EL PAÍS ahead of his run of gigs in Madrid Having already translated his show into German and French, this time he’ll be focusing on Spanish

Simon Hunter
Comedian Eddie Izzard, who will be appearing in Madrid in April.
Comedian Eddie Izzard, who will be appearing in Madrid in April.Amanda Searle

When someone wants to learn a language, perhaps they’ll sign up for a few classes. Maybe they’ll take an intensive course over a week. Or they could even find an intercambio, someone with whom they can exchange conversation over a beer or two. But it is unlikely anyone will have gone to the lengths of booking a venue in Madrid, out of their own pocket, and combining a week of intensive language learning with a run of stand-up comedy gigs.

But that’s what British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard has decided is the best way for him to learn Spanish in the shortest amount of time. And of course, the method has the added bonus of giving Spaniards and expats alike the chance to enjoy a night in the company of one of the UK’s best-loved stand-ups, in an intimate venue that only holds around 100 people.

“I am doing the gig in English, but I’ll be learning Spanish – three hours a day, every day,” explains Izzard by phone from the US, where he has just finished filming a movie called Boychoir with Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates. “In that week I’ll also be learning my show, which my brother has already translated [into Spanish].”

I’m doing the gig in English, but I’ll be learning Spanish, three hours a day, every day”

The Madrid dates, which run from April 8 to 13, are part of his Force Majeure run of shows, which Izzard is billing as “the most extensive comedy tour ever.” Latvia, Turkey, Austria, Hong Kong and even Nepal are among the dozens of countries that the 52-year-old is planning on visiting, and English and Spanish are not the only languages on the menu. The comedian has already spent three months performing in Paris, in French, and then took the time to learn his set in German, where he spent six weeks playing shows in Berlin.

“I read in a piece that’s already come out that I was ‘dabbling’ in German – I’m not dabbling in German, I did an hour-and-a-half,” Izzard explains. “By the end of [the run in Berlin] I was doing Q&A’s, which impressed me if nothing else. The show gets to a really good level of German, and the show will be in a good level of Spanish. Once I’ve got the Spanish up, the doors open to the whole of South America.”

Izzard is not a man who does things by halves, in any aspect of his life. His career began in the 1980s, when he started out as a street performer in London. Live stand-up shows followed, along with plenty of exposure on British TV, which soon saw him carve out a niche for himself with his Monty Python-inspired surreal comedy and penchant for cross-dressing. He is one of the few British comedians to have truly broken the US, having taken his tours to venues as huge as Madison Square Garden in New York, as well as the legendary Hollywood Bowl.

Away from the comedy circuit, he has a successful acting career, having appeared alongside Tom Cruise in Valkyrie, and Brad Pitt and George Clooney in Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen. And on the small screen he’s been seen in Hannibal and the violence-filled noir comedy Bullet in the Face.

In 2008, Izzard announced his intention to play the toughest crowd of them all, by making a foray into politics

Aside from the challenges of show business, he also managed to run 43 marathons around the UK in just 51 days, raising more than €2.2 million for the charity Sport Relief in the process. He later set himself a new marathon challenge in South Africa, aiming to run 27 marathons in 27 days, in honor of the 27 years Nelson Mandela spent in jail. Health reasons ultimately forced him to pull out, but he is determined to return to complete the 702-mile route as soon as his schedule will allow.

What’s more, in 2008 Izzard announced his intention to play the toughest crowd of them all, by making a foray into UK politics. His plans include running for either mayor of London or Member of Parliament in 2020, and he says he has been encouraged to make the career change by the Labour Party, of which he is a supporter.

But in the meantime it’s all about the challenges of language, and getting his act out to as wide an audience as possible. As well as French, German and Spanish, rumor has it he will be trying Russian and Arabic… “I’m not going to try, I will do it in Arabic,” he shoots back. “I was born in Yemen, so that is a duty thing.”

But does performing comedy in a foreign language not limit your chances of getting a laugh? “Your ability to tell a joke should be dependent on your ability to tell a joke in your primary language,” he explains. “I thought that in German, because the verb goes at the end, that was going to be a problem, and it’s not.” It comes down to the audience, he argues. “If I’m talking about dinosaurs, gods and human sacrifice to a mainstream British, Russian or Spanish audience, they’re going to say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about here.’ If you have a progressive audience, the audience that I’m looking for, they get it. They get it in any country or any language. Humor is humor, and it is not national. The references are national; the humor is international.”

Your ability to tell a joke should be dependent on your ability to tell a joke in your primary language”

And is this determination to learn languages a fascination with languages itself, or a means to an end? “I love communication,” he explains. “I’m a political person, and I’m very positive on the European Union, which a lot of extremists attack. The underlying thing here is that I’m reaching with an open hand and saying, ‘Look, I’m learning the entire language, or as much of it as I can, and doing humor that way.’ You see how similar we are, how many wars we have fought over the differences – and they’re not there.”

In the case of the Spain gigs, the motivation is definitely not financial. “A lot of creative performers won’t get up and do things unless there’s some cash reward there,” he says. “And these gigs in Spain, I’m paying for them. We were trying to set them up and it kind of went AWOL, and I got a call about a week ago saying they’re not on, it’s not happening. And I said they are happening, we’ll just pay for everything.”

Izzard might not end up completely out of pocket, however, given that at press time both seated and standing tickets had completely sold out. According to the promoter of the event, comedy fans will be traveling from all over Spain to catch the gigs, with the announcement of Izzard’s visit having generated a huge amount of interest. “People seem to like it,” Izzard explains of his forays abroad. “They seem to be positive about it – it’s positive on a human scale, I just think it’s got a lot of things going for it. And it’s hard work – you have to work your backside off.”

Learning his translated set and having the ability to hold a conversation are, he explains, two completely different disciplines. “One is memorizing and one is what I call ‘cooking’ your language – like a soufflé, so that it gets better and better. But obviously in a week’s time I will hopefully be able to have a few more sentences, and be able to do some emergency Spanish by the end of the week.”

Non-Spanish speakers should not fear, however – Izzard is not banking on delivering the whole set in Madrid in español. “The most I would expect to get up to is five minutes by the end of the week,” he explains. “It might be a little longer – come on Tuesday and come on Sunday if you want to see what the difference is.”

Eddie Izzard: Force Majeure. April 8-13 inclusive at Ancora, C/ Trafalgar 6, Madrid. Doors 8pm. For more information see www.festivaldecomedia.com

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