Eddie Izzard isn’t one to rest on his laurels.
By 2000, the British comedian was doing world tours and had won a number of awards, including two Emmys for his stand-up special “Dressed to Kill.” His surrealist style had also earned him praise from his peers, with John Cleese of Monty Python fame referring to him as the “lost Python.”
But now at 52, Izzard’s ambitions have only grown. His most recent stand-up tour, Force Majeure, began in 2013 and is set to be performed in 25 countries by the end of its run. Izzard has said he also hopes to perform the show in all 50 of America’s states — shows in 21 states have already been booked for 2014, with more planned. Izzard will come through Ohio this week, performing in Cincinnati, Cleveland and at Columbus’ Palace Theatre Thursday.
His affinity for the grandiose is apparent offstage as well. In 2009, with only five-weeks training, the comedian ran 43 marathons in 51 days. The 7-week stretch around the United Kingdom raised more than £200,000 for anti-poverty charity Comic Relief.
Izzard has also taken an increasing involvement in politics. He has advocated for increased integration of the United Kingdom within the European Union, and has announced his intent to run for the London mayorship in 2020. His planned bid has already received backing from Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, whose once-dominant party has been making political gains in London in recent years.
Izzard’s politics are well-represented in comedy as well. He has a fiercely globalist ideology and aims to use history and linguistics to break down barriers. Perhaps his international perspective is best represented when he performs the show in other languages. He’s already toured the show in French and German, and is currently developing Spanish and Russian translations with hopes to perform in Arabic as well.
In anticipation of his performance in Columbus, Izzard talked to The Lantern last week about his new show. He touched on a variety of topics: the difficulty of performing in a foreign language, using comedy as a way to educate and how he thinks like an American.
The Lantern: One of the more significant things that stands out about this show is that you’ll be performing it in six different languages. There’s an obvious parallel in the ambition of that and the famous stretch of marathons you did back in 2009. Most people might think that both endeavors are kind of crazy. What do you think that determination says about you as a person?
Eddie Izzard: Yeah, I think I was just always determined. If I look back at my school reports, I think I was always determined from the time way back when I was a kid. I remember I was trying to get into acting then and also trying to get into comedy — nothing worked but I just kept going and kept pushing. My dad, who’s 86 this year, says he still doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but I always did. For me it just settled. I just knew it was going to be performing, and that was it. Now I’ve added a couple things to it, and I’m heading into politics as well, and I always knew I’d do politics if I didn’t do crazier stuff. I do try to do big statement things. You can be in the gossip columns all the time, or have a certain look, or smash up your hotel rooms, and these things get you press. Or you might as well do something else, and for me it’s doing these languages. I should say that I’m only up to three languages. I’ve gotten to French and German — I’ve been touring in those two and Spanish I’ve just started. With Russian and Spanish, it might be this tour or the next. Russian I think will be this tour, but I can’t quite tell with Arabic yet.
TL: This is a very lengthy tour. Did you have the material set in stone before the tour started? Has any part of it changed or developed?
EI: It always progresses with the method that I use. I develop the show in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco over a couple of months, doing two shows a night. I use my old show as back-up and then improvise and verbally sculpt up a new show. But then once it starts, it keeps changing. I have a creative director, Sarah Townsend, who says “That bit’s weak. That bit’s repeating something you did before. Let’s cut that out. We’ll round that. Keep that. Keep that tight.” So I can kind of head towards a better and better show. And now it’s working very well and it’s very tight. I ad-lib a bit, but not a huge amount — less than I used to. I always used to think I needed to constantly be ad-libbing, but, in fact, there comes a point where you’ve developed enough and then you need to consolidate to get a good show. It’s just like if you’re doing a film script. So now I’m in the consolidation phase of making things better and sharper. So it’s a really good show. I’ve just played five sell-out shows at The Beacon in New York and it’s in a really good place.
TL: Along with your advocacy, you have a strong political side. Do you feel the need to do something with your stand-up besides make the audience laugh? Do you try to make them think about something or make a statement?
EI: It is the best way to do that creatively. If you think about Shakespeare, and I’m not going to link myself with him, but he started with his comedy and then he moved into his drama. With the comedy, I have a line in this show where I say, “Did Caesar ever think he’d end up as a salad?” and then I can go and talk about how he was a ruthless politician and became a ruthless general. He was a megalomaniac and 40 of his colleagues took him out. Forty. Actually, I’m just estimating, I should check Wikipedia because it might be 12 or something. But still, he just had gone crazy and they took him out. But then I go back into the comedy, and when I have him dying, I have him say “People of Rome, remember me as a s-” and he collapses at the last groan and they ask “Did he say ‘…as a salad’? ‘Well, what salad?’ ‘I dunno, tiny bits of bread?’” It’s silly, but really the idea is that the audience can get the exact history of what happened at that moment. You can get these several levels pinging through and they can play with that in their heads. I find all of that fascinating, from the ancient bits to the medieval kings and how the English language wasn’t there as the ruling language for 330 years. We had French as our ruling language. That’s fascinating with what happened there. How did French merge into English? We have 15,000 words in English that are based on French. Incredible.
TL: It’s obviously a craft where delivery and timing are very important. When you’ve done the show in French and German, is it a struggle to be funny when you aren’t performing in your first language? I would imagine it feels like walking around in the dark.
EI: At the beginning, yes. I thought German was going to be tricky. I didn’t know what to do when I got to the past tense. If you want to say, “He came up to me and hit me with a havoc,” in German, it’s phrased as “He came up to me, and with a havoc, he hit me.” But if you’re not doing the noun as the kicker, you’ve got “hit me” as the punchline. Will that work? Surely that doesn’t. Do you have to keep everything in the present tense? What I found with this line about the Caesar thing, “Did he ever think he’d end up as a salad?” the sentence ends with “…salad would have?” But if you say it as a run, with salad first, saying “als Salat er wurde,” they laugh at it. It’s three words as a punchline, but it’s still fine. It doesn’t seem to matter.
TL: Your comedy is described as having an absurd or surreal tinge. Thinking back to some older jokes like “Hannibal wearing pink pajamas,” do you think about what makes you laugh, and then have a deliberate intent to put those sorts of things in there? Or does it come naturally in the process?
EI: Yeah, that comes from my taste, as opposed to specifically thinking that I want to be in an area of comedy. It’s whatever tickles me first—whatever makes me laugh. Now I’m looking for heavier subjects. My brother, who translates all my shows and he’s the language expert, just reminded me of a joke I did that had blue pants and in the whites’ wash. I had the blue pants being a secret agent who gets into a whites’ wash and then turns up in the window of the washing machine going “I’m in here” and they’re going “No, get him out of there” and he’s just in there waving from the whites’ wash. The difference is, now what I would have done is to put more treachery into it, and a more real edge of the blue pants being murdered or ripped up and all the whites are tinged light blue. I would have put the teeth into it there. People say I have a very gentle humor and I say, “Ugh, I don’t want to be gentle.” So now I just take on a heavier subjects like human sacrifice. In this show, I start with human sacrifice, and then I go into how fascism was born by some idiot who said that we should kill someone, I call him Steve, to praise the gods. There’s no logic in it whatsoever. Why would gods create humans and then be happy that we were cutting one up? I have them say, “I made the bloody thing, you idiots, stop cutting him up!” So those are great subjects for me.
TL: Is it just catharsis, or what are you hoping is the ultimate effect of covering materials that are dark?
EI: They don’t necessarily have to be dark. They just have to be challenging. Human sacrifice is dark, but I also talk about the ancient medieval kings and the facts that English was a street language for street workers and servants, and French was the main language for 330 years. I point out that no one in England is taught that in school. I only found this out in the last few years. So it doesn’t have to be dark, it just has to be illuminating. And I start off by talking about Charles I, who was executed because he caused three civil wars. He caused over 200,000 to die in the three English civil wars. We thought it was one, but in fact it was three. He said he was appointed by God, but that was 450 years after the Magna Carta was bringing a certain amount of democracy or at least the idea that the power of the king should be curbed in 1215. And this was in 1649 that you’ve got a king saying, “No curbs, I’m appointed by God. I can do whatever the f— I want.” That’s not dark, really, that’s just what was going on. Humanity can go backwards. We get to these points where things start going backwards, which for me is the Tea Party and the U.K. Independence Party. They’re just backwards walking people, and we need to be heading forwards.
TL: In your Twitter bio, you said you think like an American. How so?
EI: It really means that I think like an economic migrant coming into America at the turn of the 1900s. That’s how I feel. If you think of the work and effort I’ve put into things, it’s kind of like that. It’s like I’ve just arrived in London and I’ve got to make my mark. That’s what I feel like. It really means I think like an economic migrant landing in a new world where everything is possible. I do like to associate with the best of what America has in fulfilling that. When America landed on the moon, Michael Collins was in the command module and he was the artist drawing the patch for the moon landing — he took the American flag off and he said, “This is for the world. This is bigger than us.” That’s the America that I like: positive-thinking, science-based, live and let live.
TL: Finally, is there anything about this tour that stands out as something you’re proud of? Anything that you’re trying that’s different from your tours in the past?
EI: Yes. On the 5th of June, I’ll be leaving to take Force Majeure back to Europe for one day. I fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and drive two hours up to Normandy. I’ll be there on the morning of the 6th of June for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and I will attend ceremonies there. That evening in Caen, in the center of Normandy, I will do Force Majeure at 7 p.m. in German, at 8 p.m. in English and at 9 p.m. in French. All the money will go to charities spread amongst five countries. I will also do a tribute to Russia, as well, even though I don’t speak Russian yet, I will translate two paragraphs, because without them, we wouldn’t have won the the second World War. The German charity is going to a German artist who is putting these brass cobbles into the ground in front of houses where people lived where the Nazis removed them and took them away and murdered them. And he puts their name on each stone: one name, one stone, and it’s a beautiful idea, and they’re happening all over Europe. It’s a tribute to the Stolperstein, and it’s a great way to use Force Majeure as a tribute to democracy and a tribute to Germany as well for their fight since 1945 to never become a Nazi country ever again.
Izzard is set to perform Force Majeure 8 p.m. Thursday at the Palace Theatre, 34 W. Broad St. Tickets are available through ticketmaster.com, and prices range from $48.85 to $63.15.