Arts & Life
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Originally published on Wed April 30, 2014 3:23 pm

British comedian Eddie Izzard has been thinking a lot about language (no surprise to anyone who's heard him riff on monkeys on branches, mice under tables, and cats on chairs).

And he's had a crazy idea: training himself in new languages — German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic — so when he's on the road, he can perform in his audience's native tongue. Though that won't be a challenge when he hits the road in America this week.

Izzard tells NPR's David Greene that he was 7 years old when he first knew he wanted to go onstage. "I was watching this other kid, and he was getting a lot of reaction and applause, and whatever he was doing he was doing right, and I thought, I have got to do that. I have analyzed this in my self-analysis way as my mother had died a year before, and I believe I swapped the affection or the reaction of the audience for what I'd lost from my mother."


Interview Highlights

On taking on strange challenges — like running 43 marathons in 51 days

Right at the back of it, there is this thing with my mother, which is not really tangible because I don't believe in a god — and if you're a certain type of person you can get a lot of column inches and a lot of heat going because you're a this-kind-of-looking person, or because you're smashing up hotel rooms and all this — and if you're not that kind of person you've got to do something that sort of grabs a bit of attention. So I'm now doing stand-up in France in French, doing stand-up in Germany in German, and I run marathons, and that slightly gets a bit of a headline, but also does some positive things in there — the marathons raise money, the stand-up in different languages builds bridges, I think.

On leaving drag behind in recent performances

I'm just tactical — if I'm trying to get roles, producers have got to imagine me in these roles, so if I'm constantly wearing makeup, that wouldn't work. And also, there's a big slice of boy genetics, plus the extra girly genetics. It's nothing to do with the comedy — my comedy is my comedy, my drama is my drama, happen to be a transvestite — happen to be a straight transvestite. I want it to get boring.

On wanting drag to become boring

If you think about it, gay and lesbian has now got more boring than it was in the '50s, and ever in history before that. So if you come in and say, "I am a plumber, I happen to be gay," you go, OK, well, you any good at plumbing? "Yeah, I'm pretty good at plumbing." Fine, I don't really care if you're gay or straight or whatever, the plumbing thing is the main thing I hired you for. And that's what it's got to get to, you know?

You can see Izzard performing part of his act in French here — though we warn you, it includes moderately offensive language and misbehaving monkeys.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The British comedian Eddie Izzard has been thinking a lot about language. In one routine, he imagines how French faded away in England over time.

EDDIE IZZARD: Someone in that 300 years said: Hey, guys. Guys, see this spoon? From now on let's call it a spoon.

(LAUGHTER)

IZZARD: But is it a masculine or feminine spoon?

(LAUGHTER)

IZZARD: (Bleep) spoon, Steve. Just get a grip, man.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: And Izzard had a crazy idea: He would start training himself in new languages - French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic - so when he's on the road, he can perform in his audience's native tongue. Not really a concern, of course, when he begins touring the United States this week. Going multi-lingual, not the only change for Eddie Izzard of late. He used to perform in full drag. But not so much recently.

Can I ask you something that we don't usually ask our guest at MORNING EDITION, even when they're in another office. Like, you're in our New York bureau. I'm in Washington. I can't see you but can you tell me what you're wearing today for the interview?

IZZARD: Mainly clothes, mainly clothes.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: That's good.

IZZARD: You try to go down this transvestite line but wouldn't ask Hillary Clinton that. So that's what I'm going to keep him just wearing clothes. Whether any of it is supposed to be men's clothes or women's clothes, I don't agree with that thing. I think the United Nations should have something in there that says you can wear what the hell you want to.

GREENE: That's fair enough. Fair enough. But can I ask in general? I mean you've been wearing less clothing that has you looking like a woman and more sort of traditional suits. And I wonder what the change has been, if there's been a change in your image...

IZZARD: No, I'm just tactical. You know, if I'm trying to get roles. Producers have got to imagine me in his roles. So if I'm constantly wearing makeup that wouldn't work. And also, there's a big slice of boy genetics going on in me, plus the extra girly genetics. And it's nothing to do with the comedy. My comedy is my company, my drama is my drama, I happen to be a transvestite, happen to be a straight transvestite. I wanted to get boring.

GREENE: You wanted to get boring. What do you mean?

IZZARD: Well, you know, if you think about gay and lesbian has now got more boring then it was back in the '50s, and ever in history before that. So if you come in and you say: I am a plumber, I happen to be gay, you go, OK - well, you any good at plumbing? Yeah, I'm pretty good at plumbing. Fine, I don't really care that you're gay or straight or whatever, just the plumbing thing was the main thing I hired you for. That's what it's got to get to, you know?

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

IZZARD: And that's what transgender has got to get to. We're slightly behind the curve on getting boring.

GREENE: This is pretty hard to imagine life getting boring for Eddie Izzard. He loves wild stunts, being a performer, whatever the stage. That passion began early.

Can you take me back briefly to when you were a kid and how this whole comedy thing started?

IZZARD: I was seven when I first wanted to act. I was watching this other kid and he was getting a lot of reaction and applause, and whatever he was doing he was doing right. And so I thought, I have got to do that. I have analyzed this in my self-analysis way as, my mother had died the year before. And I believe I swapped the affection or the reaction of the audience for what I'd lost from my mother.

GREENE: I've read that you think about her a lot still.

IZZARD: I don't actually. It's too tough. It did affect me and my brother deeply and my father. And it doesn't get better. You actually just learn to deal with it better. But if I really get into it and think about it, I just - everything I'm doing in my life is just trying to impress my mother and hope that she'd come back from this place that she's gone to. And it does seem to explain the reason why I do a whole bunch of things. And I keep trying to do a whole bunch of things that are quite interesting and curious.

GREENE: You do, do a whole bunch of things. You ran more marathons than I can possibly imagine. A few years ago, you ran 43 in 51 days. Do you just love crazy challenges? I mean is this trying to impress in the way you were talking about - impress your mother?

IZZARD: Well, right at the back of it, there is this thing with my mother, which is not really tangible because I don't believe in a god - and if you're a certain type of person you can get a lot of column inches and a lot of heat going because you're a this-kind-of-looking person, or because you're smashing up hotel rooms and all this - and if you're not that kind of person you've got to do something that sort of grabs a bit of attention. So I'm now doing stand-up in France in French, and doing stand-up in Germany in German, and I run marathons, and that slightly gets a bit of a headline, but also does some positive things in there. The marathons raise money. The stand-up in different languages builds bridges, I think.

GREENE: Yeah, talk to me about that bridge building. What are you attempting to do by performing your comedy in all these different languages?

IZZARD: I'm trying to be positive within the spirit of Europe. Because in Britain, we say the French people have a visual sense of humor, all 60, 65 million of them. And none of the Germans, the 80 million Germans, none of them laugh at anything ever.

(LAUGHTER)

IZZARD: So we say they - none of them have a sense of humor. And I realized this must be rubbish. So I just did two months in Berlin and I learned the show off by heart injury, not lessons. Lessons really bore the hell out of most people.

GREENE: Can I ask you - I mean I don't want to put you on the spot too much. But can you give us some of one of your bits in German, just to get a sense for what your comedy sounds like in another language?

IZZARD: Oh, I can't. Well, this was I'll only do it in German. I don't normally do this but I'll do it because no one will understand except people who speak German.

(LAUGHTER)

IZZARD: OK, I'll do the (German spoken)

GREENE: That was great. That was really interesting stuff. I enjoyed that.

IZZARD: Well, it actually did sound like German.

GREENE: No, wait. My Deutsch is nitso good? That's German or that's a...

IZZARD: Yeah, that's my Deutsch is not very good. And I was saying my brother Mark, he translated the show into German, so it's in manuscript for the first time. It's actually in a script. Ever done that before. It's always been this very conversational English. I float through English-language whereas I swim through German.

(LAUGHTER)

IZZARD: And, you know, and swallowing umlauts with that.

GREENE: One of your famous bits is your heavy breathing Darth Vader.

IZZARD: But there must've been a Death Star canteen, yeah? There must've been the cafeteria downstairs, in between battles where Darth Vader could just chill and go down: I will have the panae ala biata(ph).

(LAUGHTER)

IZZARD: You'll need a tray? Do you know who I am?

(LAUGHTER)

IZZARD: Do you know who I am? This is not a game of who the (CENSORED) are you...

(LAUGHTER)

IZZARD: ...for I am Vader - Darth Vader, Lord Vader I can kill you with a single thought. But you'll still need a tray.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: And you've been doing heavy breathing God more recently, right?

IZZARD: Yes, and I was doing that in German. They were asking for it.

GREENE: You were.

IZZARD: It's a sequel. God comes down and it's got all this...

(SOUNDBITE OF BREATHING)

IZZARD: ...going on. So everyone thought: Well, I'm going into the Death Star canteen thing but, in fact, it's God.

(SOUNDBITE OF BREATHING)

IZZARD: I am God.

(LAUGHTER)

IZZARD: I have been away for many thousands of years.

(LAUGHTER)

IZZARD: And now I have returned and I've taken up scuba diving.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: That's the comedian Eddie Izzard who begins touring the United States this week.

What's it sound like in German?

(SOUNDBITE OF BREATHING)

IZZARD: (German spoken)

GREENE: (German spoken) David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

(German spoken) Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.