Is German too serious a language? Are the French funny? Izzard, who’s had a big American audience since his 1999 breakthrough with the stand-up DVD Dress to Kill, shakes off any questions about differences in humor. Punch lines translate better than you’d think, he said during his trilingual interview with Cleveland Magazine. He performs at the Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square May 30.
CM: How do American and British audiences respond to your humor differently?
EI: They’re exactly the same, actually. And also are Russian audiences, and Turkish audiences, and German audiences, even in different languages.
My theory on comedy is, it’s human. There is a mainstream sense of humor in every country. An American comedian would make jokes about football stars, basketball stars, people in politics, and it would all be American references. The British comedians would do British references, and the Russians the same.
What the more alternative comedians do — I’m talking about human sacrifice, medieval kings, squirrels with guns, and [how] everyone used to smoke pipes, and where did they go to? You used to look very wise when you did it! I make sure my stuff is universal.
CM: Why did you decide to perform in three languages in Normandy on the 70th anniversary of D-Day? (Vous pouvez répondre en anglais ou en français, comme vous voulez.)
EI: Ah, excellent! Mon idée était … (In French: My idea was to go there, stop the American tour to go to Caen. If I’m going to be there, why not do a show? A show in English, a show in French, two shows for charity, Doctors Without Borders maybe, and Help For Heroes in England. German too. A salute to the people who were in the war for the Allies, but also for Germany since ’45. I think Germany is a very strong, courageous country with good politics, with democracy.)
La troisième millénaire, trois shows, trois langues en trois heures. (The third millennium, three shows, three languages, three hours.)
CM: Merci. English speakers tend to think of German as very serious sounding language. How does humor go over in German?
EI: It goes over exactly the same. I thought it’d be tricky, because past tenses, they have the verb at the end.
I have this joke in English: Did Caesar ever think he’d end up as a salad? In German it goes, Caesar hätte je gedacht — did he ever think — dass er — that he — ein auf Salat Ende würde? — salad end up would?
[I thought,] you can’t do a three-word punch line! But as long as it trips off your tongue — auf Salat Ende würde? — they laugh.
My audience is a kind of open-minded, progressive — they have been students, they will be students — that’s the people who get it. They get it in every country. They get it in Moscow. They get it in Berlin. They get it in German, or in English or in French or in Spanish. It’s the same around the world, which is a great thing to know. We are all the same.
CM: I saw you’re part of the campaign against Scottish independence. Can humor help the cause?
EI: I’m campaigning to say, “Scotland, please don’t go. Please stay part of the union with the rest of the United Kingdom.” Some Scottish people were really pissed off that I did that, but I thought it needed to be said, because the atmosphere was encouraging people not to stand up and speak their mind. I don’t think humor is the one that’s going to make decisions. I think it’ll be a very serious thing.
CM: Americans have a stereotype: Are the French funny? They like Jerry Lewis, and we don’t think Jerry Lewis is funny anymore. So tell me about French humor.
EI: The first number of Jerry Lewis films were really funny. Then maybe it got into a formula and went off the boil. It could be that France just saw those early ones or the best of, like in Britain we see the best of American comedy. We don’t see anything that doesn’t work, anything that was mid-level or not so good.
The French have as good a sense of humor [as anyone]. In Paris they have 500 comedy shows every night, 800 on weekends — sometimes really small ones. They just throw out a hat.
CM: Is it easier or harder to joke about Catholicism now that Pope Francis is in the Vatican?
EI: It’s probably easier. I like the new guy. I wanted someone who’s going to be more human, against the riches of the Vatican, try to help the poor.
The fact that the previous pope has just said, “F--- it! I’m out of here” ... He’s, I think, living in the Vatican, but in one of the back rooms. Doing what? What’s he do every day? Smoking big cigars? Watching cartoons in his underpants? Or what? Eating Cheetos? I just wonder. It’s a bit quiet on the media front. The Vatican has locked that down.
CM: Why did you call your tour Force Majeure?
EI: Now that I’m touring in different languages, I just thought I’d come up with a title that’s used in both languages. Force majeure is used in all contracts in America and Britain. It means act of God or force of nature. I don’t believe in a God, so I go for force of nature. I think we all need to be our own forces of nature in order to get through life and do the things we’d like to do. So I encourage people to be a force majeure.