Eddie Izzard: Why the Germans do have a sense of humour

Eddie Izzard is performing his stand-up show in German to an audience in Berlin. And his 'comedy without borders' has a serious political point to make, he tells Kit Holden

"We are told, literally from birth, that the Germans have no sense of humour," says Eddie Izzard. Not only does he not believe the old adage, he's also proving it wrong.

Izzard is in Berlin, and in the final stretch of his six-week run at the Admiralspalast, one of the city's most famous theatres. The former home of the Berlin State Opera, it was also the birthplace of the SED, the Socialist Unity Party which ruled East Germany for 40 years.

The comedian, though, is down in the cellar, valiantly performing the entirety of his show Force Majeure, six nights a week – in German.

It might be a world apart from the arenas he fills back in Britain, but the few hundred audience members are still hanging on his every word.

In some ways, they have to. Izzard started the run in January with only two years of high-school German under his belt. His present fluency is nothing short of incredible. Nevertheless his set, which he has memorised, is littered with banana skins – moments where the language fails him.

"It's all about self-confidence," he laughs, "In my show I say I'm on the fifth floor, cooking something, and I need to get the steam up to the 10th floor. I need to cook my German up." He is adamant, though, that to do comedy in another language, you need only "a few nouns, a few verbs and a few of those other little words, whatever they're called." He lists a few adverbs.

He's right. His German may still only be on the fifth floor, but it's understandable, it's charming, and it's funny. The show is part of his ongoing project of "comedy without borders". References, he says, are national. Humour transcends frontiers.

"It's like the astronauts say, when you look at the world from above, there are no borders. To someone [like me] with a pilot's licence, that's very appealing."

Izzard first performed in French in 1997, but didn't get around to translating one of his shows in its entirety until 2011, when he performed Stripped – Tout en Français in Paris. Now, the man is on a roll. He has performed Force Majeure in both French and German, and plans to do it in Spanish, Russian and Arabic. The latter, he explains, will be the most difficult, but has a personal significance. Izzard was born, in 1962, in Yemen.

The idea of the show in every language will be the same: comedy without borders. "All great science starts with a theory," he says. "I predicted I could make them laugh in French and in German, and I proved myself right. They dug it in France and they dig it here, unless they're all lying to me. Now I predict I can make them laugh in Spanish and Russian and Arabic and then, maybe once I'm into old age, in Chinese."

The confidence is not self-congratulatory. Izzard is affable in three languages, and his self-belief is honest, not arrogant. Besides, this is not a project just for him. Part of the mission of comedy without borders involves encouraging non-English speaking comedians to do their sets in English. Last summer, he persuaded the French superstar Gad Elmaleh to do a 10-minute set at his own United Nations of Comedy gala in Montreal. At this year's Edinburgh festival, he excitedly explains, there will be sets from the German comic Michael Mittermeier, an Italian named Francesco de Carlo, and French talent Yacine Belhousse. "They're all surreal, they're all amazing," he says.

The surreal has never been too far from Izzard's own comedy, and watching him, there is a sense that his style aids translation. One of the heartiest laughs in Berlin comes from a sequence in which he mimes moles digging. To describe it in full would be to do it an injustice, but it is a perfect execution of physical, surreal, non-linguistic comedy.

The master of the tangential riff is adamant, however, that the same could work with observational comedy. Though he accepts some references are untranslatable, he also thinks that many are workable: "I talk about English kings and the Magna Carta in that set and, with a bit of explanation, it works."

Not everybody is so convinced. One audience member tells me after the show that: "I think thematically it was a bit tough for a German audience. I don't know about Charles I. He should have mentioned the war a bit more."

Insofar as he uses the English phrase "mention the war" in a German sentence, even this critical viewer proves Izzard right in his fundamental theory. Both Fawlty Towers and Monty Python are well loved enough in Germany to have entered into common parlance. Humourless this nation isn't.

This is what Izzard is trying to prove to his own countrymen, and why he encouraged comedians such as Elmaleh and Belhousse to perform in English. "The British know we have some pretty good stuff ourselves, but we can't compare it with anyone else's. The point is to get European acts over to Britain and to show people: 'Look, I'm from elsewhere, and I'm funny.'"

It's an important point, and one which is not devoid of political significance. Izzard's political engagement is well documented, with the comedian having already declared his intention to stand as Labour's candidate for Mayor of London in 2020. He describes the idea of comedy without borders as "great and strong in human political terms".

In terms of his current German show, this means dismantling the old clichés: "I'm making Germans laugh; Henning Wehn is a German making the English laugh. All bets are off, everything is different." On a broader scale, the project is about Izzard's firm belief in the EU and the European community. "We have to work Europe out, because if Europe doesn't work then the other continents will never get together and we'll never have a world where everyone has a chance." Since 2012, Izzard's perfectly manicured nails have glistened with a Union Jack on one hand, and the EU flag on the other.

Comedy, he believes, is part of making Europe work. Comedy takes place in big cities, and big cities are "melting pots". "People come from all over with all sorts of preconceptions. They are told 'don't trust people of a different skin colour or of a different sexuality', but then they arrive in the city and they see these people and think, 'ah, it's alright actually, live and let live.'"

They see, perhaps, a 52-year-old male transvestite from Britain delivering his jokes in broken German. They see the infamously grumpy inhabitants of Berlin laughing at him. They see the melting pot. "The melting pot will save the world," Izzard insists. "We just have to keep melting."

'Force Majeure', Admiral Club, Berlin (eddieizzard.com) to 28 February

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on