Eddie Izzard: ‘I’ve realised that humour is human and not national’

Eddie Izzard
Eddie Izzard
Foxer will headline the Acapulco stage at Icebreaker 2018. Picture by Josh Holgate.

Foxer take aim with their Slingshot for Icebreaker

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Anyone who has ever seen Eddie Izzard do stand-up will know that his mind does not work like most others.

The master of the surreal has been bamboozling his audiences and making them laugh for more than 20 years.

And over those two decades the self-described ‘action transvestite’ has not been one to rest on his laurels. There have been detours into film acting (Mystery Men, the Ocean’s series, Valkyrie), TV (The Riches, Hannibal), theatre, charity challenges (43 marathons in 51 days), as well as politics and human rights activism.

But next week he will be coming to Hampshire to headline the inaugural Southsea Comedy Festival, where he will be performing his Force Majeure show.

He spoke to The Guide during a recent run of dates at the theatre that bears his name in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, the town where he spent part of his childhood.

There were four years between his last show, Stripped, and Force Majeure, and Eddie describes how he starts creating a new show.

‘It’s like when a band records a rock ‘n’ roll album,’ he explains.

‘They go into the studio. You think about The Stones and Mick Jagger. Then Keith comes in with his riffs, then they go in the studio and work it out and record it.

‘I was in Los Angeles and New York and I was doing these work in progress gigs, which is sort of the same thing, where it’s me being on stage and trying out stuff with an audience listening instead of a sound engineer and producer.

‘I don’t have an exact idea of where everything is going to be and how it’s going to fall into shape.

‘I started off with a piece about human sacrifice and I realised maybe that was the birth of fascism, because some human had to put forward the idea that the gods, who created all these characters – humans and animals – would want one of them to be murdered, a blood sacrifice. Now where the hell did that come from? It’s totally illogical.

‘And I suddenly realised I’d been talking about it and that’s a great area to go in, and that’s what I do, I verbally sculpt in these work in progress shows, improvise and verbally sculpt.

‘So that’s where these angles came from. I ended up talking about medieval kings, the ancient warrior codes, the Greeks, the Olympic ideals, which links to our Olympics – healthy mind and healthy body – so I can have a whole load of things I can gradually push and form into a structure by endless remodelling, as opposed to me writing it down.’

During shows Eddie often pauses to scribble notes on an imaginary pad when jokes and his frequent comedic detours go better – or worse – than expected. And as a result the shows can change quite a bit during the run.

‘Those ad-libs are partly for my own entertainment. But recently I’ve been trying to change the lines less and get the characters more locked down.

‘I worked with the creative director Sarah Townsend, who worked on the Believe documentary (a 2009 film about Eddie’s life) and she was encouraging me not to keep flying off because in the past I’ve constantly ad-libbed until I’ve ruined – not ruined, that’s not the word – I’ve adjusted it so much that it’s lost the initial comedy and it’s maybe developed a second wave of comedy, a new angle of comedy, and sometimes it’s less good than it was before, so I was trying to hold on to certain pieces more than before.

‘I was also doing two months in German so I had to get very tight on the script.’

This brings us neatly onto Eddie’s multi-lingual approach to comedy – staunchly pro-Europe, he has translated whole shows into French, German and Spanish.

To mark D-Day’s 70th anniversary he performed Force Majeure back-to-back in English, French and German in Caen, Normandy for charity.

He says: ‘References are national, but if you make them international or universal, that makes it much easier, and that’s what I’ve been doing for 15 years.

‘Doing stuff like “I was on the 159 bus at Streatham and you know when you get to Brixton Hill, phew!” But as soon as you say that outside of London, they’re going, “What happens at Brixton Hill?” So I make it universal by saying: “I was on this bus and going to south London and then this guy gets on and he was crazy.”

‘You can make it quite specific, as long as you explain your terms.

‘It isn’t actually that hard. All you’ve got do is change the words. I’ve realised humour is human and not national.

‘I did Q&As at the end of the shows in Germany, and I started off doing them in English, but ended up doing them in German.

‘If I had a problem I would say: “noch ein mal bitte, und langsam sprechen, weil mein Deutsch nicht so gut ist (one more time slowly, please, because my German is not so good).” And they would say it a bit slower and I could work it out.’

At a time when Europe is increasingly fractured, Eddie strongly believes the EU is a force for good: ‘I’m very positive on Europe, because I think if Europe doesn’t make it then I don’t think the world is going to make it. If we don’t all learn to work together we’re not all going to make it.’

And the committed Labour supporter sees it as a way of countering the rise of the right: ‘You can get out there and learn a language, and if you’re adventurous, Europe is a place to develop money and be a wealth creator, or we can just run and hide.’

Eddie Izzard is headlining the Southsea Comedy Festival, July 31 and August 1 from 7pm. Tickets £39. Support by Larry Dean, Joe Black (below) and compere James Alderson. Go to southseacomedy.co.uk or call 0844 847 2362.