Comedian Izzard speaks after being presented with the sixth annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism at Harvard University. Credit: Reuters
If anyone wants to know the German for "weasels covered in gravy," then comic Eddie Izzard, who unlike some of his countrymen is a lover of all things European, is the go-to man.
The stand-up comedian, already known for doing shows in French, is bringing his Force Majeure tour to audiences in German, Spanish, Russian and Arabic — all languages he doesn't actually speak. Until now.
Standing somewhat nervously in front of a 250-strong crowd in Berlin's Quatsch Comedy Club, the 51-year-old Izzard tells the audience his aim is to encourage harmony among Europeans.
"It's comedy without borders, not borders without comedy," Izzard, who sported deep red nail varnish for Saturday's sold-out hourlong set, said in British-accented German to laughter and applause.
The comic and actor is on a mission to prove that everyone, whether in Britain, Germany or elsewhere, has a sense of humor that can be understood by others. He won't be adapting the show for audiences just because they're in a different country.
"There's no 'British' sense of humor," the man once referred to as the 'lost Python' by Monty Python co-creator John Cleese, told Reuters. "All humor is human; it's the references that are national."
"I predict that someone should be able to go to a native tribe, learn their language and then make them laugh."
Certainly there have been instances of other comedians crossing borders. Henning Wehn, who describes himself as "the German comedy ambassador," and fellow German comic Michael Mittermeier have enjoyed English-speaking success.
"I want to do it because I believe in people. If you grow up in Britain, you have no idea what the kids in Germany, France, Spain, Russia are into," said Izzard, who has often poked fun at eurosceptics in his shows.
He admits, though, that for foreign comics, doing shows in English can be the start of more film or stage work, and it would be hard to persuade people to go from English into other languages, since the audience pool is smaller.
"I hope other stand-ups will do it in French or German. But it's not about going just the extra mile. It's about going the extra 25,000 miles. OK, maybe an extra 100 miles."
Magna Carta and King John
Izzard, who once completed 43 marathons in 51 days for charity, only started learning the German version of the show, translated by his linguist brother, at the start of January.
"I'm learning it like a play. ... It's the most advanced language course you can do," said the comic, who last learned German at school back in the 1970s.
In case he gets stuck, the script has been written down in full, a first for the comic, who usually improvises.
Just a couple of weeks in, though, Izzard is already improvising at the start in German.
The show's run in Berlin has been extended until the end of February, and Izzard's set will get longer each night as he grows in confidence. After German comes Spanish, which Izzard says he hopes will be easier given his French knowledge.
During the Force Majeure show, Izzard gets to grips with German sentence structure and declensions, earning knowing applause from the Berlin crowd for his perfect use of the fiendishly tricky genitive case at one stage.
He also references British historical figures like Richard the Lionheart, his brother King John, the Magna Carta and King Charles I.
"King John is not that well known outside of Britain; neither is the Magna Carta," Izzard says. "But it doesn't matter as long as you explain your references."
Even if the surreal image of those weasels ("Wiesel mit Sosse bedeckt") to describe the human body during the ageing process had the Berlin audience a bit bemused at first, Ulrike Schneidewind, a 33-year-old psychologist who had come from Halle near Leipzig to see Izzard, said she approved of him keeping the show the same for everyone.
"You don't need to make it more German. You want to see him, to see his show," she said, adding that one of her favorite bits was the sketch involving King Charles.
Jokes about the Nazis also received applause.
"I'm happy to talk about Hitler being a mass murderer," says Izzard. "Everyone said, 'Don't mention the war,' but anyone in the audience has got to be pretty old now to have been in any way responsible. The Nazis stole stuff, we should steal it back."
And Izzard's favorite German word? "Ausgefuckinzeichnet!" — which means "fan-bloody-tastic" in polite English.