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Eddie Izzard a comic force in any language

British comedian Eddie Izzard has performed in English, French, and German, and is looking to play shows in Spanish, Russian, and Arabic to audiences of native speakers.

Amanda Searle

British comedian Eddie Izzard has performed in English, French, and German, and is looking to play shows in Spanish, Russian, and Arabic to audiences of native speakers.

Eddie Izzard’s life is surreal. It’s a word that can describe his comedy, which accommodates ideas like Darth Vader in line at the Death Star cafeteria and what the Spanish Inquisition would have looked like in the hands of the Church of England. It can also describe his career, such as when he landed in Connecticut in March to film “Boychoir” with Dustin Hoffman and Debra Winger after two months of performing stand-up comedy in Berlin. In German.

Speaking by phone from Connecticut, Izzard says it was tough to explain to his costars that he had been doing comedy in a language he couldn’t speak as of New Year’s Day. They didn’t seem to comprehend at first. “They say, ‘Hang on, you were doing it in German?’ ” he says. It was as if he had casually said he had eaten a car, only to hear a minute later, “Wait, you ate a car?”

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No stranger to international treks, Izzard is in the middle of his most extensive tour yet. “Force Majeure” will eventually cover 25 countries. The United States leg alone, which includes shows at the Citi Wang Theatre Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, covers 32 cities. The English comedian has lofty aspirations. He has performed in English, French, and German, and is looking to play shows in Spanish, Russian, and Arabic to audiences of native speakers.

It’s not a one-time stunt. Izzard is hoping to reach new audiences and continue to tour the world performing to people in their own language. He rattles off a list of other German cities where he can tour now — Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg perhaps. “They’re all sitting there ready to happen,” he says. “I will be touring Germany and the German-speaking countries, and France in French. And I think I can go to some parts of the Caribbean and play in French. And I could definitely play Beirut in French. I think that would work. So I’ve got all these options there. It’s fun. A great adventure.”

He learned German, having had a bit in high school, by going to Germany in advance of the show and putting himself to work learning a little at a time. “I just did intensive immersion and doing an hour show a night, which initially was only a half-hour show,” he says. “I could only remember 35 minutes of it the first night. It took me two weeks. I was adding three minutes a day.”

Performing stand-up in another language isn’t as simple as translating the words. Particular phrases that have certain weight or provoke specific images in English can fall flat in another language. Izzard found this was true in his shows in Berlin. There is a routine in his current show about aging, how when people are young, their bodies are trim and fit, but as adults, “our bodies are like two weasels covered in gravy nailed to the back of a tractor.”

When a joke depends on wordplay like that, it tends to fall flat in translation. When Izzard does a literal German translation of it, his speech is full of spiky consonants. “It took me ages to learn to say that phrase,” he says, “and then I found once I was saying it well, the Germans would just stare at me and go, ‘What?’ There was too much wordplay. So I had to change it to, ‘Our bodies are like two washing machines filled with frogs that have been sat on by elephants.’ ”

Because he had to translate it and make sure it worked, “Force Majeure” is the first of Izzard’s shows to be completely scripted. His brother, linguist Mike Izzard, helped him make the transition into other languages.

He will have no such concerns doing his usual improvising in English. “Certain bits in English I’ve actually sorted out, ‘Well, that actually flows well,’ ” he says. ‘Whereas some bits are designed to be extemporized each night, to be improvised each night.”

The imagination, the juxtaposition of images clashing at Picasso-like angles, is still there. Izzard might be talking about Olympic dressage at one moment (useful for learning to park your horse in a cupboard) and skip to “Lord of the Rings,” fascists, and a follow-up to one of his more popular routines. “The sequel to ‘Death Star Canteen’ is in this tour,” he says. “God comes down and has a fight with Lord Vader over a plate of spaghetti carbonara.”

The “Force Majeure” tour is part of a long-term plan leading up to Izzard’s intention to run for mayor of London in 2020. He’s also appearing in the NBC drama “Hannibal” and has a deal with NBC, for which he has yet to choose the right project. He’s also got some marathons to run in South Africa and would like to co-write and produce his own films. That leaves him with six years to devote to show business and personal goals. “There is a definite clock ticking, which is kind of good,” he says. “I’ve got about four, maybe five films in my head and I have to get them out. And I have to go into politics now if I’m going to go in.”

Despite this dizzying schedule, in his act and in conversation, Izzard calls himself “lazy.” But with a slight twist. “I’m lazy like an oil tanker,” he says. “An oil tanker that’s stationary, it takes a lot of energy to get it moving, but an oil tanker that’s moving takes a lot of energy to stop it. Once I’m going, I’m happy to keep going and keep going, ‘Yeah! Let’s do that! Let’s do that!’ ”

Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.
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