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'If you want an adventure, learn a language'

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Eddie Izzard. Photo: Bruno Calvo
16:36 CET+01:00
Making Germans laugh can seem a thankless prospect in any language and trying in freshly learned German might seem the project of a masochist. Eddie Izzard tells The Local why he is game.

It is arguably a plucky decision for a British stand-up comedian to ditch the language of Monty Python when creating comedy in Germany, but Izzard sees his six-week stand-up run in Berlin as central to his European mission.

“We've been making beautiful stuff together for the past 2,000 years, then stopping to kill each other every 250," he told The Local. "If we take out the killing, like we're trying to, we should be able to keep making great things."

It has taken him a decade to bring a German-language show to the stage, something for which he drafted in his linguist brother Daniel, and which resulted in a script - a novelty for the famously quick-witted Izzard.

“We have the same sense of humour,” he said of his brother, pulling a wad of A4 sheets off the dressing table. They contain the script for his show Force Majeure in German. “I mean, look, for the first time ever I have an actual manuscript.”

It took him just three weeks to learn it – at roughly a page a day.

Before embarking on what must have surely been one of history’s oddest German grammar classes, 50-year-old Izzard had just two years of high school German under his belt.

Kicking off an interview with a fellow Brit in German may have seemed absurd, and ran a little like a tutor session, with him asking “is that correct?” from time to time, but for Izzard, it's all or nothing. “In the things I do, I'm more. In those I don't, I'm nothing,” he said.

'Humour is universal'

His affability in person - just as one hopes - quickly chases away his fame, and his enthusiasm for his topic transforms the dressing room in the Imperial Club of the Admiralspalast into a bubble of discussion.

“My theory is that humour can be universal. You use universal jokes, like human sacrifice, like religion, or explain your references.

“That way the smart people get it. It's intelligent and stupid and I knew it would cross over,” he said.

His level of German is outstanding, thanks to a method of learning he calls the “matrix treatment,” and he slaps the crook of his arm as if prepping a vein for a shot of A-grade vocabulary.

Running interviews in German is testament to this, as is the German version of The Avengers he has got on his iPad.

“You absolutely have to push yourself,” he said, gesturing to the screen. “Of course at the beginning of the run I was terrified.”

His Berlin show has already been running for two weeks and he is enjoying life in the city. “I'm here because it's the capital, and for the history and because I love being European," he said. “Berlin is fucked up and crazy and everything a city should be.”

Initially his performance was little more than a recital of a pre-learned script. Izzard knew the jokes as “they're cut out of me, cut out of blood,” he said, but he did not have the ability to juggle them. “I couldn't take the words out and put them in another sentence.”

'If you want an adventure, learn a language'

Now, however, he opens his set with a completely improvised chat, in German, about why he's doing what he's doing.

It's met with rapture, as Germans are almost always thrilled when foreigners give it a go. His attack on German sentence structure and grammar goes down a storm.

His jokey self-mockery is almost native in its self-depreciation.

Sitting among the audience, 70 percent of whom, on a show of hands, identify as native German speakers, it's clear that something is clicking.

People get involved, helping him out when he forgets a word and not only laughing at his jokes, but also equally hard at his mistakes. Schleiderkrank, instead of Kleiderschrank (wardrobe), deserves a mention.

“You're the pioneers,” he told the crowd. “Not the GDR ones, but the modern ones,” he continued, in reference to the fact that they had come to see a foreigner do stand-up in their language.

Still, the biggest laughs go to the more physical parts of his routine - a mole digging tunnels, God using a tablet computer, a horse backing into a wardrobe.

The audience was at its quietest when the topic moved to human sacrifice, but seemed to ease up when they realized he was talking about medieval England.

The Imperial Club is Izzard’s launch pad for a German-wide tour.

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“It was a business decision as well, moving over into German,” said Izzard. “It's an extra 95 million people to perform to if I include Austria and Switzerland.” This isn't just about the money, of course. “I want to tell Germany that we're all the bloody same.”

Already fluent in French and now capable in German, soon to be 51-year-old Izzard is an open supporter of the EU, and of language-learning.

“If you want an adventure, if you want to create a person that is – but also isn't – you, learn another language,” he said. “But this is an adventure you have to choose, it's not like if you don't do it you die.”

Next on his Force Majeure crusade, Izzard will perform in Spanish, Russian and eventually Arabic.

Russia, he admitted to the crowd, could be a tougher gig due to his well-known habit of cross-dressing.

“I'm a transvestite but I'll fight anyone anywhere,” he says, his long red nails glistening.

One has a Union Jack flag on it, another the EU flag (he's already found a good manicurist in Berlin). 

The Local has tickets to give away to Eddie Izzard's show on February 13th in Berlin. To win, email news@thelocal.com and tell us in one sentence why they should be yours.

Force Majeure runs in Berlin until February 28th. Get your tickets here.

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