Just for Laughs 2011: Will Montreal pardon Eddie Izzard’s French?

[from the montrealgazette.com]

MONTREAL – “Can we do the interview in French?” Eddie Izzard asked on the phone from London recently. “How about a bit of both?” I answered. “It’s for Montreal’s English newspaper, so I’d like some English quotes as well.” Izzard obliged, but by the tone in his voice, I’d say somewhat reluctantly.

The brilliant Brit stand-up comedian and actor, best known for his transvestism, rambling monologues and Monty Python-esque style, is on a bit of a French kick these days.

Having just completed 71 gigs in Paris, he was looking forward to Monday’s shows in Montreal at the Gesù – the first at 7 p.m. in English, the second at 9:30 in French. (He performs again at the same venue Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.)

For a comedian who fills stadiums in Britain, a show in a 425-seat venue seems a step back. So why the challenge? “The world is a melting pot and I try to mix things up,” Izzard said.

The show he’s performing, Stripped, debuted in 2009, so fans have probably already caught the best bits on YouTube. Yet Izzard keeps it fresh by ad-libbing as much as possible – a talent no doubt diminished in French, which he speaks well but sometimes too quickly, and with an accent reminiscent of the Brit tourist holidaying in Normandy.

Izzard has been quoted as saying he’d like to eventually perform his stand-up in three languages he does not speak: German, Russian and Arabic. Considering the challenge he faces in French, a language he learned in high school and is still trying to master, that seems a tall order.

“The shows are exactly the same in French and English,” Izzard said. “For the first 10 in Paris, I was sticking closely to the script. But as I got on, I developed more ‘abilité,’ though some nights I was only half as good as my best gag. But by the end of the run, I was improvising five or six times during the show. The better my language skills, the more I can talk rubbish like I do in English.”

Izzard makes a huge effort to avoid slipping into English during his French performances – save for the occasional “absof—inglument” – which is a far cry from his early French performances back in the late ’90s in Paris, when laughter was sparse and he had a tendency to slide in sentences like “Tout le monde est très pissed off,” and “Je ne apologize pas.”

One assumes French audiences laugh at a different style of joke, with a more deadpan delivery or Jerry Lewis-like gestures. Not so, says Izzard. “If your French is good enough, you don’t have to be more physical.” As for the culture-crossing laughs, Izzard points to The Simpsons. “That show is shown all around the world in different languages and it appeals to a variety of different senses of humour.”

Izzard’s French show is different, though, in that it’s a half-hour shorter. “It’s all the same stuff English and French speakers can deal with,” said Izzard, who takes on universal topics like God, atheism, Wikipedia, dyslexia, dinosaurs and PC vs. Mac computers. Having seen many of the same clips in both languages, there’s no denying the English set is funnier, yet the French performances of today are far superior to the nervous sets of the ’90s.

The Izzard style of today is also far less flamboyant than in past shows like Dress to Kill and Sexie. Gone is the man with Shelley Winters hair, kohl-lined eyes, nail polish and chunky heels. He’s playing down what he refers to as his “girl mode,” in favour of jeans, leather jacket and well-groomed goatee. Izzard 2011 is a cool guest on Chelsea Lately, a Hollywood actor in such movies as Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, and an activist who has made no secret of his political aspirations and strong support of Britain’s Labour Party.

He’s even become something of an athlete, having run 43 marathons in 51 days last year to support Sport Relief, a charity in the U.K. One of his goals during his Montreal stay is to run to the top of Mount Royal.

Watching the evolution of this comic, whose inspiration comes from the likes of Python as well as Richard Pryor and Billy Connolly, you see several contrasting personalities: male/female, English/French and most recently comedian/politician. Yet for Izzard, all these facets of himself are one and the same.

“I don’t have different personalities,” he said. “Yes, the politics are more serious, and the dramatic acting is more serious. But in the end, it’s all just me trying to be creative.”

Eddie Izzard: Stripped is at the Gesù, 1200 Bleury St., Monday to Wednesday at 7 p.m. in English and Monday at 9:30 p.m. in French. For tickets and more information, visit hahaha.com or call 514-845-2322.

Written by Momo in: Interview |

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