Who would be so bold as to embark on the most extensive comedy tour ever, covering 28 countries, five continents and all 50 states in America, and do so knowing he would have to learn to perform his show entirely in French, German, Spanish, Russian and Arabic? British comedian Eddie Izzard would. He’s bringing his Force Majeure (“Superior Force”) comedy tour to the Alabama Theatre Saturday Dec. 5th.
Izzard is known for irreverent stand-up comedy such as in his HBO special Dressed To Kill, his dramatic role in the movie Valkyrie (opposite Tom Cruise), his FX Television series The Riches and his Death Star Canteen bit, which is getting lots of attention on YouTube.
Before his first trip to Alabama, Izzard talked to Weld about his life and his comedy.
Weld: Have you been to the South before?
Izzard: I have done quite a few cities in the South. Memphis I’ve played a number of times. Florida, Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans… Quite a few cities. Athens, Georgia… South Carolina for the first time. I’ve played North Carolina before. Texas I’ve played a lot of times. But Birmingham I haven’t played before.
Weld: That’s really great that you’re covering all 50 states.
Izzard: Yeah, we’re up to 37. I play Alaska tonight.
Weld: So, Alabama will be what number?
Izzard: You’ll be 39.
Weld: So, we’re in our late 30s if you will.
Izzard: Late 30s. It’s just great to get everywhere. I wouldn’t have thought that in mainstream Birmingham, Alabama, my stuff would be their kind of stuff, but all the groovy people will come. My stuff is silly and intelligent and it’s what it is. It’s very Monty Python and Richard Pryor influenced.
Weld: Is this the longest comedy tour ever, by a comedian?
Izzard: Yeah. It’s the most extensive. It’s 28 countries. The world record in rock and roll is 51, so I’ve got a few more countries to play yet.
Weld: Do you find this type of tour more ambitious, or is it simply adventurous?
Izzard: I think it’s both. I am ambitious, so I like to be ambitious with that. I think I’m trying to get people to take notice. A bit like a child saying to its parents, “Look at me, look at me!” I think maybe that’s what people are doing in the entertainment business. If you do good stuff, you do want people to look at it and say, “Oh wow, he’s got good stuff.” To play in four languages in 28 countries, and no one can give a monkey’s—. That’s not totally fun. So, I find that with things that might grab attention I get a bit of a headline.
I just toured France in French with over 5,000 seats sold, and I don’t think anyone has ever done that before. So, I like doing those things, and just try and grab a little attention and do something different. Otherwise, you’ve got to do gossip columns, or you’ve got to go out with someone, or a whole bunch of other simplistic things, the bubblegum pop way of doing things. I like to do things that have value.
Weld: You are going to be learning Arabic soon? That’s one of your goals?
Izzard: Yes. Spanish is next, then Russian, then Arabic. I think it is particularly always to gain something. So, when I do it in German, it’s got a political message. Like, hey, we have two world wars, but now we can sit down and we can do comedy and we can have fun together and look at the craziness of life and war and whatever’s gone on. And also I can earn money from it. It’s a way of developing somebody’s business. I do like show business. I took accounting and financial management in college, so I am interested in that. For me, once I’ve got it going, in Berlin, and I did a gig in Hamburg, I can now play other cities. So it can enlarge on itself.
Weld: How would you describe your process?
Izzard: Well, if you’re going to be a performer, the ambition is in there. And you’ve got your ego in there, too. Otherwise you can’t do it. That’s that thing of putting something on and saying, “Hey, I thought that was pretty good, I hope you do, too.” You can pull it toward yourself or you can push it out. I just found that there was a way of doing things… Maybe I have this underlying thing that I want to do well for myself, but I’d like other people to do well. If people do really good work, I like watching their work. So, if it’s young people in my country, or in America, or in China, or in South Africa, I’m saying, “Try this, do this, go the distance.” I like people. I want everyone to do well. I want everyone to try and go for their dreams. I went a long time where nothing was working, and now it is working and so I’m just trying to be as tough on myself as I can.
Weld: What do you find amusing? What are you enjoying right now?
Izzard: It’s tricky to go back and catch up on the new things coming up. But I’ve always been a fan of Patton Oswalt, Seinfeld, Chris Rock’s stuff. Jon Stewart did a great show, and now Trevor Noah took over. I was one of the guys who helped bring him over into the UK. He’s also doing some amazing stuff. My promoter said, “Let’s bring Trevor over,” and I’d seen some of Trevor’s stuff, and I wasn’t sure exactly where he was going with it. But I met him at a comedy show in London, and he was talking about how he was brought up, and I said, “You’ve got all that stuff into your show then people will find that very interesting.” And then he went and did it. Trevor has a fantastic show. He can articulate in a very clear way, so I hope he does well.
Weld: People seem to think he’s doing a great job.
Izzard: Good! I heard Jon Stewart’s championing him. And that’s brilliant. He needs time to bed-in or whatever. It’s saying, “Hey, Africa! You wanna come and play in the big world?” It’s a brilliant kind of thing. He’s from Africa, he’s brilliant, he’s cool, Jon Stewart is championing his show. What a great move for the world, to have someone, who’s a black guy, whose father’s Swiss-German as well… All people are the same in the end, but he is just such a great, positive thing.
Weld: How much do you improvise on stage?
Izzard: Only about 5 minutes a show. If I’m developing a show, I’m improvising a lot. But once I’ve got the show, I’m just trying to distill it down, to keep the good bits, and distill it down into better and better shape, so it’s conversational. If I get an idea in my head, I can go off with that. But essentially, I am trying to distill down so the improvisation gets less, and I try and get a more perfect show.
Weld: How would you describe your comedy or your show?
Izzard: If I was using people, I would say it’s very influenced by Monty Python and Richard Pryor, Robin Williams is in there, Billy Connolly, that kind of style. Those are the stylistic elements, Dean Martin’s early stand up. If you google the Death Star Canteen, it’s actually intelligent and silly at the same time. I go into very high brow things that I talk about in a very low brow way, and very low brow things I’ll talk about in a high brow way. I keep flipping, and it’s intelligent but silly.
Weld: Has your versatility as a performer increased since you first started?
Izzard: I think it has. I remember when I started, I was thinking, how do you get this all working? I think if you do stuff, you get to the point where you have a certain amount of success, you get certain things working in your comedy, and then if you’re clever, you add to that. I think some people get a certain style working in their comedy, and they think that will be my style. But what I did was I kept adding.
I got surreal comedy working, but I found that surreal comedy wouldn’t work in all circumstances. So, I decided to start with observational, and then I’d flip it into surreal. And then at a certain part, I went into doing political, then historical political, and then I added in history. I just keep adding to it.
And I think if you’re doing anything in life you should keep adding to your abilities. Keep learning something new. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, so don’t be an old dog. Keep your brain young, and then you can always be learning new tricks, and should be learning new tricks.
Weld: Did you have a mentor? Or were you given any good advice when you started out?
Izzard: I wasn’t really mentored. There was one guy who was kind of acerbic and he’d been sort of unhelpful to me beforehand, and he said to me, “Yeah, stand-up’s not really your thing is it? You did this surreal bit about your uncle going to Vietnam.” I had said my uncle served in Vietnam, but he was a waiter, so it was a pun on the word “served.” Then I took it into a whole other story about someone being in Vietnam and setting up tables. And he said, “Make it about yourself. No one cares about your uncle, they care about you. So make it you.” But I changed it and it did work better.
Weld: When you are performing, do you think you are enjoying yourself more than the audience or just as much?
Izzard: That’s an interesting question. I would hope as much as the audience. But there’s obviously going to be some in the audience every time who are going, “This is not my cup of tea.” It’s an impossible one to tell, but there are some shows that I’ve come off thinking, “Oh, that was quite a good show.” There are times that I could’ve enjoyed it more than the audience, but I don’t know how to answer that one because I can’t immediately check with them. I just try to see… Well, actually, I’m playing all these countries and people want to come, so I assume it’s going okay. Otherwise, I’d be playing less and less countries.
Weld: Have you ever been heckled during a show? How did you handle it?
Izzard: Yes, I have been heckled in shows. Less, though, these days. Especially in the small clubs when you’re just starting off. When you’re just trying to get your feet together, it’s quite difficult. If you’re not doing well, you’ll be heckled, and it’s tricky to get out of that because they start turning on a victim. And if you’re not being terribly funny, you can’t suddenly get funnier. But I developed a whole system of dealing with heckles. And the middle to late part of my club life in London I got very good at dealing with heckles. I would impose scenarios. If you force someone to heckle, they won’t. The audience wants you to win because they paid to see you and not for some guy to shout. So once you know these things, with the imposing scenarios technique, it’s slightly unstoppable. I don’t think I’ve had a problem since then.
It’s the confidence. The audience wants you to be confident so that they can be relaxed while they’re watching. And also, it’s a cue, when someone says, “You are crap!” Say something funny. Then they are actually standing up and saying, “I challenge you to a duel of wit.” If you just come out and say, “Hi, I’m the referee of this duel.” He’s going to be shouting something negative about me, it’s gonna be negative for you… And I will say things back like, “No, Steve, you’re just a [expletive], why don’t you die.”
Weld: One last question: Who would win in a fight? A tiger or a shark?
Izzard: A tiger.
Weld: Why would a tiger win?
Izzard: Because he would have a gun…. Cheers!
For tickets to Eddie Izzard’s Force Majeure, click here.