Eddie Izzard: Stripped in Paris

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

‘Pourquoi êtes-vous ici?’ Eddie Izzard asks, supposedly baffled that anyone would negotiate the boulevard of neon-bathed sex shops and XXX cinemas in the insalubrious Pigalle district of Paris, just to see an Englishman talking in French in a tiny theatre.

Pourquoi est-il ici? might be a better question. His next performance after this run at the Théâtre De Dix Heures, is the 17,000-capacity Hollywood Bowl, so it seems an unnecessarily tough gig to spend two and half months playing to 135 French people a night, unaccustomed to British-style stand-up. But as his back-to-back marathons attest, Izzard is not a man who shuns a challenge; and as an avowed Europhile, he is being the change he wishes to see.

‘Vous étes les pionniers,’ he flatters his crowd , which comprises locals taking a chance, not expats seeking a home-grown celebrity. But, in truth, he is the real trailblazer. Izzard first brought his brand of flight-of-fancy comedy to Paris for a short run 11 years ago, when his language skills were less assured. He sincerely thought other British Francophones would follow, in the same way foreigners such as Germany’s Henning Wehn have found a place in Britain. But they haven’t… so now he’s back to perform Stripped ‘tout en Français’.

A brief preamble about his unusual situation aside, the content is the same as the show with which he toured the English-speaking world in 2008 – though edited to fit a brisk hour rather than the more nebulous shape his shows can sometimes take. It’s an atheism-inspired romp through prehistory and early civilisations: from ukulele-playing T-Rexes, the dawn of the Stone Age, the impracticality of the Noah’s Ark myth, the ferocity of the Spartans and Hannibal crossing the Alps.

A few routines have changed or been dropped to allow for different idioms and cultural references (no ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ here) – but not always: he has a stab at explaining who George Formby was, for example, via ‘Quand Je Nettoie Les Fenêtres’.

But there’s little need for change. Based, as it is, on big themes and nonsense imagery, Izzard’s is the sort of comedy that translates pretty well. The French have some knowledge of Monty Python, and make their own Knockabout comedy films such as Les Visiteurs.

Despite speaking in an obvious accent, he doesn’t stumble over the language. Occasionally he might grope for le mot juste, but then he does that in English, too. Don’t we all? Plus stand-up shares some techniques with someone trying to be understood in a second language – not least the physical acting out what you’re talking about – so that helps. He occasionally asks the audience for an element of vocab, but only very rarely, and gets smatterings of applause when he successfully employs complex grammar such as the imperfect tense. Oh, and the very few words of English that do get in have a purpose: ‘la meme fucking chose’ should be adopted by L’Académie Française forthwith.

But the laughs don’t come because he’s an Englishman struggling with the audience’s mother tongue, but because the material is funny, just as it is in any language. The exaggerated verbal images he creates are ridiculously silly: a veloceraptor driving a car through the streets of Paris until he’s pulled over by les flics; giraffes trying to alert each other of danger despite being unable to cry out; or the overwhelming pedantry of Latin.

With my rusty schoolboy French, I followed most of it – though I made sure I was already familiar with the show before boarding the Eurostar. Plus my comprehension was surely helped firstly by Izzard’s anglicised pronunciation, and second by a French speaking pal to translate any vital words . Brits with a half-decent smattering of the language would certainly follow the show – but that would not be in Izzard’s spirit to reach out to the French.

And they seem to be connecting. There was no substantial difference between the laughs he got here and those he would get it the UK, plus he’s just added a night a 800-plus seat Parisian venue for his new-found fans. A bigger challenge comes in bilingual Montreal later this summer, when he performs the same show in French and in English on the same night.

With long-term plans to play in German, Russian and Arabic in his birthplace of Yemen, Izzard could well be on course to be the first global stand-up. Vive l’entente cordiale.

Review date: 3 Jun 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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