With his new American tour starting next month, we spoke to the iconic stand-up about snakes, marathons, and performing comedy in six languages.
Photo: Amanda Searle
What’s the story behind the name of your tour, Force Majeure?
It’s a phrase used in contracts around the world – the Act Of God clause, it’s called. It can mean act of God, but I’m using it to mean force of nature. It can mean what we want it to mean, and I don’t think there’s a God, so it’s got to be force of nature. I want to know if the Noah film is going to show Russell Crowe talking to God, or just going, “I gotta feeling! There’s a lot of rain, let’s build a boat!”
There’s a couple kangaroos in the back garden…
Yeah! When the snakes came, wouldn’t you say, “Do we really need snakes in the new world?” [Laughing] I’ve done so much stuff on Noah, but if you saw a whole bunch of snakes coming towards you, I think you’d say [whispering], “I think we don’t really need the snakes…”
Especially in the biblical context, they’ve probably done enough damage.
Just leave out all the bastard ones. And sharks! All the bad fish. I don’t know how we got on to that, but in answer to your question: Yes. I don’t know what your question was.
I believe we were talking about your tour, Force Majeure.
I was looking for a title that, when I tour France, they might go, “Ahh, of course!” But I was also pointing out the fact that I’m doing gigs in French, because no one knows I’m doing it unless I relentlessly tell everyone. I’m very proud of it, and I’m now starting to do triple hit gigs, where you do a show in German, then you get a new audience and you do it in French, then you do it in English, so that’s going to be my crazy thing.
Language aside, how well does comedy translate when you perform it in another country?
I think [Monty] Python proved this before, but if you’re performing to a progressive, open-minded audience, which exists in major towns and cities around the world, people get it. I think the turning point was in 2007, because that’s when the French started doing stand-up, and also when people started seeing lots of other stuff on YouTube. I just played Moscow, St. Petersburg, Zagreb, Belgrade, Istanbul, Vienna, Oslo, Stockholm, Amsterdam…
I was waiting for you to add “Hanging Gardens of Babylon.”
I would have added the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but apparently they’ve gone. But anyway, that would be an outdoor gig.
Photo: Andy Hollingworth
What is your take on French stand-up? As you said, it’s a relatively new concept, and going by books like Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility Of An Island, it seems like French stand-up is very politically, satirically motivated – a bit like the way Russia first viewed cinema, as opposed to the American idea of using it purely for entertainment.
It is a political thing. The French mainstream resisted the microphone in the hand thing - they did one-man shows, like a Bob Newhart or Rowan Atkinson style of talking and having a fourth wall. But then they started talking through the fourth wall, going into what was essentially stand-up. Then a guy called Jamel [Debbouze] set up his own comedy club in 2007 and that was where young, second generation North African-French kids, who were resisting French mainstream, started taking their influences from black rap in America. It became very street and political. This guy Yacine Belhousse, who is playing in Edinburgh in English this summer, is one of only five surreal comedians in France: In France and Germany, they don’t do much absurdist, surreal humor, and I think it’s because no one’s ever hit big there doing that.
You just performed a two-month long run in Berlin, Germany, doing the whole show in German. How did that go, if absurdist comedy is not so big there?
They like it, they just don’t do it! That’s the odd thing. As soon as one guy breaks through, it’s going to take off, I think.
Are you less confidant about dealing with hecklers when you perform in a foreign language, or is that not really much of an issue at your level?
It’s not really an issue because I’m playing theaters. And even in the clubs, they’re too polite. If somebody did do very negative heckling, all I’d have to do is say, “That’s easy for you to say,” and carry on.
As well as French and German, you’re also planning on performing shows in Spanish, Russian, and Arabic. Which of those do you think will be toughest?
Culturally, it’ll be Arabic – it could well be language, as well. I have this theory - that I’m slightly making up on the hoof - that once you get past the Cyrillic alphabet, Russian will feel more logical than Arabic. But I think that, you know, all Arabic kids speak Arabic, all Russian kids speak Russian, all Mandarin Chinese kids speak Mandarin Chinese – you’ve never heard of ghettos of non-speaking people because someone invented a language that was too hard. It’s not rocket science, you don’t have to invent the language – you just have to practice it. If everyone in China can speak Chinese, and if everyone in Russia can speak Russian, it must not be that hard. That’s my logic.
Photo: Andy Hollingworth
As well as all these shows, a few years back, you ran 43 marathons in 51 days for Sport Relief, covering 1,100 miles. When exactly did you discover you had superpowers?
Well, when did I discover I had determination, is really the question. If you’re trying to put forward an idea and it won’t get any traction, if you do it a different way, or do it slightly more than usual, it gets traction and people notice it. It’s the same with the languages and doing gigs. My motto is that if you shoot for the stars, you could reach the moon.
Were there points during the running that you felt like giving up?
No - I knew that if I ever thought about giving up, I would give up. So once I started, the point was, “I’m not going to stop, no matter how bad it gets.” I think it all comes from walking out the door as a transvestite when I was 23 – I had to push forward with no one to advise me, but I thought it was a positive thing, so I kept doing it. I got a few negative reactions, but reactions over the years got better and better, so it’s using that system of having a vision of something positive that might work not just for me, but for other people.
You’ve been in a very eclectic selection of TV and movie roles over the years – what are you currently working on that’s got you excited?
I’m doing a film at the moment called Boychoir with Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, and Debra Winger, and I’m very happy about that. That’s what I love doing – coming from doing German stand-up to doing a film with Dustin Hoffman in a dramatic role. That’s a beautiful place to be.