Learning French… the fun way!

Learning French with Eddie Izz(n’t)ard

French: It’s the sort of language that makes you want to say ‘quoi?’ One bewildered utterance, a monosyllabic sound to accompany the baffled expression that uncontrollably falls on the faces of us Brits. It all sounds a bit double-Dutch, doesn’t it? Yet, despite our supposed insularity, how come well-known comedian Eddie Izzard is able to seamlessly merge two languages in a way that makes us laugh?

Eddie Izzard ignores the stereotypical use of French within comedies such as ‘Allo Allo!’ and ‘Only Fools and Horses’, adding a refreshing sophistication to the use of language within comedy. Izzard uses eye-catching body language, majestically pacing the stage in order to deliver lines such as…

‘Je dois partir maintenant parce que ma grand-mère est flambèe’

The comedy comes from the combination of accurate schoolboy French illustrated by arm waving, richly made up open eyes and pure swagger. We are now entering the comedy of the slightly absurd but as an audience are being seduced by Izzard’s deft use of language and delivery.

Well, there are many theories of humour that help to explain how our funny bones are tickled but two in particular stand out. First up is the Superiority Theory. Tracing back to Plato and Aristotle, this theory centres itself around the idea of schadenfreude: taking pleasure from others misfortunes or their inferiority. We’ve all been guilty of laughing at cartoon characters slipping on that unfortunately placed banana skin or that idiot’s audacity on ‘You’ve Been Framed’ but, rather unconventionally, Eddie Izzard inverts the theory onto himself. His reversal of the idea comes from a desire to create a shared experience between the narrator and the listener. Rather than mocking somebody inferior, he tends to turn the joke onto himself…

‘Tu es un travesti?’… ‘Oui je suis un travesti mais pas un travesti typical!’

… using his own transvestism as the butt of his jokes. Having said this, you could argue that the very reason he uses French in his comedy is to feel superior and, as he admits himself, to stick ‘two v’s’ up at his foreign friends.

Secondly we have the Incongruity Theory. This revolves around the assumption that we laugh at things that surprise us because they seem out of place: like clowns wearing outrageously large shoes or politicians telling the truth… The absurd nature of Eddie’s stand-up follows this particular theory perfectly as his bizarre story of holidaying with a mouse, a cat and a monkey show how the weirder the concept is, the more wonderfully funny the joke becomes.  This will explain…

‘Ah le singe… Maintenant regarde: il est sur une bicyclette… il joue au banjo et… il fume une pipe!’

Not only can this fictitious monkey of Eddie’s ride a bike, play a banjo and smoke a pipe but also he later goes on to drive a bus with Sandra Bullock! This, in turn, shows Eddie using French creatively in order to make even the most outré of situations appear even balmier!

Now, as you’ve probably already noticed, the French above doesn’t appear too hard to decipher, does it? The fact that the comedian uses a lot of French that looks and sounds similar to its counterpart in English means that the audience is able to understand it with minimum fuss. Words such as:

‘table; positions; bombe; autobus; hôtel’

…all back this up and, strangely, as a result of these similarities it gives the audience a sense of satisfaction for being able to grasp the French. Furthermore, Eddie doesn’t feel the need to explain many words since the added use of paralinguistic features, like mimicking the licking of a spoon, helps aid the audience’s comprehension of his phrases.

All in all, what really makes us laugh is the content of his stand-up rather than its French exterior. At times we don’t even notice that Mr. Izzard is speaking fluent French for we are captivated by the unorthodox nature of his anecdote (Incongruity Theory, remember?); removing the awareness that a foreign language is being used. So if you wish to learn the beautiful language that is French (particularly how to say that there’s a monkey on the branch) then ‘Learning French’ is your perfect starting point because with Eddie, it really Izzn’t hard. Actually, you might even find it quite fun!