Eddie Izzard is a Force Majeure

Eddie Izzard is unbelievable. 8 years of French and 2 years of German in school. And after witnessing people of many nations splashing about peacefully together in Santorini and believing that languages will unite us, he’s decided to do his show in various countries and languages. Standup comedy in  foreign tongues, not just in French, which he speaks, but also in German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Arabic, which he doesn’t.

The title of the show, “Force Majeure”, he says, is about his wanting to be a force of nature for peace. He doesn’t believe in waiting for some hand of God to come down and do the business.

His brother has translated the show into German, and he began learning it by heart, came to Berlin on 4 January, and on 14 January was on stage, doing the show. The show gets a bit longer every night as he adds new bits he’s learned, and the older parts get a bit shorter as he gets through them more quickly.

He handles forgotten lines by interacting with the audience. Finally, a suitable context for that word! It slows his pace down, but also provides the opportunity for some fresh improvisation, playing with words and the audience. Then he surfs on the positive energy of the audience. The basement at the Imperial Club seats no more than 150, and maybe 100 people were there on Sunday, so it’s all rather intimate. I was close enough to get a good look at his lovely manicured fingernails, with the Union Jack and the flag of the EU painted on them.  The show is set to continue through to the end of February. Tickets and dates here.

In language learning terms, he’s proving a point. As he said in the Q&A he gave instead of an encore, he finds the key to learning to speak a foreign language is

  • total immersion
  • not worrying about the grammar
  • learning by heart
  • simply having the courage to speak
  • being under extreme pressure to actually perform before an audience with high expectations

He says sometimes he can access language at will, it all flows out of him, and sometimes he’s completely stumped.

In the interview below he somewhat surprisingly says he doesn’t think there are any cultural differences in humor. His jokes work in any language, he says. I’d  agree, but isn’t that simply a measure of Britain’s lead in the world of comedy? With Britain’s history, after all, how can it not be multi- and cross-cultural?

I’ve found an illegal recording of the show from about a week ago. Judging from what I heard as compared to what the video shows, he’s already made some headway.

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shape of Stories

In the Cornelsen coursebook I’m writing, and in my classes, I warn my students against turning their presentations into straight pitches. Robert McKee, the Hollywood scriptwriter, has pointed out that the audience doesn’t really engage with and is not convinced by a presentation that tries to sell only strong points. People aren’t dumb. They’ll instinctively know that the presenter is giving them only half of the story. Instead, McGee says, presenters should use the typical shape of stories for their talks, and take their audience through all of the highs and lows.

According to McKee, all stories follow a basic pattern: “Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. It begins with a situation in which life is relatively in balance.” But then an event occurs that introduces a complication. The plot thickens as the protagonist tries to restore balance, working with whatever means are available and taking action in the face of risks.

KVstoriesNow, that may be true for the basic pattern, but there are clearly variations. In this lecture, novelist Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You Mr Rosewater) presents three such variations along a line from B for Beginning to E for… Electricity.

Also see below one of the last interviews with Vonnegut. It showcases his full life and his signature phrase: “And so it goes.”

Eric Berne: Games People Play

Games People PlayA seminal, very useful book is turning 50 this coming year. Published in 1964, and the best selling non-fiction book of the 1960s, Games People Play by Dr. Eric Berne introduced Transactional Analysis, which looked closely at human relationships. He opted to study interaction as transaction, since he said we communicate to get something out of it.
For example, if one person says hello, and the other person doesn’t respond, the first person feels cheated or irritated, since he or she expected to get something out of saying hello.

Berne said we communicate in three ego states, as the parent, the child and the adult. Everybody has these three people inside their head, which explains the mental cacophony we sometimes experience. When we are emotional, we are the child. Supportive or exerting power over others, we are the parent. Acting rationally, and focusing on the objective problems at hand, we are the adult. And the obvious way to go is to be the adult. This still comes across as fresh to me. It’s good, solid, everyday advice, the very basis of Emotional Intelligence, i.e. applying reason to how we engage in social situations with others.

Berne identified six different ways in which people communicate:

  • withdrawal (disengagement)
  • rituals (highly standardized exchanges)
  • pastimes (predictable conversations, polite exchanges of opinions)
  • activities (eg doing math or building something together)
  • games (underhanded, exploiting others)
  • intimacy (a game-free relationship)

The games we play, he says, like “If it weren’t for you”, are all rackets. Anger is one of those rackets, he says. It makes you feel righteous for a while, but doesn’t solve anything. Instead  he says we have to decide to look at what is making us angry and think about why the other person is doing it. That means not letting the other person win the game by allowing ourselves to get angry. It’s an interesting and engaging challenge, and one that can actually improve the situation.

Every game has three parts:

  • the con – the way of cheating used
  • the gimmick – the weakness that makes the other person play the game
  • the payoff – the feeling that people get from playing the game

Among the aspects Berne identified as worthy of therapy are scripts that he said we develop and follow early in life, and can for instance recognize in fairy tales.

Below is a wonderful 1966 NET Science broadcast special on the book. The reporter interviews Dr. Berne at his home in Carmel where the author explains the theory behind Transactional Analysis. The camera then follows the two of them along the gorgeous Carmel coast – where incidentally Helmut and I spent almost a week last summer. And finally we see Dr. Berne in with other California psychologists, Swinging Sixties style. Watch these four short videos for an exquisite introduction to the theory, and take an evocative journey into the epoch when Transactional Analysis was still new.

Eric Berne passed away in 1970. A website dedicated to him contains selected games he identified. See if any of them ring a bell with you. They did with me. ‘Uproar’, with slamming doors, is a game I used to play a lot with my dad when I was a trouble-making teen. And I find it quite sobering to recognize that I still like to indulge the Child in me.

On this note: I want a sun umbrella just like Dr. Bearne’s.


Yoda: A Jedi craves not these things.

Craving Yoda’s funny and wise pontifications, I went and found some quotes, with their charming and haunting backward sentence structure:

No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.

Much to learn, you still have.

Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.

Ready, are you? What know you of ready?
For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi.
My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained!
A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind.
(to the invisible Ben, indicating Luke)
This one a long time have I watched.
All his life has he looked away…
to the future, to the horizon.
Never his mind on where he was.
Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph.
Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh!
A Jedi craves not these things.
(turning to Luke)
You are reckless.

Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force.
But beware of the dark side.
Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they.
Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight.
If once you start down the dark path,
forever will it dominate your destiny,
consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.

Fear is the path to the dark side.
Fear leads to anger.
Anger leads to hate.
Hate leads to suffering.

You will know when you are calm, at peace. Passive.
A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.

When you look at the dark side, careful you must be.
For the dark side looks back.

You will find only what you bring in.

Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm?
Hmm. And well you should not.
For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.
Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us.
Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.
You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.
Even between the land and the ship.

When 900 years old you reach, look as good, you will not.

Creatives and their art forms

English for Artists should highlight different art forms, e.g. profiling artists expressing themselves in the various media. The Thrash Lab vlog and YouTube playlist include a profile of Saber, a graffiti artist who has branched out. In this profile he describes the work that made him a name, similarities to typography, and how he reacts to young people today who engage in the illegal art of graffiti.

manifest something through the creative process
maintain a level of inspiration
my artist name is
I’m based in… and have been painting for X years
I knew that art was what I wanted, and graffiti was the venue that I chose.
Picture diving headfirst into your signature and making it your number one mission
Typography is held at a high level of design
We are master typographers
I was willing to risk my life and freedom
Something made me go do it
We were one of the first to use housepaint
I just took it from there
26 gallons of bucket paint were used
It just so happened to be the biggest piece in the world – the biggest illegal piece ever painted.
It became a home plate for graffiti
It takes years and years to stumble into those processes
My paintings represent 22 years of intense art-making

“Art gets a bad rap because it’s considered something that’s elite, and something that only an elite person can understand, when that’s not true. ’cause every single kid in the world picked up a crayon once and had that little spark.”

“There’s two kids I meet in the world. And there’s the kid who says, ‘Hey Saber, I’m so happy to meet you, and take the Facebook photo’ and I’m nice and I do it all, and then they say ‘Yeah, I’m a’go bombing tonight’ And I go ‘na, you should go on a computer, you know, you should do graphic design, you should get into school, that’s what’s your path is.’ And then I meet the kid who says ‘Wassup Saber’ and I go, ok, I feel it in him, and I go, ‘You know what, go crush those freeways’, because you know what, that’s all he has, and the alternative is a lot worse.”

Painting from Life

Videos on painting from life by The Art Students’ League of New York would be useful in an English course for Artists. Here I would focus on how an artist, Sharon Sprung,  describes her process as she paints. Notice how difficult it is to multitask, producing both visually and verbally, and both commenting on the process and beginning a new action, This involves associative holistic and analytical faculties at the same time, and makes the artist sound slightly distracted.

On the receptive side, as you watch, you’re filling in what the artist shows but doesn’t explicitly say – or can’t express in words – which adds a completely different dimension of understanding. In these videos I find it’s almost impossible to listen without watching, or to watch without listening, to understand what is going on at any given moment.

Explore The Art Students’ League of New York YouTube channel.

A documentary about grammar

David and Elisabeth O’Brien, former English teachers, have raised over 22,000 dollars through Kickstarter to make a film about grammar. Talk about geeky – but they say their film is for everyone. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @GrammarRocks. Their blog, Grammar Revolution, features diagramming, which I would find too complicated for my German students. But maybe I’m wrong.