Gad Elmaleh Takes America

Unless you’re a French speaker, odds are very low that you have heard Gad Elmaleh’s standup. However, he is very well known among at least five million French speakers worldwide. He has hosted the Ceremonies de Cesar (France’s Academy Awards) three times, performed seven consecutive weeks to sold-out crowds at L’Olympia (Paris’ equivalent to Carnegie Hall), and has been voted “The Funniest Person in France” by TF1. Elmaleh is also well-traveled: his French-language comedy has reached sold-out crowds in Québec, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York (where last June he filled to capacity the 3,000-seat Beacon Theater). He’s been called “the French Jerry Seinfeld” and, fittingly, has an episode on Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Now Elmaleh is planning to take a big step into the English-speaking world and will be performing from September 25th through October 7th at Joe’s Pub in New York City. Since comedy is so dependent upon subtleties of phrasing, tone, and timing, performing in a non-native language is no small task. Gad and I spoke recently over the phone about how he has always been foreign, how that benefits his comedy, and how he plans to tackle this challenge head on.

I have a couple of French friends who are familiar with your comedy and they have told me that your style of comedy is very different from most French comedy. What would you say sets you apart?

It’s always good to hear that you are different, but I would say that it’s because I was really inspired by the American comedians and in France we didn’t have this tradition of doing standup comedy. Europeans have more of a theatrical tradition and characters and wigs and pantomime. I mean I am exaggerating a little bit, but they’re not really used to comedians who talk directly to the audience and do observations and share thoughts about life. I really loved that when I first discovered Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, George Carlin… all the Americans, I was really inspired.

I tried not to do the same thing, but I brought a little bit of that style to France with my topics and reflections and I would say that it made something really fresh and different for a French audience. They were not used to that. Afterwards, a lot of French comedians started to do that. Today it’s something really different; we can say that we have a real standup comedy scene in France we didn’t have before.

I want to say that it’s for those reasons. I mean, I don’t know. [laughs] I am very special and unique, incroyable, magnifique, you know.

Of course.

I wanted to do standup because I thought I could bring something new and different, and I talked directly to the audience.

In the US, standup is already such an established form that we have established institutions to come up through: open mic, bar shows, independently produced shows, then larger shows, clubs, and eventually theaters and so forth. How did that process look for you? I can’t imagine it was the same, really.

No, it’s not the same. I think that’s great when you perform in America, wanting to be a standup comedian. If you have a whole show, a whole one-man show, that means that you already worked out all the material and you’ve improved and you did so many gigs and you’ve been to so many cities and clubs and compete with so many comedians. Your material has to be sharp. It’s crafted. It’s good, but in France, there is absolutely not the same organization and journey for comedians, because you have some comedians totally unknown in Paris and they have their own one-man show playing every night in front of 20 or 30 people. It’s not the same approach, you know? It’s absolutely not the same way of working on material. Americans are obsessed with being efficient and I love that. Here, you cannot just be charming and fun or seductive and good looking or I don’t know… have a nice suit, you know?

Yeah, in some cases those traits might even make comedy a little harder for you.

Yeah, but I think coming to America to do this is crazy.

How have your friends reacted to it?

People are definitely skeptical. Jerry Seinfeld told me, “Oh right, just like I’m gonna go to Italy and open a pasta factory and then I am going to go to France and I am going to start making wine and then I am going to go to China and I don’t know, start a new kind of comedy, then go to Germany and make cars and then I am going to go to New York and do standup comedy.” He was making fun of me, but of course it’s great. It’s a big challenge to me but it’s what I like. I want to start over.

I am not saying I have everything in France, but my career is great. I don’t need to go and do a hundred-seat room. I mean, this tour is costing me money. That’s real. The last show I did in the South of France was eight thousand people, and my next show at Joe’s Pub is one hundred and something… but I’m excited, I’m scared… I feel like I’m starting over. It’s totally going out of my comfort zone. People don’t know me. Of course, there will be some French people and Moroccans and immigrants and people who can relate to a foreigner, but also a lot of Americans. People are going to see me and either like me or not. I was in my hotel today saying, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this?” I said you know what? This is a good intro for my show. That’s how I am going to start my show in New York: “Why am I doing this?”

Why did you decide to do English-language standup in America but not, for instance, the UK?

I did, actually. I started to work on this material in London. I did a few shows in London in a very small room called Museum of Comedy. But honestly, if you want to do standup, you come to New York. It’s the best. It’s where standup was born and I really want to be in the mecca of standup. I don’t want to go to another place. If you want to have the best baguette, come to Paris.

Baguettes aside, do you have further plans for English-language comedy?

Yes! We are planning a tour. For now I am going to spend ten nights performing at Joe’s Pub in New York, and then in November I am doing a tour on the west coast. I am going to go to cities that I’ve just heard of but never been to: Austin, Dallas, Portland, Seattle… I have never been there. I only know vaguely where they are, you know?

I am going to there with my comedy in small clubs, a French comedian. I am going to try that. I want to see those people. I want to face that challenge. I am sure it’s going to give me ideas. I am sure, as a French comedian from abroad, with my perspectives, my way of looking at them, it’s going to be… interesting, I hope. Maybe inspiring. I am doing the west coast and then in November, the east coast. I’ll be in Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, and then again, if everything goes good, I won’t move to New York but I’ll stay in New York and go back to the comedy clubs. I want to be in New York. I want to stay in New York. I want to move to New York. My family is not aware of that.

[laughs] Yes, you should probably run that by them. What’s been the greatest obstacle for you, so far?

In France when I do my shows, sometimes it’s an hour and 45 minutes or two-hour shows, I can improvise some material so easily and change things. But in English, when I get to 45, 50 minutes, I just want to collapse. I get so tired from thinking constantly about what I am going to say and translating and thinking in English. Sometimes I think in French and I translate into English. Sometimes I think about a word in English then I translate it into French, then I go back into English. It’s all in my head and then it comes out in English. Maybe in bad English, but it’s in English. That’s the most difficult thing, to stay focused during my shows and not be too tired. Performing in another language is very, very difficult. I’m already starting to get tired from it now!

It’s psychologically draining. Do you think that your comedic persona changes when you perform in English?

Yeah. That’s a very interesting question, because I’ve discovered that there are things that you are freer to say in one language in front of one audience, but not in another language to another audience. It’s very fresh and pleasant, because sometimes you want to talk about things and because a French audience already knows you so well, you maybe think too much sometimes. I like to be very spontaneous with my American audience because it’s like I have nothing to lose. I am giving all I have, my writing, my time, my observations. It’s interesting. It’s really not the same way of speaking to the audience and I would say even the body language, the facial expressions aren’t the same thing, because first of all in France, it’s actually very rare when you hold the mic in your hand. You have just, like, those little headsets or lapel mics and you move all around and it’s more like commedia dell’arte, Italian comedy. I want to be standing up in front of the audience and just trying to be funny, just saying jokes. I want to offer something special, because America has thousands of comedians. I just need to be a little bit different: keep my accent, topics, my way of moving my body and my face… Otherwise, it’s not very interesting.

I admire Louie C.K., Jerry Seinfeld, and Chris Rock. They are themselves and they’re great, and we have to be inspired by those guys but do different things. Even in France when I see very young comedians and they say “I was inspired by your work,” I’m very flattered and all that, but I say, “Well, show me your personality. I want to see that.”

I imagine it really is a lot harder to convey your personality, your emotions, and your opinions in English the same way you do in French.

Yes, but it adds something interesting to see a guy struggling [onstage] constantly; it’s an energy. I mean, if it’s really troubling and you’re looking for words for five whole minutes, that’s a problem. But if it’s just missing a word, sometimes asking the audience and sometimes sharing with the audience the fact that you are confused, it’s good. It’s fresh. It’s human. It’s okay. As my very close friend in New York said, “You know, Gad, stop being so hard on yourself. Tell me what American comedian goes to another country, whatever country it is, to perform in another language.” And he’s right. It’s something that is extremely hard to do, so I don’t have to be too hard on myself… But I am.

And that’s also part of your character. That’s what brings us into the moment with you.

Yes, of course. You know, I have always been from somewhere else. I have never been in the right spot, always moving from one country to another. I was born and raised in Morocco and I moved to Québec and then to Paris to do acting school and then I moved again, you know? I am never in the right place, but I love it and I love being here in New York. The energy is great.

And in France, being Moroccan definitely has an impact on how people perceive your material.

Exactly. It’s a part of the material and it really means something to them.

Are you still able to carry that French-Moroccan perspective into the English-speaking world?

Yeah, I’m going to talk about it. I have a few jokes about it. A few thoughts about, you know, sometimes people in America only have a vague idea of where we are from and I talk about that, about this cultural background, but in a way that they can… I would not say “relate,” but understand and be empathetic and be touched by. It’s just a story of a guy coming from somewhere else. It could be Morocco or any other country, but if it’s well written and sensitive, it’s interesting.

I remember reading some Russian plays by Chekov. I have never been there, I don’t know anything about those villages, but I remember exactly what I was feeling when I read them, because he was relaying something so particular that it became universal.

And that’s definitely a part of the beauty of standup comedy: taking foreign experiences and somehow making them relatable.

Totally, yes. I hope I am going to talk to you in two weeks or three weeks and I we can remember what we said now and I will tell you either “Thanks for the support. I am going back to France! Would you like to have another beer?” or “It went great! I just got a place in New York.”

I have two more questions left.

Okay, okay. I will have just one answer. That’s all I will give you. [laughs]

Do you ever intend to try standup in Arabic or Hebrew?

I already did, actually. I did my shows in Morocco and I didn’t do all in Arabic but it was half of it. I could, I think, if I work a little bit, do my standup all in Arabic more easily than English. Same thing for Hebrew. I would love to go to Morocco and do maybe a show in what we call “Darija.” Darija is a dialect or… I would not say “slang,” but it is the language they speak in the streets. It’s not the language that people broadcast in, you know? It’s colloquial. They use a lot of words in French in Morocco in it, and sometimes it’s some French words but they are totally transformed so you wouldn’t even know that it was French. I mean you have those also in English.

Finally, what would you say has been your favorite aspect of standup comedy throughout your career?

I think what’s been the most exciting and what I have loved the most is when I try a new joke and it works. I think that feeling is stronger than… I don’t know about drugs, but I do know about being drunk and I know about sex, and it’s better that that. It’s the best feeling in the world. That’s what I really want. I live for that. I was on the plane flying to New York City and I was working on my material and I was so excited and couldn’t wait. “Oh, I can’t wait to try this joke and this one and this one.” That’s my favorite, favorite part, my favorite moment and I can’t wait to try my new jokes at Joe’s Pub. If it doesn’t work, we’ll go for beers.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

Gad Elmaleh Takes America