November 18, 2018

Can French comedian Gad Elmaleh make America laugh — in English?

In a small living room in Montreal on a quiet Shabbat afternoon in around 1990, about a decade before Gad Elmaleh became the biggest comedian in France and 25 years before he made his improbable move to America, I was hanging with him and a few friends, trying not to talk about the weekly Torah portion.

Elmaleh, like many other young Moroccan Jews at the time, had caught the religious bug, which meant that observing Shabbat was the cool thing to do.

But we had our limits. We still wanted to laugh.

So, as we were schmoozing on that afternoon, someone brought up a “fashion show” that was coming up in the community. Elmaleh, who was then about 20, took the phrase and ran with it — in Arabic. 

Using only the words “fashion show,” he mimicked the way our parents sound when they speak Arabic. He threw in some facial expressions and dramatic gestures, and basically told us an entire story using only two words.

Years later, I watched a video of Elmaleh performing in front of a huge crowd in Paris. I remember his bit about, “There’s no such thing as a small rabbi—they’re all big. I’m just looking for a small, good-looking rabbi.” This was exactly the same guy who made us laugh in that living room. He could take any little observation and run with it. Only now, instead of a few buddies laughing in Montreal, it was a few thousand people laughing in Paris.

By then, Elmaleh had become the funniest man in France. What started with small, local shows for the Montreal Sephardic community — where his signature act was to imitate old Moroccan Jews living in the modern world — quickly grew to major events once he moved from Montreal to Paris in the early 1990s.

He made history in 2007, when he sold out the prestigious Olympia (the French version of Carnegie Hall) for seven consecutive weeks, something no artist had done before. 

His comedy was a hit in Paris for the same reason it was a hit in Montreal — he could make little observations, create characters and deliver stories with timing and body language that made everyone crack up.

Although he’s also had some starring roles in movies, his first love has always been to perform live, feeding off a crowd’s energy.

But here’s where the plot thickens. Elmaleh, who’s a youthful 45, has made it to the top by performing in his first language — French. In the past, even when he’s performed in Los Angeles for sellout crowds, it was for the local French community. It never dawned on anyone that he’d want to switch to English-speaking comedy clubs. 

But that is exactly what he is doing now.

Because of his ability to find laughs in the smallest things, some people have called him a French version of Jerry Seinfeld, who last year featured Elmaleh on his Web show, “Comedians in Cars getting Coffee.” There is some truth in the comparison, but it’s too easy.

About two years ago, at the pinnacle of his career, he decided to push himself to see if he could make America laugh — in English.

So, with his broken English, he set out on the road and started performing in little clubs. Since January, he’s been a Tuesday night regular at the famous Joe’s Pub in New York City, where he now lives. 

Thanks to lots of classes and plenty of practice, his English has significantly improved. But while he’s starting to get the hang of the language and making people laugh, the transition to American comedy is still a high-wire act. No one knows yet how far he can go or how long it will last. 

It helps that Elmaleh has very funny body language, which is universal. But stand-up comedy lives or dies with words, with material, with jokes. When a comic comes onstage, he has to break the ice and create an instant connection with strangers.

How do you do that if you’re not immersed in the language, the dialect and the culture of the country in which you are performing?

Or, using comedian slang, how do you “kill” in America if your first language is definitively French? 

These days, making America laugh is all that matters to Elmaleh. This was evident when he visited my house a few weeks ago for a little schmooze.

He was preparing for his three gigs this past week in Los Angeles at Largo. Although we normally speak to each other in French, he wanted to speak only in English. We talked about what makes Americans laugh. He was a sponge. He took more notes than I did.

He doesn’t want to be just a French comic in America; he wants to be a French Jewish comic in America. That’s a bigger canvas.

He has become a student of Jewish-American comedy. Because of his ability to find laughs in the smallest things, some people have called him a French version of Jerry Seinfeld, who has already featured Elmaleh on his Web show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” There is some truth in the comparison, but it’s too easy.

Elmaleh is developing his own voice based on his unique journey. He admitted to me that it’s all a work in progress. He’s observing everything around him and trying to find humor in a brand new culture. 

“It’s fun because it’s like I’m starting all over again,” he told me.

Part of his new material is to poke fun at American quirks. “Americans love to be nice,” he says. “When I told my neighbor that I am French, he told me: ‘Oh, I have a cousin who went to Italy last year!’ I’m thinking: What’s wrong with you guys? Thank you, but this is stupid information.”

He can also go broad. One of my favorite bits is a riff on how France donated the Statue of Liberty to America, after considering and discarding other options (free health care, free college, etc.). When Amazon Prime delivered the gift to the Americans, they learned that “people who bought this are also interested in the Eiffel Tower.”

What will be especially fascinating to watch, for me at least, will be how he interprets the Jewish part of his new comic identity. He admires the way Jews are so integrated into American culture. He loves how Jewish humor has a long and storied tradition in American life.

Elmaleh is not a religious Jew, but he’s a proud Jew. He grew up in Casablanca, so he has a deep connection to his Sephardic Moroccan heritage. Maybe because he’s become friendly with many Jewish-American comedians, he’s thinking of hosting Friday night dinners at his place in New York. (That would, no doubt, be the hottest Shabbat ticket in town.)

Gad Elmaleh. Photo by Cyril Dodergny

I can’t wait to see what he comes up with when he decides to poke fun at the Jewish-American community. He’ll have plenty of material to work with. 

He has his own Jewish mother jokes. His mother, he says, doesn’t speak a word of English, yet she gives him notes and feedback after his performances. After one of his recent shows in New York, he told her he didn’t think it went very well.

“No. I was in the crowd,” she replied. “It was much worse than that.” 

Elmaleh still has a deep attachment to France. He loves the culture, the way of life, the sophistication. It helps that during his long career, as he became a media celebrity, he’s managed to steer clear of politics and controversy. He has always just wanted to make people laugh. His fans come from a diverse background — Jews as well as non-Jews.

But although he still loves France, it’s also true that in America, Elmaleh feels a new sense of possibility. People are not as uptight. Jews are more accepted. He sees this new chapter as an opportunity to broaden his craft.

Mixing it up in small comedy joints has rejuvenated him. Here’s a guy who’s made millions yet absolutely loves it when a club owner gives him $30 after a performance. “The pizza I buy with that money is extra delicious,” he says. 

It comes down to making people laugh. “If I’m in front of 1,000 people or 10 people,” he says, “it’s the same challenge. Can I make them laugh?” 

But will Elmaleh make Americans laugh? Will he create his own brand of French-Jewish-Moroccan-American humor that will make him part of the American comedy landscape? 

So far, he’s been somewhat under the mainstream radar. But as he goes on late-night television (he has already appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”) and continues to expand his presence, the scrutiny will increase.

Elmaleh is thinking about the long game. He has two English teachers, one who focuses on grammar and the other on dialect. He doesn’t want anyone to miss a joke because they can’t understand him.

In a sense, his comedy follows a common blueprint for comedians — he makes acute observations about the world around him. Comparing American and French cultures is a natural. 

When he ate at a Chinese restaurant recently and read the hopeful message in his fortune cookie, he couldn’t help but wonder how that would translate in France. “You open your baguette,” he says, “and inside you find this message: ‘Don’t reach for the stars, you will never reach them,’ or ‘If you have big dreams, that means you are sleeping.’”

Although he pokes fun at everything around him, his humor is not mean or condescending. He has a friendly demeanor that infuses his humor. As you’re laughing at his jokes, it’s easy to like the guy. 

Throughout his career and for as long as I’ve known him, Elmaleh has been that likeable guy making people laugh. No subject is too small. Old friends from his high school days in Montreal recall how he would suddenly start up a long conversation with an eraser — making the whole class, including the teacher, explode in laughter.

Playing in small clubs in a new country has helped him recapture some of that raw intimacy. These clubs have become his personal salon, where he is immersing himself in a new culture and language as he tries to make a new audience laugh.

Over the next few months, that audience will grow.

His big coming out will happen this August, when he kicks off the North American tour of his all-English set, “Oh My Gad,” in major cities across the country, including Sept. 9 in L.A. at the 1,600-seat Theatre at Ace Hotel.

In June, he will open for Seinfeld in New York and Montreal. And, as if he needed more pressure, it was just announced that he will play, yes, Carnegie Hall next Feb. 11.

Is he nervous?

“I’m always a little nervous,” he says. “Only now I try to be nervous in English.”