Recent transplant Gad Elmaleh lets Americans in on the joke
It is an unusually sunny day in Paris, but Gad Elmaleh’s heart is in New York. The comedian has a rare couple of days off, and he’s taking time in early October to do press interviews. He has just come from a performance in Copenhagen, and London is next. But it’s America that’s capturing his imagination these days.
“I’m so happy that I’ve headlined all those countries in Europe [but] I can’t wait to be in New York next week at the Comedy Cellar and in Boston,” he says. “I’m happy when I’m in New York City. It’s the best place on the planet for me. It has everything I need, I want.”
Elmaleh, 47, who brings his “Dream Tour” to the Wilbur Theatre for a sold-out show Tuesday, was born and raised in Morocco and became a famous stand-up comic and film star in France. Three years ago, he moved to the United States, where he wasn’t nearly as well-known, and started over. In a 2013 episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Elmaleh told his friend Jerry Seinfeld, to whom he has frequently been compared, that he wanted to become proficient enough in English to do 10 minutes in an American club.
That goal expanded quickly. In March, he released a full hour stand-up special called “American Dream” in English. “I’m sure you’ve heard this story so many times, about the man who moved to America with one dollar in his pocket,” he says on the special, “and he worked so hard, and he made a fortune. I moved here with a fortune. Same story, guys, I just did it backwards.”
About 15 years ago, Elmaleh and a few peers established themselves as “American-style” comedians, diverging from the more theatrical French tradition. “It means that you address the crowd directly, which was not the case for many years in France,” he says. “People had what we call the fourth wall here. We were inspired by [Dave] Chappelle, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K. We started to, not imitate, but we were like, ‘Wow, we can do that. We can talk directly to the crowd.’ ”
It’s no surprise that he has felt at home doing stand-up in America. He compares performing for American audiences to a warm bath. “People know about stand-up comedy,” he says. “They’re trained. They know what it is. They listen. It’s great.”
Ironically, learning to perform in English has opened up new markets for Elmaleh abroad. His current tour has taken him across Europe to Germany and Norway, and he’ll head to Asia and the Middle East when he finishes his American dates. “Obviously in French I could have never done this,” he says. “Writing a show in English, starting to perform in English, allows you to perform all over the world. It’s amazing.”
Learning English hasn’t come easy, and Elmaleh still has a lot to learn. “I would say, last year or two years ago, I couldn’t really express what I had in my comedy, in my mind, in my point of view,” he says. “I would say in 100 percent of my humor or my observation, I had only a level of English that could express maybe 60 percent of it. Maybe we’re getting to 70 or 80 percent now.”
But he loves the nuance of learning a language, paying attention to details native speakers might ignore out of familiarity. “Going to a store, ‘Can I help you, sir?’ ” he says. “ ‘Oh, just browsing.’ Wow. What a word. ‘Browsing.’ And he leaves you alone. You know how many words you have to use in French if you want this guy to leave you alone? So you learn the language with the idioms, expressions. It’s fun.”
Next year, Elmaleh will take another new step in his career with the debut of an eight-episode scripted show on Netflix called “Huge in France,” based partly on his experiences in America. “It’s a comedy about my life, inspired by this journey, and it’s very funny and emotional, and it has a lot of family stuff and stand-up obviously, and dreams falling apart.” His ultimate dream would be to host a talk show on American television. “More than movies, more than shows, more than acting,” he says. “I would love to work on something new on TV and have guests and play music and do silly stuff.”
Despite two Netflix specials (his first, “Gad Gone Wild,” is in French with subtitles), the upcoming series, and the fact he is playing to theater audiences around the country, Elmaleh still doesn’t feel like he’s made it in America. He’ll know when that happens. It involves the barkers who drum up business outside of New York City comedy clubs. They still stop him to see if he wants tickets — even if he’s playing the club. “When those guys will stop asking me if I want to watch free comedy,” he says, “I think something will have changed.”