Gad Elmaleh is one of the largest comedians in France, so popular in fact that he is described by many as the “Seinfeld of France.” His name is synonymous with French stand-up comedy and his shows have attracted thousands from across Quebec, Francophone Europe and Northern Africa.
But about three years ago, Elmaleh embarked on a personal comedic journey. His goal was to become an American comedian and start his comedy career all over again in English. The transition was not easy. Besides the obvious language barriers, French and American comedic sensibilities were nearly untranslatable.
“I think European comedy is really into acting out, it’s really into character,” said Elmaleh. “When I watch an American stand-up comedian, who is not moving around at all, who is standing there telling jokes that are very, very dry one liners; I respect the work but there’s no charm in that … [but] when I watch some French comedians, I’m like ‘that’s great but where are the jokes?’ This setup has been setting up a joke for eight minutes.”
Elmaleh continued, “I think the perfect comedy, for me, would be to mix those two schools.”
Additionally, the audience interaction with the art of stand-up is much different in North America.
“[Americans] don’t like long,” he said. “They don’t like when setups are too rich and too wordy … they want to come to the club, they want to drink, they want to laugh, they want to pay the cheque, go home and that’s it, next thing.”
Elmaleh’s trip across the ocean was not without some trepidation. He expressed a fear about how his Francophone fans would take his journey.
“In the beginning, I thought they were going to freak out like, ‘oh this guy made it in France, Europe and North Africa and now he’s in a way, turning us down, and he’s leaving.’”
Fortunately, French audiences have been receptive to Elmaleh’s transition.
“I was really impressed and touched by how they supported the project …[It’s] because of my fanbase, and people who have followed me since the beginning, that I got this confidence and this courage to go and start over,” Elmaleh said.
Based on his story, you might be tempted to call Elmaleh a fish out of water. He rejected this moniker, funnily enough, because of its idiomatic use in English.
“I think a fish out of water means death,” said Elmaleh. “We should say ‘fish in another water.’ You don’t stop breathing when you challenge yourself. You breathe in another place with different people and you embrace the culture.”
His embrace of North American comedy has been reciprocated, notably by his American counterpart Jerry Seinfeld. Elmaleh has been on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and has performed with him at Just for Laughs.
Given their similar levels of fame and success, Seinfeld’s advice is important to Elmaleh.
“I listen more to advice from people like [him],” he said. “It’s good to take advice from people who are pretty close to your work.”
In his words, this was a voyage initiatique, an initiatory journey. Elmaleh wanted to become a part of the American tradition of stand-up comedy, to perform in the comedy Mecca of New York and do well in the ‘homeland’ of comedy.
A good analogy is, as an excellent winemaker, moving to France to become the best where — many believe — the best wine is made. Elmaleh wants to be the best alongside the best.
“The feeling I get when I make a new joke in English and I get laughs, it’s really very strong. It reminds me of when I first started 23 years ago. I get excited, it’s like ‘I earned this laugh. They got it. I’m not just a famous guy from France … I’m a funnyman.”
His current “Oh My Gad” tour is taking him all across Canada and the United States. Elmaleh will be performing at the Chan Center Sunday November 5.