Mentioning Gad Elmaleh’s residency at Joe’s Pub to my American friends was a weird experience. “He’s the most famous comedian in France!” I said, full of jingoistic pride. The embarrassed silence that ensued made me realize that my announcement didn’t quite have the expected effect. So I tried a different approach. “He’s like the French Jerry Seinfeld, you know. They’re actually good friends. He’s even been a guest on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
“Oh… Really?” was the politest answer I could get. But I saw in my interlocutors’ perplexed eyes that they had no clue who the hell I was talking about.
To be fair, Gad Elmaleh is not a perfect stranger to the U.S. Over the past few years, he has played some (minor) roles in American blockbusters, ranging from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator or Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. Most recently, he has made appearances on various late night shows (Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore). And yes, he’s Seinfeld’s buddy. The two men first met in 2007 when Gad dubbed Jerry’s voice in the French version of Bee Movie.
But these accomplishments sound trivial when compared to his incredibly successful career in France, where Elmaleh’s tours fill ginormous concert halls of enraptured fans across the country and the French-speaking world. The 44-year-old rose to fame in the late ’90s with autobiographical one-man shows, mixing memories of his childhood in Morocco, where he was born, and sharp observations of daily life. A particularly charismatic performer, he created a gallery of wacky but appealing characters: the Mr. Perfect, super annoying blond dude, the North African immigrant transvestite, the weird-sounding Quebecois TV host…
I was intrigued to watch Elmaleh perform in the intimate, cloistered atmosphere of Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, where he has a residency till June. Not only was the setting unusual, but more interestingly, he would be doing his whole act in English. It’s an ambitious challenge he set for himself a few years ago when he decided to explore new paths to propel his international career. Eager to level up his language skills and try his humor in the holy of holies of stand-up comedy, he learned the ropes by testing bits of 5 to 10 minutes at small open mics. Building on this experience, he was able to come up with a full-length show, Oh My Gad, that he’s been doing on stage at the East Village venue since last December.
Sandwiched between two French couples, I soon realized that most of the audience was comprised of fellow countrymen. The cheerful woman sitting next to me even confessed that she couldn’t speak a word of English, but had come all the way to watch her idol as she was spending her vacation in the Big Apple. Conscious of the irony of performing in English in front of a predominantly French crowd, Gad Elmaleh started with a vocal “Bonsoir! Comment ça va?” as he emerged from the backstage, dressed in a V-neck black T-shirt and a loose pair of jeans. “That’s it for French, guys. Sorry, I’m not doing my show in French for 25 bucks,” he quickly added, to the great disappointment of my non-English speaking neighbor.
Despite a thick, unconcealed accent, Elmaleh’s English was flawless and the punchlines were hard-hitting. In his 40-minute-plus performance, he skillfully alternated between exclusive “American” jokes and material adapted from French. The original content got the best laughs as it essentially revolved around cultural gaps that French people encounter when coming to the U.S: the mysterious concept of date nights between married couples (“It’s like hitting the jackpot in a casino that you already own”), the absurd conversations he has had with Indian cabdrivers in New York or the over-politeness of American vendors. (When a shoe store employee offered to “double-check” if a pair of sneakers was available, Gad Elmaleh found himself baffled: “In France, we don’t even have a single-check!”)
The connection with the audience was immediate as Elmaleh gently teased his compatriots for their odd, sometimes out-of-the place behavior when visiting New York, perfectly impersonating French tourists compulsively taking selfies on Times Square. As for my female neighbor, though she looked quite lost in translation, she assured me that she had a blast: “I didn’t understand much, but it was really great to see him. I hope he can sign an autograph for me.”
Gad Elmaleh will perform at Joe’s Pub until June 10. Get tickets here.