It’s been three years since Gad Elmaleh transitioned from superstardom in France to working comic in America, but he’s slowly but surely clawing his way back to the top. He’ll claim he’s still an unknown commodity, but you don’t headline theatres the size of the Chan Centre without a decent following.
When he rebooted his career in New York, Elmaleh started performing in French for expats, gradually integrating English into his sets. His English has improved enough that his shows are now 100 percent en anglais, even if he still throws the odd French word into conversation.
“I like being on-stage with people having no idea who I am because I make them laugh,” he says on the phone from Montreal, which he moved to from Morocco in 1988 before relocating to France in ’92. “I earn those laughs, because they don’t know who I am. No credits. I like it.”
Two Netflix specials won’t keep you anonymous, though he says it’s only in the comedy world that he’s noticed. “I can walk around New York City and nobody talks to me,” he says. “It’s the best.”
Any press release on Elmaleh mentions that he’s the Jerry Seinfeld of France, not because there’s any stylistic similarity to the American protocomic, but more because of his stature in Europe as the best standup. But always being put side by side with a fellow comedian is not something he relishes at this stage of his career.
“I’m of course flattered and honoured when they say the Jerry Seinfeld of France, but to be really honest, it’s not good to be compared to anyone,” he says. “In that case it’s great, because I admire Jerry and he’s my friend and I love him and he advises me and we talk about comedy. It just helps when you begin to identify. But it shows you the power of America, because the other way around doesn’t exist. I wanna meet the Chris Rock of Japan!”
On this leg of his tour, which includes Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, Elmaleh will be travelling with Vancouver superstar Ivan Decker, who might rightly be called the Jerry Seinfeld of Canada for his detailed and joke-heavy observational style. (“I love him,” Elmaleh says of Decker. “And I would love to introduce him to Jerry, because he deserves it and I’m sure Jerry would love him, really love him.”)
To date, Elmaleh’s English act has focused on his experiences adjusting to a new culture, a natural topic for comedians performing outside their usual boundaries. The new audiences can laugh at and gain a new perspective on their own customs. But Elmaleh’s goal is to graduate to more everyday jokes.
“My next challenge is to write material that doesn’t talk about this whole fish-out-of-water situation,” he says. “I just want to be a funny man in another language. I’m not going to give up everything and avoid all those topics about my roots and identity and all that, but I want it to be just a little percentage of my show, like 10 percent, and 90 percent just observational comedy about life and relationships and things that make me laugh. If I can do that, I’ll be really, really proud. I record everything, and when I listen to my sets to work on them, when I hear all the stuff about ‘I’m not from here,’ I’m like, ‘Shut up. Come on, stop it. That’s a crutch. Now go for the material and make them laugh.’ I’m very hard on myself.”
Gad Elmaleh’s Dream Tour plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Thursday (November 8).