By Khalida Sarwari
Gad Elmaleh is doing things a little unconventionally. Whereas most comedians start by making the rounds of local comedy circuits before they get booked to perform at Madison Square Garden-size venues or get their own Netflix specials, the Moroccan-French stand-up comic is eschewing global fame and the big crowds he’s used to drawing for smaller, more intimate venues.
A relative unknown stateside, Elmaleh, 46, is embracing the challenges of his quest for crossover success. He’s navigating a scene where he is not only a foreigner but a non-native English speaker, so despite his fluency in the language, he struggles with some of its nuances and has been taking lessons and working with a dialect coach to smooth over his accent.
“It’s a lot of work; it’s a lot of writing,” he said. “(But it’s) really good. I’m very, very surprised by the curiosity of the American crowd. We have more and more American people, and it’s really interesting to see, because after the shows I can talk to people. When I perform in France, I can’t, but (here) I can hang out and I can talk to people, (get) new points of view.”
Elmaleh will bring his unique brand of funny to the San Jose Improv June 22-24, where he’s headlining five shows. He’ll highlight family, fatherhood, cultural differences and misunderstandings caused by the language barrier. Anyone who has watched his French stand-up special “Gad Gone Wild,” released on Netflix just five months ago, is likely wondering whether he’ll keep some of the program’s content where he makes jokes at the expense of Americans. Spoiler alert: That stuff’s not going anywhere.
“I’m going to keep everything,” he said. “The good thing about the crowd here in America, they’re very, very well-educated, and almost trained and used to comedy clubs and to self-deprecating (humor), maybe more than some other countries.”
And while comedy is hard in any language, he says Americans and French have very different ways of telling a joke.
“The English language for comedy is fantastic because it’s sharp,” he said. “We use too many words in French; we like to talk too much; we like to explain things; we like to have long set-ups for jokes, and we miss a punch probably. But, the efficient part of American stand-up, it misses a little bit some charm and body language, so I would like to mix the two genres.”
Since he moved to New York City a few years ago to pursue comedy in the U.S., Elmaleh has made keen observations about the American way of life that he likes to share with his audiences. One thing he’s still trying to wrap his head around is the noshing at comedy clubs. “It’s crazy for me; I’ve never seen people have food while you’re performing.”
That aside, he’s also getting used to being the little fish in a big pond again. Just the previous night, he’d performed at the Comedy Cellar alongside comic powerhouses Aziz Ansari and Amy Schumer.
“I felt like a beginner; I felt like this guy you don’t really look at,” he said. “But, I like this position, and to be honest I think I like it because I have something else in Europe.”
In Europe and North Africa, where he’s often referred to as the “Seinfeld of France,” the accolades are far more expected. With 22 years of stand-up experience behind him, he regularly sells out arenas in France, has done five one-man shows and has acted in both French and American films, including stints in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and Adam Sandler’s “Jack And Jill.”
Now he’s trying to build a name for himself all over again here in the U.S., one city at a time. He started his national tour last month, and it’ll culminate in November with a performance at New York City’s Town Hall that will be taped for an upcoming English-language special on Netflix. During his stay in San Jose, he plans to spend his spare time mostly visiting friends in San Francisco.
“I really like San Francisco,” he said. “The French community in San Francisco is very big, and I have a lot of friends who work (in technology). They moved from France to Palo Alto, so I’m going to visit them. I might go to Bimbo’s; I love this room, so go check out there.”
After that, he’ll be gearing up for a performance with Jerry Seinfeld as part of the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal this July. He deems the comparisons to Seinfeld, whom he considers his favorite comedian and good friend, flattering.
“I have lot of admiration for Jerry Seinfeld,” he said. “I think comparisons are not good, but if they compare you to someone you admire, it’s OK. I’m not going to complain, you know?”
To see Gad’s recently released Funny or Die Video, “Welcome to America,” visit bit.ly/2s3knjk.
Tickets for Elmaleh’s five-night stand in San Jose are $22 and can be purchased online at sanjose.improv.com or by calling 408-280-7475. The Improv is located at 62 S. Second St., San Jose.