In Any Language
Gad Elmaleh Brings His Own Comedy Revolution to the USA

By Lee Valentine Smith

In France he sells out massive concert halls, starred in a number of successful films and romanced a string of beautiful, aristocratic women. Comedian/actor/musician Gad Elmaleh recently traded that seemingly idyllic life to move to New York City to pursue a career in comedy. His humble goal was to perform stand-up to a nation of strangers who often mispronounce his name. His gamble has seemingly paid off because his stand-up shows have grown from tentative sets in tiny clubs to a full-blown nationwide tour culminating this month with an already sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall. The day before the tour began, Insite caught up with the affable comic in Los Angeles as he prepped for an appearance on Conan.

Are you ready for a whole comedy tour in English?

I can’t wait, it’s been a great experience with the preparation. I’ve been working so hard on the English, taking lessons every day. My dialect coach, she kills me with trying to find little tricks for the accents. But it’s important, especially in comedy, if you want the jokes to really land hard. Two years ago I thought my English was great and I was so confident. But no. The more you learn about something, the more you realize you don’t know anything!

You’re often compared to Jerry Seinfeld and you’re friends. Has he offered any advice to you on this new adventure?

He said something very funny. “You’re the biggest guy in Europe. Why are you going to New York? They know better than you. What are you gonna do, go to Germany and start building cars? Go to Italy and open a pasta factory?” He was teasing me a little bit. But I told him I want to be excited. That’s the thing. I want to challenge myself. Now, I’m not saying that I’ve done everything I could in Europe but I wanted to try it here. I told him I wanted to be compared to him the day he’ll do an hour of stand-up in French!

You wanted to push yourself out of that comfort zone.

Exactly and I think it’s not only for performers, it’s for all of life. It’s a personal project. In anything I do, I don’t ever want to get bored.

Right. Creative people are seldom bored.

They’re afraid, they’re so traumatized of being bored, they think they’re gonna die, it’s the end of the world!

When you started playing clubs last year in New York, you were playing to a handful of strangers after selling out a week of big shows in Paris. Was that a humbling experience?

Yes, because I love the feeling of really earning those laughs. When you get no credit, nothing, they don’t know who you are and you show up on stage and make that connection. To me, when Americans laugh at my jokes, it’s like a woman falling in love with me who has no idea who I am. It’s like going back and tracking those feelings I had when I first started. It’s nice to feel something very new to me.

Do you change your shows from city to city?

The first minutes of my shows are unscripted. I talk about what I feel when I get there. I think the perspective is refreshing to the audience. Like when I get to Atlanta, as soon as I get t here, I’m gonna see and feel things. It’s a way to connect. There’s always something interesting in the foreign perspective.

Many comics improvise some or all of their show. Can you “wing it” in English?

When I perform in English, I need to know where I’m going. It’s very hard for me to riff or improvise in English. I do it sometimes, but as soon as I get there the English is not as good as the scripted part. But it has something that’s a little vulnerable and it becomes interesting for the audience – and for myself. I do try things. But when I go out of my set, I’ll tell them, “Ok, you might have a broken English moment right now.” And it’s fun.

Live comedy requires a certain attitude to succeed.

I realize that no matter what language, if you’ve been doing it for 22 years, before the jokes, before the language, you have to be ready. I remember here in L.A., a producer said, “Oh, you’ve been doing this for only one year? That’s great.” I said, “No, I’ve been doing this for 22 years!” All the years I’ve been doing it, counts. It’s me, it’s what I do. Yes, I learned how to do stand-up comedy in French but the same knowledge, the same experience, the same savior-faire, I use it in English.

There’s a direct connect between music and comedy.

Oh a lot! If I wasn’t a comedian, I would have been a jazz pianist. Comedy and music is so similar. I would compare it jazz. You have to know where you are going but you have to be able to improvise within a solid base. The timing and rhythm is really close. I play guitar and piano and you know, I do that in France, maybe I should do that here. Should I play piano in Carnegie Hall? If not there then where? You know they have this joke about Carnegie Hall. It’s a popular thing, right? How to get there? Do you know it?

Practice, of course.

Ok this time, maybe I’ll say, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Then I’ll say “Uber!”

Gad Elmaleh plays Symphony Hall Friday February 3 at 8 p.m.

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