In many ways, Moroccan French comedian Gad Elmaleh truly is the “Seinfeld of France.” His comedy is not unlike the observational jokes about everyday happenings that made Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David what they are today. He provided the French dubbing for Seinfeld’s character in the animated Bee Movie. And if you squint while looking at Elmaleh in the right light, he even looks a little bit like his American counterpart. But he is decidedly more than a European version of the comic, which is precisely what his first English-language special, American Dream hopes to show.
Now available to stream on Netflix, American Dream — which serves as a companion of sorts to Elmaleh’s French-language special Gad Gone Wild — is Elmaleh’s formal introduction to the United States (and English speakers with a Netflix subscription). He seems like any other stand-up with a new special out on the streaming service, but his slight accent, outsider’s perspective, and physical prowess on stage reveal an act that isn’t 100 percent familiar. Despite everything Elmaleh does and says to try and fit into the American comedy mold, what he says and how he says it actually helps him stand apart. That’s a good thing.
Much has already been said about Elmaleh’s efforts to perfect his grasp of English (which he has spoken since childhood) in order to perform live comedy while speaking it. So instead of revisiting the specific topic of translation, Uproxx asked the 46-year-old performer whether or not his future efforts in English will try to incorporate more of the physical and musical comedy seen by his French audiences. In addition, we also spoke about his experience as a recent immigrant to the United States (albeit a wealthy, privileged one), and the prospect of a Frenchman telling jokes about guns before audiences in Texas.
In addition to watching American Dream, I watched Gad Gone Wild when it came out last year. They go together well.
That’s funny because here, when people watch the show in French, they say they’re able to get it even if they don’t know the language. Of course they’re reading the subtitles, but they kind of get the comedy. It’s interesting how you can get the comedy, the rhythm of it, without knowing the language.
Speaking of rhythm, yours is a very expressive stage presence. You’re running from one side of the stage to the other, gesturing wildly, and making faces. I assume that’s mostly from your theater and performance background in France.
I think there are many reasons for it. My father was a mime, so I grew up in a house where my father used to do pantomime. He was very impressed by all the work Marcel Marceau did back in the day. The first time I went on stage in my life, when I was maybe five or six years old, was with my father to perform some short mime sketches with him. I think that I really have this inside of me, like it shocks me in a good way. And I guess that, honestly, what I really love is the kind of comedy that relies on physicality and gestures and facial expressions.
One comedian in America I really like is Sebastian Maniscalco, who is really physical. I don’t know that many otherwise, but I have to say this is what I like about our comedy in Europe, and I would love to mix the two genres. I would say of the dry stand-up here in the United States, where they stand there and say jokes, that I respect it and I’m impressed with it, but it’s not enough for me. I miss the theatrical. In Europe, there’s a lot of physicality, a lot of music, and a lot of long setups, but not enough jokes. When I watch a French comic, I’m like, “You’re very talented, and that’s fantastic, but I need jokes.” And when I watch American comics, I’m like, “You’re very funny, you’re jokes are great. But where’s the acting? How are you involved on that stage?” I like it when people sweat.
From what I’ve heard of your older shows, you’re singing songs, acting out scenes, and all kinds of things. A lot from these acts won’t translate because of the language, but what about the extra-stand-up material? Is that something you want to translate into English?
I want to do it, but I have to say I’m going step-by-step. I’m not saying I want to become like an American comedian completely, which I will never be, because I will never be an American. But I have to say, the way people watch stand-up has changed over the years. Comedy really became an international thing in recent decades. Stand-up in English became something so translatable. I love it when I go on Netflix, I see comedians now from Malaysia, India, and Italy. I really love that. Of course, it was born in America, in places like New York City. It’s an American art form, but now this way of expression is available to many performers around the world. I was thinking about that, by the way, in regards to my next special. I would love to do more in English like I did in French, like with the music and everything. I just have to become more comfortable with it, little by little. Also, the priority for me is to tell my story. What am I telling to the audience? Who am I? Stuff like that.
I’m glad you mentioned Sebastian, because a lot is said about how you were a fan of Jerry Seinfeld. You’re billed as the “Seinfeld of France.” But now that you’ve been here in the U.S. for a few years perfecting your English act, are there any other comedians you’ve become a fan of?
Oh yeah, sure. Obviously with Jerry, we’re friends now and I went on tour with him. I had this great opportunity to open for him, hang out with him, and observe him at work. It was great. Then I became very close friends with another comic who is not as well known as Seinfeld, but is a really strong comic. His name is Ryan Hamilton, and he has a special on Netflix called Happy Face. He’s from Idaho. I was born in Morocco and lived in France. Yet we’ve become really connected as these outsiders in New York. How can you explain that? So we’ve become very good friends, and we both work at The Comedy Cellar all the time. I met with Sebastican Maniscalco a few times, though we don’t really know each other. I’m just a big fan. We spoke the one time and I told him how much I loved his work. I hope he will see my special.
Speaking of Ryan’s being from a disparate place like Idaho, after a joke about guns in American Dream you mention testing it out unsuccessfully in Texas. When you first moved to the U.S., you began testing stuff out at Joe’s Pub and The Comedy Cellar in New York, and then you started venturing a little further out. What was that experience like? Because New York City is one thing, and Los Angeles is one thing, but everything in between is a vast multitude.
I have to say that one really interesting thing about touring in the country is that once you’ve toured in another country, like in France or Belgium, you learn that what you think about the city is never true. You have to go there. You don’t know anything until you go there. It’s true for every country, and it’s true for United States too. I was so surprised and so… I’m a comedian, so I like to talk to people. I do observational comedy, so I need to hang out with people, go to different places, and do it all. So I was really surprised by how big and different the U.S. was. I was in Austin, Texas and I didn’t know anything about it. I felt like we always have this kind of arrogance in France, especially in Paris — this attitude that we are the best in this and that, in fashion and food.
Then I went to Austin, Texas and returned to Paris and said, “Guys, there’s a place in Texas. It’s called Austin. They’re beating us. They’re doing good stuff over there. It’s sophisticated, it’s cool, it’s creative, it’s mixed.” I was really impressed, and even then not all of it is the same. When I went to Pittsburgh, it was different. Not in a bad way, but just different. The name of it, the sound of it. When I arrived in Pittsburgh I found great people with a lot of, how do you say… In America they call them “blue collar” cities, I think…
Like “blue collar” or “working class”?
Yeah. I went from fancy places in the U.S. to not as fancy places, and it was all different. And you’re right, New York City and Los Angeles are not all there is. I mean, this is not all there is to America. And New York is even more different since it’s where people come from all over the planet to be. Sometimes I hang out with people in New York for many weeks, and I realize I haven’t actually spent any time with any Americans. You get to see people from all around the world there, and it’s great.
Regarding what you were saying about the gun joke, I rarely do political jokes, but I like to send little messages sometimes that reveal hints of what I think about those things. I’m not a political comic, but I’m concerned. I watch the news. I moved to this country and the sadness I’ve seen… I think that’s the worst. The gun thing is the worst in this country, because obviously a lot has happened this year. When I watch the news, I can’t believe it’s still going on. I’m like, “Guys, can’t we do something?” Especially for someone like me who travels a lot, leaving the country and returning to it, I’ll turn on my TV, see another killing, and think, “Shit. I was here just two weeks ago when that happened, and there was another one already?” It’s really sad.
It can also happen anywhere, and that’s the real sadness of it. My son lives in Los Angeles. He’s been living there for a few years with his mother, to experience and discover the language and the culture, and to go to school. He’s a very good soccer player and I used to take him to San Bernardino for tournaments, and that’s where one of the more recent tragedies happened. And when it happened I was like, “Look how crazy it is.” I’m not even from here. I drove him there so many times. I know this place and we’re connected to it. It’s so close to us. We are part of it, and the thing that I want to say is it’s not only an American problem. This is an international thing. This is a human thing. Everyone likes to say, “Oh, it’s because Americans are this way and the French or the English are another.” No, we have a problem. It’s crazy. It can’t go on like this, and it’s a shame because I love this country so much. I chose to move to America, and I just got a visa. We had a party two days ago with my friends, just for my visa.
Thank you. People don’t know how hard it is. It’s funny because I have a friend who was going to perform in Paris a few days ago. The day before she was supposed to fly over there she texted me and said, “Do I need something like a work permit or a visa to go there?” And I was like, “Fuck! I’ve been working on that for two years here in your country, and you guys are so confident that you’ll just go without checking elsewhere. Just tell them you’re American. Just show up and tell them you’re from the United States with no passport.”
Gad Elmaleh: American Dream streams today on Netflix.