In Arts + Entertainment

Gad Elmaleh: The Funniest Man In France Is Touring Australia

The darling of French comedy has made English shows his challenge – and with some support from Jerry Seinfeld he’s winning audiences across the Anglophone world with his observational comedy.

Gad Elmaleh has been voted the funniest man in France. It’s been officiated with a national title, confirmed by the French minister of culture: Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters. 

The Moroccan-born comic is the darling of French cinema and Europe’s stand-up scene.

But two years ago, he says he was no longer excited by the arenas he performed in. He traded Paris for a 50 show residency at Joe’s Pub in New York. Those first 2015 shows, titled All In English, were subtitled, just to make it clear. 

Audiences may recognise him for his role as Detective Tissant in Woody Allan’s Midnight in Paris, for example, or opposite Audrey Tatou in the romantic comedy Priceless. Despite this, Gad Elmaleh says two years ago his English was hardly where it is now.

“To be honest, I would not have been able to talk to you like this,” he says. 

He’s come a long way from his well-known 2005 sketch that riffs on the required text French students use to learn English. He made comic gold out of the banal English phrase the students learn by rote “Where is Brian?” (to which they respond: “Brian is in the kitchen”) by pointing at its existentialism, as the French are wont to do. But ten years later, tutored by an English teacher during his New York residency, Elmaleh has proven that he has more than a few English gags up his sleeve.

Gad Elmaleh

Gad Elmaleh as Détective Tisserant in Midnight in Paris.

Still, English stand-up is a more complex task than simple fluency.

“You can talk to someone, or speak to a conference in another language, that’s okay, you just learn your text,” he says. 

“But being able to keep up with the rhythm and the pacing of comedy, the language and the humour, that’s difficult… I don’t know why I’ve been so hard on myself.”

New York allowed Elmaleh the anonymity to observe everyday life and focus on his creativity.

“Being recognised sometimes prevents you from being totally free to observe and get a little nosey,” he says. “Because I love to overhear conversations. I love, when I go to restaurants, to listen when the next table’s more interesting than the one I’m having.” 

It’s not very nice for those he’s dining with, he notes, but it does help with his comedy. Observation is inherent in the French art of flaneurie; he wanders through the streets, observing people and things, making notes in his journal.

 “New York is great for this; you can get lost with so many people.”

And if he misses his fans, he jumps on a plane and tours Europe, he laughs.

Moving to New York, Gad says, “I was basically starting over for everything”.

That included dating. He jokes about going from comfortable-famous-guy dating life to being turned down by girls when he asks them for drinks. But did the 2016 podcast interview with New York-based French fashion blogger Garance Dore, and the lengthy conversation about dating and tinder, help?

He simply says “thank you Garance” and notes the podcast’s feminine following. 

But Elmaleh didn’t move to New York to date. He moved because he is “excited about new places, new countries new audiences” – and because New York is mecca for stand-up comedy. “It’s where stand-up comedy was born,” he points out. 

Elmaleh speaks his early fascination for Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up in particular: “I was a big fan of his comedy, even without the language [difference]. I was not very fluent in English but I could really understand the topics. I could relate.”

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee: The Seinfeld and Elmaleh edition.

Seinfeld and Elmaleh both make observational comedy. Elmaleh’s even been dubbed “the Jerry Seinfeld of France”. And while Seinfeld dismissed the moniker as silly, it hasn’t inhibited their friendship. The pair met after Elmaleh played the voice of Seinfeld’s character in the 2007 Bee movie, and five years later, Seinfeld invited him on his mini-series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

“For me, being included in that show was a big thing,” Elmaleh says. “Being included in this line up of the biggest names of comedy was something important because it was a way of telling me: You are part of the family, this comedy family.” 

Since then, Seinfeld and Elmaleh have kept up their friendship. That even meant sharing the stage at Just for Laughs in Montreal, where Elmaleh had studied political science as an undergraduate before moving to Paris to take drama classes in the mid-90s. Hot off the heels of Seinfeld’s Australian tour, Elmaleh’s now on his way down under. Was Seinfeld’s tour his impetus to come to Australia? He laughs: “Maybe.”

He’s been labelled as the French man bringing the American version of stand-up to European audiences. He says that’s not quite right. Although comedic themes – dating, travelling, whatever – remain constant, it’s “la forme” that is different. Elmaleh says in American stand-up, comics speak directly to the crowd.

“They are so efficient with their jokes,” he says. “In Europe, we are much more theatrical.”

“When I discovered this style, I said, I’m going to try and mix those two genres. I’m gonna keep the charm we have in France, and be efficient like the Americans,” he says. 

Elmaleh had the upper hand with his theatrics, having a mime for a father. “All the body language, I got this from him,” he admits.

He performed his first show opposite his father in Casablanca at age six. “I think in a way I realised what he never really achieved,” he says. “So that’s why my son will do even better!” 

We’ll have to wait and see.

(Lead image: Gad Elmaleh. Photo: Supplied)

Gad Elmaleh will perform his stand-up show, Oh My Gad, in Melbourne on September 14 and in Sydney on September 18 and 19. 

Published 12 September, 2017