Gad Elmaleh leads a funny life.
“I think the phrase, ‘My dad was a Jewish mime in Morocco’ is very funny,” Elmaleh said, referring to his upbringing during a recent phone interview with The Times of Israel. “It has all the complexities.”
Elmaleh is currently promoting his new English-language Netflix special, “Gad Elmaleh: American Dream.”
Elmaleh’s new show is full of musings on starting afresh in the land of possibility.
Though considered to be the “Jerry Seinfeld of France,” the 46-year-old was virtually unknown when he moved to New York to pursue an American comedy career in 2015.
“I’m sure you’ve heard this story about the man that moved to America with one dollar in his pocket and he worked so hard and he made a fortune… I moved here with a fortune,” he says.
Born in Casablanca, Elmaleh grew up introducing his father (the mime) with a placard. By age four, he had his own shtick, pulling on an imaginary rope as Chopin played in the background. After a childhood filled with slapstick humor and impressions of his grandmother’s neighbors, Elmaleh moved to Paris at age 21 to pursue a career in drama following a stint at a university in Montreal.
Elmaleh eventually reached stardom in France for playing characters such as Chouchou, a North African transvestite, and Coco, a Sephardic businessman who alienates his family while planning his son’s bar mitzvah celebration. Elmaleh also played Jerry Seinfeld’s character in the French version of “Bee Movie.” In 2011, he had a small role in Woody Allen’s film, “Midnight in Paris.”
In addition to French and now English, Elmaleh speaks Moroccan Arabic and Hebrew, and has performed multiple times in Israel for the growing French-expat community.
Raised in a traditional Sephardic home, Elmaleh went to Jewish day school and Chabad summer camp in Morocco. In the early 1990s, Elmaleh visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who gave him a crisp dollar bill along with a blessing as per the rabbi’s weekly Sunday ritual.
“I believe,” said Elmaleh during a 2017 charity performance at a Chabad house in Quebec, “that it was the Rebbe’s blessing at that time that may very well have helped me achieve what I have in my life.”
In 2016, Elmaleh appeared on Netflix for the first time with his French special, “Gad Gone Wild.” But his first introduction to American audiences in English was on Jerry Seinfeld’s show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” where Seinfeld and Elmaleh drove around in a 1950 Citroën while pounding down French baguettes like they were Big Macs.
Elmaleh’s most recent Netflix special is his first major attempt at English comedy.
But his language isn’t all verbal. In “American Dream,” Elmaleh uses his entire body to tell his jokes, which are accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions that contribute just as much to the punchlines as his spoken word.
And Elmaleh isn’t shy about laying out the challenges a single Frenchman faces when communicating with American girls, where text messages saying “I’m down” or “I’m up” for it both mean that the girl is “in” for a drink.
While Elmaleh officially resides in New York, he still often flies to Paris to visit with his family. It is from Paris that Elmaleh spoke with The Times of Israel by phone, where he was with his two children, aged 4 and 17, for the Passover seder. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
You have been voted the “funniest person in France” where you are one of the most popular comedic voices. Why learn English and start over in the US?
This is the title of the show, but the whole “American dream” thing is a real thing for me. Today in America, unfortunately, it sounds almost ironic or sarcastic or [an outdated concept.] As a kid in Morocco — more in Morocco than in France — America was really something that we would dream about. There was a mystery and a fantasy to it. I’ve always been impressed and fascinated by American comedians, actors. I discovered this world through a Charlie Chaplin movie my father took me to when I was 5 in Morocco.
It’s [also a new] personal journey. Two years ago I didn’t speak English like I do right now with you. I think it is a great thing in a career to step out of the comfortable situation you have. I’m in Paris now and it’s great, and I’m known, and not to brag, but I can fill out arenas. And maybe I’m stopped in the street, and my ego is pumped, but at some point I need a challenge. Even tonight in Paris I’m going to a very small club unannounced just to try new jokes in French because there is nothing I like more than being excited by doing comedy.
What else am I going to do? I don’t want to go to dinner with friends. I’d be bored.
That was very Seinfeld-esque.
Oh ya, oh ya. I actually talk a lot with Jerry about that. Like, we want to hang out with comedians, we want to be on the road with comedians. It’s a little extreme when you hear it but in fact, it’s a way of life and it’s the way you see life. It’s a language. It’s not only being funny. Having this mind constantly working, observing, analyzing — it’s really something that I love. Even with my family.
Let’s talk more about that. You grew up introducing your father, a mime, in Morocco. How did your childhood shape your humor and comedic style?
I grew up in a Sephardic-Jewish family in Morocco. They were not super religious but I have to say that they were kind of traditionalists. We would do Friday night Shabbat but we would go to the shul [synagogue] by car. I went to a religious school, by the way, not by choice, but because that was the only school that really wanted me in there. I had been expelled from all of the schools.
I grew up in a family [where] the sense of humor was a language. Not being silly, or funny, or making faces or jokes; just the way we would talk and communicate was always through something comedic, maybe because we were shy. In [Moroccan] culture, there are a lot of taboos.
My mother was the spirit, the mind, the quick sharp [one], and my father [taught me the physical aspect of humor.]
Sometimes I post videos of her on Instagram and people are like, “Please, give us more.” Not only because she’s a Jewish mother but because she is a fun and funny woman and quick and so smart. The last video I did with her got so many views. On the video, she said, “Everybody talks about Gad as a comedian but do you think he’s that’s funny? Really?”
You joked about doing the interview in Hebrew, but you do speak Hebrew, correct?
Yes. Hebrew, Moroccan Arabic, and now English, and French — which is the second language in Morocco.
Have you ever done any comedy shows in Israel? You speak all the right languages.
I have many times. I’ve never performed in English in Israel. I have only performed in French for the French community who have made Aliyah. But since I speak Hebrew, I would always put some Hebrew into the show. They are always so happy when I do that. I would love to go back and do the show in English, maybe in a small venue… I have a lot of friends now who are comedians in Israel. One of them is Israel Katorza — he is funny and a good friend.
My older son had his bar mitzvah in Tel Aviv and then we went to Jerusalem. It was a great trip. We didn’t do a big, crazy party. But what we did, he will remember.
When did you decide to become a comedian?
What’s interesting or bizarre is that I was not the cliche of the goofy kid doing jokes at school and playing tricks. I was more dreaming in the back of the room, thinking, not really talking. But it was kind of a creative process, all of the time thinking of what could I do, what could I be.
There was one point, really, that was the trigger. Every Friday for Shabbat dinner we would gather at my grandmother’s house. They were very simple people. I was not raised in a rich family. I had a sketch that I used to do when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old.
My grandmother lived in a building that had seven floors — back in the day, buildings in Morocco were very noisy and happening. I was raised in this atmosphere. I would do impressions of the women. Only women. I don’t know why. My grandmother, may she rest in peace, passed away two years ago at 102. And by the way, she was not gluten-free or vegan.
I would do this little show — it was kind of a mean show — and my grandmother laughed so hard [along with the rest of the family] that every Friday night I would have to do the show again, [performing every time there were new guests]. It was a great bit called “The Neighbors.” But sometimes I didn’t want to do it — I was tired, I was pissed off, but I learned how to make people laugh even if you don’t want to.
So from this experience, you learned how to perform on demand —
Perform on demand? Like P.O.D. I love that, I’m going to use that. “My parents made me perform on demand.”
You had your first break in the US when you appeared as a guest on Jerry Seinfeld’s show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” correct? What was that experience like?
Honestly, I don’t think my break happened yet. “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” was what first exposed me to American audiences.
And then there was the first TV talk show that I did with Seth Meyers… before Seth Meyers, I was no one, nothing, and had never done a talk show in America. One of my friends, Diane Von Furstenberg — she’s a fashion icon — I met her when we were stuck on an AirFrance plane that would never take off. We spent the night together, actually. We became friends and we had a friendship crush. She said to me, “You know what, you’re very funny. I want to help you.”
At the time, I was doing a residency at Joe’s Pub every night. I would perform with 10, 20 people [in the audience], sometimes it was sold out. But I was going to do a show in French at the Beacon [theater] for the French expat community and I said to her, “Bring your friends to the Beacon because it’s bigger and we’re going to impress them.” And she said, “No, you don’t understand, people like to feel that they’re discovering something new.” And she was so right. She invited some people, including Seth Meyers, to Joe’s Pub and organized a dinner across the street. She was so generous and nice. Seth Meyers sat in the room, he saw the show, and she sat me right in front of him at dinner and we talked and laughed, and he loved the show and said to me, “I want you on my show.”
Because I did Seth Meyers I was able to go on Colbert, Conan and I’ll be on Jimmy Fallon in a few days.
When I’m in New York, I’m at the Comedy Cellar almost every day — I love it, and with the Netflix special out, now I need new material.
Gad Elmaleh is scheduled to appear on “The Tonight Show” on Wednesday, April 11.