“I think English stand-up was my mistress. French comedy is my wife, and my mother would be my home country of Morocco, where I was born.”
For Gad Elmaleh, a Moroccan-born comedian who has become one of France’s most successful and renowned actor-comedians, performing stand-up in English was something like to taking on a mistress.
“As a comedian known in France and doing those big places and arenas – not to brag, but this is my life over there – I had to challenge myself, to experience something new,” Elmaleh said in a phone interview with The Interrobang. “I guess it would be like if you were married for several years. You get something to spice it up. I think English stand-up was my mistress. I would say French comedy is my wife, and my mother would be my home country of Morocco, where I was born.”
A household name in France, Elmaleh has been named the Order of Arts and Letters by France’s Minister of Culture and Knight of the National Order of Quebec. His first English language stand-up special, “American Dream,” debuts on Netflix on March 6.
The special is very much about being a stranger in a strange land, with Elmaleh providing an outsider’s perspective on the nuances of the English language and American culture, as well as more universal themes such as family and dating.
After the success of his 2016 French language Netflix special, “Gad Gone Wild,” Elmaleh said Netflix approached him and asked when he could do an English language set. While performing in English in the United States was, in fact, his “American Dream,” it was a major challenge since he wasn’t fluent in English.
“Netflix said, ‘When can we do this?’ And I had to say, ‘Guys, I need two or three years for that,’” Elmaleh said. “Comedy’s not easy. Even doing jokes in your own language is difficult.”
Elmaleh had to go through his set and see which jokes could be translated into English and which simply wouldn’t make the transition. He moved from France to New York City in 2015 and spent two-and-a-half years preparing for the special.
“I quickly understood by coming to America that I had to not only translate my jokes but write bits about what I am observing. I had very solid jokes in French that I could translate, but surprisingly I tried and people would laugh but they could not really relate. As soon as I started talking about my everyday life and dating in America and the culture shock, the audiences quickly related to that.”
At one point in “American Dream,” he expresses shock over the volume and variety of food that can be found on the road in America. “How much cheesecake do you eat to need a Factory?” he quips. He questions Americans’ habit of using baseball as a metaphor for sex, with getting to first base, getting to second base, and so on. “I’m a soccer guy. Either you score or you don’t.”
Elmaleh worked out the kinks at appearances at The Comedy Cellar and other NYC venues. His observational, largely clean and apolitical style of comedy has frequently earned comparisons to Jerry Seinfeld, one of Elmaleh’s early influences and now a close friend. Some outlets have taken to calling him “The Seinfeld of France.” Elmaleh has mixed feelings about that moniker.
“I’ve always thought that being compared to anyone is not good. By the way, I laugh about that with him now,” he said. “But you want to have your own identity. But, on the other hand, being compared to the man you admire most in this business is kind of flattering, so it’s OK. It might sound a little pretentious, but I understand why they compare me to Jerry, with the observational thing. So I’m OK with that.”
At its heart, “American Dream” is really a heartfelt tribute to the United States coming from an immigrant who grew up wishing to achieve the American dream, Elmaleh said. In the show, he talks about being a little boy in Morocco and looking across the ocean, knowing America is on the other side, then wonders if a little boy in America is looking across the same ocean dreaming of a life in Morocco … knowing full well there wasn’t.
But there’s also a deeper message below the surface.
“I had this dream about coming to America since I was a kid. But there’s also some sarcasm. I was kind of surprised to find people here less enthusiastic about the American dream than I was. I’m more making fun of people who think it’s a disaster with what’s going on now (politically). I have to say that sometimes Americans should remember what’s going on in other countries. I know that people are upset about what is going on with Trump and all that. It’s not exactly what people want, and it’s a unique situation. But, it’s like, guys – you’re free. You have the freedom of speech and your rights. Even with all of the bad things, you can build things, you can do things, you can speak your mind. This country is fantastic!
“I love this country. I know that there are a lot of things to fix, but it’s like a family. You may have issues with someone, but you don’t say ‘This is not my family.’ There is a lot of good and the American dream is still very real.”
There is a joke in the special where Elmaleh tells about going through Customs and being asked by the officer for the purpose of his visit to the U.S. “For the American dream,” he says proudly. “We don’t do that anymore,” the officer replies.
Like Seinfeld, Elmaleh has his eyes on his own television show. He said he will be taping a comedy series for Netflix this summer called “Huge in France,” based about his own career and move to America. “(The title) is kind of sarcastic. Someone who is huge only in France is kind of said,” he said. “We’re very excited about that.”
“American Dream” is a funny, heartfelt special that is likely to introduce new American fans to one of France’s national treasures.