"We don't have comedy clubs because French people are too pretentious – they think they already have the show ready to go... They don't want to work out on their material in a small room for months and then go on stage... I know some performers in Paris, they write their show and they tape it, like, one week later. Really? Don't you think you gonna move things around and correct and adjust and craft? No, it's good. And then they play the same show over and over again with not moving anything."
– Gad Elmaleh
Gad Elmaleh: How are you? Gad speaking.
Guy MacPherson: Hi. Thanks for calling. Right on time.
GE: Great, great. Can you hear me well?
GM: I can hear you fairly well. Well enough. Where are you right now?
GE: I'm in New York. I just arrived yesterday from Paris and am totally jet-lagged. But it's great, it's great. I ran from the airport to the Comedy Cellar. This is my best place in town. Favourite place. It's really addictive. When we go there as comedians we don't want to go anywhere else, you know? It's great.
GM: You don't get to do that in Paris, do you? Are there little clubs?
GE: No, we don't have little place like this. We don't have comedy clubs because French people are too pretentious – they think they already have the show ready to go.
GM: What does that mean?
GE: (chuckles) They don't want to work out on their material in a small room for months and then go on stage.
GM: Ah! I know you've been at it for a long time. But if there isn't much of that kind of a scene in France, how did you get started doing live comedy?
GE: Yeah, it's a good question. Back then we didn't have comedy clubs. Now they try it. You know, some comedians try to start comedy clubs, small rooms, because they're more and more inspired by the Americans on that. A long time ago, like twenty years ago when I started to do standup comedy, I would have an entire show and an act and I would play it every night in a small theatre, which was obviously not sold out in the first months, you know? And then in my case, the movies also – because I've done a lot of comedy movies in France – helps me to be kind of popular and bring people to the theatre. It's not the same process as you guys do here working on the material and little by little, ten minutes by ten minutes, and then being able to build a whole hour. It's another way of building the show, but to be honest, I really prefer how Americans work and how they build their show. There are other things where I prefer what's going on in Europe but on that I would say it's great because it's humble and it's reality. You cannot know the joke is good unless here you tried it in front of an audience. I know some performers in Paris, they write their show and they tape it, like, one week later. Really? Don't you think you gonna move things around and correct and adjust and craft? (laughs) No, it's good. And then they play the same show over and over again with not moving anything.
GM: Did you start in acting or in live comedy? Which came first?
GE: I started with live comedy but very, very quickly I did my first movie, but almost in the same time I did my first standup show. And I did maybe thirty movies in France in twenty years. And I haven't done, like for maybe one year or two, and I don't miss it. I don't want to do again. I have to say I prefer comedy, I prefer to go on stage and play and do the standup and do live shows. I think cinema is okay but I get very bored on the set, you know? It's very, very boring to me.
GM: Did you do your first standup in Canada?
GE: Yeah, the first time ever I went on a stage to do standup, a whole entire act, a show, was in Montreal.
GM: Where was it?
GE: It was a very tiny little theatre in Montreal. I don't know, there were like twenty people in the room and eighteen were from my family. You know how you begin. This is how I knew this is really what I want to do. Then I went back to France and I started to write. [Then I started] touring and you know building this career and then, you know, ending up doing arenas all around Europe. That's why the experience now is crazy. I was performing in a 12,000-seat arena this summer in Belgium and last night I performed at the Comedy Cellar in front of people who had no idea who I was. There were like one-hundred people and it's great and I like it and it's a good challenge, but I'm basically starting over.
GM: It must be thrilling. But a different kind of thrill.
GE: Yeah because it's exciting. I get excited again. It's like a new girlfriend, no? A new wife, new girlfriend, new relationship. I don't know. It's spicy, it's exciting, I get butterflies before going on stage. I can't believe when I make Americans laugh. I'm like, wow, they laughed at my jokes! That's great, and it's not even my first language. Really, when you get some laughs from the audience doing jokes in another language, it's really rewarding; it's really thrilling, as you said, and very exciting.
GM: Could you understand the Quebec French when you were there?
GE: Yeah, of course, of course.
GM: But it is different.
GE: It's so different. I had jokes about that. And also when they talk in English, they have an accent because French Canadian have a very, very, very heavy accent, obviously, so I made a lot of jokes in my French shows. They have a very, very strong accent in English and also in French. I was in Montreal, by the way, a few weeks ago for Just For Laughs festival and I did five shows there, my solo shows, and did galas also hosted by a comedian that I really love, Sebastian Maniscalco.
GM: Oh yeah. The Italian from LA.
GE: Italian roots, LA. Italian LA, that's exactly his background.
GM: Do you know any Canadian comedians?
GE: You mean French Canadian?
GE: The thing with Canadians, we never know if they are Canadian (laughs). Is Jim Carrey Canadian?
GM: Norm Macdonald, do you know him?
GE: No. I'm gonna go and look him up right now because I don't like when I don't know a comedian. I know so many of them around the world, from Scotland, England and everywhere, so I'm going to look him up.
GM: He used to be on Saturday Night Live.
GE: I'd think he was American with his name.
GM: Samantha Bee is Canadian... Russell Peters?
GE: Yeah, that I know.
GM: Sugar Sammy.
GE: I know him very well.
GM: He's like you. He's speaks about four languages and performs in them.
GE: Mike Ward also.
GM: He got in trouble recently.
GE: He got in trouble but he's very smart and very talented. But yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that. I know Sugar Sammy really well and I know Russell Peter obviously. Yeah, those guys are Canadian. I was in Canada that I really, really like. It was Yuk Yuk's. I don't know how you pronounce that. In Toronto. It's amazing. It's a great place. I was there, I performed there, it was really, really fun, you know. I liked the crowd there. There's a real culture, you know, with standup. It's part of the everyday life. It's great.
GM: Have you ever been to Vancouver?
GE: Of course. And I'm doing a show in Vancouver in a few days.
GM: That's why I'm talking to you! But have you been here before?
GE: Yeah, I did a show already.
GM: I missed that. Was that a French show or in English?
GE: It was an English show.
GM: Oh, okay. You played the same place?
GE: No, it was a small room. A very small room. But now I'm doing Vancouver and I'm doing Toronto as well. I don't know if you know that. We're allowed to talk about other cities than Vancouver (laughs).
GM: No, I'm not interested in other cities.
GE: (laughs) What about Winnipeg?
GM: Nope, sorry... I saw you on Seth Meyers. His mom is a French teacher and he doesn't speak French and you said, 'Typical American' or something like that.
GE: Yeah, I've never heard something so...
GM: I can beat that.
GM: My mother was from France and I don't speak French.
GE: (laughs) Where were you born?
GM: I was born here but she grew up in the south of France.
GE: That's a better one.
GM: Yeah, see?
GE: Next time I see Seth, I'm going to tell him, 'You know what? You don't have to worry. I spoke to another crazy man whose mother is French, she's from France, she lived in France, and he's not too far from the French Canadians, but he doesn't..." This is so American of you, Guy.
GM: Now you're performing in the little clubs in New York. Are you accepted there by the American comedians?
GE: Oh yeah. I made friends, a lot of friends. In the beginning it was not easy not because I'm from France or whatever, it's just they don't know this guy, I never heard of him. So they look at you like, you know... And then when they see you on stage and when they see you're doing good and it's your job and it's organic and you're a comedian, they really connect. I think no matter what country you are from, nationality or religion or whatever, if you're a comedian you're a funny man. You immediately connect with comedians, you know? So I have very good friends and I hang out with them there and I love those guys. Last night I was with a guy named Ryan Hamilton.
GM: I know Ryan well. He's great.
GE: He's the best. I know this guy and I met him and I talked for hours with this man about comedy, about life, and he's really a great guy. Oh, you know him?
GM: Yeah. There's another guy Ryan knows who's in New York, Phil Hanley. Do you know Phil?
GE: Yeah. I don't know him but I know exactly who he is.
GM: He's from Vancouver.
GE: Oh, I didn't know that.
GM: There you go. Another Canadian comedian you know.
GE: So I hang out with them, with Ryan Hamilton, and Dan Naturman. You know Dan?
GM: Dan is hilarious. He has a very old-school style, the way he talks.
GE: Old-school and old anchorman from the fifties.
GM: Is that what he sounds like?
GE: Yeah, he sounds like an old, I don't know, speaker, right? But it's great. He's so funny. I really love the writing, you know?
GM: Are your routines in French similar to Seinfeld's? I know you're the 'Seinfeld of France.'
GE: I don't know. Obviously it's totally flattering when they compare you to someone you admire, and then I say, no, I have nothing to do with this guy. I'm such a huge fan. But I do observational comedy. That's why they compare me to each other. I take a small thing that I observe and I make it so big that it becomes a bit. So that's why they compare. Yeah, I do this a lot. You know, talking about big names, last week I was in Paris and Louis C.K. came to do a show in Paris. And he asked me to open for him in Paris. It was a great night. It was fun. And I was happy that American comedians come and do Paris, you know? It's always the other way around. Now it's great that we got to see American comedians and people we like in France from America and we can go and see them live. So people were really happy.
GM: And that, I guess, can help grow the scene over there as well; influence a lot of younger people.
GE: Exactly. Exactly. That's a very good thing. Very, very good thing for comedians.
GM: I guess most people there speak English?
GE: Yeah. It was a 2,000[-seat] theatre. But the thing is with the TV show, he has a lot of fans. Also I assume some people came from Europe, like Germany or Amsterdam or London because he's doing only one night in Europe. But it's good because American performers, they don't do a lot of international shows, right? And it's good.
GM: They're very provincial.
GE: Americans, they need to travel and see the world!
GM: It's kind of ironic now that English is the lingua franca.
GE: (laughs) Exactly, eh? Interesting, yeah.
GM: In your English act, I know you look at America and North America from an outsider's perspective. I saw Trevor Noah here last year. He looks at it from a South African point of view. If you go years back, Yakov Smirnoff came from Russia and was a big hit. There's a tradition there.
GE: Yeah. It's a comedic thing, very well known, is a how-you-call-it, a fish out of water. I write things about that, my perspective as a Frenchman and as a Moroccan, also, because I was born and raised in Morocco, which is part of my life. So I talk about my background and roots in Morocco and then moved to France and then I look at Americans and I observe and analyze Americans and America and obviously my perspective is funny because it's different. There's a whole bit now that I'm working on about baseball and how it's hard to us to understand baseball. I thought in the beginning the Americans would be like, we understand baseball, but the very surprising thing is they really laugh really hard at me saying I don't understand anything. I explain the whole thing. Jerry Seinfeld took me to the Mets stadium one day and we watched the game and I wrote a bit about that.
GM: Yeah, he's a big baseball fan.
GE: I still don't understand the rules. I don't know. I don't even know what those guys are doing over there.
GM: Do you have a sport that you do follow?
GE: I like soccer and every four years I watch the Olympics. I get to see sports I've never seen before.
GM: That's right, and you'll never see again until the next Olympics... So do you perform in your other languages?
GE: Of course. I've performed in Arabic, I've performed in Hebrew, I've performed in French, obviously, and now in English. You know, there's another guy who does this. He's very interesting and you might know him. It's Eddie Izzard.
GM: Yes, I've spoken to Eddie a couple times.
GE: Oh great. He's great and he performs in German, he performs in French a lot. We did a show together a few months ago in Paris and London. It was called the Frenglish Night. We shared the night. I did 40 minutes in English and we switched and he did 40 minutes in French.
GM: I've wondered, though, is his French good enough? Is he as funny in French?
GE: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. He's doing well. Eddie's doing really well. You know, he has fans also. I don't know, he never had a TV show or something but for some reason – I mean of course not for some reason, he's really talented, but – French people, they like him. Maybe because he's a superstar in the Anglo world, I don't know. We're always impressed, you know? French people are complex.
GM: He's going to run for the mayor of London.
GE: Oh, yeah, I know. But they elected the new mayor now.
GM: Maybe in the future you could be the mayor of Paris and he could be the mayor of London.
GE: No, I don't want to be the mayor of Paris or London. Maybe Casablanca, the city where I was born (laughs). Or New York... No, no, no, I just want to be a comedian. I just want to go to the club every night and hang out with Ryan Hamilton.
GM: Will you continue to live in the US or will you split time in the future?
GE: I need to go back and forth because I have my son in Europe and so I need to go and I want to see him and I miss him so much, so I need to split time. But in maybe two years from now, it'll be easy to bring him here and fly him here. But I wanna live here in New York. I want to go sometimes to France but I want to continue that project here in America. This is my goal now, you know?
GM: You've had these different stages in your life. You were raised in Morocco, you went to university in Canada, then you made your career in France, and now you're having the America phase of your career.
GE: Yeah, that's a new page and it's really exciting. You know, this is all we looking for. I wanna be excited. Every job we lose this excitement because, you know, you do the show over and over again, and then tour and success and the whole thing, and then one day you go on stage like a machine. I woke up one day and I said no, I wanna get excited. It's hard. Everyone was discouraging me. Everyone. Every comedians was like, don't do this, it's going to be too hard, stay in France. And I said no. It's because it's hard that I'm doing it.
GM: I'm a big jazz fan and I understand you are, too.
GE: Oh, yeah.
GM: Who do you love?
GE: Wow. Okay, I'm gonna play a little one for you. Wait a second. [plays some jazz on the piano] I have my piano. [more piano playing] That was me for you.
GE: Listen, I like Brad Mehldau.
GM: Oh yeah. I can hear that a little bit. Very introspective.
GE: Bill Evans.
GM: Another one, yeah.
GE: Are you a jazz fan?
GM: I'm a big jazz fan, yes. My father was a jazz musician.
GE: Oh, what instrument?
GM: He played the tenor saxophone.
GE: Oh, wow. Have you ever been to Montreal Jazz Festival?
GM: Yeah. He won an award there in the last year of his life and I accompanied him to that.
GE: Wow. Have you heard of Ibrahim Maalouf?
GM: Sounds vaguely familiar but no.
GE: It's very interesting French Lebanese trumpet player playing jazz with Arabic sonalities. Very, very interesting. Very strong, very deep. Really, you should listen to him.
GM: I will stream him as soon as I get off the phone.
GM: And of course you know Oscar Peterson, great Canadian piano player.
GE: Of course. I didn't know he was Canadian.
GM: He lived his whole life in Canada; never moved to the States.
GM: Yeah. So that's it.
GE: That's good. It was great to talk to you, my friend, Guy [pronounced the French way].
GM: Great to talk to you, too, Monsieur Elmaleh.
GE: I'll say hi to Ryan tonight when I'll see him.
GM: Yes, if you see him tonight, definitely. Okay, thank you very much.
GE: Okay, merci beaucoup. Bye bye.