“When I listen to my sets to work on them and correct and craft, when I hear all the stuff about, 'I'm not from here,' I'm like, 'Shut up. Come on, stop it. That's a crutch.' Now go for the material and make them laugh. I'm very hard on myself.”
– Gad Elmaleh
Gad Elmaleh: Hi, Guy.
Guy MacPherson: Hi, Gad, how are you?
GE: Very good, thank you, thank you.
GM: You were sick on Friday.
GE: Yeah, I had – how you call this; sinusite we say it in French.
GM: Sinusitis maybe? In your nose?
GE: Yes. Exactly.
GM: I think. I'm not a doctor.
GE: You're not a doctor but I'm sure you had one of those. It's painful. Anyway, I'm not going to complain. The tour is great. But, you know, I didn't expect that. When you're too tired you get some stupid things but now it's good. I'm happy. I did two shows in Montreal last night. I was so happy because I was a little, not nervous but it's my new show all in English and you know better than I do about the whole thing about the English and French, but they were super happy and it went really well so I was really happy last night.
GM: Oh good. I just watched your French Netflix special.
GE: Oh, French. You speak French, too, or no?
GM: No, of course not!
GM: My mother was from France but I don't speak French. But it's subtitled and it was great.
GE: There's one in English, just so you know.
GM: I know. I started to watch it then I realized it's the same but it's in English. But it was fascinating because I wasn't sure whether your act would be the same content from one language to another, but it translates pretty well.
GE: Yeah. Not everything. I change a lot. That's why I need to write new material. That's funny what you mention because in the beginning when I first started this project in English, I thought I would just have to translate my strongest bits from French to English but I was wrong. Because I think the things that work really great are more all the stuff about my perspective on Americans mainly – the culture shock; new material. Even if I've done some great joke that was really strong in French, you cannot translate. And they like it when you write about what you experience. That's what I did when I moved to France, when I moved to Canada, too. And it's interesting now with the writing, I feel I'm a little ahead. I'm not saying that my English is perfect, but to be really honest with you, when I first started this project three years ago and I did all these jokes about the language, it made sense because really my English was not very good. Now it's better because I worked hard on it. It sounded genuine and appropriate because my English was not good. But if you're improving your English and you still make fun of the language and people who cannot speak English, it doesn't make any sense. So now I just have to have good jokes about so many different things and topics.
GM: I gotta say your English is damn good.
GE: Damn good! I like it! Damn good. Grammar in English is very tricky for me. People say that in French it's complicated, but no. In English, it's not easy, right?
GM: I talked to you two years ago. And you've played here another time even since then. You're like a regular here in Vancouver.
GE: Yeah, it's my third time. I think we spoke when I did the Vogue. I'm going to be a regular, as you say, now. I was talking to one of my friends last night about Vancouver. It has something pretty special there. I don't know if the word 'modern' is the right word. It's not modern to use 'modern.' But there is something very, I would say moderne, in Vancouver. There is this west coast vibe without the stupidity that we find in Los Angeles. (laughs) There is more sarcasm. Here's what's going on: In New York, the comedy and the sarcasm and all the spirit and all that, it's the culture, right? In L.A. I can't find it. When I go to Vancouver, I find both a lot: self-deprecation, humour. They are very serious about all the environmental stuff, but they're okay to joke about it. It's not a problem. It's okay. I have so many friends in Vancouver now, and some of them moved there from Quebec, some from France, and they play around all that stuff. It's not that serious. In L.A. you talk to someone and he's back from a retreat and the other one wants to be spiritual and the other one doesn't eat any more. "What, you don't eat meat?" "No, I just don't eat." I'm tired of these people who are seeking, looking for something spiritual and it's never inside; it's on Instagram. You won't find spirituality on Instagram. These days we have girls almost naked showing their ass on Instagram and in the caption they quote Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. That's crazy. It's a weird time.
GM: When you were talking to one of your friends about Vancouver, I know you know a few Vancouver comedians. Was it one of them?
GM: Who was it?
GE: Ivan Decker.
GM: You know, I call Ivan the Seinfeld of Canada.
GE: Oh, I love it! And I'm not surprised.
GM: Not because he's the most popular – he should be – but stylistically and creatively he's similar.
GE: I love him. And I would love to introduce him to Jerry because he deserves it and I'm sure Jerry would love him, really love him.
GM: He's a kid I would see from the time he started out here. Sometimes you see comedians who do the same thing for ten years, but I'd see him three weeks apart and he'd have a whole new fully formed chunk of material that was brilliant. Every time.
GE: Wow. It's great. He's great, I love him. I'm going to be with him on tour. He's going to come to L.A., San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver obviously. Yeah, I'm very happy to go with him on the tour. We talk a lot when I'm in L.A. We share those observations about L.A. Now he's based in L.A. so I can make fun of him, obviously. But that's great. We'll have the Seinfeld of France, the Seinfeld of Canada (laughs).
GM: It's a good thing you're called the Seinfeld of France and not, like, the Bill Cosby or the Louis C.K. of France.
GE: (laughs) Oh, my God! Oh, yeah, no. It's not a good thing. But to be really honest, let me tell you something. I'm of course flattered and honoured and whatever when they say the Jerry Seinfeld of France, but to be really honest, it's not good to be compared to anyone. In that case it's great because I admire Jerry and he's my friend and I love him and he advises me and we talk about comedy, but to be honest with you it just helps when you begin somewhere to identify, but it's not great to be compared, you know? I have a friend, his name is Bassem Youssef and they call him the Jon Stewart of Egypt. It's just so funny. I wanna meet the Chris Rock of Japan! But it shows you something. It shows you also the power of America because the other way around doesn't exist. I'd like to hear, he's the Moustafa [unintelligible] of America.
GM: The who?!
GE: (laughs) I don't know; I just made up that name. I remember when I was in France and we would meet some big American movie stars. And they would meet us, and even if we were number one in France – actors, comedians – they would always tell us, 'Nice to meet you. I'll google you.' And we were like, 'We're number one in our country and they're going to google me.' There's no American star that you have to google to know. It's impossible. If you go to China, to the Middle East, to Africa, wherever you go, Europe, and you say John Travolta, nobody's gonna say, 'Let me google that.' That shows you how powerful Americans are.
GM: If you ever work with, say, Robert DeNiro, you could say, 'Hey, you're the Gerard Depardieu of America.'
GE: (laughs) I like it. Better than the Harvey Weinstein of France.
GM: What year did you go to America?
GE: 1988 from Morocco. I was born and raised in Morocco, then I moved to Canada, to Montreal from 1988 to 1992. And then I moved to France to attend acting school and start writing my first one-man show.
GM: And when did you move back to New York to conquer America?
GE: And Canada, by the way, sir. Three years ago I moved to New York. I'm so happy, Guy, you have no idea. I'm not from there. I was born in Morocco, lived in France forever, and Canada, but as soon as I landed in New York, I swear I have a feeling that is unique. I cannot explain. I feel at home. It's not just a figure of, how you say, speech, like an expression. I really feel at home. It's a feeling. I arrive, I'm in my neighbourhood in downtown Manhattan, I feel like not even that I grew up there but even better. I'm at home in New York City. I'm in America but the diversity and people from so many countries, I'm so happy in New York. I don't want to go anywhere else.
GM: When you moved there, did you have long-term goals or was it just that you wanted to be able to perform comedy in English?
GE: That challenge was I need to get excited again. And I was looking for something. Not that I got bored but after 22 years, I'm thankful to my fans and people who helped me to become what I became in France, but I needed something to get excited, to be scared. It's been a long time, the American dream, when I was a kid it was a real thing. But it was not easy. I started to do shows in French for the ex-pats in America, and in those shows I would slip a few words in English just to try with not a big risk. And then one day I said let's have a 15-minute set and I auditioned at the Comedy Cellar like a new comic. I was nervous. They gave me a few minutes. I worked very hard and it worked and was great. But I like this work. I like being on stage with people having no idea who I am because I make them laugh. I earn those laughs because they don't know who I am, no credits. I like it.
GM: But now people know who you are.
GE: Uh... not really. Not a lot. In the comedy world and in clubs and in the press, but honestly, that's the beauty of it. I can walk around New York City and nobody talks to me. It's the best.
GM: John Lennon used to do that, too. And Jerry Seinfeld walks around New York. So maybe that's just New York.
GE: Oh, yeah, maybe. As they say, they don't give a shit.
GM: So you came over and wanted to get some of that adrenaline back. Now you're more comfortable. What's next? Do you still feel that new feeling when you go out there?
GE: Less, obviously, because I've done it many times. But, okay, let's say my next challenge, as I said when we started to talk, is to write material that doesn't talk about this whole fish out of water situation. I just want to be a funny man in another language. I'm not going to give up everything and avoid all those topics about my roots and identity and all that, but I want it to be just a little percentage of my show, like 10 percent of my show and 90 percent just observational comedy about life and relationships and whatever and things that make me laugh that I do in French every day. Because most of my material so far was based on me and here you do that... I'm tired of this. I'm ahead of that. That's my next challenge. If I can do that, I'll be really, really proud.
GM: I think you'll be able to do it. But that kind of material, which Trevor Noah does and Yakov Smirnoff does, lets us see our culture with new eyes. But it would be good if you didn't feel tied to that kind of material.
GE: Exactly. Especially, again, since the English isn't a problem anymore. It's not a barrier like it used to be. I think I'll still talk about those differences because I will always be surprised, shocked, amazed by things in America. I record everything and when I listen to my sets to work on them and correct and craft, when I hear all the stuff about, 'I'm not from here,' I'm like, 'Shut up. Come on, stop it. That's a crutch.' Now go for the material and make them laugh. I'm very hard on myself.
GM: That's what makes a great comedian.
GE: I can improve, you know?
GM: It must be a fine line to walk to point out differences without being disrespectful to the people you're talking to, because they do those things you're saying.
GE: I think if they come to a comedy show, they agree, they know what they're doing. That's why I love the crowds in America, to be really honest. Standup comedy is such a cultural... it's really intégré, it's in the everyday life. This is something they know really well, standup comedy. They don't go to le spectacle, to the theatre. They go, but standup comedy is really an art form that is well respected and they know exactly what it is, compared to Europe. Our tradition is so different. So I'm safe. When I go to a comedy club, they know what they're getting. They know. You're not going to go to a fight, boxing or whatever, and go, 'Oh my God, this is so violent.' Yeah, that's what they do. If you don't want that, don't come. If you don't want me to make fun of you, don't come here; go to a TED Talk.
GM: Do you ever think about getting political onstage, especially with the current climate?
GE: When it was so obvious I couldn't avoid it, I did it. But this is not my specialité, like I don't do it; I've never done it. But I have to say, when it gets so absurd and crazy, I remember doing a whole bit about America's great again as an immigrant. I think if you're going to make a joke about Trump, you have to come up with something original and interesting and really funny because to be honest with you, all those jokes are the same. And I'm not excited about those jokes. There's one comedian who did the best bit about the Donald Trump election is Ryan Hamilton. I don't know if you're familiar with him.
GM: I know Ryan well.
GE: He did a great bit about the new normal. The day he was elected, the day after people would look out the window to see the street if it had changed, but no, people were just walking and giving each other eye contact. I like to make fun of the situation. Because how many times can you say, 'Oh, he's dumb.' We know that. Come on. I did a whole bit about, 'Guys, if America's not that great, you should have told us before we moved here because we moved here because we think it's great. If it's not great, you should send in the embassies, and when we apply for the visa, they should tell us: "Listen, just so you know, it's not that great. We're working on it."' But I never go political because it's boring and it expires right away. When I was on Colbert, the election had just happened. And I said, 'Good evening. I just moved to America. Perfect timing.' That's it. And a huge laugh.
GM: You had a very clever and subtle joke that was political in your English Netflix special. You said at the border you told the guard you were following the American dream and they said, 'We don't do that anymore.'
GE: (laughs) I forgot this one. Yeah.
GM: That really says something without saying too much.
GE: Yeah. I don't have the word in English, but do you say 'corny'? I don't know, man. It's not interesting. Someone told me once there are jokes that anyone can do, there are jokes that only a comedian can do, and there are jokes that only one comedian can do. It's not easy but we have to find one joke that only I can make and not another guy. It's hard. It's not easy to come up with new perspectives.
GM: Will your act be significantly different from last year when you were here?
GE: Oh yeah, definitely. Fifty percent of my show is new. I've added so much new material. You know, talking about the tour, because I've been to Europe, I'm talking about this whole new how now men are scared with all these things that happened with these harassment stuff and how do we behave with women. I added a few things that I'm really excited to say every night.
GM: How is that taking hold in France? Our image of French sexual politics is maybe problematic over here, or is that just a stereotype?
GE: No, you know, I think the movement is international, and thank God it's international. Some of these guys are really criminal, you know? That's crazy. By the way, I found something really interesting. Every time someone who is accused, and it's a real accusation and he's a very bad person, if you dig a little bit you can find that of course he abused or harassed women but also they're also they're not good persons with man, women, in the business. You can find more about them that's just criminal. My point is even if in France it's different culture with the sex, no, these days honestly everyone is concerned, even in France. There is no position like, 'No, it's okay, they're exaggerating.' No. No, no. Even in France it got really serious now. I've been touring Copenhagen, Oslo, Sweden and it's a big thing in the world; this is not an American thing. I hope we're going to be able to talk about it as comedians. What I feel sometimes is that people are a little tense when you start talking about it. They expect you to say one thing that they have in mind. Of course we know it's bad and we condemn those guys, but let's talk about it. Let's go further. Let's analyze. It's such a sensitive time. I have a whole bit about that, like what are we supposed to do? It's interesting.
GM: Are you in Montreal now?
GE: Yeah, right now I'm in Montreal. I did two shows last night at the Olympia. I'm going to fly to Paris to see my son tomorrow and then the next stop of the tour is Vancouver. I'm going to go straight from Paris.
GM: How old is your son?
GE: I have two. One is 17, he just graduated from high school in L.A. And the other one is going to be five in December, and I miss him so much this little boy. I can't wait to go to Paris to see him.
GM: How do you practice your piano when you're on the road?
GE: I don't practice. I love it, I love it. You know what I do? I go sometimes when I have time to music stores, piano stores and pretend I'm going to buy a piano. It's what I used to do when I didn't have money. Now I do it because I don't have time.
GM: Last time you played a bit for me.
GE: Oh yeah! It was in my apartment. Tell me, where is Diana Krall from?
GM: She is from Nanaimo, which is on Vancouver Island.
GE: Is it far from Vancouver?
GM: You gotta take a boat or plane across. But not far.
GE: I'm going to invite her to my show.
GM: Oh, she lives in West Vancouver now, yes. Or at least part of the time.
GE: I'm going to invite her.
GM: Do you know her?
GE: No, I don't know her. I met her very briefly when she did the Olympia in Paris. Guy, they're calling me on another line. Thank you so much. Thanks for having me and talking about the show. Can't wait to be in Vancouver.
GM: Any time.
GE: Merci boucoup, mon ami. Merci!