Gad Elmaleh: Oh My Gad

A French comedy icon goes after the American Dream.

Gad Elmaleh stars in Oh My Gad at Joe's Pub.
Gad Elmaleh stars in Oh My Gad at Joe's Pub.

Gad Elmaleh is the most famous comedian you've never heard of. The Moroccan-born Frenchman has recently stepped away from a very successful career as one of France's foremost stand-ups to start anew in the United States — performing in a language that he is still learning. Elmaleh recently mentioned on the radio (he's on something of a self-promotion offensive, appearing on NPR and late night TV) that he takes several hours of English lessons a week to improve his grammar and pronunciation. Naturally, he's trying out this green material in smaller venues around the country, including Joe's Pub, where his hilarious debut English show, On My Gad, is set to play through June. I cannot attest to the strength of his French act, but if it is anything like his English act, I can see why he is one of the biggest stars in Francophone comedy.

"I'm not doing my French show for twenty-five dollars," he states, referring to the cover charge at Joe's Pub. Elmaleh is accustomed to playing giant arenas in France, not intimate dining rooms. He looks down at the table affixed to the stage and notes, "This is the first time I've stared at someone's plate of hummus while setting up a joke." He may be starting small in the U.S., but he's brought with him the trappings and sophistication of the big time.

For instance, few comedians at Joe's Pub have the luxury of a warm-up act. Elmaleh has a very capable one in Harrison Greenbaum. A perma-smile plastered across his bearded face, Greenbaum knows his unenviable job is to break in a tough crowd (a strange mix of French tourists, Moroccan expatriates, and curious Americans). He performs this duty with great valor, going out of his way to engage with a stony-faced, cross-armed man in the center of the audience. "I feel like I'm interrupting a dinner party," he quips, surveying the busy diners at Joe's Pub as they finish their last bites before the main event.

When he finally takes the stage, one can immediately sense Elmaleh's command of the room. His posture is relaxed and at ease as he paces across the stage, interacting with seemingly everyone in the dining room. While never affected or goofy, he easily slides out of this natural stance to act out his bits with an expressive face and physicality — half of his jokes are told by his eyebrows.

Elmaleh is often called the Jerry Seinfeld of France and the comparison is apt. Elmaleh mostly stays within the Seinfeldian range of observational stand-up subjects: air travel, taxi cabs, restaurants, and now, New York. He notices that cabbies in New York often seem to be delivering an extended monologue over the phone and wonders exactly who is listening on the other end. A segment about apartment-hunting in Manhattan is especially funny, revealing how quick Elmaleh is on the uptake. "I sold two houses in the south of France and I got this studio apartment in downtown Manhattan," he reveals.

Ultimately, Elmaleh's foreignness proves to be the most fruitful source of material. Like E.T., he encounters the peculiar fixtures of American life with fresh eyes, putting those observations in the show. He marvels at the time a sales associate at a clothing store claimed he would be "more than happy" to help him find a garment. Like Jean-Paul Sartre chewing on an existential question, he asks, "How can you be more than happy?" At their best, stand-up comedians are the philosophers of our day, and Elmaleh is certainly among the best.

Polyglot and acutely aware of regional customs and colloquialism, Elmaleh seems poised to become the world's first truly global comedy sensation. Once he conquers the English-speaking world, there will be no stopping him. This is your chance to see him in an intimate space before the tickets cost significantly more than the modest cover at Joe's Pub.

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