On a dreary October evening in 2015, Gad Elmaleh, France’s biggest comedian and one of its most recognized stars found himself doing stand up in English in a shopping mall outside of Pittsburgh.
“I think that was my lowest point,” Gad confided to me in early September over brunch at Bubby’s, a local cafe in downtown New York. “Not just because it was Pittsburgh, and not just because it was in a shopping mall, but because the show hadn’t gone very well.”
Having lived in Paris for a decade now, I know the star Gad Elmaleh was. And like many of his fans, I too was surprised by his sudden decision several years ago to put himself in that awkward Pittsburgh place, to strike out for America and perform in a country he didn’t know, in a language he couldn’t speak very well.
According to Gad, I wasn’t alone
“Lots of people told me I was nuts, especially fellow comics in France who’d already had success. Watch out they said. You’re going to fail. It’s going to backfire. But it wasn’t just on the French side. American comics too like Jerry (Seinfeld) and Woody (Allen) Allen were warning me, “Why do you want to do this?”
And they had a point. Gad had already made it in France. He sold out shows. He had TV specials. He starred in films. He even lent his voice to Pixar movies. Before leaving France, he had a giant following on instagram (now 1.7 million followers) money in the bank. Plus he was married to a princess from Monaco. So why?
“Chewing gum,” Gad tells me. “You know chewing gum at the beginning has all this flavor? Then it sort of loses its flavor a bit and it’s hard to chew. I needed new gum.”
A challenge sure. A new career tack? Why not. But did it need to be in a different country in a different language?
“Jerry (Seinfeld) told me this, and it’s true to a point. If you’re into cars, you go to Germany. And if you’re into making pasta you go to Italy. And if you’re into stand-up you go to the US. And since I’ve always been this kind of stand-up nerd, I wanted to go to the mecca and see if I could make it there.”
Back to the gym
Gad began this curious odyssey back in 2012, when his agent Christian Burnhardt booked him at the Beacon Theater, an historic location on New York’s Upper West Side. There, Gad performed a handful of shows in French to an audience comprised mostly of French expats living in New York. He’d later do the same a year later at a more obscure venue called City Winery.
“These were sort of one offs,” said Burnhardt, who handles Gad’s North and South American work for the agency UTA (United Talent Agency.) “We then booked him at various music venues, and again, the show was all in French, but Gad had in the back of his mind that it could work in English.”
For the show to happen in English though, Gad realized he had to do it the American way, which meant committing to New York full time, so he could practice his jokes in small comedy clubs like the Comedy Cellar or the Village Underground or the Big Black Pussy Cat, not the kind of venues you’d expect to see someone who’d once filled stadiums.
“But it was so necessary,” says Gad. “It was like the character Rocky going back to the gym. And these clubs really are like gyms. They’re much more intense than the big theaters or stadiums I’d played in in France, where the material hasn’t been tested much and where the audience is already half on your side. Here I had to earn the laughs. And when you did a bad set. You wanted to kill yourself. ‘Why am I doing this?’ I’d ask myself. I hated it. I really did. And yet I was back the next night, doing it again, like some addict.”
Gad admits his Comedy Cellar beginnings were both “great and catastrophique.”
“On one side, I was making people laugh in English, but at the same time, they weren’t laughing at what I expected. I bombed sometimes. Sometimes I was even bumped for another comic.”
Much of Gad’s struggles are chronicled in a tiny hard to find documentary he produced in 2014 called Ten Minutes in America, where we see Gad traveling through rural America in rental cars and huffing his suitcase up several flights of stairs, just so he can perform in local rooms at night where the audiences look sparse and the claps are muffled.
Looking back at that time, Gad claims he wasn’t thrown off by the lunch pail existence he was living. He liked the anonymity actually.
“The one thing I didn’t want to do was let on that I had some sort of notoriety back in France, at least at the beginning. Because with that, comes a lot of expectations. That whole “OK then big shot, show us what you got.”
What concerned him more was that the jokes weren’t translating, probably because they were just that…. translated.
Alex Majoli – Photographer, Vanity Fair France
“At one point, Gad and I sat down and I told him he no longer should just translate his French act,” said Burnhardt. “For it to really work in America, he needed to push the accent, not hide it. He needed to bring his whole process into the comedy. The taking English classes, the being afraid he might bomb, the going from a star to being anonymous in New York. Basically I felt his show needed to reflect the life he was living, because it was so genuine and relatable. And it also played so much into the modern immigrant story of America.”
It was at that very moment Gad changed course and started turning the mirror on himself, getting more personal more self-deprecating, which eventually made his act more universal.
“You always hear the story about the immigrant who comes to America with one dollar and who makes a fortune,” Gad tells an audience in his show The American Dream, which is on Netflix. “I came to America with a fortune.” Gad stares off into the distance, letting the joke linger. The audience starts to laugh. “And if it keeps going like this, I’m going to go home with one dollar.” The audience erupts.
Gad started making fun of everything in his life, namely his overseas fame. “You know I love the anonymity here. I do.” He tells the crowd at the Comedy Cellar during one of the evenings we spend together. “I just hope it doesn’t last forever,” Gad squints. “Because I’m kinda’ missing the old life you know?” The audience laughs. “I even googled myself the other night, just to make sure I’m still famous.” The audience laughs louder.
Armed with this new angle, Gad hired a dialogue/voice coach, Julia Lenardon, to help him tell the new jokes even better. But for Lenardon, a former actress, the challenge wasn’t just language.
“There were certain rhetorical rules Gad had to learn as an American comic. The way you tell the joke is almost as important as the joke itself. Which word do you put the emphasis on? How do you sell the joke? Language isn’t just an academic endeavor, and I wanted Gad to embrace English in an acting, performing way.”
Often at Gad’s apartment, Gad would tell Lenardon a joke or give her an idea for a joke, and if it wasn’t working, both would try to tell it differently. Or Julia would go over his past performances and give him notes. Gad even went so far as to use these very sessions with Lenardon for his own comedic material.
“My voice coach has helped me immensely. She has,” Gad tells an audience at the Fat Black Pussycat. “But it’s hard to say goodbye to this woman. I’ll say “See you tomorrow Julia, and she’ll be like “No, Gad it’s Too-Mahr-oh.” Laughter. “Then I’ll let her know the elevator’s here, and she’ll be like. ‘No Gad, it’s Ell-uh-vador.”
“Just go the fuck home please?” Big laugh.
During his time in the trenches, Gad not only built up minutes and minutes of new material, he built up a rapport with other New York comics as well as the owner of the Comedy Cellar, Noam Dworman, who was the first to give Gad a chance on stage. Despite it’s modest décor, the Comedy Cellar is the Versailles of stand-up, and as you descend down into the basement where the comedy’s performed, the stairwell is lined by framed photographs of past performers. There’s Robin Williams, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, and Louis CK. And now even Gad.
“The Comedy cellar isn’t super hard to get on, but it is hard to stay,” says Dworman.” I knew that if Gad didn’t translate well or if he bombed, we just wouldn’t use him again. Listen, I’ve had foreign stars come here before. Some even with documentary crews filming them so they can prove back home they actually did some stand-up in New York. And I’ve seen these guys get their lunch handed to them. Gad, I could tell, was different. He was going to do the hard work for it to work. And at the end of the day, you know what? Talent is talent. No matter what the language is.”
Gad’s time at the Cellar also helped him look at his American stage freight as a positive thing.
“It was terrifying to go out on stage in these clubs in a different language. It was already scary doing big theaters in Paris, but this was another level. But at the same time, I also realized that fear has an energy and that I needed to transform it. Plus, it’s funny seeing people scared I think. All of a sudden, they’re human and fragile and all good performances need that humanity. I’d never want to get rid of this fear. In a way it’s why I started this whole American experiment. Feeling scared made me feel fascinated again.”
As Gad’s New York underground cred grew, not everyone was so admiring. Some fellow comics credited Gad’s rise to the convenient fact he already had notoriety and famous friends to help him, not to mention a lot of money to hold him over during this lean period.
“And all of that is true. I don’t deny it,” Gad admits. “But at the same time, although I’ve only been working in the US for three years, I’ve been working in comedy for twenty-three years. And along that way, I’ve developed and learned a lot of stuff which helped me on stage in New York.”
He’s right. Gad, you can tell, is a pro. He’s very at ease on stage. He’s warm and patient with jokes, a style Dworman feels evokes an older style of performer.
“What I like about Gad is that he’s what they used to call “an entertainer.” Nowadays you get a lot of comics who look at the audience as secondary. They have an act or a message they want to get across, and for them, that is the important thing. Gad, is the opposite. He’s clued into the audience. He’s there to please, and I’m sure he has that from his experience back in France. He and the audience are performing as one.”
Other American comics though saw Gad’s polish as a negative, that Gad was a “good craftsman but not a real artist.”
“I honestly don’t really know what Gad cares about,” said the comic Jeff Garland on NPR radio. “And for me to like a comic, I need to know what they care about. ”
When I recount Garland’s comment, I can tell it still stings Gad a bit. Although it’s competitive, there’s a sort of fraternity among stand-up comics. It’s rare to hear one attack another’s performance. I can also see Gad’s grown a thicker layer of skin since arriving in the US. He’s less sensitive to how he’s perceived.
“Over these past years I’ve become less what the French call bienveillant (trusting) and more wary you could say. Jerry (Seinfeld) warned me about this. He said when you start out at zero again; you start out with everything again, including the jealousy of others.”
If anything, the criticism drove Gad to dig deeper into his comedy, pushing him more into “a comedic monk type” life that was far from the red carpet he once occupied.
“My life became super simplified over here. I’d stay at home and write all day, then head over to the Comedy Cellar at night and perform new bits. Sometimes I’d get bumped. Sometimes I’d do well. Sometimes I bombed. But at the end, I’d always get paid my 100 bucks and that felt great.”
Alex Majoli – Photographer, Vanity Fair France
Following each stand-up show, Gad tells me, comedians often share from the pot of what the club earned that night. The sums usually aren’t that high, and they’re evenly distributed between performers, no matter if one’s a star.
“Honestly, that money was the most important money I’ve ever earned. I’ve made money from jokes before in my career, but it was usually by wire transfer and sometimes I even bought an apartment with that wire. But to have earned those dollars from making New Yorkers laugh in a hole in the wall, and to divide it up with my fellow struggling comics, it was a crowning moment for me. It really was. I even called my son the next day, and we took that money and he bought some skin care crap at Macy’s. And it was awesome.”
In 2016, Burnhardt booked Gad at Joe’s Pub, an upscale performance space in New York’s East Village, where he performed fifty shows in English. Soon, more and more New Yorkers started showing up; one of whom was Diane von Furstenberg, another European expat, who Gad says played a pivotal role in helping him get his big break. The way von Furstenberg describes it, the two became close friends by accident, meeting each other, in of all places, a gate at JFK airport.
“Our flight to Paris was delayed because of a snowstorm,” von Furstenberg recounts. “I didn’t know Gad at the time, but I saw everybody asking him to take photos and wanting to talk to him, and I thought, “Who is that guy?” Since there was nothing else to do, we started to chat and it turned out we had friends in common. The flight was eventually canceled, and we had to return to New York where we stayed at the same hotel over night. By the time we reached Paris the next day, we’d shared a flight together and become very close and felt we knew each other fairly well. The funny thing is that we both found ourselves at an event that very week in Paris, and when I saw Gad it felt odd, as if we’d somehow had an affair. It was just super funny.”
According to Gad, von Furstenberg not only attended his show at Joe’s Pub, but she brought a friend, the talk show host, Seth Meyers, with her. Afterwards, Diane arranged for Seth and Gad to sit next to each other at a dinner post performance, and before long, Gad was a guest on Late Night with Seth Meyers, and soon on the national scene.
“It was at that point, we wanted to try something bigger,” said Burnhardt, “I then booked Gad at a Broadway theater called Town Hall which seats about 1200 people, then the famous Beacon Theater, and then we booked him at Carnegie Hall. And he sold them all out.”
Riding on this momentum, Gad then embarked on a tour throughout several American cities, culminating with a Netflix production of that show called The American Dream. Soon after, Gad would sign a deal with Netflix to produce an eight episode TV series, entitled Huge in France, which is quasi-based on his own life.
Huge in France
“Gad’s idea at the beginning was that a big comic from France comes to New York and starts floundering in the comedy world,” says Andy Mogel one of the directors and co-writers of the series.
“It was funny, but at the time, there were already a few series out there centering around stand-up and New York, and we thought Gad could be more of a fish out of water if we took him to LA instead.”
Mogel and his partner Jarrad Paul, were intrigued by the fact Gad’s son, Noë, was modeling in LA.
“We thought it would be hilarious for a foreign dad (who’s well known back home) to try and reconnect with his son in LA in a city he doesn’t understand in a world (fashion) he doesn’t really like,” says Paul.
The writers also felt Gad living in LA was more of a brutal contrast to his life in Paris. Plus it’s a city based on fame, which happens to be the overall context of the show. “But for the series to work we also wanted an emotional connection,” added Mogel. “The desire to reconnect with his son, which we thought could be the story’s through line.”
For Gad, the fact that the series was shot in Paris, NY, and LA, and the fact he had to call in favors to comic celebrities and friends to appear on the show wasn’t the hard part. It was Mogel and Paul’s strict writing regimen which involved work shopping the material with Gad and eight other writers over several months in LA just to find eight good story lines for possible episodes, a rigor Gad had never seen in France.
“One of the things I’ve learned from this whole experience in America is how much fat there needs to be trimmed in everything we write. Each scene, each joke has to be broken down to its bare minimum. Jerry (Seinfeld) always reminds me. ‘Comedy is simple, but it’s not easy.’ And I think often in France, for whatever reason, we take too long in setting up a joke or a situation. The audience doesn’t need it.”
Gad does admit he felt lost sometimes during the writing process for the series.
“I was in the writer’s room for hours and they’d constantly reference old TV series or sports moments and laugh, and I just had to trust what they were doing was good.”
Mogel disagrees about Gad’s role in the creation.
“The thing which is so great with Gad is that this series is art imitating life. And Gad picks up and notices so much stuff constantly in the US, which we just take for granted or don’t even see: the dating habits, the eating habits, or the language peculiarities. The stuff normal Americans ignore, he fed us, which we then used throughout the first season.”
The Jerry Seinfeld of France
In between his Comedy Cellar sets, Gad often huddles with his fellow comics, each analyzing the other’s performance. One is Ryan Hamilton, a long time stand-up comedian, whose recent performance Funny Face now runs on Netflix. Hamilton has traveled with Gad on tour before, both in the US and Europe, sometimes as the warm up act.
“I know some famous people in the US, comedians and actors, but none of them has the allure Gad has. I’m serious. I’ve seen people chasing our car. Somebody even cried. I’ve never seen someone cry hysterically for a comedian!”
Although Gad has a real rapport with his colleagues, he does hold a joker card nobody else owns. He can claim the normally Greta Garbo reclusive Seinfeld as a close friend. Seinfeld has played an enormous role in Gad’s American career, ever since the two met ten years ago, when Gad played the French voice for Seinfeld in the animated film Bee Movie, which Jerry produced.
“It was at Cannes, and I remember it specifically,” recounts Gad. “Jerry didn’t know who I was, and he entered the room where there were about twelve people, producers and press agents, and he came directly over to me and introduced himself. I asked him how he knew it was me and he said “there’s always the one funny guy in the room, and I know how to find them.”
In America, Gad is often cited as the “Jerry Seinfeld of France.” And because of this moniker, the two have grown even closer. Not only has Jerry attended Gad’s shows in New York, he also featured him in his TV show Comedians in cars getting coffee, where Jerry and Gad drove around New York in an old Citroen 2CV. The day I met Gad, he and Seinfeld had just attended the US Open final together the night before in Flushing, Queens.
“We actually didn’t watch the match much,” Gad admits. “We spent a lot of our time making fun of people or things, like wondering why the judge’s chair was so high and how he can never really talk to the players closely. Or why the players have all their extra rackets wrapped in plastic like it’s a new gift they got for Christmas. The work of a comic is to constantly observe and Jerry’s the best at that.”
One person who sees the parallels between the two is George Shapiro, the famous TV producer who produced the famous Seinfeld series and who also served as the manager for the late Andy Kauffman. Shapiro was portrayed by Danny DeVito in the movie Man on the Moon.
“I remember meeting Gad when he dubbed Jerry’s voice. They do have similar styles. It’s very observational comedy. I can’t imagine though doing stand-up or observing in a language that’s not mine. It’s very difficult what Gad’s doing, but I applaud it. I think it’s courageous, and I’m glad he and Jerry are still together. I think there’s a real rapport there.”
With so many different projects in the works (there’s a hint at some American comedy films in the pipeline), Gad has come a long way from the Pittsburgh shopping mall. One could even say he’s achieved what 99% of other American comics only dream of. And when you frame it that way, it’s hard to find another performer in either country who’s ever done such a thing.
Gad confides his dream now is to eventually host an American late night talk show, just like Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel or Seth Meyers. Had he told me this at the beginning of the week, I would have laughed. Now I wouldn’t bet against him.
Following Gad around for a week is a crash test at what it takes to be a star on two continents. There’s a appearance at SeriusXM radio with the host Pete Dominick, a Facebook Live at the Facebook headquarters in New York, then a voice over for animation series on NPR. There’s the Q and A at the 92nd Y in New York on Friday night and a performance at Carnegie Hall he does free for Jessica Seinfeld’s charity. Not to mention the countless rides in the Uber where he organizes his upcoming tour with his team all the while checking in on his two sons.
And yet during all this chaos, the comedian in Gad is still quietly observing. He secretly takes a photo of a woman sitting in a Starbucks reading her Mac Book Pro sideways like a book or he comments on why our waiter continues to ask how our meal is going right at the moment both our mouths are full. Like Seinfeld, you can tell Gad’s happiest when he’s scratching stuff in his notebook, trying to make that last joke better so he can try it out later at the Cellar.
The Comedy Diplomatic Corps
Gad recently took all of this comedy material on tour with him for what he called the Dream Tour, a multi-city multi continent barnstorming blitz that included cities like Miami, Detroit, Hong Kong, Oslo, Berlin and Dubai.
The upside of doing a show in English, Gad points out, is that it has opened up an entire new audience for him, allowing him to perform in places he usually wouldn’t try.
“One the great things about performing in these foreign countries is that I’m always introduced to the one big comic of the country. For example, I recently met the “John Stewart of Egypt.” I swear. His name is Bassem Youssef. And he was introduced to me that way. And you know what I told the guy?……Hi I’m on the Jerry Seinfeld of France.”
I beg Gad to use this as a bit for a new set. Maybe he can describe this phenomenon as a sort of diplomatic corps of funny men wondering the world, each introducing themselves in improbable ways. “Hi I’m the Polish Bill Burr. Or Hi I’m the Japanese Chris Rock.” Gad quickly marks it down in his notebook. Of course he marks it down. He always marks it down.
Where is chez moi?
Although it’s clear Gad is happy with what he’s doing right no, I do sense, as a fellow expat, there might be some solitude there. He lives alone. He’s not seeing anyone special. He’s working and traveling a lot. He’s far from his youngest son, living in a foreign country he doesn’t always understand.
“To answer your question honestly, I think of home as family. I was born in Morocco, so Morocco is my mom. I became a man in France, so France is my wife. And the US? It’s kind of my mistress. What I love about New York is that I can be I can be a lot of different things based on my background and life story. I can be Jewish, Moroccan. Canadian, French. Lots of characters, and for a comedian, that’s gold.”
New York, Gad tells me, reminds him of his Casablanca youth. “It’s that same mish mash of cultures, that same wild vibe.” It’s also a place he says that gives him a distance from France, a place far enough away so he can properly make fun of it.
“At my core, I’m a French comedian, so of course I love to make fun of the French, especially to an American audience. There have been times where I’m performing and the place is packed with Americans in some random American city, and yet despite all that, there’s always the two or three French people in the audience who I can see complaining “ “Couldn’t zis be a bit in French quand meme. I mean come on.”
Gad admits he loves making fun of Americans too or making fun of the different words he’s learned in English that he hadn’t fully captured before. One is the expression “I’m down” which a woman he was supposed to date recently texted him, and which he interrupted as her being depressed, or not excited to go out.
“I replied that I was sorry. I didn’t know you were depressed. To which she replied back, ‘no I’m up.” WTF?”
What Gad most looks forward to though is making fun of Americans to other foreigners, something he loved doing in places like Oslo and Copenhagen. “Imagine that. A French guy, making fun of Americans to the Swedes. It was great. I just hope they got it.”
Following our week together in New York, I flew back to Paris only to meet back up with Gad that very night at the Paname comedy club in the 11th arrondisement. With the explosion of stand-up in France, the Paname has become “ze place to be,” packed nightly, just like the Comedy Cellar. And if you were to see a show there, you could easily picture yourself in LA or New York, in the same tiny room with that same bright light and the same claustrophobia.
Gad had briefed me earlier in the week that he planned to perform at Paname that night. He wanted to work on some French material and he wanted to drop by unannounced only because it meant he could bump one of the younger French comics as a way to bring the comedy Karma wheel full circle.
But when I saw him that night, something seemed different. You forget how big of a star Gad is in France. Every ten seconds our talk would be interrupted by fans or other comics coming over to his corner of the café to talk or take a photo. And later when he jumped on stage, I saw the same surprised faces I saw in New York when Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Gaffigan appeared out of nowhere unannounced – that “Oh my God look who it is!” look.
“I know what you’re probably saying to yourself.” Gad smiles at the audience with a wink. “What happened to Gad? Is he OK? I thought he was in America living the American dream. Now he’s here – in a basement telling jokes in French. What happened to him?”
The audience bursts out laughing.
Gad seems completely at ease. He’s wearing a button downed shirt and sneakers and a New York Yankee hat. And during his ten minutes, you have the sense he’s happy again to be on stage in France. The chewing gum has full flavor again. And now that his personal life is part of his American act, he’s not afraid to go biographical in French either.
He jumps into a riff about his life married to a princess, “a real princess, by the way, the kind that keeps crowns in her closet, not crowns in her teeth like your princesses.”
The crowd is doubled over in laughter, probably because they’ve never heard Gad take it there. He then describes in detail the day he was supposed to take his photo for his Monaco passport, and how he naïvely thought the family would all go together to some passport photographer, forgetting of course that the photographer of the palace comes to your house instead. “Here I was dressed up thinking we’d be in one of those subway booth photomats spinning the wheel up and down.”
The crowd loves it, and Gad keeps delivering, commenting on how bizarre it must be for his son.
“On one side, the kid’s great grandmother is Grace Kelly, the one who waved from her balcony to the crowds. On the other side there’s his Moroccan great grandmother the one who waved her hand and threatened people in Arabic from her balcony.”
Gad is now killing them, a term he learned in New York and which he’d always dreamed of doing.
“The kid’s family tree will probably look like this.” Gad then contorts his body in a zigzag way. Pandemonium.
Following the show, we find ourselves on the sidewalk drinking beers with other comics some of whom I recognize. There’s Norman, the famed French youtuber, who comes by to shake Gad’s hand. So does Djimo and Hakim Jemili, two rising French stars, who my twelve-year old son knows more than me. Both are using Paname (like Gad did the Comedy Cellar) as a workshop to cobble enough five-minute sets together to make a condensed and polished one-hour show.
And although Gad is polite and gracious with each, and not at all standoffish, you sense from these young up and comers that Gad really is the “French Jerry Seinfeld.” the one with decades of experience, who left it all for a far off land and who now returns full of stories and experience and yes, riches. And it works both ways. Gad, I can tell, has much more of an interest in comparing notes with these hungry artists than spending his late 40’s on French talk shows and starring in consensual comedies, where the laughs are guaranteed as well as the mid-life depression these things engender.
Soon it’s 2 am. And although we’re both jet lagged and still full of energy, we say our goodbyes, and as I watch Gad walk off into the Parisian night with his Yankee lid and basketball shoes and that Moleskin I’ve seen all week in his back pocket, he seems, for a moment, almost American to me wondering through France – the one who’s not above performing a set at a shopping mall somewhere outside of Lyon, the one who’s content to analyze the differences in the language and the quirks in the culture, the one armed with a big enough drive and a why the hell not? dream to one day become “the American Gad Elmaleh.”