Can French Comedy Superstar Gad Elmaleh Make It in America?

Francophone comedian Gad Elmaleh doesn’t need to translate his act to be successful. In fact, he doesn’t even need to translate his act to be successful in America. 

Just a few months ago, the stand-up filled New York’s Beacon Theater performing in French, a testament to his appeal to Francophone audiences even outside France, Quebec, or Elmaleh’s native Morocco. Still, Elmaleh remains largely unknown to English speakers — and yet he’s halfway through a ten-night English-language run at Joe’s Pub in lower Manhattan, a symbolic entry into the increasingly oversaturated landscape of Anglophone comedy.

So, why is Elmaleh doing this? The answer, he joked to the crowd, is “very American”: “I wanted to challenge myself.”

Here is where one ought to note that stand-up comedy is extraordinarily difficult in one’s native language. Making people laugh doesn’t just require knowing French, or English, or Mandarin well enough to speak it fluently and twist it in on itself; it requires cultural knowledge deep enough to make observations your audience can’t get to on its own, not to mention years of honing timing and cadences that can easily get lost in translation. (Part of what makes, say, Hannibal Buress such a formidable talent is that what comes off as a joke when he says it would be a mere statement coming from you or I.)

All of which is to say that Elmaleh had set himself quite the challenge before he took the stage at Joe’s starting early last week. In theory, the 44-year-old performer would have neither his French material nor his superstardom — three-time-César-host, seven-week-sold-out-run-at-a-two-thousand-seat-Parisian-theater superstardom —to fall back on.

In practice, the crowd, while small thanks to the venue’s capacity, clearly had its fair share of Elmaleh fans. I shared a table with three French expats who laughed knowingly at his crack that every American says they took two years of French in high school, then forgot; towards the end of his performance, a whole row near the back whipped out some Algerian flags, a reference to an old bit of his about how Algerians always have a flag in tow, even if they’re at “a soccer game between Poland and Greece.” Not exactly a joke that would translate for Americans, but more importantly, not one that needed to.

For the most part, however, Elmaleh managed his transition from French to American comedy by focusing on his own transition from France to America. Riffs on going unrecognized in L.A. and superior customer service (in France, “we don’t even have single check!”) went over well, as did outsider’s-take-on-America material of the kind Trevor Noah is currently exposing to a national audience. New York City is the only place in the world that gets more excited when the Pope leaves town than when he enters it; Americans’ inability to speak other languages does seem absurd when pointed out by someone who, despite the show’s premise, demonstrated his fluency in both French and Arabic onstage.

Elmaleh’s English act is best, in other words, when turning his unique position into an advantage instead of a handicap. Inevitably, this leads to some jarring moments of culture clash: a crack about French pharmacies constantly prescribing suppositories killed with the Francophone audience while leaving English speakers, including this one, cold; lazy misogyny (“Only a kid could say something like that — or a woman!”) and reflexive defensiveness (“Sexual harassment? I’m just trying to buy you a drink!”) led to groans instead of laughs. But on the whole, Elmaleh let his comedy result from translation rather than survive it.

In an interview with Splitsider earlier this week, Elmaleh says he’s using the Joe’s Pub performances as a sort of trial run.  He already has plans to visit Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and a few other Eastern cities this fall, with an eye towards a possible extended stay in the States. It’s hard to predict how Elmaleh’s act will go over in markets where there’s less of a Francophone community to draw on, though in a way, that only makes his experiment all the more interesting. Whether the “French Jerry Seinfeld,” as he’s often hyped, can make it on the original’s home turf remains to be seen.