In 2015, French Moroccan comedian Gad Elmaleh made an unusual decision. After enjoying years of fame and success in France—he is often referred to as “The Jerry Seinfeld of France,” and indeed, Seinfeld is a friend and supporter—Elmaleh decided to learn English and discover how his comedy translates in America. In early 2016, he began a six-month stint at Joe’s Pub in New York City, and has now embarked on a U.S. tour. We recently chatted with Elmaleh in advance of his show at Symphony Hall on February 3.
You are a major comedy headliner in Europe, and yet you (at least temporarily) gave it up to pursue a stand-up career in the U.S.—and in English. What has been the most difficult part?
There were many, many difficulties when I first started. Obviously the first issue, the first struggle, is the language. Two years ago, I didn’t speak English like I speak now. I took so many lessons, and worked with a dialect coach, and tried to watch the news everywhere I was in English.
I had to master speaking English, and I also had to learn a new way of delivering my jokes. The way the Americans are used to hearing and receiving stand-up is so, so different. In Europe, we have a tradition of acting and performing during stand-up, and I’m not saying the American audience is not ready to receive that, but you have to stay sharp with the delivery so they can follow what you’re saying.
What kinds of changes did you have to make to your stand-up routine?
When I first started doing stand-up in English, I tried to translate some jokes from my French act, and it didn’t work at all. I think people want to hear a unique new perspective. In my act, in my show, there’s this whole perspective about me coming from France and observing American culture, behavior, traditions, the way of talking, eating, dressing, traveling, dancing. I like that; I was really happy to see that [for] Americans, stand-up comedy is such a big part of the culture, they’re used to that style of self-deprecating jokes.
Does your new material draw on your time on tour?
I just have new material all the time when I travel. When I first moved to France, because I was born in Morocco, my first stand-up show was about my journey: being Moroccan and moving away to Canada, and being established in France. And now I feel like I’m doing it again, but instead the material is about me traveling across the U.S. Stand-up comedians always talk about personal stuff, and this is my life now.
Do you have any preconceived ideas about Atlanta?
Not a lot. I know just the clichés, so for Atlanta I think of Coca-Cola. It’s stupid, but this is all we learn in France. But I realize the history of the city is so much more interesting than only Coca-Cola. I’m looking forward to exploring, and then later I can talk about this trip in my act when I go to other cities. There’s always something new to say.