Dallas — Friday night on the Jefferson strip—the Mexican restaurants were hopping, sidewalks were full of high-spirited people, and mobile parties rolled down the road. The closer you got to the Texas Theater, the language shifted from Spanish to French as what appeared to be every Moroccan or French ex-pat in Dallas headed to Oh My Gad featuring comedian Gad Elmaleh.
Elmaleh—a Casablanca-born Moroccan Sephardic Jew and long-time Paris resident now living in New York City—attracted the kind of crowd that would make Donald Trump very nervous. As much reunion as concert, well over half of attendees were speaking French. A group of enthusiastic men rushed to the front of the sold-out auditorium with a Moroccan flag and wailed a happily anthemic tune. There were faces in all shades of Middle Eastern tan blending with the white and black faces of Oak Cliff hipsters, in a crowd that skewed under 40 and well-educated.
Yet the opening “Bonjour!” was about the only French he spoke from the stage. Elmaleh performed in English, a major feat to master not only the language but also the fine-tuned accents, intonations and rhythms that effective comedy demands. Especially stunning when you consider the wordplay, puns and exquisite tweaks of the French language that marked his prior acts. After a period of nightclub shows, talk show appearances and film roles in English, last year Elmaleh embarked on his first English-language tour that culminates at Carnegie Hall in February. Bien joué, Elmaleh!
“I just moved to America last fall—perfect timing,” Elmaleh noted to howls from the ex-pat audience, adding that he used his French passport, not Moroccan, to enter the country. He explored cultural chasms with deft charm. A bit on apathetic French versus perky American sales clerks had them howling. What would fortune cookies for French restaurants be, he pondered: “Don’t reach for the stars; you’ll never make it” and “If you have big dreams it means you’re sleeping."
Speaking English when French is your native language is exhausting, he said, fun for the first hour or so until you tire and “become a great listener.” Showing his trademark skill with voices, he joked on the joys of mastering drunk English and the difficulty of learning American style accents and vocal emphases. Newly de-coupled from his prior partner with whom he has a three-year-old son, he chuckled on the hurdles of American dating customs, asking “What is this ‘friends with benefits’? In France, we call that friends.”
Though referenced as the “Jerry Seinfeld of France,” and has appeared on Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Elmaleh is more a projection of personality like Louis CK. It was a show of small stories and extended cultural observations, connecting with the audience in a heartfelt way while being wryly above it. He paced, shrugged and mugged so attention never wavered, reaching an embodied apex with a slapsticky routine on gay baiting TSA agents by moaning and writhing during pat downs.
Elmaleh is often cited as the most popular stand-up in France, Belgium and other parts of Europe where he performed in his native French. In 2005 with his show L’autre c’est moi, he accelerated the shift to a more American style of stand-up. In the process he modeled a new way for modern French comics to operate, breaking free of the traditional arch theatricality and fourth-wall separation. Commedia dell'arte was even more popular in France than Italy, so the tradition was a deep one. He fuses the physicality and facial expressions of Commedia with the observational/analytical structured joke-bit-routine style of American stand-up, topped with the projection of being a congenially goofy guy.
The show launched with a recollection of Elmaleh’s youth in Morocco and visits to the ocean with his “typical Moroccan father, a man of few words and many gestures,” a description the crowd loved. (More than witty, it was dryly funny when you consider his father was a mime.) The duo would gaze across the ocean, with his father evoking the United States and American dream thousands of miles away. Elmaleh wondered then if there was a father and son on the other side, gazing eastward and pondering the Moroccan dream. As it turned out, as a new resident walking along the Manhattan shore with his young son decades later, that scenario came to be.
Elmaleh and Seinfeld spend a goofy day driving around New York in a barely functioning 1950 Citron and visiting French Roast, a Francophile coffeeshop. Along the way, Seinfeld discovers French fries are Belgium. Click here.