For French-Moroccan comedian Gad Elmaleh, who once sold out the 3,800-seat Palais des Sports in Paris for seven weeks running, performing his show "Oh My Gad" at Joe's Pub, a club roughly the size of a kindergarten classroom, has been a rather dramatic change of pace.
But his six-month residency at the cozy venue is all part of Elmaleh's ambitious attempt to become a crossover comedy star. He comes to Largo in West Hollywood for three sold-out shows beginning Feb. 29.
The 44-year-old comedian is explaining what motivated him to seek a career in the U.S. when he suddenly conjures a quintessentially French metaphor: "America is my mistress," he says, whipping out his iPhone to jot down the idea. "France is the wife, you know, the kids. We're not breaking up. I'm gonna come back. I just need to go and challenge myself."
Elmaleh is often described as "the French Jerry Seinfeld," and though he brushes off the comparison, it seems apt. The comedians have been friends since 2007, when Elmaleh voiced Seinfeld's character in the French version of "Bee Movie." He also tagged along for a ride in a 1950 Citroen for Seinfeld's Web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." Seinfeld even made a surprise appearance as Elmaleh's opening act at Joe's Pub this month.
The two share a style that is broadly accessible and — mistress jokes notwithstanding — generally raunch-free. In an hour-long set at Joe's Pub, Elmaleh riffs in English — his fourth language, mind you — about familiar comedic terrain: real estate, cab drivers, Starbucks, air travel.
He's also an astute observer of the cultural differences between France and America. In one bit, he imagines Siri as invented by the French (hint: She's not that helpful) and marvels at the level of customer service in the States.
"It's getting better every day," Elmaleh says of the act, "but the more you learn, the more you see that you don't know anything."
The language barrier is an ever-present challenge for Elmaleh, who spoke English poorly until he began working with a teacher years ago. "It's interesting, I was so much more confident when I didn't know English," he says, adding that he would come to New York or L.A. and speak in something close to gibberish. "Then when I started to really learn, I realized it's hard. There are new words every day."
He grew up speaking French, Hebrew and Arabic, and he makes a concerted effort to work newly learned colloquialisms into his conversation, as if speaking in italics. He also has a keen ear for accents. At one point in the conversation, Elmaleh slips into the laid-back cadence of a California bro to impersonate a pretentious actor talking about his character at a press junket: "Yeah, you know, Ben is not only a father, he's also strong and fragile."
Elmaleh admits to a long-standing fascination with the U.S. dating to his childhood in Casablanca. His father, a mime, would tell him if he went straight across the Atlantic, he'd reach America.
"It's like something not real. I really have always dreamed of it," he says.
After college in Montreal and a move to Paris, Elmaleh rose to prominence in the early 2000s playing multiple characters in semi-autobiographical one-man shows. With friend and fellow comedian Jamel Debbouze, Elmaleh helped to popularize the stripped-down American style of standup in France, which has a more theatrical comedy tradition, Elmaleh says. "My American friends always make fun of me: 'You guys, when you have no joke, you play the tambourine.' The American way is so, so dry and pure. Standup shows in France, it's crazy. You have lights, you have sounds, you have screens."
Even without the bells and whistles, Elmaleh has become a major star, hosting the César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars, three times. He has more than 5 million Twitter followers (@gadelmaleh) and a fan base that stretches across Europe and the Francophone countries of Africa and the Middle East. His personal life, particularly his relationship with Charlotte Casiraghi, daughter of Monaco's Princess Caroline and granddaughter of the late Grace Kelly, has been a subject of tabloid scrutiny.
Though he's starred in many French-language films and worked with the likes of Woody Allen ("Midnight in Paris") and Steven Spielberg ("The Adventures of Tintin"), he always returns to the stage. In another similarity with Seinfeld, he's a bit of a comedy purist.
"There is nothing more terrible than when I hear a comedian say, 'I did standup just to go to the movies. That's not respecting standup comedy," he says. "Doing a movie where, I don't know, my name is Luc and I'm a dentist, divorced, eating something, you see me at the office — it's boring. I've kissed Sophie Marceau, that's it. Once you've kissed Sophie Marceau, what else do you want to do in France?
The relative anonymity of life in the United States has been a welcome reprieve. Although, as he jokes in his set at Joe's Pub, being an ordinary civilian can make it harder to pick up women.
Elmaleh's low profile here may not last long. In recent appearances on "Late Night," where he made fun of Seth Meyers for being unable to speak French despite having a French teacher for a mother ("That's the most American thing I've ever heard," he quipped), and "The Daily Show," where he compared notes with host and fellow international comedian Trevor Noah, the charming Elmaleh has proved himself an advanced practitioner at the art of celebrity self-promotion.
Elmaleh's residency at Joe's Pub will continue through June, and he also has dates planned for "Oh, My Gad" in San Francisco and Philadelphia. His goal is to hone his act and eventually play in bigger rooms, and for the time being, Elmaleh's love affair with America shows no signs of cooling.
"The mistress is great. I don't know if I love her," he says, "but she turns me on a lot."