MONTREAL - Gad Elmaleh is calling from “the countryside near Paris, to escape the heat,” which seems a curious thing for a man born in Casablanca. And curiouser still for a man who doesn’t appear to fear the heat.
A son of North Africa, a star of French comedy in France, Montreal and throughout the francophonie, Elmaleh is a man for whom comedy is a passport. Daringly, he will perform in French in New York in September. “It’s great, because you have a big — I won’t say French community there, but francophone: North African, African, Belgian, Swiss, some Québécois. You get mixed crowds that I never get in France. In New York, I walk down the street and I hear ‘C’est par là!’ ‘Non non non, c’est là-bas!’ ”
More daring still, he will take the stage in Salle Wilfrid Pelletier tonight in Eddie Izzard’s United Nations of Comedy Gala for a standup bit. In English. His fourth language, and one in which he has never performed. “I didn’t even think before I said ‘Yes, great, awesome, what an opportunity for me,’ ” Elmaleh says, laughing softly. “And then: ‘S--t, I’m in trouble’ ”
Maybe Izzard can bail him out, he’s bilingue … but no. The quadrilingual Elmaleh will do just fine. Some people are just born funny. Already a darling here, Gad knows his comedy translates effortlessly.
Across languages, cultures, accents … There is his “No Lipsticks for Nuns” appearance in Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee series. Closer to home, there is a YouTube video of his giddyingly dead-on Québécois impersonation charming a Montreal crowd accustomed (or hypersensitive) to the slightest sneer from the old country. None here.
“There’s something with the French when they do the Québécois accent,” he explains. “It’s like they invent some Québécois expressions that don’t even exist.”
“But it’s funny, because any time a French-Canadian says to me ‘Tu es le seul français qui fait bien l’accent Québécois,’ I say ‘You know what? It’s because I’m not French!’ ”
He has a broader vision of the francophonie. Elmaleh grew up in a Sephardic Jewish family in Casablanca “in a time when it was the only country in the world, I think, where the two communities got along so well — more than that, they exchanged, they built things together, a culture — Jews and Muslims. It was great.”
He also lived here in Montreal for four years, from 1988 to 1992, attending CEGEP St-Laurent, “working very hard,” he says with an audibly raised eyebrow. Well aware of the language issue, he laughs at American linguistic reluctance. “Every time, you get the same answer: ‘Oh, I took two years of French in high school, but I forgot it all.’ ” Elmaleh grew up speaking Arabic and Hebrew along with French. “All of these languages speak inside of me. And now the challenge is to perform in English. It’s a … big thing. Talking in English (with you) is not the same as making people laugh — the pacing, the rhythm, the punchlines.”
He had a chance to work on it at the most dizzying level when drafted to play a detective in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
“It was a very small part, but a great experience. I didn’t know the script, because he doesn’t give the script to everyone. I didn’t know the story. So here I was (supposed to play) a detective, and the first day I came on the set, he said: ‘OK, get in this car. Do you know what you’re doing in this scene?’
‘Well you’re spying on this guy.’
‘OK what do you want me to do?’ And he said ‘I dunno (sweet little Woody impression here). Just do what people do when they’re spying.’ And I said: ‘I’ve never spied’
“So because he doesn’t do very many takes, I did this very overacting spy act. And he came to me and said: ‘Non, doucement’
“It was really fun, and for the payoff scene (spoiler: Elmaleh running for his life) I did the physicality, running very strangely, and he laughed and said: ‘Give me more of that.’ ”
So he’ll give us more of that. “I’ve no doubt about the material, but the translation, or more the adaptation.” He mentions differences in standup attack — staccato anglos, “there’s no big setup like in French, the gestures, the physicality. But I don’t want to sound like an American or an English or English-Canadian comedian. I want to be presented as me, as what I am. Even if I have to stop and say: ‘S--t, how do I say this?’ ”
Given this is a second debut of sorts, he feels “exactly how I felt 20 years ago, when I went on stage for the first time, in 1994 in Cabaret Juste pour rire. I was so scared.” Then, his family offered tremendous support. “Now, they don’t care … But for this 10 minutes in Place des Arts, it feels so new, so challenging.
“So fingers crossed, touch the wood, pray at the synagogue, the mosque.”
Given the lingo-cultural fences we’ve been hurdling, it almost seems inappropriate to offer him the ol’ English showbiz saw: Break a leg.
“It’s worse in France,” says Elmaleh. “They say merde.”
Gad Elmaleh performs at the United Nations of Comedy gala, hosted by Eddie Izzard, Thursday at 10 p.m. at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier of Place des Arts. For tickets and more information, visit hahaha.com.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette