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French comedian Gad Elmaleh on coming to America

“I have to earn every laugh.”

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American audiences might recognize Gad Elmaleh as the private investigator in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But most of his seven-million-plus Twitter followers know him for his work on stage as France’s most successful standup comic. Elmaleh, as part of an extensive North American tour, makes his Pittsburgh debut at the Improv with five shows Oct. 12-14.

Before Elmaleh, there wasn’t much American-style standup comedy in Europe. He began by writing and performing what American audiences might call one-man shows, which can incorporate music, scenery, and dialogue between characters. Elmaleh, speaking by phone recently from France, recalls his friend Jerry Seinfeld poking fun at and exaggerating the style, saying the French also use “magic tricks, animals, the circus, miming, playing with a rope.” The joking seems to have affected Elmaleh, who cites Seinfeld as a major influence in his transition toward American-style joke-telling. “I’m in love with the way [Seinfeld] takes little details and makes them a big problem.”

Elmaleh’s European roots still influence his act, but these days he enjoys having a conversation with the audience rather than simply performing for them. “My first standup show in France, people were like ‘Wow, he’s talking to us directly? We’ve never seen that before!’” Elmaleh credits much of his success in France to his ability to converse with the audience. Now he’s learning to connect with American audiences.

Developing a stand-up act requires learning from the mistakes of hundreds of shows, and editing material. That’s different from creating a one-man show, which is typically written in entirety before it’s ever performed. For Elmaleh, failing and learning what material works is half the fun. In America, he says, “I have to earn every laugh. I have to win them over. If I bomb, eh, it’s OK, I just come back and try again.” I tell him that comedian Ari Shaffir once said, “You’ve done nothing until you bomb 1,000 times.” Gad replies, “Wow. I would agree until … no. One thousand is too much.”

Elmaleh sold out (and killed at) Paris’ iconic Olympia Theater for seven consecutive weeks. Those who see him in Pittsburgh will be fortunate to experience the world-famous comic in a more intimate club setting. 


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