Casablanca-born Gad Elmaleh has achieved widespread fame in Europe as an actor, writer, director, and comedian, performing in his native French and Arabic as well as Hebrew. Recent roles include the voice of Berry B. Benson in the French version of Bee Movie and the voice of Ben Salaad in The Adventures of Tintin, Detective Tisserant in Midnight in Paris, and Rabbi Moshe in The Midnight Orchestra. A French Jerry Seinfeld of sorts, Elmaleh, 45, has developed a relationship with the American comedy icon and joined him for a ride on the web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (season 2 episode 3, “No Lipsticks for Nuns”). This year, he moved to New York to break into the American comedy circuit. He’ll perform his new English-language show, “Oh My Gad,” September 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Benaroya Hall. We had the pleasure of speaking with him about his identity, his relationship with Seinfeld, and the quirks of English phrases and American dating.
Jewish in Seattle: Tell us a little about growing up in Casablanca.
Gad Elmaleh: It’s very interesting. I speak Hebrew, and when I say I’m from Morocco people are so surprised. They cannot put it together. They cannot understand that Jews had a great, great life in Morocco. We have the Jewish neighborhood, the mellah. We would get along very well with the Arabs, and also the synagogues were everywhere. My grandfather would teach me Hebrew and take me to the synagogue. I have been to yeshiva in Morocco. There is still a Jewish school where Muslims and Jews study Arabic and Hebrew. It’s unique in the world, and no one talks about it. The young Muslims learn Hebrew and the young Jews learn Arabic. Growing up in Morocco as a Jew in a Jewish family was great back then. We were really in peace.
You have a somewhat common Sephardic last name. Does everyone think they’re related to you?
I’m performing every night at [New York’s] Joe’s Pub, and one day I received a letter saying “we’re the Elmaleh family from America.” I said, “I want to meet you. I want to meet the Elmalehs in America.” It’s so strange. They have a very American family. For me, I have a Sephardic family in Morocco and they speak Arabic and French. Because I’m in America I have no family. I need some place to go for Shabbat. But only Moroccan food — not Ashkenazi food.
You mention your mother a lot. What’s she like?
She is Jewish and Moroccan. It’s a double crazy energy. She’s so funny. She’s funny without knowing she’s funny. Jewish mothers are not all the same. People think there’s just one kind of Jewish mother. It’s not a cliché of the Jewish mother who would do anything for the kids. Yes, but the Sephardic mother wants to be sexy and good looking and everything. It brings a lot of material.
Why did you take your career to America?
It’s not only a professional decision. It’s a very deep and profound and personal move. I love what I get from the French and the Moroccan audience. In a career you need some fuel, some motivation to get excited again — just like in a relationship, in a job, in life. You can’t take everything for granted. I want to take risks and basically get excited. Before going to my show in New York City, I’m like a kid. I get those butterflies. It’s like couples go on a “date night.” I moved to America.
You’ve developed a relationship with Jerry Seinfeld, playing his voice in the French version of Bee Movie, and riding along with him in “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” How exciting has that been for you?
The day I met with him was incredible. It was 10 years ago in Cannes. He was there to promote Bee Movie. I was in the room with maybe 12 people. Jerry showed up with Chris Rock. He knew he was going to need a comedian from France. He pointed to me and said, “You’re the funny guy.” I said, did you ever Google me? How did you know I was funny?” He said, “I know who is the funny guy in the room.” I said, “You don’t speak French.” He said, “Maybe I don’t, but you are funny.” It was the best thing I could get from my mentor.
I opened for him in Paris. He opened for me in New York in Joe’s Pub a few weeks ago. People went crazy when they saw him. It’s a very nice friendship story. I feel really close to his way of analyzing human beings. I love him. I like to talk with smart people who are witty and clever. It’s uplifting.
What’s the biggest difference about performing comedy in English as opposed to your first languages?
It’s hard to explain, but the first thing that comes to my mind is something a fan said. She said, “What’s happening now with the English, it’s more you. You look more free, because people are not expecting something preceding you.” Performing in another language is really liberating. You break some barriers. You go into some topics you never talk about in your mother tongue. What I love to do is to adapt to where I am. If it’s another language, I love to find some jokes about the local culture. Surprisingly, I’m very comfortable in English. Two years ago I could never talk to you for more than five minutes. Performing in English is very, very enjoyable. It’s fun, I feel free.
There’s something very funny about Arabic language. You’d say in Arabic about a banana, that “she got sick.” The Moroccans like to make fun of themselves. But I was surprised by the American audience. French people were more scared of me making jokes to Americans. My French fans, they told me, “Yeah, I’m not sure you can do that joke in America, because the Americans are going to get so sensitive.” It’s not true. American culture is so aware. They know what stand-up is so well. The culture is really strong about comedy. “Pull my leg.” I like this one. Americans say, “I’m going to pull your leg.”
What are the biggest shocks to you in America?
The surprising thing, and I talk about it in my show, is the relationship thing with the American women and the organization of dating. It’s very unusual for a Moroccan French guy. I’m used to not knowing what’s going to happen. I try to be spontaneous. It’s very rare. I think girls want to know what’s going to happen. They want to label things: one-night stand, Netflix and chill, and whatever. Maybe there are kinds of relationships that we can’t really name. Just live. Just go with it and improvise. This really surprised me. The dating process is very stressful. I make a lot of jokes about this in my show.
How are people reacting to your shows here?
Every night I’m surprised, because the audiences know I’m from France and I was born in Morocco, but I get these people from Armenia or Iran. They can relate to my story as a foreigner. What is it, “Fish out of the water?” I’m pulling your leg out of the water.