Monday, May 7, 2018 | 2 a.m.
When Moroccan-born comedian and actor Gad Elmaleh made his Las Vegas debut last year, he opened for one of his idols Jerry Seinfeld at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. Although Elmaleh is a seasoned performer—generally considered one of the biggest and best-known comics in France and around Europe—taking the Vegas stage caused some anxiety.
“I don’t know if was just my European way of thinking or innate fantasy of all the big shows in Vegas, but I was nervous,” he says. “It went great, but before going in, I thought about it being such a big room and opening for Jerry, I didn’t want to disappoint him. But it was a great experience.”
Elmaleh has been a frequent Vegas visitor over the years—he’s particularly fond of Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at Bellagio—but he’s back this week to hit a smaller stage, the one at the new Comedy Cellar at the Rio. The original New York City Comedy Cellar has been one of his main haunts since he began performing in English three years ago.
“I’m very curious and excited to see the Vegas club as the Comedy Cellar is the place that really gave me the first opportunity when I first started to do English stuff,” he says. “All the comedians have been talking about [the Vegas club] because it’s our home and I’m curious to see if it’ll be like New York. This time, I’m more curious than stressed.”
Here’s the rest of my conversation with a guy who’s funny in any language and also stars in a new comedy special on Netflix called “Gad Elmaleh: American Dream.”
What is the European perception of what Las Vegas is? It’s funny, when I tell people in Paris I’m performing in Vegas, they can’t believe it. In America, I think comedians kind of make fun of Vegas, how it can be a little silly and over the top. In France, they think about Frank Sinatra. If was from New York and lived in America my whole life I would maybe have that little sarcasm or those observations. Coming from France, it just sounds great. If I’m going to Vegas I put it on social media—because it’s a little bit bragging and I like that—and I always get the, “Whoa!” Some of my friends are saying, “You know what? I think we should fly to see him.”
I suppose the style of comedy in France is very different from its American counterpart as well. I think the American school of stand-up comedy is jokes, jokes, jokes, more physical and more warm. When I first discovered American comedians I loved them for how smart they were and their writing and how efficient they were, but for French comedians it was the opposite. I love their theatrical stuff but I was waiting for the jokes. The setups are too long. One comedian I love to watch is Sebastian Maniscalco. He’s one of the rare comedians who still does physical gags.
In “American Dream” you do a lot of material about language and communication. I love the joke about how every American tells you they took two years of French in high school but forgot it all. I did another one to poke at that a bit: You took two years of French and I took six months of English and I’m talking to you now! It’s not true, but it’s making fun of the situation. What’s really interesting is how could you take two years of a language and not remember it? Either the teaching is not very good or you didn’t go to class. If I did two years of anything, skiing or juggling or anything, I would know how to do a little and very badly. But can you say bonjour? No? Why?
I think this is one thing Americans are just lazy about. We don’t think we’ll need to speak any language other than English. I think unconsciously they know they will not use it, which is smart because they’re right. You’re never going to use French unless you go on a date in Paris. But if we don’t learn English we’re [in trouble]. And that’s the beauty of learning English, for me, because not only can I perform in America, I can go to other countries I would have never imagined I could perform like India or the Middle East or Russia. I’m planning the world tour now and I can’t wait.
When did you get to the point where you felt truly comfortable performing in English? When I started, I had my set almost scripted like a play, because I’d translate my jokes with my English teacher. One day at the Comedy Cellar in New York, someone said something to me in the audience and I started to talk with this person and I realized I could be funny even with nonperfect English. That night I felt, you know what? Let it go. They know I’m not from here and I’ll never sound like an American man and I’ll never be an American stand-up, but I knew to be what you are. I started to try to not improvise but put it in my words. That’s why it’s special for me, when I’m in France, people tell me when I perform in English, “we recognize you.” I’m happy to hear that. I prefer to make mistakes and be me than have perfect English.
Are you going to see “O” again when you’re in town? It probably sounds like a cliché but for me, that is the best show. I’ve seen it many times and I think it’s the best thing I have seen in my life. I love that show. I want to bring everyone I know and my family. But actually I am planning to do a lot of things in Vegas this time. There are a lot characters there in the street and all around that I want to observe as an outsider, and I’m bringing a small crew to film my observations on Las Vegas and I’m sure we’ll get material at every meter. For me, it’s like if you lived at Disneyworld.
But I have friends there now and I know there are neighborhoods and a lot of different people. I have discovered there is a life in Las Vegas and I really like it but I cannot stay for too long. The most funny thing is one day when I arrived in Vegas I met a friend and the first thing he wanted to do was take me to see the Eiffel Tower. I said, man, you cannot do this. I live by the original one. I wake up in the morning and there it is. I don’t want to see the replica, take me to some American stuff!
Gad Elmaleh performs at 7 and 9 p.m. May 9 at the Comedy Cellar at the Rio (3700 W. Flamingo Road, 702-777-2782) and more info can be found at caesars.com.