The world may be a giant stage of players, but Gad Elmaleh is among those taking up much of the stage. The Moroccan-born French Jewish comedian, who sold out stadiums in Europe for decades before heading west two years ago, is a late-night television darling and social media juggernaut. His appearances on “Conan,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers” have fetched millions of viewers, while his Instagram account, with its 1.4 million followers, boasts selfies with Jerry Seinfeld, Lorne Michaels and Kevin Hart.
Elmaleh’s North American tour, which includes five Steel City shows between Oct. 12 and Oct. 14 at the Pittsburgh Improv Comedy Club before next month’s Town Hall special in New York City for Netflix, has engendered an experience that has as much introduced the observational comedian to a culture as it has a new audience to the entertainer.
“It’s been two years, the challenge has begun,” said Elmaleh.
With incessant performances in “clubs, on the road, in rooms and on talk shows,” Elmaleh has tapped a national vibe by mirroring his foreignness. His stand-up bits recount difficulties with learning English, a task he largely adopted upon arriving here, the supposed oddities of being French and the wholehearted ignorance of Americans toward anything European.
“What’s really good about observational comedy in America is the outsider part of it. Coming from me, this is my perspective,” he said.
That outlook is shared in a three-minute sketch that achieves both hilarity and genius, as Elmaleh mocks the national entry process by pitting himself as an immigrant against a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer.
At the beginning of the YouTube video, courtesy of “Funny Or Die,” after Elmaleh hands over his passport, he is asked why he was born in Morocco.
“I guess because my parents were both there at the same time,” he replies.
Following other absurd inquiries, the encounter escalates until Elmaleh finally announces, “I’m big, I’m tremendous, I make more money than all of you combined losers.”
The joke is that such bombastic behavior ultimately yields his admittance into the country, as Elmaleh is told by the officer, “Sir, you are being an —hole right now, and there is nothing more American than that.”
Though Elmaleh, 46, achieved success in France long ago, he still seeks to share similar perceptions that rendered him famous.
“I don’t change anything about who I am. … I like to make jokes about my Jewish mom, but I like to make jokes about that I’m from Morocco, which is an Arab country, and I like to make jokes about that I’m from Paris.”
He returns to such familiar themes because “being a comedian is being real,” he explained, and maintaining integrity is critically important.
Such is why Elmaleh was so touched by a recent gift after a charity show in Montreal. To demonstrate its appreciation, the local Chabad presented him with a pair of tefillin.
“I was very moved because it’s my story.”
“When I was growing up in Casablanca, my grandfather would put on the tefillin every morning. I would watch him, I was a kid, and I was, like, what is he doing, and it was so strange for me to see that around his arm. I was amazed by that, and one day I understood.”
It was one of several experiences that elevated Elmaleh’s Jewish learning.
“My bar mitzvah in Morocco was wonderful. I have great memories of that. It was very traditional. I did the Torah, the whole thing, very serious. You know, Morocco Jews are very well cultured, educated with the Torah and religious studies.”
Beyond noticing practices and studying Hebrew, his Casablanca childhood introduced him to the Talmud.
“I was at the yeshiva, not because I wanted to, but because the only school that would accept me was a yeshiva in Morocco because I was very bad at school; I did not do very well.”
Now, decades later, days are fused by those Moroccan memories. “I am not religious. I perform on Shabbat no problem, but the thing is when I am in Paris, my mother is preparing Shabbat in the Moroccan way, and we have great food, we sing songs. [Often, there is] a lot of food on Friday night, and a lot of typical stuff [such as] thousands of salads and then the fish, then the meat, the meatballs and then the challah.”
Where cultural and ritual combine though are the High Holidays.
“My manager, who is not Jewish, knows that in my schedules Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there will never be a show — never, never, never. It’s more than the question of religion, it’s for my father. It’s to be together with my family and it’s OK; I have plenty of other days during the year.”
There is a particular reverence Elmaleh holds for his father, who instilled particular values that Elmaleh strives to transmit.
Respecting parents is “like what we learned in the naaseh v’nishma, just do it, you will understand it later.” The concept is difficult, he joked, because “Jewish people, they love to ask questions.”
In doing his part, Elmaleh recently honored his father at Moroccan-styled High Holiday services in Paris.
“Two days ago at Kippur, I bought a mitzvah for my father, and I gave a donation for petichat hahechal for Ne’ilah of Kippur, and they start to do the brachah for me and I gave the mitzvah to my father. … I just gave a kiss on his forehead because Jews in Morocco, this is how they do, and chazak u’baruch, and he did it and he blessed all the family. It was a mitzvah, you know, and then we talked about it after at home, and it felt good. I felt good to do that.”
“I have two sons, [their mothers] are not Jewish, but they got the bris, and one of them got the bar mitzvah,” he continued. “For them, it is important to understand something that is also largely incomprehensible to many Jews, which is how close we were to the Muslim community in Morocco. A Muslim friend of mine knows exactly what Shabbat is because we grew up together and he smelled the meatballs that my mom used to do. ‘Oh, it’s Shabbat tomorrow,’ he would say. ‘I know you are going to the prayer.’ And when it was Ramadan, my father would tell us not to eat in front of neighbors: ‘They are Muslim and they don’t eat; they are fasting and you should respect that.’”
The problem is that nowadays “we are going through a crazy madness” where ignorance has generated fear and hate, said Elmaleh.
More opportunities, such as those given to Muslim and Jewish children in Morocco who study side-by-side in school, are needed, said Elmaleh. “Nobody talks about that; it exists now to this day. It’s in Casablanca — it’s a great symbol, it’s fantastic I love that.”
In discerning the world around him, the observational comedian is uncertain as to where this all will lead, but what he hopes is that although he generates many jokes, there is a realization that he and his show are not a charade.
“We have to continue. We have to talk about who we are,” he said. “We have to tell our story, and it’s not easy. But I continue even if my comedy is not political. I’m from Morocco, I’m Jewish, I do comedy, and I’m here.” pjc
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.