Unlike in Europe where fans routinely spot him, comedian Gad Elmaleh is reveling in the anonymity of New York.
A Joe’s Pub regular, the stand-up specialist has been making the rounds on late-night shows with Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore and as of Wednesday Conan O’Brien. Far from his hometown of Casablanca and his second home in Paris, the 45-year-old transplant relies on the subway and the streets of New York for some of his best material. With movie roles like “Midnight in Paris” and “Coco,” Elmaleh is also known for having a son, Raphaël, with Charlotte Casiraghi.
Before helping to honor his friend Diane von Furstenberg at the Museum of Jewish Heritage Tuesday night, Elmaleh compared his New York life to being an ambidextrous tennis player, and explained how a chance meeting with the designer changed his career direction.
WWD: Diane said that you met on AirFrance.
Gad Elmaleh: We were stuck on a plane that would never take off. I don’t remember why. I just remember that we spent the night together, waiting to go to Paris. We talked a lot. I literally had, do you say “crush” in English? You know, a friendship. I was telling her about my projects. I’ve been a stand-up comedian in France for 20 years and I just moved to New York. I just started doing stand-up here in English, which was a big challenge. She was very, very encouraging, and supportive, and we’ve become friends. When I need some advice, I call her. I did my first appearance on American television because she brought Seth Meyers to my show. Since I’ve done his show, I’ve done so many others. Wednesday night I will be on Conan O’Brien.
WWD: Are you being approached to do your own?
G.E.: I don’t have a TV show yet. I’m thinking that that’s what I want to do, like a series or something. I perform at Joe’s Pub every night and I will be performing at Carnegie Hall in 2017 which is the biggest news. But for my mother, tonight was more important than Carnegie Hall. I have a Jewish mother in France. She said, “When is this thing at the Jewish Museum?” I said “Mom, I’m doing Carnegie Hall!” She said, “It’s OK. Tell me about the Jewish Museum.”
WWD: What strikes you about living here compared to Paris?
G.E.: I’m free because nobody knows me here. It’s very interesting to be anonymous. Nobody recognizes me — very rarely does that happen. So I can do anything I want to do without thinking about how I talk or how I look. This is really interesting for my creativity and being able to focus on writing. I can go anywhere I want. I can go observe people on the subway without them knowing I am keenly observing them. I am just a random regular guy in the middle of thousands of people in New York. I love that.
WWD: Is a New York crowd different from a European one?
G.E.: I love that the American audience in New York is ready to listen, and to receive another perspective on Americans and America. It’s interesting. New York has a comedy scene. They know about comedy. Comedy was born here. I go to comedy clubs a lot. The one that I think is the best in the country is the Comedy Cellar. Every comedian from every city around the world would like to perform at the Comedy Cellar.
WWD: Is your work more about observation than expression?
G.E.: Both. I don’t interpret. I talk about very personal stuff and I observe. It has a few phases. I observe, I write and then I go on stage to try that out and work it out. And every night it becomes a show. This is what I’ve been doing for more than 20 years now — in France, in north Africa, because I was born in Morocco — all over.
WWD: What do you like most about New York?
G.E.: The challenge. For me, starting over is the best. It is not easy, but it is great. It is like being a tennis champion who is right-handed says, “Tomorrow I’m going to start playing with the left hand.” It’s like, “What are you doing? You’re great with the right hand.” “I know, but let me.” What’s really interesting when you work with the left hand, you learn a lot of things about the right hand. You’re like, “Oh, I was doing this like that…” So it’s a journey – it’s crazy what I’m doing now.
WWD: Is Charlotte with you in New York?
G.E.: No, they’re in Europe. I go there a lot to see my family. I go to see my child. Me and Charlotte are not together any more but I go to see my baby. He also comes to see me. We stay close. We are a family.
WWD: Do you still get nervous?
G.E.: All the time even for this — always nervous, always. The thing is I’m nervous with the language now. The good thing is when I go to comedy clubs they don’t know me. So I’m not that nervous. I have nothing to lose. The worst case scenario would be, “Eh, who is this guy? He was not funny.” The best is — “Oh, this guy was so funny and we’ve never heard of him. You should go check out his show.”
WWD: With all the political unrest in the world and people being wary about attacks and so many things, do you feel more responsibility to bring some humor into the world?
G.E.: Oh yeah, we need to make fun of ourselves — please.