Funny Guy

Actor Gad Elmaleh credits his Moroccan Jewish upbringing for helping make him France's top comedian.

PARIS - Three features compete on French Jewish comedian Gad Elmaleh's face: his mouth, his nose and his eyes. Yet the orbs beneath Elmaleh's eyebrows clearly predominate. They are big - gigantic - wide open, metallic blue, protruding a bit. Elmaleh, 39, is considered one of the most popular French comic actors. He has appeared in 33 films, an average of two per year. They include "Comme ton pere," "The Valet," "Priceless," "Man is a Woman," "Would I Lie to You? 2," "Chouchou" and "Coco."

This year, after 17 good years in the French entertainment world, he has entered the American scene for the first time, with supporting roles in upcoming films by Steven Spielberg ("The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn" ) and Woody Allen ("Midnight in Paris" ). He has also been maintaining his original platform: stand-up performances. Every two years Elmaleh takes to the stage with a new performance he has written and directed, performing in small and large halls in France, and in French-speaking communities elsewhere. All the tickets sell even before the first advertising poster is pasted up. The recordings of these performances are a lively and particularly lucrative derivative: Amazon France ranks them among its most popular DVDs.

Gad Elmaleh

Elmaleh is worth at least 2 million euros, according to French economic commentators. He has twice moderated the Cesar awards ceremony; he has received the Order of Arts and Letters, one of France's highest cultural honors; he owns his own production company; and an acting classroom has been dedicated in his name at the school where he studied theater in Paris. He used to live with the mother of his son Noe, the actress Anne Brochet, who wrote about their relationship in her autobiography. Up until a few weeks ago he was in a well-publicized relationship with local media princess Marie Drucker, a journalist, news presenter and niece of famed French television personality Michel Drucker. Elmaleh is frequently named one of France's most desirable men by French magazines. Every time he leaves the house he is pursued by packs of paparazzi.

Foreigner with a foothold

Elmaleh was born in Casablanca, Morocco. His father David was an actor and a mime. His earliest memory, from age 4, is his father teaching him the well-known mime of pulling a rope to the sounds of Chopin.

Now, all his relatives enjoy the fruits of his success: His sister Judith is an executive at his production company; he encouraged his brother Arie to become a musician and theater actor; and he helped his father integrate into the French film industry. He says he is happy about what he can do for his family, but managing this extended Elmaleh industry entails a great deal of responsibility.

Elmaleh attended religious Jewish elementary and high schools, where he learned his flawless Hebrew, studded with sacred words and phrases. At age 17 he moved to Montreal. In the mornings he studied political science and in the evenings he appeared in small stand-up clubs. Upon completing his studies at age 21 he moved to Paris and began studying acting at Le Cours Florent. Three years later, he was already performing at the Palais des Glaces, the contemporary Parisian comedy hub, with "Decalages," a one-man show based on his experiences as a greenhorn. This show, which was a dizzying success, is considered his breakthrough.

What makes him appeal to so many audiences? First of all - his language. He alternately deconstructs and recombines the familiar extremes: elevated and popular, serious and light, the language of the city and the language of the slums, the mainstream and the marginal. His language resonates with different cultures: Jewish, Arab-Moroccan and French.

This is of course also Elmaleh's worldview, which comes directly from his life story: a foreigner who found a firm foothold in the heart of French society. This status enables him to examine that society's attitude to him and vice versa. And more importantly, it lets him draw in French people and immigrants, and make both identify with him.

Elmaleh comes to Israel often, partly to visit relatives and friends. Most of his relatives there are in Givatayim; a good friend from his student days in Montreal is Dr. Raphael Zagury-Orly, head of the fine arts master's program at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Four years ago he performed in Israel for the first time, filling the Jerusalem International Convention Center and the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv. Before that he spent several weeks in Los Angeles, in part to find out if Americans were ready for a performance tour, in English of course.

Family party

A heavy iron gate leads to Elmaleh's home on a small, hidden street in the Pigalle quarter. He has a spacious, two-story house, flooded with light and decorated in the haute bohemian "bobo" style, with inevitable items like a huge plasma screen and works of art. A different sort of decor characterizes the bookcase in the dining room: Arranged side by side are volumes of the Shulhan Arukh and large icons of the Virgin Mary.

"She watches over me," he observes and it is hard to tell whether he is joking.

A slight tremor of excitement passes through him when he talks about his performances in Israel: "For the French Jewish audience, it's nostalgia. They come to see a performance but also to come together. It's like a family party. This atmosphere makes me feel very close to them. They see me as one of the eldest sons of the French Jewish community.

"The fact that I weave in improvised bits touching on life in Israel - absorption difficulties, dealing with the Hebrew language, with the Israeli street - gives them the feeling I understand them and know what they are going through. For them, I'm the link between the old world they have left behind and the new world. This is humor based on a lot of material from their life but it also laughs at that life."

Do you have red lines when performing for a Jewish audience?

Elmaleh: "I do have red lines, but they don't involve Jewish audiences but rather who I am. Journalists ask me, 'Why don't you ever talk about sex in your performances?' True, I don't talk about sex, not in my personal life and not in my professional life. This is modesty. Those same journalists also ask me why I don't talk about politics. That's nonsense - of course I talk about politics! But it is much less direct and blunt and therefore more sophisticated.

"I'll give you an example: One of my characters is a North African real estate agent who rents apartments only to immigrants, not to French people. If you ask me, this is a more poetic way of talking about politics. I don't like jokes like the ones that tie President [Nicolas ] Sarkozy's height to the way he is running the country. Those jokes are too easy and they will not endure forever."

What about anti-Semitism?

"Of course I address it, but again, I insist on doing it in a sophisticated way. I laugh at anti-Semitic thinking, not at manifestations of anti-Semitism or at anti-Semitic people. That's too easy. In Israel, for example, the comedians are a lot bolder. In Israel I heard a comedian tell the following joke, for example: What would happen if the Holocaust were to happen in the 21st century? Next to the piles of clothes there would be a heap of iPhones. Would a joke like that go over in France? Not on your life! Jews and non-Jews would kill you for a joke like that. France is still sensitive about this kind of bluntness and directness because it is rife with guilt that hasn't yet been resolved."

'Who I am'

Portraits of his mentors hang side by side: Jerry Seinfeld, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen and Buster Keaton. On one wall there is a black and white photograph of Elmaleh, his face painted chalk white, his head covered in a straw hat with a squashed brim and his lips curling down: an homage to Buster Keaton.

"These are my rabbis," he says, pointing at the walls. "I learn from all of them. Among the current French comedians I love Dany Boon and Jamel Debbouze. But I believe the greatest French comedian of all time was without a doubt Louis de Funes. It's unbelievable what happened to me. A few days ago, when I went into the neighborhood bakery, a man came up to me and asked me, 'Are you Gad Elmaleh? I'd like to introduce myself. I'm Louis de Funes' son.' I was so moved there were tears in my eyes. This is the son of my childhood idol. And then he went on: 'My father, if he were alive, he would love you.'

"My favorite of de Funes' films is 'Rabbi Jacob,' of course. This is a film you could never make today, if only because of the Jewish stereotypes in it. De Funes did a wonderful comic role in this film, in part thanks to his sense of timing and his facial and body language. The film industry had mixed feelings about him: It accepted him thanks to his blockbusters, but the critics wrote terrible reviews about him. Now, 28 years after his death, he is enjoying a revival and recognition of his genius among a new generation of critics."

To what extent is the French entertainment industry today open to new shades of humor?

"This industry has a pace of its own. It isn't yet open to really extreme humor, like that of that little Israeli entertainer - what's his name? - Zion Baruch, who played a terrorist who, the day before a suicide mission, treats himself to a day of fun: He buys a balloon, he eats ice cream. This still doesn't work here - it's too shocking. I hope the day will come when we too, French comedians, will also be able to do things like that. On the other hand, French entertainment is more likely to take in characters from the cultural and socioeconomic periphery. Twenty years ago it was impossible to imagine there would be a female justice minister of Arab descent or a black prime-time news presenter, and look at what is happening today."

If that's the case, why did you think about changing your surname at the start of your career?

"My family's name was originally Elimelech. That is the name of my relatives in Israel. On our side it's Elmaleh. Young people don't do this any more nowadays but everyone who entered showbiz more than 20 years ago, especially Jews from the Arab countries, changed their names. That was the norm at the time. Elmaleh sounds heavy, it's a very Sephardic name, and I thought I would never be a success with it. At first I considered changing it to Mahler, like the composer, because it sounds similar, but I very quickly dropped the idea. I kept my own name because it's who I am. My name, my origins, my background and my experiences are what leveraged my success. The angle of the immigrant, through which I examined the reality in France, distinguished me."

A propos Jews from the Arab countries, how do you explain the fact that most leading Jewish French comedians are from Arab countries?

"While in the United States most of the Jewish comedians are of Ashkenazi origins - Jerry Seinfeld, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen - France has a long and established tradition of Sephardic Jewish comics: Michel Boujenah, Patrick Timsit, Elie Semoun, Elie Kakou. Jews are the dominant presence in comedy. There are a few black or Chinese comedians - this is a new phenomenon that has been gathering momentum only in the past year or two.

"The person who broke through the barriers for the Arabs, for example, was Smain, who was considered a sensation in his day. In one of his performances he played a president in a keffiyeh. After him came Jamel Debbouze, who grew up in the slums and brought their culture and language to the stage, becoming their symbol. I don't think it's by chance that the two greatest comedians in France today, Debbouze and I, are immigrants. This is a reflection of the social, economic and cultural changes in the French Republic. It is more open to analysis by all its citizens, whomever they may be."

Have you visited Morocco since you emigrated 22 years ago?

"I visit three or four times a year, whether for a private vacation in Marrakech, a visit to my grandmother in Casablanca or a performance tour. They don't consider me a successful French comedian, but rather a Moroccan who made it big abroad. It's intimate and very moving. Morocco is completely alive for me because I spent about a third of my life there. The first few times I went back to Casablanca, I walked through the streets and remembered how years earlier I had walked those same streets and prayed that a miracle would happen and I would leave and become famous."

Not a clown

One might expect that a man who won the title "the funniest person in France," beating 49 other candidates in a newspaper survey, would crack constant jokes. But Elmaleh says: "I don't feel any need to play the role of the clown. In my private life I take a break from humor."

What does it take to become a good comedian?

"First of all, a point of view. Without it, you cannot decipher the world. The second thing is what's called in Latin 'vis comica,' that mysterious quality that makes you a funny person. You can become an actor, a dancer or a musician but you can't become a funny person. I'll tell you a story to try to explain this. A few years ago, at the Cannes Film Festival, I'm sitting in a room with another 10 people and getting to meet Jerry Seinfeld for the first time. And he, the minute he walks into the room, he looks around, points at me and says, 'Here's the funny guy.' Comedians are like animals - they recognize one another, they're connected to one another, which you can't say about actors, for instance. Okay, it's because actors are narcissists."

What makes you laugh?

"Surprise. A person walks in a stupid way or trips in the street - these situations could make me laugh. Because it's not a written stand-up piece but rather something that happens as part of life itself, suddenly, with no advance preparation. Facial expressions make me laugh, again, not when their aim is to amuse me intentionally. Ze'ev Revach, whose films I know and admire, has a fantastic range of mimicry. Incidentally, Revach is one of the actors who made me want to become an actor. When I was young I saw 'A Bit of Luck' and I remember saying to myself, 'Here's a Moroccan guy, a super star. Gad, this is possible.'"

The cinematic roles you have played until now have been comic in nature. What is stopping you from crossing into the dramatic realm?"

"I don't think I need to be versatile. And I'm not saying this out of lack of confidence. On the contrary: I know who I am, where I feel comfortable and what I do best - making people laugh. Why, then, should I squint sideways? A bad dramatic film is a lot worse than a bad funny film. Because in contrast to comedy, a good drama depends on a great many factors: a director, a script, a good story, a partner. Once I was offered the role of a murderer. The script was delivered to my home. I approached it in all seriousness and with the intention of getting into the character. But the further I read, the more I laughed. The comic instinct in me immediately killed the drama. Look at me and tell me - do I have the eyes of a murderer?"