I recently came across an interesting documentary on YouTube, produced by and starring Gad Elmaleh, the famous French comedian. You may have never heard of Elmaleh, but in France, he’s a superstar. Born and raised in Morocco, Elmaleh has played in more than 30 films, many of them American. He’s appeared in numerous TV shows, provided the dubbed voice of many American actors for the French screen, hosted Saturday Night Live, and collected an impressive number of prestigious awards, including the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Minister of Culture. His Wikipedia page indicates that he is fluent in Moroccan Arabic, Hebrew, English, and French. I’ve been a fan of his French stand-up comedy for a few years, so when I saw that he had made a film about his preparations for an American act, I was immediately intrigued.
10 Minutes in America begins with Gad Elmaleh still in France, chatting with his friend, French actor Jamel Debouzze. Debouzze is rather incredulous upon learning that Elmaleh intends to try his hand at stand-up comedy in the United States. Elmaleh cheerfully acknowledges the concerns of his fellow comic but remains committed to his quest. Thus begins a recurring theme throughout the film. Namely, that doing stand-up in a language that is not your mother tongue connotes an underlying death wish. What I find engaging about Elmaleh’s pursuit is that it rekindles my perpetual interrogation of what it means to be fluent.
For non-native speakers, attaining fluency in a foreign language is a hazy and often ill-defined objective. There are numerous learning applications that promise language fluency. While such products can be helpful, their assurances are at best a joke, at worst deceit. When I started studying French, I learned plenty during my first year of university-level classes. Over the course of those early months, however, my understanding of what it means to be fluent, and how far I was from reaching it, also grew. If you equate native-level fluency in French with the summit of Mount Everest, after three years of university classes and additional work outside the assigned curriculum, I felt as if I was just stepping off the plane in Katmandu. After 7 years of study, I felt that I was still several miles from base camp and that may well be as far as I make it.
While I now feel very comfortable with French and can discuss most topics with reasonable ease, I rarely utter a sentence that doesn’t have flaws. I’m not referring to the unavoidable, inharmonious mispronunciation. I mean flagrant grammatical errors or misused words and expressions. I’ve learned, often to my amazement, that you don’t have to speak like a French person to be understood by a French person. But comedy is a completely different ball game. To be successful in comedy requires timing and nuance, deep cultural awareness, and the ability to rapidly improvise based on audience reactions. American comics work on these skills for years before becoming polished. Even superstars, like Chris Rock or Sarah Silverman, test out and refine their jokes in front of small audiences before incorporating them into a show for the masses.
So, when Gad Elmaleh spoke with friends, both in France and the U.S., about his desire to do stand up in the United States, his ambition was met with a high degree of skepticism and apprehension. Jerry Seinfeld appears throughout the film, acting somewhat as a coach for Elmaleh. Seinfeld certainly knows a lot about standup and I imagine any aspiring comedian receiving his attention, whether foreign or American, would be thrilled. But his guidance is far from encouraging. He likens Elmaleh’s endeavor to an American who decides he wants to build a car and goes to Germany to do it, then wants to make wine so goes to France, then wants to write plays so goes to England. The point being, that when it comes to standup, the United States is king and outsiders don’t have much chance of pleasing sophisticated American audiences.
Gad Elmaleh’s superstar status in France is well-deserved. The first time I saw a video clip from one of his acts, I’d already been studying French for a few years. Like most comedians, he talks rapidly and uses plenty of slang so I wasn’t able to follow much of what he was saying. However, he is such a brilliant mimic, I was immediately captivated by his persona. Soon after, I looked him up on YouTube and watched and rewatched a few of his acts until I understood most of his schtick. As a comedian, he does it all. He’s a keen observer of people, a colorful writer, a limber copycat of body language, a vocal impersonator that can take on any affectation or accent, and a face that is as expressive as they come. As Woody Allen (who is one of the more encouraging people that Gad seeks for advice) points out, if Gad flops in the U.S., he can quietly retreat to France where he is a “monster star”.
Whether you are a polyglot or have only had a couple years of foreign language study, I suspect you will be entertained by 10 Minutes in America. It’s enthralling watching a seasoned pro hesitating and struggling to find his way on stage. The film also contains clips from many famous American comics. It shows Elmaleh both on and off the stage as he works to refine a 10-minute standup routine. But underlying the action of the film is an implicit study of what it means to be a native speaker.
There’s no question that Gad Elmaleh is indeed a better performer in French but he’s certainly not terrible in English. In one scene, he garners a big laugh from the audience by comparing French and American dining culture, even though he somewhat botches one of the punch lines. In describing his uneasiness with overly-attentive American waitstaff, Elmaleh dramatizes the lead up to a question he invariably encounters within minutes of finishing his meal. “Are you still working on it?” Elmaleh’s farcical delivery is a hit. But, in fact, waiters actually ask “Are you still working on that?” This is a minor discrepancy, but as a viewer, I immediately noticed the slip and my focus briefly switched to pondering the error instead of the gag.
It’s nuances like this that exasperate many speakers of a second language. You can study a language for years, even live in the related country for a decade, and you still won’t sound like a native speaker. You may even find that, more often than not, you’re clueless when it comes to jokes and cultural references. Ten Minutes in America doesn’t come to any grand conclusions. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether Elmaleh succeeds in his quest or not. One thing is clear, however: Elmaleh’s undertaking is not for the fainthearted. He is courageous, tenacious, measured, and resilient as he works toward his goal of keeping an American audience laughing for a chock-full, sixth of an hour.