Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 26 April 2019

Gad Elmaleh at Dubai Opera: great comedy, shame about the heckling

The French-Moroccan comedian's set was packed with strong material, but the show was overshadowed by near-constant audience interruptions

French-Moroccan comedian Gad Elmaleh
French-Moroccan comedian Gad Elmaleh

The final night of Gad Elmaleh’s Dream Tour could very easily have turned into a nightmare. That it didn’t – or not entirely, at least – is down to Elmaleh’s ability to improvise, his immense warmth as a performer and, frankly, his tolerance.

To put it mildly, this was a raucous audience. The shouting began, I don’t know, maybe two minutes into the show and never really let up thereafter. It was all good-natured stuff and it allowed the French-Moroccan comedian to make a few off-the-cuff jokes (“What are we doing? Are we just talking?”). Ultimately, though, these near-constant interruptions became overbearing, the cosy bonhomie giving way to frustration that every routine had to be quite so turbulent.

One anecdote about a difficult first-date in a Chinese restaurant was derailed when an audience member shouted out, for no obvious reason, the name of what I can only assume is her own favourite Chinese restaurant. Elmaleh dealt with this well enough, making a joke about advertising.

But then someone else shouted out the name of a French restaurant and then there was a demand for Elmaleh to perform material from one of his previous shows. By the time we got to the punchline, it was all beginning to feel a bit laboured – a shame, since the pay-off about fortune cookies in downbeat, cynical France was excellent (“Don’t reach for the stars, you will never reach them”). This sort of thing happened time and again.

Gad Elmaleh
Gad Elmaleh

One of the reasons, I suspect, that people feel able to call out to Elmaleh is because he is such a generous comedian – bright, full of energy and clearly just delighted to be on stage. There is none of the spikiness or world-weariness that defines so much modern stand-up, no political tub-thumping, just an infectious belief that we’re all better off laughing about life. It is a refreshing, intoxicating combination.

A first-rate section on taxis concluded with a comparison between drivers in France, who never stop, even when the cab is empty, and drivers in Morocco, who always stop, even when nine people are in the back, and then “they tell you where you are going”. Elsewhere, material on reliable stand-up topics, such as social media and the Germans’ lack of humour, was freshened up by Elmaleh’s puppyish enthusiasm – there’s a touch of Lee Evans’s eager-to-please shtick in his flailing arm movements and ear-to-ear grin.

Added to this, Elmaleh is willing to display vulnerability, to let us see behind the performer’s mask, as when he talked about his family. What this means is that the 47-year-old can get away with exploring subjects other comedians wouldn’t touch. We feel that he is on side, laughing with us.

So one of the biggest laughs of the night arrived when Elmaleh gave the excesses of Dubai a thorough working over (“Do you want to drive two Ferraris?”; “You know what I found in my hotel room? Another room.”), while his gentle mockery of the Indian accent felt permissible, and affectionate rather than vicious.

It is hard to know how much material Elmaleh was forced to drop from his set after entertaining each and every audience member who wanted to be a part of the show. And it is only right to say that some of these interactions turned out to be highly amusing – only this Dubai Opera audience will ever know why the number 24 is funny – but however clever the improvisation, it was unlikely to ever match the stuff Elmaleh has spent months writing, a point he made on a number of occasions.

Elmaleh, ever the optimist, had the good grace to claim that the heckling had made the show “unique and special”. Unique, certainly. Special, though? I’m not so sure.

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Updated: December 12, 2018 02:53 PM

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