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Jewish comedians spark French comedy

It’s a running American joke: Without Jews, there would be little laughter. It now has become a French joke, too – Jewish immigrants to France are generating chuckles.

While the Jewish American tradition often draws on Ashkenazi traditions, the Jewish French comic spirit is Sephardic in tone and temperament. Its leading proponents include Michel Boujenah (center), Yvan Attal (right), and Gad Elmaleh (left). All are of North African origin. Boujenah comes from Tunisia, Attal has Algerian roots, and Elmaleh was born and raised in Morocco.

French comedians play the anxiety of being a rootless outsider. Boujenah’s first hit was his one-man-show back in 1980 called ‘Albert,’ which drew on his Jewish Tunisian origins and his experience leaving these roots to settle in France. One example of his humor: After praising his wife of 25 years for her cooking as “my dream” and “my Eiffel Tower,” his friend asks why he continues to heap such generous praise on her. “Because I forgot her first name,” he responds.

Elmaleh became a star in France for playing characters such as Chouchou, a North African transvestite, and Coco, a Sephardic businessman who alienated his family while planning his son’s bar mitzvah.

Filmmaker Attal scored a big hit with his spoof about French antisemitism “They Are Everywhere.” In the film, he pokes fun in a series of sketches skewering antisemitic myths, such as “Jews killed Jesus,” “Jews have money,” and “Jews play up the Holocaust.”

In recent years, Jewish French and American humor has merged – literally. “They are Everywhere” is now available on Netflix. So are three of Elmaleh’s shows. He moved in 2015 to New York. “I’m sure you’ve heard this story about the man that moved to America with one dollar in his pocket and he worked so hard and he made a fortune,” he says. “I moved here with a fortune.” His breakthrough American performance, appropriately, came on Jerry Seinfeld’s show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” with Seinfeld and Elmaleh driving around in a 1950 Citroën and trading jokes.