Transcript

596:

Becoming a Badger
Transcript

Originally aired 09.09.2016

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/596

Prologue.

Ira Glass

There's this guy who did this thing that's extraordinary. He tried to live like a badger. And I say that in this wasn't a stunt, and he's not a crazy person. This was a sincere, thoughtful attempt to figure something out.

The guy's name is Charles Foster. And his interest in this kind of thing really all began when he was a kid. He says a blackbird used to come into his family's suburban backyard. And he would look at it through the window of his house and stare in its eye, and it would look back at him. And he would think to himself, I know this backyard so well, but the bird knows stuff about it I don't. The bird knows all kinds of things I don't.

Charles Foster

And I wanted to know what that was.

Ira Glass

And you write that you went to the library, reading everything you could on it. You mapped all the nests in your area. And you would visit them every day. And you took notes. You had a notebook where you were basically gathering your field notes.

Charles Foster

Yeah. I was a fanatical note-taker, a fanatical mapper. I did things which, no doubt, would sound really strange or macabre now.

Ira Glass

Like for instance, he taxidermied a dead blackbird he found. As a kid, he did this.

Charles Foster

Mounted with its wings outspread, and it dangled over my bed. I used to watch it circling as I went to sleep at night.

Ira Glass

Hm.

Charles Foster

So yeah. And also I pickled in formalin a blackbird's brain and put it in a jar, and I would sometimes go to bed holding it in my hand.

Ira Glass

He'd peer into it the way that you do when you're a kid, imagining, hoping something of the bird would seep into him. He'd fall asleep wishing he'd be a blackbird in his dreams.

And as an adult, his fascination with animals continued. He became a veterinarian.

Ira Glass

Can I ask, when you became a vet, was part of it because you wanted to get closer to animals? You wanted to understand them better?

Charles Foster

It was exactly that.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Charles Foster

I felt that, by putting my hands physically on animals, by knowing how they worked as machines, I would understand better those really mystical questions which I posed myself as a child.

Ira Glass

Didn't work. If anything, he says, understanding animals as machines took him even further from the thing he was interested in. How do they perceive the world? What do they know?

And so, as an adult, he began to venture out into the woods to try to live as different animals. He documented this in a book called Being a Beast. The most interesting section in this book is his attempt to live like a badger. Usually he would do this alone, though for a few days he went with his eight-year-old son, Tom. On a friend's farm, they made a human-sized badger home. This was a tunnel, 15-feet long, that they would sleep in. Charles says he's probably spent six weeks living underground like this over the years, sleeping during the day, awake at night like real badgers.

And the main part of living like a badger was being low to the ground, crawling around on their hands and knees, which he knows how weird that sounds. And they did something that's so simple but changes everything. Instead of using their eyes to get around-- badgers' eyesight is terrible-- they'd blindfold themselves and use their noses.

Charles Foster

When you move your nose over a small area of the forest floor, just move it an inch and you get a completely different set of smells. The ground is much, much more interesting when you smell it than when you look at it.

Ira Glass

And then everything changes when rain comes. Just describe how different the entire place is when rain finally hits.

Charles Foster

Rain unlocks scent. So there's a massive explosion for olfactory animals of the intensity of the place. It was like the volume suddenly being turned on. And not just volume. It was a better sort of music. It was like switching to Mozart after you'd been having the piped music in the mall. It was incredibly exciting.

Ira Glass

He says it only took a few days for him and his son to be able to navigate the landscape in the woods blindfolded, using only their noses. Oak trees were good landmarks, he says, because surprisingly, they all smell different from each other. I asked him to read this passage from the book describing what the oak smelled like on those outings.

Charles Foster

"Out of the tunnel, turn right. 15 yards; raw tobacco, mostly Turkish; straight on. After half a minute, wall of limes and sick in front."

"If I had to pick one word for the badger's experience, it would be 'intimate.' Grass and bracken stems brush your face. When you're forcing a new path, the stems graze. Water shudders off grass into your eyes. Things slide away. We bustled and grunted and elbowed and pushed and pressed our noses into the ground. And even we smelled something-- the citrusy piss of the voles; the distantly maritime tang of a slug trail, like a winter rock pool; the sharp musk of a weasel; the blunter musk of an otter."

Ira Glass

It got to the point where his eight-year-old son one day declared, I can smell mice, and then he headed off into the distance and found-- OK, not mice, but another kind of rodent-- bank voles.

I can't talk about this book without having Charles Foster read one more excerpt. Badgers eat earthworms, so he felt compelled to at least try them. And he tried a bunch, from all over. He would put them into his mouth alive and feel them try to escape by wriggling through the gaps in his teeth, and then he'd bite.

Charles Foster

"Earthworms taste of slime and the land. Worms from Chablis have a long, mineral finish. Worms from Picardy are musty; they taste of decay and splintered wood. Worms from the high Kent Weald are fresh and uncomplicated; they'd appear in the list recommended with a grilled sole. About 85% of an average badger's diet is earthworms. This fact both drains badgers of some of their charisma and makes them excitingly inaccessible."

Ira Glass

Are those real flavors that you're describing, or are you just riffing on different potential tastes of the worms of Chablis?

Charles Foster

No, no. Those are real flavors.

Ira Glass

And then sometimes you would eat them raw and sometimes cooked?

Charles Foster

Yeah. And I recommend, if anyone wants to do this, that they cook them and they have them with garlic.

Ira Glass

Charles Foster isn't just a veterinarian. He's also a practicing lawyer, and he teaches at Oxford University in England. And when he writes about the question that is at the heart of his interest with animals-- the question, what can we really understand about an animal's experience-- he parses what we can and cannot know with a lawyer's precision. He is meticulous. And he has thought about this a lot.

He says, of course we can't know what animals think, how they conceive of themselves, how they conceive of the world. We can't really know what they feel. But with many animals, he says, we can know their physical experience because we share so much physiology with so many animals-- our limbs and eyes and noses and mouths and the way our nerves work.

And that's why he tried to live like animals live. Putting his own body, his own physiology, into a badger's landscape seemed like his best chance of getting a tiny glimpse of what it might feel like to be a badger.

Ira Glass

What are the moments that you feel like you got closest to the thing you were seeking?

Charles Foster

There was the moment of-- there was the moment when I said to myself, there's a tree there because there's the smell of a tree, rather than there's a tree there because I looked at it last Thursday and I know that it should be.

Ira Glass

Mostly this did not work. He's the first to point that out. As soon as he would stand up and see the world again with his head 6 feet in the air, it all went away. The visual world reasserted itself. His head filled with thoughts that a badger would never think.

But I could understand why he gave so many years to this project, even though he knew all along it was such a long shot. It's too exciting to leave yourself and try to be something so different.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Becoming a Badger. We have two stories for you about trying to become something you are not. One of these stories is about a guy from France. One is about a dog. In each of the stories, they set out to become different from what they are, and they do it by just jumping into the new identity, into the new thing they want to be, pretending to be that thing, and hoping it sticks. Stay with us.

Act One. Je Suis Ici Toute La Semaine.

Ira Glass

Act One, Je Suis Ici Toute La Semaine.

So I heard about this guy. His name is Gad Elmaleh, and he's basically the most famous stand-up comedian in France. He plays arenas in France. He gets mobbed everywhere by fans and paparazzi, yadda, yadda. Yadda, yadda's actually appropriate. Gad is known as the Jerry Seinfeld of France. Just to give you a sense, this is the beginning of one of his most popular concert videos. It's from 2010.

[MUSIC - "DON'T STOP 'TIL YOU GET ENOUGH" BY MICHAEL JACKSON]

[CROWD SCREAMING]

Yes, that's a Michael Jackson song they got the rights to. Gad does this rock star thing where his silhouette hits the stage before he does, and then his silhouette dances around to the music, tantalizing the crowd until the spotlight hits him.

Gad Elmaleh

Bonsoir!

Ira Glass

Here's how famous he is. His initial jokes are about being famous-- how freaked out his fans get, meeting somebody as famous as he is. But about a year ago, Gad embarked on this quest. He decided he was going to try to make it as a successful comic here in America in English.

This is an incredibly difficult and totally unnecessary thing for anybody to try to do. In France, everybody knows Gad Elmaleh. It's going great for him. And he's giving all that up to start again at the bottom, doing small clubs and venues. He has to reinvent how he does his whole job. And he's struggling. It's simultaneously audacious and very humble.

I have to say, I'm kind of a sucker for somebody who decides to do something really hard that nobody wants but them just because they can't help themselves. And that is what this is. And what is funny in France to French people, you will not be surprised to hear, is not the same as what is funny in English to American people. So to succeed at this, Gad has to understand the exact contours of what is different between the sense of humor of these two entirely different countries while he's on stage. He has to do this live while trying to entertain paying customers.

Reporter Zack McDermott is the one who first told us about Gad. Zack is a comedy nerd and a former stand-up himself. He takes the story from here.

Zack McDermott

The only reason I know who Gad Elmaleh is is because of my wife. She's Belgian. I'll call her Aurelie because, although we've been married for three years, I still can't pronounce her name right.

Aurelie

Aurelie.

Zack McDermott

Once again.

Aurelie

Aurelie.

Zack McDermott

Anyway. For her, Gad Elmaleh was a household name growing up.

Aurelie

And you know, it's funny because there are a few of his jokes that are so famous that if you say one sentence, everybody knows that you're referring to him. I thought about that. There is something about learning English, and the sentence Brian is in the kitchen--

Zack McDermott

It's a routine he does about learning English as a kid and the random phrases he had to repeat over and over again, like, where is Brian?

Gad Elmaleh

Where is Brian? [FRENCH], Brian is in the kitchen.

[LAUGHTER]

Aurelie

I mean, I remember my friends, when I was maybe like 15, 16, or maybe a little older-- everybody was saying that. It's like, what is it in English? Like, that's what she said. It's like that. Everybody says that.

Sean Cole

That's what she said.

Aurelie

Yeah.

Zack McDermott

That's my producer, Sean Cole, by the way. You'll be hearing his voice a bit, too, as we go.

So Aurelie was really excited when Gad moved to New York and started doing shows here. She drug me to a couple of them, including a very early gig last September at a performance space called Joe's Pub. It's not a bar. It's kind of a highbrow New York Cabaret space, and it's cozy. Seats less than 200.

Aurelie

Even just seeing him in such a small venue, it's such a treat. And it's like, wow, how lucky French people are. You're like, that's great.

Sean Cole

I know. It's like seeing like--

Aurelie

Sort of like VIP when you do that.

Sean Cole

You feel like VIP.

Aurelie

You really do, yeah.

Sean Cole

It's like seeing Neil Young play at a bar or something.

Aurelie

I don't know who that is, but sure.

[LAUGHTER]

Announcer

Joe's Pub is now proud to present Gad Elmaleh.

[APPLAUSE]

Zack McDermott

This was, hands down, the best-looking and best-dressed crowd for a comedy show I've ever seen. So many scarves. Such tight jeans. The women looked great, too. The room was mostly French, with some Moroccan fans spackled in, as well. Gad's ethnically Moroccan, and he grew up there, so most of the room knew his French act.

Gad Elmaleh

Is he really gonna do this in English? Yeah! Oh, wow. I don't know why I'm doing this. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.

Zack McDermott

The first thing you notice about Gad is that he's got incredible stage presence. And he's a very physical comedian. One minute he's all elegance and grace, the next he chimps up his face and flops around. His English act is basically observational comedy, including a lot of outsiders' impressions of America and, specifically, New York. For instance, he says he likes to ask directions of Americans because they always include Starbucks.

Gad Elmaleh

You want to go straight, then there's a Starbucks on your left. You make a right. The next block there's two Starbucks. You make another right. There's another block with another one Starbucks. Make a left at the other block. There's no Starbucks, so don't panic.

[LAUGHTER]

Asking directions in France is different.

Zack McDermott

And this bleeds into another staple of his show, which I'll call, Americans be like this, French people be like that. Here's a joke about shopping in New York and this one, over-the-top, earnest sales guy.

Gad Elmaleh

And he told me something you'll never hear in France. Let me double check.

[LAUGHTER]

In France, we don't even have single-check!

Zack McDermott

You can tell from response in the room that this isn't exactly an away game for Gad. The French and Moroccan folks in the audience love him unconditionally, but even here, in front of the friendliest possible crowd, it's a rough show. There are jokes that just don't go anywhere.

Gad Elmaleh

A friend of mine, he said, I am a fundamentalist atheist--

Zack McDermott

A fundamentalist atheist.

Gad Elmaleh

I said, what the [BLEEP] is that? It's like if you're ordering a triple-shot espresso, but decaf. I like this one, but I will have to work on it.

Zack McDermott

He said this a few times. OK. I have to work on that joke. He had a notepad on his stool, and he'd occasionally jot down which jokes worked and which didn't.

Gad Elmaleh

OK. Good joke, bad delivery.

[LAUGHTER]

It's OK. Let's be humble tonight. It's a work in progress. More work than progress, but it's OK.

Zack McDermott

He's done other gigs in front of audiences that don't know him where he bombed. It's something that just doesn't happen to him in France these days. Imagine doing something 5,000 times, and on the 5,001st time, you suck. It's not a good feeling.

Gad Elmaleh

That feeling like if you wear a sweater and you're all wet on your body right after the shower. And you put the-- agh, eugh, algh. You just want to hide. Yeah, I bombed some nights.

To be honest, I had so many moments where I was, oh my god, how am I gonna do this? I had so many moments writing, crafting last-minute jokes in front of a club, alone, and like, what am I doing?

Zack McDermott

Good question. Why is he doing this? Onstage, he jokes that he's doing it because he needed to challenge himself, which is only partly a joke. In France, he's reached this weird level of fame where his fans laugh at everything. He told me it doesn't matter what he says anymore.

Gad Elmaleh

With the people who know me, it's like, oh, heh. They always some, heh. And I don't like that.

Sean Cole

They kind of give you a pass.

Gad Elmaleh

Yeah.

Zack McDermott

It's not satisfying, he says. It's too easy. But working here-- it's hard again, and that's what he likes about it.

Gad Elmaleh

I'm excited. I wake up in the morning. I can't wait for the night to perform exactly like it was 20 years ago when I began doing stand-up in France because it was new. Like everything, you know? Like relationship. Like a gum, you know? Gum-- you just put it in your mouth. It's full of sugar. This is now.

Sean Cole

Is that what happened in France? There was no more sugar in your gum?

Gad Elmaleh

No more sugar in my gum. So we need to bring back the sugar in our gum.

Zack McDermott

But Gad's friend Dan Naturman believes there's another reason Gad wants to make it in English. Dan's one of the few comics who's gone the other direction. He's an American who sometimes performs in French-- in Paris and Montreal.

Dan Naturman

For any French comic-- and I've spent enough time talking to them-- they don't feel like they've conquered comedy until they've conquered America, because this is perceived as the home of stand-up comedy. You ask a French comic, who are your idols, you're more likely to hear Louis CK, Chris Rock. So in that sense, he feels like, OK. I did well in France, but am I really a great comedian if I haven't conquered America? I think he's somewhat insecure in that regard. I think, deep in his heart, he's saying, but I'm not Louis CK. I'm not Seinfeld. I want to be those guys, or as close as I can get. And the only way to do that is to come here.

Zack McDermott

Can he get there?

Dan Naturman

It's gonna be a rough one, isn't it?

Zack McDermott

We played a recording of that quote for Gad.

Gad Elmaleh

It's not easy to hear, but it doesn't hurt.

Sean Cole

Is it true?

Gad Elmaleh

Yeah, it's true. Because if you're a great soccer player in America, you want to be with the Real de Madrid. You want to be with Barcelona. You want to be with Bayern de Munich. You want to be with Arsenal.

Zack McDermott

Yet someone who wants to connect with an American audience might choose a different analogy, but you get the point. Early on in this whole adventure, Gad made a documentary for French TV about moving to the States. In one scene, the French Jerry Seinfeld is sitting at a restaurant with one of the few people who understands exactly how difficult it will be to make it in America-- the American Jerry Seinfeld. They're friends.

Jerry Seinfeld

Let me tell you. Let me explain this to you. The comedian-- the stand-up comedian-- was invented in America.

Gad Elmaleh

Yeah.

Jerry Seinfeld

It was invented in America.

Gad Elmaleh

So you're surprised that I came to America to do this?

Jerry Seinfeld

I get what you're doing. It's like, I want to go build a car, but I want to build it in Germany.

Gad Elmaleh

OK.

Jerry Seinfeld

And people say, really? In Germany? Then I'm going to go to Italy, and I'm gonna open up a pasta factory. And then I'm going to go to France. I want to make wine.

Gad Elmaleh

OK.

Jerry Seinfeld

All right? And then I'm going to England, and I'm going to write some plays.

Gad Elmaleh

OK.

Jerry Seinfeld

Right? And then I'm going to go to America, and I'm going to do stand-up comedy.

Gad Elmaleh

Yeah, so--

Jerry Seinfeld

Those people are used to the best.

Gad Elmaleh

OK.

Jerry Seinfeld

You with me?

Gad Elmaleh

I'm with you.

Jerry Seinfeld

So if it was me-- honestly, if it was me and I had what you had in France, I would just--

Gad Elmaleh

You would stay.

Jerry Seinfeld

I'm good. But I admire your ambition. I admire it.

Gad Elmaleh

This is-- yeah. I like to hear that.

Jerry Seinfeld

I admire that. Yes. Yes. You have to be comfortable that it's going to hurt.

Zack McDermott

This isn't the first unlikely quest Gad's embarked on. He's one of the people who brought stand-up comedy to France. Amazingly, it didn't exist there at all until about 15 years ago. Gad says they had no comedy clubs. Before then, he was a kind of entertainer that doesn't really exist here. He did these theatrical one-man shows, playing all sorts of characters, singing songs. But at some point, he became obsessed with the American style of comedy and started addressing his audience directly, telling them jokes just like we do here in the States-- in other words, stand-up.

Gad Elmaleh

It was so new. People were like, oh, wow. What is this? He's talking to us. They were not used to it. No pigeon, no rope, no hats, no wigs.

Sean Cole

You're not being metaphorical. There were actual pigeons and ropes and wigs in your act before?

Gad Elmaleh

No.

Sean Cole

You are being metaphorical?

Gad Elmaleh

Yeah. It is just because this is how American comedians make fun of me sometimes. Like, oh, how is your show in France? Do you do mime and have like a pigeon and magic tricks? Because this is the stereotype. And if I want to talk about the stereotype we have on American comedians, I would say a guy standing up who doesn't move at all with a mic, a little depressed, and say jokes, jokes, jokes, jokes, jokes.

Zack McDermott

But his French act is still very different from an American stand-up act. In his hour-plus long French specials, he plays piano and guitar and beats on his guitar like a bongo. And there are special guests. It's a boogaloo of a production-- everything but the pigeons. He tells a couple stories about his kid. He's got two-- one with Grace Kelly's granddaughter. He does a lot of observational humor. But he's 10 times more physical in his French act. He's practically performing the scene.

Gad Elmaleh

[SPEAKING FRENCH]

Zack McDermott

He's saying on an airplane, when they hand out little towelettes that smell good, you're like, yeah! I'm going to live the moment. Then he sits in a chair and acts out the part of an ecstatic passenger.

Gad Elmaleh

[EXCITED SNIFFING]

[MUTTERING]

[SINGING IN FRENCH]

Zack McDermott

So how do you translate that into American? Gad says you can't.

Gad Elmaleh

I immediately, very quickly, realized that translating my French jokes into English was not the thing to do-- the good thing to do.

Sean Cole

Did you try that?

Gad Elmaleh

I tried.

Zack McDermott

And failed-- kind of spectacularly, in some cases. A lot of the stuff in his French act just doesn't travel well. Only a couple bits survived. He had to drop all the jokes about people freaking out when they meet him because he's so famous.

Then there's the stuff he had to drop because of the obvious cultural barriers, or because of the vagaries of either language. For instance, he had this joke. He's mortified talking about it now, but it was about a common expression in French. French people, when someone breaks into their house, they say, je me sens violee. I feel like I've been violated. Except the word "violee" in French also means rape.

Gad Elmaleh

But in French, it's not as shocking as rape. So I didn't know that. So what I said-- I said, you know what guys? We have an expression. When people get burglarized, they say, I felt I was raped. [GASP] And it was like terrible, like ice, like silence. And I was like, oh my god. What did I say? I should not say that.

Zack McDermott

Gad's next challenge, he had to recalibrate the pacing of his entire act. Turns out, comedy in France is like everything in France-- laid back, laissez-faire. They kind of ease into jokes the way they take a long time to eat dinner. He actually has a joke about that. Whereas in America--

Gad Elmaleh

The structure of the phrases are shorter and sharper-- sharper? So what I've been doing every day is cutting the fat. I remember, when I first started to do the clubs, I was-- oh my god. I had long setups.

OK. So I-- yeah. I was walking, and I said, I'm going to go to that store, so I went to that store. And the guy came up to me and said-- oh, my god. And I was with some friends-- like good friends-- and they said, Gad, stop that. Just go right away. This guy in a store told me this. I thought he was-- boom, boom, bam, bheem. Punchline. That's it. Stop with the whole pigeon thing.

Zack McDermott

The hardest part of this whole endeavor is maybe what you'd guess-- the language. Gad's made a lot of progress since learning how to say Brian is in the kitchen as a kid. But after a few hours of speaking English, even just to us, Gad's exhausted. He says his brain turns to mush, and he just wants to speak French.

And a huge part of Gad's quest to become an American comedian is hard core language training. So much of comedy is about timing. If you're off by a beat or a syllable, you murder the joke. The joke is dead. So Gad's working with a language coach several times a week, dissecting his jokes, phrase by phrase, and syllable by syllable.

Gad Elmaleh

Last night I did the American dream thing.

Julia Lenardon

Yep.

Gad Elmaleh

And it was very hard. They didn't get it.

Zack McDermott

We sat in on Gad's session with his tutor, Julia Lenardon, in Gad's crash pad, i.e., a massive luxury apartment in Tribeca.

Julia Lenardon

Why? Because it's worked before. What happened?

Gad Elmaleh

Because it's the, I've wondered, and I was wondering, and I've always wondered. And my father used to take us to the ocean, or took us to the ocean. It's always-- I'm always confused.

Zack McDermott

This joke is about how his father used to take him to the beach, point at the ocean, and tell Gad that, if you sail for days and nights, you will reach America. Gad wondered if any American father was standing on the shore pointing towards Morocco, saying the same thing.

Julia Lenardon

So he did it several times, or he did it once? That's what I need.

Gad Elmaleh

Every time we would go to the beach he would stand in front of the ocean and say this crazy thing.

Julia Lenardon

Then my father would take me.

Gad Elmaleh

Yeah. My father would take me.

Julia Lenardon

As opposed to--

Gad Elmaleh

Maybe that's why, I don't know, they don't get it. I like it. It's not a crazy joke, but it's a poetic image. I always wondered if, on the other side of the ocean, there was an American father--

Julia Lenardon

Yeah. You see, that's the thing. An American father. That's the thing is you've got your keyword that you have to lift with pitch. And then you have to drop the next word because that's how we hear the contrast. The American father.

Gad Elmaleh

An American father.

I'm not sure that on the other side of the ocean there was an American father [INAUDIBLE].

[LAUGHTER]

Zack McDermott

For a while, Gad had this other joke that just wasn't working till Julia told Gad to say "vay-KAY-shun" instead of "VAY-kay-shun." If that doesn't work, she said, you can fire me. It worked. When you know how hard it is for him, watching him do an hour set in English looks like an Olympic feat. But of course, that's not how these things are scored.

Gad's about a year into his new American life. And to be clear, because of his fame elsewhere and his connections, Gad's had about every conceivable unfair advantage a, quote, "fledgling comedian in America" could ask for. That show you heard at Joe's Pub was actually opening night of a six-month residency, three shows a week. No rookie comedian in New York gets that. They knew he could pack the room with French ex-pats. Gad's been on The Daily Show, The Nightly Show, Late Night with Seth Meyers. He did a set on Conan.

And he's getting better. His set got tighter during his residency at Joe's Pub. And he might still have the occasional language misstep, but it's happening later in the show. His English is improving. And he just knows his way around the act now. When it works, Gad says, it means more to him than performing for his French fans who've seen his DVDs and know every joke and laugh at everything.

Gad Elmaleh

When American audience laugh at my joke, I mean, I feel I'm just, oh, I'm funny. I'm a funny man. I'm not that guy. And even in my everyday life, if I go to a store and I make someone laugh, like at the grocery store, I'm so happy because I'm like, oh, she doesn't know that I'm famous in France, and she just laughed so hard at my joke. I made a joke about, I don't know, cheese or whatever, and I asked her a question and I made this little face, and she was laughing-- really laughing-- and I'm like, oh, I'm a funny man. I'm a funny man.

I love to be anonymous. I love-- I love it. And I hope it's not going to stay like this forever. [LAUGHS]

Zack McDermott

But does he really have a shot at becoming a name here in the US? To answer that, I turned to people who'd know-- some American comedy headliners. I talked to Colin Quinn, Ali Wong, Ron Funches, and Jeff Garlin. All of them watched the same video of a 15-minute set Gad did at the Comedy Cellar back in June. And they all agreed he's a pro. He could totally have a career here. But can he be great? They all said he's not there yet, and they were unanimous on what he needed to do next. There is one specific hole in his act all four pointed to. Here's Colin Quinn.

Colin Quinn

Talking about his perceptions of America. All that stuff is great. Love it, love it, love it-- for 20 minutes. Then I want to hear about his life, and I want to hear about France or Morocco. He's had this fascinating life. Let's [BLEEP] hear about it.

The whole point of going to see a comedian is you want to see something that other comedians don't do. What about your country? I'm interested. It's all relatable. It's emotions, you know what I mean? My favorite expression-- now I get to use my favorite expression, which I'm always looking for an excuse. In the specific is the universal.

Sean Cole

What would he have to do to go from this level that he's at right now to being great?

Colin Quinn

He'd have to listen to what I just said.

Zack McDermott

Being personal-- that's where American comedy's at right now. Ali Wong said something similar after she watched the video.

Ali Wong

It was so interesting because you can tell that he's a really seasoned performer, and he's very comfortable on stage.

Zack McDermott

But she said that, like a lot of rookie comedians in New York, the topics he gravitates toward are a little too generic.

Ali Wong

You know, how hard it is to get an apartment, why women always want to commit, Indian cab drivers talk a lot on their phone. For me, when you're a headliner, those are people who kind of give a lot of their essence on stage. Like, I would love to know why the Jerry Seinfeld of France would want to do stand-up in America all of a sudden?

Zack McDermott

Ron Funches agreed with Ali that the most obvious thing for Gad to talk about is one of the topics he thought he had to avoid on stage-- his fame.

Ron Funches

This-- what's going on now, his fear of being like, oh, I'm a big deal in France, and now I'm in America, and I'm not that big of a deal. Tell me what that's about. Tell me how that feels. That's probably terrifying and also very brave of you to step out of your comfort zone. Tell me about that. Tell me what you think is funny about that. That would be very interesting to me.

Gad Elmaleh

I think it's a good point.

Zack McDermott

Again, here's Gad. We played him all the feedback, and he was a good sport about it, and he thought it was good advice. He really liked Ron's idea for how to talk about his fame.

Gad Elmaleh

His point of view is interesting. So maybe I should explain-- just tell them, guys, it's a new life, being famous somewhere and maybe sometimes I'm walking down the street in New York City and I don't get bothered. But it's also bizarre, you know? I want to go to some people and say, do you want a photo or something?

Sean Cole

[LAUGHS] Yeah. Bother me.

Gad Elmaleh

Do you want a photo of us? No. That would be good, no?

Zack McDermott

That's good.

Gad Elmaleh

Do you want a picture with me? No. Because I'm famous in France. Yeah, but that's in France. That's funny. I should do that.

Zack McDermott

But the most pointed criticism was from Jeff Garlin. You might recognize Jeff as Larry David's sidekick/manager on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but he's got 30 years in stand-up. He worked with Jon Stewart and Denis Leary on their stand-up specials, and he's a comic's comic. We weren't talking for very long before he just cut to the chase.

Jeff Garlin

He does not make me laugh.

Sean Cole

Huh.

Jeff Garlin

Yes. But I find him unbelievably charming. I think he's charismatic. He's charming. I could see him becoming very successful here. The audience was under his spell. He has a spell. There's a craft to stand-up comedy as well as an art, and he is a master at the craft. I don't look at him as much of an artist.

Zack McDermott

Jeff said to be an artist, he'd have to be more passionate about the stuff he's talking about. It doesn't matter what it is.

Jeff Garlin

Just tell me what you care about. He doesn't care about Starbucks on every corner. That's a bunch of crap. And let me tell you, if he's not bored doing that every night, there's something wrong with him because I'd want to kill myself. What do you care about, Gad? That's what I'm saying. What do you care about?

Gad Elmaleh

Interesting. Wow. Yeah, yeah. Wow. Now that I-- the English is OK, I should maybe be more fragile, even though it's in English, and maybe trust what I think, trust what I feel. Wow. Now it's getting really interesting.

Zack McDermott

Gad couldn't stop thinking about this. 20 minutes later, he just interrupted Sean mid-sentence to come back to it.

Sean Cole

So I'm just wondering how you see yourself having--

Gad Elmaleh

Now let me tell you something.

Sean Cole

Yes.

Gad Elmaleh

We had those five minutes of their critiques and the thinking, and now my brain is already working on the new material.

Sean Cole

Wow.

Gad Elmaleh

It's a little revolution today for me. So it's really interesting. It's a shock, but it's in a good way.

Sean Cole

What are you thinking about?

Gad Elmaleh

I'm thinking that, when I will go to clubs, I really want to go there. I really want to try to talk more about my roots, Morocco, friends, and not only comparing-- not only saying, oh, you guys do this? We do that. You guys do this? We do that. Man, that's really, really a good shock that you gave me today.

There will be a before and after today. Really. What do you care about? I remember, what do you care about? What does he care about? I care about people who say what does he care about. Merci.

Zack McDermott

I saw Gad at the Comedy Cellar one more time after that interview, two weeks ago. He hadn't changed up his set much. He wasn't getting into the personal stuff yet. I asked him why, and he said, revolutions don't happen overnight.

The comedians I talked to were adamant. For Gad to come up with the kind of material he's going to need to be great in America-- the personal stuff, the stuff he really cares about-- the only way to develop that is to do painful sets on stage where he tries out all kinds of stuff and lets himself bomb. In France, he doesn't do that. And Gad told me it goes against all his instincts-- against 22 years of training-- but he's going to have to override that instinct. He's going to have to embrace bombing, learn to fail at comedy at a whole new level, if he's going to succeed here. It's a concept that's totally foreign to him.

Ira Glass

Zack McDermott in New York.

Gad Elmaleh is about to embark on a European tour, performing in French-- you know, for a change. American shows resume in the new year. We have some clips of him performing in English on our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. In February, he'll be in Carnegie Hall.

[MUSIC - "FAMOUS IN FRANCE" BY JOHN MCDERMOTT AND MICHAEL P. SMITH]

Coming up, a little dog who lives in an apartment and whose favorite toy is called a Giggle Ball goes tete-a-tete with the wily creatures that brought us the bubonic plague. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Becoming a Badger, stories of people trying to become something totally foreign, trying to see the world through new eyes.

[MUSIC - "THE 5TH QUARTER" BY THE MADHATTERS]

Those are the MadHatters from Madison, Wisconsin, singing a fight song from the University of Wisconsin, whose football team, of course, is the Badgers. And with that, we have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

So we heard at the beginning of our show about an Oxford scholar who was trying to understand what it's like to be an animal. Now, in this act, we hear about an animal trying to understand what it's like to be an animal.

I sometimes have this thought about my own dog, which is his feet never touch the earth. Like, they never touch grass and dirt. He lives in a city. He lives on sidewalk and in a tiny apartment 40 feet above the ground. Our producers Zoe Chace and Emmanuel Dzotsi have this story of a dog-- an urban dog-- getting more in touch with the doggy parts of himself.

Zoe Chace

When we set out to do this story, Ira was like, you've got to put a mic on our main character. His name is Ray Ray.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Ray Ray is a dog-- a terrier. We attached a tiny microphone to his collar.

Zoe Chace

Ray Ray, you're going to be my first radio dog. Ray, say something.

A ball is thrown down the hallway. This is what it's like to be Ray Ray.

[SCAMPERING]

Some mix of eternal optimism and desperation to catch the thing that is getting away from you.

[SCAMPERING]

The owner of the dog in question is Judy.

Judy

Sit. No more. We have to save it for later.

Zoe Chace

She's the kind of old-school New Yorker that you meet less and less. She was born on the Lower East Side, grew up in Queens, doesn't have a car, doesn't really leave the city. And she's lived in the same tiny, two-room apartment for 30 years. She's a dog person. She lives with this big, quiet greyhound and Ray Ray, the hyper little terrier. He's a rescue. Before that--

Judy

I think he was in a home in New Jersey because he had no street skills at all. And his pads-- like he had never walked on concrete. His pads were like pink baby pads.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Judy trains dogs. She's a dog walker and dog sitter. And not long after she got Ray, she noticed he kind of goes nuts around rats, which, in New York, comes up all the time. Not long ago, he saw a rat just across from the Epiphany Church on 22nd Street, started lunging and pulling at the leash.

Judy

One darted out, and he went to nail it. Yeah. It was so fast that I'm glad that I had a good hold on the leash because he would've yanked the leash right out of my hand.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Some dogs are bred to swim. Some are bred to herd sheep or rescue people from the snow. Terriers are bred to hunt rats. They did this in factories and farms in England 200 years ago. They're bred small so they can chase rats into holes.

Zoe Chace

Recently, Judy read on Facebook about this group, The Ryders Alley Trencher-Fed Society, acronym RATS. It's a club of dog owners, mostly terriers. On Friday nights, half a dozen of them take their dogs out onto the streets of New York so their terriers can get a chance to really be terriers, do what they're bred for-- hunt for rats.

On Facebook, Judy saw picture after picture of dogs chasing rats. Grimy. Garbage strewn around the street. Not Judy's scene. But Judy is exceptionally good, I think, at seeing from a dog's perspective. She wants what he wants. And he clearly wants rats.

Judy

I want to do this with him. I want him to experience a piece of himself that he doesn't get to experience.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Their first hunt is tonight in just a couple hours. The terrier club made clear this would be an audition. Ray Ray would be trying out. Some terriers still have the instinct. You don't have to train them. They're just rat-killing machines. But other terriers aren't like that. Ray's a bit of a mutt-- a terrier mix. Still, Judy's confident.

Judy

He's got a very high prey drive.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

He has a very high what?

Judy

Prey drive. P-R-E-Y drive. It's prey. There's no doubt in my mind that he will do this. I know he's going to go crazy.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

At this moment, Ray was attacking a small, blue teddy bear.

Zoe Chace

Watching him do, right now, to some little teddy bear what he's going to do to this rat--

Judy

Yeah. That's what he does. They shred. Are you a shredder?

Emmanuel Dzotsi

That's the level of adversary Ray Ray's had to deal with his whole life thus far-- inanimate, gut full of fluff, no guile, no teeth. I wondered how Ray would do.

Zoe Chace

Later that same night, 10:00 PM. Grand and Henry Streets. We're just outside a dark playground. It's 90 degrees. Sweaty. It smells like pee and hot garbage.

Zoe Chace

Ray, why are you crying so much? Because he's anxious?

When we catch up with the Ryder Trencher-Fed Society, it's a small group-- two men, a lady, three terriers. They look impatient and serious. Richard is the leader. He's an older guy wearing a baseball cap and Kevlar gloves. Ray Ray immediately starts to bark like crazy at the other terriers.

[BARKING]

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Ray Ray's making a terrible first impression. One of the other terrier owners shakes his head, and he says he's not sure this is going to work out.

Judy

Look at me. Look at me. Ray, look.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Judy finally gets Ray quieted down, and Richard launches into a sort of lecture to Judy, explaining what Ray Ray is going to have to do.

Richard

What we're looking for is, primarily, the dog that can hunt by scent here in the city, because the rats are there. You can't see them for the most part.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Richard is very serious about this, runs it like a British fox hunt, carries a cane, let's out the occasional--

Richard

Whoa! Tally-ho.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

And they have battle plans. There's specific jobs. Some dogs are flushers. The flushers find the rats and chase them out of wherever they're hiding. And there are catchers. The catchers stand just a little ways off, waiting for a rat to come their way. And when the rat comes, the catcher bites.

Zoe Chace

Paco is one of the catch dogs. His owner lays out the strategy.

Zoe Chace

What's his way in?

Bill

He weighs in at 32 pounds.

Zoe Chace

No, sorry. What's his way in when he's going to kill the rats? Like what's his method?

Bill

Teeth. He'll grab 'em, shake 'em, crush 'em.

Zoe Chace

Richard, the leader, says showtime, and we're off. The hunt has begun.

Bill

Come here. Catcher.

Zoe Chace

A warning to listeners. We told you the dogs are out here killing rats, so be aware. This gets intense. The 10 of us-- six people, four dogs-- slowly head down Broome Street. And just like in those movie scenes where the special ops team makes its way into enemy territory, it is weirdly quiet. The dogs are cautious. They sniff at garbage bags, dumpsters. Then--

Judy

Whoa! Whoa!

Zoe Chace

Agh!

That's me screaming. Two rats just ran out onto the sidewalk.

Judy

Get 'em, Ray. Get 'em! Get 'em!

Emmanuel Dzotsi

The dogs chase the rats, except for Ray, who just zigzags up and down the sidewalk, excited but confused. The rats sprint in front of us, and then they're gone. Richard's standing by a big SUV.

Zoe Chace

So where did all the rats go?

Richard

Into the cars. There's two rats in here.

Zoe Chace

What do you mean? You think the rats are inside this, like, Escalade?

Richard

No, they're up in the undercarriage, around the axle, around the motorhead.

Zoe Chace

Ugh. Doesn't that freak you out?

Richard

Not particularly.

Zoe Chace

Little Ray shuffles along a fence with Judy right behind him.

Zoe Chace

Do you feel worried, like he doesn't have the hunter instinct?

Judy

No. I know he does. It's just this is his first time, so he's leaving his mark everywhere. And I think that's a poop that I have to clean up. [LAUGHS]

Come. Let's go.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Next stop, a corner store with five huge garbage bags out front. Richard says this is basically a sure thing. There are always rats in garbage bags outside delis. The dogs start sniffing at it.

Judy

What is that? What is that? Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah.

Zoe Chace

There he goes.

A couple rats flee the garbage pile and make a dash for the sewer. The dogs just missed them. Ray's running circles, basically, around the garbage bags. He's like the hype man for the other dogs. He's enthusiastic. Richard, our leader, is not impressed.

Richard

What?

Judy

He's getting into it.

Richard

Yeah, but I want him to stop going bat [BLEEP] and start hunting.

Zoe Chace

A guy walks out of the deli. His name is Jonathan Rivera. He lives in the neighborhood. He sees the commotion, and he comes over.

Zoe Chace

Do--

Richard

Get 'em!

Zoe Chace

Do you know what these guys are doing?

Jonathan Rivera

Yes. I've seen them many years before, and I appreciate what they're doing. The guys are awesome. All these [BLEEP] rodents and rats are manifesting. I've never seen no one in the whole entire New York City state--

[BANGING]

--do something like this.

Zoe Chace

Agh! They did [INAUDIBLE].

Jonathan Rivera

Yes! We got one! Killer, kill!

Zoe Chace

One of the dogs had dived under a car and come out with a rat in his mouth.

Jonathan Rivera

What dog is that? What's his name? Hold on. Your dog's name's what?

Susan

Tanner.

Jonathan Rivera

Tanner? Tanner just kicked ass right now, and got his kill on Broome Street. 157, between 154 Broome Street. Got his kill. And he is the MVP for the night. Tanner, 1-plus. The other dogs, zero. Hunger Games. Let's go.

Zoe Chace

Jonathan whips out his phone, takes a selfie with the dead rat, and puts it up on Snapchat.

Susan

Catcher is carrying around a dead rat.

Zoe Chace

Richard holds the rat up to Ray to get some sort of reaction, but Ray Ray just looks at it. Judy's lowering expectations.

Judy

I don't think he's going to get one tonight. I think he's too much of a newbie.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Tanner is the oldest, blindest, deafest dog here. He just killed a rat. Paco just got one, too, but Ray Ray's score is still at zero. Though, I think that doesn't really capture the situation, because, obviously, you know who's really winning? The rats. Richard ran the numbers for us.

Richard

A dog comes in season and is breedable once every six to nine months. A rat comes in season and is breedable every three days.

Zoe Chace

Ha! That's upsetting.

Richard

The gestation period is 21 to 23 days. The average litter is 10 to 12. Now, you want to do a little bit of the math, you start with one pair of rats today, 365 days from now you have 24,000 rats. Maybe the most intelligent thing that I've ever heard was somebody said that, in New York City, you're never more than 30 feet from a rat.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

One estimate says there are something like 2 million rats in New York City. It's taken us an hour to kill two of them.

Judy

Come on. Let's go.

Zoe Chace

We try a couple more spots. We slip into a construction site through a gap in the fence. To me, as a New Yorker, this feels very wrong. Like, you don't go to these places in the city, because rats. They have their corners of the city. We have ours. They are in the subway tracks. We are on the platform. They're in the shadows, and we stay in the lights. It feels physically hard to force myself into this territory.

Zoe Chace

I want to die. I want to die.

Susan

Catcher is carrying around a dead rat.

Zoe Chace

Where are we? What is this?

Judy

We're in some kind of an enclosure. It's really smelly and dirty.

Richard

Freeze. Everybody freeze. Freeze. Hold Ray right there. There's a rat ready to come out.

Zoe Chace

Ray sniffs around haphazardly. Here's his mic.

[PANTING]

Looks up at Judy.

Judy

I think he's done.

Zoe Chace

What did he do?

Judy

Nothing. He's looking for food. He's not looking for rats. Oh my god.

Zoe Chace

But then we come to this dark alley. And this time, they specifically set it up for Ray to make a kill. Judy and Ray Ray stay just inside the alleyway. Behind us, there's a guy peeing into a dumpster. At the end of the alley is one of the dog owners, Susan. She looks so out of place. She's in shorts, white running shoes, standing in the middle of a pile of garbage, poking at it with sticks. She's trying to flush out a rat for her dog to catch. Judy, Ray, and I just watch.

Zoe Chace

See, she really gets in the garbage over there.

Judy

Yeah. She's good. She really entertains her dog.

Zoe Chace

We're just seeing this so differently. Judy is thinking, that's amazing. I'm thinking, that's disgusting. Here's how Ray's feeling as he's watching.

[WHINING]

No rats run our way, so Judy decides, screw the battle plan. She's going to let Ray off leash, and tears off to find the other dogs in the garbage pile.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

One rat emerges from the scrum and runs under a stack of loose boards next to the sidewalk. Ray heads in after it. This is the sound of him banging his head and paws under those boards.

[POUNDING]

Susan

Come on, Tanner. Go around.

[SCURRYING]

[SQUEAKING]

Judy

Get 'em! Get 'em! Get 'em!

Zoe Chace

I'm just going to pause things for a moment here, because what happened next goes really fast. And amazingly, we actually have a picture of this exact moment that Bill took with some kind of high-speed camera. The picture shows two dogs, Paco, Ray, and one very large New York City rat. The rat looks like it's doing some move from The Matrix, like slow-motion flying through the air, twisting at the waist, right across Paco's face, trying to escape his assailants. And then--

[SCREAMING]

Susan

[INAUDIBLE] Tanner!

Richard

Good. Good. Good! Good! Good boy! Judith, wonderful.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Ray doesn't kill the rat. He misses him. But he pushes the rat right into Paco's face. I'm going to give Ray Ray an assist on this one.

Zoe Chace

You did it, Ray.

Susan

Yeah! Woo!

Judy

Yay! Can we go home now?

Susan

Leave it, Tanner.

Richard

Tally-ho! Tally-ho. He wants back in. He's going after him. He's got the gene turned on now.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Ray's passed the test. He's a hunter. He circles back to the blood on the sidewalk.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Oh, wow. That's-- he's licking the blood.

Judy

Yuck! Don't drink the blood.

Zoe Chace

I saw this quote in an article about terriers from the poet A. E. Housman. "I can no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat." Ray has found his poetry.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Judy puts Ray back on the leash. She seems a little shaken up, and she's ready to leave the Ryders Alley Trencher-Fed Society and go home.

Judy

I'm dirty. I'm smelly. I'm tired. I'm thirsty. Now I have to give my dog a bath. I want to get home and wash my hands.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Judy and little Ray Ray get in a taxi back to their apartment. Richard says he's seen her kind before.

Richard

I doubt she'll be back, but you never know. We get a lot of people like that who come, whose dogs show promise, but you can tell that they don't have the--

Emmanuel Dzotsi

It's like their dog has the instinct, but they don't.

Richard

Well, I don't think she's a hunter. The dog is much more of a hunter than she is.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

A few days later, Judy emailed us that Ray wasn't playing with his toys. I've been worried about this-- that there would be some irrevocable change in him. After tasting blood, his squeaky ball would just seem pathetic. But a few days later, he was back to his toys and Judy and Ray are going rat hunting again. This surprised me. It makes him happy, she said. She wants him to be happy.

Zoe Chace

When he and Judy walk down the street now, they are having exactly opposite experiences. I imagine what's in Ray's head as this X-ray version of New York City. Legions of rats running just under the sidewalks, in every courtyard, behind every stack of garbage. When he smells the air that comes out of the subway, he knows they're there.

Judy, meanwhile, like all New Yorkers, lives surrounded by rats and tries her best to pretend they're not here. But for Ray, she'll cross over, look at the world as a terrier might, the same way you see couples walking down the streets of New York, hand-in-hand, one suffering through something the other one needs, just in order to feel like themselves.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace and Emmanuel Dzotsi are producers on our show.

[MUSIC - "I SMELL A RAT" BY BIG MAMA THORNTON]

[MUSIC - "THE 5TH QUARTER" BY THE MADHATTERS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo. Our production staff, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvas, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Karen Duffin, Emmanuel Dzotsi, David Kestenbaum, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike.

Editing help from Susan Burton, Julie Snyder, and Elna Baker. Our digital staff, Whitney Dangerfield and Julie Whitaker. Research help today from Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

At our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, what does he say about me quoting him here at the end of every show?

Jeff Garlin

If he's not bored doing that every night, there's something wrong with him because I'd want to kill myself.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.