Interview: In Alex Edelman's Just for Us, a Jew Walks Into a White Nationalist Gathering
Edelman's new stand-up solo show opens at the SoHo Playhouse March 14.
Alex Edelman's Just for Us has one of those premises that is too insane to be untrue. In this new stand-up solo show, Edelman, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Massachusetts and is still observant, recounts his experience attending a gathering of White Nationalists in New York City after receiving a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse on social media. It does not sound like the stuff of comedy, especially now, but it's absolutely hilarious.
A word of mouth hit that was almost a casualty of Omicron, Just for Us has defied the odds since it returned to the Cherry Lane Theatre in mid-January after a Covid-related hiatus. Selling out its initial run, demand has been so high that it's transferring to the Soho Playhouse (where Edelman, a proud theater geek, has fond memories of seeing John Douglas Thompson in The Emperor Jones and one of his early supporters, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, in Fleabag) for a new engagement, March 14-April 23.
What impressed me about the show was how unabashedly Jewish it is (Edelman, after all, was the head writer of the pandemic hit Saturday Night Seder), while also having that same universal feeling as Fiddler on the Roof — it's about Jews, but, for the most part, the stories are universal. Minus the White Nationalist gathering part. Right?
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
As a Jewish kid, I grew up listening to all the classic comedians whose routines amounted to "Take My Wife" jokes. What I appreciated about your show is that it's Jewish humor that doesn't rely on those tropes.
I've never been a fan of "Take my wife" or "Jews are cheap" or whatever. My show is extremely resistant to binaries and generalizations, because that's not fair, and that's how you lose people. Every line in the show can be, and sometimes is, caveated with an "in my personal experience." You'll never hear me do a joke that's like "Jews love X," because there are so many things that are traditionally Jewish, and I don't like when people go "I'm basically Jewish because I love babka!" That's not how it works. I'll do interviews and people will ask me about my favorite Jewish thing, and they'll expect me to say something like "brisket!" but I'm like "discourse." And people are like, "Which course of the meal is discourse?" And I'm like "No, I love an argument and intricate conversation and a Talmudic background."
What was it about your experience going to a White Nationalist gathering that made you say, "This is a show"?
Honestly, I didn't say that right away. I was writing on a sitcom and having a wonderful experience, and then it got canceled. I limped home from LA to New York and spent a whole bunch of months floating around and going down internet wormholes. The thing that the show is based on happened, and I talked about it with some friends of mine, and they were like "this is stand-up."
I started writing it as a joke and it slowly became a handy vehicle. It's a big part of the plot of the show, but the show is not really about that – it's about empathy and assimilation, and code-switching, and things that people from any background can understand regardless of where they come from.
How much of an influence has Mike Birbiglia, your presenter, had on your process of putting this show together?
It's incalculable. Birbiglia is a great self-editor and he's been a great editor for me. He saw the show in January 2020 and he was like, "That's right, that's right, that's funny but it doesn't belong in the show." And I'm like, "But it gets the most laughs." And he's like, "Yeah, but it doesn't belong in the show." And I'm like, "But I contextualize it." And he's like, "You contextualize it correctly, but something about it doesn't belong in the show."
The issue is, when a great comic starts to give you a note, you know they're right as soon as they start talking, but you think, "Please don't say that thing that I've always known but thought I could get away with." Birbiglia's notes are that plus more. The success of the show, if I can say the show has been a success, is because of great input from people like Mike Birbiglia and my director, Adam Brace, who is the in-house director of the Soho Theater in London. The restraint that they implicitly know and have urged me to practice has made the show much better.
My friends are also an important part of this process. My peers have given great notes and tags and lines. My girlfriend [comedian Hannah Einbinder] is one of the sharpest comedy minds I know and we bounce things off each other. I fell in love with her partially because of the sharpness of her brain. If I was a carpenter, and I had one of the carpenters I most admire living under the same roof, and I was building a table, it would be really dumb of me to not be like, "Hey, honey, what do you think of this table?"
So, it's a solo show, but it really has a million uncles. It takes a village to raise a solo show.
Are you excited to get back to it at the Soho Playhouse?
I couldn't be more excited. It seems to be selling well. We thought were going to close because of Omicron. No one was sick, but it just felt like a bad idea. Everyone had a March 2020 feeling in the pit of their stomachs, and I didn't want to hurt anybody. We couldn't be asking people to go to a theater at that moment. The Cherry Lane asked if we wanted to take the month off and come back, and I was devastated. But coming back was the greatest thing. We got a couple of good reviews and influential people came and liked it and told other people. The show has been driven almost entirely by word of mouth and the generosity of people who've seen it. The unexpected gift is that it's been built and pushed by the comedy community and the theater community and the Jewish community, and the community of non-Jews who are interested in a show that is specific in a universal way. It's been a real communal experience after two years of not having those, and it's been really gratifying to be part of it.