Comedian Alex Edelman on Just for Us, his show about antisemitism: ‘It’s too important not to joke about’
lex Edelman is tired, though he has a good excuse – two actually. The first is that the award-winning American comedian only flew into London the day before on a red-eye from New York and he is gripped by jet lag. The other is he was sitting in a pub until 3am, some nine hours before we meet, watching the Golden Globes.
This was no idle interest in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s showpiece ceremony, but rather he was supporting his girlfriend Hannah Einbinder, who was up for a best supporting actress award for her role in the superb Hacks. That she didn’t ultimately win “was a bummer”, he says, looking pained.
I was up in the early hours to cover the Globes, so we’re both mainlining caffeine in the green room of east London theatre the Menier Chocolate Factory, as Edelman tells me about Just for Us, his show which opens at the venue on Wednesday.
He started performing Just for Us – his third solo show – in 2018 and has continued to work on and develop it. The New York Times described it as being “about race and identity in American culture” but added it was a “belly-laugh funny show”.
It grew out of an experience several years before where the Jewish comic, after facing sustained antisemitic abuse online, decided to covertly attend a gathering of white nationalists in New York, to see what sort of person was targeting him.
“In 2016, 2017 it got really bad, and then in 2019 to 2020 it wasn’t too bad, I noticed it had died down. Not to me directly – every six or eight months I’ll catch the notice of this shitty corner of the internet and get awful messages for a sec – but for general antisemitic content on social media. It’s got pretty bad again.
“Most assume that out-and-out antisemitism is for this crazed bunch of lunatics and that’s the only people who are antisemitic,” he says, adding that is clearly not true. He points out that he even went out on a few dates with someone “who described herself as ‘broadly not being into Jews…’ Examining various people’s prejudices, and my own, should be a constant conversation.”
While he wants to save the revelations of what happened in the room for the show, clearly he made it out intact. “People always get disappointed when I tell them I didn’t feel like there was danger or in the direct path of bodily harm,” he says.
Ultimately, Edelman adds, “The show isn’t really about antisemitism, the show is about assimilation, which is why people have connected with it. It is really about identity and how it fits with society at large. Also,” he adds as if worried about the sales pitch, “It’s a comedy show.”
He was touring it around the UK when Covid closed everything down, but, he says, it has changed a lot since then. After lockdown in the US, it played nine months in New York and then he took it to Washington. He now feels he knows US audiences well.
“My biggest issue with Americans is we struggle to see things in any way other than binary: black-white, rich-poor, oppressor-oppressed… We can only see things in zeros and ones because our country is so infinitely complex we might go crazy.”
And that means pushback about what is or isn’t right to include in a comedy set. After one performance in Washington, an audience member told him that while his material was funny the subject was too serious to joke about. “I said, ‘It’s too important not to joke about.’”
“The thing I love about British audiences,” he continues, “is they are very capable of holding the notion of something being important and being funny. I was already a British comedy fan when I got here, but what really pulled me in that you could joke about something important and it wouldn’t be seen as worthy or facile or indulgent.”
With the starting point of the show being him as the target for antisemitic abuse by online trolls, Edelman was recently asked how he calls out antisemitism. “I said, ‘You know what, I don’t really anymore. I try and stay out of it. I have seen friends who do and say stuff that’s antisemitic and I will call them and say, ‘Just so you know that hurt my feelings.’”
So when antisemitic issues flare up as, recently, with Kanye West and basketball player Kyrie Irving in the US, he found himself having “dozens of conversations about it – turns out I’m a lot of people’s Jewish friend”. And he is quick to stress, “I’m not an expert in antisemitism… I’m a f***ing comedian.”
Edelman was brought up Jewish Orthodox in Brookline, Massachusetts, close to Boston. His mother worked as a real estate lawyer and his father is a cardiologist, he has two brothers, one of whom has competed at the Winter Olympics. “My family loved comedy but wasn’t very comedy literate, so the stuff they liked was stuff my grandfather found funny and Mel Brooks was a common denominator.”
It was during college that he became more interested in persuing comedy, and credits spending time in Britain for changing his life. It was during his studies at New York University that he had the opportunity to come to London for a term. Zadie Smith was one of his professors at NYU – “NYU has the best professors!” – and she introduced Edelman to her brother, the comedian Ben Bailey-Smith. “So I came over, he took me to a show on the boat the Tattershall Castle [on Victoria Embankment]. There was so much to get stuck into. By the end of that term, I was determined to do comedy.”
Some comics have talked about the competitive nature of stand up – Kumail Nanjiani recently told me comics want to “blow everyone else off the stage”, even their friends – but Edelman profoundly disagrees. “So much of what I have is by the grace of other comics.”
“I think of comics as a community with embassies all over the world,” he continues. “I have been in cities where I’m alone, doing a corporate gig or whatever, and I walk into a comedy club. Chances are I will know someone in that club. It’s a wonderful thing to have comedy consulates everywhere.”
He is particularly effusive about the UK. “I wasn’t a very good comedian before I came to England… the stuff I saw here had a really big impact on who I was as a comic. When I was a young person, my influences in the US were not great. But then I got here and I saw so many different kinds of comedy.” He adds, “It changed my life so completely.”
He namechecks James Acaster, Nish Kumar, Josie Long, Stewart Lee, Bridget Christie, Dane Baptiste, Romesh Ranganathan and Joel Dommett as being particularly welcoming, adding, “When I was getting started, I slept on the couches of really great comics. Phoebe Waller-Bridge was a big part of my comedy life here.”
Soho Theatre proved a base and he would hang out, watching shows and talking to comics in the bar. He dated fellow comedian Kathryn Ryan for a time “we’re still close” he says adding, “I really came of age here as a comic and as a person… I’m almost wistful about that time. It was really hard but to me there is impossible romance to being in Milton Keynes or Aldershot… there were so many great shows in great places.”
In 2014, he won the Edinburgh Comedy Award for Best Newcomer for his debut show Millennial, the first American to do so since Arj Barker in 1997. “That was so important. I was so broke, so winning that was a lifeline,” he says adding, “Without Edinburgh I’d be someone’s funny copywriter at an ad agency.”
He breaks off with a sigh, “Man, I really miss the UK. It’s so hard to explain to Americans how interesting it is here. To have not been here for three years has been devastating.”
Edelman talks about being “incubated” at the Soho Theatre, and adds that’s where Just for Us was first workshopped. It came after his second show Everything Handed to You and he was feeling rootless. “I noticed there was a cynicism creeping into my comedy that I was really starting to dislike and I didn’t want that anymore.”
Then Bridget Christie challenged him to make a show that would “illuminate the terrifying present for audiences, and give hope to an even more terrifying future.” It made him lean in more seriously into live performance, he said, and he started working on Just for Us.
Things appear to be going pretty well for Edelman. Just for Us is going to be filmed for a special, and he has ticked off a series of bucket list items. That includes performing part of the show at the White House last month.
Shortly before that, he was one of the acts in Boston’s Comics Come Home fundraising gig. Hosted by Denis Leary, it was held in the stadium of basketball team the Boston Celtics, with a crowd of 21,000. It’s America’s longest running comedy fundraiser. “It was the first show I saw when I was 15 years old,” Edelman says, “and then I got to do it.”
Added to that, his comedy heroes have started to take notice. Legends including Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld, have all been to see Just for Us and all chatted to him afterwards, giving advice when he asked for it. What was meeting Seinfeld like? “Dude, it was so insane. To have people who are influences on you enjoy your show… I don’t know if I said this to him, because frankly I blacked out, but I wanted to say, if you enjoyed the show it’s because of you, your influence.”
He puts much of his success down to curiosity. “Being curious has gotten huge mileage. Being curious about comedy, about Edinburgh, about sports, about politics. I think it’s a very underrated value.” But ultimately his philosophy is to “have a really good time. I was raised in a small enclave and I love my enclave but I’ve had this great opportunity to go out there and meet a whole lot of different people and do a whole bunch of different things, and have great conversations. I’m outside after every show. I’m happy to talk to anyone about anything anyone want to talk about.”
Just for Us runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory from January 18 to February 26; menierchocolatefactory.com