Alex Edelman Says Touring His Comedy Show About Jewish Identity, Bigotry Is an ‘Escape’ From the Headlines

Broadway’s “Just for Us” from producer Mike Birbiglia continues its sold-out run at the Mark Taper Forum Dec. 19–23

Alex Edelman Just for Us Matthew Murphy Broadway
Alex Edelman in "Just for Us" (Credit: Matthew Murphy)

Alex Edelman just wants to make you laugh.

Sure, his hit solo show “Just for Us” — which after runs on and off Broadway and in London, Melbourne and Washington D.C. just extended its sold-out Los Angeles run at the Mark Taper Forum with six shows Dec. 19–23 — interrogates white supremacy and Jewish identity in ways that feel as timely as ever. But speaking with TheWrap ahead of its ensuing stops in Boston, Berkeley, Detroit and Chicago, the 34-year-old comedian admitted he sometimes finds himself wanting to remind people, “Hey, this is a comedy show. This is not news. This is not a think piece.”

“As the show elevates, people take it seriously in different ways,” he said. “It’s different when it’s being previewed at a comedy club in Madison, Wisconsin, or in a converted gymnasium in Edinburgh or in a Broadway house. But if you walked out of a comedy club and said, ‘I have some serious opinions about that,’ everyone would look at you like, ‘What the f–k are you — what’s your problem?’”

But, he added, having “illuminating, weird, difficult conversations” with people from all walks of life at the stage door is really what “Just for Us” has become all about.

“I talk to everybody after the show who wants to talk to me … and I f–king love it,” he said. “It really is the best part of it all.”

“Just for Us” is a 75-minute solo performance written and performed by Edelman and developed with late director and longtime friend Adam Brace, who died suddenly of a stroke ahead of its Broadway transfer. It’s the story of a 2017 encounter where Edelman sleuthed his way into a neo-Nazi meeting in Queens, New York, after tracking down antisemitic antagonizers on Twitter. What followed was not just a confrontation of bigotry in-the-flesh but an internal recalibration and invigoration of his own Jewish identity and the nuances therein.

While it’s a comedy show at heart — one that takes notes from the storytelling prowess of Mike Birbiglia, who produced the show and “really stepped up after Adam passed,” Edelman said — it also targets real-world instances of antisemitism that were brought violently to the fore following Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.

“I don’t want to speak too much about the specifics of what’s going on in Gaza and Israel, but whenever anyone is in pain, I hurt. And whenever people in my community are in pain that I can completely identify with, pain that has a shape that is completely like the shape of my own pain, that feels deeply visceral to me,” Edelman said of doing the L.A. shows in the aftermath of that attack.

“The show is an escape … This show has had some really tough moments along its progression, some really, really tough moments,” he added, nodding to Brace and the loss of his “closest friend.” “So doing it in a state of heartache isn’t a strange thing to me. It is sadly familiar.” 

Read on for Edelman’s interview with TheWrap, where he discussed the importance of facing heartache with humor and how the show has grown and adapted with the times.

This show has been with you for quite some time in varied iterations. What over its lifespan has taken you most by surprise?
I’m trying to figure out a way to say it without being self-aggrandizing or anything like that, but the surprising thing is the people that it’s reached who I never expected it to. It’s resonated with people who are Jewish in a special way, but Muslims and Christians and atheists, and anyone who feels like they’ve sublimated little parts of themselves to fit in as part of a greater whole, has found some sort of resonance in it.

And that’s been deeply gratifying and very surprising. I’m really pleased that that’s happened. So I try not to ask too many questions about it, but I also talk to everybody after the show who wants to talk to me and I’ve had a bunch of illuminating, weird, difficult conversations with people, and I f–king love it. It really is the best part of it all.

Has that feedback looped back around to inform any changes in the way you present the show?
Absolutely. Look, solo shows, for me, are these living organisms, and they change and respond to the moments that we’re in. Every word has a different cultural context in every different culture, right? The show hits differently at different places at different times. And I’ve tried very  hard to make it portable. I developed the show initially for audiences in Melbourne and Edinburgh, which are about as far afield as they can go.

My show is developed by someone who takes their identity and interior life very seriously, but they are ultimately for everybody. So trying to service that balance between everybody and oneself is a really difficult and interesting thing to go through. So those conversations with people have really influenced the way that I’m coming across.

The show’s about a tricky thing, which is the relationship between Jews and whiteness. The show is about assimilation as opposed to antisemitism. So just trying to have a show that’s honest to me but also responding to the moment that it’s in has been the challenge. But lots of conversations with people – Jews, non-Jews, white people, people of color, people who agree with me politically, people who disagree with me politically — it continually shapes the show.

It’s a unique opportunity that is really bred within the theater, that you can have that interface with the audience. But these themes often trigger a reactionary, impulsive response. Have you been confronted with any of that?
Ultimately, the show is presented as just jokes. The show is very heavy with jokes. There isn’t a single section of the show that wouldn’t fly if it was just presented as comedy, which was very intentional. I wanted to make something that was theatrical enough for theater audiences but comedy enough for comedy audiences. That was my goal.

And so I do sometimes remind people when they’re upset about something, I just want to be like, “Hey, this is a comedy show. This is not news. This is not a think piece.” As the show elevates, people take it seriously in different ways, right? It’s different when it’s being previewed at a comedy club in Madison, Wisconsin, or in a converted gymnasium in Edinburgh or in a Broadway house. If you walked out of a comedy club and said, “I have some serious opinions about that!” Everyone would look at you like, “What the f–k are you — what’s your problem?”

But one of my favorite things about the show is that it provokes arguments. And sometimes people get really angry at me, and I’m like, “Listen, this is not meant to represent the experience of Jews writ large or the state of hatred in America. It’s not a referendum on X, Y, Z. It’s just one person’s personal experience of something they found as a useful prism to examine themselves.” Like, ultimately, it’s about one guy’s interior life. It’s about me. 

You’re still tackling subject matters of assimilation, antisemitism, white supremacy. Have you always had the impulse to find a side door into humor? 
I’ve been doing comedy since I was a teenager and I realize, not to make it current, but right now, we’re in the middle of this moment where after the massacre on Oct. 7 and this period in the Middle East that I’ve never seen in my lifetime, maybe it’s as bad as it’s ever been, and every day the news is pain and every day big topics come through my phone. And I only bring this up to sort of stress that the way I process things is still through humor.

That doesn’t mean the humor has to be for other people. And also, I’ve always hated that cliche, “we use humor to work through trauma.” But to double-click on that a little bit, what humor can do is it can acknowledge a thing that is so big that needs to be acknowledged, but try to get its arms around one specific facet of it. Jokes are, in some ways, mechanisms that let us address and encapsulate things. Small ideas, sometimes big ideas. And so, yeah, I do use humor to deal with things that I find really dangerous and really big and really traumatizing.

If you had asked me before, maybe I would’ve given you a different answer, but it’s a release. You know, I hear from Jews who’ve experienced antisemitism in a way that’s more visceral, especially people who leave the house who are easily identifiable as Jews. They’re more likely to experience antisemitism — and, in fact, most of them, in my anecdotal experience.

I’m not a statistician of this, that’s the ADL, but it feels like most of them do, most of them have experiences. I find it very rare to encounter an Orthodox Jew who mixes with the secular world and hasn’t experienced any antisemitism in a way that has left some sort of mark on them. And I do hear sometimes that comedy about it, that addresses it but doesn’t make it the center of everything, it can make it a little bit easier. So yeah, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

In terms of what’s next for the show, what are your hopes? Are there plans for a streaming premiere or anything of that sort? 
It will get filmed, but it’s so much fun to do live and it’s so special to people live, I can’t imagine not really investing in that. So I’m going to. And I’m really, really pleased by it all, frankly. I can’t believe that it’s had such a nice little run. I’m so lucky. It’s so rare. And I miss my buddy every day, but it’s nice to do this thing that we did together, and I’m looking forward to stopping. I’ll stop soon, because it’s time to move on. But doing it here, doing it in L.A. in the place that I really wanted it to go for such a long time, that’s really special.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alex Edelman’s “Just for Us” runs at the Mark Taper Forum through Sunday. Find ticket information and more for the remainder of his tour here.

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