Comedian Alex Edelman Pokes Fun at Antisemites
After finishing up a Broadway run last August, comedian Alex Edelman has taken his critically acclaimed one-man show, Just For Us, on a national tour (justforusshow.com), traveling to California, Illinois and other states. In the show, which runs through February 2024, Edelman talks extensively about his Jewish background, identity and antisemitism, critical topics at this time of rising Jew hatred.
Despite the weighty focus, Just for Us has plenty of yucks. At one point, Edelman describes when he first realized as a child that being Jewish means being different. He was at a friend’s birthday party and reached for a slice of pizza with sausage topping, and his grandfather told him he couldn’t have it because he’s Jewish.
“What does that mean?” Edelman asked.
“It means you’ll never be happy” was his grandfather’s answer.
Edelman is certainly making his audiences happy, or at least has them laughing. But his performance isn’t stand-up in the traditional sense. Edelman is a storyteller, and his stories have won him kudos and awards around the world. His debut show, Millennial, received a prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2014, the first American-authored performance to be so honored in nearly two decades.
The main story that Edelman relates in Just For Us is about a meeting of white supremacists he attended in 2017, believing that he could persuade them to change their minds. The comedian learned about the gathering after a discussion on Twitter (now X) with an antisemite. Those exchanges prompted a torrent of hate to be directed at Edelman on the platform. His tongue-in-cheek response: creating a Twitter list of accounts belonging to the worst “haters” that he dubbed “Jewish Nat’l Fund Donors,” knowing that the name would outrage those on the list.
Not surprisingly, that list generated even more trolls—and an invitation of sorts. One of those flagged accounts was asking followers to attend a gathering in Queens to learn more about their whiteness. As an Ashkenazi Jew, Edelman figured, he looks white and would therefore be welcome.
The 34-year-old, who splits his time between New York City and Los Angeles when he’s not touring, grew up in a Modern Orthodox family in Brookline, Mass. He attended Jewish day schools and spent a year in a Jerusalem yeshiva after high school. But his real education, he has said, was at the Boston-area comedy clubs where he honed his craft starting in his teens. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Just For Us was a favorite of Jewish audiences during its successful run on Broadway. What inspired you to create such a Jewish comedy?
You think it’s Jewish? I never thought of this as a specifically Jewish or non-Jewish show.
I wrote the show for non-Jews, too. Sort of like kiruv, outreach. The truth is that most Jewish programming is not very good because it’s made specifically for one audience, and there’s something condescending about that. I never thought, “Now I’ll make a Jewish show.” I just talk about things in my life that resonate with audiences that are Jewish because it makes them feel seen.
How did the events of October 7 and the subsequent rise of antisemitism impact you and the show, which began its national tour soon after Hamas’s attack on Israel?
If I’m being honest, it’s made the show feel more urgent for me. I was worried about how the show would be perceived. Is it going to be weird because it’s just weeks after the events?
I called Modi [Israeli-born comic Mordechi Rosenfeld], who is a close friend of mine, and he told me about how before a recent appearance of his, he looked out at the audience from backstage. They were all on their phones looking at the war. Then he went on for an hour and a half, and it was a nice escape for everyone.
And I thought, well, maybe the show will be a nice escape for me, too. And it really was a nice break from a really crappy time. October 7 made the shows feel a little more special. I talk to everyone after the show. I wait for them [either on the stage or at the stage door]. Anyone who wants to can ask me a question. It’s one of the nice delights.
What has the audience’s reaction been to the show post-October 7?
Everyone was saying, “Thank you. I haven’t laughed in a while. I needed a laugh. I needed this show.” I know the feeling. I’m also on my phone every day looking at the news and being scared and sad and upset and confused.
I did a radio interview the other day and the announcer asked, “How are you able to make jokes at a time like this?” And I was like, buddy, “It’s the only thing I can do. It is the only thing I feel comfortable doing.” It’s the number one thing that’s been saving me. I feel I can’t wait to start the show tonight. I’m going to run to the theater.
Curt Schleier, a freelance writer, teaches business writing to corporate executives.