Taking ‘Just for Us’ to HBO and Flirting With the Third Rail

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Alex Edelman’s go-to order at Barney Greengrass is whitefish on an the whole lot bagel with a aspect of scrambled eggs. The Higher West Aspect establishment isn’t precisely his native hang-out — he lives out of a blue Samsonite bag today — however this New York deli is a magnet for the Boston-born comedian. “It’s the place my associates eat and argue,” he explains. “It’s the place concepts begin to take root. Oh, and because the present did properly, I can at all times get a desk.”

That present, Just for Us, is the Jewish author’s celebrated narrative concerning the notorious evening he attended a gathering of white nationalists in a Queens residence. An prolonged downtown run led to stints on Broadway and around the globe. Its latest return to L.A.’s Mark Taper Discussion board (March 25 to 31) and an HBO particular (April 6) are his grand finale, an advanced one for the 35-year-old. Final April, Only for Us director and Edelman confidante Adam Brace died all of the sudden of a stroke. Then got here the Oct. 7 Hamas assault on Israel and the following battle in Gaza, which introduced new depth to the present’s laugh-out-loud dissection of antisemitism. “I’m actually pleased with this factor,” he says over Zoom, “but it surely’s received a number of baggage — good and dangerous.”

You paint such a heat portrait of your dad and mom on this present. How did they react to you going undercover with white supremacists?

My father was like, “Oh, that sounds attention-grabbing.” The very first thing my mother mentioned was, “You want a fucking job.” (Laughs.) They’re very supportive, at all times have been. However I had simply come off of a writing workers job, and so they cherished that. “Wait, you get medical insurance? Are you able to simply try this any more?” When the collection [The Great Indoors] received canceled, it was six months of me saying stuff like, “I’m going to a convention on nuclear Iran,” and my mother simply asking, “Why?”

The primary iteration of this present goes again to 2018. The place are you at — mentally, emotionally — now that you simply’re lastly closing the guide?

The fabric has modified a lot. I wasn’t even Jewish within the present in 2018! So, there was the unique model, which I then revisited in early 2020 at Mike Birbiglia’s encouragement. It was 2021 when the present began in an actual manner. We had this massive New York run [at the Cherry Lane] that we didn’t anticipate. Then there was an opportunity to go to Broadway, which I mentioned no to a few instances till the fitting individuals got here up with the fitting thought. The purpose is … throughout every of these phases, I assumed it was the top. Now it’s actually time. Partially as a result of I simply have to do away with these advanced feelings — hopefully to make room for various advanced feelings.

“I’m not an enormous bagel fan within the sense that they change into totems,” says Edelman. “Folks typically say to me, ‘I’m principally Jewish, I really like bagels!’ I need to scream. That doesn’t make you Jewish. Everyone loves bagels.”

Photographed by Amy Lombard; Grooming: Evy Drew

Wait. Why did you say no to Broadway?

It’s, like, a nasty enterprise? (Laughs.) There are a lot of stunning issues on Broadway and a few issues the place I am going, “I don’t know if that must be there.” Additionally, I take Broadway significantly. It’s an exquisite group, so I used to be being a bit of threat averse. I didn’t need to destroy a halcyon off-Broadway present with a wimpy Broadway providing that had actually costly tickets. Comedy and theater tickets must be cheap. So once they found out a enterprise mannequin to place it in a theater that was sufficiently small to nonetheless really feel intimate, however large enough to make sense economically, we did it.

Inform me about a few of the conversations you’ve had with the extra conservative viewers members after your exhibits.

It’s bizarre to speak high-mindedly a couple of stand-up comedy present, however I believe there are binaries on both aspect. This present is suspicious of binaries. Some individuals really feel deeply that Jews are by no means white — and there are some who’re like, “How dare you name into query Jews being white?” I’ve had a number of conversations concerning the pro-vaccines a part of the present. Anti-vaxxers get actually, actually sensitive.

What’s been some essentially the most surprising suggestions?

There’s a narrative about how my household had Christmas for a non-Jewish good friend, and you wouldn’t consider the variety of Christians and Jews who take concern with it. There are Christians who’re like, “It wasn’t your vacation to have a good time.” Then some Jews will say, “I don’t assume it’s acceptable to ever convey Christmas into the home.” It’s my favourite a part of the present! I don’t love a comic laughing at their very own jokes, however I genuinely crack up as a result of it’s such a pleasant household reminiscence.

Is that the inspiration for the movie you’re planning to put in writing and direct?

Sure, it’s primarily based on the Christmas story from the present. I’m actually excited. I’m doing it with Marc Platt and Adam Siegel.

You simply referred to this as stand-up comedy, but it surely’s billed as a one-man present. As an artist, do you see a distinction between the 2 labels — or is that simply semantics?

Actually good exhibits ought to be capable of do two issues directly. They need to be entertaining however with inventive, excessive caloric content material. They need to be propulsive however not really feel rushed. They need to be one thing a critic and an viewers member would take pleasure in. When Nanette got here out, everybody was like, “It’s not comedy!” If Hannah Gatsby says it’s comedy, it’s comedy. You might not like every of her stuff, however she is totally a humorist. These binaries by no means meant a lot to me, aside from the truth that I’ve at all times wished to increase the definitions of each. I’d love for a extra attention-grabbing buffet of choices in stand-up. And I’d love for a extra solo exhibits in theater. I’m unabashedly a humorist, so it’s taken me some time to wrap my head round the concept that the present is theater.

You’ve referred to as this a present about assimilation, not antisemitism. Have latest occasions shifted your notion of the work?

Hiding your identification means one thing totally different to me now. Like all people else, I’ve sophisticated emotions about what’s happening in Israel and Gaza and Palestine. It’s a catastrophe. However, yeah, I’ve come to a extra related understanding of how assimilation and antisemitism are linked. I nonetheless assume the present’s about assimilation. I nonetheless assume the message of the present is that should you disguise some a part of your self to slot in, you’ll pay a worth.

“Barney Greengrass is the place my associates and I am going to eat and argue,” says Edelman, photographed on the deli on March 19. “It’s a kind of locations that lends itself to sitting for 3 hours and screaming at one another over refillable espresso.”

Photographed by Amy Lombard; Grooming: Evy Drew

Some press have referred to as you “the following Jerry Seinfeld.” That’s received to be flattering, however your kinds are so totally different that I’m wondering if the comparability relies on something past you each being Jewish and good at jokes. What’s your learn?

I don’t see it, both. Plenty of these comparisons come out of the U.Okay., the place they’re similar to, “American Jew likes to arrange punchlines!” The worst is when somebody compares me to Jackie Mason, who I couldn’t really feel extra totally different from if he was a Martian. Love Jackie Mason for sure issues… actually don’t for others. I’m closely influenced by Seinfeld, his writing and ethos. I really like that each line must be a punchline, his “only a few further phrases” philosophy and that materials must be as timeless as potential. However when individuals level at that similarity, they’re pointing on the improper factor. And I’d say that I’m much more influenced by the people who he influenced, people like Mike Birbiglia and Jim Gaffigan.

Earlier than Oct. 7, you have been engaged on a present about Israel and Palestine. Are you revisiting that?

Complexities are often good for comedy. With this battle, it’s onerous to synthesize the whole lot into punchlines that may make individuals completely happy. I’ve tried a few jokes out about it on the Comedy Cellar. Audiences appear to love them, but it surely’s not comfy. I’m not dialed in sufficient. That is the place I actually miss Adam, as a result of he’d assist put the dowsing rod in the fitting spot. However, funnily, I’ve executed much more work on that concept between Oct. 7 and now. I’ll most likely do a 60- or 90-minute present about it within the subsequent two years however in some distant nook of the U.Okay. the place there’s no press.

Regardless of the way you do it, that’s going to piss off extra individuals than your loved ones’s Jewish Christmas.

After I informed my outdated agent within the U.Okay. concerning the thought, he went, “Oh, nice. We must always name it Profession Suicide, after which I can drop you.” However don’t you assume that comedy concerning the onerous issues is necessary? Don’t it’s a must to take a swing? I by no means need to offend individuals, however all the energy is within the third rail. You’ve received to get in there, as a result of it helps you reckon with issues. This present has been a lifeline for me the previous few months. It heals you a bit of to speak concerning the massive factor. That’s why remedy is nice.

There’s some debate about exaggeration or mendacity in comedy. You as soon as joked about your twin brother on Conan. You’ve rapidly clarified that you simply simply look alike, however that clip nonetheless pops up. What are your guardrails today?

I used to say that we have been like twins. Then a comic book I actually respect informed me, “Simply say you’re twins! Who cares?” Again then, my materials was extra surreal and fewer autobiographical. I care much more now about fact in my exhibits than I did six years in the past. And issues are totally different primarily based on the medium. For stand-up, the humorous factor is, saying we have been twins was proper for the joke. This present relies on a gathering that I attended. I bear in mind a number of what occurred in that room, however a few of the characters are composited. I’ve been very open about that. Each curatorial alternative is a storytelling alternative. And I like a way of distance in some methods.

Inform me extra about that.

If I may change one factor about stand-up and autobiographical artwork, it’s that mystique is gone. We now have fully divested ourselves of mystique with public personalities. We have to get that again. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, by the best way, has mystique. Even Taylor Swift, in her hugeness, retains mystique. This present raises some ambiguous questions on me: “How do I actually really feel about political points? How is my persona totally different than the one that you simply’re experiencing onstage?” I believe quite a bit about fact in comedy, however they could be totally different truths than factual ones.

Having one thing hit this massive, there should be gives coming in. What’s been essentially the most weird?

Folks ask me to reboot issues that I don’t assume must be rebooted. Like, “Would you need to take a shot at making Rocket Energy right into a live-action and immersive expertise?” There are additionally gives to adapt books from the ’70s that I don’t assume have been ever proper for adaptation. And I’ve gotten a number of gives to play rabbis in motion pictures. I at all times learn the scripts, hoping they’ll be cool. I so need the rabbi roles. They only have to be the proper rabbi roles.

“I’m an leisure comic,” says Edelman, who filmed his HBO particular throughout a nine-week stint at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre. “In case you’re there for theater, you get your cash’s value.”

Sarah Shatz/HBO

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