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Alex Edelman Knows There’s Power in the Third Rail

The Jewish comic who crashed a neo-Nazi mixer reflects on the one-man show (now an HBO special) his bizarre night inspired and workshopping jokes about Israel and Palestine. 

Alex Edelman’s go-to order at Barney Greengrass is whitefish on an everything bagel with a side of scrambled eggs. The Upper West Side institution isn’t exactly his local haunt — he lives out of a blue Samsonite bag these days — but this New York deli is a magnet for the Boston-born comic. “It’s where my friends eat and argue,” he explains. “It’s where ideas start to take root. Oh, and since the show did well, I can always get a table.”

That show, Just for Us, is the Jewish writer’s celebrated narrative about the infamous night he attended a meeting of white nationalists in a Queens apartment. An extended downtown run led to stints on Broadway and around the world. Its recent return to L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum (March 25 to 31) and an HBO special (April 6) are his grand finale, a complicated one for the 35-year-old. Last April, Just for Us director and Edelman confidante Adam Brace died suddenly of a stroke. Then came the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing conflict in Gaza, which brought new depth to the show’s laugh-out-loud dissection of antisemitism. “I am really proud of this thing,” he says over Zoom, “but it’s got a lot of baggage — good and bad.”

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You paint such a warm portrait of your parents in this show. How did they react to you going undercover with white supremacists?

My father was like, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” The first thing my mom said was, “You need a fucking job.” (Laughs.) They’re very supportive, always have been. But I had just come off of a writing staff job, and they loved that. “Wait, you get health insurance? Can you just do that from now on?” When the series [The Great Indoors] got canceled, it was six months of me saying stuff like, “I’m going to a conference on nuclear Iran,” and my mom just asking, “Why?”

The first iteration of this show goes back to 2018. Where are you at — mentally, emotionally — now that you’re finally closing the book?

The material has changed so much. I wasn’t even Jewish in the show in 2018! So, there was the original version, which I then revisited in early 2020 at Mike Birbiglia’s encouragement. It was 2021 when the show started in a real way. We had this big New York run [at the Cherry Lane] that we didn’t expect. Then there was a chance to go to Broadway, which I said no to a couple of times until the right people came up with the right idea. The point is … during each of those phases, I thought it was the end. Now it’s really time. Partially because I just need to get rid of these complex emotions — hopefully to make room for different complex emotions.

“I am not a huge bagel fan in the sense that they become totems,” says Edelman. “People sometimes say to me, ‘I’m basically Jewish, I love bagels!’ I want to scream. That doesn’t make you Jewish. Everybody loves bagels.” Photographed by Amy Lombard; Grooming: Evy Drew

Wait. Why did you say no to Broadway?

It’s, like, a bad business? (Laughs.) There are many beautiful things on Broadway and some things where I go, “I don’t know if that needs to be there.” Also, I take Broadway seriously. It’s a beautiful community, so I was being a little risk averse. I didn’t want to ruin a halcyon off-Broadway show with a wimpy Broadway offering that had really expensive tickets. Comedy and theater tickets should be reasonable. So when they figured out a business model to put it in a theater that was small enough to still feel intimate, but big enough to make sense economically, we did it.

Tell me about some of the conversations you’ve had with the more conservative audience members after your shows.

It’s weird to talk high-mindedly about a stand-up comedy show, but I think there are binaries on either side. This show is suspicious of binaries. Some people feel deeply that Jews are in no way white — and there are some who are like, “How dare you call into question Jews being white?” I’ve had a few conversations about the pro-vaccines part of the show. Anti-vaxxers get really, really touchy.

What’s been some the most unexpected feedback?

There’s a story about how my family had Christmas for a non-Jewish friend, and you would not believe the number of Christians and Jews who take issue with it. There are Christians who are like, “It wasn’t your holiday to celebrate.” Then some Jews will say, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to ever bring Christmas into the house.” It’s my favorite part of the show! I don’t love a comedian laughing at their own jokes, but I genuinely crack up because it’s such a nice family memory.

Is that the inspiration for the film you’re planning to write and direct?

Yes, it’s based on the Christmas story from the show. I’m really excited. I’m doing it with Marc Platt and Adam Siegel.

You just referred to this as stand-up comedy, but it’s billed as a one-man show. As an artist, do you see a difference between the two labels — or is that just semantics?

Really good shows should be able to do two things at once. They should be entertaining but with artistic, high caloric content. They should be propulsive but not feel rushed. They should be something a critic and an audience member would enjoy. When Nanette came out, everyone was like, “It’s not comedy!” If Hannah Gadsby says it’s comedy, it’s comedy. You may not like any of her stuff, but she is absolutely a stand-up comedian. Those binaries never meant much to me, other than the fact that I’ve always wanted to expand the definitions of both. I’d love for a more interesting buffet of options in stand-up. And I’d love for a more solo shows in theater. I’m unabashedly a stand-up comedian, so it’s taken me a while to wrap my head around the idea that the show is theater.

You’ve called this a show about assimilation, not antisemitism. Have recent events shifted your perception of the work?

Hiding your identity means something different to me now. Like everybody else, I have complicated feelings about what’s going on in Israel and Gaza and Palestine. It’s a disaster. But, yeah, I’ve come to a more connected understanding of how assimilation and antisemitism are linked. I still think the show’s about assimilation. I still think the message of the show is that if you hide some part of yourself to fit in, you will pay a price.

“Barney Greengrass is where my friends and I go to eat and argue,” says Edelman, photographed at the deli on March 19. “It’s one of those places that lends itself to sitting for three hours and screaming at each other over refillable coffee.” Photographed by Amy Lombard; Grooming: Evy Drew

Some press have called you “the next Jerry Seinfeld.” That’s got to be flattering, but your styles are so different that I wonder if the comparison is based on anything beyond you both being Jewish and good at jokes. What’s your read?

I don’t see it, either. A lot of those comparisons come out of the U.K., where they’re just like, “American Jew loves to set up punchlines!” The worst is when someone compares me to Jackie Mason, who I could not feel more different from if he was a Martian. Love Jackie Mason for certain things… really don’t for others. I am heavily influenced by Seinfeld, his writing and ethos. I love that every line should be a punchline, his “very few extra words” philosophy and that material should be as timeless as possible. But when people point at that similarity, they’re pointing at the wrong thing. And I’d say that I’m even more influenced by the people that he influenced, folks like Mike Birbiglia and Jim Gaffigan.

Before Oct. 7, you were working on a show about Israel and Palestine. Are you revisiting that?

Complexities are usually good for comedy. With this conflict, it’s hard to synthesize everything into punchlines that will make people happy. I’ve tried a couple of jokes out about it at the Comedy Cellar. Audiences seem to like them, but it’s not comfortable. I’m not dialed in enough. This is where I really miss Adam, because he’d help put the dowsing rod in the right spot. But, funnily, I have done a lot more work on that idea between Oct. 7 and now. I’ll probably do a 60- or 90-minute show about it in the next two years but in some remote corner of the U.K. where there’s no press.

No matter how you do it, that’s going to piss off more people than your family’s Jewish Christmas.

When I told my old agent in the U.K. about the idea, he went, “Oh, great. We should call it Career Suicide, and then I can drop you.” But don’t you think that comedy about the hard things is important? Don’t you have to take a swing? I never want to offend people, but all of the power is in the third rail. You’ve got to get in there, because it helps you reckon with things. This show has been a lifeline for me the past few months. It heals you a little to talk about the big thing. That’s why therapy is great.

There’s some debate about exaggeration or lying in comedy. You once joked about your twin brother on Conan. You’ve quickly clarified that you just look alike, but that clip still pops up. What are your guardrails these days?

I used to say that we were like twins. Then a comic I really respect told me, “Just say you’re twins! Who cares?” Back then, my material was more surreal and less autobiographical. I care a lot more now about truth in my shows than I did six years ago. And things are different based on the medium. For stand-up, the funny thing is, saying we were twins was right for the joke. This show is based on a meeting that I attended. I remember a lot of what happened in that room, but some of the characters are composited. I’ve been very open about that. Every curatorial choice is a storytelling choice. And I like a sense of distance in some ways.

Tell me more about that.

If I could change one thing about stand-up and autobiographical art, it’s that mystique is gone. We have completely divested ourselves of mystique with public personalities. We need to get that back. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, by the way, has mystique. Even Taylor Swift, in her hugeness, retains mystique. This show raises some ambiguous questions about me: “How do I really feel about political issues? How is my personality different than the one that you’re experiencing onstage?” I think a lot about truth in comedy, but they might be different truths than factual ones.

Having something hit this big, there must be offers coming in. What’s been the most bizarre?

People ask me to reboot things that I don’t think should be rebooted. Like, “Would you want to take a shot at making Rocket Power into a live-action and immersive experience?” There are also offers to adapt books from the ’70s that I don’t think were ever right for adaptation. And I’ve gotten lots of offers to play rabbis in movies. I always read the scripts, hoping they’ll be cool. I so want the rabbi roles. They just need to be the right rabbi roles.

“I am an entertainment comedian,” says Edelman, who filmed his HBO special during a nine-week stint at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre. “If you’re there for theater, you get your money’s worth.” Sarah Shatz/HBO

This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.