Life & Culture

Alex Edelman: Antisemitism? It’s all material

‘My first job is to make people laugh,’ says comedian Alex Edelman, but he’s not scared to confront racists for his routines


It’s really gratifying that my comedy heroes have come to see it,” says Alex Edelman, whose stand-up show Just For Us has been seen by the holy trinity of Jewish comedy — Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal and Ben Stiller.

Before sharing the reactions of these comedy giants, Edelman breaks off for a half-stifled yawn. He logged on a little late for this online interview and is clearly feeling the effects of his tour.

This is not only because early afternoon in London is early morning in Washington where Edelman is, but because his sold-out show has been extended so many times he somehow has to fit in five performances in a single weekend.

The show arrives at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory next week on a wave of critical acclaim, having been nominated for an off-Broadway award.

Some Brits may well be familiar with the comedian’s distinctive mix of personal whimsical anecdotes filtered through a modern Jewish Orthodox sensibility. At the show’s centre, however, is the stand-up’s deadly serious encounter with white nationalists whose gathering he attended covertly after receiving antisemitic abuse from them online.

If this rings a bell for people who saw Edelman at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018 or heard his BBC Radio 4 series, the show has come a long way since then, says the comedian.

“The world sometimes changes shows in ways that make them more or less interesting. I would say the world has changed around this show,” he says. As if to prove his point, a few days after this cyber-conversation Whoopi Goldberg reprises her point about the Holocaust not being about race before reprising her apology.

“The subject has actually become more fashionable since I since started writing it in 2018,” says Edelman with understatement. However, those who describe the show as being about antisemitism have missed the point, he adds.

“I always let people say what they want. I don’t want to be pedantic and correct them. But the show’s not about antisemitism. Antisemitism is so big, you can’t possibly get your arms around anything other than a corner of it.

"The show is about one Jew’s identity when he is so far removed from his natural habitat that he can see its hard edges.”

Edelman’s natural habitat is Boston, where he was born into an Orthodox Jewish family. However he cut his comedy teeth in New York and before that Israel. Much of his material is mined from his family, including his father Elazer, a world-renowned cardiologist specialising in artificial hearts. He has won many prizes, though not for parking, as his mother once pointed out when she had to walk further to their destination than necessary.

“My first job is to make people laugh,” says Edelman, now fully awake. “The fact that the show has become something of a study for people…sometimes I’m like, ‘God, I really hope this doesn’t stop people from laughing!’ Because it’s really important to me that people enjoy it.”

The enjoyment part seems to be going well. However, in the current climate the relevance of his subject matter can surely not be ignored. I wonder if in some totally blameless way

Edelman’s relationship with antisemitism is more complex than it is for most of us, because for him and other Jewish comedians, going as far back as Mel Brooks and Lenny Bruce, the prejudice has given him some great material.
“You know, to me antisemitism is like the weather. Do I feel like I’ve gotten something good out of it? It is just a song that never stops playing.”

It is a song that has been getting louder recently in comedy circles. One of the biggest comedy names out there is Dave Chappelle, whose recent show about Kanye West (now known as Ye) and basketball player Kyrie Irving has been accused of perpetuating antisemitism as much as highlighting it.

“I went on before Dave a few weeks ago at [New York venue] The Comedy Cellar. I don’t know what’s going there. [But] it feels very big to me.”

Edelman doesn’t want to be drawn on the controversy around Chappelle, although he has “more concrete feelings” about “Kanye who is clearly going through some sort of mental breakdown and Kyrie who thinks the world is flat”.

However, there is an unease around the issue, and worryingly there is the suggestion that a fault line is appearing between how some American Jews and some African Americans view the subject. “I’ve had lots of conversations with black friends about how they honestly feel about this moment we’re in around Kanye, Kyrie and Chappelle,” says Edelman.

“It is very eye-opening and a little bit disheartening…” he adds before going goes back to his comedy instincts.

“It’s such a shame, because we used to have such great antisemites. Henry Ford and Walt Disney. These were antisemites who built things. But now they’re so lacklustre.”

And with comedy back in the conversation I can’t let Edelman go for a much-needed shluf without telling me what it was his comedy heroes said to him when they saw his show.

“Seinfeld was the most interesting because before the show my producer came backstage and went, ‘Hey, Jerry Seinfeld is here!’ Holy sh**, I said.”

But Jerry, or his people, had let it be known that “Jerry doesn’t stay”, like a kind of life lesson straight out of the classic sitcom. Yet stay he did and as Edelman walked through the venue to meet his hero he found himself thinking, “Am I in trouble with Seinfeld?”

But he wasn’t. Seinfeld said, “That was pretty great,” and after Edelman thanked him he asked the master if there was one thing he would change to improve the show, what would it be?

Seinfeld said, “I’m so glad you asked,” before suggesting a little amendment to the bit where Edelman likes to respond to an audience reaction.

“Never do that,” said Seinfeld. “It takes you out of the show. A lot of younger comedians do it. Don’t do it.”

So Edelman doesn’t do it any more.

“It was small technical note, but it was an important one,” he says. “It’s made the show better.”

Alex Edelman – Just For Us is at The Menier Chocolate Factory from
11 January to 26 February

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