Amid all the tragedy unfolding in the Middle East, Jewish comedian Alex Edelman clings to the belief that humor is a basic human response to reality.
“I think people who don’t truly understand humor sometimes think that humor can only make itself present in times of great joy,” he says. “But humor shows up, I think, as a human survival tactic in every response. In moments on the gallows, there’s gallows humor, and so on. This isn’t something that I’m joking about on the tour, obviously, but I’ve always liked doing jokes about big topics.”
Later that night, Edelman will find himself on stage at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater, reveling in his role as the surprise opener for headliner Eddie Suzy Izzard. It’s true—he doesn’t discuss the topic during his brief but uproariously funny 15-minute set. What he does is make the sold-out crowd of 2,200 loudly guffaw over cracks about Prince Harry doing blow through a picture of his grandmother and tales of his mother’s insistence that his Nobel Prize finalist heart surgeon father is, in fact, an idiot.
A veteran of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival scene, Edelman has proven his penchant for tackling big topics in his third solo show, centering around a real-life meeting of neo-Nazis Edelman once infiltrated in New York, after a stream of anti-Semitic rhetoric was aimed his way. In the works since 2018, “Just for Us” is, at its core, a comedy, and one that’s resonated deeply with the audiences who have seen it thus far.
Following a successful Broadway run this summer, where the show was nominated for both an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Drama Desk Award, Edelman is now bringing it to San Francisco’s Curran Theater for three nights, Thu/26-Sat/28.
Speaking by phone with 48 Hills, Edelman shared his eagerness to return to the stage, recalled the local rooms where his show partially took shape, expressed his excitement to be asked to open for Eddie Suzy Izzard at the Orpheum, and looked forward to tackling more big topics in his future show. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
48 HILLS Congratulations on taking “Just for Us” to Broadway! What was that experience like?
ALEX EDELMAN Being on Broadway is so much fun and so crazy and so, so cool. It really is special. It’s like you get to be part of this community that you’ve always dreamed of joining. I can’t explain it. I felt so supported and encouraged that all these different people came. Like when Lin Manuel Miranda came? I was like close to tears.
48 HILLS You’ve spoken about what it’s meant to you to get notes on this show from comedy legends like Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld, which you’ve then incorporated into the show. Do you also take notes from the peanut gallery, so to speak?
ALEX EDELMAN Of course. I’m always outside afterwards. For everyone who comes to the show, I’m available. I’m out there after every show talking to everybody who wants to talk to me. I’m extremely easy to reach. But if I’m going to be honest, when Billy Crystal or Jerry Seinfeld or Steve Martin offers a note, I will take it slightly more seriously than one from someone who doesn’t do it for a living.
48 HILLS Certainly. But have notes from non-comedians made it into the show too?
ALEX EDELMAN Yes! There are so many notes that are in response to someone not understanding something, plus there’s always a note behind the note. There’s a note behind every note and behind every note is something worth understanding. Sometimes that is just, ‘Hey, this person doesn’t get it.’ But usually, it’s like, ‘Why doesn’t this person get it?’ If this person doesn’t understand the vicissitudes of XYZ, then what’s the thing behind that thing, right?
48 HILLS I know the last few weeks have been undoubtedly difficult for you. When you return to perform “Just for Us” in San Francisco next week, where do those feelings go? Into the show?
ALEX EDELMAN You just show up. You show up. Broadway was meaningful and incredible and challenging because our director, Adam Brace, had passed away just before we started. There were days where I would show up and be in some state or another, and our stage manager, Rachel Bauder, pointed out once that you have to meet the audience where you are and where they are. In doing that, it made the show a cathartic experience.
If I’m being honest, I do hope and think that doing the show will be meaningful. I don’t know what it is about this particular show, frankly. I’ve tried to put my finger on it for a year, and I’ve got different theories, but it’s been a deeply enriching experience for audiences. And for me, by proxy, from watching the ways people enjoy the show. It’s just so nice. Even when I was in my deepest grief for the loss of my friend, it always felt nice.
I can’t look into the future. I haven’t done these shows yet but I’m really hoping that I’ll find that same niceness in the show. That is, I guess, in some ways, to compartmentalize but also, in other ways, you hope that it provides you some comfort because that’s the whole reason to do it. It’s a cliche, so I never say it, but I was on the phone yesterday with another comedian and we were discussing how you can forget that the whole reason to do this is to make people laugh, and to get satisfaction and your own joy from that. There are easier ways to become acclaimed but to make people laugh is a specific type of gorgeous.
48 HILLS Perfectly said. I’m seeing Eddie Suzy Izzard tonight, here in San Francisco, and that feels very in tune with her aura and magic as well.
ALEX EDELMAN You’ll see me there! Eddie is a huge hero of mine, and was also like an early mentor, so I’m going to open the show. I was in town, so we had dinner last night and caught up and they asked me if I wanted to open the show for them.
48 HILLS That’s so cool.
ALEX EDELMAN Before I was even making a living full-time as a comedian, Suzy took me to Berlin and Moscow with them to perform. I’ve always, always, always loved her so much. It was so nice to see her last night and to get a chance to catch up because I’m just the biggest fan. I’ve seen everything that she’s ever put on film. I’m an Eddie Suzy Izzard completist.
48 HILLS You’ve been doing “Just for Us” for a good stretch of time now. It’s played Broadway and earned you a legion of new fans presumably now eager to see what you do next. Do you know what that next project might be yet?
ALEX EDELMAN The next show will be about Israel and Palestine.
48 HILLS You mentioned that somewhere earlier this year.
ALEX EDELMAN I’ve always liked the impossible. My current show is about the intersection… well it’s about many, many, many, many things, but one of the things it is about is this conversation around whiteness. Also, it is fully a comedy show. Jokes, jokes, jokes. The first thing that has to happen is jokes. If you come to the show and you don’t laugh, then I haven’t done my job.
The number one thing is that there’s laughter, but the show does obliquely get to important stuff and I want to keep talking about stuff that I think is interesting. I love doing standup. I’ll keep doing standup forever, but if I’m going to have an audience that’s curious about the way that we process things or the way that I process, then I think I have to do the job. Does that make any sort of sense?
48 HILLS It does, absolutely, though I imagine it will be hard to fathom what this show will look like until it comes together. But that’s what you want, I’d imagine?
ALEX EDELMAN It’ll take years. It takes so long. I started workshopping “Just for Us” in 2018. I work on my shows relentlessly. I wouldn’t be putting up a show in such a nice theater, in such a serious way, if I wasn’t completely enamored with it.
By the way, this show was developed, in part, in comedy rooms around San Francisco. So, in some ways, this is a homecoming. I dropped in last night to one of those rooms, Cheaper Than Therapy, near Union Square, and everyone was like, ‘Oh my God!’ The fact that this show that was being developed there is now going to the Curran? They were pretty psyched. In fact, San Francisco was the first place in the United States where I was able to headline a solo show. I did “Millennial” [Edelman’s first solo show] here in 2016 before anywhere else. I love being here. It’s a special place.
48 HILLS I know you’re a voracious reader. What books have you been digging into lately?
ALEX EDELMAN I’m reading Octavia Butler for the first time. I’m not a big sci-fi guy but someone I really adore… you know those readers in your life who you have like a little bit of a crush on? They recommend something and you’re like, ‘Yes, I’ll read that!’ So that’s why.
I’m reading a nonfiction book called Your Table is Ready by Michael Cecchi-Azzolina, which is like a front-of-house Kitchen Confidential. I’m reading a book by Paul Murray called The Bee Sting. There’s a book called My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunkett, which is an old book that’s having a resurgence. I tried to read a book called The Three-Body Problem, which is a Chinese sci-fi book but the storytelling was too dense for me. I love to read and I love when people give me books. By the way, if you give me a book, I will eventually read it.
48 HILLS I love that! Well thank you for your time and I can’t wait to see the show for myself next week.
ALEX EDELMAN Thank you so much for this. Obviously, over the last couple of weeks, the show hasn’t really been on my mind. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it—but I’m so excited! I’m going to bound on stage because it’s something I want to be back at so badly. It’s been such a healing experience. I’m excited.
ALEX EDELMAN: JUST FOR US Oct. 26-28, 7:30pm, Curran Theater, SF. More info here.