Alex Edelman’s “Just For Us Review” – Turning Hatred into Humor

Alex Edelman in JUST FOR US on Broadway, Photo by Matthew Murphy
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Alex Edelman’s one-man show at Steppenwolf Theatre, Just For Us, directed by Adam Brace, is a hyperkinetic and hilarious long-form storytelling session about his prankish encounter with a group of white supremacists online and in person.  

Edelman has a pleasingly off-kilter stage presence, reeling crookedly across the boards almost as if one of his feet were bigger than the other.  (Actually, that’s the case.)  He combines a distinct lack of muscle tone with superb body control — an odd combination, but one that makes him riveting to watch.  His delivery and physical presence combines elements of Pee-Wee Herman, for the 63% of you who remember him, and Jerry Lewis, for the 10% or fewer who remember that one-time comedy sensation.

Alex Edelman in JUST FOR US on Broadway, Photo by Matthew Murphy

If all of this sounds like a good bit of silliness, it is and it isn’t.  Edelman’s jokes are razor-sharp, and are clearly the product of many months of honing; Edelman’s appearance in Chicago comes after a successful Broadway run.  There wasn’t a single joke that wasn’t funny, and, like nearly everyone else in the audience, I laughed out loud more times than I could count, especially when he talked about his cousins “Menachem” and “Yitzhak,” who “can’t even spell their names in English, because there’s no English letter for phlegm,” or when he recounted stories of a certain British royal snorting cocaine through an image of his grandmother (in other words, rolled-up British bills with the Queen’s picture on them.)

The jokes aren’t stand-alone observations like those of Jerry Seinfeld, or one-liners like Rodney Dangerfield’s — two comic greats that Edelman can count as his peers.  Rather, they are woven into a seamless narrative about Jewish identity and his real-life, mildly dangerous venture into the wilds of Queens to attend a meeting of old-school antisemites, aka “Nerf Nazis,” after he was the victim of an antisemitic online hate campaign.  (The “new school,” in case you’re wondering, consists of self-absorbed jihad-supporting students at Columbia University.)

Alex Edelman in JUST FOR US on Broadway, Photo by Matthew Murphy

But Edelman’s jokes don’t only support a funny story; they also have a distinctive theme.  Raised Orthodox Jewish in racist Boston, Edelman’s humor is based on the long-standing Jewish quest for approval and acceptance.  Edelman, as a child, wants to be more “white” — that is, more like the WASPs perched at the top of the Boston social ladder.  Not because he doesn’t want to be Jewish, but because, like all people, he wants to be liked and accepted.  At the white supremacist meeting that he’s snuck into — using, paradoxically, his “white privilege,” causing the supremacists to assume he’s one of them — he finds himself reveling in their respect and attention when he gives them tips about how to increase their online reach.  

Of course, Edelman knows that seeking the approval of these hateful losers is utterly foolish.  It reminded me of my time as a door-to-door Bible salesman in Port Arthur, Texas (long story) where I rented a room from a Baptist minister named the Reverend Dale Williams, who ranted about “mixed breeds” (and he wasn’t referring to dogs) and who thought every other religious adherent was going to hell — “lars,” he’d scream (“liars”) “every one one of them is a pack of lars!”  And yet when he found out I was Jewish, he was surprised, and said, pleasantly, “oh you seem more regular than I was expecting.” He’d never met a Jew before, and knew only the usual antisemitic canards, and yet, absurdly, I was pleased to be called a regular guy by this fraudulent preacher who, while I was still living in the room I’d rented from him, stole several thousand dollars worth of audio-visual equipment from his own church and absconded to Oklahoma.  This is what centuries of hate will do — make people desperate for approval from even the worst among us.

Alex Edelman in JUST FOR US on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy

In any event, Edelman has nothing to worry about in the “approval” department — every once in a while, I’d turn around in my seat, no doubt annoying the people to my right and my left — and note that every single person in the packed house in Steppenwolf’s MainStage theatre was laughing uproariously.  This is a show that truly is “Just For Us,” meaning anyone human, and with a sense of humor. 

I will admit to being mildly relieved that no one interrupted Edelman’s show with cries of “Free Palestine” and that Edelman himself didn’t touch on the issue of Israel other than to say that he had opinions on the conflict that half of his audience would agree with, and half would disagree with.  I do find it ironic that Jews who were once exterminated  for not being white enough are now being maligned and excoriated as “white colonizers” and as the whipping boys for centuries of Europe’s actual colonial imperialism.  Edelman is a comedian and not an investigative journalist or undercover cop, so I don’t really expect his next one-man show to be about sneaking into a strategy session of Students for Justice in Palestine, though if he were to do so, I don’t doubt he would find a rich vein of humor amidst the hypocrisy and hate.  Because he is an up-and-coming comic treasure, I’d just as soon that Edelman not take too many more risks, except of the comedic kind. Catch him while you can at Steppenwolf and reeling around online everywhere.  

Photos by Matthew Murphy, provided by Steppenwolf Theatre

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