Alex Edelman on the Comedy and Tension of His One-Man Broadway Triumph

Edelman talks about 'Just For Us,' which deals with the Orthodox Jewish comedian's visit to a white supremacist meet up in Queens.

Alex Edelman and an assortment of the stools — though not the ones he uses for ‘Just For Us’ at the Hudson Theatre. Jenny Anderson

As play titles go, they don’t come any warmer or more welcoming than Just for Us, but Alex Edelman—in his solo show now at the Hudson—gives it the old pretzel twist, and the phrase suddenly turns menacing. Those are the words an antisemite uses to disinvite the comic, an Orthodox Jew, from a private (“just for us”) gathering of white supremacists in Queens.

Such an event actually occurred. Edelman saw a tweet inviting people who wanted to learn more about their whiteness, and he was curious. “More than anything else, I’ve always said curiosity is my defining characteristic,”  he tells Observer. “A lot of people ask ‘Why did I go?’  And a lot more understand implicitly. First of all, I thought it would be more like a salon—more of an exchange of ideas, but it turned out to be just an exchange of one idea, back and forth.”

After being booted out of the meeting, he and his friend and collaborator, British director Adam Brace, talked over the inherent comedy in the incident. “There’s humor in every difficult situation,” the 34-year-old comic believes. “Humor and tension go hand in hand in hand.” 

Brace, in fact, believed the event had the spine for a thought-filled, hilarious one-man show, and the two of them went to work on it. “Adam thought that was a really promising direction to explore,”  Edelman says. “He was instrumental in pulling this show together, as he was in all of my work.”

Five years later, in 2014, they tried it out at the Edinburgh Festival—and darn if Edelman didn’t walk away with the Edinburgh Comedy Award. “That’s where my career really started,” he says. “I had been working in restaurants, keeping odd jobs, stuff like that, but Edinburgh is what made me a comic. I guess I’d always been a bit of one, but that award was the first time that I got permission from the rest of the world to really be one.”

Alex Edelman in ‘Just for Us’ at the Hudson Theatre. Matthew Murphy

The best piece of advice he has ever received, Edelman says, is “The specific is universal.” And, indeed, his one-man-show traveled well to Melbourne, London, Wales, Washington and Boston.

It’s also run the gamut of New York theaters—from the tiny Cherry Lane in the West Village during the pandemic to the sizable Hudson on Broadway. “You’re just trying to make it all work. You have to adjust your performance—your performance style and your performance voice.”

The Hudson is pretty taxing on Edelman’s vocal chords, but there are compensations. “Oh, my God! It’s such a gorgeous theater I like everything about it. First of all, it’s the oldest theater on Broadway—and the newest because they’ve done a renovation so recently. It’s really special, and the crowds have been nice, and the crew is really lovely. I kinda never want to leave.”

At the Hudson, he’s all over the stage, darting here and there, finding places to catch his breath. Fun as it is, he calls it a major workout. “I’m usually soaked in sweat by the time I get off the stage,” he says.

But don’t get him wrong: he loves playing the Hudson, just because of its history: This is where Steve Allen did the early editions of The Tonight Show, starting in 1954. About forty years later the Hudson was a home for stand-up specials from Comedy Central, a network that had a profound effect on Edelman. “I think it’s one of the reasons I’m a comedian,” he says.

For the New York runs of Just for Us, three stools were added to the merriment for Edelman to shift around to suggest different rooms or rest stops. He thought up the idea with a push from Brace. “He was the one who thought that the show still feels like stand-up comedy—but also theater.”

Edelman continues to perfect Just for Us. “I tape-record every show,” he says. “Sometimes, a bad habit sneaks in there so it’s more like guarding the show, pruning it a little bit. One day a joke works differently than you want it to, so you go, ‘Oh, I guess I‘ll have to clarify that joke.’”

Every night, at every performance before he goes on, Edelman thinks of Brace, who died of a stroke in April at the age of 43, missing the Broadway flowering of their labor. Mike Birbiglia, an acknowledged authority on theatrical stand-up, subsequently stepped in to produce and advise. 

“The producers have become close confidants now, too,” Edelman says. “Also my crew, some of whom have been with me since the start of this run, people who’ve seen the show and know me as well as the show. And different comedy icons—Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, like that—have come to the show and offered me notes. It’s a special thing, to have your comic heroes come and tell you what they think and offer praise and encouragement and feedback.”

With this Broadway beachhead, Edelman has officially joined the fellowship of comedians. Nathan Lane produced Mike Birbiglia’s first New York gig just because he thought the guy was funny. Now, Birbiglia has come to Edelman’s rescue. “Nathan is one of the heads on my Mount Rushmore,” he beams, “and now all of the other heads have started coming to see my show.”

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Alex Edelman on the Comedy and Tension of His One-Man Broadway Triumph