Alex Edelman on Bringing ‘Just for Us’ to L.A.’s Mark Taper, and Why It Feels Right to Do a Comedic Piece About Jewish Identity Amid Darker Times

Southern California comedy aficionados have experienced some FOMO when it comes to on-and-off L.A. resident Alex Edelman having become the toast of the town in New York theater circles with his one-man show, “Just for Us.” One of the most celebrated younger stars of comedy, Edelman performed parts of what would turn into the theater piece while doing stand-up in L.A., premiered it overseas in 2018, and then had “Just for Us” turn into a hot off-Broadway ticket in 2022 before doing a limited Broadway run this past summer. In its east coast engagement, the show was visited by, and got the blessing of, virtually every god of comedy imaginable, seemingly fixing a place for Edelman in the future firmament once and for all.

As for L.A.’s question of “what about us?” for “Just for Us,” the city’s turn has come. Edelman’s show is opening this weekend at the Mark Taper Forum, where it will enjoy a two-week run through Nov. 26 — tickets can be found here — before moving on to his true hometown of Boston Dec. 15-17. It’s good news all around: The Taper, which some months back had its annual season called off, gets to have the lights turned back on for a marquee engagement, and comedy fans and theatergoers get to also not be dark for an evening, or at least not as dark, given the cloudier condition of the world at present.

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“Just for Us” is uniquely positioned to evoke and possibly transcend any current gloom, as it has antisemitism as one of its central subjects, along with other issues of identity. As Edelman explains the central true-life story around which the show revolves, “I go to this meeting of white nationalists in Queens, and on one hand, I only get in that door because I am white. But if they know that I’m Jewish, then that question becomes a little complicated, right?” He promises that the show, while mostly fixed in place from what New York theatergoers might have seen, does now at least touch on what’s happening in the Middle East and its reverberations here.

Beth Lapides, who watched elements of the show develop at her monthly UnCabaret shows in the late 2010s, recalls how captivating the story was, as Edelman shared it with small audiences: “It was one of those stories you could feel the bigness of immediately. I even reached out about expanding it into a film, which is something I almost never do,” she says. “One thing that’s so interesting about it is the actual (white nationalist) meeting he went to was probably not much longer than the show itself. So it’s a way of seeing all of life during this one very condensed event. So many stories are about contracting time and this one is about expanding time. Which scientifically is what pain killers — and laughter — do.”

Edelman talked about how the topical relevance is affecting performances of “Just for Us,” and what it was like getting advice about the show from the likes of Steve Martin, Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld, in a phone interview with Variety leading up to this weekend’s Taper premiere.

Is there anything special to you about doing the show in L.A., given that you started to slowly develop it here before taking it to European festivals and, eventually, Broadway?

The show sort of incubated here across the street [from the Taper] at Au Lac, where UnCabaret used to be. And the first time I told the story that’s at the spine of the show was to friends on the porch of a little house in Beachwood Canyon, while I was living here, and then I told it at storytelling nights. It’s a thing that happened to me in New York, as I was sort of in the process of moving out to L.A. — but its roots as a piece of storytelling, and as a piece of theater, are here. So this is a thing that belongs to L.A. as much as anything else I’ve ever done. And more than anything else, the Taper is just a really cool space to do it in. I’m really cheesed. From Broadway to here, this being the first run, really, since Broadway… There aren’t a lot of things that you could do that would feel even a little bit of a level up from Broadway, but this really does feel like that.

The timing of seeing a show that deals with antisemitism right now won’t be lost on a soul in the audience.

Doing it right now in this time feels so different, where people are looking at what it means to be Jewish right now more than they have in my lifetime, so to be doing a show about Jewish identity, and antisemitism, in part… I did two shows in San Francisco before this, and I’ve never had audiences that were more engaged and charged. You can feel the energy in the room. And it’s a nice energy. Comedy is all about the building and release of tension…

Is there a way to directly mention current events or the changed tenor of the times in the show, or do you let the text exist in a fixed state?

It gets addressed. Shows, I think, should be a living thing. You have to strike a balance between making a show timeless and making a show timely. It’s a really difficult balance to strike. Because shows are snapshots of moments, right? But also, there are artistic statements that should be both self-contained and in dynamic conversations with the world around them. So, yeah, there’s some stuff that’s changed because of it — some stuff that’s gone in, some stuff that’s come out.

There was a show that was on — I won’t say where or when — which had been announced before a big news event happened. And then the news event, which was very related to the show, which was related to the show’s topicality, occurred. And the comedian came out and the first thing they told the audience was: “The show is exactly how it was before this big event.” And I think that’s disappointing for an audience… So, yeah, the show’s in conversation with the time that it’s living in.

When you did the show in San Francisco, did you find people want to laugh even more, or was there any process of them needing a minute to feel OK finding some mirth amid what’s going on? What was the energy you were picking up?

People are grateful. You know, I feel a little guilty about how grateful people are and desperate for something to laugh at. But, also, it helped me hugely, because I’m hurting too. Doing the show was not an easy thing in San Francisco. And then I found that I needed the show as badly as anyone who needed to laugh. So I did the show pretty much with a grin on my face from ear to ear the entire time. Now I’m trying to be like, “Hey, wind it back a little bit! It’s affecting the ups and downs of the show, given that you’re feeling so up.” But the news was so depressing and so upsetting, and so getting to a place where I was laughing and enjoying myself for the first time in several weeks was as good for me as it was for the audience.

You’ve said previously that this was a show where you wanted to address identity issues having to do with Jewishness and whiteness, and kind of a spectrum of things within that, including obviously antisemitism, without ever wanting to bring a sense of victimhood into it.

I mean, look, I don’t feel like a victim as a Jew. I don’t feel it in my heart that I’m naturally victimized. But also, the circumstances of the world and the way that Jews are perceived are at odds with that, sometimes. You know, some people feel like victims and they’re not, and some people feel like they’re not victims and maybe they are I think that we live in a world that is obsessed — not entirely incorrectly, of course — with victimhood and victimhood narratives. And so, I was curious about having that conversation, and also making that element slightly more dynamic and unusual than some people might think it would be at first blush. Does that make sense?

In L.A., up until now, probably the most direct exposure any of the pieces of this show had were when you did a condensed version of it as part of the UnCabaret 25th anniversary show at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, five years ago now, prior to Broadway or anything like that.

That was a fun show. I love UnCabaret. And also, I’m a big comedy fan. Like, a big piece of the show is about other comedians, and comedy in general. This show has brought me closer to so many of my comedy heroes. Like, Seinfeld’s coming to see it, and Steve Martin’s coming to see it, and fucking the day after the show opened on Broadway, I got a call from Norman Lear, who was like, “These reviews!” He’s so nice, and I’ve gotten just such great encouragement from Mel Brooks and other comedy folks. And UnCabaret in 2018 was part of that too, because Patton Oswalt was there, and fucking Odenkirk; I went on after Bob Odenkirk, and I was so excited…

Speaking of those comedy heroes, from reading about your New York runs off- and on Broadway, you had a parade of sort of the gods all coming by to bestow their blessings, and people who you would assume don’t always impress easily. We read where you said you got notes from some of the greats, and I thought, well, could that come off as patronizing, if people are giving you notes. But then I saw that you were asking for notes, so it wasn’t unsolicited advice. It was stuff you really wanted to hear from people.

Oh my god, of course. If you have have the opportunity to get notes from people like fuckin’ Jerry Seinfeld, you have to take it, right? And so I was asking. Also, you know what? Not to be an asshole, but compliments are very nice, but you don’t know if a compliment is real. A compliment is really sweet, but all a compliment does is help your ego. And what if my show has jokes in it from Steve Martin and Mike Birbiglia in it now? Notes are the helpful thing. Billy Crystal told me to switch from a handheld microphone to a head microphone. And frankly, I don’t know that the show would be a Broadway offering without that little change, because I was so resistant to making it. And Billy, I think, really likes the show, because he’s seen it twice and he’s gonna come see it again in L.A. I don’t think he would see it again if he hated it. But that note… What an idiot I would be if I didn’t want the advice of my peers and my betters. Please, go ahead and patronize me! If you can patronize me and give me some constructive criticism, then I’m all here for it. I’m not proud.

Thanks for sharing what note Billy Crystal gave you. Would it give anything away to ask what advice Seinfeld or Steve Martin gave you that you were able to take?

Steve Martin gave me a tag for a joke that’s one of the bigger laughs in the show. And, Seinfeld told me to take something out that was getting a laugh, but wasn’t worth the momentum that it lost. It was a laugh, but it traded something else in the show for the laugh — a quality that made the show less sophisticated. It was a really good cut, and it was a note that he gave to me locally for that one spot, but I applied it across the whole show and it made the whole show better.

In comparing “stand-up” versus the theatrical “one-man show,” as they’re traditionally thought of… how big is the difference, to you? You have spent a lot of time thinking about the theatricality of it, even though there’s not a lot you’re doing, obviously, with sets and props. Would you say you are embracing it as a theatrical experience in a big way, or do you think of it as anything like an elevated form of stand-up?

I mean, I think stand-up has the capacity to be anything. Stand-up can be theater, or it can be cabaret, or it can be music, or… I think I have a very expansive definition of what stand-up is. But a lot of people come to the show and they’re like, “You know, I don’t like stand-up, but I like this.” Or, “I don’t like theater, but I like this.” I wanted to make something that was both things. So the show is stand-up, in the sense that, like, there are jokes every couple of seconds. But also, it’s got the arc and dramatic heft of theater, because of people like Adam Brace [the show’s late director], and because of the help of someone like Mike Birbiglia, its original producer in New York. And so the answer is, it’s both.

I’ve tried very hard to keep it in touch with its stand-up roots. Every single joke was worked out in a comedy club in New York or L.A. or on the road in places like Madison, Wisconsin. But, hopefully at this point in the process, years in, we’ve figured out a way to square the circle there and make it both things. It took a long time. You know, there was a point in the show, at the beginning of the run, where it was too stand-uppy. And then there was a point right before the show transferred from its off-Broadway runs to Washington, D.C., where, frankly, I thought it wasn’t as fast and pacey as it should have been. So, ultimately, we found a nice middle ground for Broadway, and I think that it was reflected in the reception.

And the audience in L.A., some of whom saw bits of this in its origins, gets to benefit from having Broadway as a full test run for the Taper.

I’m really amped to do it. I couldn’t ask for more — truly, truly, truly.

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