Comedy isn’t short on formulas. The one-liner and the rule of three are tried-and-true methods, in theory if not always in practice. There’s also the famous “tragedy plus time,” attributed to nearly every humorist from Steve Allen to Mark Twain.
But for the impatient, comedy can also tackle contemporary issues. From ancient Greek satires to “The Daily Show,” skilled jokesters can mock, defuse, and interrogate what confuses or scares us right now, using their wits as a haymaker against those who harm.
Alex Edelman’s new show “Just for Us” explores the comedian’s Jewish identity and what happened when he attended a meeting of white supremacists in Queens. The show had three successful runs in New York, including being an NYT Critics’ Pick, as well as in Edinburgh, London, Melbourne and Montreal. Produced by Mike Birbiglia and directed by Adam Brace, the one-man show is now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through December 23.
Edelman sat down (the interview was over the phone, but the call was 45 minutes long so he was probably sitting) for a conversation about the show, the relationship between standup and theater, and the DC comedy scene. He also said many interesting things about the millennial generation, earnestness and elusiveness in art, and David Foster Wallace, not included.
District Fray: How do you feel about bringing Just for Us to D.C., particularly a venue like Woolly, just blocks from the White House?
Alex Edelman: I mean, I’m thrilled. I did a version of this show, a sort of preview when it was very much a work in progress, at the Kennedy Center in like 2018. Matt Winer programs comedy shows there. He’s really, really smart and really amazing stuff comes of it. I had a blast. So the chance to do it this way and in this place, huge “W.” Very excited. Woolly Mammoth is this huge theater to me and I’ve always wanted to play there. And D.C. is such an amazing comedy town.
How has the show changed since that “preview” version?
At the Kennedy Center, I don’t remember if it was presented as “Just for Us.” It was just me doing standup. It went through a sort of transformative thing in New York where it really got to ground itself as a piece of theater that’s rooted in comedy as opposed to one joke that was slowly eating my whole act. That’s what it was initially and then it kind of moved. It’s more theatrical than it was at the Kennedy Center.
“More theatrical” how?
The answer is Mike Birbiglia and my director Adam Brace. Mike saw a thin standup set and he and Adam pushed it into something more theatrical. It’s self-contained. It’s got a lot of jokes so it has comedy roots but it’s self-contained. It’s a rumination on a specific upbringing, and thoughts about assimilation in the US, and there’s a little bit in there on anti-Semitism. It’s become a solo show instead of a standup set. But it’s a tough call, right? Is that a really worthwhile distinction? Is it completely artificial? I can never tell but I wonder about it all the time.
Are you performing more or less of a character than in standup?
The show is comedy, not reportage, so there is an element of character. Mike likes to say that solo shows are more about poetry than prose, which I take that to mean you’re trying to communicate something sub-textual through explicit text. A good question is, can you do that on your own or do you need to be inhabiting something as an actor to do it? I think “performer” is a nice middle ground, right? I would say that I’m not acting in the show but I am performing it. There’s creative and artistic license.
Without giving away the show, what can you share about the night you met with a group of white supremacists?
I’d say I was surprised by how much it made me reflect on my own Judaism and my Judaism as “Other.” As a Jew, I am an “Other,” you know, constantly, but rarely is it so sharply defined. That meeting was me removing myself so keenly from my natural habitat and community and comfort zones and to see where the stark lines are and what the blurred Lines are. The stark lines are my Judaism in some ways and the blurred lines are my white passing-ness or something like that. And I think the millennial ethos [of pragmatic idealism] and my religious background have a lot in common. I’m a firm believer understanding the light and dark side of everything. The Talmud was really important to me when I was growing up, and so that sort of Talmudic background I think dovetails nicely with the millennial ethos of a sort of thoughtful consideration of all sides. Or understanding the interesting places where there is no light side or there is no dark side. Obviously not everything has two sides.
What makes D.C., as you earlier called it, an “amazing comedy town”?
Honestly, a lot of great local shows. DC Improv has been a stalwart there for a long time for a lot of people. John Mulaney and Jim Gaffigan were both Georgetown students. Nick Kroll. Tony Woods is a big influence on a generation of comedians, young, Black comedians in particular. I saw Mike Birbiglia’s “The New One” (2019) for the first time in D.C. and he and I got to spend time together there. I think he considers D.C. kind of a second home. I’ve visited a lot but only for a few days at a time.
And now you’re here for six weeks.
I’m psyched to immerse myself in D.C. I’m excited about the types of conversations I’m going to have in D.C. I’m outside after every show. I’ll talk to anyone about everything.
Alex Edelman performs in “Just for Us” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company now through December 16th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Follow Edelman on Instagram @alexedelman.