Comedian Alex Edelman finds humor in hate in his solo show "Just for Us," which closed on Broadway in August and comes to San Francisco this month. (Photo/Matthew Murphy)
Comedian Alex Edelman finds humor in hate in his solo show "Just for Us," which closed on Broadway in August and comes to San Francisco this month. (Photo/Matthew Murphy)

‘Just for Us’: Comedian Alex Edelman’s Broadway show about his run-in with neo-Nazis comes to S.F.

Comedian Alex Edelman firmly believes it’s possible to find humor in just about anything if you do it right.

Yep, even in antisemitism.

“It’s such an illogical, pathological hate,” the Jewish performer said in a recent Zoom interview from Los Angeles. “There’s a dark irony to the fact that there’s great diversity in people who are antisemitic.”

Edelman — whose Obie Award-winning solo show “Just for Us” heads to San Francisco’s Curran Theater this month as part of the BroadwaySF series — is also amused by the fact that antisemites of yore included big names such as automotive magnate Henry Ford and legendary film producer Walt Disney.

“It used to be that antisemites created jobs and were captains of industry. We have such lackluster antisemites now,” he joked, referring in part to anonymous internet hatemongers who hide behind the safety of their keyboards.

It’s that very crowd who prompted Edelman’s third solo show, which completed its Broadway run in August and will kick off its traveling tour in San Francisco.

The 34-year-old performer, who was raised in an observant family in Boston and identifies as modern Orthodox, decided to attend a meeting of white nationalists in Queens, New York, in 2017 after being subjected to antisemitic rhetoric online. Antagonized and curious, he decided to go straight to the source of the hate.

The gathering — an unlikely destination for a guy born David Yosef Shimon ben Elazar Reuven HaLevi who helps rabbis add levity to their sermons — was “jarring, interesting,” Edelman said.

“It’s been a useful prism through which to examine other things: identity and what people say about us when we’re not in the room, and also to talk about the complicated relationship Jews have to whiteness,” he said. “It’s a gray area. And comedy’s always most interesting when it explores gray areas.”

While “Just for Us” digs into antisemitism, Edelman said he’s never thought of it as a show about that topic. Instead, he sees it as an exploration of assimilation and belonging, an invitation to consider what groups we’re a part of and what it means to be a part of them. The New York Times chose the production as a critic’s pick, calling it “belly-laugh funny” and a “brisk, smart provocation of a monologue.”

Edelman, who has performed standup on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” said it wasn’t until a few weeks after crashing the white nationalist meeting that he considered he might have a show on his hands. Friends listening to him recount the wild story told him it belonged onstage, and he got to writing. He then test-drove parts of the show at comedy clubs in New York, London, L.A. and San Francisco’s Cheaper Than Therapy in Union Square.

“I’ve always been of the opinion that some things are too important not to joke about,” said Edelman, who splits his time between L.A. and New York. “There’s really good comedy in bigger issues.”

Mike Birbiglia, a fellow comedian and frequent contributor to public radio show “This American Life,” co-produced Edelman’s runs both off and on Broadway.

“The show prompts really good arguments from people,” Edelman said, adding that viewer reactions continue to play a key role in shaping the piece.

For the New York performances, Edelman often made a point of joining audience members afterward to discuss their responses and answer questions. Attendees to his four San Francisco shows might expect that same sort of give-and-take. He asked if there’s a sidewalk in front of the Curran Theater. There is, though it’s a crowded one.

He hesitates to make any absolute promises, though. “I’ll do my best,” Edelman said, noting that he lost his voice before a couple of Broadway engagements this summer and had to go on vocal steroids.

“I was ’roided to the eyeballs for one or two of my shows,” he said, joking that the steroids have dashed his dreams of playing Major League Baseball.

Many who’ve seen “Just for Us” will consider that a very good thing.

“Just for Us”

Oct. 26-28 at Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. $46-$137.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.