He's 34 and part of the "overmedicated ADHD generation." You might think that if you've never heard about the Broadway debut of his act, his introduction - in which he calls his style 'benign sillyness' and claims this 'isn’t Ibsen' - will be a fun evening.
You are, even though he is telling a tale about white supremacy.
This is the glory, and the minor snag, of "Just for Us," which opened Monday, after running in London, Edinburgh and Washington, and Off Broadway. It's not Ibsen. He isn't known for his zingy one liner. It's also not a joke. The show's mission statement is a testament to its high-mindedness and thoughtfulness, despite its rabbi on Ritalin aesthetic and desperation to please. Edelman told Jason Zinoman that he wanted to start a discussion about Jews' place on the "spectrum of whiteness" without focusing on victimhood.
He is well-placed to make the distinction. He grew up as a proudly' Orthodox Jew, in a racially charged part of Boston. He admits that he has a "little bit of white priviledge," but he is so removed from the mainstream culture he did not know what Christmas meant until one year, when his mother celebrated it in honor of a friend who was mourning.
The tsouris that it caused in his yeshiva was horrendous!
Social media, as hilarious as the story that followed is, it's hard to believe that "Just for Us" would have been much more than an update of Jackie Mason's Jewish humor for the millennial generation if not for the social media. Edelman was influenced by 'an avalanche' of antisemitism on Twitter in response to comments he had made. This prompted him to think about identity-based hate and lead him to attend a white supremacist gathering in Queens in 2017.
The joke could start with 'A Jew walks in a Bar', even though it was not a pub as Edelman expected, but rather a private flat. He sat down among 16 strangers who had pan-bigoted views. Meghan Markle 'degrades' Europe's oldest family by marrying Prince Harry. Diversity initiatives are a 'plan to slowly genocide the white population' The Jews are the source of this genocide. They're sneaky, everywhere.
It is not accidental that we don't feel the horror of Edelman encounter. He eats his spinach with candied yams. He admits, while denying the "sneaky everywhere" comment, that he wasn't in a position to prove the point, as he sat there incognito. He then launches into a 10-minute segment about vaccine deniers, which is seemingly unrelated. The racist criticism of Meghan Markle was immediately interrupted by an episode about Harry snorting coke through a rolled up 'picture' of his grandmother.
Edelman's indirection has a purpose; he is laying the foundations for his main argument. The argument is not as prominent in the show, and only takes up about 35 minutes out of 85. This shows its roots in stand-up. David Korins' set also betrays its origins. It is little more than a small proscenium that rescales expectations, and a stool in black straight from the Komedy Korner.
It's the compulsive ingratiation that is most telling. The comic's overeagerness is a source of much laughter. He died in March at the age of 43 after suffering a stroke. Alex Timbers was credited as a creative consultant and helped bring the show to Broadway.
The ingratiation is strategic, even if it's distracting. The show would not work without the contrast between story-telling and joke-plugging. Edelman's 'dumbing down' of a serious topic -- Edelman calls the arrangement at the meeting an 'antisemicircle" -- sets the stage for the denouement, in which he criticizes himself and turns his attention to the larger issues.
As he had promised, "Just for Us" is not about Jewish victims, or any victimhood. Except perhaps for the aggrieved extremists who are too small and whiny for a real threat. He calls them Nerf Nazis. The supremacists' final description of their territory, 'Just for Us,' is not about whiteness. It's the idea of compassion, which is a core value of Edelman's Judaism. How far does it go? Does it extend to everyone? Does it deserve even those who are hateful? In this case, it is especially pertinent to Edelman: Was the award tainted by bad motives or not?
Check it out! There's a pretty woman in the meeting who appears to be interested in him. Could he possibly be the one who fixes her? Who fixes the entire group? He says that they have also been ingratiated. I might leave like the youth outreach officer.
Edelman acknowledges that this is moral vanity: the eagerness of a professional charmer to boost other people's egos as a means of bolstering his own. This is what makes "Just for Us" more than just a Catskills-style club act that washed up on Broadway, like Mason's. It ends up being a criticism of both jokes and dumbness.
It's an indirect but highly effective way to gain insight. A Jew or anyone can learn that being liked at any cost is not worth it.