Alex Edelman’s ‘Just for Us’ Might Be Most Dangerous Comedy Special Ever

Edelman looks for laughs while confronting White Nationalists
Alex Edelman’s ‘Just for Us’ Might Be Most Dangerous Comedy Special Ever

The stage version of Alex Edelman’s Just for Us was a sensation on Broadway, and it’s easy to understand why. Its story of online anti-Semitic threats and the comic’s ensuing confrontations couldn’t be more timely. But Edelman’s 90-minute exploration of his Jewishness, dropping April 6th on HBO, isn’t what makes the show extraordinary. Plenty of comedians from Mel Brooks to Richard Lewis to Gary Gulman have kvetched about their Jewish backgrounds to varying degrees. What makes Just for Us so electric is that it might be the most dangerous comedy special ever made.

What’s so perilous? It’s all right there in the premise: Edelman reads a tweet from someone on a list of anti-Semites who have harassed him in the past. “Hey, if you live in NYC and you have questions about your whiteness, come to 441 27th Avenue tomorrow night at 9:15.” It’s a gathering of White Nationalists, and the extremely Jewish comedian decides to go and meet his haters face-to-face. 

It’s almost like watching a horror movie. When Edelman arrives at the apartment building that night, you want to scream, “Don’t go inside, Alex!” Of course, Edelman doesn’t reveal his ethnic identity right away, but there’s an underlying sense of dread throughout Just for Us. Some of the people at the meeting are suspicious from the get-go. (Edelman, who resembles Matthew Broderick at bar-mitzvah age, isn’t exactly blond and blue-eyed.) While he navigates the party, including a flirtation with Chelsea, a young woman who just might be the unlikeliest meet-cute ever, there’s always the threat of being discovered or worse. Could the night erupt into violence? It seems like a more likely outcome than not.

Edelman doesn’t reveal the meeting’s ending until, well, the end, but he at least cuts the tension with interludes about his Jewish upbringing and personal struggles with that identity. His stand-up background is evident throughout with rapid-fire punchlines, providing some very funny, much-needed breathing room. The spine of the special, though, is that meeting. Something funny and unexpected happens that night — Edelman finds empathy and common ground with the haters while remaining horrified at the ugliness bound up in their fears. At least some of the group members seem to like Edelman as well. He’s a charming guy, after all, and as Edelman rightly observes, “It’s hard to hate people up close.”

It’s not giving anything away to reveal he’s eventually outed and that the evening ends in confrontation. He finally has to answer the Nerf Nazis' furious question, “Alex, why are you here?” It’s pretty much the same question his friends asked, the one everyone asks Edelman after they see the show: “Why did you go?”

You can watch Just for Us to find out, though I’ll share this much of Edelman’s confession: “I don’t want to spoil the ending of this for you, but Chelsea and I were not going to work out.”

Just for Us was executive-produced by Mike Birbiglia, and his brand of comedy-as-confessional storytelling is an obvious influence here. But Edelman is attempting a high-wire act more treacherous than anything Birbigs has ever pulled off, the comedy equivalent of working without a net. Edelman finds a way to tiptoe the line between real-life horrors and hilarity, hate and humanity. You'll thank whatever god you worship that the comedy daredevil manages to stick the landing so we can all exhale.


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