After tracking the online antisemitic abuse levelled at his previous standup show, Jewish American comedian Alex Edelman ended up attending a meeting of white nationalists in New York. As you do. This situation seems both wildly improbable and entirely natural in the world of the hyper-energetic, hyper-smart, 33-year-old star of the late-night US TV chat circuit and creator of Radio 4’s Peer Group.
His attempt to charm 17 diehard racists over pastries leads to galloping digressions into culture, heritage, populism and privilege. The show starts, by the way, with a joke about zookeepers telling a gorilla who has mastered sign language about the death of Robin Williams. But every gag and anecdote ultimately circles impressively back to the central theme of empathy.
Edelman grew up in an observant household in Boston, his father an academic and his brother AJ a member of Israel’s 2018 Winter Olympic skeleton-bobsled team (yes, really: Alex called him the “frozen chosen” for years). So, he’s ostensibly white and privileged, but not what he calls “WASP” white. When most of the events described in this show take place, in 2019, he is attending the same New York synagogue as Jared Kushner, but doubts if the life he lives is “Jewish enough”.
Mixing with loser would-be Nazis in Queens – the most diverse borough in New York – is a way of testing his commitment to Judaism’s exhortation that one should be a good person, the ultimate empathiser. But also a chance to gather good material.
He fancies a girl called Chelsea at the meeting and thinks this could be the perfect meet-cute for a romcom: she’d be played by Anne Hathaway; Edelman would like to play himself but accepts it would probably be “Jessie Eisenberg or [a] thin Seth Rogen”. He recalls the time his family “did Christmas” to make their guest, a bereaved gentile friend of his mother’s, feel comfortable: the sudden introduction to hitherto unknown myth, commercialism, sentiment and sugar blew the tiny minds of Alex and his brother.
There’s a sidestep into a tale of two friends who decide not to vaccinate their baby against mumps or measles or anything; and a thankfully brief riff on the idea of Prince Harry doing cocaine through a rolled-up picture of his nan. But everything connects, and he notes the way the way that prejudices and lunatic conspiracy theories overlap. He’s good on echo chambers of opinion, including last night’s pleased-with-ourselves theatre audience.
Edelman is a compelling, super-energetic performer, witheringly smart and laceratingly self-critical, expertly cranking and relaxing the throttle of his hectic narrative. He admits he wants us to like him, and it’d be extremely hard not to.
The arc of the show demands that he learns something. I won’t share his takeaway from his ‘day at the racists’, but like most of the preceding 90 minutes it is clever and brilliantly, intricately funny.