Writer: Alex Edelman
Director: Adam Brace
Koko the gorilla was a remarkable creature. Not only did she communicate through American Sign Language, she also went into mourning when her friend, the great comedian Robin Williams, died.
This is one of the first pieces of information that Edelman imparts at the start of his show Just For Us. On several levels, it’s related as an act of self-deprecation on his part – Williams is a better, more natural communicator, we are told, plus Edelman is half-shocked that he spent $800 on ASL lessons via Zoom in order to sell the joke. But the relationship between one of the world’s greatest-ever comedians and a gorilla has at its heart a sense of mutual empathy, which is what also drives the true story that forms the backbone of the show’s 90-minute running time.
Somehow Edelman, an Ashkenazy Jew from “the racist part of Boston – called Boston”, uses the principles of empathy instilled in him at his childhood yeshiva and somehow ends up going to a recruiting event for right-wing white supremacists.
The resulting tale of how the characters he meets there – from the old woman poring over a 12,000 piece jigsaw to the beautiful Chelsea, clearly a neo-Nazi but who triggers Edelman’s dream of living the ultimate “meet-cute” so beloved of romantic comedies – is part scary, part a scathing indictment of the intelligence levels of a group of anti-semites who’ve chosen to take root in New York City’s Queens, the most diverse borough in the most diverse city in North America.
But more than that, it’s the mechanism by which Edelman gets to explore the relationship with both his faith and his family. From a healthy disrespect for his brother’s Olympian prowess – AJ Edelman competed for Israel in the 2018 Winter Olympics in the skeleton, earning him a particularly rewarding nickname which one shouldn’t spoil here – to learning the hard way about what it means to have a Jewish view of the world thanks to a childhood encounter with a pepperoni pizza, Edelman’s take on Jewish life and culture is enlightening and engaging.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in an extended segue into tales of when his mother brings Christmas into their Orthodox home, to comfort a Gentile friend who had suffered huge family losses over the previous year. The clash of cultures, and the confusion this inspired in Alex and Adam as youngsters, is inspired and is paid off with what is deservedly the biggest laugh of the evening.
We are, of course, drawn back to the central story of Edelman’s encounter with the white supremacists. For a period, it seems like he has won them over with the same techniques he uses with hostile or indifferent audiences at comedy clubs.
That is temporary, of course – at least for the racists. Any sense of hostility or indifference to this geeky livewire is impossible for us in the room. The empathy Edelman feels compelled to take into the world is reciprocated: like Williams and Koko, we feel an immediate, permanent bond.
Continues until 26 February 2023