Not For Me

On the failures of Alex Edelman's "Just For Us."

Not For Me
Image via Sarah Shatz/HBO.

Given that Alex Edelman’s one-man show Just For Us is marketed and narratively framed as a story about the comedian’s covert attendance (in some descriptions, “infiltration”) of a neo-Nazi gathering in Queens, I do not think it is entirely unreasonable of me to be surprised and even a bit frustrated that the show only occasionally involves its ostensible subject. As I understand it, the story goes something like this: Edelman saw an advertisement for a meeting where people could learn about white identity, went, made small talk with a cute girl, sat there listening to people complain about Meghan Markle, and then, upon being questioned about his background, admitted he was Jewish and got kicked out. At the end of the special's 85-minute runtime, 15 minutes longer than he seems to have spent at the meeting itself, he concludes that the attendants were not actual Nazis, a historically loaded term he implies we should not use lightly, but “Nerf Nazis.” As he told Jewish Insider last year, paraphrasing Just For Us, “These guys are Nazis the way that people who fight each other in the park with, like, tinfoil swords are the Knights of the Round Table.”

The conclusion grates for two reasons. First of all, how would he know? He didn’t stick around for the actual meeting. Neither Edelman nor his audience knows anything about the people at the heart of Just For Us—their history, their plans, their affiliations, whether they act as a support group for online trolls or as a funnel to something much darker. Secondly, and it pains me how often this needs to be said, especially to those who fashion themselves knowledgeable about the question of white supremacy in 2024, the original Nazis were Nerf Nazis. Adolf Hitler was stupid and lazy and his movement was full of bumbling clowns and it didn’t stop any of them from seizing power and killing millions. I can vaguely wrap my head around the fetishization of intelligence and competence in some sectors of American life—say, tech or the arts—where the meritocracy myth is so deeply engrained that it feels only natural to believe successful people are smart and serious and therefore that ignorant, unserious people are of little significance. I cannot understand the same logic applied to white supremacist politics or any mass politics, both because Donald Trump was president four years ago and because it seems perverse to apply a meritocratic logic to hate movements. Must we only concern ourselves with the ones run by bright, capable figures with a command of history and policy? No, I don’t think so, else we would end up right where we are, which is nowhere good. 

When I was chatting with a friend who saw Just For Us live, she remarked that for all the show’s flaws, there was something pleasurable to seeing a show about Judaism, by a Jew, in a room full of Jews. I’m sure this is true, and maybe I would have enjoyed Edelman’s many fine jokes a bit more if I had seen them in the flesh. At the same time, I feel compelled to weigh this pleasure—which is the pleasure of community, of relief and escape—against Edelman’s ultimate message: that the Nazis he set out to examine, and from whom he very literally fled at the first signs of danger, are really not so dangerous. Perhaps the show’s most telling failure comes in an early joke about Jared Kushner, who sits behind Edelman in the Upper East Side synagogue they both attend, and whom he criticizes as loud and arrogant. How interesting: Edelman literally shares a community with an honest-to-goodness white supremacist who was enacting honest-to-goodness white supremacist policy during the time of his story, and who may soon be in a position to enact even more. The implications go unexplored, which makes it difficult to put much stock in Edelman’s take on the Nazis who don't hold political power, let alone his gestures towards self-criticism at the end of the show, when he indicts himself for caring about the Nerf Nazis’ approval and ponders his own white privilege as someone who could safely attend a white supremacist gathering.

Here we see the limits of self-examination: if you cannot accurately describe the world you inhabit, you certainly can’t describe yourself, either. These are also the limits of art-as-escape, which too often means art-as-delusion. If the white supremacists griping about Meghan Markle at a Queens apartment are indeed no serious threat, this is an empty insight, because clearly white supremacists are still a serious threat. Donald Trump is climbing in the polls, Republican legislators are curbing civil rights across the country, and a Nazi-sympathizing great replacement theorist runs the world’s most important mass communications platform. In this context I find it kind of shocking that Edelman would turn his focus to political elements he deems powerless—and which he doesn’t even seem to know much about in a purely factual sense—when the real deal sits right behind him every Saturday morning. Just For Us asks if we can find empathy for evil, hateful people; perhaps a more useful question is whether we already have it.

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