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Sunday, 1 June 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to the Yeshiva

Teen comedian Alex Edelman just spent a year in Jerusalem and came away with more faith than ever in his stand-up abilities

While in Israel, Alex Edelman performed often at the Off the Wall Comedy Basement, Jerusalem's first comedy club.

While in Israel, Alex Edelman performed often at the Off the Wall Comedy Basement, Jerusalem's first comedy club. (Photos by amnon gutman/wpn for the boston globe)

BOSTON GLOBE :
June 1, 2008
By Matthew Kalman Globe Correspondent
JERUSALEM - The plaintive message from a fellow comedian on Alex Edelman's MySpace profile says it all: "Come back to America. Boston comedy needs you!"
The 19-year-old, yarmulke-sporting Edelman is already a stand-up veteran. He began performing in comedy clubs at age 15, coming home from Maimonides School in Brookline, telling his parents he was off to study at the library, and sneaking away to perform at Roggie's near Boston College.
"I felt like I had written something that I wanted to say in front of people," Edelman recalled after a recent show here in Israel, where he has spent a year immersed in yeshiva studies before majoring in English at NYU. "I don't even remember the jokes. People laughed politely. It was awful."
By last summer, he was performing a dozen times a week at Boston's Comedy Studio and other venues - but never on the Sabbath, which ruled out Friday nights and most of Saturday evening.
Edelman's parents - he's a cardiologist and Harvard professor, she's a real estate attorney - only found out last year, when one of his signature jokes was quoted in a newspaper story on open mike nights in Boston: "I go to a Jewish school where we do all the usual stuff - math, science, media control, world domination."
"My parents initially were not so thrilled about it," he admitted. "It was a drain on other things I could have been doing - like studying."
They were somewhat won over when they attended a show at which Edelman performed with local comedy mainstay Tony V., whom they had seen 20 years before.
"Tony V. came up to my parents after the show and said to them: 'If you want me to tell you that your son should drop doing comedy, then you're coming to the wrong guy. He has a talent for it. I think if Alex sticks with it, he'll be something good.'
"My parents were really supportive after that," Edelman added. "But there was a bit of a sense when they sent me here to Jerusalem that maybe I'd really connect to my Judaism and become more religious."
But with the same natural comic timing that informs Edelman's stand-up routine, no sooner had he landed than the Holy City opened its first comedy club. He quickly became a headliner at the Off the Wall Comedy Basement in downtown Jerusalem, which is run by David Kilimnick, an American campus rabbi turned stand-up comic and comedy entrepreneur.
"He's a great comedian and a smart young man," said Kilimnick. "He has a future in this. He started when he was young but he has not let comedy control his life."
"In Boston, I'm just another comedian; there are a ton of very good ones," admitted Edelman, who has been learning Hebrew but performs only in English. "[In Jerusalem] it was nice to kind of be a bigshot for a few months, to be a headliner and do 45 minutes and see if I'm ready to do that in the United States."
For an Orthodox Jew from a Hebrew day school who has just spent a year in Jerusalem and returned last month, Edelman uses very little Jewish material, though his choice of subjects is heavily influenced by his age. Topics include teenage work experience, candy bars, underage drinking, and being stopped at the Canadian border with his mother in the car and asked if he had any drugs: "Dude, not in front of my Mum."
"During my set last week I saw him sitting on a bar stool studying me and absorbing," said Charley Warady, a veteran club headliner from Chicago who moved to Israel a decade ago and is now part of the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour. "That's a wonderful thing to see in a young comedian. It's what I did when I started out. He takes all that in and makes it his own."
Since he was 15, Edelman has been writing jokes almost every day. He now has 18 notebooks full of ideas which have been drafted and re-drafted until they were just right. "I always carry a notebook with me, always," he said. "When I was younger I was obsessive about them. I log the process of every joke."
On one page, there is a quip about whether the Jews built the pyramids. ("Clearly not, because there's no rental space.") Edelman used it for a TV audition. Marginal annotations show it was first written in book 3, revised in book 6, and re-revised in book 14.
Some pages have been torn away. "I have a philosophical problem with doing a joke that any other comedian has done," Edelman said. "That's why these books are filled with rip-outs. These are all jokes that I feel are too much like somebody else's."
Edelman says he feels fortunate to have served his comedy apprenticeship in Boston. "I've seen a lot of jealousy in other places, but in Boston everyone's happy for the other people when they do well," he explained.
It was Gary Gulman, another hometown comedian, who persuaded Edelman to accept his parents' recommendation to spend the year in Jerusalem. "He knew I didn't want to go to Israel but he said I should," Edelman said. "He said comedy grows out of life experience, and that's why it's impossible to become a good comedian when you're young because you don't have that life experience yet."
Apart from his regular performances at the Comedy Basement, Edelman spent his year in Jerusalem studying Talmud and other ancient Jewish texts, traveling the country, and attending Shimon Peres's conference to mark Israel's 60th anniversary. He also visited the Nazi death camps in Poland.
With its audiences from dozens of countries and religious sensibilities that made sex jokes largely taboo, Jerusalem has extended his range, Edelman said.
If anything, a year meant to turn his head away from joke-telling hasn't done the trick.
"I've grown addicted to comedy," Edelman said. "The chances are I won't be the next Jerry Seinfeld or Steve Martin, but I can try."

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