“Not being able to do Conan, or not being able to promote this album in more traditional ways is a shame, but you know, we’re trying to be nimble about it.”
Over the past few months, Boston comedian Alex Edelman has toured a one-man-show across the UK, traveled from New York to Boston to LA,and written and produced a wildly successful virtual Passover seder/fundraiser show—all while dodging COVID-19.
Now, he’s releasing his first comedy album, Until Now, and hoping to overcome the quarantine. The album is the culmination of his first years doing comedy both here in Boston and internationally, and is packed with stories about working at KFC in the middle of the night, as well as meeting celebrities and an incredibly unfortunate tattoo.
Alex and I caught up to talk about what the beginning of the pandemic looked like in the UK, what he’s doing to keep sane, the differences between working on a network TV show and a self-produced internet variety show, and much more.
What did the beginning of COVID look like in the UK?
It was very 12 Monkeys. No one was sure what to believe about anything. I was staying with some friends, and they looked at me like, Intruder!. It was like a very strange time where no one was sure what was happening. And I think it just made people very scared and it was sad. Getting out of the UK was insane; it’s hard to watch a country sort of go down the rabbit hole in real time.
Congratulations on the success of Saturday Night Seder. How did that show come together?
My buddy Benj Pasek and his partner Justin Paul, who wrote the music for LA LA Land, The Greatest Showman, Dear Evan Hansen, and Aladdin, were talking at the beginning of quarantine. I was bummed because I had canceled the rest of this tour and was sort of holding up in my apartment in New York. And Benj was like, Hey what are you doing for Seder this year? And I was like, I don’t know, man. And we sort of put together this online Passover Seder.
We basically had a writers room and made a variety comedy special out of the Passover Seder. And it was awesome. And I put a bazillion celebrities in, ’cause we asked like a couple of celebrities that I knew. We had Idina Menzel, Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Josh Groban, Darren Chris, Rachel Brosnahan from The Marvelous Mrs. Maizel. Sarah Silverman found the Afikoman in her asshole, like, which was the coolest thing in the world. We were like, Sarah, find it wherever you want. And Benj was like, You know, it’s going to be dirty. And it was amazing. The whole thing was funny and it was moving. We put in a bunch of rabbis and Reza Aslan. We streamed it on YouTube and it raised $3.5 million for the CDC foundation.
When you got back from the UK, you were quarantined here in Boston with your family. Were you worried about someone in your family getting the coronavirus?
My dad’s a doctor, so I’m worried about that a little bit. He works at Brigham, and that was why I put him in the seder. He’s the last guy. His hospital staff at Brigham and Women’s are the last people who offer well wishes in this Passover thing that we made. And I was watching the video yesterday, it made me choke up a bit. That was good. I was able to rediscover my family and take stock of things.
Usually when somebody releases an album, there’s a live show, there’s a party. You’re releasing this in the middle of quarantine when you can’t promote it. Has it been more difficult with the quarantine?
Yeah, I mean, I can’t do Conan, which has been a really wonderful place for me. Conan gave me my first two late-night sets and I have a huge Brookline affinity for the host himself and the culture that they foster there is really wonderful. Not being able to do Conan, or not being able to promote this album in more traditional ways is a shame, but you know, we’re trying to be nimble about it. It’s the pits I can’t have a physical show. I can’t appear on anything. I just have to Zoom back to Boston with a cheap external mic and some earbuds I stole from a Southwest flight. Now this is my life. This press tour sucks!
Some people have found new hobbies to keep themselves occupied during quarantine. Was there anything that you started doing that was helping you maintain some level of sanity?
Yeah, this will sound so pretentious, but a lot of the folks that I’ve connected with who are experts and stuff, and I’ve sort of strong-armed them into giving me lessons. One of my favorite people who worked on the Seder, Josh Harmon, he’s a great playwright, so every week we read a play and we discuss it. I have homework, I have classes, and I keep a pretty sturdy to do list of my projects. Every Sunday, Michael Solomonoff, who is one of my favorite chefs, and I cook something on FaceTime. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with my friends, phone calls that were 10 minutes are an hour long now.
What are the differences between writing for a network sitcom like The Great Indoors, as opposed to writing for an internet show like Saturday Night Seder?
Every project is different. It was a multi-camera sitcom, which means filmed in front of a live studio audience. And I got to spend a lot of time with some of the funniest people on the planet. Our writers room was so talented. Our actors were Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who’s famous for playing McLovin, Christine Ko, Joel McHale, and Stephen Fry, who’s one of the great comedy geniuses of all time. Andy Ackerman, our director, did a hundred episodes of Seinfeld. It was sick.
Every day I went to work just thrilled. It was my first real writing job. And I was losing my mind cause I was having so much fun. I miss it a lot. The Seder was kinda my vision a bit in the way that The Great Indoors was not. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. I was a staff writer; I was the, the sort of lowest rung on the totem pole. And I made a lot of mistakes because I was so new, and you make mistakes. And a lot of the lessons that I learned from The Great Indoors, I applied to running this little room, even though it was an internet show.
TV jobs are all different and writing jobs are all different, but you do learn lessons from everyone that are applicable in every other one. The lessons that you learned about yourself in every room is really important. Writing on the seder was great because there was no one to check me because the room was fairly ego-less. Even though I’m listed as head writer, I was just the one who had the most time to do the work that anyone else could have easily done. It would be insane of me to be like, I was the head writer because I had the most expertise, but because it was an ego-less room, I tried to remember that it is good to have somebody to check you because you learn that way. We spent a lot of time in this room arguing, and that arguing was great. It would have never happened in a room that’s more of a conventional television room. So in a short answer to your question the Seder was far more collaborative than a conventional television project or any TV room that I’ve worked on.
I was fortunate enough to listen to the new album, and there are two really good stories about meeting famous people. Any other awkward celebrity run-ins?
I opened for Ryan Adams, and he was my favorite musician, and I so admired him and so wanted to like him, and he turned out to be a real piece of shit. That was really illuminating to see on the road. I opened for him at the state theater in Portland, and it was just a really ugly experience and I can’t stand it. John Baldessari is one of my favorite artists and he likes to say, The talent is cheap, and that is so true. There are a lot of untalented people who you’d much rather work with than talented folks. Living in Los Angeles and New York, you run into these people. And if you’re a fucking outsider, you’ll never lose that sense of Holy shit! I shouldn’t be meeting these people, but I met Obama when I was volunteering for his presidential campaign and I met Neil Armstrong when I was a kid in a museum. That Neil Armstrong story is one of my favorite bits. My comedy is not very observational, my comedy is more documentary style. It’s about meeting people and seeing the world through these encounters. I think if you took this album, I think pretty much every joke is about an interaction with someone as opposed to something.
What do you think the writing rooms are going to look like after COVID?
I think that the nature of meetings will change. People don’t need to be in the same place anymore. Pitches over the phone or via Zoom will become more and more commonplace; in some ways they’re better for people to share resources. There’s a thing about writers’ rooms though, where a lot of good stuff comes where you grab the show runner after the room breaks for lunch and goes, Hey, you know, this may be nothing, but I was thinking this morning in the shower, how about this? And the guy goes, That’s not right, but you know, what about that? And then you go back into the room, and this chance encounter leads to something. The dynamics of writers’ rooms are certainly going to change. If there are some big hits that did remote writers’ rooms, then say hello to 24 hour zooms.
You brought up your Dad earlier, who is a very successful and well respected doctor here in Boston. When you started really diving into comedy, was there a concern from your family about being able to make a living in it?
I’ve never experienced that. They were so supportive. They were worried in the same way that all parents are concerned for their kids about a job. I think every parent just wants their kids to be happy and fulfilled and secure. My mom is so psyched when my writing work gets me health insurance. She’s like, Oh my God, you mean, you’ve got BlueCross & Blue Shield for another 12 months? They get so amped for boring life stuff. They’re very happy with what I do. They love weird offbeat comedy.
[My parents are] real snobs. My mom’s favorite comic is Stewart Lee, who’s like a really alternative obscure British comedian who’s almost not mainstream enough for me. I took my mom to see Stuart Lee’s wife, Bridget Christie. I idolize Bridget. She is a genius. She’s the soul of alternative, but she’s not snobbish or elitist. She’s a great comic. She’s won the Perrier, which is the biggest award for comedy that you can win in the UK. And I take my parents to see Bridget at a show at Edinburgh during the festival, and Bridget is talking about British politics. My mom and dad don’t know crap about British politics; Bridget does a joke about how picking a leader for the Labor party is like picking a tap out of a kitchen catalog, and my mom is laughing her ass off. And I’m like, What do you know, Cheryl Edelman? What do you know about picking a leader for labor? I bring my mom over to this comedy role model for me. My mom says to Bridget, Hi, Alex’s mother. And my mom goes, My favorite joke was that joke you told about picking a leader for labor. And I was like, You don’t know what labor is. What are you talking about? And then she continued, When we had to pick a tap for our kitchen out of the catalog, they all looked the same. How are you supposed to tell? And Bridget was like, Oh my God. Right? All the taps look the same.
Let’s get one secret from the album on the thing. What was the name of the pizza shop you did your first open mic at that you talk about on your new album?
Roggie’s Pizzeria in Cleveland Circle. I was the worst comic in the world. I was like a child. I cut my teeth at the music open mic at Roggie’s, bombing my little teenage ass off every Tuesday for two-and-a-half-years.