I Thought There Was Something Funny About This Guy. Now It's Official.

Former Jerusalem yeshiva student Alex Edelman, 25, scoops a top comedy award at Edinburgh Fringe.

Matthew Kalman
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Alex Edelman Credit: Corey Melton
Matthew Kalman

Alex Edelman was already clearly a star in the making back in 2008, when I first saw him perform his stand-up routine at the newly-opened Comedy Basement in Jerusalem. This week he won the coveted award for Best Comedy Newcomer at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe for his one-man show "Millennial."

He’s the first American to win the award since 1997, and the first yeshiva graduate since 536 BC.

At 19, Alex was already a veteran of the East Coast comedy circuit. He had the talent, drive, timing and on-stage persona that marked him out from the comic wannabes. It was the same kind of talent I encountered in Cambridge in the early 1980s, watching performers like Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Tilda Swinton honing their youthful talents on the sharp edges of student stages.

It was Stephen Fry who gave Alex his first big Edinburgh boost this summer, recommending that his 7 million Twitter followers check out the comic’s “intelligent and original” one-hour show “Millennial.”

The poster for his nightly appearances at The Pleasance - a top Fringe venue - featured a quote from a profile I wrote about the up-and-cracking kippa-clad clown for his hometown paper the Boston Globe noting his “natural comic timing.”

Watching the new show this summer, The Guardian agreed, praising Alex’s “precocious poise and authority.”

In a five-star review that described his comic technique simply as "wow," The Mirror warmed to his “superbly judged, paced and weighted material that spoke about his own generation's situation as 'millennials' but without excluding older dudes like me.” ”I fondly imagined this was what it might have been like to watch Jerry Seinfeld when he was in his early 20s,” said The Mirror.

Few were surprised when he scooped the Fosters Comedy Award for Best Newcomer – a coveted prize whose previous honorees read like a Who’s Who of modern stand-ups. The prize includes a transfer to London's West End and a real chance that Alex, now 25, might make it in the rough, tough world of comedy.

But it won't be easy. That's the same world that Robin Williams checked out of so tragically just days before Alex won his award.

In a panel at the Festival, Alex recalled meeting Williams at a comedy club in Los Angeles.

“I’d never met him before. When I came offstage I didn’t even notice it was Robin Williams till he said: ‘Well, it’s clear that you’re possessed.’ And I said: Can I have your autograph?” Alex recalls.

“He had a mind like a steel trap and he knew that everyone wanted an anecdote from him. He would always give a moment of his time. He was very good to young comedians and other people who studied under him. Robin always gave a lot of himself to everyone, whether you were a street performer, or onstage or off. He was a hugely charitable comedian.

“Two years later I was re-introduced to him at a show in New York City. I said: Hi, I’m Alex. He said: ‘Do you still have my autograph?’”

Still bleary-eyed after four months of preparations in London and up to five shows each day for a month in Edinburgh, Alex tells me he is simply exhausted.

“It’s very cool for me. I can’t believe that it’s happened, honestly,” he adds.

The show emerged from a photograph of Alex at his graduation that was used by chance to illustrate a CNN story about Millennials, or Generation Y, now aged 18-33, and a big buzzword in American socio-politics.

“The show is about how I rank as a member of that generation. It’s a real hot-button word in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s the largest generation of all time. It’s the most diverse generation, it’s the best-educated generation, it’s the most tech-savvy generation, it has the most student debt of any generation. There are a lot of things that set it apart from all the generations that came before it.

“It’s really tough to be between the ages of 18 and 33. You’re less likely to own a house or have a job than people were 10 years ago. In some countries you’re five times more likely to be unemployed.”

Alex takes that pain and turns it into an hour of classic humor.

“It’s difficult to talk seriously about stand-up comedy because it’s the ultimate ‘don’t take yourself seriously’ art form,” he says. “I took the tests, but I don’t score especially high as a millennial. That’s a big part of the show.”

So is his Jewishness. He has ditched the full-time kippa but says he is still orthodox. A Facebook post halfway through Edinburgh read: “I know this is a Jew-y post, but anyone else at the Fringe fasting tonight and tomorrow for Tisha B'av and want to have a pre-fast meal around 7 at the Pleasance?”

“I am Jew and that’s a mailing list I cannot unsubscribe from,” he tells his audience. “Judaism is not just a belief. It’s an attitude, it’s a tradition, it’s a prominent facial feature. It’s a chronic condition. I’m an orthodox Jew. I’ve tried MDMA but I’ve never tried bacon.”

He says he was five years old the first time his grandfather explained that he couldn’t have pepperoni pizza because it wasn’t kosher. “I don’t want to be Jewish any more,” said the young Alex. “That’s the most Jewish thing there is,” his grandfather replied.

Jerusalem comedian Yisrael Campbell was showcasing his one-man play “Circumcise Me” in Edinburgh while Alex was storming the boards. (Full disclosure: I directed a film version of Campbell’s story in 2007).

“I’ve seen Alex do stand-up several times over the years in Jerusalem and New York. He crafted an hour of comedy that really was a show, not just a title and 60 minutes of tangential material like many other shows in Edinburgh,” says Campbell.

“He’s a star because he has laser-liker precision and dedication but in the best way. He’s not just a comedian. He’s gone to college, he has varied interests, but he’s focused like few others where work is concerned. He’s incredibly funny and smart with an honest and sincere humility. He’ll only get better as he gets more confident and matures,” he says.

It looks like we’ll be seeing a lot more of Alex. And he promises to bring the show to Israel soon.