Photo: Drafthouse Films
Are you looking for some high quality comedy to check out? Who is better to turn to for recommendations on comedy under the radar than comedians? In our recurring series “Underestimated” we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choice, which they think deserves more praise.
Author and stand-up comedian Alex Edelman understands the tension that exists between living in the modern world while trying to adhere to traditional religious beliefs. Edelman was raised an Orthodox Jew, and although he still identifies deeply with religion, some of the customs he grew up with have changed. Edelman’s upbringing is one of the topics he explores in his one-man show Only for us, which weaves together a story about him attending a 2017 white-nationalist meeting in New York City with anecdotes from his life. The show played a sold-out game at the Cherry Lane Theater from December to February and now plays an extra engagement in the SoHo Playhouse through April 23rd.
Edelman sees the same religion-versus-modernity suspense in Four lions, the 2010 black comedy written by Chris Morris, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong. The film centers on five British Muslims, four of whom are Pakistanis, and one of them is a white man who converted to Islam. The five hopeful jihadists aim to carry out a terrorist attack using bombs strapped to their bodies, but instead they dangle through their plans. While it may be hard to find humor in the premise, Morris, Bain, and Armstrong’s heavily researched films use slapstick, gallows humor, and a goal of understanding the potential suicide bombers to pick comedy out of the dark subject. thinks Edelman Four lions has all the ingredients for a great comedy: pathos, jokes, unique characters and very high stakes. He honors the film so much that he refers to it as “the Muslim Burning saddles. “
What do you like about Four lions?
It feels like a movie that should not work, but it does. You just hear the premise: a movie about five Muslim suicide bombers in Britain written by three white guys. One would think it would be offensive and one would never think it would be made, but the fact that it is made with so much love and so much pathos, it felt very warm and handmade and loving, and it just worked as if it were a perfect high-risk maneuver satire. It kicks off Islamophobes and extremists and religion and religiosity, and it’s a really funny movie. This was Riz Ahmed before he was a household Star wars name. He’s amazing, just like Kayvan Novak and Nigel Lindsay and Benedict Cumberbatch are in his little role!
When I first saw the premise of the film, a “jihadisatire”, I thought: How can this be fun? It’s one of those movies that proves everything can be fun; it just depends on the way it is done. Why do you think it was overlooked?
I do not know why it is not mentioned regularly. I do not know that in America it affected the audience in the same way that it affected the British and British Muslims in particular. To me, it has always been considered an underrated favorite. And it was apparently a challenge to get it done. They crowdfunded part of it; they really got scratched it all together. But it has this little intense fan club of people.
What do you think of when you think of the film now, more than a decade after its release?
The pure tonnage of set pieces. I can from the top of my head tell you ten scenes from the movie and they are all shot through with such a heart. There’s a scene where Omar (Ahmed) and Waj (Novak) are being brought to this terrorist training camp in Pakistan and they are standing in a shop full of live chickens and their tradesman asks them if they want to kill each other, if they had to, and they kind of say to each other, “I love you. I would kill you,” and describe the graphic ways they would do it. There’s so much going on in that scene – Omar explains to Waj that life is worthless, that being alive is like standing in line at an amusement park, and that a martyr’s paradise is full of amusements. And Waj keeps insisting that the chickens are “damn rabbits.” And Omar says, ” They are chickens. If they are rabbits, then where are their ears? ” And Waj replies, “That’s what I say.” It’s fun and different, and it’s heartbreaking. That scene has so many different kinds of jokes and there are so many lines that I quote all the time. If my car does not work, I say, “It’s the spark plugs – they’re Jews.”
That line was one of my favorites from Barry (Lindsay). Omar sees Barry as ridiculous and asks him, “What parts of the car are Jewish?”
The spark plugs! “The Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.” Every scene with Barry is so pointed because he thinks he is the only good Muslim and he thinks he is a genius. He calls himself Azzam Al-Britani. He keeps stating that they are blowing up the mosque like a false flag. He is a truly brilliant character. Morris uses him for a million little jokes. There’s a university debate where he has a small nameplate in front of him that says “Islamic State Tinsley.” He’s the other way around, he’s a white guy, and he’s the most radical.
When Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) accidentally blows itself up in the air around a herd of sheep, Barry tries to defend the accident by saying that Faisal “disrupted the infrastructure by taking the sheep out.”
The film is a fantastic exercise in storytelling, which is, Can I get you to make them succeed in blowing something up? May I make you mess with these wannabe jihadists, these five villains? They are also very sweet to each other. My favorite character is Waj because he is the one who feels closest to what I perceive a jihadi as, which is one that is pointless. Towards the end of the film, Waj says, “I do not know what I want. But I am here and I do not know what to do.” This is someone who is naive and is led by someone he loves and his friend’s love really fights against his nature which is very kind and warm.Your heart is broken for that character in that moment.And he literally has a all the best comedy films – like all Chaplin’s films – there’s real pathos there. Four lions are equal parts slapstick and pathos. The two go hand in hand and sometimes they are mixed so beautifully.
The moment with Waj coming to me was when just before the bombing he tells Omar that his heart tells him that what they are doing is wrong. Omar convinces him that his brain and heart have actually been swapped, and Waj believes in him. The scene is more tragic than funny.
The actual bomb stuff is so gripping, and what I think the film really does well – without trying to push it hard home – is that it does not ignore structural racism. The film does not ignore the fact that Omar’s completely innocent brother is the one the police think is the real terrorist. When the police kill the kebab shop, which is actually Waj’s hostage, they fire a million bullets at him because he looks like they think a terrorist looks. The idea of ”what a terrorist looks like” is a lot in the film, but that’s not what the film is about. And I love that the film is not about Islamophobia, but just treats it as a fact, which it obviously is. Doing so is wonderful and exciting and raises a lot of really compelling questions.
Did you find that you relate to something in the movie?
I like that there are pieces of the film about the tension between the traditional and the modern. There’s a scene between Omar and his brother. His brother will not talk to a woman if they are alone together. Omar is apparently more moderate, but he is the jihadist? It messes up a bit with your expectations. That topic – the tension between the modern world and the religious – can be identified for me. My show is about that. My life is very much focused on traditional Judaism in the modern world. I live that excitement every day of my life.
You grew up in an orthodox Jewish family. Did you experience struggles over whether or not you wanted to be Orthodox?
My level of observation has changed over the course of my life. I was more religious and then less religious, and now I’m a little more again. To me, compliance and religiosity are not the same thing. I have found myself in times where I have been less attentive but just as much religious. I keep a level of kosher, but it has nothing to do with my relationship to religiosity. That is at least one of the gifts of Judaism to me: If you are a Jew, you are a Jew. I say in the show, “It’s a mailing list you can never unsubscribe from.” I have never questioned whether Judaism was something for me, but yes, every single day of my life I wonder if the life I live is Jewish enough – or too Jewish.
I think there is a lot of talk in this film about what it means to be a good Muslim, and I relate to that so much. I think I say it every day now: “The specific is universal.” When people saw My big fat Greek weddingeveryone looked at it and thought, It’s my family, because the specific family dynamics are so universal. So when I look Four lions about what it means to be a good Muslim, I see the same tension in what it means to be a Jew.
In my comedy, I am very careful with totems. I never talk about things that are traditional totems of Judaism. I love bagels, but hate that they have come to represent Judaism to people. I wrote this thing called Saturday night seder with Benj Pasek and a lot of other people during the beginning of the pandemic. We got a bunch of celebrities like Idina Menzel and Josh Groban and Jason Alexander to do one thing where we raised money for the CDC. When we wrote it, I was a real idiot about “No bubbies, no brisket, no bagels. Our things should ring like something that is not superficial.” And someone wondered if it was too inside for people. I thought, “Fuck it – then it’s too inside for them.”
There was a scene in Four lionss where Omar quarrels with his brother and he uses a lot of Arabic words that are not translated to the viewer. I do not know Arabic, but I have spoken Hebrew with my family, and sometimes my friends do not know what we are saying. I think people sometimes treat their audience as if they are stupid so that they deliberately avoid certain things. I do not know if Chris Morris and Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have any kind of Muslim connection or insight, but the fact that every detail of the film is not immediately accessible to the casual viewer is so much more interesting. If you are really making art or comedy that represents a group that has their own language and culture, then it should not immediately be 1,000 percent available to the average viewer. I wish more series and movies asked for that level of engagement from their viewers.
Your show centers on a white supremacist meeting you attended. Were there any similarities between these extremists and those you see in the film?
I think what I recognize in both groups – among all extremists – is frustration. And my dad likes to quote this Einstein quote, which I can not confirm is from Einstein. It was something about how God created Nazism, intelligence, and integrity, but he did not give people the capacity to possess all three qualities. The movie is about these guys who are all frustrated and cute, but they are really pointless and incompetent and that is why they are extremists. And in all extremism, I think there is a wealth of ignorance. One can not be extremely well-informed and extremist and a good human being. But I also think that the vast majority of people are ill-informed.