Depending on who you ask, Judah Friedlander is either best known as lazy writer Frank Rossitano on 30 Rock or for his “pitch-perfect” performance as Toby Radloff in the indie darling American Splendor. (He even scored a cameo role as a “Bar Patron” in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.) Before these acting accolades ever adorned his resume, however, the Maryland native has been performing stand-up comedy since 1989.
For most of his time on stage, Friedlander has adopted the “World Champion” persona — a deadpan, bombastic, trucker-hat-wearing individual who thinks rather highly of himself — and it’s put to good use in his new Netflix special, America Is The Greatest Country In The United States. Below, the 48-year-old comic chats with us about the reasoning behind the new hour’s title (and theme), as well as the methods he employed while shooting it over the course of several years. But first, Star Wars…
I only just realized recently you were in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. How’d that happen?
That is correct. Well, you know when you’re the world champion, sometimes things just work out in your favor. I was just cruising through the galaxy, hanging out in this bar, and all of a sudden it just happened.
You didn’t film your special in a typical manner, with cranes and multiple cameras and the like. It’s a sort of guerrilla-style approach. What made you want to do it that way?
I try to always do things not like anyone else. So I thought I should film this differently, too. It’s all just a part of the organic way I like to operate. I view being a comedian as being an outsider. I’m an outsider who looks at things and gives my perspective. It’s just the way I do things. I don’t like doing things the normal way, and that’s not just in my stand-up but in other areas of life. Pretty much everything I do is not the normal way of doing things, so that’s why I filmed the special this way. I don’t mean this in a pretentious way at all, but I view comedy as an art form, and there are so many things we do in society that are done in certain ways. But that doesn’t mean that’s the way we have to do it. That’s also what my stand-up special is about. I’m satirizing America, especially American exceptionalism — things like our domestic and foreign policies.
One of the reasons we do certain things the way we do is because we’re simply used to doing it that way. We don’t think about doing it another way. So I’m always someone who thinks, “What’s a unique way or different way to do this?” So with filming, I’ve never liked the way stand-up specials are typically filmed for TV. I don’t like the big crane shots. I don’t like the audience reaction shots. I just don’t like it. But that’s the way things are usually done, and because of that, most people just do it that way and don’t think about it. I’ve noticed that different people in different countries film things in different ways. In America, most people start with their wide shot, then move into over-the-shoulder and close-up shots. It can be very formulaic. In some other countries, however, they don’t film that way at all. It doesn’t have to be so complex.
Plus stand-up concert films typically aren’t a big technical affair.
I mean, stand-up is a very simple and technologically-raw art form. The only technology you must have is the electric amplification of your voice. There’s a microphone, some speakers, and a light shining on you. That’s it. It’s very raw, and we’re such a high-tech world now. Stand-up as an art form is really kind of a throwback. It’s literally just a person onstage talking to an audience. There are people sitting and facing a particular direction. So I thought stand-up should be shot in a simple way. It’s a simple art form. I don’t think it should be filmed in a high tech, complex, way.
I filmed sets for about a year — either by myself, putting up little cameras in the room, or hiring one person to operate the camera. Everything was handheld. Most of the special is handheld, or just a simple camera propped up somewhere in the room. It took me about a year or so, filming tons of sets along the way, to figure out how what I wanted the special to look like and how I could make it look that way, but without interrupting the show. A lot of the time, when they film these specials, they take out three rows of the audience for the camera equipment. It becomes obtrusive. Why would you do a special and interrupt the show? You might as well drastically change the lighting or put in a smoke machine. This is basically a raw stand-up performance film. It’s documentary style. No interviews. I wanted the audience to feel like they were sitting in the room, watching me perform.
It almost seems more honest, in a way.
I mean, it’s almost an anti-special. I don’t even know what that word means, “special.” I think it just means it’s a longer stand-up set, but I don’t know what the word means, really. I just wanted to capture as real of an experience as possible.
You even tell the audience what dates particular segments were filmed. Usually, stand-up concert films will combine several tapings into a single hour.
Right, exactly. This does not do that. Many specials will film two or four shows, and then edit it all together like it’s a single set. This is more of an extended montage. I spent a lot of time editing it so that it flows well, so that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching randomly assorted clips. It actually feels like a movie. It has continuity in it, even though it’s from different nights.
Speaking of political comedy, this special obviously dives into it. That being said, I’ve seen an evident distinction between comics who will blatantly talk about Donald Trump, and those who will more or less acknowledge his presence without specifically naming him. What’s more, many are charging comedians with taking the “easy” road when they talk Trump.
First of all, a lot of the material in this is from the past year. Some of it might actually be from two or three years ago. A lot of the criticism I have of the United States doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Trump. It’s America during the Obama administration. I focus more on the powers that run this country, because the theme of American exceptionalism — and that’s also a big part of what the World Champion thing is about — is satire of narcissism and how we are a country that is obsessed with being number one. We’re always viewing ourselves as number one, no matter what is going on in the rest of the world.
Sounds like Trump.
[Laughs.] True, but even now, many people will still say we’re number one even if they hate Trump. He’s this sort of bizarre anomaly that we have to get rid of, who is embarrassing us. I mean, Trump didn’t invent college tuition that annually costs students $100,000 a year. He didn’t invent the means by which to prevent us from getting free healthcare. He didn’t invent all the wars that we are currently fighting in. He didn’t invent mass incarceration.
There are one or two bits where I bust Trump’s balls, but it’s just a few minutes out of 84-minute runtime and I’m mostly going after the bigger issues. Yes, we have this monster, this dangerous person who’s in charge of everything, but what are you going to do about it now? I’m not just satirizing the government. I’m also poking fun at us as citizens. It’s like, “We want change, but Beyoncé is the big trending topic.” So we’re saying we really want to change the government and what’s happening in this country, but we’re still obsessed with pop culture’s greatest hits at any given moment.
As for Trump making this job easy, here’s the thing. I don’t like going for the easy joke. I always try not to. It’s easy to make fun of Trump. I mean, just look at him and listen to him, There are a million things you can make fun of. But I try to avoid those kinds of things. I don’t make fun of his appearance. Instead, I try to always go for the more difficult and darker places, to see what humor I can find there. When you’re just making jokes about what a jerk Trump is or the way he looks, it’s too easy.
One of my favorite segments is you asking the audiences at various shows where they’re from, then riffing off their answers in a manner not unlike the late Don Rickles. It’s a little mix of insult comedy and your special’s outspoken theme.
Thanks, man. I do crowd work in a mix of ways. Sometimes I’m ripping someone, sure, but I’m also trying to compliment them at the same time. Most of the time, I’m really ripping on myself. Sometimes, when I’m doing crowd work, the people I’m interacting with might think I’m talking about them specifically, but I’m actually trying to connect it to a much larger issue, or set of issues
I didn’t want to keep you much longer, but I wanted to follow up on something you said in a previous interview. You told The Hollywood Reporter comedy was the most relaxing thing you do in 2012. Despite Trump, the bigger issues that interest you, and the amount of work that evidently went into making this special, does that still hold true?
Yes, it still is. It still is the most relaxing thing I do, but that doesn’t mean it’s not intense. Something can be extremely intense, yet it can also be quite relaxing. At least, it can for me. This might speak to my own anxiety problems I have off stage, where if I’m just laying in the hotel room watching TV and I’m getting anxiety about what I see, and other personal issues like that. But stand-up is still great. Getting the opportunity to speak your mind is, for me, the most fulfilling thing. I think it’s what I’m best at, doing stand-up. It’s what I’ve been doing the longest, and it’s the most relaxing thing for me. There’s no bullshit with it. It’s just you on stage and with an audience.
Judah Friedlander: America Is The Greatest Country In The United States is now streaming on Netflix.