In Conversation: Judah Friedlander Is a Person Talking

The famously behatted standup took on Trump and made a Netflix comedy special his own way.
Film + TVIn Conversation
In Conversation: Judah Friedlander Is a Person Talking

The famously behatted standup took on Trump and made a Netflix comedy special his own way.

Words: Jason P. Woodbury

photo by Phil Provencio

January 23, 2018

In America Is the Greatest Country in the United States, Judah Friedlander’s recent Netflix comedy special, the comedian unpacks the absurdities of American exceptionalism.

Best known as Frank Rossitano from 30 Rock (he’s the guy with the hats) and for his blustery, overly confident “World Champion” persona—his 2010 book was called How to Beat Up Anybody—the special lets the air out of the balloon of the Trump Epoch. Filmed over a series of nights at the Comedy Cellar in New York City, the special focuses in on deeply unfunny topics, including foreign policy, climate change, human rights, and mass incarceration. But Friedlander’s one-liners, delivered at a steady, patient clip, and searching crowd work hinge on a sideways logic that carves enough space to examine each matter with surprising nuance.

Over the course of eighty-four minutes, Friedlander’s puffed chest bravado reveals an intriguing sensitivity and empathy. Purposefully presented in a lo-fi, shadowy black and white, a tender humanism shines through, and thoughtful deconstructions (how can love “win” if it isn’t a contest?) showcase the way the show is as observant as it is special. We caught up with Friedlander via rotary phone to talk about American exceptionalism, making a product before selling it, and the concept of talking itself.

America Is the Greatest Country in the United States is politically focused. With somebody like Trump in office—and his enormous capacity for absurdity—do you find it difficult to “out-absurd” the actual president in your work?

No, I don’t. I find what he does quite predictable. I don’t find it shocking. I find it awful, but I don’t find it shocking or surprising.

You play a lot with predictability. It seems that part of what makes your jokes work is the way they adhere strictly to a skewed logic.

As absurd as they are, they mathematically or logistically make sense. If Trump is saying things that people view as outlandish and I want to satirize that, that doesn’t make it harder. I have to either make things more outlandish or surprising from a different angle, maybe [through a] lack of outlandishness. That’s not a problem… [Trump isn’t] surprising.

“The greatest country in the world doesn’t call itself the greatest country in the world. We don’t see our own arrogance.”

I knew right away [Trump] was dangerous as soon as he entered the race. The more sad and dangerous part was how the mainstream media—they’re being harsh on him now, or being harsher—kissed his ass for a year and a half, you know? He’s saying all these bigoted things at the beginning of the race and people are making fun of him, but after six months people were saying, “You know, the stuff he’s saying is just not funny anymore.” So I’m like, “Wait, did you think it was funny when he was calling Mexicans rapists?” Newspapers still won’t call him a liar, and I think that’s one reason he’s likely to win again. When he calls the media “fake news,” in some ways, he’s actually correct. Not in the way he intends—he’ll call them fake news for calling him out on bad things he does—but they are fake news in the sense that they [won’t] label him a racist or a liar.

You explore the American psyche a lot in this special. You hone in on this combination of being extremely confident while remaining completely uninformed. And I think part of what makes your special funny is how accurate and effective that persona actually is. Do you feel like that’s a quality Trump reflects?

Sure, yeah. But I think it’s rampant throughout society, not just him. That’s one of the reasons he is president. “American exceptionalism,” that’s really the theme. The title is America Is the Greatest Country in the United States, and that’s true. You can’t argue with that. [It’s] the propaganda we’re fed. You hear it in the media. You hear it from the Democrats. You hear it from the Republicans. In New York City, you hear it. Whoever’s the mayor of New York City will say it’s the greatest city in the world. Being confident is great. Being over-confident is not good. And being dumb, ignorant, [and] confident—that’s not a good combination.

Trump calls himself a very stable genius and everyone’s making fun of him, pointing out that real geniuses like Albert Einstein never called themselves geniuses. But if you go along with that theory, why are the same people who’re criticizing Trump for calling himself a genius still calling America the greatest country in the world? The greatest country in the world doesn’t call itself the greatest country in the world. [We don’t see] our own arrogance. So Trump being president makes sense. The ultimate narcissist—it makes sense that he’s the president of a narcissistic country.

The special is experiential. In terms of camera work, it puts the viewer in the room. It flies in the face of most comedy specials in terms of look. Why did it feel important to you to capture that feeling?

I don’t like the way most comedy specials are produced. This comedy special I made is basically a standup performance film. I made this one my own; I didn’t make it with any deal in place. In my original cut, it said “A film by Judah Friedlander.” Netflix made me cut that out—it had to say “A Netflix Comedy Original.” And I said, “Whatever, I just want people to see this thing.” But I view standup as a very simple art form and feel it’s best to film it in a very simple way.

At one point in the film you begin discussing VHS as a format. And while this film doesn’t look like tape per se, it has a certain graininess. What draws you to that look?

I wanted a lo-fi look. Like I said, I view standup as a very raw, simple art form. If you look at standup today—and I don’t mean looking at it on TV, I mean actually going to a show—it’s a small art form. I don’t think it’s best as a huge spectacle, almost like jazz. You don’t want to go to Yankee Stadium to see jazz. It’s very simple. There’s a light, there’s a microphone, there’s a person on stage, and there’s people sitting on stage looking toward the stage. That’s it. When you look at today’s modern technology, with phones and apps, standup is so fucking archaic it’s unbelievable. Sometimes I’m shocked it even still exists. It’s like a rotary phone. It’s old technology. It’s just a fucking person talking, you know?

“When you look at today’s modern technology, standup is so fucking archaic it’s unbelievable.”

It seems like whenever you watch comedy specials, it’s the opposite of that. They’ve got all the lights, smoke machines; it’s like, what the fuck is this? It seems like a Vegas show the way they film these things. Comedy Cellar is the club I work the most, and I just wanted to film there. Even the audio I recorded was different. It’s much less tinkered with than professional comedy specials. I wanted it to seem real, so I filmed it documentary-style.

There are even moments where a person will move in front of the camera. Were you tempted to cut stuff like that out?

I left stuff like that in there. It all adds to the real feel of it. Sometimes you’ll see the serving staff walking by serving drinks…and at the Comedy Cellar, there’s a restaurant above the club. There’s no bathroom in the restaurant. So if they have to go to the bathroom, they have to walk right through the middle of the comedy show. That’s all part of the experience. People are moving around. They’re serving drinks, they’re serving food. That stuff is all in there. That’s what I went for. I like it like that. And it’s something I had to make on my own, because if I had pitched that, no one would have said yes to it.

You had to present it as a finished piece of work.

Right, because if I had explained it, nobody would have even looked at it. FL