Judah Friedlander finds comedy in American exceptionalism
NORTH ADAMS — Deep in his American exceptionalist, "World Champion" persona, Judah Friedlander is staring down an audience member from the Netherlands. Well, you think he might be; with one of his signature custom hats pulled down low over his also-signature oversized spectacles, Friedlander's eyes are often difficult to discern during "America Is the Greatest Country in the United States." The black-and-white picture and DIY camerawork, which never grants us a glimpse of the crowds at the shows comprising the 2017 Netflix standup special, don't make that search any easier, either. But now the comic is tilting his head backward against a brick wall, his pupils plain, demanding to know where the Netherlands "ranks" behind the U.S. in a mythical international hierarchy.
"You don't know," Friedlander observes, deadpan preserved. "Let's go to the stats. How many gun murders a year do you have? It's like three, four." He pauses. "We have 30,000."
The room roars. The comedian lowers his head until the laughter subsides.
"And you know why?" he continues. "Because we're No. 1."
In the world of "World Champion," gun murders are an effect of superior aim, not evil. Of course, Friedlander is engaging in some serious satire (and hyperbole), skewering American exceptionalism by discussing the country's shortcomings in social, political, economic and environmental matters.
"I'm doing comedy in the places where you wouldn't think there is any," Friedlander told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.
On Friday night, you can find him performing at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's Hunter Center as part of the two-day High Mud Comedy Fest and Friedlander's "Future President Tour." Though it will be thematically similar to the Netflix special, the show is entirely new material. The comedian of "30 Rock" fame may riff on Colin Kaepernick and racial discrimination in sports, for instance, in addition to staples like health care and climate change.
"I'll be inviting people to ask me any questions about my presidential platform, kind of like I did in the special, but it'll be all different stuff," Friedlander said.
Beginning at 5 p.m. Friday, performances by James Adomian and Sarah Squirm will precede Friedlander's. Adomian is the festival's host. He is best known for his impersonation of Bernie Sanders in "Trump vs. Bernie," a debate act that toured in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Squirm (real name: Sarah Sherman) has earned attention in Chicago for her "Helltrap Nightmare" comedy horror show that displays guts in more ways than one.
The festival will continue at noon on Saturday with a workshop led by the famous Chicago troupe, The Second City; standup sets by Adomian, Catherine Cohen and Michelle Buteau; and additional performances by singer-songwriter Sidney Gish and Cocoon Central Dance Team. Buteau's career is on the rise in a variety of mediums: She hosts WNYC's "Late Night Whenever" podcast, has appeared on TV series such as "Key & Peele" and "Enlisted" and hit streams in Netflix's "The Comedy Lineup." She is also going to be a recurring cast member in forthcoming shows "First Wives Club" on BET and "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City" on Netflix.
Friedlander said that he will put together another special soon but, like his last one, it will be an independent endeavor before he shops it around for distribution. His approach to "America Is the Greatest Country in the United States" generated a more intimate aesthetic than the often highly produced Netflix comedy specials. He would prop up one or two cameras before going on, perhaps finding someone to hold a hand-held camera.
"I filmed it more documentary-style," he said. "I filmed over multiple nights over several months, and ... there was no deal in place. I just bought my own cameras, put up my own money and started making it."
Many people know Friedlander for a different role in front of a lens. He was Frank Rossitano on the NBC hit show, "30 Rock," which ran for seven seasons from 2006 to 2013. But fans of the sitcom shouldn't expect to see that character onstage in North Adams.
"'30 Rock' was a very well-made and very smartly written show. Yet, the stuff I do in standup is almost completely different than what I did on that show," Friedlander said.
The Gaithersburg, Md., native attended his first open mic about 30 years ago, when he was 19. He had started writing jokes three years earlier after realizing that standup was something "you could do." Early on, his favorite comics were Steven Wright and John Mulrooney.
"He did tons of crowd work," Friedlander said of Mulrooney. "And Steven Wright was all one-liners, pretty much. My act has always had lots of one-liners and lots of crowd work."
He wasn't as persona-heavy during his initial shows, but his ability to turn grim subject matter into funny material has been a constant throughout his career.
"My act was always kind of dark and twisted," he said. "I never go for the easy laughs."
Delayed howls and giggles are common during Friedlander's Netflix special. Friedlander enjoys the slow reactions sometimes.
"Once they get it, it's like, 'Boom,' and it hits them hard. There's a long hang time. That can be fun," he said. "But then, sometimes in other situations, you're like, 'All right, what's wrong with these people? They should be getting this s---.'"
Friedlander's apparel advertises his satire. In the 1990s, he started making his own hats with different words on them. In the special, he wears one that spells out "World Champion" in sign language, matching a "World Champion" jacket and shirt.
His act is less predictable. He prides himself on his crowd work, using audience members' responses as fodder for his jokes. Over time, he has built up a collection of one-liners for each country and political issue, but he always tries to add more with each performance. "World Champion" lets the audience guide his talking points.
"I kind of run a mock town hall," he said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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