INTERVIEW: Comedian and 30 Rock Star Judah Friedlander

Our chat with the man whom Tina Fey calls “one of the all-time great weirdos" before his standup show comes to Helium Comedy Club this week.

Judah Friedlander | Photo by Yoko Haraoka

Judah Friedlander | Photo by Yoko Haraoka

Judah Friedlander is probably best known for his work on the television comedy 30 Rock, where he played the lazy, porn-loving skit writer Frank Rossitano. He’s also known for his signature disheveled look: bespectacled, unshaven and sporting a trucker hat with ever-changing messages on the front. But Friedlander has also morphed his look for roles such as the critically acclaimed American Splendor and The Wrestler, as well as for cameos in cult favorites including Zoolander, Wet Hot American Summer and Sharknado 2.

Friedlander explores another area of creative expression in his new book, If the Raindrops United: Drawings and Cartoons, published just last month. The 208-page book provides a window into the actor’s quirky, original brain. His previous book, a self-help karate manual titled How to Beat up Anybody: An Instructional and Inspirational Karate Book by the World Champion, was written by his alter ego, the World Champ, whose specialty is deadpan narcissism with a touch of supremely inflated ego. The World Champ has been an integral part of the comic’s standup for years and talks like a twisted amalgam of comedian Steven Wright, boxer Muhammed Ali and martial artist Bruce Lee — a lethal blend of low-energy, raging confidence.

Friedlander is currently on tour doing standup and visits the Helium Club for a four-day run beginning this Wednesday. Friedlander says he plans on stopping by a table tennis club as well as the Philadelphia Museum of Art while in town. (He’s a devotee of both ping pong and the visual arts.) We caught up by phone with the actor from his hotel in Buffalo to discuss 30 Rock, cartooning and his plans for taping his own comedy special next year.  

Judah Book CoverWith your new cartoon book out, are you still dedicated to maintaining your persona as the World Champ? It’s always something in my standup but there’s usually a mix. I’m not talking about karate all the time, even though I’m still the World Champ. My standup act is always evolving, and the World Champ had evolved a lot, too. A few years ago, I started performing a lot in Europe. That taught me a lot about my own country. It’s like when you’re in a bad relationship, and you can’t see it but all your friends can. When I travel and get distance, I have a better perspective on things back home. I’ve started really getting into human rights issues. The World Champ persona has been a person who is a real live superhero, but the World Champ also has become a person who stands up for the rights of the planet, people and animals of the planet.

How are your fans responding to the shift in material? Even though I talk about bigger issues — things like gentrification, racism, classism — I like to do things in my style, which is subversive, but very joke heavy, persona heavy, and audience-interactive heavy. I don’t have a ranting, preaching kind of style. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you will still be laughing at my jokes because they convey a lot of the absurdity of the situation. In general, I don’t go for the easy joke. If I make a joke about Donald Trump, it’s not going to be a joke about his hair style. I like finding comedy in different places.

You do a fair amount of audience interaction. How do you keep them in line? It’s controlled chaos, but you have to be in charge. Always. For the World Champion that’s pretty easy to do. Some audiences are just super polite and scared and won’t say anything. They sit there terrified. Maybe they’re afraid you’ll make fun of them. Sometimes that’s even more challenging than a heckler. You just have to play the moment and get to the core of what’s really going on.

What’s the story behind your trucker hats and the changing words on the front? I was making my own hats before 30 Rock. When they gave me an offer, I said I’d like to do the show but I can’t change my look for it. I’m still doing standup, and my facial hair, hats and shirts all have storylines and jokes behind them. They agreed, but said I had to do the hats in a different way. My standup hats are more extravagant and a gaudy comment on narcissism and self-centeredness. The hats always say ‘World Champion,’ but in different languages. But for 30 Rock the hats were skit ideas rejected by Liz Lemon — karate prom, butler school, time travel agent — or passive-aggressive messages. Frank also likes to hit on women, so his hats worked as ice breakers too.

Since the publication of How To Beat Up Anybody have you been challenged to any fights? I was showing the book to my friends outside of a comedy club, and there was a drunk guy on the street who was older and confused. He said, ‘I studied martial arts and it isn’t like this. — this is not the proper technique.’ It was a picture of me choking Bigfoot. We were trying to explain what the book was, so finally after 10 minutes he got it, but he was really getting angry. He was also plastered. That joke was more satirizing the ridiculous part of the martial arts industry and U.S. martial arts film industry that has these guys claiming to be indestructible killing machines.

What prompted the book project If the Raindrops United?  Most of the drawings are from the past year and a half. But I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. I started drawing again two years ago. After 30 Rock was finished, I decided to not pursue any acting work. Most offers were for parts where I was playing the same kind of role but with inferior writing. 30 Rock was great, but it was the same character for basically seven years, so I wasn’t interested in doing more of the same. I like to challenge myself as an artist. If I was going to do the same type of character, I’d want it to be as good as Tina Fey’s writing.

During 30 Rock I was still doing standup but decided to go on the road. There’s lots of stress and sleep deprivation — with travel, late shows, the local radio and press in each town. The hours suck, so to decompress and combat anxiety, I started drawing again. Soon enough I had 40 single-panel cartoons, some dark and mysterious, some comic. I wasn’t planning on doing a new book, but I knew I needed to go with what was organically happening. I wasn’t going to stifle that creativity.

On his show, David Letterman described you as “full blown goofy” in a conversation with Tina Fey. She called you “one of the all-time great weirdos.” You’ve talked about your OCD and issues with anxiety. Do you consider them a gift in disguise?  Maybe. The whole thing about mental problems is that there are pluses and minuses — even with standup. Getting up to 50 percent crazy is okay, but once you’re over that, things can become counterproductive. Like once you’re around 75 percent, you’re getting into dangerous territory. You can’t function. You won’t leave the floor of your apartment. But a certain amount of crazy is good.

I’ve heard so many things said about me. I do find it weird — well that’s not the right word — but I still find it sometimes sad or depressing how that word is used. ‘Oh yeah, he’s weird, but hilarious.’ How narrow is your scope of humanity? ‘Your hair is still not short enough. You could be wearing fancier clothes.’ It’s like if you don’t fall into that norm, you’re considered a little dangerous. Even in show business and in comedy, people refer to you as ‘weird.’ People in the arts think they’re more open-minded and less judgmental … In my book I have a cartoon that deals with this. There’s a mouth smiling with a lone tooth going in a different direction from the others — bravely fighting against fascism. I like individuality and diversity. I don’t just mean racially or economically, but with thoughts. I like talking to people who don’t agree with me. They can still laugh at my jokes. My jokes point out how absurd things are. The goal in my act is to make people laugh, not change how they think, but get them thinking.

You seem game for new things. What’s next? My own standup concert film and 90-minute album. I want to film it a little bit differently and produce it myself. I don’t like the way standup specials are filmed. A lot of those specials look generic. I’ve been looking at different ways to do mine. I hope to film it in the next three months.

We look forward to seeing the special. After all, if the World Champ can’t crush it, who can?

Judah Friedlander performs December 2-5 at Helium Club. For tickets and more information, visit philadelphia.heliumcomedy.com.

Keep up to date with our local arts and events coverage. Here’s how: