Comedy Q&A: Judah Friedlander

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From the August 2, 2012 edition

Many of you know Judah Friedlander as Frank Rossitano on “30 Rock,” but he’s most proud of his World Champion title. What is he the world champion of? Everything. There’s literally nothing he can’t do. Need proof? While Friedlander will be filming the final season of “30 Rock” this fall, his World Champion persona will take over the political world.

Seriously though, Friedlander is a thoughtful comedian who takes a lot of time to craft his act, as well as the World Champion — a guise he employs during his stand-up with hilarious results. He spoke with me about how the World Champion was born, the Champ’s (possible) foray into politics, the final season of “30 Rock” and his experience on “American Splendor.”

How did you come up with the idea for the Letter C Tour, which stops in Columbus, Canada and Caroline’s Comedy Club (in New York)?

It’s the most comprehensive tour ever about the third letter in the alphabet. It’s an underappreciated letter, you know. Every city and country in North America that starts with the letter C submitted, and these were the three that I picked.

How did Columbus make it?

I felt Columbus needed it, and they earned it. And Buster Douglas is from there and he’s a champion, so I figured the World Champion should come there too.

Is the World Champion going to run for president in 2012?

If people put me on the ticket, I’m on it. I’m not a very political guy; people are going to have to write me in on the ballots.

What is your platform?

I’m going to fix every issue. You name it, I’ll fix it. And I’d like to announce that I have some top secret information. The main stream media has not reported it yet, but I have 100 percent proof that Obama and Romney are both going to endorse me.

I have photographic proof that they will endorse me, even if they haven’t made it public yet. I’m the first non-Republican or Democrat to be endorsed by the incumbent president as well as his opponent.

How did the World Champion moniker come about?

Well I’ve been doing stand-up since 1989, and my act has always been very joke-heavy. I write a lot of jokes. It’s always been escapism comedy; it’s not, “Hey let’s bond together and notice how we all thought that one commercial was stupid.” I don’t do stuff like that. My act was also very much about playing off the audience.

Now, let me digress for a second. By playing off the audience every once in a while there’s some audience members, or some people will blog, who talk about how the comic is playing off the audience because they don’t have any material. That’s not always true. I like to play with the crowd because I like to come up with things on the spot as well. It’s better than just giving someone a word-for-word thing. That’s like a play.

Since my act is very joke-heavy and audience interactive-heavy, over the years it became much more of a strong personality and persona-heavy. One of the ways the World Champion thing came about was it seemed like every comic was trying to bond with the audience and relate to the audience. I decided to take the opposite approach — there’s no way I can relate to anybody here because I’m just so incredible.

The act also, not on a completely blatant level but a more subtle level, is making fun of how society and people are so self-promoting and just into themselves and greedy and arrogant. I think people have become much more narcissistic. I think there’s always been a lot of that in this country and there’s more and more, especially with social media now.

Sounds like there’s a lot going on with the World Champion title.

It wasn’t just something I thought of overnight; “Hey, I’m going to be this guy.” It’s something that is always evolving and changing, too. It’s not a gimmick. It’s not something I’m stuck doing, and not every joke I do is about sports or karate or whatever. All my presidential stuff can be done with a different persona. It doesn’t matter which persona or personality I’m taking on. The World Champion is a theme throughout, but it’s not limiting.

Tell me about the last season of “30 Rock.”

Yeah, it’s like the senior year of high school.

A little bittersweet like high school?

Well, high school wasn’t bittersweet for me — I couldn’t wait to get the f--- out of there. I looked at high school like prison, just do your time and get out.

But “30 Rock” is a lot of fun. I’ll miss people and stuff like that, but it’s also we’re coming in to our seventh season. We’ve been doing it a while and … the show is going to go out on a high note. I’m really looking forward to what they come up with.

Any plans for after the show’s finished?

My next two projects are getting my album out by October, and then a stand-up concert movie that’s also part documentary.

I start filming “30 Rock” in a few weeks, and that’ll keep me busy until just before Christmas. I’ve been told that they’re making the prequel to “Wet Hot American Summer” and that I’m going to be in that. I don’t know any firm start dates, but I heard it might be happening in January.

Can you tell me about your experience playing Toby Radloff in “American Splendor”?

That was a great experience, and I want to get back to doing stuff like that, too. Doing “30 Rock” for the past many years, I’ve had to normalize my film work by like 95 percent. It’s a bummer, but there’s only so much time in the day.

“American Splendor” was great. I played a very different kind of role. Not only did I have to physically change my appearance, but I to change everything — my voice, the way I walked. It was really becoming another person.

I like being challenged and doing things that are different, and that movie was very challenging. They did a couple things in that movie that hadn’t been done before. It was a biopic and there’s that one scene where the actors are in the same shot as the real people they’re playing. That was nerve-wracking. I remember Paul Giamatti and I talking about it because we were nervous. We’re doing something that’s never been done before and it was either going to be a complete disaster and be embarrassing, or it’ll be good. It turned out cool.

It was very low budget, and it was challenging. Paul and I shared a trailer because it was a low budget film. I never knew if we were supposed to share the trailer, or if they just didn’t have room for me and they were like, “All right, you and Paul can share one. He’s cool with it.” We had a hell of a lot of fun on that movie.

It was a very rich experience because I got to know the real people we were playing. And I got to know Cleveland really well, too. I feel that Cleveland was big character in that movie. It doesn’t just take place in Cleveland; the city is a part of that film.

Did you enjoy filming in Cleveland?

Yeah, I drove there and kept my car there while I lived there for about a month, so I was always checking out the city. I still get back there every couple years, and I always meet up with Toby. We go hit thrift shops and stuff. We actually have some similar hobbies so it’s fun hanging out.

He took me to a sale his church was having; it’s like a yearly sale to raise money. I wound up buying about five things and two of them were things that Toby donated to the church sale. I think it was a “Beavis and Butt-Head” VHS tape, and the other was an old audio cassette player — one from like the public school libraries in the ‘70s. The sound quality was actually really good. It was Toby’s grandma’s. I told him, “This is really weird, man.”