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You might not recognize Judah Friedlander‘s name, but if you pay any sort of attention to the glowing box in your living room (or your parents’ living room), you’ll probably recognize his face. Or his hats. Though best known for his role as Frank Rossitano on NBC’s 30 Rock, the Gaithersburg, Md., native does a little bit of everything. He’s hugged strangers in the video for Dave Matthews Band‘s “Everyday,” played bit roles in films like American Splendor and Meet the Parents, and written a karate manual called How to Beat Up Anybody. Most frequently, Friedlander performs stand-up at venues across the country.
This weekend, he returns to the city where he cut his comedic teeth with a show at Sixth & I with Louis Katz. City Paper’s Julia Lloyd-George recently chatted with Friendlander about his early comedic ventures, 30 Rock, and his multiple, and highly dubious, “world championships.” —-Caroline Jones
Interview by Julia Lloyd-George
Washington City Paper: How did you initially get involved in stand-up? What drew you to it?
Judah Friedlander: I always did a lot of art and draw my own cartoons and stuff when I was a kid, everything ranging from political figures to my own cartoon characters. A lot of it was comedy-based. I started making my own animated movies when I was in eighth or ninth grade, doing regular movies on Super 8 footage. I started doing actual comedy when I was 19, but I started writing jokes at 15 or 16. The first place I actually ever went to was Garvin’s, in D.C., before it closed and the Improv opened. I started finding out that there were actual comedy clubs, and so just went to an open mic night.
WCP: How did you get your career going?
JF: I started in ’89, when MTV showed a short movie I made on a couple of their shows, but it wasn’t until ’96 that I started getting actual TV work. I started getting cast in TV commercials and with the combination of those commercials and the stand-up I was doing, I started getting too busy where I couldn’t do my job anymore. Then I just started getting bit guest parts on TV shows and little parts in movies and my acting career just built from there.
WCP: How do your experiences in TV and film and stand-up differ? What’s your approach to both?
JF: Stand-up is a lot more fun. In general, it will take 13 hours of filming to equal about three or four minutes of screen time. There’s a lot of waiting around and repetition. When you’re doing stand-up, it’s all live. It’s just action. But I like doing comedy in all different mediums. You can always kind of learn something in different areas that you can bring to your stand-up. Stand-up is where I feel most at home and where I feel most relaxed.WCP: How did your “World Champion” persona come about?
JF: Since I was a kid, I was always obsessed with the Guinness World Book of Records and martial-arts movies. I was writing a lot of jokes just bragging about all these ridiculous world records I’d written. Also, around 15 or so years ago, I started making my own hats. I figured, “Why buy someone else’s hat when I can make my own?” Initially, I had one that said “Record Breaker” so that would go along with a lot of the jokes I’d written—this was in the ‘90s, when all kinds of records were broken. And then at one point, I thought it would be funny if I wore a hat that said “World Champion” on it but it didn’t say of what. So basically it’s a guy who’s bragging, but isn’t smart enough to know what he’s bragging about. It lured the audience to ask questions because they would want to know what he’s the World Champion of. I like engaging the crowd sometimes too and making stuff up on the spot, so that’s how the “World Champion” thing evolved. At this point, he’s not just an idiot wearing a hat saying “World Champion”—he really is beyond a superhero with his levels of athletic and sexual abilities. It’s part of me. My act is a mix of reality and fantasy. My act’s always about the absurd and ridiculous, and the World Champion is absurd. Recently, I had about 30 minutes of presidential material and what I would do if I were president. I’m not making fun of specific stuff that Obama would do or Romney would do—I’m kind of ripping the whole presidential system in general in this country. But the World Champion’s American, and he stands for all American people and all worlds. He stands for justice. The World Champion does not lie.
WCP: How much input did you have in Frank’s character in 30 Rock?
JF: Over the years, it’s changed. Sometimes I have a lot of influence and sometimes I have zero influence. Certainly the look of Frank is all my influence. My character is based on a few different people who used to write at Saturday Night Live. For example, the episode where my character is peeing into jars, that storyline is based on something that really happened.
WCP: Do you ever get to improvise?
JF: During the first three seasons, there was more improvisation around. After that, things started getting around. The show’s always been very well written and tightly written. Now, it’s very fast paced. There are lots of jokes and lots of plot things going on. There’s not a lot of room to improvise anymore because it would mess with the flow of the show.
WCP: What’s it like working with Tina Fey?
JF: Tina’s great. She’s just like Liz Lemon, except she never appears stressed out and is always in control.
WCP: How has your material developed over the years? Where do you get your ideas?
JF: A lot of my act is fantasy and it’s surreal. It’s a mix of heavy persona and heavy jokes. I’m not that type that does observational stuff, like “Oh, do you ever notice…?” I don’t do pop-culture references much. My stuff is very self-contained and it’s very specific. The way the media covers politics, it’s very divisive. I really don’t think the country is as divided as much as the media makes out to be. I always love it when there there are people I know who are Republicans or Democrats and they’re both laughing just as hard at my stuff. I like bringing people together. My comedy is for everybody.
WCP: How was writing your book a different experience from performing comedy?
JF: That’s something I started about 10 years ago on my own, before I had a book deal. Eight years after I started it, a book publisher came to me and wanted to do a book because I was more recognizable then after 30 Rock. Then I spent about a year and half working on it nonstop. My book is kind of like a movie because it has photos which are jokes within themselves but with lots of written jokes as well. It was a lot of work. There were a lot of jokes that specifically came from my World Champion persona but were specifically things that I thought would work in book and visual form rather than stand-up form. It’s really an extension of my stand-up act. It’s a living, breathing thing.
WCP: What’s your all-time favorite slogan for your hat, if not “World Champion”?
JF: The “World Champion” hats are never on 30 Rock because while Frank Rossitano looks a lot like the World Champion, he’s really not. He’s not an athlete like the World Champion, and the World Champion gets a lot more chicks. There’s one hat I like that is a trap door. I also like “half centaur.” Some of them are actual exploitation movies I’d like to make. Then some of them are flat jokes, while others are inside jokes.
WCP: Do you see yourself as similar to Frank’s character?
JF: There are several things that Frank does which I would never do. Frank is always doing practical jokes. I don’t do that, because they’re not really funny and they’re just kind of mean and they’re kind of easy to do and get away with. Frank does a lot of that and I would never do that. Frank will often go for the easy joke. Like if there’s someone who’s overweight and they’re annoying him, he will be doing fat jokes. Let’s say on stand-up, if I’m getting heckled by a fat person, I would whoop that person and get a lot of laughs but I would never target that. I never go for the easy joke. He also makes some racial jokes with Toofer and I would never do that. I find racial jokes to be ultimately divisive and for the most part quite boring. Frank also gets worried a lot. So while Frank and the World Champion look a lot alike, they’re really quite different.
Judah Friedlander performs with Louis Katz Dec. 8 at 8 p.m. at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. $30. sixthandi.org.