"World Champion" Judah Friedlander on American Exceptionalism and Phony Specials

Judah Friedlander headlines at the Oriental Theater on Friday, March 8.
Marius Brugge
Judah Friedlander headlines at the Oriental Theater on Friday, March 8.
Judah Friedlander, the perpetually trucker-hatted "Champion of the World," continues his international campaign for the hearts, minds and funny bones of comedy nerds. His Future President tour rolls through Colorado for a pair of whistle-stop comedy shows at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins on Wednesday, March 6, and Denver's Oriental Theater on Friday, March 8.

Mostly recognized for his persona-burnishing role as work-shy comedy writer on the classic sitcom 30 Rock, Friedlander was 25 years deep into his comedy career when he recorded his first concert film, America Is the Greatest Country in the United States, for Netflix. Shot from low angles in striking black and white, the self-directed debut effort bears a closer resemblance to an early Jim Jarmusch movie than the traditionally overproduced aesthetic of most standup specials. Agitating for political resistance one wry one-liner at a time, Friedlander's latest batch of material wades boldly into the tempestuous waters of cultural satire with a show that might win your vote as well as your chuckles.

In advance of his visit here, Westword caught up with Friedlander to discuss the ethos and aesthetic behind his debut special.

Westword: I watched your most recent special, and I didn't realize until I was reading about it later that it's the first one you've done in a very long career. Why did you decide to finally put an hour on tape after over 25 years in the business?

Judah Friedlander:
Well, I think there's a lot of reasons. I'll start with the business reasons and then I'll do the personal reasons.

Sounds good.

I've turned down many specials over the years. I don't like how most of them are made. They're generic, and usually poorly made. I'll leave it at that.

If you watch a lot of live standup, specials can definitely seem stilted and awkward. You notice each cut.

It's awkward, but it's also fake. I don't know what the fuck it is, but I don't like it. So that's the first reason I hadn't done one: I don't like how they make them. And two, the legal contracts I'd been offered were always terrible, not artist-friendly at all. Especially when it came to giving you the rights to your own material. Meaning not only do they own that specific filmed performance, they own everything you wrote. And I don't think that's fair to the artist, so I turned them down.

That's ridiculous. What if you need to do those jokes again?

Just the morality of it is wrong. So that's why I'd always turned them down. And personally, there's something about working on a project that separates you from doing what you do as a standup. So I mostly focused on doing standup and not doing projects. I'm basically a live performer. I'm not doing this to try and springboard an acting career. But after years of turning people down, I made the decision that I wanted to put some of my stuff out, and I had to figure out how to do that without losing some part of myself. So that took a while. I probably spent a year filming my sets in all sorts of different ways until I found a way to do a recording with visuals I liked. It was just trial and error for a long time. After tinkering around with sound and everything for a while, I figured out a method that would work for me. And that's when I started filming shows for that movie you saw. And I call it a movie, too; I don't call it a special. It's a standup performance film. And I made it 100 percent independently. And then I licensed it to Netflix. But they wouldn't air it unless the title card at the beginning said "an original Netflix comedy special."


Yeah, my initial cut said "a film by Judah Friedlander," and they would not let me say that. But I just wanted people to see it, so I said "Fuck it, put it out there." It's not a big deal; they allowed me to put a "written and directed by" credit at the end of the film, but not at the beginning. Because it doesn't fit with their branding or whatever.

So it undermines the "film" classification a bit?

You can call it whatever you want; I don't really know what a "special" means. Especially now. It seems like anything that gets released online or on television is a "special," whether it's fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, ninety minutes, whatever. I don't know what you call anything now. To me, they've always been standup performance films. Another reason for the delay was my psychological issues with perfectionism, where I'd be like, "That was great, but I forgot this one five-second joke, so we probably shouldn't use the whole hour...." That kind of stuff, you know? So there were also psychological reasons for not doing it.

I wanted to ask about the look of "performance film," because it really replicates the feeling of being in the audience at the Comedy Cellar, or one of the other places you shot. It's all low, seat-level angles, people walk through the frame, it's all shot in a Jim Jarmusch-like black and white with no audience reaction shots....

Yeah, in general, I hate audience reaction shots. I hate those big sweeping cranes across the venue; I mean, I don't know whose perspective that's supposed to be from.


It's just like, PR for the venue, or PR for your production budget. You can afford a camera crane. Look how many people are here! So for me to feel like myself, I had to do, like, an anti-comedy special. To me, standup comedy is a small-scale art form, almost like jazz. It's not meant for arenas and stadiums; it's intimate and simple. Every other art form has become so high-tech that standup is almost archaic. All you need are lights, a microphone and speakers. It's so low-tech, sometimes I'm shocked it still even exists. So I think it should be filmed in a low-tech, intimate way, and not a giant corporate way, like how most of them are done. So that's what I did.

I noticed that you edited the highlights of several performances together; what are the advantages of that approach?

A huge part of it was just wanting to get this stuff out sooner rather than later. I didn't want to make this big show; I just wanted to give people a sense of one of my regular performances during this period of time. I didn't want to make a big production out of it. When I tour, I generally do seventy to ninety minutes.

That's pretty long for standup.

Depending on the venue, some places have a sixty-minute time limit. But generally, it's just me and maybe one opener, so I do a longer set. Anyway, I'm digressing here. What was the question?

Eh, you basically answered it. Another thing I noticed that sets you apart is that you do a lot of crowd work, which is another thing you don't see in most "specials."

Well, I think most comics don't do crowd work. I think crowd work has gotten a bad rap over the years. People think it's hack and easy to just make fun of someone. But it can be a whole hell of a lot more than that. My act has always been experience-joke heavy, persona-heavy and crowd-work heavy. And over the past eight or nine years, my act has also gotten thematically heavier. So I wanted to combine all of those, and to satirize American exceptionalism and our response to human-rights crises around the world. And I wanted to do that with my persona, with one-liners and crowd work. On a superficial level, you may think I'm making fun of someone in the audience, but I'm really making fun of myself or the bigger picture of American culture.

It's more like a conversation than a roast.

It's almost like a dialogue, but totally improvised.

Is it a lost art?

I don't think so. There are comics who are great at crowd work, but the majority of comics don't do it. But I don't want to speak for other people.

Would you say that your "World Champion" persona exemplifies American exceptionalism?

My persona has changed so much over the years, and for these projects we're specifically talking about, it's much more layered. It started as a satire of show-off braggarts and morphed into a more national perspective. We've anointed ourselves as the moral, financial and military power of the world. So while the "World Champion" is a great athletic title, if you break it down, it means you're the champion of every living organism in every country on earth. So it's like a superhero with real-world responsibilities that's also undercutting the whole idea of being "number one."

How do these ideas come into play in your current tour?

It's different. I'm wearing different clothes now: darker and grimmer. Thematically, a lot of the stuff I'm doing now is similar; I'm discussing all the human-rights issues of the day and questioning how our country can feel so good about themselves in light of what's going on. But it's also jokes! The satire might be heavier this time, but you'd have to have someone else tell you about it. I don't really know. The show I'm running now is like a mock town hall; I invite a little bit of chaos.

Is the mock-presidential platform a vehicle for jokes, or would you actually consider running for higher office?

Sometimes I actually consider doing it, because then I could do satire on an even higher level. But ultimately, I wouldn't want to be a part of such a corrupt system. For humor and for justice, I think you could get more done by not winning than you could by winning. Outsiders can make stronger points than insiders.

Do you have any plans to turn this current material into a film of its own?

Yeah, but this time I might do it differently. This time, I might just do it all in one night and one show instead of cutting them together. But right now, I'm filming all my sets — not with a crew or anything — but to keep track of the things I can never do again on another show. Maybe I'll release some of those bits on YouTube or something. I'm not very tech-savvy, but there are so many things I've only done on the one night, and I want people to be able to view it as a living, changing thing. I like giving a show that only exists in that exact form for one night.

Do you have any other projects coming up on the horizon or anything else you wanted to mention before we wrap up the interview?

Well, this year, I want to put out a standup movie with this material, but also do another special or album that's just crowd work. I'm touring sporadically right now, but soon I'll be doing a big tour that goes through other countries as well; I'll be going to Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe and Asia later this year. And also, my opener will be Minori Hinds, so if you want to mention her, too, that'd be great.

Showtime is 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 6, at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins and 8 p.m Friday, March 8, at the Oriental Theater. Visit the Oriental Theater box-office page to buy tickets, $25, and learn more.