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Q&A With 30 Rock's Judah Friedlander

Judah Friedlander shows viewers the funny in plenty of different venues, including the laugh-inducing NBC sitcom 30 Rock and movies such as the upcoming Eddie Murphy vehicle Meet Dave, not to mention stand-up gigs like his impending four-night run at the Denver Improv (get details here). He ties all of these disparate strands together in the following Q&A.

At the start of the chat, Friedlander talks about his first comic icons and the moment when he discovered that being a comedian was a job to which he could aspire; early experiments in film, highlighted by a flick entitled Aaron Acne and His Uncomfortably Colossal Zit; his first ventures into the world of open mics; his transition into acting, and his frustration when he devotes himself to a project that doesn’t find an audience; a preview of Meet Dave, plus info about two other cinematic projects – one a splatter comedy, the other a heavy drama by Darren Aronofsky, director of flicks like Requiem For a Dream; his admission that 30 Rock may be too smart for its own good; and the distinctions between his character on the Tina Fey-created program and his on-stage persona.

Hint: The latter knows some words that the former can’t say on television.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Where did you grow up?

Judah Friedlander: Maryland.

WW: Who were your early comedy heroes?

JF: When I was a little kid, I’d have to say Little Rascals, Abbott and Costello – stuff like that. And when I got older, when I was in high school, it was like Steven Wright, Sam Kinison, Dice. You know, high school stuff.

WW: Was there a moment of discovery when you realized, “Hey, I’m pretty funny”?

JF: Well, there was a moment of discovery when I realized I wanted to do comedy. There wasn’t any Comedy Central when I was a kid. So being a comedian – it never really occurred to me that you could do that. The only people you’d see on TV would be like Rodney Dangerfield or Steve Martin or Johnny Carson. And it never really occurred to me that, yeah, you could actually do this. But there was a show called Comedy Tonight. It was syndicated, and it would come on at, like, 2:30 in the morning, or 12:30 in the morning. And it was when I was a junior in high school that our family finally got a VCR. I wasn’t allowed to stay up late like that, but I’d program the VCR to tape this show, which at the time featured unknown comedians, and they would talk about comedy clubs and go to different cities. And I was like, “All right. This is what I want to do.” But when I was a kid, I was always into art and making my own comic strips and stuff like that. I used to make short films, comedy films, short animated films. So I was always into comedy, but it was when I was in high school that I realized you could actually do standup. And I thought, this is what I want to do.

WW: What were some of those early movies about?

JF: One was called Multi-Man, which was, like, this Claymation movie I did about this guy who could turn into any form. He was sort of a Claymation superhero. And I made Aaron Acne and His Uncomfortably Colossal Zit. I starred in that as a guy who gets a massive date right before a date comes over, and things get really, really gross.

WW: Can you share the conclusion?

JF: There’s a happy ending.

WW: So it doesn’t end with an explosion that kills everyone?

JF: No, it’s actually an uplifting, happy ending.

WW: You mentioned the part Comedy Tonight played in you realizing that standup comic was an actual job – but at what point did you actually venture onto the stage?

JF: I was nineteen when I started.

WW: Do you remember that first gig?

JF: Yeah. It was an open mic at a comedy club in Washington, D.C., and I was nineteen. I’d been wanting to do it for a couple of years, and I finally was like, “All right. I’ve got to do this.” They had an open mic and the first show actually went pretty well. I didn’t do it again until six months later because I didn’t realize you were supposed to go out every night. I thought you’d go out a couple of times a year and that’s how you did comedy. And then the second time I went up, it actually went really well. I was hooked right away.

WW: It’s interesting that you say the second one went well. I recently interviewed Brendon Smalls, the creator of the Metalocalypse show on Adult Swim…

JF: Sure, I know Brendon.

WW: He said that for him, the first standup show went great, because when the emcee introduced him, he said it was his first time, and the audience was rooting for him because they didn’t want to feel awkward – but afterward, things could get rocky, and he wouldn’t know from one show to the next whether it was going to go really well or really terribly…

JF: It takes years to become a solid comic and to have consistently really good shows. But my first shows were pretty good.

WW: How long did it take for you to develop an onstage character?

JF: It’s always changing. It’s always evolving, and still is. I don’t like to ever think, “Yeah, I’ve found the secret to comedy and I’m just going to repeat it over and over again.” You’re always growing with it, and changing. I think at five years, you can become a decent comic. I think at eight years, you can actually become a good comic, very good. And at ten years, you can always be solid. I’ve been doing comedy for about nineteen years now, and the world-champion stuff that I’ve been doing, which is a comedic angle and persona of mine, I’ve probably been doing that for seven years or so. But that keeps changing, too.

WW: How does that evolution take place?

JF: It’s something that’s so gradual. It’s not like you wake up and think, “Oh, this is what I’m going to do now.” It’s something that happens over a long period of time. I do more writing onstage than offstage. I interact with the audience a lot and I come up with a lot of material that way, and some of my persona has come out of that, too.

WW: So if something impromptu works onstage, you make a mental note – tell yourself, “This is worth bringing back”?

JF: Yeah. I talk with the audience a lot, so I come up with a lot of material in the midst of my act.

WW: Was acting part of the plan from the beginning? Or did it just happen?

JF: No, that’s something that additionally happened. I was actually into filmmaking before I was ever into acting. Acting is something that happened after standup comedy.

WW: What was the moment when you suddenly found yourself in front of the camera instead of behind it, like you thought you’d be?

JF: I think it was standup comedy, actually. I actually went to film school…

WW: Which one?

JF: I went to NYU. I still love movies and I will get to making movies one of these days. I’m currently working on something – it’s a long process, kind of going in bits and pieces – but it’s a standup concert film. Anyhow, I remember being in film school and doing the films, and then I started doing standup comedy. And as soon as I started doing standup, it was like, “This fits me so much better than filmmaking.” Filmmaking is a long, drawn-out process, and standup comedy is immediate. It’s you and the audience, right there, right now.

WW: So you don’t have to develop a project for five years before you can earn that satisfaction?

JF: Yeah. You don’t have to figure out how to get fifteen people together in the same place so you can actually make something. You don’t have to figure out, “Well, we need to rent this equipment and rent these lights and rent these microphones.” You just show up and you talk. That’s it. That’s standup comedy. It’s very low budget. And with a movie, when you make a movie, it takes you a month to film it, it’ll take you five months to edit it. So now it’s six months later, and you screen it to an audience, and that’s when you know it’s actually funny. When you do standup comedy, you know that second if something’s actually funny or not.

WW: And you’re leaving out the part where you take two years to line up the financing…

JF: Yeah, I’m giving you the short version. And I also like the live audience. The audience is part of standup comedy. It’s a party and it’s a dialogue. It’s not a monologue. It’s a dialogue with you and the audience. There’s no standup comedy without an audience. You can’t do standup comedy in a sound booth. You have to do it with an audience.

WW: You’ve acted in a wide variety of movie roles over the years, but a lot of the films are fairly obscure. The title of one of them – The Unseen – is emblematic of quite a few of them. Is it frustrating to put a lot of work into a project and it doesn’t reach as large an audience as you had hoped?

JF: Definitely. You want stuff to be seen, because ultimately you’re wanting to entertain people – and I’m an entertainer. That’s what I do. And then when you do a film, you’re just acting and you don’t have any control over it. And when it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s frustrating in that sense, because you wanted people to see it.

WW: According to your IMDB page, you’ve got several movies coming out. Tell me about Meet Dave, with Eddie Murphy.

JF: That’s coming out in July, and basically it’s a sci-fi family comedy. Eddie Murphy’s an alien and he’s about one-inch tall and his spaceship looks exactly like him – it looks just like Eddie Murphy. So when he comes to earth, he’s in his spaceship and everyone thinks he’s a human, but he’s actually a spaceship that looks like a human, and inside it, he’s one-inch tall. And I play a one-inch tall guy who’s the engineer of the spaceship. I play a very nerdy guy. Very different from my standup persona. I play a very nerdy, quiet and reserved and awkward guy. A very smart guy, but socially a very awkward guy.

WW: How many of your scenes were with people and how many of them were with a big green screen.

JF: Many of my scenes were done directly to camera. You know in Star Trek, where Captain Kirk would be at his headquarters there, and Scotty or someone else would pop up on the screen and talk to him? A lot of my stuff is like that. I’m popping up on one of his monitors, talking to him.

WW: Is it difficult to do that?

JF: Yes, it is difficult, and it’s something unique to filmmaking. But that’s a skill you just kind of learn. You have to pretend and play it like it’s right there.

WW: Another couple of your upcoming projects seem like they could hardly be more different: Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever and The Wrestler, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Could you tell me about those two projects?

JF: I had great fun on both of them. The director of Cabin Fever 2 [Ti West] I actually know. He’s a fan of my standup and movies I’ve done, like American Splendor and other films. Actually, there was a film called The Janitor that he’s a fan of, too – a little horror movie I did. Cabin Fever 2 is actually a horror movie, but it’s also a comedy. I don’t know what’s happening with it, but it was a lot of fun to film and I think it’s going to be a crazy movie, very gory, and I think it’s going to be very funny. It’s completely insane. And The Wrestler is a straight-up, serious, very heavy drama. It’s about a guy, Mickey Rourke, who was a huge wrestler in the ‘80s – he was like Hulk Hogan. And now he’s still wrestling, but his career’s completely over the hill. Where he used to wrestle for 20,000 people, now he wrestles for about twenty people, and gets paid about fifty bucks. He’s wrestling in high school gyms and elementary school gyms on the weekends. He’s got a lot of drug problems, personal problems. And I play a small-time independent wrestling promoter who books him at these shows in front of twenty people. It all takes place in the New Jersey area.

WW: That sounds like a nice departure for you.

JF: Oh, I had such a great time making that movie. I changed my look for it. The character was completely different from other things you’ve seen me in. It was terrific.

WW: We’ve been talking about some of the movies you’ve made that a lot of people haven’t seen, and strangely enough, 30 Rock kind of fits into that category, too, because even though it’s been so critically acclaimed, the ratings aren’t as high as they deserve to be.

JF: Yeah. We’re not like a top-rated show.

WW: Do you have a guess about why? Is there the possibility that it’s simply too smart for a mass audience?

JF: There’s some of that. So much of TV has been dumbed down now. I think our show actually might appear smarter, especially if you’re grading on a curve. You know what I mean? I think ten or fifteen years ago, in general, shows were much smarter than they are today. Now our show really sticks out as a smart show. I’m not saying it’s not a smart show, but it really sticks out when the other shows on the air are Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? and So You Think You Can Dance and Survivor. With all these reality shows now, you don’t really have to pay attention when you watch them. You can be on the computer, you can be texting your friends, and you won’t miss a thing on the show. Our show? If you look away for two seconds, you’ll lose your place in the show. There’s so many jokes, and they come very fast. You can’t be on the computer, you can’t be on the phone when you’re watching our show. It takes all your attention. And I think many people today, throughout the day, they’re not focusing on things. They’re always multitasking. And our show, you’ve got to pay attention. You’ve got to turn your phone off, turn the computer off, and you’ve got to watch the show.

WW: You guys also make the assumption that the people who are watching are smart – smart enough to realize when you’re doing an Amadeus parody twenty years after anyone’s thought of that movie…

JF: Yeah, our show is not a dumbed down show. I think certainly in some episodes, there are in-jokes that some people are going to get and other people aren’t going to get. But I think there’s also enough funny things on there that you’re going to laugh at whether you get the reference or not.

WW: Do you sense that the show’s turned a corner?

JF: Every season’s different. We’re off production right now, and I won’t know how it’s going to do until it starts airing. I really don’t.

WW: But is it important that you finally break through ratings-wise this season?

JF: I would hope so. I would think so and I hope it does, but I just don’t know enough about the behind-the-scenes stuff there what ratings we need to hit.

WW: Because of 30 Rock, are you seeing people coming to your standup gigs who have the expectation that you’re exactly like your character on the show?

JF: There’s some of that, but I think the 30 Rock fans are also really smart, and they’re comedy fans. So that’s great. Anytime you have a smart audience and a comedy audience coming in, it’s terrific. The 30 Rock fans who come to the show, they’re great audience members.

WW: Is it fun for you to defy their expectations a little bit?

JF: Yeah. My standup show is different. There are some similarities, but it is different from what you’ll see on 30 Rock. It’s a little more twisted and a little dirtier than the stuff on 30 Rock.