“30 Rock” alum Judah Friedlander isn’t afraid to get political in his stand-up routine. The title of his new Netflix special, “America is the Greatest Country in the United States,” is proof.
The actor, 48, fresh off stints on the streaming service’s comedies “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Wet Hot American Summer,” is known for finding humor in “dark places,” as he puts it, such as fascism, climate change and various human rights issues that plague today’s society. In his black-and-white, low-budget Netflix show, he does just that.
Nearly the entire special, an hour and a half long, was taped in NYC, at the iconic Comedy Cellar on Macdougal Street where Friedlander frequently performs. The comedian got his stand-up start on the streets of the city in 1989, so it was only natural for him to return “home” for the show. (To clarify, Friedlander was born in Maryland, but is a New Yorker at heart).
“I remember when I first started out, one of the ways to make money was during prom season they’d have these boats that’d leave South Street Seaport at 2 a.m. and come back around 4 a.m.,” Friedlander recalls of a time before he was backed by hundreds of thousands of loyal social media followers. “I think the pay was $75. Most of the students didn’t even know I’d be performing. They’d be on these pretty crappy boats and all the sudden the DJ would stop the record and it’d be comedy time.”
The actor/comedian still performs at venues around the city often, only now, fans know exactly who he is. He’ll headline a show at the Comedy Cellar on Nov. 28 at 8 p.m.
Friedlander, who played writer Frank Rossitano on “30 Rock,” caught up with us to recall a bit about his early NYC days and clue us into the inspiration behind his Netflix special.
“America is the Greatest Country in the United States” is now streaming.
So, America is the greatest country in the United States? Why not the world?
Well, it’s a good question. That title’s actually one of the jokes from my act. One thing I’ve noticed is America, we’re a very confident country -- some might even say cocky. One piece of propaganda or message from both Republicans and Democrats that we’re always fed is that America’s the greatest country in the history of the world. Which I find interesting because we’re electing the leader of the free world, yet we’re the only country that gets to vote for the leader of the free world. It’s kinda weird. It’s basically a joke where I say we’re the greatest country in our own country.
It’s safe to say then you don’t shy away from getting political in your stand up.
Oh yeah. It’s pretty much all satire ... I don’t do stuff making fun of the candidates. I talk about all the big issues using really heavy satire. Racism, sexism, war, drones, incarceration health care, immigration, climate change and I do it in a very satirical way. Not a preachy kind of way, with lots of jokes.
Where else do you draw your comedic inspiration?
You know, I always try to find comedy in difficult places. I never go for the easy joke. I never go for the obvious joke. I always try, well where’s the darkest place let’s try to find comedy there. All these issues, the past seven or eight years I started talking about the big issues of the country and the world and when you talk about racism and sexism they’re such heavy, serious subjects and when you can twist things in a certain way it can almost make you subversively look at it from a distance. Through me being so absurd with my jokes you can maybe see the absurdity in why we have these problems that we do.
Unlike other Netflix comedy specials, you produced this one yourself. What went into that decision?
I actually spent about a year filming my sets. I decided stand-up has been my main thing I started in 1989 and even though I’ve done lots of acting, stand up has always been my thing. That’s my home base. I feel it’s what I do best. I felt I had to make this my way, so I self-produced it. I’ve made short films before, I’ve been in tons of film sets but stand-up comedy is a little tricky. As soon as you start introducing big camera crews and equipment, that changes the dynamic of the audience a little bit. So, I decided I’m going to film this more documentary style, a low-budget style. I wanted it to feel like you’re not at some big fancy show, you’re just walking into a dark little club and taking a seat and watching a show from 10 feet away.
In the editing process, I started realizing that I wanted black and white. Since I wanted this to be simple and raw, I decided to film it in a simple way. I felt back and white would help capture that simplicity.
How have you seen the comedy landscape in NYC change since your beginnings in 1989?
It’s changed a lot. First of all the economy was much worse then. New York City actually had real dive bars. You’d go to a bar and there’d either be no one in there or maybe there’s two old guys who’ve been sitting there for 40 years drinking nonstop. Now you go to New York, you can’t find a dive bar in Manhattan. Every bar is packed with people. There’s more audiences, that’s one. There’s also more comics. The comedy industry has grown so much the past 25-30 years. The other big issue is social media. There was no social media when I started you were just working on your act. Now there’s so much pressure to try to be successful that doesn’t include being good at comedy. You gotta be good on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. All these things to promote the comedy, but when do you have time to work on the comedy?