Stand-up standout Judah Friedlander is a man of many hats -- and laughs
By Stephanie Merry
Sunday, December 2, 2012
Judah Friedlander is not the slacker he appears to be. The ostentatiously unkempt Gaithersburg native, best known as Frank Rossitano on NBC’s acclaimed, nearly done sitcom “30 Rock,” is also author of the satirical karate manual “How to Beat Up Anybody”; a film actor known for his roles in cult favorite “Wet Hot American Summer” and critically lauded “The Wrestler,” and a stand-up comedian who routinely performs up to four shows a night. On Dec. 8 he brings his act to Washington.
The number of hats he wears professionally may be rivaled only by the number he wears literally -- and makes himself. The colorful specimens of hand-labeled headgear have become his idiosyncratic calling card, not to mention Easter eggs for “30 Rock” fans.
“I always thought it was dumb that there are so many hats out there with stuff already on them,” he says in his lumbering cadence. “Why not put your own stuff on them?”
So he does, plodding around in a green trucker hat that reads “E.S.P. Tutor” or the yellow accessory emblazoned with “Extra Cheese.” Or, perhaps his most notable, the one he claims to be wearing when calling this week from his home in Queens: a hat that simply says “World Champion.”
That’s the name of Friedlander’s greatest creation, his bombastically self-assured alter-ego who headlines his stand-up routines (and occasionally butts into interviews). He’s a man who claims to hold an extra-dark black belt in karate and demonstrates how to take down Bigfoot. He asserts that he gave up water skiing because he couldn’t find a boat fast enough to keep up with him and that he plans to run for president on a platform that includes moving Hawaii to Lake Michigan.
His grandiose declarations seem all the more delusional given Friedlander’s vagrant-chic style and mellow delivery. Massive glasses obscure his perpetually heavy lids, stringy brown curls cascade from his oversize trucker hat toward his drooping shoulders, and mutton chops often adorn his cheeks. For a purported athletic powerhouse, his 43-year-old physique is not exactly Olympic-ready.
The hours he hasn’t spent at the gym have been devoted to working on his World Champion shtick, which has won him fans, gigs and the designation of “one of the all-time great weirdos,” according to “30 Rock” creator and co-star Tina Fey. Saturday, he’ll do a show at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue for “Chanu-Comedy: A Festival of Laughs” (which, despite its name, will have nothing to do with Hanukkah).
The onstage persona didn’t come to him at a single aha moment. The character emerged slowly during the years since Friedlander’s first open mike at the D.C. comedy club Garvin’s in 1989, as he attempted to distinguish himself from fellow comedians.
“This is going back 15 or more years ago, when almost every comedian out there was trying to bond with the audience. Comics would be like, ‘Do you ever notice . . . ?’ or ‘Don’t you hate this . . . ?’ ” he said. “I decided to take the opposite approach of just being unable to relate to the audience on anything. I’m just so far superior to them.”
But being better than audience members doesn’t mean ignoring them. On the contrary, Friedlander likes the risk of working the room, letting observers dictate his ever-changing show. In fact, the idea for the World Champion was a deliberate move to connect with the spectators.
“I thought it would be funny to make a hat that said ‘World Champion’ but not of what,” he said. “That in itself was funny, but it was also engaging with the audience. . . . It would draw them into me and get them to ask questions.”
Some characters tend to be one-note gimmicks -- “like I’m going to be suspenders guy; I’m going to tell a joke, and after each joke I’m going to stretch those suspenders and shake my hips,” Friedlander says by way of comparison -- but the World Champion act isn’t a recurring joke so much as an ever-evolving persona.
“Initially, it was all sports-related stuff, completely absurd, ridiculous things,” he said. “For a while, it was one-upping -- or multiple-upping, I would call it -- on people, and then it became more martial arts. . . . And this past year or so, I’ve been doing a lot of political stuff about how the World Champion would run the country.”
His assertions may sound over the top, but Friedlander believes that his character is based on some kernel of truth about society.
“What I’m also doing is trying to satirize the culture we live in on how everything is about self-promotion,” he said. “I’m making fun of that in my act. It seems like everyone has a Twitter and a Facebook, and everyone’s like, ‘Look at me! Look what I’m doing!’ ”
Friedlander hardly comes across as the spotlight seeker. As his most high-profile gig -- working on “30 Rock” -- comes to a close, he says he’ll miss the creative community but looks forward to having extra time for other projects.
“I like the future. I look forward to the future. It’s all cool,” he said. “I really look forward to have more time to focus on my stand-up, which is my favorite thing to do.”
He just seems to be a guy who loves his job, which may be why he takes such a low-key approach to the long days.
“Doing stand-up is probably the most relaxing thing I do,” he said. “It’s what I like doing the most, I think what I’m best at and what I’m most comfortable doing. Like if I’m exhausted or stressed out, I’ll be like, ‘I’m going to go out and do a couple shows.’ People are like, ‘What?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ because that’s actually relaxing. That feels good.”