I was sitting in the Olive Tree Cafe, upstairs from the Comedy Cellar, flipping through Judah Friedlander’s new book. Largely single-panel cartoons, the book’s drawings run the gamut between The Far Side and The New Yorker, offering plenty of belly laughs and a few head scratchers. My favorites include one captioned, “Then one night, the dishes did Jeffrey,” a dark mass-jumper routine about a “building’s semi-annual suicide race,” and a sketch of where to meet women in Manhattan: yoga studios and $50 cupcake shops.
I was told that Judah (everyone’s on a first name basis with him here) hadn’t been in yet, and he was impossible to miss when he strolled up to the cafe. Most people who don’t follow his standup know him as Frank Rossitano from 30 Rock, if not for his many film appearances, but for some reason Friedlander is also one of those guys that I keep running into—at the Mermaid Parade, on the streets of Williamsburg, at Spin’s 6th anniversary fundraiser show (Judah’s a serious ping pong enthusiast), which is how I learned Friedlander had a book coming out. In person, Friedlander is friendly and intelligent, amiable and a little wry. We talked about the book, standup, and bagels.
So let’s start at the surface. The hats, the “World Champ” T-shirt. Is it like David Byrne said in the liner notes for Stop Making Sense, “People will remember you better if you always wear the same outfit?”
All the things I wear onstage, the World Champion shirt, the hats that I wear onstage that always say “World Champion” in a certain language, all of them have jokes and stories behind them. Which is all part of the ongoing “World Champion” persona. And I say ongoing because it’s constantly changing. It used to be more just talking about athletic superiority and martial arts superiority, sexual superiority, and initially the character was sort of a braggart, but then evolved into more of a real life superhero who’s saying these amazing things which seem like bragging to the mortal human, but they’re actually just humble statements that are just fucking amazing.
Currently I’m not talking about my martial arts career in my standup act, I’m talking about real-world life issues, but it still falls under the World Champion persona, because the World Champion has sort of morphed into becoming a person who stands up for the rights of the world and the people of the world. And some of my book deals with that a little.
When I saw you speak at the Brooklyn Book Festival, you said you always drew as a kid.
A couple years ago I really just started drawing again. It started when I was touring so much. There’s a lot of—as a way to combat anxiety, to take a break from always working on two things, the business side of comedy, which people don’t talk about much. Dealing with bookers, dealing with agents, dealing with hotels, dealing with travel plans. All those things which take up a lot of time, but don’t have really anything to do with comedy. They’re just day-to-day busy work that you have. And that stuff can often take all day to do.
I have a lot of mental problems. I wish I didn’t, but I do. My anxiety was very bad. And the drawing really helped ease and relax me. It was a mix of that and trying to find more creative ways to promote my shows. [brings up a drawing on his phone on Instagram] When I had a show in England, so this was a year and a couple months ago, “An American World Champion in London”—a spoof of “American Werewolf in London.” It says, “‘Stay off the moors’ and instead come to the Soho Theatre.” …I think advertising can be an art form, but so often it’s just simple. Face, name, date, go.
On some level I’m always thinking about my standup act. It’s usually not like, Ok, I’m gonna sit down and write jokes, but it’s always in the back of your mind, thinking about jokes and your act and stuff. For me I’m not usually actively thinking about it, it’s just something that’s always there. The drawing… there’s something about it. Just the way the pen feels on paper, it just feels good, it’s just relaxing to me. I was even drawing a lot on my phone with the stylus pen.
I got this phone about a year and a half ago, a lot of drawings in the book were done on the phone.
You can be quite protean as an actor—you’re unrecognizable in American Splendor (about the great Harvey Pekar, playing his friend Toby Radloff).
I had two auditions that just came in today, and I haven’t had any in a long time, so I’m thinking about that…. And I said to them, if this is something I wind up getting and do, I’m gonna have to completely change the way I look for this character. And I said, “But, I’m still doing my own projects, I’m working on my own standup concert slash documentary film, so I still gotta be able to look like me at night, like I normally do. There’s things I can do—I can do no hat, no glasses, I can change up the hair, slick it back, tie it up, whatever. But I said I can’t look like what I’m doing—the way I normally look.
When 30 Rock came around, because I was still doing lots of standup, I told them, for this show, I would have to look like I normally do. Because I love changing my look. I did it for The Wrestler, American Splendor, and lots of other movies, movies that weren’t big. I changed it up. But for that one, you know, you sign a six-year contract when you do a sit com.
The book feels like an extension of your standup, especially when it gets into social/political commentary.
Yeah, I try to not do it in any preachy kind of way. My favorite audiences to perform for are diverse audiences. I like my comedy to be for everyone, not just people who agree with a certain ideology that I have.
And then gentrification is a theme that’s a little big in the book. Just in certain pockets. And not just gentrification but classicism. Class is really—it’s something I’ve always noticed ever since I moved to New York almost 30 years ago. But a year and a half ago I moved back to Manhattan. I’d been living way out in Queens, and different non-gentrified neighborhoods, and when I came back—I hadn’t lived in Manhattan in about 10 years and I hadn’t lived in the East Village in about 20 years, and I just started really seeing it much more.
The classicism is, you always see it in New York, but I think it’s more evident than ever. And it’s changed. New York, or Manhattan really, I think is a city that masquerades in diversity, because it’s really one of the least diverse cities that I’ve been to in a sense. It’s odd because most places, wealthy people are the dominant class in the city, but in Manhattan, wealthy people are the predominant class. It’s rare to have a city where most of the people are really rich, it’s odd. Just like anyone with a blue collar job, service job, don’t live in Manhattan. I know doctors who can’t afford to live in Manhattan. They live in Jersey and they work in Manhattan. That’s crazy. And I don’t think that’s a healthy dynamic when the ultra-wealthy are the only ones who live in the city.
You told Gothamist in 2011 that you were working on your own stand-up concert documentary movie. You know that’s four years ago?
And yet for some reason or various reasons I never seem to get it done. And most of those reasons are my own mental issues and hangups. There are other things like, being busy—doing 30 Rock for seven years, that took a lot of fucking time. I had to cut way back on a lot of standup projects. And then this book just started naturally forming, and I wasn’t going to suppress that. …I’m hoping to shoot it by the end of this year. Right now it’s not looking likely but I’m still hoping to. Especially now that I’m doing more human rights and political issues, some of those are more timely than some other jokes, you want to get them out sooner as opposed to later.