Interviews with comedians can be dicey. While some might be funny on stage, off stage, they can be self-aggrandizing — or worse, boring. Judah Friedlander was neither of those things when SF Weekly caught up with him on the phone as he shuttled between gigs in New York City.
“I’m heading into the subway, so we might have to continue this later,” he says, as the echo of the underground tunnel bounces through the receiver. Sure enough, as the background became increasingly fuzzy, a few bells indicated the arrival of a train, and he was gone.
When he called back later that night, Friedlander was speaking over the chatter and clink of what sounded like a New York restaurant. He launched into a discussion of the widening rift within the American Left — which is what you might expect if you caught his Netflix project, America is the Greatest Country in the United States, released last fall.
The special is about 120 minutes long, filled with crowd work, and comprised mostly of deadpan one-liners. Friedlander spends a good deal of his time on stage as the “The World Champion,” a persona he uses to satirize narcissism and the “America First” mindset. But his indictment of present-day culture and politics is constructed with care and subliminal intellect. It’s a good special, and it’s even up for a Webby.
“It’s basically a satirization of American exceptionalism and U.S. domestic and foreign policy, which includes human rights issues and how America deals with them,” Friedlander says.
In some ways, his style is akin to the late Mitch Hedberg, and his act is an unmistakable homage to comedian Steven Wright, whom Friedlander has cited as a major influence in his work. In his current tour, aptly named New Stuff and Crowd Work, he’ll be covering many of the same issues he did in the special when he stops at the Independent on Monday, April 23, but in the form of (mostly) all-new material.
Friedlander prides himself on making people work a little for his jokes.
“My goal is to make people laugh, but I try to do it in the smartest way possible,” he says. “I also like finding comedy out of serious and dark areas where you normally don’t think it would be. I never go for the easy laugh and I don’t like preaching to the choir. I do like audiences that are listening, that are smart, and that are open-minded, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.”
If you were only familiar with his work as the oafish Frank Rossitano on 30 Rock, Friedlander’s intellectual musings would be reminiscent of the scene in Wayne’s World where psycho-rocker Alice Cooper turns out to be a well-spoken scholar of American history.
In fact, The New York Times Book Review compared his 2015 book of cartoons, If The Raindrops United, to Gary Larson’s The Far Side. Pretty high accolades for a guy who most people might know as “the dude on 30 Rock with the witty hats” (which, by the way, he makes himself).
“I used to draw cartoons as a kid, and about five years ago I started drawing a lot again to combat anxiety,” Friedlander says. “I wasn’t planning on writing a book, and then, after six months I noticed I had like 60 cartoons.”
The drawings reflect his far-left stance on human rights, gentrification, and corporate greed, themes also apparent in his stand up. But while his act’s message may be concealed under a few layers of satire, off stage, Friedlander is up front about his politics.
“I don’t consider the Democratic Party a left-wing party,” he says. “Compared to the Republican Party, they pretty much are. But in general, they’re not a left-wing party. They’re a right-wing party. And I don’t want to discuss this in a way where this looks like this is part of my act. It’s not. If issues like universal healthcare are not on your platform, and you’re generally a pro-war, pro-corporate, and pro-Wall Street party, you can’t call yourself a left-wing party.”
And although this mindset will be well-received by some San Franciscans, he does have a position which may prove incendiary to any resident fond of the Mission Burrito.
“I’m all for integration, I’m for diversity, I’m for inclusion,” he says. “However, I do not like rice inside the burrito. I lived in San Diego as a kid for a little while, and back then, they didn’t do that. … Rice and beans were served on the side, not in the burrito. And if you look at it from a nutritional perspective, rice is a carb, a tortilla is a carb. There’s no point in putting a carb inside a carb. And I feel very strongly about this. Rice, get the fuck out of the burrito.”
Fighting words? You’ll have to let him know if you see him.
Judah Friedlander, Monday, April 23, 8 p.m., at The Independent, 628 Divisadero St. $25; theindependentsf.com