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Chatting About America With Comedian Judah Friedlander, Who Plays the 40 Watt Apr. 10

Comedian Judah Friedlander (“30 Rock,” Wet Hot American Summer) is coming to the 40 Watt Club Tuesday, Apr. 10 to promote his fictitious run for president that began in his new Netflix comedy specialAmerica Is the Greatest Country in the United States. We hopped on the phone with Friedlander to discuss his special, comedy in the Trump era and what it means to be a real American.

Friedlander on the black-and-white, lo-fi presentation of his new special:

I don’t like the way most stand-up specials are filmed. They’re often very fake. They professionally gather an audience, they rent out some fancy theater, they redo all the lighting in the place. I view comedy as a simple art form. There’s lights, there’s a microphone, and there’s speakers—that’s all the technology that’s involved. Because it’s so simple, I think it should be filmed in a simple way. 

I wanted something that was real, something that captured what it was like to walk into a little room and see someone do a show in an intimate setting. I had in mind a few different things making this. Old, legendary stand-up videos from the 1960s where it’s just so raw—I wanted to make something like that. Also, videos of old punk rock performances from the ’70s and ’80s, stuff like that. Get the camera in there as close as possible and let the viewer really take in the comic.

Friedlander on the heavy amount of crowd work and improvisation he incorporates into his sets:

For a lot of comics, their act is completely pre-written, or they pre-write it and tweak it later. I do a lot of my writing offstage and onstage. For example, some of the bits where I’m doing crowd work, I may have had a joke or two written beforehand on particular subject. Then, some of them, like my health-care bit, I had no jokes prepared. So, one night I go on stage and ask the crowd if they have any questions about my presidential platform. Someone yells out “health care,” and I make up a joke right then and there. Then, if someone yells out “health care” the next week, I’ll tell that joke again, but I’ll add on to it and so on and so forth. Eventually, over a period over time, what started out as a bit with one improvised joke about health care turns into a full five-minute segment. It’s a pretty organic process.

I do more crowd work than most comics, but everyone’s different—there’s no right or wrong way. All of my material in my new special is thematic, as well. When I was piecing it together, I knew it was gonna be a satire on the United States and how it deals with all the big human rights issues of the day. That’s basically the angle of what I’m discussing. So, instead of doing a monologue, I do more of a dialogue, where I sort of run a mock town hall about my hypothetical run for president. I make it very interactive. I ask the crowd to ask me questions about their concerns for the country and I give them my solutions.

Friedlander on his “World Champion” persona and how he has adapted that character into a parody of American exceptionalism:

My act has always been very joke- and crowd-work-heavy, and for the past several years it’s been very persona-heavy. That persona changes over time, expanding and growing like everything else in my act. The world champion character started out as just sort of a braggadocious figure, making fun of narcissism and showing off. Then it sort of morphed into something else, incorporating elements of thinking I’m a real-life superhero.

When it comes to American exceptionalism, other countries have their own versions of this, but not quite to the extent that we do. When you travel around the world, you start to learn more about your own country. When you’re home, it’s kind of hard to see some of the issues that are going on, and when you step back or step outside, you kind of get a better view of the whole picture.

I think of it in terms of a sports analogy. It’s great to be confident, but I don’t think it’s good to be cocky. I think the way the media often portrays our country comes off as cocky. Be proud of your country—that’s great—but the second you think your shit doesn’t stink, that leads to problems. I think that’s something that’s pervasive throughout American society across party lines.

Friedlander on if his recent material is specifically targeting the Trump Administration:

Oh, it definitely is a criticism of Trump. It’s also a criticism of the previous administration. I don’t do anything preachy or tell anyone who to vote for. If you read between the lines, I tell you what I think, but I don’t tell people how to think. Me personally? I am way to the left of the Democratic Party. I don’t view them as a left-wing party. They are to the left of the Republican party, sure, but they’re still not a left-wing party. That’s how I see it. So, that’s why, even in my special, I have a few things where I dig in at Trump, but usually, I’m not mentioning any president by name—I’m just discussing the issues.

There’s one bit where I talk about how America is No. 1 in a lot of categories, like gun violence, and before that I display the date, which was in 2016, on the screen. I did that to show that I’m not talking about Trump in that bit—that was during the Obama situation. We are taught to look at things in such a black-and-white way, and that can prevent you from seeing the problems that you really have.

We have a huge, fascinating country with an ugly history. One thing you have to say about our country – there might be some awful, evil shit going on at times, but god damn it, we’re entertaining. We are not a boring country. There’s something always going on.