Any self-respecting 30 Rock fan knows who Judah Friedlander is. As Frank Rossitano, Friedlander stands as both the writing room’s biggest dork and its most successful lothario. It is important to note, though, that while Friedlander and Rossitano might look alike, they’re not actually the same person. Friedlander has had other successful acting turns in films like Wet Hot American Summer, The Wrestler, and American Splendor. He has also written a book, How To Beat Up Anybody, as his World Champion character. Friedlander is a man of many personas—some, all, or none of which will show up during his stand-up show April 10 at Varsity Theater. Before that, though, he talked to The A.V. Club about hats, food, and the future of 30 Rock.
The A.V. Club: How do you separate your acting self from your comedy self? How is your stand-up different from your World Champion persona or Frank Rossitano?
Judah Friedlander: They’re so different. There’s me, Judah Friedlander; there’s the World Champion; and then there’s Frank Rossitano from 30 Rock. They’re all different. Stand-up is the most me. I’ve been doing stand-up pretty much every night since 1989, and it’s always been my main thing. It’s maybe not what I’m most known for, because of television exposure reasons, but it’s always been my main thing. You can see some clips if you go to my website.
AVC: I was just watching a clip on there about how you’d change the world if you were president.
JF: The presidential stuff, that’s me in my World Champion persona, but that’s not really World Champion material at all. That’s just my presidential platform to save America and make the world a better place. If you watch some of my Conan or Letterman clips, you can see more of the World Champion persona. Those are sitting down—you can YouTube those—those are more like sitting down with them, but still World Champion-type stuff.
AVC: Where did the whole World Champion act come from? Your book, How To Beat Up Anybody, is in that persona.
JF: Well, my book is all based on my stand-up act, but it’s all brand-new material that’s done just for the book. The book project was something that I first started working on in 2003. It was something I was working on sporadically for the next seven years, and then several book companies came to me and wanted me to do a book. And I said, “Well, I’ve been working on a book for quite a while.” Then I spent about two years straight, pretty much nonstop, working on the book. It was a huge labor of love, and I did it all myself. All the photos, everything. That was a project. That was a lot of work. Stand-up is like home base for me, but I like doing comedy in all areas, all media. And I had been wanting to do a book for years, stuffed with heavy amounts of jokes, very layered jokes, as well as visuals with the photographs and drawings. So that’s what the book is. The book is a combination of my World Champion karate teachings, as well as a satire of instructional books.
AVC: Do you really know karate?
JF: No. [Laughs.] I’m a huge martial arts fan, but no. Judah Friedlander? No. World Champion? He’s the best in the world.
AVC: It seems like every interview about you has questions like, “Oh, talk about your hat!” Do you get bored of that?
JF: Yeah, yeah. I’ll tell you the whole hat thing, but I didn’t really get to one of your questions about how the whole World Champion thing came about.
Basically, I’m 43; I started stand-up when I was 19. Before I started stand-up, the comics who I liked the most were two different types: the ones that were solid joke writers (guys like Steven Wright), and then comics who spent an entire set just playing to the audience (someone like Don Rickles). Those were probably my two favorite types, and also comics that had a heavy, strong persona, like Sam Kinison or Rodney Dangerfield. So my act is sort of a combination of heavy joke writing, heavy on persona, and working the audience.
It wasn’t like an overnight thing, where I thought of a gimmick and said, “Oh, I’m gonna be the World Champion, that’s it!” It was a long, slow process. It first started through crowd work. In Manhattan, I often do two or three or more shows a night, so I’m always working on new material. So sometimes, if I’m working on new stuff, I’ll go up onstage and not do any prewritten material. I’d just interact with the crowd and goof on the crowd. What so many comics were doing at the time—this was like 15 years ago—and even today, many comics try to bond with the audience and talk about things that they can find in common and relate to. I decided to take the opposite approach and act like I can’t relate to anyone in the audience because I’m just so superior. So that’s one angle of how the World Champion stuff came about.
The World Champion stuff is also making fun of, especially today, our culture really rewards people who are show-offs, self-centered, and self-promoters. I’ve always found that gross, so my act is also making fun of those types of people and the culture that celebrates that, where everything is just “me, me, me, me, me.” And I think now, it’s even more that way, especially with Facebook, Twitter, reality TV, and so on. People do that and then reap the rewards, whereas if someone does good and they don’t talk about it, they don’t get any attention. So it’s definitely kind of that thing.
And the other angle was, since I was a kid, since I was like 7 years old, I’ve been obsessed with the Guinness Book Of World Records and breaking world records. Before I was doing the World Champion stuff, I was doing lots of jokes about bragging about these amazing athletic achievements and these ridiculous world records that I’ve broken, going back like 15 years or so.
Okay, so, hats. For years, I’d been making my own clothes. I’ve done it since I was a kid, making all kinds of things. And I always thought it was dumb—since I was a kid I’ve always been wearing hats, and I always thought it was idiotic that so many people will buy a hat that says Nike, or whatever. Why have someone else’s saying on your hat when you have your own chance for your own billboard there to say your own thing? So, I thought it would add something extra to my act, to have my own saying on there. The first hat I wore was probably around 2000 or something, when I was doing the ridiculous records I’d broken and stuff. One day, I thought it would be funny to make a hat that said “World Champion,” but not of what. And that would also draw the audience into asking me questions, and I’m someone who likes to do a lot of crowd work, so it was a nice hook as far as that goes. And it’s still changing, the whole World Champion thing. It used to be me bragging about all these ridiculous things, but now, it’s almost like... people call me World Champion, like “Yo, Champ!” It’s almost like it’s a superhero type of character now.
One thing that’s different about what I do and what someone like Will Ferrell in some of his movies, or Danny McBride in some of his movies and shows, is like, those guys brag a lot, but they actually really suck. Where the World Champion’s different is that the World Champion brags, but he’s actually not bragging. He’s actually being humble, because he really does do all those things. So, the World Champion is actually real. It seems impossible, but he’s actually real. He’s the guy that James Bond has a poster of in his bedroom when he’s trying to hook up with chicks.
AVC: It’s been written that when you wear your hats on 30 Rock, it’s sort of like an instant Easter egg. Is that true? If so, that’s kind of awesome.
JF: What do you mean by “instant Easter egg”?
AVC: Like on a DVD when there’s some weird—
JF: Like a hidden thing, right? Oh, so that’s how people can know what show is what, by what my hat says?
AVC: Yeah, like Bart writing on the chalkboard at the beginning of The Simpsons.
JF: Yeah, there’s a couple reasons that the hat thing came out on 30 Rock. Before I started doing 30 Rock, I did about 25 movies. I’d always been doing stand-up every night, and then I would do like two to four movies a year. So I really liked doing that, and I want to get back to that, but because of the time commitment to 30 Rock, there’s not much time to do that stuff. I never really planned on doing a television series. When 30 Rock came around, I was always a fan of Tina [Fey], always a fan of Alec [Baldwin], so when they wanted me to audition for it, they were filming in New York, and I live in New York, so I was like, “All right, this makes sense to audition for.” When they offered me the part, I said that stand-up is something—well, when I do a movie like American Splendor, I had to cut off my hair and dye my hair, all that stuff, that takes me out of stand-up for one or two months. But if I were to completely change my look for 30 Rock, that would take me out of stand-up—because my stand-up has a very strong visual persona—that would take me out of that for about a year, which is just too much. So I couldn’t do that.
I said, “If I’m gonna do your show, I have to look like me.” And they were fine with that. And I thought that, with the hat thing, it would be a different angle than with the World Champion. It would be Frank, a guy who is maybe not the smoothest with the ladies, but he’s a comedy writer, so he’s maybe trying to get some extra attention. As far as 30 Rock, the show was, my philosophy on the hat was like, when I watch a movie or a TV show or whatever, if it’s good, I like to watch it more than once, and it’s always fun to catch something you didn’t see initially. So I just thought of it as adding more jokes to the show. Sometimes they’re just flat-out jokes, like one of them was “Time Travel Agent.” One time there was a scene with me and Lutz, where we have a couple of quick lines about going to Times Square to pretend we’re foreign and goof on other tourists to make them think we’re from another country. So I made a hat that said “Olé.” That was something that was fitting the scene and fitting the character. It’s a mix.
When I first booked the show, I was talking to Tina and the head of costumes, and I told them my philosophy about him, and they liked it. And I said, “I can do a different hat every show.” And they said, “Well, actually, for every day within the show, because if one show spans three days, you should be wearing three different hats.” And I said, “You’re right.” I never realized this whole hat predicament I got myself into. So when other actors are learning their lines, I’m making hats. I created all this extra work for myself that I never really planned on. Kind of a goofy thing.
AVC: Well, look at all the hats you have now.
JF: Tons. Yeah, tons.
AVC: Do you have an idea of the future of 30 Rock? As in, is it going to be on for another five years…
JF: I don’t. I was actually just talking to another cast member, like, “Hey, what’s happening with our show?” We don’t know yet. [Laughs.]
AVC: So I’ll ask you about something else you might not know: You were in Wet Hot American Summer. They’re supposedly making another movie—
JF: Yes. I will be in it.
AVC: Oh, good.
JF: Yeah, a prequel. I actually spoke with one of the writer-producers, and they’re doing it, and I’m going to be back. I’m super excited about it. That movie was super fun to do, and it’s just been bizarre and awesome, the cult following it’s built. When we made it, I had a feeling that it had a good chance of getting a cult following, but I never thought it would be anything like it’s gotten, as huge as it’s gotten.
AVC: It’s definitely gone beyond just a following within the comedy community, or within the New York community.
JF: Yeah, there are certain groups of people that, literally, they know the lines from the movie better than I do, and I was in it. It’s pretty awesome.
AVC: I’m from Cleveland…
JF: Cool. I love Cleveland.
AVC: …so I have to ask you about American Splendor. I read somewhere that you still talk to Toby Radloff, the person you played in that movie. Is that true?
JF: Yeah, I’m actually going to put some videos up on my site, because I hung out with Toby last summer. When I did American Splendor, I basically lived in Cleveland for about a month, and had a great time doing that. I got to know the city pretty well, and I felt it was important to know the city, because I felt that the city was a big character in that film. Some movies or TV shows aren’t that location-specific, but in American Splendor, the city is a huge part of the movie. So anyways, I go to Cleveland about once a year, or once every two years, doing stand-up, and every time I do, me and Toby always make a point to meet up. So last summer, me and Toby hit a bunch of thrift stores and junk sales and flea markets, and we videotaped some of it. So I’ll be putting those up on my webpage. Once 30 Rock is done, perhaps in a few weeks, I’ll get those babies up there. Toby’s awesome. He’s great.
AVC: Cleveland has a lot of good food and, looking at your Tumblr, it looks like when you’re on tour, you try to eat at interesting places.
JF: Yeah, I always like to eat at places that have a food that the town is really known for, and trying different places and stuff. I love doing that. It gets a little hard, because I’m a little older and you’ve got to try to eat healthy, so sometimes you’re like, “Well, I really want to have that, but I probably shouldn’t.” Like last night, I was in Boston doing a show, and they have my favorite Mexican restaurant anywhere I’ve been on the East Coast. So me and my friend who was opening for me, what we were probably excited about the most was going to this Mexican restaurant.
AVC: Do you have any favorite places in Chicago?
JF: Chicago’s an amazing food town, and I’ve done Chicago a few times, but I really don’t know the food scene that well, so I’m excited to be back. Chicago’s an amazing food town. People know how to celebrate and do it right in Chicago.
AVC: You were talking about how often you do stand-up, like you could do up to three shows a night. What’s your writing process for that? How often are you redoing your set?
JF: New York and L.A. are different than any other cities in the country, for the most part, because most of the clubs in L.A. aren’t headliner rooms. When I go to other cities besides New York and L.A., like when I come to Chicago, I’m doing an hour-long show. When you’re in Manhattan doing shows, the slots are generally 10 to 15 minutes long. Because, in Manhattan, they don’t just have one headliner a night. They have six headliners, and everyone probably takes about 15 or 20 minutes. But what’s great about being able to go up a few times in one night is that, for working on new material, you get to see the writing onstage as well as offstage. So if I have a new bit I’m working on, I get to work on it three times in one night, instead of just once in one night.
Stand-up isn’t something you can practice; you just have to do it in front of an audience. Even if you’re sitting at home writing jokes, that’s still not the same as doing stand-up. So that’s why New York is great for being based at to do stand-up, because you can really work on stuff a lot.
AVC: You talked about your favorite comedians when you were growing up. Who are some of your favorite comedians now?
JF: Dave Attell, Ted Alexandro. Those are two of my favorites, and two of my good friends.
AVC: Do you remember when you realized you were funny? Like, did you make your mom laugh?
JF: That’s a good question. I remember my mom talking about that; she got interviewed once. I think I was in Pittsburgh, and she came with me to do all the morning radio, so she was on some of the radio. I can’t remember what we were talking about, but even when I was a kid, I was doing my own hand-drawn comic strips and stuff. I was always doing some kind of comedy stuff, and I was also doing a lot of superhero and sci-fi stuff.
AVC: Do you still play ping-pong?
JF: Yeah, I play a lot. Soccer was always my main game, but ping-pong was my second main game when I was a kid. I did like one official tournament, and then in 2008 I started getting into it again. So yeah, I play a few times a week. I’m going to try to hit up a Chicago ping-pong place while I’m there.
AVC: Where are those, even?
JF: If you go to Usatt.org, you can look up official clubs by city and by state. There’s a few.
AVC: What else is coming up for you?
JF: My comedy career is kind of weird. I’ve had offers to do specials a couple times on Comedy Central, and I’ve always turned them down because I just want to do things my own way, by myself, and not have things censored or edited for any reason. But I’m also busy doing tons of projects, and I’m also not a very organized person. At this point in my career, I probably should’ve had anywhere from three to five specials, and probably at least five CDs out at this point, but I have none. So this year, my big goal is to get an album out finally, and start making my own stand-up concert documentary. Those are my two projects I’m working on this summer.
AVC: It’s kind of weird; it seems like everyone doing stand-up now is like, “I have to have a podcast, and I have to have this. I have to have that.”
JF: Yeah, it’s weird. Everyone kind of jumps on things. Stand-up’s weird; it’s an art form, and it’s a business. I love the art form of it. The business side... I’ve never been a good business person. These podcasts—I think some are great, and some are an art form, but then a lot of people are getting into it just because there are comics that get big off of podcasts. So everyone’s like, “Oh, I gotta do a podcast.”
I like podcasts; it’s basically radio, and I love doing radio, and podcasts are nice because you don’t have to wake up at 6 a.m. to do them. But yeah, that’s something I haven’t—I can only do so many different things. But stand-up’s my favorite thing to do. I like going on other people’s podcasts, but doing my own is something that—at least at this point—I’m too busy to dedicate time to. Doing my own stand-up movie and album are things that I want to focus on the most right now.
AVC: A lot of podcasts now are just like, “Hey, I have my friend on, and we’re just gonna talk for an hour.” It feels like you would want to do something different than that.
JF: I actually did Sirius XM radio a couple years ago. It was just a four-week run, once a week. I did my own one-hour talk show called World Champion Radio, and it was me, all in character as World Champion, taking callers and having guests on. Like, I had—Did you ever see the original Karate Kid? Remember Johnny, the blond bad guy? I actually had him on as a guest and did the entire interview in character and stuff, and that was awesome. I also had professional wrestler John Cena on, all in character, and had them asking me fighting tips and stuff. It was great.
If I were to do radio show, it would have to have a strong theme to it, not just, “Hey, we’re hanging out, bullshitting.” You already have shows like Mark Maron’s, which is a straight-up radio show, so you have to bring something unique to it. Doing the World Champion Radio is something I would like to do again, but right now I want to focus on stand-up, album, and concert movie, which are things that I’ve been wanting to do for years and years. But the book was like two solid years. It was so much work.
AVC: It definitely seems more in-depth than if it was just like, “The story of my life.”
JF: Yeah, because my book was like a movie. Every page is tons of photos and tons of jokes. Lots of different locations; it was filmed in L.A., Arizona, Jersey, New York, the desert, all over the fucking place. Snowstorms. I’m fighting Bigfoots and ninjas—it was kind of like making a movie, but with photographs. It was a lot of work, but I loved doing it. Certain projects take a while. My book agent wants me to do another book, but I want to focus on these two stand-up projects right now.