Making American Hats Great Since Trump Was Still on “The Apprentice”

Judah Friedlander takes on the current president in a new Netflix special


Judah Friedlander plans to run against Donald Trump, but he won’t wait for 2020. “I’m challenging Trump tomorrow, three o’clock, White House parking lot,” he announces in America Is the Greatest Country in the United States, streaming now on Netflix. Best known as Frank Rossitano on 30 Rock — and for the self-made trucker hats he’s worn on and off TV (with slogans like “UFO COP” and “BEEF RAVIOLI”) — the comic satirizes issues like systemic racism, fracking, and our nation’s increasingly fucked-up place on the world stage in his first-ever stand-up special.

“Think about it, why does America have so many more gun murders than the Netherlands?” asks Friedlander onstage. “It’s because our country has superior aim. We’re better marksmen.” As the self-styled World Champion, he wears a World Champion T-shirt, a World Champion jacket, and a cap that spells out “WORLD CHAMPION” in American Sign Language. His deadpan one-liners may be in the tradition of Steven Wright (“I think climate change won the Cold War”), but the film itself is straight Jim Jarmusch, a black-and-white, pared-down outsider among glitzily produced Comedy Central half-hours.

We called up Friedlander to talk 2018, human rights, and the United States as trashy reality TV for the rest of the globe. “I think whoever named our country might have been a little bit too optimistic using the adjective ‘united,’ ” he told us.

I’m not sure I would have known this wasn’t one uninterrupted set if not for the occasional title cluing us in to when a segment was filmed. How many hours of stand-up would you say you shot in the process of putting the special together?

Hours and hours and hours, but I probably only looked at 10 to 30 percent of the footage. I overfilmed — I was filming every show, pretty much. I spent about a year filming sets. One of the hardest things for me, on a personal level, with different mental issues and psychological blocks, is just sitting there and getting myself to look at the footage. Usually it’s too laborious and too depressing. It was too much concern that, OK, the recording’s good, but there’s this one little bit where I’ve done better on another night. So, let’s say out of a twenty-minute or an hour-long set, there might be twenty seconds like that, then you just scrap the whole thing. That was very difficult for years. I couldn’t do it. I had to just force myself to get into that zone.

I’ve read you wanted America Is the Greatest to feel “raw,” like the experience of actually attending a stand-up show. I think you definitely succeeded in that — it’s just you and the mic, without any skits, crowd shots, or other distractions. How does the way that more conventional stand-up specials are filmed affect the atmosphere in the room?

It’s terrible. I hate the way they film most stand-up specials. I absolutely hate it. It’s such a corporate way to film something that’s not corporate. When they film at a show, they’ll often redo the lighting that the venue already has. They will take out thirty seats and put in all these big cameras, with anywhere from one to three people operating each camera. They’ll add a smoke machine. Fucking smoke machine. They do all these things and it’s like, “Well, where is the comedy show? Where is the audience?” Their idea of what good visuals are comes first. It’s the performance and the audience experience that’s last. The comic and the audience are getting fucked over.

I basically set out to make an anti-special, the opposite of a special. Stand-up comedy is a very simple art form and I thought it was best to film it in a very simple kind of way. For some nights, I had no camerapeople. Sometimes I would hire some young people — mostly people a year out of film school. For some nights I might have one. Some nights I might have two. Some nights I might have three. But most of this was filmed with one cameraperson at a time. Some of it was filmed with literally just one camera that I set up and nothing else.

The crowd work in the special was impressive. When someone in the audience would shout out where they were from, you seemed to have a quick command of facts about every country that came up. Did you research in advance of these performances, or is this knowledge you had to begin with?

I started doing shows overseas, seven or so years ago, in England and other countries in Europe. It’s almost like…let’s say you’re in a bad relationship with someone and you can’t see it, but all your friends can see it. They’re like, “Why are you being an idiot? That person is terrible to you.” Then, a few years go by, you’re not with that person anymore, and you can actually look back and see it. You’d be like, “Wow, that person really treated me horribly. Why was I with them?” Initially, I thought, “Cool, I’ll learn more about these other countries,” which I did, but I really started learning more about my own country because I could have more perspective on it from a distance. One thing I’ll say about the U.S., we are an entertaining country, whether you think the things that are going on now are horrible or great. That was one thing I realized when I was in England, because they all watch CNN and our news shows: “Oh, we’re their reality show.”

Why don’t Americans know more about the world?

I think it’s important to go through life confident with your amount of knowledge, but also, maybe even more comfortable with your lack of knowledge, because otherwise, how are you going to learn? If you’re really narcissistic, how are you going to learn? Even New York City. People always say that it’s the greatest city in the world. I don’t know any other city that calls themselves the greatest city in the world. I really don’t. It’s the obsession with number one. I mean, if you’re from the greatest city in the world, which is also in the greatest country in the world — and that’s something you hear from both parties and the mainstream media — I always wonder, how come we’re the only country that gets to vote for the leader of their free world? Why doesn’t Sweden get to vote? Why doesn’t Argentina get to vote? Why doesn’t whomever?

When you have that kind of arrogance, why would you even be interested in what any other country has to say? I’m always trying to learn. I find it fascinating. Sometimes I don’t even think I’m that knowledgeable of other countries. I think other people are just so unknowledgeable and shut off. I’m not blaming people, but I think being cocky is not good. Being overconfident is not good. If you’re constantly just being told we’re number one, we’re the best, why the fuck would you give a shit about anyone else?

Did you always envision shooting the special in the Comedy Cellar? It’s such an iconic venue in comedy history, and one that’s been immortalized on comic-centric television shows like Louie and Crashing.

That’s where I perform the most. I’ve been performing there almost every night for well over twenty years. I wanted this to just be real. I’m like, let’s just film at the place I’m always at. Let’s not do anything extravagant. Let’s just film it where I work.

To me, comedy is not a big art. It’s a small art, you know, kind of like jazz. I don’t think it’s something that’s generally meant to be performed on this massive scale to thousands and thousands of people at a time. It’s an intimate art form and the Cellar is a great intimate room.

How has the stand-up scene changed in New York City over the decades you’ve been performing here?

Oh, gosh, it’s changed so much. A lot for the better, some for the worse. It’s such a bigger business now. When I was working for the Comedy Cellar in the early Nineties, the owner would have meetings with the staff and the comics during the day to try to figure out how we could get more audience members in. That’s when the Comedy Cellar had one room. Now it has three rooms. They usually do anywhere from three to nine shows a night. They’re generally all sold-out.

It was a smaller scene. Now there’s more comedy rooms that are not comedy clubs — like a bar in the city or in Brooklyn that has a weekly show. There’s so many more places to see comedy now. I think it’s more diverse now, at least in some ways. In some ways, there’s more garbage than there used to be, more bad comedy and more bad venues, but there’s also some very good venues.

The other major, major, major thing is technology. Back when I started, there was no internet. I didn’t know anyone who was online. There was certainly no social media, so all you talked about was jokes and working on your act. No one was trying to promote shows or be funny on Twitter, or make their own web series or podcast. That didn’t exist. It was just stand-up comedy. Which is great — it’s important to work on the art. As the business has gotten bigger, I think many comics get too sidetracked and just work on the business.

Do you have any predictions for 2018?

Hopefully, more people will get more vocal and active. That’s one reason I didn’t like Election Day, when everyone was posting social media pictures of the little sticker they got for voting and smiling. Democracy is not voted once every four years. Democracy is basically fighting for human rights every fucking day. And if you’re fighting alone, your chances are so fucking slim. If you’re fighting with a group, your chances are still really fucking slim, but they’re a little bit better. Everybody’s got to stick up for everybody or else it’s going to take a hell of a lot longer to make any progress.

What’s the best way for us to do that?

Fight with love, don’t fight with hate. Trust your instincts, not just facts, or what you’ve been told are facts.

Here’s one thing I’d like to see happen in 2018: a bigger anti-war movement. That would be cool. It seems like it has almost disappeared in this country. Especially since we got multiple wars going on and the president is always making some sort of threats online. If we can do a sit-in in Washington, D.C., from the White House to the Capitol building, get 10 million people to go, I think that’ll have a lot more power than people think. That would send a huge message. People have the power. Are you willing to sacrifice to make the change? Everyone’s on Twitter complaining. You can actually go out and do something. Ten million people — that’s only 3 percent of the country. Let’s give it a shot. I’m going to start to make it happen.