You might have seen him at this year’s Women’s March in January: A large man with a shaggy beard, long, unruly hair, the brim of a trucker hat covering his eyes and a Barbie doll in his hands. Look a little closer — that Barbie is carrying a miniature sign. “Sexism & racism are two ingredients of capitalism,” it reads, and the man holding the dolly is none other than stand-up comic Judah Friedlander, aka Frank Rossitano of the long-running sitcom, “30 Rock.”
“Activist Barbie” is an ongoing Instagram art project, Friedlander explains, using humor to get more people to feel more comfortable with dissent. The comedian, whose special “America is the Greatest Country in the United States” is currently available on Netflix, dropped by The Indy offices recently for a wide-ranging conversation on why this country is so fucked-up, fighting back and being a world champion.
Peter Rugh: Tell us about your new stand-up special.
Judah Friedlander: It’s a documentary performance of stand-up shows that I did over multiple nights in small venues, mostly the Comedy Cellar here in New York. I made it 100 percent on my own. No outside financiers or producers and I did it on a very low budget. It’s filmed in black and white. I wanted it to sort of look like a Jim Jarmusch film from the early ’80s or like a punk rock hand-held video. I’ve watched specials over the years and, for the most part, I’ve never liked the way they were filmed. They’re always very high tech. There’s crane shots, all kinds of, you know, smoke machines. Stand-up is a simple art form. It’s kind of like jazz in that sense. And I think it should be filmed in a very simple way.
Content-wise, it’s all satire on American exceptionalism. It’s called “America is the Greatest Country in the United States” and you can’t argue with that. It deals with all the major issues of government oppression and hypocrisy — racism, sexism, imperialism, fascism. I’ve been doing stand-up since 1989 and I’ve always liked trying to find comedy in really serious areas where you wouldn’t think it would exist.
Trump is terrible as a president and a person. But I think he’s an appropriate president for the country, unfortunately.
I loved your bit about Taylor Swift and the tourism slogan “Welcome to New York.”
We’re the only city whose slogan is sarcastic. Taylor Swift has a song called “Welcome to New York” and when that came out the city made her some kind of official tourism ambassador. But when she sings “welcome to New York” it’s not done in a sarcastic way. It’s done in a friendly, open-hearted way. I think she doesn’t understand New York is what I’m saying.
It’s emblematic of how the city has changed.
Today, so much of New York just feels like this giant, dull, slowly creeping corporate oppression. From the chain stores everywhere to the skyrocketing rents and cost of living, it’s this blandness encroaching in from every angle and you just feel it. So I think it’s more important than ever to fight back.
When did you become political?
I’ve always been interested in human rights and I did a lot of cartoons and comic strips when I was a kid. When I was 11 I did one about the Lech Walesa and Polish workers’ rights. I remember my dad reading the paper and him screaming at it or seeing stuff on TV and just screaming at it. I was raised to really be skeptical and critical, and think and analyze and look at things from different perspectives, not just your own.
About seven or eight years ago, I started doing shows overseas in Europe, mostly England but other countries too. I thought, “I’m going to go to these countries and will learn a lot about them,” which I did — but I really learned more about my own culture. It’s kind of like if you’re in a bad relationship, and whoever your partner is, they’re not good to you. All your friends are like, “Why are you with this person? They’re horrible to you.” You can’t see it because you’re so wrapped up in them. Then a few years go by, you’re not in that relationship anymore and now you have perspective and you can see it.
That’s sort of like what going to Europe was for me, where I’m like, “Okay, I’m not so wrapped up in the U.S. system. I’m outside it and I can look at it from a distance and be able to analyze it a little better.”
How does your material play overseas?
Great. They know we’re a very powerful country when it comes to money and military power. Other countries pay attention to us. Despite all of our problems we’ve got to remember we’re a very entertaining country. No matter how bad things are, it’s pretty entertaining. Some people here watch reality shows for that train wreck mentality. That’s how they watch our news. Our news is their reality show.
We’re taught in school and if you turn on the news and listen to a Democrat politician or Republican politician, they all say the same thing: America is the greatest country in the world. Not only that, they say America is the greatest country in the history of the world. And then they’ll always say whenever someone is running for president that we’re here to elect the leader of the free world. I always wondered how come no other country gets to vote for the leader of the free world? Well, it must be because we’re the greatest country. The other countries don’t deserve to vote for the leader of the free world.
Your comedy parodies that attitude.
Yeah, and I think that creates a lot of problems because if you’re taught this is the greatest country, we’re number one, we’re the best but you’re struggling through life, you can barely make rent, etc., then you must think, “Well, there must be a glitch. There must be somebody we should blame for this.” So people get taught, “Oh it’s those immigrants that are messing up this country, otherwise we’d be perfect.”
That’s probably why we got Trump. This guy who’s obsessed with winning.
Trump is terrible as a president and a person. But I think he’s an appropriate president for the country, unfortunately. And you know this whole “world champion” persona that I do on stage satirizes that — this narcissism, this gloating and bragging about yourself. There’s more layers to it but that’s one of the themes. Trump is probably the most extreme example of a narcissist and of hate and all these things that exist in our country. Many people go through life trying to think that we don’t have these ugly sides. But you do and if you don’t acknowledge, you can’t make it better.
One of the reasons Trump might win again is because so many people who don’t like Trump view him as the only problem. They’re like, “If we just get rid of Trump, everything’s going to go back to normal and be perfect.” Trump did not invent mass incarceration. He did not invent for-profit health care. We had all these problems before Trump. With him in office things are in danger of getting much, much worse. But the problems that we have he didn’t start.
When you are president what are you going to do about New York’s crumbling infrastructure?
The World Champion is someone who fights for the rights of the people on the planet, as well as being a phenomenal athlete.
We’re not going to have more trains. We’ll have longer buses. I’m going to build buses that are 30 miles long. That way, if your bus breaks down, you walk a mere 29 miles to your destination. There’s no delays. It’s a flawless plan. We’ll get rid of the trains from the subway. Then, if we have flooding from the next hurricane, just canoe through the tunnels. That’s why I keep telling people, “Practice your swimming.” Swimming lessons are the key to surviving the future.
Looking back on your experience with “30 Rock,” what stands out to you most?
First of all, my standup act is completely different than what I did on “30 Rock.” A lot of my act and certainly this stand-up special is satire on U.S. domestic and foreign policy and how imperialistic it is, as well as oppressive, and how, in many ways, it all basically stems from white supremacy and corporate supremacy and everything falling under those umbrellas.
But what was great about “30 Rock” is that it was a very well written show. They had tons of jokes and then the stories were actually funny. The writers were very good at both those two things: the storyline and the jokes, and how they intertwined and connected. They would write it and then they would rewrite it. They’d film and then they’d edit it and make it even tighter and tighter, so there was nothing extraneous.
You’re working on new stand-up material now?
Yep, mostly just in New York. I’m usually doing about two to four shows a night, 15 minute sets. And then I’m doing hour-long sets, about once every two or three weeks at the Comedy Cellar, sometimes at The Stand. Then there’s a couple little rooms in Brooklyn I do fairly often too.
You prefer stand-up over acting.
I view acting as a part of filmmaking and I love filmmaking. It’s a very different art than stand-up. Stand-up is immediate. When you make a movie, you get the idea, you write it down, and you get a budget, you look for locations, you look for actors, and then you film it all. From the time you had the idea to the time you screen it you’ve had to wait six months to find out if it’s any good. With stand-up you find out within about one second. I like that immediacy, being there with the audience present and two feet from me. But I do love filmmaking too and yeah this year I will do some more acting stuff.
What’s the role of comedy in these polarized times?
The country is at war and most people don’t realize it. There are wars going on on many different levels. Even amongst the political right — the struggle for power from the white supremacist extremists to the religious extremists to the more sort of mainstream, corporate Republicans. And anything to the left of the Republicans, there’s a war going on there too when you look at gender, when you look at race. In these times, art is extremely important, especially comedy.
I don’t like telling people what to think but I like getting them to think. Most people are not dumb. Many people might have been misled or misguided but they’re not dumb. Human beings in general are kind of hardwired to fear and to fear things that are different. If you get someone to laugh about something and it’s something they’re either against or don’t even think about, they might actually start looking at it from a different angle. I’m kind of a pessimist but I’m a fighter. It’s important to try to fight with love not with hate.
Where does “Activist Barbie” fit into all this?
It’s a sort of on-and-off art project on Instagram. It’s a little Barbie doll and I take her to Black Lives Matter protests, anti-nuclear war with North Korea protests. I find the mainstream media, in general, hates protests. They usually never cover them and if they do it’s usually because some violence broke out. Whoever owns the news, they don’t want people protesting that much. And unfortunately it’s a very small minority of the population that protests. So I take Activist Barbie to protests and use a little humor to hopefully get people to say, “Okay, well, this looks different than what I saw on the news and maybe this would be good to go to.”
The other angle of Activist Barbie is that it’s about sticking up for people and fighting for people’s rights who may not look exactly like you. If only black people are fighting the oppression of black people, the chance of progress is very small. Everyone needs to stick up for everyone. If only gay people are fighting for gay people, what does that say about humanity? People should look at everyone as brothers and sisters and if there’s one particular group that’s getting oppressed, everybody should be fighting for their rights.
And what’s with the “world champion” attire?
The “World Champion” stuff started out as just making fun of the show-offs, the braggarts. When Facebook came around, it started morphing into a subversive comment on narcissism in society in general. I used to do all these jokes about these ridiculous athletic achievements and would be quite humble and modest, like “Actually, I’m a real-life superhero. Isn’t that amazing?”
But, if you break it down, the World Champion, is a champion of and for the world and for the rights of all the humans and animals and plants and the atmosphere and water in the world. The World Champion is someone who fights for the rights of the people on the planet, as well as being a phenomenal athlete.
Photo (top): DROPPING IN: Judah Friedlander during his recent visit to The Indy office at the Brooklyn Commons. Credit: Erin Sheridan.