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30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander on Karate and the Hat That Was Too Hot for NBC

There are many things we can count on in an episode of 30 Rock: Liz will find herself in a sticky situation, Jack will have some sort of problem that resolves itself fabulously, Tracy will do something absurd … and, of course, Frank will sport a new hat. We sat down with Judah Friedlander this week to ask about his message-bearing headgear, what to expect from 30 Rock's live episode in October, and what it's like to be the World Champion.

You've got your martial-arts book, How to Beat Up Anybody, coming out in October. What was the inspiration for it?
It’s all based on my stand-up act, but it’s all brand-new material. I started about six years ago. You know in my stand-up act, I talk about how I’m the greatest athlete in the world, the World Champion. So I feel like it’s time to give back to society and show people what I can do. But the real reason the book came out was because I move too fast for the camera and you can’t see me. That's why you've never seen me in a martial-arts movie. For this book, I went to the future and got a camera from the future that can film at a millionth of a second. That fast. But even with that sometimes I still come out blurry. But the book is just about giving back to society and trying to make the world safer and better.

Did you take any traditional martial-arts classes to prepare for the book?
No. In the book, I talk about how I first learned martial arts when I was 13 when I was in federal for a crime I didn’t commit. I just picked up stuff from the inmates, perfected it, beat them all up, and then perfected it. I use karate as a general term for all kinds of fighting. And it’s kuh-ra-tee, not ka-ra-tay. This is America.

How long has this book been in the making?
I first started six years ago and the past sixteen months have been pretty much nonstop. I directed all the photos or took all the photos myself.

Do you have a favorite section?
The Bigfoot part is one of my favorites. And the home training section is good. It’s important to train in the dark, so you can use your other senses. And in the women's chapter I give back. With the women’s chapter, I powered down to an average female height and strength to take on all these male combatants. For your benefit.

Would you do a follow-up or an instructional video?
I’m working on my own movie of it, which again will be all different stuff. It might be half concert film, half documentary. The book will have an iPad version which will have nineteen videos which will supplement the book.

Will there be any World Championship stuff on 30 Rock this season?
No, that’s the thing. There can never be unless Frank Rositano happens to be reading this book. There’s just no way. World Champions are what Frank wishes he could be. He wishes he could get all the women that the World Champion gets, to have the physical abilities of a World Champion. And that’s why Frank’s a writer on a show. The World Champion would never be a writer on a show. My only weaknesses are my math and reading — other than that, flawless.

So have you switched back to your regular hats when you’ve been filming 30 Rock?
Well, no, those are my abnormal hats. Those I make just for 30 Rock, so you’ll never see me wear a World Champion hat on 30 Rock, because the World Champion would never work there. But Frank will have a lot of new hats this season. I don’t even know how many I’ve had … it’s probably around 100 at this point.

What are some of this year's hats?
I did "Long and Twisted" and "Bottom Feeder." Let’s face it: Frank is a bottom-feeder. He’ll take whatever comes his way. He’s not too picky. He doesn’t really discriminate.

Where do your hat ideas come from?
You know, all over. I sort of have to self-censor sometimes. I started making a list of the hats that never made it. There are definitely ones I've never even suggested, like "Grave Raper," that would never make it on the show. But I think that’s a hat Frank would like to wear. I try to make it more subtle. Like "Long and Twisted," that could refer to a long and twisted story, someone’s anatomy … you know. It can be many things. Some of the hats are sort of like things that can be taken sexually or not. And then some are movies I’m going to make. Like Knight Chicks, which is about chicks who are lawyers by day, but they fight crime by night and beat up criminals.

Are there any hats they've said no to?
There was one episode I wore a hat that said “Balls.” It was the one where Carrie Fisher was on it. They actually had to run that by the censors. I’m like, “It could be basketballs, footballs — I like balls, you know?” And then Carrie Fisher chimed in, “Yeah I thought you were a sophisticated gentleman who likes going to balls and treating a woman right,” and I’m like, “Yeah! I’m classy!”

Where do you get the materials to make these?
I buy the materials in bulk. And you know, for 30 Rock I come up with all the sayings and I make all the hats myself. But sometimes they’ll actually write a hat into the script. There's one episode where I wear a hat that says "Horny," and then Liz Lemon says, “Frank, change that hat,” and then the next scene it’s me wearing a bowler-style hat, but it still says "Horny" on it.

So do you make them when you get a script?
Some of the jokes on the hats I make are literally thought of last second. I just have [wardrobe] buy the same stuff I regularly wear, but I don’t know what color shirt they’ll have for me that day. So I’ll pick hats depending on color works with it, and what works with the camera. And I like it to add to the scene. I don’t like it to take away or distract from the scene. Certain hats work better with certain jokes and better episodes or better scenes than others. So it’s tricky. And then sometimes I’ll come to the set with three hats and I’m like, "Tina, which one do you like, I can’t fucking decide." And she’ll be like, "That one." So I created a lot of extra work for myself.

Do you have any special hats prepared for the live episode in October?
No, I have to get something going for that! If there's a sports game on that night, I might do what the score is at that inning. So I might make one live, which means I would wear two different hats, because we’re doing the episode twice, once for the East Coast and once for the West Coast. I want to do something funny with it and also something timely, so people know this is actually live.

I know there were a lot of Kabletown jokes last season. Will that continue?
I don’t know what they’re doing with that — I think the first couple episodes don't really deal with that. But I know Matt Damon is on the first episode, and Paul Giamatti is on the second episode, or I think he is. Sometimes we film out of sequence.

Do you prefer film, TV, or stand-up?
Stand-up — No. 1. No question. And the rest are all different because they’re all good in different ways. I like low-budget movies. They film faster than a regular movie. And if it’s a good host, like Letterman or Fallon, I really like doing talk shows. That’s kind of like live performing, you know. I like filming live. It’s one take and you just do it.

Is that why you’re so excited for the live episode in October?
Yeah! It’s something different. And you know our show, we shoot like a movie. It’s going to be a little different than it normally is because you can’t create the same type of show that we normally do. I think it’s going to be a really cool variation.

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images