Judah Friedlander’s current political stance can be summed up by the title of his new special, America Is the Greatest Country in the United States. Available today on Netflix, the bare bones, documentary-style comedy film follows the comic over the course of several shows as he addresses American exceptionalism and the many troubling issues currently facing the United States. Friedlander – who wrote, directed, and produced the special himself – employs his usual crowd work to create an insightful and hilarious dialogue with the audience about racism, climate change, fascism, health care, and human rights. I caught up with Judah last week to discuss the technical simplicity of the special, the evolution of his act, and how satire can motivate positive change.
The new special is almost more of a comedy movie in terms of length, editing, and shooting style.
It’s basically is a feature-length standup performance film. I view standup as a very simple art form. It’s a person onstage talking into a microphone. That’s it. It’s very simple. I thought my special, or standup performance film, whatever you want to call it, should be done in a very simple way as well. I usually don’t like the way big comedy productions are done on TV. You’ve got the crane shots and smoke machines. To me, that’s not what comedy is about. Comedy is about pulling up in dark room and doing your thing. So I wanted to try to capture that experience and make it feel like you just strolled into some little room and you’re just sitting there taking it in.
Which is what happened to a lot of the audience members. People clearly came to see you, but did they know that you were filming this conceptual piece?
Most of this was filmed in one of the Comedy Cellar’s three rooms. 99% of the special was filmed there. At the Comedy Cellar, because they’re so popular now, people have to make their reservations days in advance, so they might not actually know who’s going to be on the show, or they might not know I’m on the show until after they bought their tickets. In general, New York City gets a lot of international people in the audience. That includes the Cellar as well. I like that, especially since I satirize America, as well as other countries.
When you were polling the room to see where people were from you were getting so many diverse responses like Israel, Canada, the Netherlands. I don’t know if you could have done this anywhere else in the country.
I’m not sure. In some of the LA rooms you get a lot of international people. DC can be that way. But certainly New York is a very international place, including people who have moved there from other countries and people who are visiting from other countries.
Often when you would present a call to action – for instance, one time you said, “Who’s ready to democratize and start the revolution? – the response was tepid, almost nothing. It allowed you to play off the whole theme of, “Why aren’t we doing more? Why are we claiming to be the best, while so many of us are lackadaisical in our approach to activism?”
That’s a great point. Not only do I satirize the US government…and not just the current administration, but previous administrations too. The multiple problems this country has aren’t specific to just the current administration. I think things are worse with the current administration, but they didn’t create a lot of these problems. But people who say they don’t like Trump or this and that, it’s like, “Yeah, but what are you actually doing about it besides putting out a couple of tweets?” Get active. Do something. That bit satirizes not just the laziness of society in general, but how spoiled so many of us are that we don’t even realize it.
You made that point again when you talked about doing charity work. You asked the audience if they did charity work and they were like, “Eh.”
Yet they all act like they’re the superior people. Are you really putting your money where your mouth is? Trump is an easy guy to hate, but how are you going to be better than him?
Where do you consider yourself on the political spectrum?
I’m way left, way left. But in my act I never try to be preachy. I find that boring. “Hey this guy’s a jerk,” and everybody is like, “Yay! Way to go!” That’s boring. I like doing things in a way where I get people to think. Just the fact that you had to ask that question is good. “Where is this guy exactly?” That’s fine. I don’t like to tell people what to think. I like to get them to think. They can think for themselves and decide where they want to be on whatever the issue is.
One mechanism you use in this special is that a lot of your crowd work punchlines are just facts. When talking to an audience member about their country versus America, you often just throw out a fact that is funny because it’s true.
That’s a good way to put it. I try to look at things from twisted angles, but they’re also factual.
I saw an article that said you used to do political cartoons as a kid. How young were you when you started getting interested in politics?
I put out a book two years ago called If the Raindrops United. It was all cartoons and drawings that I did. A lot of them are satire on the big issues of the country and the world. In it included two drawings I did, one from when I was 10 and one from when I was 11. The one from when I was 11 is a political cartoon about Lech Walesa, who was a Polish workers’ rights activist who had been in prison. Even at a young age I was interested in fighting for the people and what’s right.
Have you always carried that through in your standup?
No. I started in 1989. When I first started my act was very joke-heavy and very audience interaction/crowd work-heavy. The persona has changed some over the years – I’ve changed over the years. I’m 48 now. When I started I was 19. A fair amount of my jokes were about how I was younger than most of the people doing it. One of my angles was coming off as sort of naive, then doing really dark, twisted shit. But I largely stopped that for years. Even the World Champion stuff, a lot of that was just satire on narcissism, self-gloating, and self-promotion. That seems to be what gets attention in this country and it’s gross. Look at our president. That’s one of the most narcissistic, self-promoting people there is, and he got elected to the most powerful office. I never liked going for the easy joke. I always liked finding comedy where you wouldn’t think it exists – those dark, twisted places.
About seven or eight years ago I started doing shows in Europe. When I got there I thought I would be learning about England, France, the Netherlands. And I did learn about those countries, but what I really learned more about was my own country. It’s like if you’re in a bad relationship and you can’t see it, but all your friends can see it. They’re like, “Why are you with that person? They’re an asshole to you.” At the time you can’t see it, but a couple years later you’ve broken up with that person and you look back and go, “Wow, I was an idiot. Why was I with that person? They’re horrible.” I started to be able to see my own country a little more clearly. That’s when I started doing more material about national issues, world issues, and sort of satirizing the American ideal. It’s grown even more to where I try to go to the darkest places of our country – racism, mass incarceration, reparations – and squeeze some humor out of them. When I first started talking about really heavy subjects like racism and stuff, I wasn’t used to it. The audience would get really quiet. I’m used to getting big laughs every three seconds. As a comic, when things get real quiet and you’re not used to it, you get uncomfortable. After some years of doing this stuff even more, I started to get more comfortable and learned to get laughs out of that quiet. Create the quiet, create the awkwardness, then pull some big laughs out of it. I’ve come to kind of enjoy that.