Generally speaking, when we hear the phrase “standup special,” we think of an individual performance. A comic gets on stage, and for the next 60-90 minutes, we watch them masterfully weave between bits of material, ideally keeping the crowd captivated the entire time. Chris Rock’s 2008 HBO special Kill the Messenger diverged from the formula somewhat, as it was edited together from three different performances (one in London, one in New York, and one in Johannesburg). Even there, though, the material was continuous, and it was simply a document of Rock performing the same routine in three different major cities. A standup special is almost always a comic giving you their latest hour (or hour and a half), and it’s generally unheard of to see it be anything different.
This is why Judah Friedlander’s new Netflix special America Is the Greatest Country in the United States is so unique; rather than giving us one solid block of material, it instead bounces from various performances that he had done over the span of about a year and a half. Attempting something like this was a bit risky; standup specials generally have a firmly defined flow, because there’s a reason why a comic uses one bit to lead into another. By jumping randomly from various performances, there was a risk that Friedlander’s special would end up disjointed and unsatisfying. Thankfully, that’s not the case at all. Instead, the time-hopping approach gives America Is the Greatest a free-flowing, improvised feel and allows it to stand apart from other specials. Additionally, we get a great impression of what it’s like to see Friedlander perform standup. Usually, a standup special stands out because it’s the one performance that’s being recorded, and everything needs to go just right. In this case, we see snippets of several performances, and together, they give us a fully-formed idea of what his act is like on any given night.
As the title indicates, there’s a lot of political humor here, and Donald Trump comes up a lot. This is where the time-jumping really gets interesting. We’ll see a performance from after Trump’s election where Friedlander has to make sense of the absurdity of his victory, then we’ll go back to January 2016 when Trump winning felt like a remote possibility, and one that a comic could joke about with more ease. Friedlander finds his way through the mess with an adept ability to mix irony with sincerity. At one point, he sarcastically claims that he voted for Eric Trump “because he’s so cool,” but in another clip, he goes off about what a creep he is. Likewise, while his detached persona informs a lot of the material, Friedlander does ultimately reveal a bit of his actual political beliefs. In a bit mocking the phrase “love wins,” he argues that Bernie Sanders was “a pretty good candidate for love,” and in which case, love “didn’t even make the finals!” Friedlander’s sense of irony is strong, but he knows that in dark times, it can’t be his only weapon. When he drops the schtick and gets sincere, it leads to some of the special’s most cathartic moments.
Along with the freeform structure, what makes America Is the Greatest Country in the United States stand out is how much of it comes from crowd work. Throughout every clip we see, Friedlander engages with the audience. In some cases, he looks for people from other countries and makes lighthearted jokes at their expense. His rant about how many names the Dutch go by is hilarious, and in every case, the audience members laugh along with him. In later bits, he outlines what he would do as president and has the crowd ask him about specific issues. In one of the special’s funniest moments, someone asks Friedlander what his policy on trade (not the most comedically viable topic) would be, and he replies, “I’d trade you for a different audience member.” Perhaps many of Friedlander’s responses were planned in advance, but he does a great job making them seem like off-the-cuff responses, which adds considerable energy to the proceedings.
In addition to shaking up the formula for what a great standup special can be, America Is the Greatest perfectly captures the current American political moment. At times, Friedlander’s combination of irony and bravado provides big laughs and momentarily distracts us from the reality of Trump’s presidency. Ultimately, though, Friedlander is smart enough to know that we really are in trouble, and all the pride of his “World Champion” persona isn’t going to change that. As such, he occasionally drops the schtick and gives us his real thoughts, and he manages to do so without ever coming off as preachy or self-important. Friedlander has a great sense of when something is just a joke, and when it’s not. Between that and his innovative approach to the material, America Is the Greatest Country in the United States is one of the most rewarding standup specials of the year.