Exclusive: Judah Friedlander is the World Champion

by | Jun 26, 2018 | COMEDY

There are two things that you need to know about Judah Friedlander: Not only does he bring his own ping pong paddle and balls with him everywhere he goes, but he will always be wearing the coolest hat in the room (like his hat that says ‘World Champion’ in Morse Code. Naturally.)

I hate surprises, but receiving a text at 8 a.m. Tuesday morning saying Friedlander was performing a surprise show at the Coalition Theater two nights later was a huge exception. Best known for his work on NBC’s 30 Rock, American Splendor, and his stand-up specials, Friedlander’s last minute show was full of new and classic material.

Comedy has always had a unique relationship with politics and current affairs. While being progressive, Friedlander makes tries not to be as “left” as he could be to avoid alienating potential audiences. He wants his comedy to be for everyone, and cause you to think.

“I don’t like telling people what to think, but in order to get my jokes you have to think,” said Friedlander. “As long as people get thinking I think that’s good. My act works on a few different levels. Some of it is comedy, but then some of it is more overt and some of its subversive talking about different issues.”

His act is satirical, whether you see it as political or social commentary is up to you. Nonetheless, a big inspiration for his latest comedy special expands on American exceptionalism and how it compares to other countries.

“No matter where you’re brought up and how your neighborhood or your parents vote, you’re basically taught that America is the greatest country in the world and the history of the world,” said Friedlander. “When we elect the president, we are electing the leader of the free world.”

As if to drive his point home further, Friedlander asked me how come Germany or Taiwan doesn’t get a vote? “Well, it must be because we’re number one.”

While he dives face first into various issues that are on our minds these days, something to note is Friedlander never mentions a politician by name; not in his his Netflix special, not in the live show at Coalition. All of the things that he discusses are not new issues and as he put it “ [are] not getting better right away”.

“When I first started I would do a lot of political stuff and for years I stayed away because I was like ‘I don’t want to do stuff that’s dated,’” said Friedlander. “Then I realized unfortunately talking about racism, sexism, health care, all these issues are not going to get dated quickly because they’ve been problems for a long time, and unfortunately they still are.”

He went on to say that staying silent isn’t going to help solve any of these issues. “I try to do my act so I’m dealing with all of these issues in a really bizarre way so that I get people thinking about them without really thinking about them.”

They say that art can change the world, but can comedy? Maybe. But it is important to know that Friedlander doesn’t want you to think he’s being arrogant. He’s also keeping it real as a pessimist.

“That’s one of my jokes in the stand up special. They say love wins, and then I say you know I think hate has a pretty strong track record.” said Friedlander, when talking about pessimism. “It’s really hard to say, are most people good or are most people bad? Most people are probably a mix of both, but most people also probably don’t want to be honest about stuff they’ve done that isn’t good. And then some people just aren’t bad.”

Friedlander emphasizes that his stuff is for everybody, and between his Netflix special and the secret show this past Thursday, you would be hard pressed to argue this. And while he leans left politically, he tries to keep everyone in check, arguing that even the Democrats are not even that far left anymore.

“One thing you have to be is open minded and able to take a joke whether you’re in the left or the right,” said Friedlander. “There is a lot of awful things going on now, but this is America and its exciting. You can not deny we are an exciting country, we can all agree on that. You can say we’re horrible, you can say we’re great, but you cannot argue that we are boring.”

Not too often are household names that can be seen standing beside Alec Baldwin on Netflix be seen regularly at a place like Coalition Theater. So how exactly did Friedlander land himself in the little seventy seat theater that could?

The beauty of Instagram and a mutual friend, of course.

Friedlander at the Coalition Theater

Friedlander noticed that a friend of his does comedy at Coalition on her Instagram. He reached out to see if they had room for him while he was on his way to a larger venue in Asheville, NC. Since Coalition is a considerably smaller venue than he generally does, he was pretty excited to be involved with the community vibe that the theater brings.

Located where it is, Coalition provides a space for the city’s comedy community to hone their craft, which is something that attracted Friedlander. Among other things, he noted there are generally more people there for the sake of the craft in venues like this, and just the pure fact that comedy is meant to be seen in smaller venues like this as opposed to arenas.

I wondered if it is easier to work on material in smaller venues, but Friedlander said it’s hit or miss.

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” said Friedlander. “It’s weird how depending on how a room is designed, even a 3000 seat room can feel quite intimate. Then a room that is poorly designed, a 300 seat room can just feel cavernous and horrible. It just really depends on how its designed.”

When Friedlander contacted her, Coalition Theater Artistic Director Katie Holcomb didn’t actually believe that the person messaging the theater’s Instagram account was really him.

“I was home Saturday night, watching TV after a show and we got an Instagram message from his page,” said Holcomb. “I [thought] this must [be] Judah’s people running his page messaging me. Literally he was like, ‘Hey just wondering if you ever have stand-ups come through and headline for a night?’ I was like, ‘Is this his real page?’”

“We had a moment where we were like, ‘Is this someone trying to grift us?’” laughed Coalition Theater Co-Owner Matt Newman. “This would be a very specific, and I don’t see how they would benefit from it, for themselves grift.”

World Champion

Having Friedlander come to the theater certainly meant a lot to its staff, and of course the various members who train in the theater, and left its mark on the theater.

“He is the kind of person I would hope any performer would be,” said Holcomb. “A very kind, unpretentious, just like genuinely into the work for doing the work. He has a work ethic I want everyone to have and see.”

“We do what I think is really great work here, too, and there is a certain amount of calling out to that,” said Newman. “We really pride ourselves on doing good shows, so to have somebody else sort of look in [and agree]. I think there was a certain amount of that [tonight].”

There is much to be said and learned from Friedlander, his brand of comedy, views on the world, and what all this means to a small comedy theater in the heart of Richmond. However, I had a far more pressing question I saved for last.

What is his favorite hat?

“In stand up, they always say ‘World Champion’ in some language, [this hat] is in Morse Code,” said Friedlander. “[On 30 Rock], the one I probably liked the most said ‘Trap Door’, and the second ‘O’ in ‘Door’ was missing, and that’s because it fell through the door. That one was kind of a mistake. I was going to make ‘Trap Door’ and the ‘O’ just fell off. I didn’t plan it, but it just kind of happened.”

Is America truly the greatest country in the world, or even the United States at this point? That will continue to be up for debate. However, we can all agree with the undeniable fact that Judah Friedlander is the World Champion.

Judah Friedlander is currently on tour and can next be seen headlining The Comedy Cellar on July 9th at 8 p.m. His comedy special America is the Greatest Country in the United States is now streaming on Netflix.

Ash Griffith

Ash Griffith

Ash is a writer and improviser from Richmond. She has a BA in English from VCU and an associates in Theater. When she isn't writing or screaming on a stage, she can usually be found wherever the coffee is. Bill Murray is her favorite person along with her black cat, Bruce.

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