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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Judah Friedlander interview

Here's an interview I did with Judah Friedlander last year. He then had to cancel his appearance here so I sat on it until now. He's at the Comedy MIX on Burrard Street this weekend, Thursday through Saturday. The World Champ!

Judah Friedlander
April 15, 2013

"I'm not in any clique. I'm like a freak. I'm an outsider. I'm a comedian for the people." 
Judah Friedlander

Guy MacPherson: Judah?
Judah Friedlander: How's it going?

GM: This is Guy MacPherson in Vancouver.
JF: I know. How's it going?

GM: Good. I missed your call. Thanks for calling.
JF: Yeah, no worries. I'm so unorganized. Did we ever set up an exact time to call or anything?

GM: We did but we didn't have each others' numbers and then I sent you mine.
JF: Yeah, I'm a mess, dude, as far as organization goes. Sorry for the delay.

GM: No problem. You don't have people to do this for you?
JF: I don't think so.

GM: I like that. I hate having to go through people.
JF: I don't know where they are.

GM: Normally you go through publicists and they say they'll give you 15 minutes or whatever.
JF: Yeah, I don't do that.

GM: Good. So you're coming to Vancouver. I've never seen you here. Have you played here before?
JF: No, this will be my first time doing shows in Vancouver. I've done Montreal, I've done Edmonton, Toronto, but first time in Vancouver.

GM: What's taken you?
JF: You know, I want to test out all the inferior cities before I come to the best city in Canada.

GM: Ha! Well played. Have you been here before?
JF: Yeah, when I was eight.

GM: Family trip, obviously.
JF: No, I just went by myself.

GM: Do you have any memories of it?
JF: It was pretty cool, man. I like the snow.

GM: Well, there's no snow here.
JF: I made sure it snowed when I came up there.

GM: But you don't remember what you did when you were eight, do you?
JF: Not too much. I was doing a lot of drugs back then so I don't remember too much.

GM: I know you're the World Champ on stage. That's your character. But I'm wondering: You started when you were 19, right?
JF: Yeah.

GM: Did you just try it a couple times or did you get right into it when you were 19?
JF: I first went on stage in March of '89 and then my second time on stage wasn't until August of '89. I thought that's how you did it. I thought you were supposed to go out every six months.

GM: Yeah, leave them wanting more.
JF: I didn't realize you were supposed to be going out every night. And then in the fall of '89 I did it a handful of times. And then the next year I probably did it like a dozen times, maybe once a month or something like that. And then in '91, that's when I realized, oh, you're supposed to be going out every night. I got it. That's when I started doing it like every night.

GM: But you didn't start doing it that way just because you were supposed to; you actually loved doing it, right?
JF: Oh yeah, I loved it but I didn't really know you could go up every night. I didn't know you were supposed to. I had no idea. There was no internet back then. There was nothing to tell you anything. I just remember at different open mics I started seeing some of the same people. Because I thought it was everyone going out like once or twice and that was it. I didn't realize like, oh, it's kind of like the same people always going around. I had no clue.

GM: That's when comedy was special! Not every other person was doing standup comedy.
JF: Yeah, yeah, yeah! I was just talking about that last night with some comics. I was hanging out at the Comedy Cellar. I was thinking how the scenes have changed over the years. When I started there was no alternative scene. There was none of that. There were the clubs. If you were able to get an audition and you got passed at the club, then usually first they passed you for late night. So that means you were allowed to actually hang out at the club without paying and then if there was time they might throw you on for five. And that might be at, you know, 1:30 in the morning. And then you might do an open mic at like 6. From 6 to 8 you might do an open mic and the open mic would be in some terrible bar. And it's not some bar where it's packed with people. It'd be a bar with six active alcoholics, usually old guys, depressed at the bar, and then there'd be 20 open mic comics waiting to go on, all looking over their notes as you're going on stage. So you're trying to make them laugh while they're going over their notes as well as the guys at the bar who are either loudly talking amongst themselves or heckling you. So that's what the scene was like when I started. It wasn't nearly as supportive or as many places as there are now.

GM: Do you romanticize that time and go, 'That's real comedy' or do you go, 'We have it so much better now'?
JF: Uh... I'm big on doing all kinds of venues. I do think that doing shitty gigs can make you stronger. It can also make you pick up bad habits, but it can make you stronger. If you're always going up in front of easy crowds, you don't really develop what they call legs. It's kind of like if you're a sprinter, you can either train on the track or you could train on broken glass and mud. If you train on broken glass and mud too much, you might mess up your feet, but it also might make you a little tougher. So bad rooms can make you tougher. There are pluses and minuses. But you gotta play good rooms, too. You can't just do shit rooms all the time.

GM: Does the World Champ train on glass?
JF: I'll go to little divey rooms here and there, you know, and mix it up. You don't always want a crowd that's easy. Sometimes you gotta work 'em and beat 'em up a bit and really win 'em over.

GM: Are you saying the rooms back when you were starting out were tougher?
JF: Yeah, shittier. In some ways, yeah. Although now there's a lot of rooms that are shitty, too, you know? They're shitty in a different way. Things have changed. It used to be more like tough guys in the audience coming into the clubs going, 'Let's see who these punk comedians are. They're not funny. Let's see if they can make us laugh and we'll fuck with them.' And now it's mostly drunk women who are way too drunk and entitled and think they own the place and are just annoying and won't shut up. But when it comes to problem audience members, you don't really worry about fights starting in the room or someone rushing the stage to attack you as much as you used to.

GM: Do you consider yourself an alternative comic?
JF: No. I'm a comedian. I do mostly mainstream rooms and I do alternative rooms, too, and I don't change my act at all. I also do black rooms, I'll do Latino rooms, I've done gay rooms, I've done Asian nights, and I'll always just do my thing. I try to make my act so it works for everybody; it's not exclusionary, you know? I don't do a lot of rare pop cultural references or anything like that. Most of my act is fantasy.

GM: I would imagine you would do well in alternative rooms.
JF: Oh yeah, I do. I don't prefer them but I do well in them.

GM: But you're not aligned with them.
JF: No, I'm not in any clique. I'm like a freak. I'm an outsider. I'm a comedian for the people. I started comedy before alternative clubs existed. I remember when they first started sprouting up and I felt them to be very clique-ish and stuffed up and kind of exclusionary. But they have their pluses and minuses. In alternative rooms, there's almost no hecklers, the audience is very patient, it's a little more a bit like a theatre crowd. In a comedy club, you gotta be getting good laughs every five seconds; at an alternative room you can go a few minutes without a laugh and the crowd will still be there listening. And that's nice. But comedy clubs in general tend to have a more diverse audience and I like a diverse audience. I like to have every race, every sexual persuasion, every age in the crowd. And alternative rooms are generally a singular demographic.

GM: Before you developed the World Champ character, what was your standup like?
JF: My act was always very joke heavy. I'm like a joke writer. And it was always very audience interactive in the sense that I would play off the crowd a lot and fuck with the crowd and come up with material on the spot. And it still is. And as the years go on, it's become more persona heavy as well. So I think for a rich act, you try to make your act as rich on every angle, from writing to performance, jokes, stories, persona. Try to have it all, you know?

GM: Is there anything to the persona that is satire on the 'We're Number One!' culture?
JF: Oh, totally!

GM: Is that an after-the-fact thing or was that conscious?
JF: I'm not preaching my act. I'm not big on preachy. I like some comics that are preachy, and certainly there are a lot of comics who are preachy who I don't like, but in general I don't like to be that way. If I'm sending out any messages, I like people to find it; I don't like to shove it down their throats. So my act's changed over the years but it's certainly a comment on just how self-involved so many people are. I think it's worldwide. I travel but I haven't travelled enough to give you an exact answer on it, but America definitely has this Number One complex. And I joke about that. And some of that's because people do think that. They're raised to think that America's the greatest country in the world. And I'm not ripping on America by saying this, but some of that comes from arrogance and some of it comes from brainwashing, propaganda and ignorance, and some of it also comes from America's geographically such a large country and we're not close to that many other countries. Especially if you look at some parts of the United States. You're not close to any country. It's not Europe where they have a better world knowledge of politics and just how things work. And some of that's because geographically they're closer to the rest of the world. North America is not that close to the rest of the world. We're pretty far away. And a place like Europe is much closer to the rest of the world because the countries are smaller. So yes, I definitely play on the... And also it's society. We're alive with Facebook, Twitter. Everyone's got their own special, fancy thing going on. It's a little weird. Hey look, can I call you back in a little bit?

GM: Sure.
JF: Okay, thanks man, I'll talk to you soon.

"I can guarantee you I do more jokes in my set than 95 percent of the comics out there. It's joke after joke after joke. There's laughs every five seconds." – Judah Friedlander

April 16, 2013

JF: So what are we talking about? I don't remember.

GM: I don't remember, either. But that's okay. I got some more.
JF: Okay, cool.

GM: Your look on TV and doing standup isn't too different from your look in real life, right?
JF: Correct. A little different.

GM: But you're recognizable.
JF: Yes.

GM: Is that a daily problem for you when you go out?
JF: I generally try to just keep to myself but people come up to me. I'm always cool with it.

GM: I guess in New York, everybody sees everybody anyway.
JF: Yeah, but I'm also very approachable. I think comics in general are pretty approachable. They're not like, 'Oh, I can't be seen with people. I have to be limo'd everywhere.' That's not me. I take the subway, I drive a car, I walk, I take the bus, I do whatever.

GM: Your character on 30 Rock, which is different from your standup act...
JF: Uh-huh. They're both comedy. 30 Rock and my act are both comedy. They're not exactly the same but they're both in the comedy spectrum.

GM: I know Tracey Morgan just got in trouble again in Australia.
JF: Oh, what did he do there? He's always getting in trouble. Tracey's been getting in trouble before he was on 30 Rock.

GM: I think so more now because people go expecting that lovable, crazy guy from TV and they don't realize the extent to how filthy he is in real life or on stage. So there's always a problem when there's somebody that people know from TV reading other people's lines.
JF: Yeah, I've never had that problem. People like when they come to shows because they see a lot more of me and they see more stuff. More varied stuff.

GM: It's also the culture we live in where everyone's a critic and they go to the media or online with their complaints.
JF: Sure, sure.

GM: Whereas before they'd just tell their friends.
JF: Yeah.

GM: Are you working on an album?
JF: Yeah. I should have had about seven albums out already as well as several DVDs. I've been doing standup since '89 and I've put nothing out. It's just a mix of my own lack of organization. I actually audio record every set I do.

GM: And you keep it?
JF: I never delete them. I never label them. And I almost never listen to them. I keep waiting, like, oh, I've got to get it just right. You know, in real life I got OCD, I got ADD. I'm just all over the place and don't focus on one thing and finish it. And also I've been very legitimately busy the past several years. I've had like three different full-time jobs doing standup comedy, doing 30 Rock, and for a few years I was also working on my book. So that's like three full-time jobs that I've been doing all the time. I have more time now to work on my own projects so I'm making a priority my own standup album and my own standup concert-slash-documentary movie. That's what I'm working on.

GM: Your standup has a large element of improv to it, doesn't it?
JF: Uh, yeah, if you wanna call it improv. Whatever you wanna call it, making stuff up on the spot, working the crowd, whatever you wanna call it.

GM: Would that translate as well on an album?
JF: Yeah, it can, if the audio recording's right, it's fine. It's all about having the right mix of it, you know?

GM: It's largely persona on stage...
JF: It's persona, it's character, but I can guarantee you I do more jokes in my set than 95 percent of the comics out there. It's joke after joke after joke. There's laughs every five seconds. Even if you're watching my presidential stuff or whatever, those are all jokes. It's not just swagger or persona. All that stuff works. If you're blind and you come to my show, you'll be laughing the entire time.

GM: I'm not doubting that. What I meant was you have the character of the World Champ. It's different from other standup comics who do characters. Like that's not the real Jeremy Hotz on stage.
JF: Well, I know Jeremy. It is and it isn't. It's all about degrees, I think. It's definitely a part of him. Yeah, I like Jeremy a lot. And I know him a little bit. Yeah, it's funny you say that because I've really noticed a difference between him on stage and off. I mean, on stage it's just a little more hyperbole almost, a little more to the extreme. To me it's the same guy.

GM: It's a heightened version.
JF: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Even Harland Williams. Same thing.

GM: So you would never feel you're locked in to this character.
JF: No. And also it's kind of like, sure I do the World Champion stuff but I can talk about whatever I want. It's also a title that I've been awarded from the World Championship Committee. It's kind of like Anthony Hopkins, the actor. He's been knighted by the Queen so he's now Sir Anthony Hopkins. You call him Sir Anthony Hopkins just out of respect. And same with the World Championships. You still call me World Champion just out of respect. It's a title I've earned but that doesn't mean I have to stick with talking about athletics or whatever. I can talk about whatever. It's something I've earned. It's out of respect. You still call me Champ or World Champion.

GM: Were you fans of Super Dave Osborne or Andy Kaufman?
JF: Oh definitely. Definitely fans of those guys. I was very careful with my stuff because Super Dave wasn't standup, really. It was definitely comedy but it wasn't really standup. But he was playing a guy who acts like he's great but he really sucks. The key big difference is that I act like I'm really great but I actually am really great at all the things I'm doing. Like, the World Champion is real. Everything I say really happens. Super Dave, every stunt that he would do would end with a disastrous car crash or whatever. All of mine work out perfectly. So I'm more of like a super hero just humbly talking about his day than really bragging. What I do on stage is not bragging.

GM: Andy Kaufman's persona as the wrestler...
JF: I'll give you my take on Andy Kaufman. And I like Andy Kaufman a lot. I think a lot of people misread what he was doing. Because some people watch him and they're like, 'Oh he went on there and he was fooling all those fans and they're getting all mad at him.' But all he was doing was what wrestlers do – he was playing the heel. The heel is the bad guy. And he was a great heel. He was a great bad guy. He was just staying in character. It's something called kayfabe. That's a wrestling term, which means staying in character. So basically if you went to see Hulk Hogan fight the bad guy at the arena and then later that night you went out to a bar and you saw them hanging out and having drinks and high-fiving each other, that would be considered breaking kayfabe. And Andy Kaufman was basically just doing wrestling and being great at it. He was a hilarious bad guy and he was great at it. I don't think he was making fun of wrestlers or wrestling or anything. And Jerry Lawler, who was in on it with him, was a brilliant straight man. And I don't think he gets any respect from the comedy community about that. He was brilliant. I actually didn't see these when they came on back in the early '80s or late '70s, but I remember seeing them years later on video tape or DVD, whatever it was, Lawler on Letterman and acting completely serious about how he doesn't like Kaufman and how he did break his neck and stuff. And that's all kayfabe. That's all just staying in character. In real life I am a big wrestling fan and I've done some gigs with WWE. I've done some things with them. And I have some friends who are professional wrestlers. If I'm going to do more professional wrestling, I will be very careful not to do anything like Andy Kaufman did. I don't want to be like anyone else. Even with the Super Dave stuff, I'm careful not to do anything that he did. Yeah, he was funny. His was all persona. There were jokes but it was more character driven, like short films or sketches.

GM: Did you see him with Norm Macdonald the other day?
JF: No, I didn't. What were they doing?

GM: Norm has a podcast that's on YouTube as well.
JF: Oh, I gotta check that out. That's hilarious.

GM: So you might need a foil. Who's your greatest challenger?
JF: Well, that's one of the issues that there isn't. My only greatest challenger is me in the future. That's the only competition I've had so far.

GM: I want to talk to you about Ping-Pong because I'm a huge fan and I know you are, too. It's made fun of but it's a great sport.
JF: Yeah, I don't make fun of it. In real life I'm trying to promote it as a sport.

GM: It's a work-out, too.
JF: It is a work-out. The better you get, the better a work-out it is.

GM: Are you going to play up here?
JF: Yeah, hopefully. I've had some injuries in real life. I mean, the World Champion's fine, believe me. But Judah Friedlander's had some injuries. So hopefully I'll be able to.

GM: Did you play competitively as a youngster?
JF: Soccer was always my main game but I did play one official real tournament when I was a kid. My brother went to Ping-Pong camp for a week and learned the fundamentals and all that stuff and I kinda learned from him. But soccer was always my main game. And then about four-and-a-half years ago, I found myself up at four in the morning watching live Olympic Ping-Pong online and I was like, alright, I gotta start playing again. So it's about four-and-a-half years ago I started to play official tournaments and really got into it.

GM: And how are you doing in it?
JF: I'm doing alright but I've got this injury I've got to get over so I can't really play right now.

GM: Jonathan Katz was a big Ping-Pong player.
JF: Yes, I know. He was very good. Very good. He was a top junior. That's cool that you know that. I've never met him and I'm a fan of his. I hope he's doing well. But yeah, he was a legit competitive Ping-Pong player.

GM: I was playing quite regularly. I had my own tournament in my house.
JF: Awesome.

GM: And I won it, of course.
JF: Of course.

GM: And I started to take a class. It was great. Then I was asked to play a 13-year-old girl from here who won her age in the US Open on a local show here. I played her one set to 11 and I didn't get a point off her.
JF: Where was this girl from?

GM: Here.
JF: And she won the US Open?

GM: For her age.
JF: How old was she?

GM: Thirteen.
JF: Yeah, yeah, so she's probably between 2100 and 2400 in rating. Yeah, you shouldn't get a point off of her.

GM: I felt like I should at least get a single point.
JF: Well, if you did, it would be out of luck or a mistake from her part, basically. I mean, if you play someone of that level, you should score anywhere from zero to four points tops, and the points you would score would probably mostly be like if you hit it and it accidentally hit the edge of the table or it hit the net or if they just went for a big shot and missed by like two millimetres or something like that.

GM: I would have been happy with a fluke point. I wouldn't have cared.
JF: Yeah, exactly.

GM: Do you play other comics?
JF: No, I don't play any comics in Ping-Pong. The only comic that actually I know of that plays competitive Ping-Pong is Frank Caliendo. We've actually never played but we've talked some. We live in different cities. One of these days we'll play. But yeah, he's the only comic I know that plays competitive Ping-Pong.

GM: Okay, Judah. Thanks a lot for talking.

JF: Dude, thanks so much.

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