The inimitable Judah Friedlander released America Is the Greatest Country In the United States on Netflix last year, and if you haven’t watched it yet, you should absolutely send it to the top of your watch list – it was shot at the Comedy Cellar right here in NYC, and features 84 minutes of 100% deadpan political goodness. He’s currently working on new material, and rarely if ever takes a day off, but I was able to hop on the phone to him to have a chat about what it was like to make the self-produced Netflix special, why Trump doesn’t necessarily lend himself to good comedy, what’s been going on with his project Activist Barbie and more, so internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below. Then, either hang out with him on your couch via Netflix, or catch him live at the Comedy Cellar tonight at 9:30pm!
So you do shows pretty constantly, and you have been doing that for a long time – is there any secret to not getting burnt out?
Yeah, I feel like I’m on the verge of maybe needing to take a couple of days off here. But I don’t really take days off. It’s important to always be working on new material, and to mix it up. Some shows I won’t do any new material, I’ll just do crowd work. But working on new stuff does help to prevent getting burnt out, like you said.
Is there any material that you just, as a person, will not touch? Because it seems like you have a pretty wide span of things that maybe other people might hesitate to talk about.
I’d have to think about that. I don’t have rules, really, but in general, I don’t pick on the so-called “little person”, the person who’s oppressed. I don’t do that. And all kinds of things come into my head, and there might be a funny joke, but it’s just so awful or mean that I’m like, “No, I’m not going to do that.” I don’t think those are necessarily “rules”, I think it’s more that I do things for taste or what’s morally in line with me. I just take each thing as it goes.
Well, and with your Netflix special in particular, it’s a very interactive show; is there any way in particular that you prepare for a show like that? Or is it generally completely off the cuff?
When I’m doing stuff about national issues and human rights issues, some of the stuff in my special is completely on the spot. Most of that stuff is stuff that was initially 100% on the spot. For example, the stuff that I have on healthcare – I think it’s several minutes, but initially, I didn’t know people were going to ask that question, and I’d come up with a joke right on the spot, and then over time, over months or a year, one or two jokes that were initially fifteen seconds are now four minutes. It’s just something I’d build on. Then some of the jokes, I think my initial first joke about healthcare was something I dropped – I don’t do that anymore because I came up with better jokes. It’s sort of an ongoing process. Right now I’m working on new material, but in part of my act, I’m still doing some of my presidential platform. So the question of healthcare does come up sometimes from the audience, but I’m doing completely new jokes, or a completely new platform, I should say. I’m not doing any of the same jokes that I did on the Netflix special. Basically some of the material is written on stage, and some is written off stage (beforehand), and then some of it is a mix. There’s also other crowd work I do. When I’m doing my presidential platform stuff, that’s a style of mine that is a mix of crowd work and material, because I don’t know who’s going to ask what question, but I know that some questions are likely to be asked, and I’ve been asked some of them before. But I also love it when audiences ask me questions I’ve never had before, or ask me bizarre questions. I love that, but that doesn’t always happen. There’s also some crowd work in the special that was 100% off the cuff that was never done again, so when you’re asking about burnout stuff, and I talked about doing crowd work, I was talking about not doing anything I’ve ever done before, just 100% that night.
Right. Now, there was that sort of running joke (which was met with some backlash) about how if Trump got elected, comedians would be set for life. And I don’t necessarily agree with that statement…
Yeah, I disagree with that. I don’t think he’s necessarily great for comedy. It all depends on how people do it. Most people…I’m not a big fan of how most people do comedy with Trump. I find most of it to be quite trite, not very insightful, and just sort of easy, petty stuff, you know? Like making fun of his voice, or making fun of his looks. It’s the policies that are the big issues to be talking about, so the human rights issues, and not the easy stuff, you know? Even the hypocritical stuff with him…I mean, he’s such an obvious hypocrite, so it’s not like you’re exposing these unbelievable truths with the stuff he says. You gotta dig deeper into the core of the attacks on human rights that are going on. So it’s not always easy to do good comedy with him. I should put it that way. If you want your quick, easy, simple laughs, then I guess he’s good for that, but I’m not interested in that.
Oh, for sure. There’s so much low-hanging fruit. There is also genuinely a bombardment of information, a lot of it negative, on a daily basis. How do you deal with sifting through and processing that, either as a comedian or as a person? Does it feel overwhelming?
I think it’s very complex. I think the country’s at war with itself in many ways, and in all factions. There’s the extreme right who’s at war with so much of the country. If you’re on the right, I think there’s more infractions going on for power. And to the left…I don’t think the Democrats are a left party, so I don’t call them a left party. I think they’re much more of a right wing party than a left wing party, but they’re to the left of the Republicans. So anything to the left of the Republicans is also having kind of a war that’s going on. So I think there’s a lot of change happening now, and it’s a fight, and change can be messy, and we’re right in the middle of it. So it’s a mix of terrible times and exciting times, and we don’t know the outcome yet. But it’s definitely time to fight, you know? And by fight, I mean fight for justice and human rights.
When you’re talking about some of these very important and polarizing topics during your shows, have you gotten any very negative reactions?
Oh yeah, sure. You’ve always got to be on guard on some level for something to happen. I remember two women almost got into a full-on physical fight during one of my shows after the election. It was between a middle-aged woman who was a Hillary voter, and a woman in her twenties who was a Trump voter. That was intense. And then there have been other situations where people have yelled out very aggressively to me during a show. When you talk about big issues, people get very uncomfortable, and some people don’t respond well. But, you know, if you make things funny enough, usually people are cool with shit. But there’s always psychopaths, so it doesn’t matter if something is hilarious or not. Even if you’re not doing anything political at all, just doing jokes, you know, there could be some psychopath or someone who’s way too drunk, and the whole crowd might hate them, everyone might be laughing at everything you’re doing, but they won’t shut up because they’re drunk or on other stuff, and they’re completely out of control. And I’m not even talking about political stuff. So when you have something that people take so seriously, yeah, there’s a chance for people to be very volatile.
On the flip side of that, have you ever had anybody come up to you after a show and feel super enlightened as a result of your material?
Yeah, that stuff does happen. That stuff happens too. Usually I don’t stick around after shows, though; I do a set and then I’m off to another place to do another set, so I don’t have that much interaction with audiences after shows.
What does an average day look like for you, like before you launch into show mode? Is there any sort of routine?
I haven’t taken a day off in months, so I don’t know. I mean, I had the stomach flu for about a week, so I think I cancelled five or six days of shows. I couldn’t do anything, I was too sick. But I need to take some time off, because I haven’t done that in a long time.
Right. And I saw that Activist Barbie was at the Women’s March last weekend – how’s she doing?
You know, I took a break with Activist Barbie for a while. It’s sort of like an ongoing art project that I’ve been doing, and I took a break for a couple of reasons. First, I put out my special, and when it first came out I was trying to do a lot of publicity for that. At the same time, I was also trying to work on all new material; my stand-up special was eighty-four minutes, and I’m just trying not to do any of that material again. It’s a lot of work to start over with all new stuff all the time. And then with the whole #MeToo movement, I did a couple of posts, really just one in September, did a couple in September, and then on October 13th I did one with the hashtags #StandWithWomen#WomenBoycottTwitter and #ROSEARMY. And when the whole #MeToo movement started kicking in, I was like, it’s such a serious subject, and as a guy, this was a movement…I mean, anyone and everyone can be a victim of sexual assault; it doesn’t matter what your gender is, but in general, I mean, I haven’t checked the statistics, but my guess would be that women are much often more the victims of sexual assault than men. It does happen to men (it’s happened to me before), but I don’t know, the Activist Barbie is satire, and its main function is using an example of getting white people to speak up for people who are oppressed and not white. So empathy, and treating everyone in the world as brothers and sisters, instead of just, you know, only women fighting for women’s rights and only gay people fighting for gay people’s rights and only Black people fighting for Black people’s rights. What the fuck are we doing? What kind of a world is that? We’re not going to get progress that way – men have to fight for women, straight people for gay people, non-trans cis people for trans people and so on and so forth. That’s what Activist Barbie is ultimately about. And then the other issue is that the mainstream media mostly portrays protesting as something negative, with the Women’s March being the exception. And that is such a phenomenal success, and it’s pushed past this idea that most protesting is very extremist. Almost every other protest either gets no coverage from the mainstream media, or it’s only covered if some violence breaks out, and usually when violence breaks out, it’s a very small fraction of that protest. But that’s what the media chooses to show, is the violence. So ultimately Activist Barbie was about sticking up for people who may not be your same gender or your same sexual desires or your same race. Being a guy talking about the #MeToo stuff, I was like, “I support it, but being a guy doing Activist Barbie, who’s a female, and commenting on that, and still trying to keep it funny…you know what, I think I’m just going to sit back and listen and support, and not have Activist Barbie be that involved in it.” So that’s kind of why I left it as it is for now.
And how’s the rest of your year shaping up in terms of bigger projects?
My goal is to put out two more projects this year – one stand-up special that is all crowd work, and not political stuff, not human rights stuff, just 100% loose and having fun with the crowd. And then the second one will be all new material. And I’m making all of these on my own. The one that’s out now, there was no deal in place beforehand, I just made it, and after it was done I started shopping it around. My hunch is that that’s what I’m going to do on this one, too. I think I make a lot less money that way, but I like the results better.