Published Nov 16, 2017Throughout the course of his excellent new standup special, America is the Greatest Country in the United States, Judah Friedlander is clad in a jacket and T-shirt emblazoned with his superhero identity, the World Champion.
"As the World Champion, I'm someone who stands up for the rights of the world and the people and the plants and the atmosphere," he tells Exclaim! over the phone about this Netflix project. "That's what the World Champion does; he fights for what's right throughout the world and he also knows the world quite well and is always interested in learning more about the world."
Friedlander is an author, actor, and comedian based in New York City. Known for various television and film roles, including 30 Rock, where he was a cast member, and American Splendour, which earned him an Independent Spirit Film Award nomination, Friedlander is most at home on stage, doing standup around the world.
You can sense his command and comfort in NYC's Comedy Cellar, where America is the Best Country in the United States was shot in 2016 and 2017. In his World Champion guise, he takes on his homeland, scrutinizing the curious manner in which it has made its way in the world.
"One thing I find in the U.S. is that there's this propaganda, and I see it from the two major political parties and the mainstream media and the government," Friedlander explains. "We're taught that this is the greatest country in the history of Earth. And when we have an election, we're electing the 'leader of the free world.' I've always thought, 'Why are we the only country that gets to vote for the leader of the free world?' And I guess it's because we're number one, we're the best.
"The U.S. has a superiority complex. It's fine to have pride, but it really is propaganda. You're raised and always reminded that we're the greatest in the world, period. And if there's ever any problem, it must be someone else's fault. Maybe it's the Democrats or the Republicans or some foreigners doing it, but it can't be 'us.'
"We're very good at looking out the window, we're not good at looking in the mirror."
It's a fascinating statement that captures the times rather well. In the wake of the myriad sexual harassment allegations women have recently felt empowered to level at powerful men, we've heard some of these oblivious men bumble their way through clumsy, ill-thought statements that don't truly acknowledge their culpability in behaving like monsters.
Certainly Friedlander's comedy world has been rocked by the downfall of Louis C.K., whose conduct has been discussed in dribs and drabs over the past few years before the floodgates truly opened this month, confirming that C.K. engaged in perverse and offensive sex acts.
"You might actually know more than I do," Friedlander says of C.K. "I first heard things about him a year or two ago when I read an article in Gawker about Jen Kirkman doing a podcast and alluding to him, not saying his name, and then a week later taking the podcast down. When I read that article, it linked to another article, which was from a year or two earlier, when Gawker was trying to investigate it but got shut down or something. That's all I ever heard.
"But that's not surprising," he adds. "If two comics are going out, I'm generally the last to know about it. I'm not personally connected to that many comics. And Louis is not someone I'm friends with.
"It's stuff that I heard through reading about it and I'm glad that the women who have come forward have come forward. If there's more, I hope they all come forward and I support all of them one hundred percent."
If Friedlander is in the dark about his vocational social circle, it could be because he spends too much time reading about other people and places. During some remarkable crowd work sequences in his new film, he asks audience members to state their home country and, on a dime, Friedlander is able to riff on Denmark, Canada, Germany or Mexico in a nuanced enough manner that suggests he's done some homework.
"The World Champion is a comment on narcissism and the theme of the whole project is American exceptionalism and showing off," he explains. "I've always been passionate about human rights issues. When I was 10 or 11, I did my own political cartoons but I never really did any of that in my act.
"But about eight years ago, I started doing shows in Europe and when I went to London, I thought, 'This is great, I'm going to learn a lot about this country.' And I did, but what I really learned about a lot more was my own country."
Friedlander suggests that, like a painter who steps back a ways to look at their work or a person viewing a relationship in hindsight, some distance from America actually helped him understand America better, which led him to both craft material but also explore that natural curiosity for the world with strangers in the dark at a comedy club.
"I was able to see certain issues with my country from a better perspective. That's when I started doing more stuff about not just other countries but my own country. And it happened organically. In standup, you plan a certain amount of things but then it takes on a life of its own."
Listen to this interview with Judah Friedlander on Kreative Kontrol via iTunes or below.