30 Rock's Judah Friedlander Loves Feet, Hates Fascism [Exclusive]
I met the comedian/author/30 Rock star Judah Friedlander a few weeks ago at the Comedy Cellar. It’s a legendary club in Greenwich Village that’s perhaps most often seen in the credits for the TV show Louie, as a stage where Louis C.K. morosely performs. Unlike the famous ginger, Friedlander didn’t seem depressed; he was excited to talk about his hilarious and insightful new book of drawings, If the Raindrops United, out October 20th. He led me to the Olive Tree Café, upstairs from the club, where we sat at a table in the back that’s specifically reserved for comedians. My butt cheeks have now surely been in the same position as Chris Rock’s butt cheeks, and I felt very special.
Friedlander didn’t remember right away, but this wasn’t the first time we’d met. When I was 19, due to complicated lesbian sexual politics, I had to fill in last minute for someone at a college talent show. There were hundreds of people there, and I was shaking from nerves. Since Judah was hosting the show, I ended up backstage with him. He asked me if I was nervous, and proceeded to calm me down with funny stories about standup sets gone awry. He took the time out of a busy night to help a random girl, and I have never forgotten it. At the end of our interview, when I told him that story, he said he remembered, and gave me a huge hug. He is a kind person.
The first thing one tends to notice about Judah is his hat. He’s never without one, usually with a homemade slogan about being the “World Champion,” a standup routine that he’s been evolving for years. “The persona of the World Champion is always changing,” he said. “Initially it was just this idiot who was always bragging about these ridiculous athletic achievements – and that was very early on, probably almost fifteen years ago. I decided to make this ‘World Champion’ hat, and the joke was ‘World Champion of what?’”
The hat Friedlander wore when we met showed hands speaking in sign language rather than actual words. “The story behind this hat is that in sign language, it says ‘World Champion.’ And when you win the World Championships, you get a hat in the language of whatever country in which they took place. So they were held in Korea, and they were gonna make it in Korean, but my karate kicks had so much power that the sound of my opponents’ bones cracking made the judges go deaf, so they had to make it in sign language. And the little fists are the shrunken fists of my deceased opponents.” We would personally like to be able to do this. Live every week like it’s Shark Week.
The World Champion persona is never static. “It morphed into someone who might seem like they’re bragging, but it’s all real,” said Friedlander. “The past several years, it’s really been morphing into someone that’s a champion of the world, a champion for the people of the world.” In his real life, Friedlander also tries to be a champion for the people, or at least a voice for those that may not have one. Both his book and his standup routines take on the biggest issues: classism, racism, sexism, etc. “I try to find comedy in dark places, or places you wouldn’t ordinarily look,” he said. “This book in particular is a mix of comedy and seriousness. I try to make my stuff so that no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you’ll dig it. When you’re just sort of preaching to the choir, I don’t find that interesting. When you talk about something difficult and can still find the humor in it, I find that much more interesting.”
The cartoons in If The Raindrops United are a great black comedy, a mix of juvenile jokes about dicks — our favorite kind of joke – and visual puns tackling everything from loneliness to Jim Crow. “A lot of the book is just comedy, but there’s a lot that’s dark satire that’s dealing with serious issues,” he said. “Some of the cartoons serve up a dramatic punch line as opposed to a comedic one.” It’s a good book with great blurbs, including one from TV boss Tina Fey, and a particularly hilarious statement from Friedlander’s 30 Rock love interest, Susan Sarandon, whom he actually met playing ping-pong. “Some people meditate. Some people masturbate. But if you don’t have the time or patience for either of those, I recommend reading If the Raindrops United to calm down, have a little laugh, or a big think.”
“Some people meditate. Some people masturbate. But if you don’t have the time or patience for either of those, I recommend reading If the Raindrops United to calm down, have a little laugh, or a big think.”
One of the recurring themes in the book is the gentrification of New York. “For a long time I was living way out in Queens, about a mile from the subway, so it was a really non-gentrified area,” said Friedlander. “And then about a year ago, I moved back to Manhattan. I hadn’t lived in Manhattan since 2006, and hadn’t lived in the East Village since around ‘95, so it was wild moving back.”
He continued. “When I moved back to Manhattan, not only could I see the gentrification, I really saw classism. So many of the people that live in Manhattan seem to live in a resort hotel, and everyone else that’s living in the city is just there to serve them. And I think that there’s something dangerous and creepy and scary about a city where almost everyone who has a normal job – the teachers, the firemen, the policemen – they come there to work, but afterward, they go away. People talk about the economic inequalities in this country, but Manhattan’s a rare case – and so is half of Brooklyn at this point – there aren’t too many cities where almost the entire city’s wealthy.”
Friedlander, who moved to New York in 1987, misses the Old Times Square, with “the porno theaters and the 24-hour arcades and the strip clubs.” He uses a cartoon creation, “Gentrification Man,” to deal with the sadness of losing so much of New York. I’m an assholian white Chinatown resident who sees local businesses closing all the time, so it hits pretty close to home.
But above all, the cartoons are really, really funny. Judah, who has been drawing since he was a kid, loves to explain all his jokes in great detail. He’s never pedantic, just super enthusiastic, and he likes to insure that each cartoon has a visual joke; the humor doesn’t just come from a written punch line. “With the scalene triangle,” he explains. “It’s not even anti- plastic surgery. It’s just saying that it’s ok to be who you are.” The light cartoons still have a deeper message, like a loose tooth “fighting against fascism” in a perfectly aligned mouth. Even a simple image of a shark with braces has a deeper meaning. “Nobody thinks about how a shark could go through puberty! They might have a painful phase too.”
I noticed that a lot of them seem to involve toes, boobs, and pubes. “I was thinking about that!” he said. “Because I actually also have drawings that aren’t in the book that are about feet.” Very Quentin Tarantino. He especially loves to draw noses. “With the noses, I don’t think it’s a fetish thing. I like noses, but I like the act of drawing the nose. The pen on the paper just feels good. I just like noses. They’re just fun to draw. I could draw noses all day.”
But the book’s title is poignant. “I just had this idea where what if all the raindrops came together? It would wipe out half the city!” he said. “It’s kind of a metaphor that if people come together, they can actually have a lot of power.”
Judah Friedlander says a lot with his drawings. “A lot of people, they only see their problems, they can’t empathize with other people’s problems. And that’s what I want to do.” We think he achieved it. Especially with the dicks.
If the Raindrops United is available October 20th via the Hatchette Book Group
Photos shot exclusively for Milk by Tyler Nevitt
All drawings by Judah Friedlander, courtesy of Hatchette Book Group
Catch Judah Friedlander’s stand up at the Comedy Cellar on 10/20, and at powerHouse Books for a signing on 10/21