Judah Friedlander is best known for his role as Frank Rossitano on 30 Rock, but his heart will always be in stand-up, which he's been performing several nights out of the week around the city for more than 20 years. He'll be on Caroline's on Broadway through tomorrow night, but still found a few minutes to chat with us as he navigated Midtown on the phone.
Hi Judah, how are you? Awesome—how are you? Are you guys still in DUMBO?
We are, and we have a ping pong table. That's the word on the street!
You could be here right now beating all of us. Yeah, I'm in meetings all day, but I would love to get there at some point.
You're also the World Champion at ping pong—what does it take to become a truly excellent ping pong player? Well you know, the top players train six or so hours a day, every day since they're little kids. It's a real sport like any other sport, and it's actually in many ways a lot more highly skilled sport than any other sport.
You refer to yourself as a "ping pong advocate." Is there anything about ping pong you feel people tend to misunderstand? Most people don't—in this country at least—they don't understand that it's actually a real sport. Almost everyone you meet, if they think they're good at ping pong, they literally think they can probably beat anybody. And it's hard for me to think of another sport where that's true. There's not a lot of people who think "Oh yeah, I can play in the NBA, I had a good pick up game this weekend, I can do that." But in ping pong, people legitimately think they can beat someone who is a ranked player after playing in the basement for a couple hours. It's a big sport in a lot of other countries, and I'm just trying to help popularize it. I do the same for soccer also.
Did you believe the U.S. would win the World Cup this summer? You know, after they beat Nigeria in the warm-ups, I actually thought we had a pretty good chance of doing quite well for part of it. We actually wound up doing not as well as I thought we'd do. But there were improvements in some areas and regression in other areas. But overall it was good.
I saw a video of you from a couple years ago juggling. Is that really you? Yeah that's me, there's no CGI.
You're good! It looks like you've played for quite some time. I played for years. I'm an old man now, but I played for years. Hold on one second. [To the side: "Did you get the red, white and blue hat? The trucker hat? OK.]
You said "trucker hat," which I won't ask about specifically. But even back in the Dave Mathews Band video you have the same style. When you started with the hats and big glasses did you know from the onset that you would be wearing that type of clothing forever? Were you born wearing a trucker hat? I always wore trucker hats, since I was a kid I wore hats and stuff, and I think it was early '90s I started making my own hats. I was never someone who wore the cool stuff or the fancy stuff or the labels or designer stuff. And it wasn't about really a political stance. I just thought it was stupid, and it cost a lot more money. And then at one point I found some blank hats, and I was like "I'm gonna fucking' make my own." And so that's what I started doing.
For stand-up, my glasses are much bigger and gaudier than they are in 30 Rock, but they originally came as sort of a reaction to all the hipsters in downtown Manhattan. This was back in the early '90s, and they weren't called hipsters then, and they didn't dress like hipsters. They dressed a different way. They were called poseurs, maybe, but they weren't called hipsters. Back then the style was very, very thin, wire rimmed glasses, almost like the old John Lennon glasses, and goatees.
And I'm like "You know what, I'm gonna do the opposite of what the fuck they're doing, just as sort of like a "screw you" to them. So I got the biggest glasses I could find. And they were actually my dad's, they were military-issued glasses called BCG glasses, which at the time was an acronym for Birth Control Glasses. Back then those glasses were considered just so freaky and ugly, now they're like, cool. The glasses I wear now in stand-up are very big and have the American flag all over them. A lot of my act that I'm dealing with these days deals with kind of a satirical and subversive and sarcastic way to look at the United States, the self-proclaimed greatest country in the world. I've heard it backfire in a lot of the U.S. relations and human rights and public policy as well as international stuff. A lot of the American flag stuff I'm wearing is a mix of celebrating America, yet mocking it at the same time.
I was going to ask about the abundance of American flag imagery. Well I have a line, and it might be the title of my next album—it's "America is the greatest country in the United States." That might be the title of my next album, I'm not sure yet
That's good, glad we got the scoop. [Sound of background sirens] Where are you standing right now. Are you in the middle of Midtown? I'm walking on 7th Ave and [SHRIEKING SIRENS].
Do you still live in Queens? I moved to Manhattan about six months ago. I like the convenience, but I'm considering moving back in Queens.
Already? What part of Manhattan did you settle on? East Village, I last lived there in I think '94.
It's changed quite a bit since '94. Yeah, a hell of a lot.
Do you prefer it now or then? I moved out '94 or '95 because my rent was going up to $809, and I'm like "This is ridiculous, I'm out of here." And that's no exaggeration. I had a studio on the first floor facing the street on St. Marks and 1st Avenue.
But I prefer the '90s version. It's safer now and there's more health food options, but I don't like the general vibe as much as I used to, no. It's got a very corporate vibe, it's kind of like a dumb party vibe. The only people who are into the arts who live there are 50 and older, or still in college.
Your mention of health food places reminds me that you had a part in a horror movie called Feast, in addition to a cameo in Return To Nuke 'Em High. You're a big Troma fan, right? I love all kinds of offbeat movies. I'm a big Toxic Avenger fan and I did, just for fun and as a favor, I did a little cameo in Return to Nuke 'Em High. Feast was a really good movie. The cast was great—it's a movie that's legitimately scary and legitimately funny too, which it's supposed to be.
It's executive produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and Henry Rollins was in it, too. I need to know if the four of you ever hung out, ate sushi or whatever? No, but I've worked with Affleck before, he's an incredibly nice dude—like wow. He's really smart and really nice, and same goes for Damon. Him I got to know on 30 Rock, I'd never met him on Feast, but when I met him on 30 Rock, he started talking about Feast, 'cause even though I didn't meet him on it, he was involved behind the scenes. But Rollins I did hang out with, yeah, when we were filming.
What sort of stuff did you guys do together—you seem like sort of different people. I think we're both very into, you know, how the world works and corruption and shit like that. I don't really know his music that well but, he's good guy. He's pretty intense, he's also very funny. I think when we hung out we sort of had little bit of a relationship like we did in the movie where I was being the dumb, excited, funny guy and he was the intense, serious guy. But I really respect him and all the work he's done.