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Judah Friedlander is not funny in the traditional, I-can't-believe-he-said-that kind of way. The 48-year-old comedian is funny in a more nuanced, at times even depressing kind of way—and speaking to him over the phone about the current state of politics in America sheds light on the catalyst behind his dually amusing and, well, heartbreaking brand of comedy.
Now working on new material for a possible tour while still regularly gigging at New York’s Comedy Cellar at the Village Underground, Friedlander is also the star of his very own Netflix stand-up comedy special, America is the Greatest Country in the United States, in which, as the title sarcastically suggests, he delves into the country’s social, cultural and political identity—an identity that, as the comedian himself is quick to point out, is not necessarily tied to said country’s current President.
“In the stand-up special, which is 84 minutes long, I think I say Trump’s name maybe three or four times,” Friedlander claims over the phone. [Editor's note: Friedlander mentions Trump's name 11 times during the Netflix special.] “I care about people and I don’t call my act political either. I call it satire. It’s satire of the United States, of the world. With this satire, I try to expose the hypocrisy and criticize the oppression that the government [is responsible for] and talk about the big human rights issues in a way that [is] supportive of them and try to get people to actually maybe think about them.”
Although most of his material draws on themes and subjects that have defined the latest American political cycle, Friedlander is right: What he pokes fun at, although evocative of Donald Trump’s own stance on issues, is applicable to the system as a whole and, when analyzed comprehensively, tells the story of a broken structure—as opposed to the story of a broken political actor, free-floating in a sea of functioning governance.
Bizarrely enough, although conversations about politics have become some of the most intense, stress-inducing and certainly least fun discussions to be had, the subject begets the most laughs in comedy. Just turn on late night television or catch a local comedy show: Audiences’ cries of laughter are loudest when following a politically-themed joke.
Undeniably aware of that, Friedlander still doesn’t find the need to disclose his own political leanings before taking the stage: “I don’t like telling people how to think,” he says. “I like giving people to think.”
Especially when measured against the usual liberal backdrop that engulfs the entertainment industry, Friedlander's own politics—which he discusses freely over the phone—come off as anti-conformist... yet completely logical.
Photograph: Phil Provencio
In short: Friedlander doesn’t like the binary system that defines our government and doesn’t identify with either political party. His dislike is distributed evenly among the Republican and Democratic factions: “I think [one party is] worse than the other but I think they’re both bad in many ways,” he says. “I don’t really see the Democratic party fighting Trump with ideas. They are just saying: ‘He’s bad, let’s not get him re-elected.’ I think [that] if you’re going to replace somebody that you don’t like, you can’t just think of people to replace him with—you have to think about what ideas are going to replace that person and I don’t think that the Democrats are doing that.” He goes on: “I don’t view the Democratic party as the left wing party. I view them as a right wing party. Not nearly as far to the right as the Republicans, but I still view them as a right wing party.” When pressed for an explanation for his rather unorthodox perspective, he replies: “[The Democrats] are just as pro-war as the Republicans, for the most part. They are pro-Wall Street, they are pro-big banks, they are pro-mass incarceration, they are pro-drug companies and for-profit health care. I think they’re better when it comes to human rights issues as far as women’s issues or anyone-who-is-not-a-white-male issues.” He defines his own views as even more to the left than the liberal party.
Would a Hillary Clinton win have resulted in a more acceptable outcome? “I think it would have been better than what we currently have,” he concedes. But, to him, the issue runs deeper than the specific candidates. He finds Trump to be an escalation of the state of affairs that have dominated the country for years and years: “As bad as Trump is, and I think he’s probably the most dangerous President we’ve had certainly in the last 50 to 100 years, he did not invent mass incarceration, he did not invent the gun problem in this country, he did not invent not having universal health care,” he says passionately. “All these problems that this country has had [have been] problems since its inception and [they] all fall under the power structures that still dominate the country: There’s the white male supremacy power structure, which racism and imperialism fall under, and, now, there is the corporate supremacy as well, which I see growing certainly within the past 30 years.”
A discussion about the American political system and its voters obviously leads to questions about political correctness. “The people that are politically correct, there’s pluses and minuses to it. Things are trickier than ever now because there are people that are very pro-speech and they mean it. Then there are people who are pro-free speech but they don’t mean it. They’re just using free speech to mask their bigotry. Then, there are people who are a mix. You’ve got to look at it individually, because there are so many different reasons for people doing things.”
As for his own sort of “correctness” and whether he deems any topic to be too taboo to be mentioned in his act, he says: “I don’t have a list of things that I’m not going to do but I don’t like doing anything that is a threat to people.”
Used to touring across the ocean as well, Friedlander does acknowledge that there is a difference between American and non-American audiences. “I think in general, [people overseas] are better educated about the world and world politics and they often understand our country better than we understand it. I think it’s hard to analyze our own country when in it,” he advances. “Money wise, pop culture wise and military wise, we are a powerful and influential country and the Presidents of a lot of other countries pay attention to what is going on here. We, in general, don’t really pay attention to what goes on in any other country. Perhaps I’m just really pessimistic and have no faith that anybody on any level is going to analyze things correctly and [for the] better.”
Which begs the question: Does he think of America as the greatest country in the world? “Even if I did, I wouldn’t say that because I don’t think it’s good to be cocky. And that’s what a lot of my act makes fun of: Making fun of showoffs and narcisms,” he says, mentioning the superiority complex that Americans have, thinking of themselves as icons of a morally accepting and ethnically diverse culture.
“This country has the idea [...] that it is the most diverse country, that it’s just a melting pot,” he says. “I think we’re a pot… but I don’t think there’s a lot of stirring up going on within it.” One thing is, at least, certain: For his part, Friedlander is doing as much stirring-of-the-pot as possible both on and off the comedy stage.