There’s nothing wrong with being into your country’s history. In fact, it’s an admirable quality to have. But then there are those who fall into the ignorance that comes with unabashedly loving something so much. People are willing to overlook the negative aspects like total lack of gun safety or the growing state of waistband size simply because ‘Merica.
Judah Friedlander is playing into the hype with his latest special – America is the Greatest Country in the United States – as he lampoons blind patriotism with a splash of reality. The result is a hefty comedy special made up of multiple sets spanning over a year’s worth of material. Friedlander easily slips between two worlds of standup and social commentator all the while getting the audience involved.
I recently had a chance to chat with Friedlander about the special, capturing a comedy club’s vibe, and how he can turn crowd work into full fledged bits.
[Your special] was done in the Comedy Cellar. It looks like that was the perfect place because it was so intimate of a special. What was your vision when you were trying to set it up as a director?
Judah Friedlander: I wanted to capture a real feel. That’s where I perform the most. They actually have three rooms. I filmed it at three of their different rooms over multiple nights. There’s about thirty seconds of footage from another venue. I wanted to do the opposite of what most comedy specials are. Most comedy specials are a comedian performing at a venue they never perform at and it’s a huge production. Tons of cameras and camera equipment. Fancy lighting. Smoke machine. I wanted to do the opposite of that. I wanted to do something that was simple and real. That’s why I framed it the way I did.
I know it was shot over the course of a pretty long period. You’re not the first one to do that. Chris Rock did it for his last special. What was the concept for creating a bunch of random nights and putting them together for this one, final 84 minute feature?
Friedlander: His was filmed at three different venues when he was on a tour. This is still much different than that. His is edited and filmed in a much different way. Mine’s really more of a documentary. It’s a standup performance film. His was basically showing him doing the same act in different countries. Mine is showing many different acts at the same place on different nights. I wanted to capture what a real standup show of mine feels like.
The way they film most standup on TV – period – is not a realistic experience. Usually, a fifth of the audience seats you’re taking out and they put all these cameras in. They change the audio; they change the lighting. Often the audience is not a real audience. Sometimes it’s a shipped in audience that are gotten by people who specialize in getting audiences for TV shows. It’s not a real standup comedy audience. I wanted to capture something real.
I enjoyed all of the joke writing, if it was joke writing. There was a lot of off the cuff stuff. I was racking my brain for this but you reminded me a lot of Todd Barry’s The Crowd Work Tour he did in 2014. Both were so masterfully done because of the way both of you interacted with the audience. And you weren’t afraid to call them out on dumb things. I thought that was a wonderful attribute.
Friedlander: I’m a fan of Todd’s. His was filmed differently. But I like that one. His was filmed with the audience knowing it’s a crowd work tour. They actually had a microphone set up for audience members to go up there and ask questions. Mine was filmed on nights at a comedy club. There’s nothing said beforehand saying “Hey, we’re doing crowd work now. They say my name and then I go on stage. What happens happens.
Within my crowd work is 100% off the cuff. And then some of the material, like when I’m talking about the presidential platform…some of those jokes were initially 100% off the cuff. Say someone asked me about immigration but what would my presidential platform say about immigration. Initially, the first time someone asked me that, I made up a joke. Then a week later, someone asks me that same questions – I’ll do that same joke. Try to maybe improve the wording a little bit. Then I’ll try to add another joke onto it. All right on the spot. None of this is worked off stage; it’s all on stage.
After a while, what started out as having one joke on immigration, I now have eight jokes on immigration. And a mix of short one liners and an extended bit. For that particular one, you’re seeing several bits on immigration that were all initially 100% off the cuff crowd work. But they’ve been worked into full fledged extended bits. And then there’s some other bits in the special that are 100% off the cuff that happened just that night. It’s a mix, what you’re seeing.
That’s pretty cool. There’s a lot of points where you’re switching between this character and your actual true beliefs. This character where you’re basically mocking patriotism and you’re saying these outlandish things about these other countries but you’re also giving details about how America has [thousands of] gun deaths and paid maternity leave is short; jokes about McDonalds and prisons in America versus somewhere where prison doesn’t even exist.
Friedlander: We’re number one! We’re number one! It’s crazy.
It looks like not other special I’ve seen before. It’s well done so good job with that. I like the guerilla camera style. I like including people walking between the cameras. I love the black and white aesthetic.
Friedlander: Thanks, man. I wanted it to feel – you know when you’re watching – I wanted it to feel like you’re at the venue. When you’re at a venue, there are distractions. You’re often sitting next to someone you don’t know. There’s people getting up and going to the bathroom. There’s wait staff walking by. I kept all that in. That’s usually the stuff people go out of their way to keep out. I put it in on purpose. I just wanted it to be real. The audio, I wanted it to sound real too. Comedy specials generally record in a high-tech way. What you’re generally listening to is not that realistic of a sound. I went for much more [realism] in sound as well as visually.
My theory behind that is…when I was a kid, I used to do filmmaking and stuff. I’m a big fan of independent cinema - certainly a lot of independent cinema from the 70’s and 80’s coming out of New York. I just want to have a simplicity and a rawness to it. I think, ultimately, standup is a simplistic and raw art form. It’s a microphone and someone talking into it. And then there’s a light on them. That’s basically the technology.
In general, I don’t like the way comedy specials are filmed. They’re these huge productions to film something so simple. It’s a simple art form, lets film it in a simple way. That’s what I did. It took me about a year of filming. I filmed shows almost every night for a year before I really found the angle and the style of camera work that I wanted as best I could.
Have you ever wanted to – since you had this visceral idea when you were directing this special – get out and make something more scripted?
Friedlander: I don’t have any ideas for TV shows but I do have some ideas for movies. I think at some point, I think I will make some. Right now, though, I’m just continuing to focus on standup. And there is a documentary or two I might want to make also. You know, about another subject. Not about me.