Before there was the Make America Great Again hat, there was the World Champion hat.
Around 2010, years before supporters of President Donald Trump donned red-and-white MAGA hats to show their support, comedian and actor Judah Friedlander sported a trucker’s cap on stage reading “WORLD CHAMPION.” While the original purpose of the hat was to extoll Friedlander’s (nonexistent) martial arts prowess (“I’m an extra-dark black belt” he told audiences), he also claimed to be running for president — and maybe prime minister of Canada as well. He’s just that exceptional.
So when people ask if Friedlander is making fun of Trump with his send-ups of American exceptionalism, he insists he got there first.
“Every once in a while people think I’m satirizing Trump, and I’m like, not really,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I was doing it before he was running for president. I’m satirizing nobody in particular, but more of an idea of what America is and who we are.”
Friedlander is coming to Madison to perform at the Majestic Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. While he may forever be best known for playing lazy sketch comedy writer Frank on “30 Rock,” Friedlander has been an acclaimed stand-up comic for over 30 years. His first comedy special, “America is the Greatest Country in The United States,” is now streaming on Netflix.
Friedlander describes his comedy as political, but not in the traditional sense of a late-night comedy host like Steven Colbert or Trevor Noah, reacting to and commenting on the news of the day.
“I don’t get into the day-to-day minutiae,” he said. “Through lots of jokes, crowd work and improvisation, I really satirize, in a non-preachy way, the big issues in our country and the world, and how we as a people deal with them. (To get the humor), you do have to pay attention somewhat to what’s going on, but you don’t have to know that this politician said this or that politician said that.”
Friedlander said he likes to dive into the big issues that most comedians — indeed, most people — would prefer not to talk about, he said, such as racism, sexism, guns and immigration.
“I like to create comedy out of the most difficult areas,” he said. “I never go for anything easy. I like to go to the places where you’d think, ‘There aren’t going to be any laughs here.’ I’m going to find a way to create them.”
Tying all the topics together is Friedlander’s satire of American exceptionalism, and the idea that the United States has been and always will be the greatest country in the world.
“I think it’s good to have pride and be confident,” he said. “But to be overconfident, though, can be dangerous. You keep hearing ‘We’re number one!’ from Fox News or MSNBC, no matter if the president is Democratic or Republican. Then you realize, ‘Wow, I’m having a difficult time getting by in this country. Why is that? We’re number one.’ Then you start pointing the finger in the wrong direction, rather than pointing it internally. That leads to a lot of untruths.”
Friedlander came by his interests in politics and comedy at an early age. A lot of 10-year-old boys draw their own cartoons, but he was likely the only one drawing political cartoons about imprisoned Polish labor leader Lech Walesa.
He said he got his interest in art from his mother, and his interest in political humor from his father.
“I definitely remember my dad reading the paper, yelling and getting mad about the stuff he’d be reading,” he said. “And then he’d crack up reading a political cartoon.”
After studying animation and filmmaking (he directed and produced the Netflix special, which has the gritty immediacy of a black-and-white independent film rather than a polished stand-up special), Friedlander gave stand-up comedy a shot. The club only gave him enough time to do a three-minute set, but it was three minutes that changed his life.
“I was very introverted, and still am in many ways,” he said. “Before I went on, I had been in the bathroom just saying my set over and over again staring in the mirror. I would go out to my car in the parking lot and repeat it over and over. I was super nervous.
“But as soon as I got on stage, I felt warm, I felt relaxed. It felt like home.”