‘30 Rock’ star proves to be champion of mediocrity

Judah Friedlander pulled up to Goodrich 45 minutes late in a gray Toyota Highlander. He wore a highlighter-yellow shirt with his trademark, “World Champion,” written across the front and a trucker’s hat that said the same thing in Spanish. Friedlander had his shtick, and he was sticking to it. As I escorted him through the crowds on the second floor of Goodrich, I understood that appeal of being “in the know” that must attract people to the Secret Service. If anybody had asked me what I was doing, I would have told them with an obnoxious air of importance and rushed off.

Judah saw the glass-walled room where we were planning to put him until the show and made a peevish expression. “Usually the crowd isn’t supposed to see you when you’re backstage.” Lasell Gymnasium didn’t suit him either. “This place is way too f—-ing big!” he complained. The headline “Dumpy Funnyman Actually Unbearable Primadonna,” crossed my mind, but I slew it for the sake of serious journalism. He deserved to be humanized, rather than subjected to these kinds of cheap shots.

By the time we finally sat down for the interview it was a little after nine, about 15 minutes before he was scheduled to take the stage. “What do you do for a living?” I asked him, hoping for an insider cynical take on the nature of show business, but he answered as if I’d been completely serious. I followed up with a quick round of “chuck, f—- or marry”: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan – three of his co-stars on the popular television show 30 Rock, for which Friedlander is best known. “F—- Tracy. Kill Baldwin. Marry Tina” was his quick response.

Friedlander then started chomping on a turkey sandwich, and when he was finished, he pulled out a sleek, new Macbook Air from his briefcase. I wasn’t getting the sound bites I wanted and decided to depart from my prepared questions. Friedlander asked to see the digital recorder I was using and inspected it lovingly. “This is a good one” he said, “probably better than the one I’ve got. Really high quality.” He showed me his, then went about rigging up a hidden microphone to his chest just below the shirt-line, like the mole in a mafia movie. “It’s just like a football coach taping the game and replaying it later. I often come up with material on the spot that I want to remember and use again.” I shouldn’t have been fooled by his unkempt appearance into thinking that he wasn’t a professional; Friedlander does stand-up almost every night when 30 Rock isn’t in season, often making appearances at three or more clubs per night. He’s the James Brown of comedy, to borrow a phrase from the New York Times, and he says he does it without drugs or alcohol.

Friedlander claims to be the “World Champion” in all things, boasting of feats that are meant to be funny by virtue of their incredible improbability and his decidedly unathletic appearance – a bulging belly, messy hair and gigantic glasses and an appearance bordering between Joe Six-pack and a nerdy video store clerk. In this way Friedlander has fashioned himself into an ironic and self-involved Chuck Norris-joke-generator. On stage he claimed, for example, to have scored 60 goals in a single game for the Brazilian national soccer team while playing goalkeeper. He professed being able to ski uphill. He bragged of being able to run on a treadmill that allows him to jump hurdles while shoulder-pressing a man who himself is lifting weights. And yes, onstage he claimed to have recently appeared on the cover of Rich Guys With Big D—-s magazine.

After a while, Friedlander’s stage formula became tiresome. I started counting the number of times he promised to “kick so-and-so’s ass” or “bang so-and-so’s wife/girlfriend” while cringing. The extended “question and answer” session during his show, which took up over half an hour, seemed to reflect a lack of material, but I think he may have been using it to develop new jokes. Students tried to outdo his ability to come up with feats by asking about Chuck Norris and how they too could become the “World Champion.” He said afterwards, when he was shaking hands with the 20 or so who stayed afterwards to meet him, that he was sorry nobody had asked about table tennis. It turns out Friedlander is a ranked table tennis player in real life.

I still can’t figure out if Friedlander’s performance was clever or not. I’m leaning towards the latter. He seems to have succeeded by making himself the most ironic comedian in a culture that currently values irony. Doing only superficial background research, I found evidence of a calculated and self-restricting transformation within the comedian: his actor headshot on his Web site shows a slimmer, more clean-cut and handsomer man than the one who appeared on campus last Thursday. Friedlander has shown range and talent as an actor, mostly for his part as Toby Radloff in American Splendor. My conclusion is that he’s a likable and intelligent person trapped in a weighty and, at least for now, profitable shtick. Perhaps the more he breaks out of it on camera (30 Rock doesn’t help, unfortunately), the more he’ll be able to improve on what was ultimately a disappointingly one-sided and constricted comedic performance.