Fast Chat: Judah Friedlander

Before his IWNY appearance, the '30 Rock' star riffs on hecklers vs. trolls, stand-up, and those iconic trucker hats

So, you’re doing a panel on Internet comedy.
This Internet Week is a big week, huh? Is this like the Cannes Film Festival of the Internet?

Something like that. First you’re hearing about it?
Yeah. So, I’m taking the opposite approach. Most people are on a panel because they’re experts. I’m on it because I don’t know a thing. I’m going to use this opportunity to learn something.

You don’t have any favorite online comedy destinations?
I’m a little behind the trend. I’m a comedian. Stand-up is number one for me. I’ve been doing stand-up since 1989. Last night I did three shows. The Internet is interesting. It’s a fascinating medium, and it’s always changing.

How has it changed comedy?
The people that break into comedy now have videos, they’ll have a website, but they won’t have a five-minute stand-up comedy act. Before the Internet, if comedians wanted to build a fan base, they would actually have a mailing list with people’s addresses and actually send them mail. They’d put up fliers and shit. Things have changed a lot.

How have they changed for you?
I like Twitter a lot. I didn’t understand it at first until someone explained it to me. I like the 140-character limit because it forces you to be concise. For joke writing, that can actually be a plus—not even joke writing, any kind of communication.

So the Internet is good for both promotion and honing your writing?
Writing is one of the ingredients you need to be a great stand-up comedian, but there are other ingredients you need also. I view stand-up as a very giving thing. I don’t care if you’re a doctor, if you’re a lawyer, if you’re a convicted killer, if you’re an unconvicted killer. If you’re in my audience, my goal is to make you laugh. That’s why I like the interaction. But my goal is not to pander to you. If you’re a racist, I’m not going to try to tell you racist jokes. 

You do a lot more than just stand-up, though.
I like doing comedy in all mediums. I’ve done about 30 movies, I’ve done a variety of different types of television, from 30 Rock to Letterman to those talking-head type shows on VH1. I wrote a book last year called How to Beat Up Anybody, so I want to do comedy in any medium. What’s great about the Internet is that it can give you creative freedom to do whatever you want.

It’s created whole new subgenres of comedy.
And to me that’s exciting. I’m making a joke when I say, “I’m going to Internet Week because I want to learn about it,” but I’m half serious, too. My stand-up act is very joke heavy, very persona heavy. But it’s also very audience-interactive heavy. That’s one of the things I like about Twitter and the Internet—it’s how interactive they are.

It’s a dialog.
Exactly. Stand-up comedy is a mixture of monologue and dialogue and so is Twitter. One night a couple weeks ago I was just exhausted. I wanted to go out to the Comedy Cellar and do a set. I was literally too tired to drive there. But my comedy mind is still going. So I banged out a shitload of jokes on Twitter that night. And then people write stuff back. And I’ll joke back to them. It’s a lot of fun. I like getting the responses.

Has the Web leveled the playing field for comedians?
No. That’s a good question. It both levels and unlevels it. You can’t become a good comedian by people liking you on Twitter. And if you’re a great comedian, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be great on Twitter either. They’re two different mediums. If you make a really funny short film on Funny or Die, you can still be a really shitty comedian. You can’t replace going on stage in front of a paying audience, and there’s a microphone, and there’s you.

Ah, but the Internet can be a tough room, too.
The Internet has its hecklers just like comedy clubs have their hecklers. But on the Internet they truly are hidden. That’s one of the parts of the Internet that I think is really lame. The YouTube comments section is the saddest place in America.

One of the things that’s most remarkable about you is your look.
Right, and that works for me and against me. A lot of people just think I’m a douche bag. They’re all, “What an idiot. Trucker hats went out five years ago.” Do you really think I don’t know that trucker hats aren’t trendy anymore? Do you really think I’m not aware of that? I started making my own hats, like, 17 years ago. I made them before they were trendy, while they were trendy, and after they were trendy. People love to talk trash. All I’m trying to do is make people laugh.

How many hats do you have?
Oh, I have a shitload. I wear a different hat for each day within the show. Let’s say one episode of 30 Rock spans two days. I would be wearing two different hats. I come up with all the hats. I make all the hats. We’ve done five seasons, so it’s been a shitload of hats. At least a hundred or more.

Any that didn’t pass the censors?
It’s self-censored. But, yeah. I’m going to start a page for that. I have a whole list of the dirtiest, foulest candidates.

Any close calls?
The second season I had a hat that said BALLS. And that’s the only one they ever ran by the censors. And I’m like, “What? It could be basketballs, footballs.” Carrie Fisher, who was on the show that week, was awesome. She was all, “This is obviously a charming young man who likes to take young ladies out to balls.”

You talk about haters, but people must want to be your pal, offer you a beer just because of your spiel.
I actually don’t drink, and people want to buy me drinks all the time. They want to get high with me; I don’t smoke. I have to think of something funny to say to let ‘em down. They get mad at me sometimes. I’m all, "I'm not being a dick, dude. I just don’t do that. Do as much as you want, though."