Judah Friedlander at The Stand in June 2016.

Judah Friedlander Live!

In his perversity, absurdity, and bleakness, Friedlander taps the mood of American politics now

Artillery Row

This article is part of Kieran Setiya’s series on the successes and failures of online comedy in a time of coronavirus. Click here to read last week’s piece on Chelsea Peretti.

I have been missing live stand-up under lockdown. I used to go every couple of months, and my interest in comedy is sufficiently robust that the comedian would have to be quite bad for me not to be interested in the performance, funny or not. Now theatres, bars, and comedy basements have gone dark. It’s not clear how many will survive.

Friedlander makes comedy from tragedy in real time

Stand-up, though, is showing signs of life. After four months of withdrawal, I opened an e-mail from EastVille Comedy—ironic tagline: “Brooklyn’s Only Comedy Club!”—promoting an online show. I’ve never been to EastVille and hadn’t signed up for any e-mails. Either the gods or karma or cosmic rays—most likely in the guise of surveillance bots trawling my internet usage—had somehow managed to locate me. I bought tickets to see three comics for almost nothing: Patrick Schroeder, Laurie Kilmartin, and Judah Friedlander, the last of whom I recognized as Frank Rossitano, the dishevelled, lecherous icon of the writer’s room in TV’s 30 Rock.

Since then, I’ve watched Friedlander online almost once a week, sometimes at EastVille, sometimes in his own shows, advertised on Twitter, for which you pay what you want: “Failed state special: tickets as low as $1.” His performance doesn’t get old, in part because the material is always changing, in part because the show is semi-improvised, using the audience in unfamiliar ways. Friedlander makes comedy from tragedy in real time.

It begins with the technical setup: an obsessive-compulsive enumeration of rules for adjusting one’s audio so that audience laughter can be heard without drowning the comedian, presented in a sarcastic instructional video and repeated by the host. This is important. Then there’s a warm-up act, a different comedian each time, after which Friedlander performs for seventy minutes or more, often drawing it out, seemingly reluctant to stop.

He has a distinctive personal style. Instead of a curated bookshelf, Friedlander’s backdrop is a slapdash mosaic of brown cardboard sections, irregular and slightly creased, held together with masking tape—the Zoom equivalent of a ransom note composed of letters clipped from magazines. In the dim lighting, his face is shadowed by a black trucker cap pulled low over large wire-framed glasses, eyes barely visible. His hair is long, lank and greying, his beard a forest of black and white over a plain black T-shirt. He speaks in a staccato drone for which “deadpan” is an understatement.

He can make fun of us, it feels, because we go way back

Each set begins with crowd work. You can turn your camera off, but if you leave it on, you are fair game, and the audiences are small—maybe 15 or 30 people on screen—so the odds of being picked are unusually high. Friedlander communicates affection with “insult comic” material. When I wore a Dunder Mifflin T-shirt from the US version of The Office, he greeted me with a dour “Happy 12th birthday.” Other standards include: “Sit up straight when a hero is talking to you!” and “Is this your first time having a conversation?” But there is nothing mean about these interactions: he can make fun of us, it feels, because we go way back. And after a few weeks, we do. It’s not just me: other audience members return from time to time, as if this were a support group for comedy addicts. Despite the physical distance, there’s a peculiar intimacy to Zoom: Friedlander sees us in our homes; he can ridicule our spaces and the family members who drift through them, interrupting the show. Nothing like this, either in its seriality or its power to make the comic omnipresent, takes place in stand-up comedy face-to-face. The lockdown has created something new.

The premise of Friedlander’s show, ruefully announced some fifteen, twenty minutes in, is that he “might have to be President.” This is our chance to ask him about his platform, extending the apparently limitless riff that began in his Netflix show, America is the Greatest Country in the United States. Asked for his views on police brutality, he responds: “I think the police is like Papa John’s pizza. It cannot be reformed. It must be abolished.” A lot of the jokes depend on taking the opposite of sense to its extreme. On establishing Medicare-for-All, a US equivalent of the NHS: “I support Medicare for Al. If Al likes it, six years later, we’ll add one more person. You can’t rush these things.” Other jokes are surreal, not political, but darkly suggestive: “I am starting a podcast. No video. No audio. Sometime next week you will feel something.” And some of the best are improvised, as when Friedlander talks with an audience member in a sleeveless shirt, praising his brave stand for freedom: “The sleeves are the masks of the shoulders.” When others turn up sleeveless later on, he builds a running joke about “anti-sleevers,” mocking the “anti-maskers” who impede the US response to Covid-19.

These shows they forge a flicker of community in dark times

The scripted material on the pandemic is consistently brilliant, looped into conversations with audience members who may have lost their jobs, or homes, or loved ones. I won’t spoil it for you here. But it belongs to the proud tradition of whistling in the dark. In his perversity, absurdity, and bleakness, Friedlander taps the mood of American politics now. But he also finds a way into compassion. At the end of each set, he signs off, personally, with as many viewers as he can. “We didn’t get to talk,” he drily laments, “but I felt we had a connection.” Others are hailed as “winners” or gifted a call-back to an earlier interaction. “Good to see you, Kieran; you did a better job than last week,” he assured me recently.

What is moving about these shows is not just that they forge a flicker of community in dark times, but that they manifest in raw and concrete form what we know in theory: that live performers need audiences and cannot exist without them. A little internet research reveals that Friedlander has done stand-up his whole career and that it’s his first love as a comedian; he was on stage in New York City even while he was filming 30 Rock. He has a need to perform live—as he is doing now, for whatever we can spare, two or three nights a week. Friedlander’s shows have helped sustain me emotionally the last few months. I am grateful for that. But I am grateful, also, for the intimation that it goes both ways. In showing up for Friedlander with audio tuned and webcam on, I’m doing what I can to sustain him, too.

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