When I was a kid, I loved watching Comedy Central stand up specials. They always were so bright and flashy, showcasing bigger-than-life personalities. But that huge, glamorous production isn’t the usual for stand up comedy in general. Most shows don’t happen in giant theaters with billowing red velvet curtains. Most stand up shows happen in back rooms and bars and basement clubs. In New York, hundreds of comedy shows happen every week. The rooms are small, and the comedy is gritty, raw and often personal. This is the true nature of stand up comedy, which Judah Friedlander’s new special, America is the Greatest Country in the United States, now streaming on Netflix, manages to capture.
If you don’t know the name Judah Friedlander, you would probably still recognize him. With a huge beard and oversized glasses, often paired with a t-shirt and a hat that says something like “World Champion” on it, Friedlander might be one of comedy’s most recognizable faces. From touring to his tenure on 30 Rock, Friedlander has been a notable comic for almost 30 years.
America is the Greatest Country in the United States is not like any special you have seen before. Friedlander’s material represents smart political satire in its purest form, and Friedlander centers the whole special around interacting with the crowd. It’s black and white and there is something wonderfully voyeuristic about it. It’s not overproduced or flashy. Friedlander often refers to it as a documentary.
When we spoke to him he said, “I wanted to capture a real stand up comedy experience, not some big artificial fancy show. I wanted to make a documentary.”
The energy that Friedlander captures in this special is rare. While most specials use painstakingly rehearsed material, Friedlander captures the intimate feeling of being in that room and watching live comedy. (I was in the room during one of these nights– you can almost hear my mother’s laugh on the recording).
“I wanted to capture just regular shows,” he explained. “A lot of my shows on the road are anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes. When I’m in new York, which is home base, I’m usually doing anywhere from two to five shows a night.” And when you are doing that many shows in a night, sets are more like fifteen to 20 minutes long. This special is made from cutting up and conjoining these 20 minute sets, about “sixteen to 20 nights’” worth. Friedlander filmed himself for over a year, didn’t use any of that footage, then continued filming.
Friedlander is the first to admit that all that filming might have been overkill. “I’m not saying it was the smartest decision, but it’s the decision I went with. When I was editing, I was like, it would have been smarter to do one or two longer shows and it would be a hell of a lot easier to make.” But there is something entrancing about how Friedlander jumps from shows in January to March and back in a frenetic conversation between himself, crowds and a rapidly changing world.
Friedlander focuses on the crowd. He tells them he is running for president, and asks the crowd to shout out what “positions” they would like to hear about. The crowd “really dictates what we are talking about,” Friedlander explained. “It’s not a monologue… it’s a mock town hall.” While the audiences are all different, they often bring up the same issues and suggestions.
For example, when Friedlander asks the crowd to ask him what his positions on the issues are, people often ask about healthcare. Over the last two years, he has been workshopping and growing a joke that was once “20 seconds” to “multiple jokes and bits that is now five minutes on healthcare.”
He improvises a lot on the spot as well, and while he may now have planned jokes around popular topics like healthcare, all of his planned jokes started as a suggestion and, as he puts it, written on stage.
You can see this process happening in the special. At one point Friedlander tells a joke on one night and the film cuts to the same joke on another night, but this time Friedlander takes it even farther with an additional twist. It is the best part of the special, because it shows the process of comedy that so often gets eradicated from the narrative. It is the moment that this special becomes a documentary.
Crowd work isn’t easy, but on top of that neither are the topics that the special focuses on. Friedlander explains, “I am satirizing the United States, its government and attitude and human rights violations… These are things that are important to me and important for me to talk about and make jokes about.” The special is political from beginning to end. Originally, Friedlander thought of adding one-liners that were not part of the theme of the special, but in the end thought, “I have 90 minutes that is all thematic, I don’t need a warm up here.”
For a special that is highly political, there is barely a mention of Trump. “There is one joke where I mention Trump… maybe three minutes total,” Friedlander noted. “I am very anti-Trump… but all these issues we have, he did not invent any of these things, we had all these problems. They are certainly worse under him, but not exclusive to him. These are United States issues and some world issues.” It’s easy for many comedians to obsess over Trump’s orange skin or his little hands, but Friedlander chooses to barely mention any specific politicians at all.
Friedlander jokes about a set he filmed before he decided to only film in the iconic Comedy Cellar. At this other venue, during a set just after the election, two members of the crowd got into a fight. “A middle aged woman who was a Hillary supporter got into a fight with a young woman who was a Trump supporter,” he simply stated, “I had to diffuse that situation.”
Regarding his choice to film in black and white, Friedlander said stand up is a “simple art form and should be filmed in a simple way. You look at the president and our country, it’s so narcissistic, so showy, so overproduced. I did the opposite.”
While Friedlander has a very calm and even nonchalant demeanor while talking about the making of the special, the amount of work at every step is staggering. With an act that changes every night and hours upon hours of footage, Friedlander adopted a very hands-on approach. He explained, “Filmmaking is collaborative art, but there is no reason for a comedy special to have 100 people working on it… It’s not like a feature film with 150 locations. The lighting is already done at the club.” Friedlander would set up one or two little cameras. Some nights he would have one to three camera people, who he would direct on framing. On other nights, it would just be the single camera without an operator. Friedlander laughs about times he filmed great stuff, but the wait staff stood right in front of the camera for the whole set, making it entirely unusable. “This is low-budget filmmaking.”
While doing everything yourself keeps costs down, it seems like it’s about more than just that for Friedlander. From the beginning of this project he’s been an editor, a director, and even cinematographer. “I decided a few years ago I was gonna make my own special and it took about a year to figure out what camera angles I liked. I did editing when I was a kid and in my 20s, but I’m old so I never learned editing on computers. Editing is the same whether it’s on computers or not. Where you make cuts is the same, just the technology is different.”
Friedlander ended up hiring editors that knew computers, then telling them where to cut and splice. Friedlander himself admitted, “I probably only watched about 20 percent of the shows that I filmed.” He elaborated, “there’s not enough time to look at everything…. I am too much of a perfectionist… after a while, it was like, ‘This was a good night, let’s get ten minutes of this night.”
Friedlander is a workhorse. “I am constantly working, 24/7. I’m constantly working on it, thinking about it,” he said, “I have some OCD and depression issues also. When you are sitting alone just watching clips of yourself it can can sort of glom on to that depression and then the OCD… how do you do it?”
America is the Greatest Country in the United States is funny and different and impressive, but more than that it is a testament to making something personal and making it yourself. “In general,” Friedlander said, “I don’t like how other comedy specials are filmed so I had to make it on my own and learn how to make it on my own.” He paused. “And I did the best I could.”