The importance of being Frank
Judah Friedlander sticks to his stand-up persona in 30 Rock.
HE'S barely recognisable. Neatly cut, carefully parted, short, straight hair with an auburn tint. Knitted vest over shirt, with mannerisms befitting the moniker ''socially awkward'' and an idiosyncratic way of pronouncing each syllable. This is Judah Friedlander playing Toby Radloff.
The film, American Splendor, is the screen adaptation of Harvey Pekar's 1970s autobiographical comic book series of the same name about everyday life in Ohio. It won prizes at Sundance and Cannes and scored Friedlander, who plays the best friend of the main character, a nomination for best supporting actor at the 2003 Independent Spirit Awards.
It's one of many varied and dramatic film roles Friedlander had before coming to the attention of television audiences on hit comedy 30 Rock, starring Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. Although he estimates he's appeared in 25 films (Duane Hopwood and The Wrestler are among his other credits), he's not an actor. For the best part of 20 years now, Friedlander's main performance space has been the stand-up comedy stage. ''Stand-up's No.1 for me,'' he says. ''I like doing acting a lot, but it was never something I planned on doing.''
Judah Friedlander with Paul Giamatti in American Splendour.
Instead, he started writing jokes at 16, moved from Maryland to his current home, New York, at 18 and started gigging at 19. An obsession with sports and, more specifically, records, such as Guinness World Records, in part inspired his stage persona, ''The World Champion of the World''. As World Champ, Friedlander breaks every record in his guise as the greatest athlete of all time. It's a winning mix of deadpan earnestness and irony. His absurd claims (''I scored 243 goals in one soccer game … and I was the referee'') work on their own level. ''And then on another level it works on a commentary about society, celebrity culture and everybody culture,'' Friedlander says from New York, after performing three gigs in one night. ''Now everyone is so into self-promoting themselves,'' he says. ''So, I try to make it a satire, a comic take on how people are so self-indulgent and just so narcissistic.''
The World Champ is overweight, unshaven and a trademark truckers' hat sits atop his unkempt hair. By necessity, it's an aesthetic shared with his 30 Rock character, writer Frank Rossitano, which he spends eight months of each year filming. ''When I got offered the show, I said I have to look like I normally do, because I have a very specific look for my stand-up and when 30 Rock's filming, I'm still doing stand-up. I can't change my look to do your show … and they were cool with that,'' he says.
As World Champ, his caps ''always say World Champion in some language,'' and he took that idea a step further for 30 Rock, where every episode Frank's cap features a different gag line. ''When I do 30 Rock, those are all made by me. I figured it would work with the character because Frank is a writer and the hats are written. Frank's a guy who's probably trying to get attention, especially from the ladies, and, you know, putting some … goofy sayings on his hat might, in his hopes, catch the eye of some ladies.''
Friedlander says a sitcom hadn't been part of his plans, but as a fan of both Fey and Baldwin, and with shooting being in New York, he decided to audition. ''For years I'd turned down many TV sitcom auditions and opportunities so I went in for it and I did one audition. About five to six months later they called me up and told me I got the part,'' he says. That was six years ago, when he signed his contract, now up for renewal. Last week, the cast and crew wrapped season six with a special live-to-air episode. Like Friedlander, the show's future is uncertain. ''We're not technically picked up for another season yet; we'll be finding out probably in the next few weeks,'' he says. ''But I think we will be and I think they'll have me back.''
30 Rock is on Mondays at 11.15pm on Channel Seven.