Judah Friedlander | Photo by Phil Provencio

Comic for the People

Judah Friedlander finds the laughs in politics at Rio’s Comedy Cellar

Comedy Cellar, one of the most storied comedy rooms in New York City, just landed in Las Vegas at the Rio. Featuring some of today’s most talented stand-ups, the Rio outpost is an exact replica of the Manhattan flagship—with its low ceilings and brick-wall stage—where comedians such as Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Ray Romano and many more came up.

Here the yuks are plenty, from headliner shows on Wednesdays to showcase performances Thursdays through Sundays, featuring multiple comedians doing shorter bits. Mo Amer, Kyle Dunnigan, Nathan McIntosh and Jessica Kirson christened the joint April 5 to a full house.

Judah Friedlander will be headlining Comedy Cellar on Wednesday, April 18. He’s fresh off the success of his critically acclaimed, Webby Award–nominated Netflix special, America Is the Greatest Country in the United States, filmed during several shows at NYC’s Comedy Cellar. Vegas Seven caught up with the 30 Rock comedian ahead of his Las Vegas stop and asked him about human rights, the state of the union and what makes America the most exciting country in the world.

So much is happening on the news on a daily basis. How do you choose what issues to cover?

In my act, I satirize our country’s response to different human rights issues. My act isn’t political in a sense where it’s like, “Oh, what did this politician say?” I really thought about it in a very nonpreachy way and in a very absurdist kind of way, and with crowd work, [addressing] the human rights issues that are the big issues in this the country and in the world. Most of those issues don’t really get resolved or show progress that quickly. If I’m talking about health care, we still have the same system we’ve had. So it’s not like—in the the past few years at least—it’s not like things rapidly change that much. Or if I talk about mass incarceration, there hasn’t been any change about that. So what I’m doing now on the tour is I’m talking about a lot of the same issues that were in my stand-up special but with all new jokes. And I’m also doing other jokes that are just pure escapism—it has nothing to do with anything serious.

There are so many obviously important issues. Do you have a specific one that is closest to you where you’d like to see more progress?

So many of the issues fall under government oppression, white male supremacy. Everything sort of falls under those umbrellas. I think throughout the world—this is not exclusive to our country—most people are good but most governments are not. Most governments take advantage of people, no matter what country they are. People don’t always realize that because different political parties always try to blame the other political parties to create confusion. I rarely ever mention politicians’ names. Even in my stand-up special, out of the 84 minutes, there might be two or three minutes where I mention Trump. A lot of my special is referring to problems we had before Trump became president. So these are not new issues.

One of the rare benefits of this presidency is the increase in civic engagement, whether citizens are protesting or running for office.

Oh, yeah.That kind of started a little bit when [Bernie] Sanders was running. People started getting a little bit aware of some of the issues in regard to how we do things and how some countries do things. And maybe some of the things they do might be a better method, like health care, for example, or college expenses. But, yeah, I think people in this country are generally much more aware of human rights issues than they were just two years ago.

Do you see yourself ever running for office?

Nah. In my stand-up, I always talk about how I’m gonna be the next president and I ask people to ask me questions about my presidential platform, and I give completely ridiculous answers that actually sort of make sense on some level. But, nah, I think I work better as an outsider than as an insider. As a comic, I’m always like an outsider.

As a comic, you probably reach more people with what you’re trying to say than you would as an elected official.

Yeah. And also in my comedy, I’ve never been someone who tells people what to think. I don’t like being preachy, but in order to get my jokes, you have to be thinking, and, for me, that’s enough. I think it’s actually more effective when people come to decisions on their own. My act is for everyone and it pokes fun at a lot of different things. The media tries to pit people against each other, and with the two big political parties, they can all be divisive in their own ways and not really for the people. I’m someone who’s always for the people.

We haven’t seen this kind of political upheaval in our lifetimes. However this shakes out, do you feel optimistic for our country?

I’m probably a pessimist by nature. However, I’m also a fighter and I’m rebellious. So I think it’s important to just focus on the causes, not on how it’s going to turn out. And do the best you can at the moment but plan for the future also. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s crazy times. … But I always say this: No matter how many good or bad things are going on, you gotta admit, we are an exciting country. We’re very entertaining and there’s never a dull moment. People are never like, “Wow, America, what a boring place.” We are an entertaining country, dammit.

Judah Friedlander performs on Wednesday, April 18. Comedy Cellar showcase performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., with an additional 11 p.m. performance on Saturdays. Headlining performances are Wednesdays at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. Tickets are $45 plus applicable taxes and fees for general admission (locals with a valid ID are $25 plus applicable taxes and fees).  riolasvegas.com

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