You know the foam-backed hats and the ginormous glasses, but do you really know Judah Friedlander, the journeyman funnyman playing 30 Rock's Frank Rossitano? As the critically acclaimed NBC series presents its last episode before sitting out a six-week hiatus, TVGuide.com grabbed Friedlander between stand-up gigs to gain insight into what makes Frank... well, do whatever it is that he does when he's not writing.
TVGuide.com: What's the typical first question reporters ask you?
Judah Friedlander: Not that one! First time I've heard that one, dude.
TVGuide.com: I figured it must be, "The hats, are they yours?"
Friedlander: The hats are all mine. I come up with all the sayings, and I make them all myself. As a stand-up, when I do stand-up, I always wear a hat that says "World Champion," and I talk about how I'm a great athlete and get tons of chicks and stuff. I've probably been making my own hats for over 10 years, because it's something I thought would be funny to bring to the show, to have some hidden laughs in the show. So even if my character's not doing anything, I can have something funny on the hat. You know how on DVDs they have bonuses, "extras"? This is sort of like an instant bonus. Something for the viewers to get a laugh from. Almost every time my character has a wardrobe change, I have a new hat. I've probably been averaging three hats per episode.
TVGuide.com: You've been "World Champion" for how many years running now?
Friedlander: Dude, I lost count. I'm not a math nerd. It's been a long time.
TVGuide.com: Who has been the most formidable challenger to the throne as of late?
Friedlander: They're all wimps, dude. Eddie Johnson was the guy I first beat to win the world championship, and nobody has come close to me. A lot of bad athletes out there.
TVGuide.com: Being a comedian, are you duly impressed by 30 Rock's laughs-per-page ratio? I mean, it's pretty damn high.
Friedlander: I've got to tell you, the writers are great. It's a fun gig for me because I live in new York and the show shoots here, and Tina Fey, I could not ask for a cooler boss. She is great at what she does — because she's also the head writer on the show — and she is also totally open to suggestions. Like with the hats. She doesn't even preapprove them. I just show up like, "What do you think?" She's like, "Great!" She's awesome. [Alec] Baldwin's awesome, and it's fun getting to know people like Rachel Dratch and Jack McBrayer (Kenneth) and Scott Adsit (Pete)....
TVGuide.com: Jack is like you: He pretty much is who he is. He was calling me "Sir" and everything during our Q&A.
Friedlander: I know, he is that way! [Laughs] My character, even though I pretty much look like I normally do on the show, I really don't think I act like I normally do. I really do try to change it up some.
TVGuide.com: You're, what, not quite as passive as Frank?
Friedlander: Yeah, if you look at my stand-up stuff, it's different stuff, though there are similarities. But looks-wise, I wear what I would wear anyways.
TVGuide.com: Some of the stuff on 30 Rock is so out-of-left-field funny. Does a pro like yourself ever "break" during a scene?
Friedlander: No, I don't think I ever do. Only one time I've ever lost it during a scene, and that was for a movie I did called Live Free or Die, by these two guys who used to write for Seinfeld. As a stand-up, I don't laugh at my own jokes, I'm very respectful and studied in the deadpan. I know that cracking up during a scene could kill the best take. I've seen that happen, where you're doing your best work and the person you're acting off of starts cracking up, and it's hard to recreate the good stuff you just did. But you do have to fight it. The first scene I did with Baldwin, I had to fight it, because he cracks me up. It was a struggle.
TVGuide.com: I had the feeling a few weeks ago that [guest star] Isabella Rossellini had trouble getting through her line, "You know how much I love my big beef and cheddar."
Friedlander: That is a hilarious line. Unfortunately, I was not in any scenes with her. She's someone who mostly does heavy drama, and often dramatic actors have more trouble with [breaking].
TVGuide.com: Are you surprised at all by the levels of critical acclaim 30 Rock has earned?
Friedlander: When I do stuff, I like to concentrate on the work and just hope for the best, but I had a feeling that the critics were going to like it. And they seem to be liking it more, now. I just hope that more people start watching it.
TVGuide.com: I sensed a hint of Frank-Jenna chemistry when she farted in his presence....
Friedlander: [Laughs] Jane [Krakowski] is a real treat to work with, and a super-talented lady. And funny. I get a kick out of her.
TVGuide.com: Are we ever going to go somewhere with their "connection"?
Friedlander: I have no idea, man. We're filming [tomorrow] and I just got a call saying, "Don't even look at the script, it has completely changed." You just show up and go for it. On some episodes, I have done some improvising, but I think the show is 95 percent or more done word-for-word. There have been some episodes where I definitely made up some stuff and they kept it in, but most of the shows are so tightly written, and they're very plot-heavy, also, that there's no room for improvisation.
TVGuide.com: Movie audiences first met you in Meet the Parents, as the drugstore clerk selling Ben Stiller the Mumm's champagne....
Friedlander: Yes, "You can get a whole bunch of Mumm's" — which is a line I improvised, actually!
TVGuide.com: What sorts of roles do you have in Chapter 27 and The Darwin Awards?
Friedlander: You know what the Darwin Awards are, right? They're given out to people who have accidentally killed themselves in a stupid way, and have thus improved the human gene pool by removing themselves from it. The movie stars Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder search the country for Darwin Award candidates, and the movie is split up into a series of vignettes. In the last vignette, Lucas Haas and I play two heavy-metal idiots who try to sneak into a Metallica concert, with fatal results. Metallica is in the movie, too.
TVGuide.com: And Chapter 27 is about Mark David Chapman?
Friedlander: Yes, it's about the John Lennon murder. I play the guy who actually took the infamous photo of John Lennon signing an autograph for Mark David Chapman.
TVGuide.com: Lastly, what sort of TV do you watch? And "porn" isn't an answer for a family-friendly magazine.
Friedlander: That wouldn't have been my answer anyway... though that is a whole other question I could go off on for a while. I watch professional wrestling, soccer, boxing....
TVGuide.com: But no Designing Women marathons?
Friedlander: No, although a good Lifetime movie from the '80s can really get me going.
What's the outlook for NBC freshman series Studio 60 and Friday Night Lights? Pick up the March 12 issue of TV Guide to find out.