“’30 Rock’ Was a Writers’ Show”: Judah Friedlander on Frank Rossitano, ‘American Splendor,’ and the ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ Prequel

It frankly struck me as a little odd that the makers of Ping Pong Summer were sending out Judah Friedlander — the eccentric standup and co-star of 30 Rock, American Splendor, and many more fine films and television shows — to promote the movie, since one of my few real complaints about the sweet ‘80s nostalgia comedy is that there’s not enough of him in it. Then again, Friedlander has established himself as something of a comedy gunslinger; he comes in to a project like this, does a quick, funny, weird bit, and gets out. “I do enjoy that,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “I’ve probably done about 25 or so movies, and I do like just coming in and going for it and doing it, you know.”

Flavorwire: So how did you get involved in Ping Pong Summer?

Judah Friedlander: This was kinda different, this one. The movie was pretty much already cast, and I play competitive ping-pong, I’m an advocate for the sport — I actually got to know Susan Sarandon through table tennis. Susan is one of the owners of SPiN, which is a popular ping-pong club in New York City… So I found out about the movie through one of the owners of SPiN, Jonathan [Bricklin], who’s friends with Susan, and he was telling me about Ping Pong Summer, this movie, and I’m like “Great title. Sounds cool. I’d love to do something in that.” So one of the owners was like, “You’ve gotta meet the director.” I met him there, and turns out the director’s from Maryland, which is where I grew up and was living when I was in high school.

So I was like, “Wow, this is even a cooler coincidence, there’s a movie about ping-pong and it’s taking place in Maryland.” So, I played ping-pong with the director, and I beat him, and basically I said, “Hey, if I beat you, you give me a part in the movie!” No, that’s not what happened. We were just talking and stuff and he was like, “Well, we’re already cast pretty much, but I’ll just try to find something for ya.” And I think the scene was just one line, and then I said, “Dude, I don’t care. I’ll do it. I’ll go down to Ocean City for a day, take it easy…” and then the scene was pretty much improvised. So it was fun.

Judah Friedlander and Susan Sarandon on "30 Rock"

Although you don’t share any scenes with her here, this is your second time working with Susan Sarandon. You worked much more closely during her arc on 30 Rock. What was that experience like for you?

I actually met her through ping-pong before I met her on 30 Rock. She’s a really great person. You know, a big supporter of the arts and human rights, and a fantastic actor. So it was great working with her. And on 30 Rock, it was fun working with her because… because she is who she is, I think they gave her a little more freedom. It’s almost like, “Play it how you want.” And then since I’m in scenes with her, that sort of gives me more freedom too.

You played Frank Rossitano on 30 Rock. How much of that character was already there on the page, and how much of it came from you and the comic persona that you created on stage?

Well, you know, it’s a mix. I would say most of it is from the writing, and so the other parts, the additional, extra little spices are stuff that I brought to it. Very little I think came from my standup persona. My standup persona, while there are some similarities, is actually a lot different. When I first auditioned for it, I knew what they were going for, and I knew one of the guys it was based on… The guy I was playing came from more of a standup background, and kind of like a blue-collar Queens or Jersey background. So that’s really what anchored it for me.

Judah Friedlander on "30 Rock"

The hat stuff is certainly stuff I brought in, that was all me. The character was not supposed to be wearing glasses or a hat. But you know, before doing 30 Rock I’d done lots of movies, and in a lot of those I completely changed my appearance as well as the way I talked. So when 30 Rock came around – and I love acting, but standup is my main thing – you know, when you do a movie, I’m totally fine with completely changing my look and everything about me, you know, being a chameleon and becoming someone else, I don’t mind doing that for a few weeks, or a few months. But when you sign a TV contract, you sign a TV contract for six years, eight or nine months out of each year.

So when I was doing this show, I told them, “I’ve gotta look like me.” I’m still doing standup all the time, and my look is very particular to my standup act. It’s all interconnected… Things that I brought to it were really established more in the first and second seasons, and then as the show progressed, the writing and the script just got tighter and tighter and tighter. And there really wasn’t a lot of room for improvising around. Like I said, the writers are great, and as the show progressed, the scripts got more in-depth. And so there really wasn’t room for improvisation starting in like Season 3 and later, because if you ad-libbed a line it would actually – it would mess up the line that follows it in a different scene. It was all just so tightly intertwined with jokes and plot.