From Sesame Street to 30 Rock and back

Judah Friedlander was shocked by some of the things he saw behind the scenes with Big Bird, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

JUDAH Friedlander has thrown down a gauntlet. He’s challenged the people of Ireland to take him on at table tennis.

“I’m gonna figure out a way to set down a ping pong table at Whelan’s or someplace nearby, and set up a little impromptu net, and I’ll challenge anyone to ping pong. I’m bringing my paddle from New York City all the way to Dublin. Let’s get it on.”

Table tennis is Friedlander’s second game. Soccer is his first. He is an impressive man at keepie-uppies, as befits the self-styled World Champion, the title of his live stand-up show. Earlier this year, he narrated a six-part series for ESPN, Inside: US. Soccer’s March to Brazil, about the country’s World Cup adventure.

Friedlander got smitten with soccer in the late-1970s during America’s first flirtation with a national soccer league, which included Pele’s glittering New York Cosmos team and some unusual rules like the penalty shoot-out where players dribbled the ball from the centre circle before shooting at goal. The league floundered, though, not least because it couldn’t figure out how to keep advertisers happy during broadcast time.

“That’s the thing you realise between Europe and America,” he says. “There is so much more commercialism in America, so much more capitalism. So when soccer first played on TV in the ’70s and ’80s, and probably throughout some of the ’90s, they didn’t know how to air soccer without cutting to commercial breaks.

“When the New York Cosmos – Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia all those guys – played soccer and they showed the game on TV, they would cut to commercials during the game. Often they would come back from commercials, and the presenter would be like, ‘Well, the score is now two to one – Cosmos scored another goal. It was shocking. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’

“It was somewhere in the ’90s where they finally figured out how to show games without commercials. At first, around the entire perimeter of the TV – at the top, at the sides and at the bottom, they would have these huge ads for Budweiser, and the game was real small in the middle. It was crazy, but now they show the games regular like everyone else – without commercials.”

Since his first stand-up gig as a 19-year-old in New York a quarter of a century ago, Friedlander has juggled life on the road as a comic with regular film and TV work, including a regular part on Tina Fey’s hit series 30 Rock. When he’s not running for president of the United States (“I will bring back Saturday morning cartoons”), he’s also found time to pop up on Sesame Street.

“It’s amazing doing it,” he says. “The puppeteers are unbelievable – they’re such good actors and puppeteers and athletes. They sit on what’s like a mini-dolly or a mini-skateboard with their feet on the ground. They’re almost lying down. They have their arms reached way up. The way they see you is that they have a little TV monitor on their lap to see where they’re at.

“The weirdest part is that you open up a closet and you just see Big Bird laying in there like he’s dead, without a puppeteer. When there are no puppeteers there, it’s like somebody has murdered all the characters. It’s horrible. I was about to take a picture, and the crew are like, ‘No, no, no. You can’t take any pictures. No kids can ever see this’.

  • Judah Friedlander – World Champion is at Whelan’s in Dublin on Wednesday, and at Galway’s Vodafone Comedy Carnival on Thursday and Friday.



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