Comedian-turned-actor Judah Friedlander (“Zoolander,” “American Splendor”) wears a lot of hats, and that’s not to say he’s bogged down with multiple titles. No, if you’re familiar with his stand-up, VH1 appearances — or most likely, his role as sketch comedy writer Frank Rossitano on NBC’s “30 Rock”– you’ve seen his endless array of trucker hats with pithy messages on them (“World Champion” being his most recognizable proclamation). Add an oversized pair of thick-rimmed glasses and five o’ clock shadow, and you’ve got the Friedlander look, which has its own methodology, as the Spirit Award nominee (for “Duane Hopwood”) would soon school me.
Adding to Friedlander’s eclectic résumé is the new indie rom-com “I Hate Valentine’s Day,” an encore reunion for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” leads Nia Vardalos and John Corbett. Vardalos makes her directorial debut and stars as a Brooklyn florist with a strict five-date philosophy on romance, and Friedlander plays her quirky neighborhood pal Dan. While the funnyman was off the clock during an unusual gig in Las Vegas, we discussed the new movie, what he learned about Mickey Rourke when they worked together on “The Wrestler” and why Manhattan comedy club promoters are always asking passersby if they like comedy.
Is it true that you’re at a table tennis tournament in Vegas?
That is correct, sir. There’s a special ping-pong tournament called Hardbat. Hardbat basically uses amateur-type paddles, the type used in the 1950s and earlier. It’s not the modern game. The professional paddles are very fast. These are slow and not very spinny, so it’s a different game. Anyway, @radical.media, Fremantle and the Mark Gordon Company got together with Bud Light and ESPN to put on a three-day Hardbat event [that will] air on ESPN in September. I play competitive ping-pong, so I came to them and said, “I want to be a part of this because I want to help promote ping-pong.” I was a TV host, sideline and fan interviewer all weekend.
I saw your skills in action in a Sports Illustrated video. What’s your history with the game?
Straight up, I played as a kid in the basement and rec centers. I remember one of our childhood friends, all of a sudden, had all these new serves and shots. We found out he was learning them from a Chinese guy who lived down the street, and then we found out from the Chinese guy down the street that there are official tournaments. My brother started playing some events, he went to ping-pong camp. This was when I was around 14 or 15. I only did one tournament, but I mostly learned from my brother. Then we stopped playing for about 25 years, and this past September, I started playing again. I play several times a week. Ping-pong’s an awesome sport. I’m the World Champion, you know. I never lose, so it’s pretty satisfying.
What is the “World Champion of the World” competition like, and have you accomplished any new feats to keep your title?
Well, I just did another World Championship event, and I won it again, so I’m still the World Champion. It’s straight-up death matches. That’s pretty hardcore, dude.
I’ve never seen that televised. How do I know you haven’t been making it up?
Just ask around, dude. Do some research. See if anyone will deny it. I got the windbreaker to prove it. [Anyone] could make a “World Champion” hat or t-shirt. I have the windbreaker that says “World Champion” with my name on it. I think that’s proof enough.
I’m convinced. Perhaps now is a good time to talk about your role in Nia Vardalos’ new feature.
She’s a sweetheart. She’s such a nice lady with great energy. Very warm. She’s certainly an actor’s director, and great to work with. It was a crazy shoot, 15 or 18 days. We did [my scenes] in the Windsor Terrace and Park Slope areas in Brooklyn. I don’t know how much I’m going to be in the movie — I’m guessing not very much. I’m one of a group of friends that [Vardalos] hangs out with sometimes, that group being played by Zoe Kazan, Rachel Dratch, Mike Starr and Jason Mantzoukas.
How do you feel about Valentine’s Day? Sweet and romantic, or a greeting-card holiday for lemmings?
As the World Champion, every day is pretty much like Valentine’s Day for me — as far as hooking up with the ladies. But Valentine’s Day is definitely one of those days where it’s either awesome or it’s a downer.