Amid the motley crew of investment bankers, office workers, tourists and others scurrying from point A to point B in Midtown on a recent morning, one man stood still on the sidewalk. He reached into the little cart he was wheeling, and pulled out a pair of granola bars.
It was the actor and comedian Judah Friedlander of “30 Rock” fame.
“Do y’all need food at all?” he asked a group of two women and four children outside the Roosevelt Hotel on 45th Street. The hotel has become a temporary home for hundreds of the 57,200 asylum-seekers the city cares for, and is one of 200 such sites across the five boroughs.
The women, both from Latin America, eyed Friedlander warily before offering quiet “thank yous” and accepting the snacks.
What I’ve been doing the past few days is as simple as this: There’s people that are hurting, and I’m just trying to show up and directly help.
“What I’ve been doing the past few days is as simple as this: There’s people that are hurting, and I’m just trying to show up and directly help,” said Friedlander, 54. “That’s it.”
Since asylum-seekers began arriving in New York en masse in spring 2022 — often after being bused here by border-state governors — an untold number of New Yorkers and aid groups have stepped up to help. But not many of them are as well known as Friedlander, who claims some 400,000 followers on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
Save for the graying hair and duckbill N95 mask that covered a good portion of his face – “I don’t take my mask off” – Friedlander looked more or less like Frank Rossitano, the famously shaggy character he played on the hit NBC sitcom.
Over seven seasons, Rossitano served as a writer on the fictional TV show helmed by Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon. He was a manchild, a connoisseur of trucker hats and pornography.
In real life, Friedlander is more serious and attuned to the world. His concern and anger as he describes them, are fueled by the gap he sees between the powerful and the powerless, the haves and have-nots.
“There is a class warfare going on,” he said, “but it’s mostly the billionaires against everyone else.”
It was his mother, he said, who alerted him to the scene of around 150 asylum-seekers living on the sidewalk outside the Roosevelt, after Mayor Eric Adams last week declared there was no space to house new arrivals.
Friedlander arrived at the hotel from his Manhattan home and shot a video capturing the city’s jarring contrasts. It shows the unhoused male migrants, who are crammed behind police barricades, as well as the Midtown lunch crowd, who seem oblivious to the situation less than a block away.
He then shared the 56 second clip with his followers on X.
“It’s a crime, a failure of society how people are being treated outside Roosevelt hotel in nyc right now,” he wrote on X.
Inequality, and issues like demonization of the other – subject matter that might not sound like instant comic fodder – have worked their way into Friedlander’s standup material as well. In one bit, he asks audience members if they know what the national animal is.
Bald eagle, comes the answer.
“No,” says Friedlander. “The scapegoat.”
During one performance, held over Zoom during the pandemic, the joke clearly did well, but Friedlander plowed through the crowd’s laughter so he could make an actual point.
“Our political leaders, they’re like, ‘Yeah, us political leaders, the ones with the most power in the country, we’re not f—-d up. It’s those people who just crossed the border here 30 minutes ago,’” he said to the crowd.
Back at the Roosevelt, Friedlander encountered a different scene on his third day: The sidewalks were relatively empty after the city had cleared the migrants and declared that more space was now available in the shelter system.
“They’re in a much better spot than they were the last five days,” he said. “Absolutely. But you know, this s–t continues.”
Periodically, Friedlander interrupted his own flow so he could offer a bagel or a face mask to the migrants he encountered.
“Donde esta?” he ventured. “Where are you from?”
He said he was heartened by the work of immigrant rights groups like the New York Immigration Coalition, NYC ICE Watch and South Bronx Mutual Aid. But beyond the need to build more affordable housing, he said he had no specific policy prescriptions aside from urging that more had to be done in support of asylum-seekers.
At one point, a young man came within earshot and listened to Friedlander for a while before offering his own observation.
“There’s a difference between immigration and invasion,” said the man, “and this is an invasion, and the solution to invasion is immediate deportation.”
“Yeah. No, not for me,” said Friedlander, trying to avoid a confrontation. He said he was simply trying to provide food because “the people are hungry.”
“Sir, I’m hungry,” the man replied. “I’m homeless. I need money. I need resources. But people can come over, across two, two continents…”
Friedlander gently extracted himself from the argument and walked away.
“So many people are hurting in the country, whether they’re from here, whether they’re not from here,” he said. “It’s terrible and it’s angering because you know this country has the resources to do so much better.”
Then he handed out some more food and said it was time to get to his next appointment, on the picket line with striking actors and Hollywood writers.
Before taking off, however, he rummaged once more past the bagels and granola bars in his cart and pulled out a cardboard sign he’d made just for the occasion.
Its message: “Billionaires Hate You.”