Comics booked to perform a late-night TV set practice that “tight five” anywhere they can. At 12:30 a.m., two days from filming Conan, Jena Friedman finds herself following a guy juggling tennis rackets and balancing a wheelbarrow atop his chin on Tomorrow! With Ron Lynch, an L.A. variety mainstay celebrating its first night at new home Dynasty Typewriter. The former Hayworth Theatre seats 200, boasts a retro 1930s vibe, and welcomes a young, eager crowd.
“What a weird time to be alive,” Friedman begins. “I just hope this whole Trump mess doesn’t make it even harder in the future for men to become president. It’s so hard for men. You guys have had a rough … couple weeks. I love men; one of my best friends is a man. I actually just found out that I’m half-man. On my dad’s side. So … I get it.”
The set killed last night at Tig Notaro’s monthly show at the Largo in Los Angeles. Afterward, West Hollywood’s Bar Lubitsch went OK. Earlier tonight at the Hollywood Improv? Not so good. Friedman gets it. She knows her material–political, pointed, unapologetic–isn’t for everyone.
“If you see a Nazi in the street, maybe don’t punch him, but instead just, like, lightly harass him,” Friedman winds down. “Catcall him. Tell him to smile. If any Nazis work for you, pay them less. Take credit for their ideas … except that one. Make them live up to impossible standards … in heels! You see where this is going. If we Americans treat Nazis the way we treat women, at the very least, they may never become president.”
“[At The Daily Show], it was very important for me to make sure that we represent people accurately, and we don’t take people out of context.”
She thanks the enthusiastic audience and takes her leave. The run-through went well, even earning applause breaks. But Friedman is never satisfied by approval alone. If attendees already share her point of view, did she make anyone think?
The former Letterman writer and Daily Show With Jon Stewart field producer has long viewed comedy as a force for social change. Her new special, Soft Focus, premieres Sunday on Adult Swim. Like fellow performer Eric Andre’s street documentary Eric Andre Does Paris, airing immediately afterward, Focus runs all of 15 minutes and isn’t a special in the sense casual viewers might expect.
Rather than Conan-esque stand-up, Friedman presents a humorous study on campus rape and a matchmaking game starring the newly dating Gilberto Valle, a.k.a. New York’s “Cannibal Cop.” The mash-up of interview and scripted elements is a signature style she honed over three years at The Daily Show. She departed the same day as Jon Stewart, taking her one-person show American Cunt to Scotland’s 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe later that month.
“As a field producer, it was very important for me to make sure that we represent people accurately, and we don’t take people out of context,” she says backstage. “It was all consensual; it was all ethically produced.”
The Focus subject matter is undeniably dark. Friedman wouldn’t have it any other way. “I think you can joke about anything as long as it’s coming from a place of empathy and humanity, and you’re thoughtful about it,” she explains. “I think we should be talking about everything. Because the danger is not talking about it and ignoring it. That’s how shit continues happening.”
"Most of us, minus the sociopaths running our country right now, want our neighbors to have food and for kids to have health care.”
Friedman cites Nathan Fielder’s marketing-stunt series Nathan for You as inspiration for “revealing human truths that only emerge with the introduction of barriers.” So, too, Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America, which attempts to reach and unite the two sides of America’s political divide.
“I wish I could say that’s where I’m at,” Friedman admits. “I’m not there yet. I’m just trying to figure out who I can reach.”
Originally from Philadelphia-adjacent Haddonfield, N.J., Friedman joined Chicago’s ImprovOlympic while earning an anthropology degree from Northwestern University. She briefly worked for a health care consulting firm, tasking herself with affecting systemic change from within.
It’s a similar approach Friedman takes with comedy. Her Daily Show work remains a point of pride. Pieces she wrote and directed explored voter ID laws, fracking, Monsanto and worker strikes … some even eliciting direct government response.
Individual projects have included a musical recasting American Girl dolls as refugees, and a web series parodying the New York Times wedding videos (with a serial-killer twist). During one particularly charged three-month period, she released American Cunt as her debut special, contributed an inauguration “recipe” to The New Yorker and received death threats after encouraging, “Get your abortions now!” on Stephen Colbert’s Election Night special.
“At least they’re coming around,” Friedman jokes about pro-life supporters. “At least they’re entertaining the idea of terminating life at a certain stage.”
Stand-up topics like reproductive rights and media representation aren’t discussed for shock value. Instead, Friedman claims fear as her primary motivator. “If you’re afraid of Ebola, serial killers, anything that freaks you out, and you can turn it into comedy, you have some power over it. I think I lead with fear.”
She won’t go so far as to say writing, producing and performing serve as therapy. “But it does help.”
Mainstream palatability? Personal likability? Traditional formats and proven genres? Not high on the agenda. “In this climate, it feels like nothing’s real, that old models of comedy don’t work or don’t matter anymore,” she assesses. “If you did a piece on how prisons are fucked up, everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, prisons are fucked up … and?’”
Social commentators working ahead of the curve may finally feel like the industry is catching up. Late-night sets have evolved from white guys complaining about airline food. Specials aren’t about filling a theater with tourists and hawking the results on the road. Thanks to the DIY nature of the internet and a wide-open playing field, comedy is becoming the go-to art form for disarming, for educating and for seeking justice. It’s a lot to absorb. And, quite frankly, it’s about time.
Some of Friedman’s favorite Daily Show pieces encouraged giving a racist person a platform to look stupid, or really allowing any people in power who shouldn’t be in power to look stupid. “In 2013, people were shocked by that,” she says. “They aren’t anymore.“
“There’s so much noise and crazy bullshit all the time,” Friedman continues. “But most of us, minus the sociopaths running our country right now, want our neighbors to have food and for kids to have health care. I think it’s just about trying to tap into that shared experience of what makes us all human. It’s all super unfunny, but that’s what’s exciting to me.”
Soft Focus With Jena Friedman airs Sunday, Feb. 18, at midnight on Adult Swim.