I can’t tell you how many times I’ve repeated the phrase “if you don’t laugh you’ll cry,” over the past few years. It’s become my unofficial catchphrase at this point; put it on my headstone, please. Coronavirus, climate change, impending fascism, the dissolution of abortion rights, sexism, racism, transphobia—I could get carpal tunnel just trying to list all the reasons life feels bleak right now.
“If you don’t laugh you’ll cry” is pretty much how Jena Friedman’s stand-up works, and she aptly references the phrase in her newest comedy special, Ladykiller. Having produced The Daily Show and written for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Friedman is more than adept at poking fun at America’s many, many, many faults.
Ladykiller is no exception to Friedman’s signature style. She sold the special before becoming pregnant and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but by the time she took to the stage she was 27 weeks along and the rest of us soon could be, thanks to the dinosaurs on the Supreme Court. As a result, Friedman ruminates on abortion, motherhood, and America’s general disdain for women for much of the hour.
Friedman never sugarcoats things for her audience; she’ll barrel ahead with miscarriage jokes, even when the crowd is audibly trepidatious. Her take-no-prisoners approach to comedy could be seen as alienating, but it comes across as fearless more than anything else. After all, simply existing in the United States as a woman is a daily act of bravery (which is why I, a coward, emigrated), so taking to the mic with zero fucks to give feels like a natural next step. She’s not quite antagonistic towards the audience, but she’ll put on a mocking baby voice when the crowd isn’t receptive to a joke that’s perceived as possibly crossing a line. It’s thrilling to witness, like that breathless feeling when one kid in class stands up to the teacher and everyone else just watches in awe.
Friedman’s comedy is biting throughout the hour, but sometimes slides into pedantic territory. And honestly, it works part of the time. She’s like a TED Talk presenter with her sentences full of pregnant (sorry, couldn’t resist) pauses and precise hand gestures. Screeds on abortion, the origin of car trunk safety latches, and rates of femicide can temporarily disrupt the special’s flow, but ultimately Friedman always has a one-liner or funny turn of phrase to keep us laughing instead of sobbing.
The push-and-pull tension of Ladykiller showcases Friedman’s writing skills. She knows how to keep an audience on edge with her pacing, as well as how to craft an instantly quotable bit (Some of my favorites from the special include “Breeder’s remorse” and her assertion that, given the certain state of the world, “I don’t even know if I want a kid as much as I want a survivor”). Pair her barbed writing with her easy stage presence, and you’ve got a Ladykiller of a special. There’s no comfort to be found in Friedman’s latest hour, but loads of laughs and validation.
Ladykiller will available on Peacock September 30.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.