Why don’t you know who Jena Friedman is? The answer is the comedian occupies a spectrum of comedy so dark that it is almost impossible to see her. She operates in the ultraviolet light of honest brutality. But now, with proper eclipse viewing equipment, Jena Friedman is accessible to everyone.
The mid-30s Northwestern grad has an incredible resume in late night writing, stretching back to Letterman’s show in 2011 and 2012, and eventually working with Colbert, on The Nightly Show and in The New Yorker. We here at Paste named her one woman show American Cunt one of the best comedy specials of 2016. Her work has also achieved the high acclaim of being sent a cease and desist letter from the New York Times for the parodies she was creating from their recent engagement videos. But overwhelmingly, she possesses a streak of bleak honesty that she’s never been able to fully embrace, even during her time as a Daily Show producer, because it was just a little more truthful than late night comedy knew what to do with.
All of that is about to change.
Last week week, Friedman performed a stand-up set for the ages on Conan. You owe it to yourself to watch this immediately.
“After Charlottesville I felt like after 9/11,” she tells Paste. “Is that dramatic? To feel bad when you’re watching Nazis marching in 2017? The AR-17 is exercising free speech. So the intersection of discussing that and doing what I was writing on late night is very small.”
Yeah. Nazis should be treated like women is a legit thesis. Maybe you’re seeing why comedy has kept Friedman hidden away for so long. It is only now that we truly need her.
Friedman is aware of what the boy’s club atmosphere can do. “I submitted to Letterman and convinced there was no way I would get it because they already had a female writer,” she says. “So when I got it, it was the first time two women were on that staff in thirty years.” But she knows that comedy isn’t this bad all the way down. “Sure, there are all of these all men comedy line-ups at clubs, but I think purchasing power is going to allow consumers to show clubs what matters.”
This Sunday on Adult Swim, Friedman releases a special called Soft Focus. It feels like a pilot for a show that mixesl Daily Show’s approach to journalism with a feminist take on The Eric Andre Show’s shock interviews. Friedman tells us that using terms like “rape” would automatically disqualify her pitches on certain shows, so using the word “rape” as the first punchline of this special really establishes what Jena is both up against and has overcome to be here. Her darkness feels like a triumph, and from the opening moments the open-minded viewer will identify with that victory as well.
Soft Focus evokes an emotional response that recalls Stephen Colbert’s early interviews from The Daily Show. It’s that mix of gotcha-fuck-you journalism and actual fuck-you-we-did-get-you journalism that makes you feel all warm and complicated on the inside. Freidman’s special is split into two distinct parts: one is about campus rape, the other is a dating show for NYC’s Cannibal Cop.
Friedman approaches the issue of sexual assault on campus by bringing an age-old idea to the table: if teens can be scared out of parenthood by carrying around a baby for the day, why can’t frat boys be scared out of rape by carrying around a sex doll that hasn’t consented to sexual activity for the day? The end result is like if progressive protesters had their own Tim & Eric and the play-out was to expose assholes for being assholes. It’s an incredible series of escalations that needs to be seen to be believed.
Friedman came up with this concept while at The Daily Show, but it wasn’t a fit. “This was part of the zeitgeist around UVA, but unfortunately that’s still the case,” Friedman says. “Because over 200 schools are under investigation now.” If you didn’t know that, it’s because no one knows that. This is an alt-comedy show meant to highlight exactly how much you’ve missed the point. But to prove the extent to which Adult Swim believes in this, the show exists at 17 minutes in length. Everything Adult Swim does is at 11 minutes or 23 minutes but never the twain should meet. This seems small, but a network taking a chance on changing the entire structure of what they do means that something important had to happen. And what happened here was that Adult Swim believed enough in a few segments to keep them, even though conventional wisdom had no idea what to with a man that produces feet that have a vagina where the ankle should be. Look, just watch it.
The second segment involves New York’s famous Cannibal Cop, who intended to kill and eat his wife, who is now treated to a positive conversation and then a dating show. This is…. more of a comedy style that will have you asking where your value sets align. It’s a challenge to moral concepts that is so direct that it does not require Friedman’s jokes about anal sex that exist around it. I mean, they’re very funny, but the very existence of the grey morality within a grey morality should be enough, so the extra measures here are very much at your comedic discretion.
Where does Friedman find hope now?
“I’m hopeful but I’m not optimistic,” she says. “This is not the worst time we’ve ever been in. I find hope in other activists but also Hillary won the popular vote. I’m also not an undocumented person, so my hope is… maybe you should talk to someone else? It’s surreal and we’ll see how it goes in a couple years. I can still practice free speech. We’ll see what happens next.”
Soft Focus is worthwhile, but the idea of Soft Focus is more worthwhile. Adult Swim took a chance on something valuable, but the true value will come in making this permanent. We’ll be collectively excited when this is a recurring show instead of a one-off.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.