When she’s onstage at a comedy club, mic in hand, Jena Friedman pulls no punches. That’s the nature of stand-up comedy, particularly her unapologetically political and feminist brand of stand-up comedy. We have to swallow these bitter pills and we have to do it now.
Television allows for the luxury of subtlety; a place for these same messages to sneak up and sink in slowly. That’s a quality Friedman has brought to all of her work as a filmmaker and a field producer for The Daily Show. And for her first Adult Swim special, Soft Focus with Jena Friedman, she’s found that sometimes elusive place where her messages are clear as glass but feature far deeper layers that benefit from thoughtful unpacking.
The framework of her special is a parody of a hushed newsmagazine show like 60 Minutes, which take a deliberately soft approach toward both incredibly difficult issues and celebrity profiles. Friedman gives us both sides of that coin, starting with an exposé on campus rape and finishing with a look into the current life of Gilberto Valle, the former NYPD officer known as “Cannibal Cop.”
The first half of Soft Focus is Friedman’s masterpiece, bringing together so many small details and hilarious turns that add up to a brilliant commentary on how sexual assault is framed and discussed of late. In it, she uses the same technique that some schools do to try and curb teen pregnancies: by having a gaggle of frat boys carry around a silicone sex doll with them for a night. It’s a genius premise, saddling these young men with literal sex objects with names like “Can’t Consent Charlotte.” And Friedman was able to include with it additional optics that call back to Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who carried a mattress with her for a year as a protest against how the college handled her accusation of being raped in 2012.
I don’t want to spoil the interview that Friedman conducts with these guys the morning after their night out drinking with their “dates,” but it’s a marvel to watch her work. She remains two steps ahead in the narrative, driving her point home with a subtle flourish by the end. If she never gets to make another edition of this, The Daily Show should consider bumping her up to full-time correspondent quickly.
The other segment of the special isn’t as consciously-minded but it takes great pleasure in turning wispy celebrity interviews into something far more surreal. Take the choice of Valle as the subject: Friedman allows him to claim his innocence but keeps circling back to remind him that he was accused of conversing with people on the internet about murdering and eating his wife and her friend. Then she takes the whole thing to its illogical conclusion turning her seemingly innocent question about Valle’s efforts to find romance following this ordeal into a full-blown dating game called Meet Your Match. It’s the perfect mix of the needlessly silly and intentionally creepy (the questions Friedman has Valle ask his potential mates include “Where do you live?” and “How fast can you run?”) bringing it right in line with the aesthetic cultivated by Tim & Eric and Eric Andre.
Having a voice like Friedman’s on Adult Swim is a savvy move by the network within a network, a nice course correction to absolve them a little bit from their decision to align with Sam Hyde and his alt-right leaning Million-Dollar Extreme nonsense. If they’re smart, they’ll keep the door open for Friedman and other women creatives like her. More thoughtful and unsparing comedy like Soft Focus might be just what this world needs.