Jena Friedman Punches Up

Not Funny: Essays on Life, Comedy, Culture, Et Cetera,
by Jena Friedman (Atria/One Signal)

I first caught Friedman on Stephen Colbert talking about her deathless live 2016 Election Night barb (“I just wish I could be funny… Better get your abortions while you can…” she says). She seemed tentative with Colbert, but grateful. No surprise, he’s a gentleman. Somebody urged her to pitch a book and now nobody’s safe…

TR: I want to start with a quote from your book that I really, really liked: “Love her or hate her, here was a woman who worked her entire life to conform to society’s expectations of how likable she needed to be in order to be accepted, only to lose to a clown in the end.” And you’re talking about Hillary. I just think that’s one of the sweetest, wisest things anyone’s ever said about Hillary. Yeah, no, seriously. And then you say this: “But in the aftermath of that traumatizing election, something cool happened. Women everywhere stopped giving a shit about being likable.” I’d like you to expand on that for me a little bit.

JF: I do think that the tenor of that election and the outcome just kind of opened the floodgates to women perhaps feeling more emboldened to put it all out there. You know, the Me Too movement coming off, like, the back of that time, it feels somewhat connected. And I think that when you’re backed up against a wall, you’re a little more fearless than normal. And I do think that in the 2017 climate—it doesn’t feel like it was long ago, but it was six years ago—I think it emboldened women.

TR: Yeah. It’s crazy to think it was that long ago. It feels like yesterday, but it also feels like a really long time ago in a certain way. Feels like we’ve aged a lot as a culture since then.

JF: We have. We’ve had a pandemic, and we’ve had an attempted coup, we’ve aged a lot.

TR: Right, now remind me, I hope I’m getting the order of this right, you did a show called Soft Focus for Adult Swim and then you did Indefensible?

JF: Soft Focus was for Adult Swim, which is the nighttime of Cartoon Network. They’re all crazy, but yeah. I also worked behind the scenes of The Daily Show, which was on Comedy Central. And then I had my own show after Trump became president on Adult Swim, called Soft Focus. We did two specials and then we were about to do a third, but then the pandemic happened right when we entered pre-production, so that got sidelined. And then, the network kind of restructured, and the people that really brought me in and championed the show left, and then the show didn’t get picked up, which I think happens a lot to a lot of people in this industry, all the changes in executives. And then I got an opportunity to work on a show with AMC Plus and that’s Indefensible. And we shot two seasons of that.

TR: So do you have any other projects lined up or the book is coming out and you’re gonna see what happens after that?

JF: The book is coming out, I have a couple of things I’m developing, but I’m not scheduled to shoot anything at the moment.

TR: Who would you say was your biggest get on those interview shows that you did?

JF: I would have to say probably Gloria Allred because I can’t believe it. I mean she sat down on Indefensible, but it’s easier on that show to get people to sit down with you because it’s like True Crime-adjacent, it’s not just comedy but yeah, I didn’t think we were going to get Gloria Allred, then we did. Then again, she makes herself very available to public appearances, so maybe she wasn’t the biggest [laughs]. Also John McAfee on Soft Focus, I was kind of shocked that he sat down.

TR: I was shocked too and I’m shocked at the footage you got. I’m wondering how you prepare for something like that? You seem so calm, but I mean you must role-play and prepare like crazy to go on there and be so calm with a lunatic like him?

JF: No, I was foolishly calm with him. I didn’t know that he had five guys with guns, one of them at one point was kind of pointed at me. I think because I’m not around them a lot, it just doesn’t even register that they’re real. And I also thought, you know, that he was running for president at the time that I sat down with him. So I didn’t think he was going to do anything too crazy because he was running for president. So I wasn’t totally scared. We were prepared in the sense that there were questions that I had written in advance that I knew I was going to ask him, but then there was a lot of improv involved, too. I had also been a producer for three years behind the scenes on The Daily Show, so I kind of had that experience under my belt in terms of knowing what to expect or what we need to get for it to be a good piece.

TR: So what’s your favorite memory of being a producer at The Daily Show? Do you have some high points there?

JF: Yeah, I remember, one of the first pieces I did where I think we really hit a home run was with Sam Bee, it was my first real piece. It was about women in the military and there was a ban on women serving on the frontline. I thought of a civil rights issue, I pitched it to my team and they were like “Well, it kind of maybe makes sense, but maybe you’re right, you and Sam can go make that piece.” And Sam agreed with me. But then in the middle of production, Leon Panetta actually lifted the ban on women in combat and so the story changed from “We’re advocating for these people” to “Oh, shit, now women can serve on the front line.” And the piece just really articulated that the front lines are all of Afghanistan and when we have these retrograde laws in the military, it makes everybody less safe. And when you have women not able to serve on the frontlines, they’re treated as second-class citizens, and the definition of war is not what it was 50 years ago. And then it was also just a really funny, cool piece. And I think Jon [Stewart] shook my hand after that piece. I just remember feeling so proud, feeling like we made a type of comedy that really isn’t seen a lot in political comedy and it was like this kind of feminist segment. I think it came out before the [Amy] Schumer show or around that time. Prior to that there wasn’t a lot of feminist comedy on Comedy Central, so I was really proud of it. It’s called [Women’s War Daily:] Military Brohesion starring Sam Bee and I was a producer on it. A lot of those clips they took down, but if you can find that one, it’s a really great segment.

Military Brohesion” (2013), The Daily Show

TR: You’re great in the book about what stupid questions journalists tend to ask you? What kind of questions should journalists be asking comics more?

JF: That’s so funny. I didn’t even think about the consequences of writing about that in future interviews. I think it’s not as much as it used to be. Actually not true, because I did that interview with [The New Yorker’s] Isaac Chotiner and in his defense, he prepped me that it was gonna be about Louis [CK] and I was promoting season, an episode two of Soft Focus so I was like “I’ll do anything to be in the New Yorker.” I think, as a journalist, when you’re asking questions, and you’re not like a comedy journalist and you’re not messing with the form, you’re just straight up asking questions, just ask yourself, “Would I ask a guy the same question I’m asking this female performer or vice versa?” I think that will always keep you in check.

TR: And there’s that wonderful passage in your book where you asked these male comics the questions that you’ve been asked. Was there anything you left on the cutting room floor in that passage? I just found that so hilarious.

JF: Well, a couple of things. I do feel bad for Patton and Jim Gaffigan because both of their interviews were via email. I think like I say that in the interview, Jim felt a little stiffer than he is because he just answered my questions via email. And then I used to work with Norm Macdonald on Rosanne (on The Connor Family). I wanted to interview him as well. And I think I asked him and he was like “I’m a little busy follow up with me in a month” and then he died. And I mean it was a heartbreaking thing, but the kind of funny thing was thinking about Norm knowing that he was going to die but telling me to reach out again in a month knowing he was going to die before that.

TR: Would you do anything different or ask any different questions today if you’ve got to do that sequence over again?

JF: I mean, I recorded that last year, so no. It would have been fun to film it if they’d let me, but it was nerve-wracking because these are all guys that I love and admire and I’m asking them such silly questions, but they got it. And I recorded the conversations that we had, and I can’t tell if the written form captures how funny they were. There was that discomfort that is like so signature to those videos that happens even when you’re talking to people who know what you’re doing. There were just these funny moments. Like, I remember when I asked Jon about [NBC’s Matt Lauer], he had like a guttural laugh. You can’t capture that in a written interview.

TR: Well, I laughed out loud during most of it, and I could really tell that Stewart himself was really laughing too. What do you think most people get wrong about the craft of comedy?

JF: I think in all entertainment, the editors and the directors, but really the editors and producers, are so unsung and they’re so instrumental to making comedy work, particularly in the type of comedy that I love to do, the Borat-style comedy. It really is a team effort. There’s so much that goes into making new things like casting the people that you end up talking to in an unscripted way. It is actually very scripted, the unscripted comedy stuff, if that makes sense.

TR: I feel like Borat, he’s made that very clear.

JF: And Sacha [Baron Cohen] has definitely made that clear. Editors I just think are such unsung heroes in all entertainment, particularly comedy, because comedy really is like this rhythm. I remember I made videos online, I’ve been doing it for years, and I worked for Vice and Nat Geo as well. And I have some content online that just kind of falls flat because it got lost in translation or whatever. And I think that one thing in terms of comedic videos is that editing is so critical in the comedy working.

TR: Yeah, do you want to give a shout-out to some name editors that you think are really talented?

JF: Adam Epstein, any of the guys who edit those SNL digital shorts, John Phillpot, who edited Soft Focus. Oh, and Eric Eric Notarnicola, he edits a lot for Nathan [Fielder, Nathan For You]. I’m afraid to give a shout-out because I want to keep working with them but they’re already so busy because they’re like the best in the industry [laughs].

TR: Do you have a favorite routine that hasn’t gotten laughs yet that you keep polishing?

JF: I stepped away from standup for just a minute with the baby. I have to go back into doing that and trying to kind of figure out what I have to say in terms of standup, but I do have all this content that I’ve been posting online. I’m just working with someone right now who’s helping me put stuff on TikTok, which is like the silliest sentence, but I can’t go on TikTok so I have this person who has been posting it. She put one video on TikTok two days ago and it already has a million views. I do have a lot of content out there that I think people just haven’t seen because I’ve just been doing stuff kind of under the radar. So we’re trying to get stuff out there a little bit more, especially for Gen Z. I’m trying to appeal to Gen Z with some older content that we’re putting out now.

TR: And do you want to share that TikTok handle?

JF: Oh, it’s my name.

TR: Do you want to name three comedy records that were really important to you growing up?

JF: I didn’t really listen to comedy records but I loved In Living Color, and I loved The State, when I was little, SNL, [New Yorker cartoonist] Edward Gorey, which people don’t traditionally associate with comedy, but I thought he was the funniest. Always loved Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman, Joan Rivers…

TR: I saw Garofalo like three years ago. She was hilarious. Yeah. What do you do to psych yourself up before you go on stage?

JF: I don’t really have rituals. When I did Edinburgh for a full month, I would just kind of like do a couple of push-ups or something to just kind of get the energy up, maybe have like coffee, but I’m not really OCD about my process. I probably should be. I think the cool thing about performing and something that I always appreciated is that when you do stand up, you create your own persona, and I could just be me so I didn’t feel like I needed to put on airs or have a ritual to get into character because I was the character that was on stage talking.

TR: Do you want to tell the story of the book, how you came about getting the contract, and how you went about doing it? I know you got to share it with your mom.

JF: Yeah, I had tweeted a joke—like a breaking news tweet—about Brock Turner speaking at the RNC because I just read that the McCloskeys, that couple that pointed guns at protesters, were actually speaking at the RNC and I’m like, this is crazy. So I tweeted that Brock Turner was speaking at the RNC and that the bat who gave the world COVID was also speaking at the RNC; like I clearly was joking. And yet, the [Stanford sexual assault perpetrator] Brock Turner tweet went viral, and then people were commenting on it, there was like a news article about it saying “I do not find this tweet funny” because people thought it was real. And then people online got mad at me and they said that I was re-traumatizing the victim of Brock Turner. And then her lit agent reached out and was like “Thank you for getting his name trending. Now you’re gonna help with sales.” It was like this whole spiel of insanity. And then a lit agent reached out and he said “You know, if you write up a couple of pages, I think we can sell a book.” That person was Robert Guinsler, and he’s awesome. And I just started writing a pitch. It was during, I think, one of the variants where everything was shut down again, so I had a little bit of time. You know, for like a decade I’ve been procrastinating and not really able to write a book, and it took a pandemic where I was stationary to have that focus to do it. And then we sold it, and the book kind of evolved from the original pitch to what it ended up being, which was a series of essays. And yeah, my mom was instrumental in the whole process because she’d always been trying to get me to write a book, and we would have these walk and talks where she would say something and I’d be like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that. I’ll put it in the book.”

TR: Cool. Very cool. So do you have a favorite moment where you’ve been inspired on stage and something’s coming out that you didn’t expect?

JF: As I mention in the book, I started with improv and I had these moments all the time when I was doing that. Improv really is like a drug. I mean, there’s nothing more fun than discovering things in the moment, and doing it on stage with audience members in on the joke. It was so much fun.

TR: I love how you come out and go “America hates moms. America hates moms.” And you actually get people to say it. And does it work differently in different cities and in different parts of the country?

JF: I was so pregnant at the time, and I was ready to mature on the fly. And I also didn’t want to get Covid while pregnant, so I wasn’t really working that show a ton indoors and I definitely didn’t tour it. I was producing what would be the second six episodes of the second installment of Indefensible, so I really didn’t get to do that show as much as I would have done another show at another time had I not been pregnant. So a lot of those jokes were kind of less polished than what they would normally be. But to answer your question, I had not led an audience in that chant the first or second time I had tried that.

TR: Because that’s just hilarious. I can’t get anyone to sing that along with me when I do it [laughs]. And I love your bit about how the abortion jokes are like the unwanted babies of comedy. You’re pretty candid and you really dig in there deeply. Like, you’re just not going to avoid this. Have you found yourself having trouble with that material in different places? Or do you find that the confidence really helps that material just surge right on through?

JF: The miscarriage jokes, that’s in the special. Those didn’t really work in the way that they worked when I wasn’t pregnant. I think my being pregnant scared people, but that’s like my favorite place to play in, that kind of discomfort where you know that what you’re saying is correct. You know that you are not being offensive because this is a topic that we need to talk about that we’re not talking about, but that is simultaneously being legislated. I’d done the bit so many times as a non-pregnant person, and it had made people laugh, the only difference was that now I was pregnant. And so it was fun to kind of tease the audience for not laughing. Yeah, that was that’s what makes standup feel fresh and fun to me; when you’re kind of playing with the audience’s discomfort.

TR: Well, right. And I feel like that’s what helps the audience too because we just are sort of giving ourselves over to you, We’re just like “Okay, she’s just gonna get us through this or something. She’s let the genie out of the bottle, so let’s see what she does with it.”

JF: It requires a level of trust, right? I think that type of trust is not necessarily given to women particularly, and so you kind of have to just demand it or not be fazed if you don’t get it.

TR: Well, I think Steve Martin says this in his book [Born Standing Up], he had to figure out how he was going to take the audience to a place where they would have to understand that he didn’t care whether it worked or not. That he was just going to plow through it and if he didn’t get laughs, he was still going to hold character.

JF: Yeah, Martin’s a genius. I think that is a thing. It’s like audiences are like dogs, right? They can smell fear, and they’re easily led. And I think—especially when you’re doing challenging material—you just have to be just as unstoppable as you can be and that takes time and practice and experience.

TR: And reflecting on this material now that you are a mother, do you have new reflections about it? I hope you’re going to extend and amplify and keep going with this in this space, right?

JF: I mean, I have a Casey Anthony joke [the Florida woman accused of killing her 2-year-old child in 2008], it’s like the only joke I’ve written since I had a baby and it is funny to me, but I’m like afraid that if I tell it like I’ll have like CPS [Child Protective Services] after me or that there are the things I can’t say as a mom because of being a mom in our culture. I think it is probably having a slightly centering effect on my standup also because I’m exhausted all the time.

TR: Now that your baby is three months old, do you feel like America hates moms more than you expected or less than you expected?

JF: Oh, I knew what I was getting into and I think it just further solidified it. But I didn’t have any illusions that it would be easy, but it’s still crazy to me and it just further makes me want to advocate on behalf of new moms and moms in general because it’s insanely hard. And the fact that we don’t have social safety nets to help people in the way that we should. I really don’t understand how so many people do this, because it’s insane. Yeah, and I don’t think I got in trouble for it, but I do think I tweeted something about how I think postpartum depression is a diagnosis that, while it does exist — I think people get upset if you imply that it doesn’t exist and that’s not what I mean at all — it’s probably overprescribed. I think it’s like a convenient label for people to throw at new moms instead of actually looking at the system and how it probably exacerbates any pre-existing depressive symptoms. Like, you know, you don’t sleep for the first couple of months, and is that postpartum depression? Or is that just society not giving paid leave and not having things in place that make it easier to have kids and parent? Raising them without going broke, going sleep deprived, or both?

TR: Yeah, I think that’s very tricky material, right?

JF: Yeah, it is. But somebody once commented “Sounds like you don’t even have kids,” and I was like “What?” [laughs] I mean, so far, I have been lucky that I haven’t had postpartum depression, I had a pretty awful third trimester, my mom passed away and I was so depleted. So because I was so depleted, with the baby, I’m just thankful that I got to be pregnant and thankful that he’s okay. And I just feel lucky to have him. But just not getting sleep would make anyone crazy. So yeah, and when you have a clinical diagnosis, I think it’s easier for a lot of people to be dismissive. It’s “Oh, you just have postpartum depression” instead of like “Oh, we don’t have an infrastructure to support this in society.”

TR: Right. So let’s finish here because I want to let you go take a nap if you’re tired.

JF: [laughs] I’m okay right now.

TR: But I love your routine about the glass burqa and about how tough it is being a female in ISIS and I just wonder where that came from?

JF: That one makes me laugh, too. I saw a New York Post headline about a suicide bomber woman. And then carrying the headline, they posted photos of her online. Right? That was so horrific and horrible, but weirdly funny to me. I don’t really know the details of it, but just the fact that you could literally be a suicide bomber, but if you’re a woman, you’re still undermined and called the girlfriend or something. Like, you know, that kind of sexism is inherent even with terror.

TR: Jena, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I’ve really enjoyed this chat with you and I admire your work so much. Thanks for coming to my podcast. Your book was just so impressive to me, so good luck with it.

JF: Of course and thank you. Take care.