Jena Friedman On Using Comedy To Apply A ‘Soft Focus’ To Troubling Subjects

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Hopefully, this isn’t the first time you’ve heard of Jena Friedman. The former Late Show with David Letterman writer and The Daily Show field producer’s work has been seen by millions of people, but it didn’t always brazenly advertise her name. In 2016, however, that changed when NBC Universal’s short-loved Netflix competitor Seeso premiered Friedman’s first original stand-up special, American C*nt, to critical acclaim.

Enter Adult Swim, which brought Friedman on in May 2017 to produce a new comedy special in which she would “probe” America. Little else was heard about her project until earlier this month, when the late-night alternative network announced that Friedman’s new show, Soft Focus with Jena Friedman, would air Sunday, February 18th at Midnight. To explain the concept behind the program, as well as her current plans for distributing American C*nt and a potential new comedy special, Friedman spoke with Uproxx about these and more — like whether or not the volatile topic of campus rape can ever be funny.

Before digging into Soft Focus, I wanted to ask you about your plans with American C*nt. The album version is available to stream, but without Seeso it doesn’t have a single home. I don’t think there’s anywhere we can actually watch the special. Any plans to release it on DVD, CD, or vinyl?

I could release a vinyl of it. I may do that at some point. It’s available on iTunes right now. I thought about maybe putting on YouTube even, but I really like the idea of people listening to stand-up more than just watching it. The fact that it’s available on Spotify, iTunes, and Google seems to work just fine. And then there were a few moments where I was like, “The fact that Republicans might not exist once the special airs…” That’s just so heartbreaking. And it’s probably already out of date, so I don’t want to give people PTSD.

Who knows? For all we know, maybe nothing will matter anymore in a month. Maybe the jokes will still work just as well. At least I think they do.

That would be great. I mean, nothing matters now it seems. It’s a really interesting position we’re in right now.

So how did Soft Focus come about? Was this something you brought to Adult Swim, or did they reach out to you?

They reached out to me and asked if I wanted to do something with them. As a result of my work on The Daily Show, I really like doing field pieces. I like the idea of exploring comedy through interacting with actual people. The same goes for trying to tackle real issues, which is in the first segment. Otherwise, I’ve been doing these kinds of interview segments on my own for a long while. What I like about interviewing people is just trying to find a side of them that others might have ignored in the mainstream media. For the other interviews that I’ve done, I always try to show the parts of a person’s or people’s story that was otherwise forgotten or ignored.

The development process was kind of interesting. It was cool. We shot a bunch of stuff back when we had a somewhat different concept for the show, but after working on it with the network to figure out what the show could be, we got Soft Focus. Most of their live-action programming are quarter hours, but they were very cool with helping us to preserve the integrity of the show — especially the campus rape piece. That’s why the show is longer than a typical quarter hour. That was really cool of them to do, let alone allow us to air any kind of piece on campus rape.

The image of the three frat guys marching outside and carrying the real sex dolls is wonderful.

Those dolls are really heavy, by the way. I don’t know if you could tell. They were like over 100 pounds each.

Obviously the guys seemed okay with everything, though I’m sure they had to sign something.

They were sweethearts about it. They were cool.

Were these ideas you had on your own before Adult Swim approached you, or did they come up in the development process?

They were both things that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to do like a piece on campus rape involving the real sex dolls idea. I was at The Daily Show when I first had that idea, but it’s just not a Daily Show thing. They would never do something like that. As for the cannibal cop segment, I found out that he was dating again and just knowing that made me want to talk to him. I read in the New York Post that he was dating again a while back, and I was like, “He’d be an interesting person.” I like to think that I’m a fun person to talk to. I previously did that interview with Ken Kratz, the prosecutor from Making a Murderer, and wanted to do something similar with cannibal cop.

I thought it was interesting, because my impression of that series was just that Steven Avery was guilty and they made Ken look so bad. Whether or not he actually is bad, I always think there’s more than one side to a person. I wanted there to be more nuance, but at the end of the day that’s very difficult to pull off with a show like Making a Murderer since there was a real woman who died in that narrative. There’s always that kind of balance to these things. You want to talk about them, and you don’t want to be disrespectful to those who are grieving, but… I think comedy is just a really good tool for exploring any issue. There’s no limit to what you can explore with comedy. The ultimate goal is to do it in a humane and thoughtful way.

For example, doing a Dating Game-esque show with the cannibal cop. I’m pretty I made noises that scared my dog when I saw that.

No other network, I don’t think, would ever let me do anything like that.

Absolutely not.

That still makes me laugh. Then our editors put those sounds in, which made it even better. I didn’t even think to score it like a horror film, so he added that and I couldn’t stop laughing.

This definitely felt like I was watching Daily Show sketches meant for the after hours crowd.

Someone recently asked me like how rape could possibly be funny. There’s no part of me that’s saying that rape is funny, but rape is happening. It has been happening forever and we’re not talking about it, so we’re not really dealing with it. So how do you deal with it? Well, the campus rape bit in Soft Focus — the use of humor — is just one kind of approach, but people might have the same reaction the person who asked me that question did. Especially if they don’t really understand where I’m coming from, or they don’t trust where I’m coming from. I wanted to do a piece on something I care about for a demographic I don’t really get to perform for or talk to all that much, which is young guys. They’re definitely Adult Swim’s main demographic, though I’m not entirely sure on the numbers. Maybe it’s 50/50 between men and women at this point, but I hope that the guys who watch this get the chance to understand what it’s like to be a female on a college campus. Maybe it will help them be a little more thoughtful. I don’t know.

Well like you said, comedy can be a great tool for approaching all sorts difficult subjects — especially, as you put it, “in a humane way.” That’s something we sometimes forget, especially when people simply interpret comedy as being able to talk about whatever you want, no matter how mean or cruel it may be, because you’re being funny.

Conversely, people will just hear words like “rape” and immediately shut down. They won’t even try to get a sense of what’s going on. It’s all about context. Like with the whole idea of a rape joke… Jen Kirkman says it best in Just Keep Livin’?: “That’s not a rape joke, that’s a rape fact, and I’ll stop talking about rape when men stop raping everybody, so don’t give me your outrage.” She does it far better than me, but I really think that comedy is a way to talk about issues like this, while disarming people at the same time. Hopefully, you can get them to see things in a new way.

I’d say you use comedy in this way very well, especially in American C*nt. I mean, it’s in the title of the special, which you talk about at length in terms of people’s reactions to that word (and others like it).

From the experience that I’ve had working at other places like The Daily Show, people will always have a different reaction to different things politically. You just have to know when you’re on the right track, and that you can stand behind whatever you end up putting out there. With what we’ve done in Soft Focus, I’m positive that I can stand behind it.

Speaking of difficult, delicate subject matters, I was intrigued when you said earlier that Adult Swim had reached out to you, because of the timing. Not too long before then, it was revealed the network had no projects with female creators. Accusations of rampant sexism followed soon after, prompting Mike Lazzo to try and calm things down, albeit unsuccessfully. Then Brett Gelman left because of it. So I guess my question is what was the experience of working with Adult Swim post-scandal?

They were really great. I mean, those kinds of questions, I think, are always better suited for the people who actually experienced it. I remember sitting in on a writers panel — it was all female late night writers — and somebody in the audience asked the panel why there were so few women in late night. The response was, “Don’t ask us, ask the people behind the scenes.” These writers were just trying to do their job. But to be honest, the context and the timing for all of this is totally a coincidence. I can’t speak for them, but I can say that they were really good to work with. They gave me almost no parameters from the beginning. They let us produce a bunch of stuff and, when we were finally ready to show them something, were more than willing to help me figure out which segments made the most sense for the show, especially in terms of their demographic. We arrived at something that we’re all proud of as a result. I really enjoyed working with them.

A lot of comedians I’ve talked to, especially those producing specials or shows for streaming, have said similar things. “They gave me almost no parameters.” And not just big names like Jerry Seinfeld, but mid-range and up-and-coming comics too. But it also seems like this practice has been toned down as of late.

Absolutely. There are so many different ways you can do these things, but I think the spirit of the original idea that I wanted to do was left intact, and that’s hard to pull off. All the notes that Adult Swim gave us, especially towards the end of the process, had more to do with going back and forth on certain jokes and minor things like that. But we all shared the same goal, which was to make the best version of this show as possible, the best version that their audience would like watch. When a network gives you notes that aren’t simply superfluous criticisms, but actual constructive criticism meant to better the project, that’s great. That’s where you want to be.

When you start a new project with someone, is that something you seek out? The collaborative element, I mean. Or does it just depend on what material you’re doing?

It depends on so many things. With American C*nt I got zero notes and I had complete creative freedom, but it’s also about the money. If you’re doing a network show, they’re going to have notes but they’re also going to pay you a lot more money, so there are trade-offs. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to collaborate now with places like Adult Swim and Seeso, and even when I worked for others, it was always for ideal situations. Even if you’re not getting complete creative freedom by yourself, being part of team where everybody has the same goal is fantastic. That’s what it was like at The Daily Show when I was there. Everybody I worked with on those field pieces were just the smartest people in the room, and if they gave you notes, the notes always made what we were doing better. Those are the kinds of creative environments that are the most exciting. They’re not always like that, but I’ve been fortunate enough to work in those environments.

You obviously have a lot of irons in the fire. Is another stand-up special one of them?

I’m doing stand-up for the first time on late night on Conan. I was going to go back to Edinburgh this year, but then I figured it was better to try and do at least five minutes for a late night slot since I’d never done it before. Conan asked me to come on, so I decided to do that. The hope is once I do it, and it goes well, I’ll be able to keep working on my next hour. I still don’t think I’ll go to Edinburgh this year, but there’s also a chance that I might go anyway. But yeah, I’m definitely working on another hour tentatively called Miscarriage of Justice.


Cool, you like that one?

That’s great.

We’ll see. I mean, that’s where we’re right now. American C*nt almost felt more like a lecture than a comedy show, but I said everything I wanted to say at the time, so now I’m just trying to take a step back and figure out what I want to say. What is there to say that everybody isn’t already saying, because when I wrote American C*nt everybody wasn’t a political comic. But now, you can’t escape it. We’re all talking about it. It’s more challenging to figure out how to insert something new into the dialogue. It’s taking a little longer, but we’ll see.

Soft Focus with Jena Friedman premieres Sunday, February 18th at midnight ET/PT on Adult Swim.