‘Daily Show’ Badass Jena Friedman on Becoming the Feminist Sacha Baron Cohen
On this week’s ‘The Last Laugh’ episode, former ‘Daily Show’ field producer and host of Adult Swim’s ‘Soft Focus’ Jena Friedman talks getting people to embarrass themselves on TV.
When Sacha Baron Cohen set out to dupe a vast array of powerful people on his recent show Who Is America?, he was forced to create a series of elaborate disguises so that no one would recognize him. Jena Friedman didn’t have that problem.
“Unlike Sacha’s show, it’s a character, but it’s not a big character,” Friedman tells me on the latest episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “So I can’t rely on disguises, I just have to rely on the anonymity I’ve worked so hard to achieve in my 13 years of comedy. You know, making sure your stand-up is just polarizing enough that people don’t take a chance on it. And so I’ve worked really hard on that and thankfully it’s helped cultivate this air of no one knowing me and that actually helps the show a lot.”
That ultra-dry sense of humor is put to glorious effect in Soft Focus, Friedman’s two-part special that aired on Adult Swim earlier this year and can still be viewed, for free, at AdultSwim.com.
The stand-up comedian took the skills she learned working as a field producer at The Daily Show—shepherding classic pieces from Samantha Bee, Michael Che, Aasif Mandvi and others—and put them through her own uniquely feminist filter to create one of the funniest shows far too few people have seen this year.
How she gets real people to say outrageous things on camera
“We never lie to people. But we’re also not like, ‘We’re a comedy show with a feminist perspective!’ So it’s kind of a need-to-know basis. And when I was at The Daily Show, even when people do know you, you still get the craziest reactions from people. That show was on for like 14, 15 years by the time I got there and everyone who was being interviewed knew they were talking to The Daily Show. And still some people didn’t know it was comedy and the people who did, we got the reactions out of them that we wanted. And I think it’s because at the end of the day, people just want to be heard and they want a platform. I work really hard not to take people out of context. We’re not journalism, but I try to adhere to journalistic integrity to the extent that we can, because I think that’s really important to the process.”
Giving dangerous people a platform vs. exposing their dangerous views
“We didn’t know before Trump, but now we know that exposure of toxic views is really unhealthy. I think you just have to be careful about what you put out. When I was at The Daily Show, Jon [Stewart] would never have us interview white supremacists because they are intellectually dishonest and fame-seeking and stupid. But if people like that are in proximity to power, you kind of have to expose them, but you have to be careful about what you air and how you portray them. And I’m still figuring it out. I think we’re all coming up to speed on free speech versus hate speech versus responsibility when you shine a light on these people. I think the media did such a disservice with the amount of attention it gave to Trump, which is partly why we are where we are. And I think we can all learn from that going forward but I don’t have answers.”
Why she reads the YouTube comments about her show
“I do read the YouTube comments, because I can handle them. I have a hypercritical Jewish mother so it just feels like home. And in that piece we had this one statistic about campus assault and rape, which is that one in four undergrads have reported being assaulted or harassed on college campuses. There was a comment that was like, ‘Feminists lie about rape stats, they lie about global warming, they lie about’—and then the next comment was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, they totally lie about rape stats but global warming’s real, man!’ So it was just funny to see our critics butting heads with each other.”
On ‘The Daily Show’s’ ‘boys’ club’ reputation
“At the time, I was aware of that but I came from Letterman—I mean, I came from a situation where my boss had a very public sex scandal with a young blonde woman who looked like me. So I can only speak to my experience at The Daily Show and it was great. Jon was the best boss I’ve ever had. There were really smart women around. I got to work with Sam Bee, who has been a hero of mine forever. So I had a really great experience at The Daily Show. I think everything can be a boys’ club to some degree, but for people to be more cognizant about making things not a boys’ club, I don’t think hurts anyone... other than boys.”
On writing for the ‘Roseanne’ reboot when Roseanne got fired
“So, Roseanne saw a set of mine on Conan and invited me to write for Roseanne. And I always liked her show and the legacy of the show back in the day. I was aware of her Trumpiness and I started following her on Twitter and I actually—just because her feed was so insane—I remember thinking, how does she have a show? I knew that she was a Trump supporter and I just felt like if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu and I have a very obvious liberal or progressive sensibility so I wanted to write for a Trump supporter and I wanted to write for a network. I was happy that ABC canceled her show. I think people need to be held accountable for their words. I wish more people were, not just women and women in comedy. And then when the show restructured, I was invited to go back and everybody was really kind and it was a cool experience to write on that show, but it was a different show than the one I’d signed up for.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Host of CNN’s United Shades of America, W. Kamau Bell.