Jena Friedman's "Soft Focus": Dark feminist comedy, aimed at young men

Salon talks to the "The Daily Show" alum about her new special, Trump, and her uniquely political voice

Published January 25, 2019 5:00PM (EST)

Jena Friedman (Adult Swim)
Jena Friedman (Adult Swim)

Jena Friedman's humor is dark, inventive, and timely. In the first installment of her Adult Swim special, "Soft Focus with Jena Friedman," she delivers a segment about campus rape where she gets the company Silicon Wives to donate luxury sex dolls and renames them as "cannot-consent-carrie dolls." Friedman enlists college frat boys to carry the dolls around for the next few days and to treat them with respect. "They're heavy," she says, dryly, "but not as heavy as the emotional burden that rape victims must carry around with them at all times."

In Friedman's follow-up special, which premieres Jan. 25, she takes on the sexual harassment of women gamers. After interviewing women who had experienced this online abuse, Friedman conceives of an immersive virtual-reality sensory experience that is meant to recreate "what it's like to be a woman," in order to help men build empathy. In the second part of the special, she sits down with controversial programmer, businessman and hopeful libertarian candidate for president John McAfee, for a somewhat humiliating and probing conversation.

Friedman's voice and vision is refreshing in its originality, but still stingingly political and relevant to the current times. Through her experiential field work, she forces young men to physically see beyond the male gaze — to feel what it's like not to be believed, to be gaslighted, to be objectified and harassed and then called sensitive — if only for five minutes of their lives. And while it seems like her specials will be particularly influential to men, as a woman there's definite pleasure in watching their assumptions get disrupted and dismantled too.

I talked to Friedman, an alumnus of "The Daily Show" and "Late Show with David Letterman," about how to conduct field pieces ethically and how comedy has transformed under President Trump.

In your first Adult Swim special, you covered campus rape. In the new special, you're addressing the sexual harassment of women gamers. How do you come to these topics?

Well, the campus rape one was an idea that I had while I was working at "The Daily Show." I was a field producer there and I think it was around the time of the whole UVA reporting story, with the false reporting thing and I just kind of wanted to try to find a funny way to cover it.

It was so frustrating, because from personal experience, I know that campus rape is a huge problem. But what happens with the article was that they talk to the small percentage of people who false report or whatever and I just wanted to find a funny way to talk about something that is really an epidemic. For the more recent one, a lot of my ideas come from articles that I'll read and I came across an article about a woman who said that she was — I think — sexually harassed while playing an online game and she said 'I know it wasn’t harassment or assault, but it felt like it,' and so that gave me the idea of exploring that territory. And the more that I read about harassment in gaming, the more I realized that it's also a pretty big problem.

I ask because there’s certainly no shortage of issues to address facing women. 

It’s really funny that you said that because I had one of my male EPs [who] was like 'this is a little similar to the campus rape piece' and I was like, there are so many facets of society where women or people are harassed and assaulted in different ways that we could just do a whole show, like a whole season, on the different nuanced ways that people are harassed and assaulted. But it’s funny that you picked up on that, because he didn’t and it’s interesting.

Both of the segments I thought you made hilarious, but the topics are also really dark and you really expose the hypocrisy that often shows up around these issues. Did you feel like the men in this experiential experiment that you did, with either the campus rape one or the VR one, that they learned something? 

I mean that’s the goal. You always want people to come away from an experience learning something. From my experience working at "the Daily Show" and other stuff like that, I try really hard to produce things as ethically as we can in the confines of what we’re doing, and so I want to make sure people feel safe. They don’t actually feel scared, like what we did in the second part with the Cannibal Cop — who now follows me on Twitter — we made sure that he wasn’t actually around the women because even though he was out of jail, I wanted to make sure that people who came on the show weren’t also feeling threatened at any time. But yes, I would love for people to walk away from the experience with more of an insight into things. That is one of the goals for sure.

Can you speak to the order of having this kind of experiential, immersive experiment with men first, where they learn something and grow, and then this interview [with John McAfee] where, to me, you’re challenging this problematic man? It almost feels backwards. What's the thought process behind that?

I think the gaming segment is tougher to swallow. I think with John McAfee, people just love him and are attracted to him for whatever reason. I think there are two projects coming out, feature films about him coming out, so he’s like this magnetic figure, whereas the harassment in gaming segment to me is like the medicine. I just want people to see that and then if they stay tuned, then they get to see Mcafee and my conversation with him. But I think the sexual harassment gaming segment is really what I wanted to make sure that they saw.

I really loved both specials, especially the format and the way your comedy feels very fresh and unique. It made me think about when Michelle Wolf had her Netflix show and she made fun of this yelling liberal voice, sincere yet angry, predictable, kind of clickable takedown of Trump, and there’s just so much truth in that. Do you have thoughts about comedy under Trump?

It was really hard at first and I've talked about this a lot. He’s so outrageous that it’s hard to top that. I had a joke in my first special "American C**t" about telling people who vote for him to vote on a different day. But then he, during a press conference, told people that the election was at the end of November. So it's like you can’t even write jokes that he hasn’t accidentally stumbled into, so that’s challenging.

But I think as we all are adjusting to this new reality and looking at how he's risen to be in a position he’s in, we realize that there are so many complicit people who worked hard at that and that I think is kind of more interesting to me than him. I think our understanding of narcissism and of con artists has expanded exponentially since Trump took office and so it’s really what enables that and how do we prevent that from happening again. I think that that is where I’m finding the interesting terrain of like the Mitch McConnells and the Paul Ryans and the people that enable Trump. To me, I think they are so easy to make fun and to find ways to talk about them, because I’m still trying to wrap my head around it and that’s my favorite area of comedy, when you’re trying to figure it out.

Has making fun of Trump become easy fodder for stand-up?

I think it’s hard to talk about Trump, especially in America, because we’re all exhausted. I’m exhausted as well, but it’s happening, he's what’s happening and he's so good at sucking all the oxygen out of the room. And so as people who comment on culture and society, everyone's talking about it now, because it’s really hard to avoid.

Now everyone is a political comic, because politics is all-encompassing and what does that mean for comedy? I don’t have any answers, but I do think it’s interesting that on one end, people want a rest from it, but on the other end, it is important to keep these things in people's minds, because we are in this very critical moment where if we’re going to get out with our democracy intact, it’ll be because people vote and people are engaged.

I think artists in general have a responsibility to keep people engaged and not burned out and so maybe it is if you are somebody compelled to talk about it, then by all means. And if you’re somebody who can give people a rest, so that they can laugh and not get burned out, that’s also helpful, too.

It’s interesting to look at the span of your work. It feels like you take these topics that are inherently not funny, like serial killers or campus rape, and manage to make them funny without us, viewers, feeling gross for laughing. How do you think about doing it responsibly?

I think a lot of the topics come from my own fear and if you can find a way to make people laugh at it, you maybe have a little more control over it, and also, it’s not laughing at it, it is like laughing at our own idiocy or our own flaws that contribute to our fears or something like that.

To me, it’s like the ultimate test of a comedian: you can make people laugh at anything.

I guess. We all struggle with that all the time and it’s like, what people are laughing at and why are they laughing is also a really important thing to consider, especially in light of the past year. I don’t perform in certain pockets of the country, in certain clubs, because I know no one's going to laugh. I used to try to play to audiences that weren’t necessarily into my stuff, and now, I like playing more to people who are — to some degree, there’s always overlap. The cool thing about these Adult Swim shows, a lot of  people who watch that are guys who are teens and in their 20s, and that’s not my target demo, but I love the idea of getting to talk to them and that was really what motivated this show.

This is my attempt to reach a younger male demographic. With that campus rape piece, all I wanted it to do was to get college-aged guys thinking about consent. That's all the goal was and to actually do it in a funny way, because the minute that people smell that you’re preaching, they tune out and I get it. That’s all I want. I want the show to get people thinking in terms of these things.

It's the least funny thing to say that out loud by the way. Nothing is less funny than like showing your cards and being like 'this is my goal.'

It doesn’t take anything away from it though.

I’m so glad you like it, too, because it's scary, this stuff is right on the line. It scary stuff.

Have you ever felt like you have crossed that line?

I think every comedian crosses the line especially earlier on. I was fortunate to work as a field producer at "The Daily Show" for three years, so I got to really learn from the best, and working behind the scenes is a lot easier because your face isn't out there. I think if there were any moments where I had an instinct to cross the line, Jon [Stewart] would always reign me in in the edit. So stand-up wise, yes, every comedian does at some point. How do you know the line unless you cross it? But with the field pieces so far, I’m trying to get right up to that line — make people laugh, but hopefully not cross it. But also times change. Who's to say five years from now somebody looks at this and they're like 'now that we are all part machine, this doesn't hold up anymore . . .'

The line's always changing. So as of this date, if you don’t think the line is crossed, then let’s get that on record. So when people dig it up in five years and get mad at me, they'll at least have an archive that everything was OK in 2019.

By Rachel Leah

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