Taking a ‘Soft Focus’ with Jena Friedman

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Sometimes hard issues need a light touch, which is where comedian Jena Friedman comes in. In her new Adult Swim mini-special Soft Focus with Jena Friedman (premiering this Sunday, February 18th at midnight), she approaches issues like campus rape and the story of the Cannibal Cop with a surreal sensibility that straddles the line between Daily Show field piece and Sacha Baron Cohen-level satire. For Friedman, comedy comes first, serving to open up the door to more important discussion later. We talked recently about the new show, how she learned to not be preachy, and the ebb and flow of social progress.

When we were talking last year around the time that American Cunt was released you said you were working on a scripted project that you couldn’t talk about. Is that what Soft Focus ended up becoming?

Yeah, it was this Adult Swim thing.

Can you take me through the year of development, from the original idea to what people will see on the 18th?

Adult Swim was wonderful. The show kind of evolved. The collaborative process created a show that I think the audience is really going to enjoy. They gave me the freedom to make what I wanted, and from there we worked together on what would make the most sense for the special, which is pretty cool. We do a segment on campus rape. Adult Swim usually does shows in half hours and quarter hours, but the runtime of this show is 17 minutes and they’re keeping the length and integrity of the campus rape piece intact. It’s cool that they let us take that amount of time to keep that piece instead of trying to shoehorn it into a shorter segment.

You told me that you feel like comedy is a political act and that you feel a responsibility to talk about the issues. The bulk of your comedy over the last couple of years has focused heavily on political and social issues. For instance, your most recent Conan set was all about Nazis. That type of subject matter is not that common on Adult Swim. When you started working with them, did they say that they were looking to do something more socially relevant?

Actually, no. They just let me do whatever. They wanted to do something with me and I don’t think it was in their mind that it was going to be political. The first segment happens to be political, but the second segment, you can take what you want to from it politically, but it’s just what I like to do, politics aside. The first segment is a political showpiece and the second segment is totally off the rails.

Adult Swim has been, for the most part, where people go to watch weird shit when they’re stoned. They also had received criticism for not hiring enough women, which trickled down to their content and their demographic. I think it’s great that this show is going to mix things up a little bit. It’s still weird and funny, but also relevant and challenging.

I was on a podcast recently and they were like, “How is rape funny?” or, “How can you make rape funny?” It was something like that, a little interrogatory. I quoted Jen Kirkman from her special when she said, “It’s not a rape joke. It’s a rape fact.” I’m not trying to make rape funny, but it’s happening and we should be talking about it. And if we’re not talking about it, maybe if we inject humor into it we can start having the conversations we need to be having. I tribute having worked at The Daily Show to being able to navigate those waters in a thoughtful way. It taught me how you can take any issue and talk about it in a humorous way if you’re doing it for the sake of humanity. The campus rape piece is not like an after-school special. We actually tried to make it funny, first and foremost.

So many things that try to have messages come off as preachy. One of the first political projects I did was this satire on American Girl dolls as refugees. In the first version of that show I was in Chicago and they criticized me for being preachy because the last song was like, “We know this play may be a buzzkill, but donate to these local nonprofits.” After that experience we put the play up at the New York Fringe and changed the final song to be like a sales pitch for a line of these Garbage Pail Kid versions of American Girl dolls. The play was really well-received there. It taught me at 23 years old that if you’re too preachy when doing this stuff people will tune out or attack you. I want people to enjoy the comedy.

When you mentioned Jen Kirkman it reminded me of her bit on catcalling. Instead of just saying, “Catcalling is bad. Don’t do it,” she offered some options and solutions. The kind of person who catcalls is the same kind of person who will defend catcalling when told point blank that it’s bad. But if you can use humor to peel up the corners, it might make them think first. At the same time, it sucks that the burden often falls on the victims to find a way to communicate to the offenders in a way that makes sense to them and doesn’t trigger them. It’s completely backwards, but sometimes it’s the only way to get through.

Yeah, but at least people are even listening now. When I started comedy a decade ago…at least in my experience in this tiny little subculture, I feel like in the last decade women, people of color, and women of color have made strides. Other than this little snafu with Trump, I think progress has been made. Part of me feels like it ebbs and flows, but maybe this is how we evolve.

Do you feel like once you’ve completed a piece on a subject like refugees, campus rape, or Nazis that you have creatively checked that off of your list of things you needed to talk about?

In some ways, but you don’t solve anything by putting out a five-minute comedy set. You want to find different ways to tackle these issues. After American Cunt I was like, “Well, that was a feminist statement and now I’m not interested in talking about feminism onstage right now because I just vomited up an hour special. What’s next?” Not that I’m not a feminist and that it’s not infused in my work, but I felt like I got it out of my system a little bit. I think artists sometimes take a theme and beat it to the ground. I like to hop around a little bit more.

Taking a ‘Soft Focus’ with Jena Friedman