Monday 27 May 2019

Meet America's new prank queen: Jena Friedman on racism, MeToo and TV scandals

As Jena Friedman prepares to bring her one-woman show to Ireland she speaks to Donal Lynch about racism, MeToo and TV scandals

Jena Friedman performs onstage
Jena Friedman performs onstage

It's been 10 years since Jena Friedman played in Ireland, and a lot has happened for her since then. She's been a producer on The Daily Show during Jon Stewart's tenure and on The Late Show with David Letterman. She's taken Edinburgh by storm with her one-woman show, American C**t. She's had a front and centre seat for the comeback - and subsequent firing - of Roseanne Barr. And she's established herself as one of the more provocative stand-up comedians in America.

The Guardian recently called her "the outrageous talk show host that women have been waiting for", and she has recently been taking the world by storm with her own knowingly deadpan style of inquisition.

Her prank-style talk show - Soft Focus - premiered in the spring on US network Adult Swim. It featured a wannabe cannibal on a dating game, a suspected murderer running for president and the CEO of a sex doll company, each of whom get worked over by Jena's deadpan interviewing style.

The series has won her comparisons with Sacha Baron Cohen, but she says that, unlike the British prank master, her victims have not been interested in pursuing her though the courts.

"I had one guy ask me for an internship," she says, sounding bemused. "Thankfully I haven't had anyone threaten to sue me.

"When I worked at The Daily Show one of the guys in one of the pieces did threaten to sue us. I ran into his brother who was an acquaintance of a friend of mine and the brother said to me 'oh you made my brother look like such an asshole on your show', and I said 'oh you should have seen what we didn't air'. So that shut him up."

Friedman (36) was a producer on the revival of Roseanne when it was cancelled this time last year.

She has a clear memory of how it all went down: "I was driving into work already looking at Twitter and I could see the reaction and I had a feeling it was going to happen. She tweeted out some really awful stuff. I wasn't conflicted about losing my job. I earn money in a lot of ways.

"I did feel bad that there were 200 people affected by that. I think most of them got their jobs back when they made it into another show.

"I was happy that there was accountability for her but we've someone at the top of our society who doesn't seem to account to anyone and it's difficult to think what that is doing to American life, from issues of national security to people condoning physical violence through racism."

The swift segue from pop culture into deadly serious political commentary is very typical of Friedman's cerebral, politically direct style of humour.

She grew up in a Jewish household in New Jersey but went to Chicago for college, and it was there that she wrote her dissertation on stand-up comedy.

"I always loved comedy, it just wasn't on my radar because nobody in my family is an artist or an entertainer. When I went to college I sort of felt that I could do that under the guise of entertainment and that enabled me to have a look at what it was before I dove in."

Her first solo project, in 2007, was a satirical musical, The Refugee Girl Revue, which poked fun at white privilege and anti-immigrant sentiment through a parody of creepy American Girl dolls.

She moved to New York and worked in a bar while trying to break into TV comedy writing there.

"That was a nerve-racking experience, of course it was, but then I think that's part of this industry: I'm always a little nervous. Even with interviews like this. You need people to read your article: I have to beware of coming across in the wrong way."

Her wariness of media is perhaps borne of experience: In 2010, she received a cease and desist letter from The New York Times for parodying its wedding videos. The parody, entitled Ted and Gracie, has since become a popular web series.

Friedman mentions the #MeToo movement in her stand-up and interestingly she was at NBC in between when its scandals involving David Letterman and Matt Lauer exploded.

In 2009 Letterman revealed an extortion plot connected to sexual relationships with female staffers on his show - he did not resign. In 2017 Lauer was fired by NBC amid allegations of sexual harassment and consensual sexual relationships with female staffers at the network.

I wonder if she feels there have been real changes.

"There were so many decades and centuries of injustice," she begins.

"Nothing is perfect and I don't think there have really been major missteps in the movement. You still have men who have been accused of horrible things having big careers. (Former CBS head) Les Moonves sexually harassed women for decades and he now has a new production company. So I don't think that things have really changed all that much."

Did she ever think that the net of people who included themselves in the MeToo movement fell too wide? The women in the Matt Lauer situation were all consenting adults, for instance, as was the accuser of Aziz Ansari - very different situations to those alleged of Harvey Weinstein.

"Yeah, but look: Aziz is still touring and has a career. Matt Lauer I can't speak to, I'm not sure how he had a career in the first place. I think it's good that people are talking and sharing their stories."

Unusually for a female comedy star in America, Friedman doesn't mine her personal life for laughs - "that's something a lot of people are already doing really well" - and she is loath to talk about her personal life. Her musician boyfriend Josh Epstein tries to avoid her gigs, if he can, she explains, but adds: "I don't like talking about him, even a little bit." They live together in Los Angeles.

Like so many American standup comedians and virtually all her former colleagues on late night television she regularly takes aim at Trump in her act. I wonder if she feels that this comedic consensus trivialises what Trump is actually doing or lulls America into not taking the problem of him seriously?

"I think we are a new country, a young country," she begins. "We haven't been in this situation before. I don't think that late night or comedy more broadly lulls people into not acting or not caring when it comes to Trump. I don't think comedy is the problem. There are so many systemic issues. Fifty per cent of people in our country don't vote, for instance. Late night comedians are trying to make people feel like they are less crazy, which I don't think hurts anyone. The fact that they can criticise the president without retribution shows that, despite everything else that is happening, we still do live in somewhat of a democracy."

Our own democracy will make this stop on her tour slightly more bearable she says.

"I'm glad I'm playing in Ireland rather than Northern Ireland," she says. "It seems like the audiences would be a bit more cosmopolitan. I know the Irish are very different to Irish-Americans because the last time I was in Ireland it was St Patrick's Day and having grown up in Chicago I know that Irish Americans are much more patriotic and into celebrating than the Irish in America."

She pauses for a beat: "They dye the river green (in Chicago), so those fish live longer."

Since she got her first big break in late night comedy, could she ever see herself breaking the ultimate glass ceiling of actually hosting one of the shows (Joan Rivers briefly filled in for Johnny Carson in the 1980s, but since then the female stars of American talk TV have been confined to daytime shows).

"I'd love if there was a female host in late night," she says, before bashfully adding that "Kathy Griffin would be amazing at it."

She pauses, before inevitably extrapolating to the national situation: "A late night female host; and a female president; we are due both of those."

Jena Friedman plays The Kilkenny Cat Laughs Comedy Festival on Saturday, June 1 and Sunday, June 2. Tickets from www.thecatlaughs.com

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