Jena Friedman: Comedy’s Fresh Political Mind

Comedy Features Jena Friedman
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Jena Friedman: Comedy’s Fresh Political Mind

What’s the worst thing you can call a woman? From the title of Jena Friedman’s new Seeso stand-up special American Cunt, it would seem to be that particularly potent “C” word. Yet, according to her, it’s an entirely different one: Crazy. Cunt is a label, whereas crazy is an erasure. The very word, when lobbed at women, dismisses our feelings, our experiences and our validity at interpreting and sharing both. We’re lucky if it doesn’t come with a dollop of gaslighting—as it usually does—when men not only disregard but also flat out deny our responses.

In a bit that begins by discussing the worst terms used against women (which include cunt and bitch), Friedman mulls over the term “crazy” in her special. “Men will call women crazy for the silliest things, like if we text too much…but then men can chop off heads and blow up entire cities, and what do we call them?” she asks. “A state. Is anyone here from ISIS?” she continues, pushing the joke even further. If comedians tend to talk about what they know and what they fear then Friedman’s set is exactly that, but steeped in current issues rather than, say, her current relationship. As someone who pays attention to the subjugating—and silencing—experience of being a woman mired in the patriarchal system, she chooses to find the humor in it all by engaging with political discourse through a feminist lens.

As a stand-up, Friedman has long been associated with a biting take on the world. She says things that might land more well-known comedians in trouble, and audiences are clearly enthusiastic about her take. “I don’t think anything’s off-limits; I think it’s a matter of what you say and how you say it and the context,” she says over the phone from New York, stressing just how important context is for any kind of comedy to land. “I also think American network TV and media in general, there’s very little room for nuance; context often gets lost, and a lot of comedians get in trouble for saying things. I think it’d be really cool as we’re becoming more ADD and schizophrenic with everything, if we paused and thought about what we were criticizing before we criticized it.” And in that regard working with Seeso has brought about a level of creative safety she wouldn’t have found with another outlet. Not only does it mean that Friedman doesn’t have to answer to network TV’s rules and restrictions, but also that, ideally, her comedy’s context will remain intact because American Cunt exists behind a paywall.

Where other comedians since the politically-minded greats like George Carlin and Bill Hicks have integrated political bits and pieces into their sets, breaking up their day-to-day observations with more intellectual fare meant to shine a light on the increasingly problematic social issues impacting the 21st century, Friedman goes full force. When I mention how watching American Cunt reminded me of Hicks, who used comedy to call out everything from George H. W. Bush’s militaristic reign to George Michael’s assault on culture, she explains his influence. “It’s so funny that you said that, because he was who I was watching,” she says, “and Greg Geraldo and George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. Those were the stand-up specials that I was listening to as I was putting mine together.”

Political comedy has long attracted Friedman, and her especially honest voice earned her gigs as a writer for Letterman and later a producer at The Daily Show. “I guess I was interested in politics and then as I started doing comedy I realized that it was a way that you could kinda get people to swallow your ideas,” she says, laughing at her word choice. Thanks to her time working with Jon Stewart and company, Friedman further developed the kind of bravery needed to take the stage and deliver material that’s touchy at best. “It’s hard to talk about political stuff and to talk about it in a funny way,” she says. “I think I was always doing it, but then spending three years at The Daily Show, and seeing how Jon navigated those waters—and Samantha Bee, and John Oliver and Wyatt Cenac—gave me more confidence and inspired me to push it even harder.” Before shooting American Cunt, which she did shortly after Trump’s “pussy” comments circulated and made her set all the more formidable, Friedman spent over a year culling and polishing the show, learning more about her own opinions as she whittled them down into punch lines.

Friedman’s approach is less excoriating than Bee’s weekly monologue on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (itself a necessary breath of a vexation), and it’s not quite the shock jock nature of feminist-minded comedians like Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer. Instead, there’s a droll exasperation that peppers her articulate perspective, as if she has to continually ask the audience without actually verbalizing the question, “Am I the only one paying attention to this shit?” She paces the stage and dolls out her observations about invisible aging women, abortions, ISIS, Donald Trump, America’s descent into fascism as a result of the Republican presidential candidate and more, each point couched in equal parts wit and insight.

In American Cunt, she discusses how dangerous men are to women. “Guns are the second most dangerous thing in a house. The only thing more dangerous than guns: men,” she explains in an extended bit about the murder rate and its high association with male offenders, before offering a way to modify things. “Maybe spike your AXE Body Spray with oxytocin,” she tells the men in the audience, referring to the hormone released as a bonding stimulant between mother and baby or between two postcoital lovers. If it sounds like her special revolves around man bashing, consider it instead a leveling. Discussing women’s marginalized position in the world means simultaneously examining men’s power in all its instantiations. Her points don’t come from a man hater, but rather from someone interested in opening her audience’s eyes.

Getting to a space where she felt comfortable doing that took some time, though. Given the upcoming election and the threats to free speech Trump has made, Friedman found she needed to speak her mind more than ever. “I don’t think Trump is going to win but he could, and if that is the case then I think Adam Gopnick in The New Yorker said it the best, ‘The American experiment will be over.’ Just the idea that what [Trump’s]doing with journalists and people who are already speaking their mind…to me, that makes me all the more want to say what I have to say. That gives me the fuel or the fire to say it. It’s really interesting. The idea that we have such freedom of speech is not lost on me, and I do know it comes with responsibility.” Still, depending on how November 8 goes, Friedman may not be an American Cunt for much longer. “I’m making travel plans to London,” she quips.

It’s that kind of humor that shields her from the full, weighted nature of her subject matter. It seems only natural that in discussing so many heavy topics and their seemingly regressive development, any comic would grow pessimistic. But Friedman knows comedy has been her lifeline. “I get to do comedy and make art about things I’m afraid of or frustrated by,” she says. “That keeps me from bottling it up and internalizing it, and just knowing that other people appreciate it and can laugh with you—that always helps.”

Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.