Investigating Jena Friedman’s Deadpan Brand of Feminist Humor
The comedian and Soft Focus creator talks sexual harassment in gaming, how to joke about topics like campus rape, and sitting down with John McAfee, who was surrounded by guns.
Comedian Jena Friedman first broke out in 2012 with The Refugee Girls Revue, an American Girl Doll parody musical about, well, refugee girls, because America’s fucked up and we should laugh about it. From there, she went on to write for David Letterman at the Late Show and produce Daily Show field pieces at the end of the Jon Stewart era. Her brilliantly acerbic hour-long stand-up special, American Cunt, premiered in 2016, which is when I first spoke to her: from my desk at Glamour magazine—back then they had a print edition—we talked about comedy and feminism and American politics, which was at that time focused on Hillary’s certain imminent victory. Were we ever so young?
Her new project is a set of specials for Adult Swim called Soft Focus, a kind of 20/20 news magazine satire that’s part investigation, part Nathan For You–style prank show. In the second episode, Friedman invites male gamers to strap on a virtual reality headset and play the game of…sitting motionless while a man jacks off in front of you. After the experience, she asked one of the participants if he thought sexual predators should be in positions of power, to which he responded “no.” And then, unprovoked, added that he still supports President Trump. I laughed and then I groaned and then I laughed again, but more quietly. Friedman, somehow, kept a straight face. Later, she interviewed John McAfee, the multi-million-dollar creator of the antivirus computer software your company probably uses. Also, he’s a libertarian. Also, he’s running for president (again). Also, he used to live in Belize but then he became a person of interest in the murder of his neighbor and left.
Friedman and I caught up again to talk about how she went about putting together her specials and why sometimes vegetarian hot dogs are an essential part of consent.
How did you decide which subjects you wanted to feature when you were setting out to do these Soft Focus interviews? Is there a writer’s room? What does the development process look like for something like the gamer VR scenario?
I had read something about a woman who was trying a VR game—I think, in her brother-in-law’s house, with her husband and brother-in-law or something. She was in this multiplayer game and a guy heard her female voice and he started groping her and chasing her. And she said [in an article], “I know that wasn’t harassment and assault, but it felt like it.” And we tried to get her to talk to us, but she, I think, had already been doxxed for what she said publicly.
Then we dug around and realized that sexual harassment in gaming really is a problem, and it’s partly a problem because it actually steps into reality; one of the people that we talked to mentioned how she was harassed in gaming but then someone stalked her as a result. A guy in the game actually would show up to places that she was.
It’s terrifying. We didn’t go into the details of it in the segment, because once you go to that, nothing about it is funny. But we wanted, in terms of the casting of the guys, a diversity of thought. We didn’t want to have it be a hit piece. That doesn’t reflect the reality.
“A lot of [Adult Swim’s] target demo is guys in their teens and twenties, so I just wanted to talk to them. To get them to think about these things in a way that’s…meeting people where they’re at.”
So, I’ll come up with an idea with Adult Swim. I didn’t really have a writers’ room as much as I had friends who came on for a couple days to consult. We threw a lot of ideas out there. After the ideation process, the network worked with me to narrow down what ideas we wanted to pursue.
In terms of just putting that segment together, we prepared as much as you can. But at the end of the day, you’re dealing with real people. There aren’t scripts. We had questions that I would ask, but we don’t know how they’re gonna respond. So that was all kind of improvised. My team—I have a researcher, and I have an executive producer—they’ll help me come up with questions or jokes and stuff.
I was going to say! The improv you’re doing in the gamer segment is kind of incredible. How you just roll with the punches and are so quick on the uptake. The guy who brings up Trump without you even bringing him up…how do you not break in that moment?
I joked with a friend that when you’ve been doing something for so long, you can “channel your deadness.” At times, I do break. A little bit. In the first episode there’s a campus rape segment at the end…it’s a little less pointed than this one, but it’s about rape on college campuses. And nothing about that’s funny, but I really want to make a funny piece and get college kids watching it to kind of think about consent. So, the piece was funny, and at the end we kind of invert it; we become the joke.
Was that your goal when you were setting out to create these specials? The idea that the audience might, through something that’s more comedic and less preachy, be invited to think about these topics?
Absolutely that’s the goal. A lot of [Adult Swim’s] target demo is guys in their teens and twenties, so I just wanted to talk to them. To get them to think about these things in a way that’s…meeting people where they’re at. And I think that humor’s a really cool way to do that if you can pull it off.
Why do you think people are so honest with you? People in the clips that I watched said things that I wouldn’t have imagined people would say when they knew they were being recorded.
Well, the segment with the gamers is a hidden camera segment. There [was] one situation where one of the guys…took off his [VR] headset. People, before they stepped into our production, sign a release form that outlines everything going on. So he was wary, and then I kind of talked to him and he decided to do the—
It was savvy! You manipulated him. You called him sensitive and he couldn’t deal with that so he had to go back and do it.
I mean…you just said it. There’s that in every sort of interaction. If you’re in a film and you’re talking to a director, or directing actors, there’s always a level of that. You do these things and there’s always the greater goal in mind to try to enlighten people with comedy, but at the same time you’re like, “I don’t want to be part of the problem.” It’s a line that you are constantly teetering on. So we try to be as responsible as we can in the parameters that we’re using to produce these pieces.
Even if you caused an uncomfortable reaction in someone, at the end of the day, you poked someone with a hot dog. That’s not assault.
We also had vegetarian hot dogs, by the way.
That is really good to know.
We did pre-interviews to gage who we were dealing with because, again, it was sensitive and I wanted to make sure the people we were talking to were going to be okay with what we did. So we had these pre-interviews, and one of the questions was to make sure that if they were a vegetarian, we had veggie hot dogs on set.
“They all had guns! So you’re gonna break the fourth wall.”
That is a level of thought that I can’t imagine many people bring to the gaming community! Switching gears to the McAfee interview: how did you get him to talk to you? He’s wanted by various governments, but he sat down with you. That took me by surprise.
We have a really good team of people working on the show who could connect us.
How scared were you every time he pulled out that gun?
I didn’t know he was gonna pull his gun out. I don’t know. It was so cartoonish in the moment that it didn’t seem real. Off-camera, one of the guards had like a semi-automatic and he had it, like, pointed at me? But it wasn’t even pointed at me maliciously, he just had it resting and it was just pointed toward me. And I noticed it at one point and I was like, “There’s a semi-automatic weapon pointed at me.” There was this tiny moment where I said, “Hypothetically, could you not shoot?” And that was just a weird, kind of passive deflection of someone actually having a gun. It’s weird to know that that’s your reaction to someone pointing a gun at you. And hopefully something I will never experience again.
It felt like breaking the fourth wall…
Yeah, well, they all had guns! So you’re gonna break the fourth wall.
With a segment like that, what’s your point of view going into it? Are you thinking, “I wanna let this person dig their own grave,” or, “I want to find out what’s funny about this person?” What was your underlying angle there?
With McAfee, specifically, he’s running for president—to me, that made him relevant and somebody that we should talk to. And I wanted to give Trump supporters another option. There are a lot of crazy people out there, but I don’t want to just talk to somebody who is eccentric. I like the idea that we are showing the side of them that the mainstream media might not have picked up on. That’s always interesting to me, showing nuance. But also finding someone who is part of the cultural conversation, or who will be six months from now.
What’s your next project?
We’re hoping to expand Soft Focus. We’re trying to figure that out now. Aside from that, I think I talked to you about American Cunt, right? I’m putting together a new hour. I’m going to do Edinburgh 2019. At Edinburgh we’re hoping that’ll be kind of the next version of American Cunt. Kind of a political hour leading up to the 2020 shitshow.
Which we’re all looking forward to, I’m sure!
Yeah. I’ve been in London developing it and I went to Seattle and Washington, D.C. It’s such an interesting time to be doing stand-up, and that’s kind of the other big thing this year that I’m really trying to push on.
What are you feeling good about right now? What’s giving you hope?
I am really inspired that there is such a positive progressive shift in the Democratic party. Younger women like [Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and all the female candidates running for president, that’s a really positive sign. I think we’re in a lot of trouble, but I think we’ve come light-years away from where we were, even our naiveté in 2015, versus now.
“I think we’re in a lot of trouble, but I think we’ve come light-years away from where we were, even our naiveté in 2015, versus now.”
Even just knowing how we should all get offline a little. Or get off Twitter because there’s a lot of noise that’s not really helpful to democratic discourse online, and some of that noise is not authentic. Getting offline, talking to people, trying to tap into the progressive majority and trying to get Trump out of office—I don’t know if we’ll be able to pull it off, but I hope so! After watching the Michael Cohen hearing, I feel just the tiniest ray of hope. Either way, Trump aside, the entire Republican Party is not a legitimate political party at this point. It’s this wall of opposition funded by Russia and you can quote me. So it’s going to be really hard, once Trump is out, to try to get people voting in their own best interest.
You have so much experience on different shows, but now, having your own show, what’s something you took away or learned from it?
We’re trying to make it a show; I would like to do more. It’s gotten a really nice response so we’re just hoping that we can do more of them. These are really challenging to make and I think that’s why a lot of people don’t make them, because you need a ton of things to go right, and you need to plan a ton, and you need to have the right people around you and anticipate the directions things could go in. But to me, it’s exciting to do this kind of comedy because you’re out there talking to real people and you’re getting real opinions, and people are telling you what they think.
The one instance that felt almost cathartic was talking to one of the guys in the room after the [VR] experience, and he was like, “A lot of women make this kind of stuff up.” You hear that and it’s kind of infuriating! That’s not how you talk to somebody. But to look at him and say, “Do you know any women gamers? Do you have any friends that are female gamers?” And he’s like, “No.” And then instead of sounding like an angry crazy woman, you’re getting to just show the reality: that a lot of people who feel this way don’t have friends who’ve experienced it. They don’t have female friends. I always love, in comedy, showing as opposed to telling. I think it’s really effective. I hope I get to do all of that. FL