Jena Friedman is scared for us, and rightly so. But, fortunately, the comedian and former Daily Show producer is offering up some laughs for those of who could use a some a dose of humor with her new comedy special, American Cunt, now available to stream on Amazon. Last week, Jena took the time to chat with the Ms. Blog by phone from New York about comedy, the British and her plans for Inauguration Day.
One of the first things I was hoping to talk to you about was that, watching American Cunt, one of the first things that strikes me was that it was recorded—shall we say—pre-November 8, 2016. How has the show changed since then, and how has your approach changed or how has your perception of some of the material changed?
So, the show itself has not changed. What we’re putting out… is the pre-election show. I’ve been trying to talk about what’s actually going on. I was hoping that Hillary would have won… I was hoping that, when I put American Cunt out I would be able to step away from political comedy and focus [more] on the narrative stuff that I’m doing [and] stand up that’s not as political, but that didn’t end up the case. Now I’m going on stage and I’m talking about [the election]. It’s not easy, but I’m trying to talk about stuff that’s going on.
What was your reaction to Trump’s win on election night?
To the coup? (Laughs). You go through the stages of grief. I’m not longer in denial. I’m scared for us. I think I have a better sense of how elections are, that I clearly didn’t have prior. And I’m just… gearing up for the next however many years to try and continue to do comedy, but also work to help people who are going to be a bit more vulnerable now.
And how are you feeling days away from the inauguration?
I’m sad. I’m going to the Women’s March, I’ll be supporting there… I’m sad for us. The prospect of Hillary Clinton [as president] was really, really exciting, for a lot of reasons. I was excited to look toward [policies like] paid leave, and trying to figure out how our society could become more amenable to working moms, single moms, women in and out of the workforce. And now it’s almost like we’re just [having to] figure out how not to go so far back in time.
You say you’re stepping away from the narrative comedy you’ve been working on and staying with political comedy more. Do you think comedians have a particular responsibility in Trump’s America to comment and call out things that will almost certainly going to be going on in the Administration—things that have already happened—that comedians are able to speak to in a unique way?
I think anyone with empathy has a bigger responsibility than they ever have, to try to not push back the clock, to defend people who are vulnerable. Comedians are in a unique position, I think all artists are in a unique position, I think all people, say if you’re a banker and you have money and care about people. From being at the Daily Show, we had the opportunity to tackle issues and do it in a funny way to help people understand them. I feel like, up until this election, we’ve had times when people weren’t as political, weren’t as concerned with, say global warming and fracking and mass incarceration… It’s fun to be able to speak to an audience and educate them on issues they might not be aware of, but I think at this moment everyone is tuned into politics because nothing is more surreal and fascinating.
It used be, like, a luxury to be a political comedian and “I can do a comedic piece about the oxycontin epidemic!” …[Now] I feel like it’s all hands on deck.
In the past you’ve made the point that your comedy is very female-centric. You’re writing for a lot of women—who are not the typical target demographic for a lot of comedy. Do you feel like the role or the voice of comedians who can speak to (some aspect of) the female experience is especially important right now?
Well, my stand-up [material] and my scripted material actually isn’t as gendered. American Cunt sort of became American Cunt because it was a title that started as a joke for U.K. audiences and sort of a play on how, in the U.K., the word cunt isn’t even feminized so it’s almost a term of endearment. And then I sort of wrote the show around the title. It wasn’t particularly feminist, really, until I brought it back [to the States], right as the election was ramping up. So, I ended up changing the show and the show ended up just becoming about the election in a feminist way. And, again, I was excited just to move a little bit away from that, because it sounds so aggressively female and there are other topics I’m interested in, like singularity, [technology], lots of different kinds of stuff. But with this incoming administration, it does actually feel like they’re attacking us, like there’s a war on women that’s going on. Just like in Ohio with the [the Heartbeat Bill], so it does feel like we can’t stop talking about it. Especially because this narrative has almost strayed away from the public, I can’t speak for other women or other comedians, but I’m trying to talk about [women’s issues]—but [what’s going on] isn’t funny…I’ve been trying to figure out jokes to help [men] realize just how hard this election has been and what it means for women in a way that’s funny, and that’s challenging. Female friends who I’ve talked to…are panicking, and my male friends are upset, but not at that level of sadness. I have to figure out how to make it funny—I’ve not had much luck.
How was it premiering the show sort of around the time of Brexit at Edinburgh?
It was great—because we were in the U.K. and I was surprised by how interested they are in American politics and how sophisticated their frame of reference was. I was in London and Edinburgh for the most part and they really “got” [the show]. Then, when I toured American Cunt before we shot it in the States, I took it to San Francisco, and I went to D.C. and Portland and L.A and just a couple of [friendly] cities. I wasn’t in the San Antonios, or Deuluth, or Des Moines. I had [would sometimes] have a couple of Trump supporters in the audiences, but it was almost like people were reluctant Trump supporters and [the divisions] weren’t as palpable as they’ve gotten. It was nice, I felt like the biggest problem [at that point] was trying to get people who were Bernie supporters to vote for Hillary… I had a lot of friends who were real Bernie supports, but I felt like I could talk to them. But now it’s very hard to try to connect and communicate with somebody who still supports Trump, because I don’t feel any sort of common ground with their point of view.
What is your writing process like when you sit down to create a joke? What is the first run of a joke like for you?
I’ll Tweet a lot. These days, for better or for worse [Twitter is a useful testing space]. I’ve also been very unfunny on Twitter lately, because I’ve found that if we just say something intuitive, I think a lot of people are feeling the same thing. If I’m writing more scripted stuff, I don’t really [use] Tweets to work that out…At the moment, it’s starting with an idea of something I want to say and funding out how to plug that into comedy, whereas in the past it used to be something I thought was funny and I’d try to make funnier. Now it’s “how do I get guys to understand how bad this is for [women] and the jokes really start from that premise.
What are your plans for inauguration day itself?
I don’t know (laughs). Somebody was asking me “are you going to watch?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” I don’t know if you’ve ever dated a narcissist, but I feel like the best thing to do is just ignore them. And I think, I don’t know if I’m going to watch or just…do something else, like read a book. Something…something happy.