Jena Friedman, comedian & host of Adult Swim's Soft Focus


This message comes from NPR sponsor. Comcast business. Business has always been driven by innovators. That's why Comcast business is helping you with technology that provides better experiences. Comcast business beyond fast. It's bulls eye. Jesse thorn quick heads up before we get into this interview. My next guest, and I talk a little bit about sexual assault about violence miscarriage in some other uncomfortable topics and how they fit into the world of comedy today. And there's a little bit of graphic language as well this nothing super explicit. But if you somebody that you're listening to this with might be sensitive to any of those things, we just we just wanted to let you know. Well, I with Jesse thorn is a production of maximum fun dot org and is distributed by NPR. Jesse thorn bullseye? My guest, Jennifer. He's a comic writer and a producer. She got her start writing for David Letterman, then she moved onto the daily show where she was a field producer producing some of the shows best pieces with correspondence like Samantha b and almadraba these days Jenna hosts this show on adult swim. It's called soft focus it's kind of periodic special that she does as on the daily show. She produces these segments that take on the news of the day with a satirical edge. But Jenna is now in front of the camera and the segments sometimes get very very uncomfortable. She interviews an eccentric millionaire surrounded by his armed guards. She talks with an ex cop who was caught plotting to kidnap and eat his wife, she submits male gamers to a VR simulation of unwanted sexual contact. It's all kind of stomach churning genyk constantly pushes boundaries in her work. It's political, but. Also pan. And a little abrasive Friedman is a talent in finding the darkest flaws in our world and talking about them in a way that cuts very deep. It's unsettling, but also hilarious does stand up to. Here's a little bit from a performance. She did on Conan lately, I've developed a very rational fear of men based on how you portray yourselves in person. Like if I'm walking down the street, and I see a group of businessmen. I don't know what the term is like a fraud. If I if I see a scam of men in suits coming towards me. I'll find that. I'll just instinctively clutched my purse and be like don't groped me. Don't grow me. I'm awake. A lot of my a lot of my male friends are really nervous in this homey to moment. So they're asking me for advice. And I tell them if you're around a woman, and she makes you feel nervous just picture her clothed. Think of her as your daughter or better yet a person? Jenner friedman. Welcome to bullseye. It's my savvy on the show. Hi nice to be here. It's just weird listening to your stand up in a soundproof room with one other person. You were a field producer on the daily show for a few years. Can you tell me what that job involves? Well, we were writing and directing segments for the show. So any any segment with a correspondent in the field had a field producer like news shows which kind of field producers a person who's with correspondent in the field. But I think with our show because it was fake news or not fake news. But just not pure news at had kind of at its allies elements that role was more of like a writer director. Yeah. So I I had a buddy who was field correspondent for the daily show, Al Madrigal. And I went and visited him at the daily show office one time, and it was talking to him about his job and Alicea very talented comedy writer, and as well as talented comedy performer. He's like, you know when I do field pieces. It's really it's really the producers project. I am. I am a vehicle for that writer producer. That's a person who works on this for weeks or a month. I'm a person who flies to Florida for two days. Yeah. I'm glad you said that that's the hardest job in comedy that that job because you're basically a filmmaker, but your actors are unwilling participants except for the correspondent everyone else in the segment, I are not necessarily wanting to be portrayed the way that you are going to portray them again. We we don't take people out of context though, there is an element of journalistic integrity, at least when I was doing the field pieces, and you just shoot a bunch of stuff. And then you put a piece together. I mean, it was really really hard. But it was like a crash course in film school for me. What do you feel like the goal of those pieces was? I mean, I think I I always like to sugar coat like if I want people to understand nuances of some issue. I'll give you an example, one of the pieces. We did was the fast food worker strikes were nothing about that is funny. But I really personally believe that people should have living wages. So it was a story. I wanted to cover and if you can use comedy to to show that type of a story in a new light, you can hook people into it that particular piece, I did Samantha was a correspondent it's hard to kind of joke or talk about free market economics, and how it has failed. And so and also to talk to really vulnerable people who are fighting for living wages, so for that particular piece, we actually found a person who has a I think it was like a hedge fund that was like a seventy million. Dollar company, and he came on the show to talk to us about why mar how markets determine wages, and how living wages would mess up all sorts of things, and you're probably going to edit or censor what am I about to say? But. One of the questions. We asked him. Do you believe that markets determine wages, and he said, yes, supply and demand markets dictate wages? So then the second question. Sam asked described me the type of person worth two dollars an hour. And he said verbatim. I don't know the PC word for retarded and right away. That was two minutes into him sitting down. I was like we have a segment because what this is showing is that the people who believe this have very little empathy for people working, and that's actually in my mind. The most distilled version of that argument that if you were talking about uh news show, you couldn't really say that because it's like two editorialized. But if we can show it coming out of the mouth of somebody who who is like a free market unfettered, you know capitalist. Then it proves a point in a way that it's like it's using humor. But humor is not necessarily the right word in that situation. But it's like getting to the core of that argument. I think that the. Having watched soft focus your to specials for adult swim. There is a distinct similarity in structure, you're doing a similar thing to a daily show field piece. Generally speaking, the tone is different. And I wonder if first of all if you agree with that. And second of all if you if you could kinda describe what you wanted to be different about what you were doing on adult swim. Well, I mean, that's my show. I don't have adult sons been really really cool about not really having a heavy hand in editorial of it. And I think because it's more under the radar. I can take at the moment more risks than the daily show would take also, you know, I'm thankful that people enough. People have seen the daily show that the format is like familiar enough that people trust what we're doing without being hypercritical or anything if that makes sense like it's a recognizable format, but then like. Goes off the rails. And we are in different times. Like, Joe, the daily show ended pre Trump and in that time period, we had this kind of shared reality that even if people disagreed he felt like you were on the same ground. Whereas now everything so insane. It's just it's just a different time without getting into specifics. And it feels like if you watched the news, and you see what's going on you feel insane. So I think that the show is partly a response to that. It's it's a little bit. For lack of a better word and a little bit pushing the envelope more because I feel like right now, we kind of have to. It I found it discomfiting Greenway that I had not seen like I think probably if I think back to what else I've watched on television that had that level of intensity in the comedy. Like, the only thing that came to mind was a show called wonder shows. And I love wonder. Yeah. Yeah. That's very very deeply distressing satirical show that I don't know the the like the most vibrant memory for me is a a a little boy doing a a field piece like a kids journalism field piece at a race track and talking to this sweet old, man. And at one point he says, here's my impression of you. Gamble gamble. Gamble. Die. I love that. Like the kids the beat kids kids on a straight. I love that. Yeah. I mean, I I'm not out to make people feel comfortable. I don't know for better for worse. It's not my MO. Did you have a meeting with the staff of your show where you said or someone said, maybe we should talk to Gil the cannibal cop and someone else's like, yes, I think that's a good idea in someone else's like, yes, I think that's a no I think that's a bad idea like gills fine. We talked to Gil on home turf. It was at our studio. We made sure that when we sent him home. He was like kept far away from the women. I think you'll also find out like he followed me on Twitter, but he also is like a horror writer, he was like a creative outlet. Now. I don't think he's going to eat any women going forward because he has, you know, found a niche niche. I don't know let's play a clip from guests Jenna Friedman and her show, soft focus, we talked a little bit about the cannibal cop Gill valley who who sent many. Emails and message board postings about eating his wife and her friends. It's so funny. It's sad. But no one got hurt. So it's funny. He also wrote a book about it. And he says that everything was just him indulging in very specific and complicated, fantasies. And this is my guest Jenna Friedman interviewing him about it. I'm not this lunatic. I'm not this homicidal maniac. You know, I'm actually a Harry normal. Nice sky, very go with the flow. Oh, wouldn't say boring. Just just just a humble humble kind of just random. Sure. Basic guy. Yes, you're plotting to eat women on a website for fun. Your wife had suspicions. She put spyware on the computer and caught you calls the FBI they arrest. You you go to jail. What advice would you give someone who was busted by their wife for plotting to eat her and her friends on a dark finish website. I don't know how many people have actually been in that situation. Those fun those one of the funniest because. I don't know just normalizing it in a way that made it boring was so funny to me, and he didn't like to be called boring. That was what was so funny. I mean that port will I don't for that poor guy. But the media had such made such a meal out of his where at the same time his wife left him. Like I joke with my boyfriend that if like I found out that he was plotting to eat me. I'd be like, Josh, I know him, you know, and I know I know what he's capable of. And I'm pretty sure he wouldn't eat me. But like, if if you think your partner's going to eat, you there's like something to that that feels real and somewhere else, I read that we didn't include in the interview he would like ask her what her running routes were and stuff like it was just very weird. But it also was really fun to show a side of someone that the media hasn't which is that he was like this like university of Maryland guy kinda normal decided. Just like become a cop. No. And I think our culture so obsessed with serial killers. And it just even though like it feels boring at this point. They're not masterminds. They're just kinda like basic dudes. And I think if we if we stopped being obsessed and glamorizing men who kill women. Maybe they would do it less though. I think the funniest thing in that clip. I mean, the those laugh is you transitioning from the description of what a normal guy he is to the specifics of his incredibly, not normal behavior. But the thing that I enjoyed the most in that is you just maintaining his tone and stretching out as long as you possibly could the interchange of you, and he exchanging descriptors of how boring. Yeah. We were really careful when we produce that with the women because the second part is dating game. And I at the last minute, we're like what if we got a woman on the on the game who would actually date him as opposed to have it just be like a joke about him being creepy. Like, why don't let's go on a fetish website. This is just a window into production and find a woman who's like into blood play or whatever. And we did and like the real. So that dating game was completely unscripted. He had no idea that was going to happen beforehand the way that that segment the way that we pulled it off. And it was a whole team of really smart people. I was working with to this day. I'm like amazed by what we were able to capture in that dating game. Having the only thing we scripted where you know questions for everybody. There were questions we had him asked the women that I couldn't I break very rarely breaking his laughing. And there was this one moment when he was asking the women like how? Do you run that if you like listen, really carefully? I'm I'm I'm uncontrollably quietly giggling 'cause it was the most uncomfortable hilarious thing. I've ever been part of we'll finish up my conversation with Jenna Freedman after a quick break. When we come back. We'll talk about why women still have a hard time breaking into the world of stand up comedy. It's bullseye for maximum, fun dot org and NPR. Support for this podcast and the following message. Come from Sierra Nevada brewing company in one thousand nine hundred eighty with a few thousand dollars and used dairy equipment, Ken Grossman. Founded Sierra Nevada brewing company canes award winning ales, propelled him from home brewer to craft brewer today, Kenan his family still own one hundred percent of the company one of the most successful independent craft breweries in America, more at Sierra, Nevada dot com. This season on visibility. Should we empathize with our enemies from Oregon's shooting in die? Is it? Okay. To have machines control, our emotions, I should be creeped out. But at the same time like we'll thank God. I live in stage. No, easy answers. Just the right questions. Invisibility ah back on March eighth? Welcome back. And thank you, Dan for that. 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My guest is Jenner Friedman. She's the host and creator of the adult swim special series soft-focus. She's also a comic and writer who's written for the daily show and the late show. Dave Letterman warning before we get back into the segment Jenna, and I talk about sexual assault and miscarriage and a few other sensitive things and things are a little graphic. If you're sensitive to that kind of thing we just wanted to give you a heads up. Anyway, back to my conversation with Jennifer. You pretty much open your show with segment about rape. Yeah. Why did you decide? Because it happens all the time. I mean, I was in college, and I could count on my fingers and toes the amount of women. I knew that passed out at a frat party and woke up with a inside them like it was so bad when I was in college. And I remember the whole controversy with the Rolling Stone article on on UVA, and how that was handled and botched and it it was so heartbreaking 'cause I. It's such a real thing that I know not just from secondhand experience. How how much of a an epidemic that is that I felt like at that moment. We lost this opportunity to really talk about it. And it's not, you know, there are serial offenders who just get away with it on college campuses. That's most that is the most of people who commit date rape. But it's also people who just have never thought about consent and don't think of it as as rape. And and I think just getting people to think about consent and using comedy to do that. It's not gonna stop everybody. But to a guy who takes the girl home who's really really wasted or girl who takes advantage of a guy who's really really wasted. Maybe if they're thinking about what affirmative consent means they'll act differently. I think when I do jokes, and I'm not a stand up comic. But I perform comedy in front of audiences. I found myself over the last ten years in have been grateful to have done. Reevaluating the way that I think about sexual assault in humor rape jokes rape jokes. And one of the reasons I think is that as dude it took people kind of looking me in the eye and explaining to me that when I'm sitting in a room with two hundred people in them and some proportion like one or two in five have been of the women in that room have been sexually assaulted that. It no matter who is the, you know, target of my joke. No matter what the structure of my joke is and all the joke is about this. It's not about this or whatever. Like, I'm joking about probably like the one of the biggest traumas in the lives of twenty percent of the people sitting in that room. And that was something that I had to really think about a lot and. I imagined that it's also something that you have thought about a lot before you waited into doing any kind of humor about that. So they're actually like two issues here. One is is talking about a subject, even if you're talking about from the right side of it with humanity and having that trigger men and women who have been victims of harassment or assault. I am not someone who says that you should shy away from talking about whatever because you might trigger somebody in the audience. I wanna believe that women are not porcelain dolls. And that people who go to comedy shows, they have to be responsible for how they're going to react to a subject matter that a comedian talk about for example, I have jokes one particular joke about miscarriage and part of the reason I'm talking about is because Republicans are legislating it. We're not talking about it is so common, and so many women experience it, but because we. Don't talk about it. It increases this kind of isolation stigma when it happens to you. So I think we really need to be talking about these very real things. So that men like Lindsey Graham who've never seen a giant don't get to legislate them. He might have seen one at birth. I imagine his eyes were closed whatever that's issue number one. Number two, though is the issue of like a man talking about rape jokes. And I think any man can talk about rape jokes or anything. You just run the risk. If you're on the wrong side of it of sounding like a rapist. But I won't tell you. If you have a rape joke that makes fun of rapists don't shy away from that. Because we need people talking about the the things and if somebody says, hey, you can't talk about rape. That's messed up because men get raped too. And these are real things. And again, I think we should be talking about everything and talking about it with honesty, and kindness and humanity and not being afraid when people who may be aren't listening to you misinterpret. What you're saying just be able to kind of. Nothing is less funny than explaining a joke. But if people need you to explain a joke to to not just I mean, people are going to jump on. You know, matter what. But I think you should shy away from rape jokes. If you're telling them from a side that is anti rape. Yeah. I mean, I I have I don't have firsthand experience with sexual assault. But I have firsthand experience in in my family with post traumatic stress and the thing that I thought about it. And ultimately for me, I decided I'm like I'm going to really do my best not to talk about that in a humor situation. It was thinking about the ways that like, you know, fleet week, but my my my dad is a veteran who suffers from severe post traumatic stress disorder and just thinking about the way that fleet week affects him like fleet week the most innocuous thing on earth. Like, I even even a pacifist loves the blue angels. It's really fun. It gets cool airplanes do tricks, but thinking about the ways that that affected him in my? My life. When I was a kid. You know, the way that I saw it. I thought you know, I don't think that I I don't think that I'm going to do a good enough job of contextualising, whatever I'm going to do to take care of the people in the audience who. Suffered a really major trauma. You know what I mean? And that's not to say that no one ever should or anything. But just it's it's hard to. You you take on a big task doing that responsibly. I we put a trigger warning on the front of our episode because of the sexual content of particularly the first segment, but at the same time, it's like you're doing into service to people if you're protecting them, you know, I don't wanna helicopter parent my audience. I had a woman after show come up to me crying after a miscarriage joke. I was doing a show the comedy cellar. And she wasn't criticizing the joke. She just like, she's like, you know, I work in like obstetrics, and I she just cried. And then I'm sitting next to show who was like don't put your baggage on me. She's way tougher than I am like, but I think, you know, you don't want people to feel bad. But at the same time like it's not my job to my job. I mean, some comics job is to make people laugh and feel good. That's not why I do what I do. I like people to think like people to feel challenged. I like people to kind of learn. Learn and hopefully, modify their behavior if their behavior is damaging I feel like in comedy there is there are unique vulnerabilities for women. That's not to say that vulnerability in general is unique to comedy. But there are unique vulnerabilities, you know, everyone is an independent contractor. There's no HR. There's no HR. There are many more men than women. Actually, there are many more men that you see than women. But when they start out there a lot of women in the beginning rungs of comedy, and for many reasons, they don't continue where they try to continue, and they don't get the same upper -tunities, but it is a myth that. There are like like if you see a show at a club and has nine men and women that is not in any way, Representative of the amount. Of women trying to at least work in comedy. She wants I tweeted at I had a an acquaintance who I followed on Twitter who was regular at one of the big comedy clubs here in Los Angeles and would retreat lineups when he was on them. And you know, the they great comics, you know, these are this is Los Angeles where you move to work in store. Yeah. And I would look at the lineups. And I'd be like this is this is a fourteen person lineup with one woman or the comedy store, and it's hard for us to call the stuff out because we wanna get booked there. But yeah. Clubs many clubs, especially in New York and LA do not show lineups that reflect the gender composition of of people working in the industry. I tweeted I tweeted at them. I might have retweeted might of quote, tweeted them. But I tweeted at them like that's fourteen comics and two women like you can do better than that. And. I am not joking. They tweeted at me a picture of a flyer for like ladies night. It's like separate but equal. Yeah. Think that's a suitable response. In public. I just I couldn't I couldn't believe it was real. This was not. In two thousand two this past year. The New York comedy festival I had a flier out that was like, maybe all men and one woman on the festival like in one of the orig- like the initial kind of pushes PR pushes for the festival and. Yeah, I mean, you wanna joke like, oh, New York men's comedy festival looks great. But again like we are freelance people, and we are trying to just get booked. So it's hard to be outspoken about this stuff. Why I really appreciate your work. I'm I'm grateful for what you've done. I'm trying. I'm trying behind to to everyone. You got. Jennifer, even thank you for coming on. It was really nice to get to talk to you. Jennifer, you can watch both of her soft focus specials at adult swim dot com. They are really breath. Check. That's the end of another episode of bullseye Boza is recorded at maximum fund dot org world headquarters. Overlooking MacArthur park in Los Angeles, California producer, Kevin just a car commercial shot from one of the offices in our building. It truly is a drink to live here. What we call Tinseltown. The show is produced by speaking device phones producers, Kevin Ferguson. Hey, soussan Brosio is our associate producer. We get help. Casey O'Brien are interstitial music is by DJ w aka Dan, Wally thanks for sharing with us, Dan. Our theme song is called huddle formation by the band the goatee team they and their label. Memphis industries, provided it to us. Our thanks to them before you go. We have fifteen years of this show going back to the days when it was called the sound of Young America. Literally, hundreds of interviews. They're almost all archive. 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