Jena Friedman on Comedy as a Political Act
Today millions of concerned, frustrated, depressed Americans are trying to figure out what to do with themselves as a new [insert the adjective of your choice] President is sworn into office. Many will be protesting, while others have opted to seek refuge in whatever literal or figurative blanket forts they can assemble. No matter what your plans are, I’d like to throw another option into the ring: Jena Friedman’s newest album American Cunt, available today on iTunes. Recorded at The Slipper Room in New York City, American Cunt is the audio version of her recent Seeso special, an immortalization of “the insanity of the 2016 election as well as being female in America…while women still had hope.” I talked to Friedman about the concept behind the album, how she was on her “last legs of standup,” and why comedy is, now more than ever, a political act.
You toured with this material for a while and took it to Edinburgh. You take me back to the inception of the concept?
A friend of mine runs a room at Edinburgh Fringe and she said, “You have to do a show here.” I was on my last legs of standup a little bit. I love it, but it’s really high maintenance and if you’re not touring all the time it’s hard. She said, “You should just do a show in Edinburgh.” So I was like, “Okay, I’ll do a show.” I didn’t know what to call it, but we kind of joked about a title. I know how my comedy is interpreted, especially overseas. I joked about American Cunt being a title, not even as much in a feminist way, but and more in a disclaimer way. “This is what you guys in Scotland are going to call me anyway.” It was kind of a defensive thing. It started as a joke, but she said, “You should really call it that.” Once I leaned into the idea of the title the show wrote itself around it. I had jokes that I had already written for the show and when I was in Edinburgh…I was only there two weeks, but I was really workshopping the show. This was in 2015 and the election was kind of ramping up. I remember one time during the Edinburgh run mentioning Donald Trump onstage and everybody just laughed because it was such an absurd idea that he would even be running. The show did well in Edinburgh, but as I was doing it I thought, “I really want to do this for an American audience,” because it kind of evolved to be more about feminism and women in America. I toured the show while the election was happening. When it became Hillary and Trump the election became so much about misogyny in a way that I had not imagined. Seeso, who I met in Edinburgh, bought it. Once we had a date that I knew we would be shooting it I knew what I wanted to say. It came out October 20th before the election. American standups, our specials tend to be just more jokes, whereas in the UK their specials tend to have a theme. I tried to split the difference, not just doing a solo show, but also not just doing a standup set.
How much of what made the special and album were you doing at Edinburgh? How much content changed after you brought it back to The States?
At least maybe half of it. At the beginning of Edinburgh I was just working out the show. It was interesting because you’re in such a fishbowl there. I had 13 reviewers come to 12 shows, I think. I got good reviews, but they were talking to me and I was like, “Oh, you’re right. I should take that out.” It was an intense experience. If you saw the show at the end of Edinburgh and then you saw the special it’s a lot better, a lot tighter.
I’ve never performed outside of the United States and I’ve always been curious as to how things related to American political life translates to audiences in other countries. Obviously other countries will be interested in who our next president is, but in terms of social issues, do you find that people are going through similar things there as we are here?
As far as political comedy translating overseas, that was one of the most interesting things. They had such a strong grasp on what I was talking about that it was almost alarming. I think they were more interested in politics than American audiences. That was really encouraging. I went to Portugal the day after the election for a gig and spoke to a woman from Ireland. We were all so devastated about the election and the outcome. She said, “We kind of look to American women as heralds of feminism. This election felt like a referendum on women and women lost.” It was the saddest moment. I think themes of feminism and gender resonate all over the world.
You recently tweeted, “It’s gotten to a point on Twitter where people will just @ me articles that bother them so they can vicariously experience my outrage.” Did you ever see yourself becoming the kind of comedian who people would look to for opinions on these types of issues?
I didn’t see it until a couple of months ago, after the election. I’m a comedian, not a journalist or anything. You always have to be careful especially now because of the way information travels. That tweet came about because after the election I was traveling. I was in Portugal and then London. I wasn’t here, I was alone, and my hours were opposite. I was tweeting all the time because I was reading the news and didn’t have Americans with me to process this stuff. I had a couple of journalists friends whispering in my ear and I’m reading about Russian hacking and blah blah blah. It felt like there wasn’t enough of a media echo for what I was feeling about everything. I was on Colbert election night and I got in trouble because I said on live TV, “Get your abortions now.” I wasn’t even trying to be funny. It’s just that as a woman you know what the reality is going to be under this Administration. It was interesting the feedback I got from women and men. I had a moment where I was like, “Oh my God, am I in a bubble?” It was this wake-up call where it’s like, “Oh, right, there are so many people in this country that are threatened by liberal ideas on a subject like this.” That was scary. I got a lot of people coming out of the woodwork on Twitter because since I’m not a journalist I’m not beholden to a standard. I know that sounds horrible, but if you have “Comedian” in your headline you can be a little riskier. I think some people felt comforted by someone screaming about it.
The album drops on Inauguration Day. Do you have anything else coming up that you’re excited about?
I’m doing 2 Dope Queens at the Women’s March in Washington DC. I just sold a scripted half-hour show that hasn’t been announced yet, but I’m very excited about that. And then a feature film in pre-pre-production.
Earlier you mentioned that before American Cunt you felt that you were on your last legs of standup. I know you have a bunch of projects in the works. Do you think that standup is going to take a backseat to your other work?
Right now it feels like such a political act to get onstage and exercise the right of free speech. This sounds alarmist, but I would not be surprised if in a year or two we didn’t have the same degree of free speech that we have now. I’m glad I got a one-hour special out there. I’m working on the next one as well.