Jena Friedman: 'Does not wanting kids to get shot make me an activist?'

This article is from 2019

Jena Friedman: 'Does not wanting kids to get shot make me an activist?'

The American comic discusses activism, Charlottesville and flexing her freedom of speech in her new hour

LA-based political comic Jena Friedman acquired a cult following with her 2015 Fringe debut American Cunt, and writes, directs and conducts interviews for Soft Focus, her daring prank show of extremists and the unhinged. Here, she talks about keeping in mind the bigger picture.

I saw that you call your fans Jenacides …
Ah, that's just a joke. It's stupid.

So what's Miscarriage of Justice about?
I'm talking about the two years since Trump got into office and how that affected me personally, how to cope with this current moment and suggestions for us moving forward. Right after the election I was a little distraught and speechless. It's taken a while to figure out what I want to say coherently. It's a reflection on where we are as Americans and what's going on with Brexit as well.

Do you appreciate British audiences' pessimism?
Of course. And Americans aren't as politically astute. A lot aren't even as up on our politics as people in the UK are. Also, they're just a little tired, because it's overwhelming and it's daily.

Are you constantly updating the show?
What's interesting to me is the stuff that's evergreen and more thematic. It's not about what's in the news cycle so much as about the themes of democracy versus authoritarianism. And how history runs counter to the current moment we're in.

You've said that after witnessing the 2017 Nazi rally in Charlottesville, you felt like you did after 9/11. How do you turn those feelings into stand-up?
It was such a scary moment and it crystallised things for me. All democratic systems are works-in-progress, and right now our experiment is being tested and we might not make it through. But when you realise that grave reality, it makes it easier to joke about because when it's fresh, it's too emotional.

Charlottesville and the extent to which people have been radicalised, and to have such hateful views was shocking. They're my age and unafraid to show their faces. That was really heart-breaking. It still is. But it's also why I do this. Free speech and being critical of the powers-that-be are key elements to a healthy, liberal democracy. So it feels like the best time to be doing stand-up.

So is your comedy activism?
I have always felt that. I know the school I come from, a lot of brilliant comedians say they're just comedians, they're not activists. I can't speak for them now but that was Jon Stewart and John Oliver's line when I was on The Daily Show. It's not commercially beneficial to own your activism.

But we did a piece that a judge cited in a court case to overturn voter ID laws in North Carolina. And at this point things are so insane. I don't want kids to get shot: Does that make me an activist? The negative connotations are an attempt to discredit people who want rights for other people and the environment. So sure, I'm an activist to the degree that I can be. We should replace the term 'activist' with 'people with empathy'.

On Soft Focus, the pranks are borne out of your fears about toxic masculinity, bigotry and violence. Does making the programme assuage or reaffirm these?
Whenever you're able to articulate or make art out of something, it always alleviates the fear for me. A lot of fear is not knowing and not feeling in control. And when you can put words to something or put comedy to something, it mitigates a lot of the anxiety around it.

Do you read the YouTube comments on your comedy?
I always like criticism, it doesn't faze me. Also, I have a critical Jewish mother. Anytime somebody says something mean about me on YouTube, it feels like a hug.

You've made a taster pilot for Channel 4, Legal Immigrant. What can you reveal about that?
We shot something and it was fun. I don't know what's happening with it. It's different to Soft Focus, it's more anthropological, less pranky maybe in its current iteration.

In your 13 years of stand-up, how has your act changed?
I think with most comedians you get more into yourself. At first I was very uncomfortable being on stage. I'm not a natural performer and that was something I had to get over. I probably told a lot of darker jokes, whereas if I tell a dark joke now, there's more humanity in it. My favourite comics are the same onstage as they are off. The opposite of Bill Cosby.

Jena Friedman: Miscarriage of Justice, Assembly George Square Studios, 2–25 Aug (not 12), 9.20pm, £12–£13 (£11–£12). Previews 31 Jul & 1 Aug, £7.

Jena Friedman: Miscarriage of Justice

  • 3 stars

Soho Theatre As America slips into fascism, Jena celebrates free speech while she still has it, in this unapologetic political hour of comedy. Miscarriage of Justice is the US comic's long-awaited return to the Fringe after her critically-acclaimed 2015 hit American C*nt. Having appeared on multiple top US shows including…