Jena Friedman is a field producer at “The Daily Show,” where she primarily focuses on correspondent segments. A stand-up comedian, screenplay writer and web series producer of the acclaimed “Ted and Gracie” satire, Friedman began her stint in late-night television as a writer for the “Late Show with David Letterman” in 2011. At “The Daily Show,” Friedman has written about a variety of subjects including fracking, minimum wage, women in the military, guns and voter ID laws. She is currently working on a script for a play based loosely on “Ted and Gracie.” Friedman recently spoke with The Weekender about Twitter, dramedy and Hitler-related literature.
The Daily Californian: When did you realize you would be a comedian?
Jena Friedman: I was never a class clown in elementary school. I was into dark morbid kind of things — Roald Dahl and stuff like that. I liked “The State,” “Wet Hot American Summer.” … “In Living Color” is something I really gravitated to when I was little. I watched “Saturday Night Live,” but I never thought that would be a world I would work in. I started taking improv classes for a paper I was writing for in college. That’s when I knew it was what I wanted to do.
DC: What came next?
JF: I was doing improv and working in Chicago doing consulting, and I started doing sketches and doing standup. I left my consulting job and produced a play, “American Girl Dolls.” Chicago is an easy city to do that in. It’s pretty cheap to be an artist, so I did freelance copywriting, then I moved to New York in 2008. (“American Girl Dolls”) got into the New York Fringe Festival. (Eventually) I ended up at Letterman for a year, then writing for “The Daily Show.”
DC: Were your parents funny?
JF: They’re both very funny, but they’re not comedians. They’re just neurotic Jewish parents.
DC: Who are your biggest comedic influences?
JF: Jon Stewart always has been. That’s pretty much why I took the job. I would also say Sarah Silverman, Bob Odenkirk, Richard Pryor, Louis CK, Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers (and) Greg Giraldo.
DC: What attracts you to political comedy in particular?
JF: I think it’s important. It’s a really good way to sugarcoat ideas. Unlike politicians or even pundits, comedians have the freedom to say what they think — they’re critical in helping us understand what’s going on around us. We live in a very interesting time where media and media’s reaction things are more news than news itself. Jon (Stewart) has been really helpful on a personal level for sifting through all the noise. All over the world, you have stories of comedians becoming politicians or something more important because they’re speaking the truth. It’s nice to make people laugh, but it feels like a higher level of comedy to make people think and to effect change.
DC: What kind of comedy do you hate?
JF: I don’t want to say that I hate anything, but I love “Portlandia” and “Broad City.” I can’t really listen to Bill Cosby right now. You can print that.
DC: How is writing for another voice different than writing personal material? Is it a hard adjustment to make?
JF: I think it’s almost easier because you have these parameters. David (Letterman) was a little more challenging … it was like throwing spaghetti against a wall because everything filtered through the head writers, producers and finally down to David. I was having to write knowing it would pass through a couple of different layers and knowing what different people liked. Jon will have these daily meetings where we all pitch and talk about ideas — it’s very collaborative.
Writing for myself is tough and easy in a lot of ways: The concerns are different than when you have more parameters. When you know there’s someone else’s eyes you have to filter your jokes though, it’s somewhat easier.
DC: Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld have a huge, perfected workflow for their stand-up, building up a story word by word to explain one funny observation. What’s your comedic process?
JF: I like to write when I’m onstage; I like to record myself on stage and see what works. I also write a lot of jokes on Twitter. It’s kind of like a joke book that talks back to you. If I tweet it out and a lot of people like it, then I’ll try it in stand-up form.
DC: Late night is filled with guys. As a woman, do you ever feel like there’s pressure to provide some particular viewpoint?
JF: I think in the past five to seven years, it seems like that awareness of adding diversity to writers rooms has really come to the forefront. It was interesting writing for David Letterman since it was the first time in 30 years they had two female writers on staff. That was a really good thing because you didn’t feel like the token one on staff.
I don’t feel remotely like a token voice here. There was a piece I did earlier on women in the military where the jokes in the piece were ones that Samantha Bee and I related to, and I don’t know if a guy producing it would have had the same take on it.
DC: You’ve written plays, series, late night material and stand-up. What’s next?
JF: The one thing I haven’t got into yet, and need to, is the comedic essay. My goal is to write a “Shouts and Murmurs” for the New Yorker, but I don’t really read comedy. I listen to comedy and watch comedy, but I don’t really read it. I read a lot of books on Hitler. Every time there’s a new book event at “The Daily Show” there’s always a new book about Hitler — Hitler’s mistresses or Hitler’s psychic mediums or something.
DC: Do you ever see yourself writing drama?
JF: Sure! I like the combination of drama and comedy. The script I wrote is definitely a “dramedy,” as my producer is calling it. I just like the combination of the two. I don’t know if the genres need to be in separate rooms or separate loads of laundry or whatever. I think they complement each other pretty well depending on how it’s done.
Philip Cerles is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]