“It Allowed Me to Say What I Want to Say”: Jena Friedman on Her Standup Special, ‘American Cunt’

New York-based comedian Jena Friedman’s American Cunt is a hilariously sharp, somewhat depressing hour of political comedy with an unapologetically feminist stance. In the special, taped at the Slipper Room in Manhattan in August 2016, Friedman nimbly toggles between wry commentary, sheer outrage, and despair. “How are you guys feeling watching America slip into fascism?” she asks toward the end. American Cunt was released as a standup special on Seeso in October, and will be available as an album on iTunes on Inauguration Day, this Friday, Jan. 20. Flavorwire spoke to Friedman about feminist comedy, the usefulness of social media, and the liberation of turning 30.

Flavorwire: You’re probably sick of this one by now, but I have to ask about the title.

Jena Friedman: The title wasn’t like, set up to be a feminist diatribe — it was really just making fun of the word “cunt” in the U.K. versus in America, and how it’s a term of endearment there. When you call your show American Cunt, you’re kind of weeding out people who would take offense. It felt like [the title] allowed me to be creative and say what I want to say.

You say in your special that you “identify as a New Yorker” — you talk about men on the street taking upskirt photos as soon as the weather’s nice. How do you feel the city has shaped your outlook and your comedy?

I was born outside of Philadelphia, and I got into comedy in Chicago. My comedic voice was formed there but New York is home in a lot of ways. That upskirt thing happened like, a week before I shot the special and I just added it in because I thought a story about street harassment was, sadly, a light little entryway into the show. But I think it does take a lot to live here. I’ve been here for about eight years.

One of the first comedic things I did on my own was this play that was a satire of American Girl dolls as refugees [The Refugee Girls Revue]. This was pre-Bridesmaids, 2007, in Chicago. The play got critically panned in Time Out Chicago — they called it the “worst comedic attempt of 2007.” That wasn’t even a category. Anyway, we took the same play to the New York Fringe, and they just got it. Time Out New York gave it four stars. They were like, “This is edgy political satire with a cast of 12 really funny women.” They got that it was about the commodification of refugee experiences. They just got it. That was a defining moment where I was like, “I’ve got to get to New York.”

How did you develop that concept?

I was in Chicago writing for a political sketch show while I was doing improv and standup. One of my recurring sketches was American Girl dolls as new refugees. One of the sketches was, American Girl just launched this new refugee collection, and we had a refugee doll hospital that accepted everyone’s health insurance. When I realized that American Girl had a play, I was like, “Oh my god, I have to parody this.” In the actual play, this girl moves to town and the other girls want her to join the American Girl doll club, so they sing and dance and it’s like a sales pitch to the company. In our play, Katrina and Rita — it was in 2007 — are from New Orleans and they move to Peoria, Illinois and all these white chicks are like, “You don’t know what it’s like to be a real refugee, we’re gonna show you by introducing you to our favorite characters.” The play really wrote itself. We had an Inuit whose igloo melted from global warming, we had a Lakota who lived on a landfill, we had a Darfur refugee, an undocumented worker for Liz Claiborne in Texas. It still to this day makes me giggle.

You still don’t really see a lot of satire like that, even nearly a decade later.

I think you don’t see it for a lot of reasons. Female comedy had its kind of boom, or the industry took notice in maybe 2010. The “female comedy” thing is one thing, but satire and political comedy, gender aside, is really hard. There aren’t too many satires. Idiocracy, which isn’t even satire anymore, that’s like, what’s happening — but there isn’t a ton of satire, for whatever reason. There’s not a movie like Network [today], you know what I mean?

I really like the tone of your comedy — it’s like, I’m fucking fed up and pissed off, but also very, very tired.

Oh, that’s just being in your thirties.

You joke a lot about how women over 60 are invisible. You’re still young, but do you feel your comedy has shifted as you’ve moved from your twenties into your thirties?

I had the token quarter-life “Aaah!” when I was like, 25 — at a job I didn’t like, just sitting there Googling “quarter-life crisis” until I got fired. But the weird thing that happens, I think, after you turn 30 is that you really just start to come into your own. I never would have had the confidence to do a show called American Cunt in my 20s. I look to someone like Jen Kirkman, who’s just so unapologetic in the coolest way about everything she thinks and feels, and that’s really liberating.

I just turned 34 and I feel really great. I try to tell women in their late 20s that it feels really good to come into your own and know who you are and what you want to say and have the confidence to do it.

In your special, you talk about how the word “feminism” has become so trendy, and any time a word or phrase becomes trendy it’s “open to corruption.” That felt related to your point about how we’re not having conversations about issues, we’re just like, canceling shows and making these big public statements. How do you reconcile the need to be on social media as a professional with the inherent dumbing down of discourse that seems to result from the platform? Do you ever wish you could just delete all your social media?

I’d love to delete Facebook, but I’d be unable to disseminate information about shows I’m performing at in different places, or if I’m traveling to another country, it’s a nice way to connect. Twitter, though, I really do feel like it’s a joke book that talks back to you — yes, you’re always one tweet away from getting fired, but you’re also one tweet away from each other. Like, when A&E said they’re having a new documentary series about the Klan, a bunch of people on Twitter just started screaming and A&E cancelled the show.

Right after the election I was traveling and I was out of the country, freaking out, and I don’t know if it’s a good thing but I took solace in having an online community that I could talk with and read the news with and cry with while I was in a foreign country with no other Americans able to talk about what was going on. So I actually really like Twitter, to a degree.

In your special you joke about abortion, talk about Planned Parenthood, and you take a lot of swipes at the men in the audience. During your standup sets, do you ever get pushback from the audience on any of your material?

Yeah. When I was working on American Cunt — maybe I’m part of the problem — I was definitely preaching to the choir. But I was going to places where there were a lot of Bernie supporters who were still mad at Hillary, and that felt like a fun place to tread, because you get where they’re coming from and you can talk to them and maybe change their minds. The other extreme of the Trump supporters, and the angry ones — forget it. I was not very well equipped to communicate with them. But I was performing in places like New York, L.A., San Francisco, Portland, London.

I was doing a show in London and I told some abortion jokes and some guy heckled me, and it was at this moment where I was like, “Let’s talk,” because I think we’re all on the same page in the sense that nobody wants teens to have abortions, nobody wants anyone to have to be in a position to make that choice, but we can’t even talk about it. And then I realized the guy just didn’t like a female onstage with a political opinion, because he was heckling me about everything else. But last [week] I did a Planned Parenthood benefit upstate and a priest came up after and shook my hand, and that made my week.

Toward the end of the special, you get pretty dark, and you make a few jokes about how what you’re saying isn’t really a joke at all. I’ve been thinking a lot about how humor is increasingly being used by people on the far right to justify or excuse awful behavior, the idea that everyone needs to stop being so sensitive and that it’s all about the “lulz” — this very nihilistic attitude about what’s funny. As a comedian, how do you feel about that mentality?

I’ve always said everything can be turned into a joke as long as it’s coming from a place of humanity. The Martin Shkrelis of the world and these guys might be having a moment, and hopefully it doesn’t become a bigger moment, but I firmly believe more people have empathy than don’t have empathy. There’s a way that I think you can go after those guys as well. I mean it’s scary, because they own the internet now and they can doxx you and make your life hell. How do you combat all that? I don’t know.

I couldn’t help but notice your album comes out on Inauguration Day. Was that intentional?

Yeah, of course. The earliest we were able to release it was on Inauguration Day, so why not. I think the best way to get rid of a narcissist is to just ignore them. It’s too late at the moment, but drowning him out I think is very effective. A lot of what he does and says is just noise, and it’s the people around him who are the scary ones.

It’s also kind of heartbreaking, because it is the exact show from prior to the election, so I still have hope in my voice. But anyway.

 

American Cunt is available as a standup special on Seeso and Amazon, and will be released in album form on iTunes on Jan. 20.