On October 20, comedian and filmmaker Jena Friedman—a former field producer at The Daily Show and writer for the Late Show with David Letterman—will release her first hour-long comedy special under the emblematic title (be still our hearts) American Cunt.
Friedman, who’s been performing her sharp and cunning standup internationally for years now, has always shown a high aptitude for refreshing political and social commentary, so you might say that her special (airing on Seeso and Amazon) is one of few silver linings to come out of this election season.
I recently met Jena at a coffee shop near Union Square to discuss American Cunt, Donald Trump, and why people hate Hillary Clinton so much. Parts of the conversation have been edited for clarity. (Full disclosure: Jena performed at a Jezebel event in 2015.)
Jezebel: Your special is called American Cunt, which seems kind of fortunate in the wake of Trump’s pussy-grabbing scandal.
Jena Friedman: Yeah right? I don’t know if the country is still focused on pussy grabbing, but for a minute it felt like that was the thing that would break him.
I hope it does.
You know, I don’t know how to write a think piece. It’s my achilles heel at the moment because I write in 140 characters, I write comedy…
Not writing think pieces might be your strength actually. We don’t really need more.
Yeah, and I guess my whole show is a think piece if it doesn’t end up making you laugh...
But if I were to write a think piece, I’d write a lullaby to women in their 20s. Just to say that what Trump is doing feels painful, but it’s a growing pain. He’s bringing everything to the surface that needs to be brought to the surface. It’s like racism in America, videos shot on phones are bringing up so much shit that we’ve felt and witnessed personally, but now we’re seeing it on such a larger scale. We’re seeing these patterns of racism and sexism, so hopefully—optimistically—things will improve for the next generation... the last generation before global warming. I’m optimistic about it.
Do you think Trump could win?
No I don’t think he’ll win, but I was in Britain during Brexit and witnessed the culture surrounding it and how everyone really felt in the aftermath. Misogyny is so deep, distrust of Hillary is so deep, racism and xenophobia are so deep that nothing is gonna change how someone feels at the ballot box.
So, you know, if he wins it’s Bernie’s fault. I’m kidding!
There’s a part of your special where you say that, in a lot of ways, Trump has already won and I think that’s true. He’s begun a really ugly movement that’s not going to stop with the election.
Yeah, the way the internet helps aggregate these really progressive voices for race and gender—it does the same thing for hate. I think he’s doing that—he’s fascinating because he really embodies this core of everything that’s wrong with America. Like, every single thing! The racism, the misogyny, the NOT paying taxes. Feeling how this election is affecting me and the generations below me—twenty somethings, teens, children—what this election is doing to them… Yeah, I can’t…It’s too soon to tell.
One thing I found really cool about your special is that it was very much directed at women, not in a “YOU GO GIRL” way, but more how you don’t seem to really give a shit about the reaction of men in the audience.
It took awhile to get there. I don’t think I could have written this show in my twenties. I got a chance to do an earlier version of it in Edinburgh and the creepy thing is that more than 80% of my audience were men, even in rehearsals. Their responses encouraged me, though, to push them harder. That’s also a big misconception—when I was pitching the show, a lot of the comedy networks were like “Our demographic is 18-34 year old males and that’s who we want to bring in.” But men DO find women funny. Sure there’s certain types of humor they like more, but comedy-wise, I’ve never—I joke about women being my target demo, but looking at Google analytics on videos I’ve made, the numbers skew more male. And not to say that comedy is more for male audiences and the fact that men consume comedy more than women has really changed over the past decade, but that was the thing. Yes, there are moments where I’m laughing and commentating on men in the show, but they’re usually very game.
You are the writer of my favorite abortion joke of all time, which, to poorly paraphrase, is something like, “If abortion protesters want to stop me from getting an abortion, they shouldn’t show me a picture of a dismembered fetus. They should show me a picture of me trying to walk up a flight of stairs alone at age 80.”
Thanks for calling it a “joke.”
Do you some feel a responsibility or artistic urge to put a comedic spin on things that are a little blunt and—
Well, what about the joke appeals to you?
Because it’s true for me! I couldn’t care less about those pictures of fetuses because they’re fake, anyway. But there is a big part of me where I’m like, “Oh, shit. I am going to get old and lonely and my child—more than most people anyway—would feel pressure to keep me company.”
Yeah, I’m actually working on a show in the UK called Last Eggs. It’s exactly what it sounds like. I kind of wanted to write about how we’re the first generation who have the privilege and luxury to take our time and really think about reproduction—in conjunction with the fact that the planet is on fire. That’s a whole separate thing.
But yeah, that abortion joke was how I was feeling when I wrote it at 29. And I’m still working through it. I have a niece and nephew, so that kind of takes the pressure off. I call them Cane 1 and Cane 2.
You talk about parenting and motherhood a lot in the show, which is interesting because while we’re the first generation with all these options, we’re also the first generation for which deciding whether or not have kids is a moral dilemma. Now we have to consider “Do I want to bring a kid into this world? Can this world support another human?” We’re feeling more doomed.
I have friends who are moms. I have my sister and, of course, my actual mom. And it just feels like it’s so hard, everything about it. The fact that we don’t have the social infrastructure that makes it remotely viable for mothers to thrive in the workplace. Everything about seems really crazy and you have to wonder, if we do evolve, will future generations will be like “I can’t believe women actually had kids!” because creating a baby will just involve a mouth swab and an artificial womb and DNA. Brave New World style. Or The Handmaid’s Tale.
Yeah, really dystopian stuff, but honestly, it’s funny looking at dystopian novels from a feminist perspective because those situations are actually probably way better than being a working mom in America in 2016. Wouldn’t you rather be in Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale? At least there’s SOME sort of government infrastructure to take care of you.
You talk a lot about transgender and race issues. How do you approach those topics as an outsider?
Wrong, probably. [Jena laughs] No, I really wanted to be on the right side of history. And I might not be. The really cool way that trans rights and visibility have evolved over the pass few years, it’s hard to know where we’re gonna be a few years from now. It’s also challenging to wade into the waters of intersectionality, especially as a feminist comedian, because the microscope is on you in such a different way.
You’re expected to get everything right.
Right. And it’s hard to get everything right, especially when what’s right keeps progressing. It’s the one section of the show where I really hope I don’t make anyone feel bad because I don’t want to make fun of trans women on any level and I hope that comes across.
You have some jokes about Caitlyn Jenner, not about her being trans, but about her being a shitty person, that I imagine some people—those who think of her as solely representative of the trans community and and not representative of assholes—might take offense to.
Yeah, she is a shitty person. And it’s dangerous because she is not the face of trans people. You don’t want to use her as emblematic.
What appealed to you about the title American Cunt?
It says what the audience is about to see and serves as a disclaimer. Like don’t watch if you’re easily offended. Also, if I call myself that than no one else can.
I built the show around the title and as I was developing it, the show became more and more about Hillary and the election. I remember mentioning Trump and getting such a response of laughter just by saying his name and I was like, “This is cheap. I’m not going to talk about him because he’ll be a non issue in a couple weeks or whatever.” And then it started to become an issue.
I was working on a mockumentary (now on Netflix) called Undecided about these guys who fuck around on the campaign trail. I was on the campaign trail with them and watching how people started responding to Trump was really scary. So as I was doing the show, I added more jokes about him and there was one point, before shooting the special, that was the tipping point—I had 15 minutes on Trump that was working and suddenly it stopped being funny.
People stopped laughing because his candidacy wasn’t funny anymore, so I had to rewrite and rewrite and what I landed on will hopefully be relevant, but that’s the problem with political comedy. It quickly becomes no longer relevant.
Why do you think people are so repelled by Hillary Clinton? Why do they hate her so much?
I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I mean, I didn’t really sense American misogyny growing up. We’re a part of the Title IX generation. I went to a school where female athletes were revered and the kicker on the football team was female. I had a very feminist upbringing—it was subtle. I didn’t know what an eating disorder was until I got to college. I grew up in a really cool place. But this election has unmasked a lot of thing about women in our culture that I didn’t pick up on until I was older.
So why do people hate Hillary? People will tell you it’s her lack of likability and blah blah blah, but she’s been around and been attacked for so long. There are studies that show that if you’re attacked for enough time, people will have a negative opinion about you. I think that’s part of it. But it wasn’t until about two weeks before the show that I was finally like, “It’s because she’s a woman!” Because I didn’t want to say that and I don’t entirely believe that. It’s dangerous to play the gender card, but I do think that at this point, we can’t ignore it.
It seems almost unfathomable that someone would vote for Trump or not vote at all because they refuse to vote for Clinton, but then it’s like, “Oh, riiiiight. She’s a lady.”
I think even now I’m reluctant to say it out loud even though I say it so clearly in the show. Because if you’re a progressive person, you want to try and strive for nuance and not just reduce things to their core, but at the same, if you had Al Gore or Tim Kaine running against her, it would not be a contest. There’s some deep distrust of women.
Well, Jena, I only have one more note and it just says “VAGANUS,” a reference to a joke you make in your special about your friend who was literally ripped a new asshole in child birth.
Yeah, I found out about that recently.
It’s all disgusting. My friends who have kids were telling me about it all recent and I was like, “Please don’t tell me about it because I might want a baby at some point.”
That’s gonna be my last quote from you. “JENA FRIEDMAN: “IT’S ALL DISGUSTING.” But really, is there anything you want to add?
I want to tell the younger generation of girls and boys not to worry.
[Madeleine laughs incredulously]
It’s not necessarily true, but I want people to feel less alone… but also scared.
American Cunt debuts October 20th on Seeso and Amazon. Follow Jena on Twitter here.