The Muse of Mediocrity
When someone else's art isn't that good, it just inspires Jena Friedman to take a chance herself
Ten years ago, comedian Jena Friedman was studying cultural anthropology at Northwestern University in Chicago. Since, the 32-year-old comic and current field producer at The Daily Show With Jon Stewart has additionally served the comedy community as a writer for Late Show With David Letterman and as a brilliant viral satirist lampooning The New York Times' video wedding series, Vows.
Friedman spoke with the Chronicle in advance of her upcoming stand-up appearances at the 2015 Moontower Comedy Festival.
Austin Chronicle: You've said that seeing "mediocre stand-up" inspired you to start performing. Did your initial confidence come from others setting the bar so low?
Jena Friedman: I think that it's really hard to do things that are unconventional, and when you see someone who's just so adept or amazing or funny, it's really hard to see yourself in that role. But I do think, stand-up aside, just seeing people take risks and failing is more encouraging or inspiring sometimes than seeing people be so excellent. Mediocre art, to me, it's a good muse: It's something that inspires me to try to take that chance.
AC: You've also said that you'll "always take a groan over a laugh." What makes a groan more special than a laugh in your mind?
JF: I like to make people feel things. [Laughs] I like to say things that make people feel or have reactions. Sometimes when you're in a comedy club setting and the lights are low, I think it's – if you've done a lot of stand-up – you kind of know what makes people laugh; and then if you can evoke a reaction of, like, a groan, it's a stronger reaction, and I like to do that. I don't shoot for that. It's not like I go after shock value, but when I have something ... That quote: I still stand by it, but I think I was more into getting the audiences to react that way when I was first starting out. [But] when you can push the envelope in a way that gets people to think, I always think that that's a good thing if you're doing it from a good place, if there's humanity behind it. I think we do live in such a PC culture now, and everybody has cameras on their phones, it's hard to take risks onstage and on Twitter and different platforms because they can come back to haunt you. But I do think when you can get people to step outside of the stand-up comedy genre and actually challenge them a little bit, and maybe sometimes the groans or the sound of someone being uncomfortable or challenged, I won't only go for that, but I do think it's a fun thing to add to a stand-up performance.
AC: Of all of the correspondents you've worked with as a field producer for The Daily Show, which one are you most kindred with on a comedic level?
JF: I can't pick one, they're all great ... [But] I did my first real piece with Samantha Bee: It was on women in the military. Not only was it a great piece, but halfway through production, the actual story that we went out to shoot changed. Our show was about the military's ban on women serving in combat, and then [former Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta lifted the ban halfway through production. So we'd already shot half the piece with a take based on the news, which changed; and then the piece, because this new policy had been announced, we had like two days to basically edit everything we'd shot, shoot the other interview, and what we came up with was way better than what we set out to do. But the take ended up being about bromance and how women disrupt bromance in combat zones. And it was like the female comedy that I don't really delve into too much, but between the two of us we just made this really funny piece. I think there was an element of group-mind involved, or magic, or whatever, for us to get a piece like that out of a story that had changed halfway through. So that was that moment where it kind of connected with me: why the job was a good fit and why I should put my stand-up on hold to do a job like that. I think it was because of working with Sam on that first piece.
Jena Friedman appears at Moontower Thursday, April 23, 8pm at Speakeasy, 412-D Congress; Friday, April 24, 8:15pm at Parish, 214 E. Sixth, and 10:45pm at Vulcan Gas Company, 418 E. Sixth; and Saturday, April 25, 8:30pm on the Google Fiber Stage, 201 Colorado, and 10:45pm at Vulcan Gas Company. For more information, visit www.moontowercomedyfestival.com.