Guys, I’ve got a great interview lined up for you today. I’ve been wanting to feature a comedian in this series for a little while, and I was psyched when today’s interviewee agreed. So let’s get started—meet Jena Friedman.
Jena Friedman is a stand-up comedian, actor, writer, and director based in New York. She is currently a field producer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and has written for Late Show with David Letterman. As the creator of the viral web series Ted & Gracie and American Girl Dolls parody “Refugee Girls,” Jena has a particular fondness for dark humor. (All the more reason this blogger loves her.)
Before she got her start in comedy, though, Jena studied anthropology at Northwestern University. It was there in Chicago where she inadvertently became interested in improv. Her work has been featured at SXSW, in New York Magazine, Salon, Glamour, on Comedy Central, and more.
Ladies and gents, please welcome Jena!
When did you realize you were funny? And how did you decide you’d try to get paid to be funny?
Thanks for thinking I’m funny—I’m still on the fence. As for comedy writing, I decided I’d try to get paid writing comedy because I couldn’t do anything else. I had a few other jobs, like in consulting and copywriting, but my focus always pulled me back to comedy, so I guess when I realized I had no other options is when I knew I had to pursue comedy writing.
Describe your early improv and stand-up experiences. Did you ever have a really embarrassing moment on stage?
Yes, too many. One time I was telling a joke about AIDS (to clarify, in the joke, I wasn’t making fun of AIDS, just my fear of it) and this hipster started heckling me and telling me I shouldn’t make fun of AIDS, so I responded, “How do you know I don’t have it?” and that shut him up and got the whole crowd on my side cheering me on… but only because I made them think I have AIDS just to sell my joke—not my finest moment.
Who were some of your biggest influences (whether that’s family, friends, or other comedians)?
My dad really influenced my comedy. He’s a doctor, so he’s pretty morbid and clinical, and when I was a child he would buy me really disturbing books (like this comic book called The Big Book of Death in which each chapter explored a different way of dying), and I would just devour them. I also remember seeing Sarah Silverman and Janeane Garofalo when I was younger and thinking I wanted to be like them.
When you landed a job on Letterman, was that the turning point in your career? Tell me about how that felt to make it “big time.”
I was literally three weeks away from moving to L.A. when I got Letterman. It was a great feeling to get that job. I had applied a year earlier and didn’t really think they were still looking for a writer. So when I got the email asking for another submission, I sent it in the next morning and got the job a day later.
I remember meeting Dave on my first day and he said, “This is a shitty place to work, but I guess it looks good on the resume,” and I thought, “Wow, this is the big time.”
There must be incredible pressure to write for a show that airs five days a week. How did you do it?
You just try not to think too much to be honest and just write. Late Show is a machine that’s been running for 30 years, so all the parts are in place and it moves with or without you. So many great comics have gone through there and succeeded and failed, so I actually didn’t feel like if I didn’t make it past the three or six month mark I’d have anything to lose, which definitely helped my creative output.
You often hear how tough it is to be a woman in comedy. Do you think that’s true? Have you dealt with sexism in your business?
Yes, it’s tough. It’s tough for minority men and women as well, and really anyone who’s an outsider, particularly in writer’s rooms and in stand-up clubs. But the good news is that everything is changing, partly because people are more aware of inequality and partly because the internet has made it so voices outside the mainstream can be heard. Even in the seven years that I’ve been doing comedy, the landscape has diversified a lot… this is a long and unfunny conversation, but I’m optimistic.
I’ve dealt with sexism in comedy by wearing really shapeless cardigans—no one hits on a girl in a cardigan.
Which has played the biggest role in your success—luck or persistence?
Persistence, hands down… and not being unlucky.
What are some of your favorite books/films?
I’m a huge fan of Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl, Woody Allen, John Waters, Kathryn Bigelow, Margaret Atwood… if I start naming comedians I won’t stop but the show Summer Heights High by Australian comic Chris Lilley is possibly my all-time favorite, it’s a really long list… I just read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It was like getting a long, intense hug from an imaginative Japanese man… also, I’m addicted to Breaking Bad.
Describe your role for the Daily Show. What do you love about it? And, I’ve gotta ask… what’s it like working for Jon Stewart?
The Daily Show is really great. The people are some of the most intelligent, talented people I’ve ever worked with and Jon is awesome. I really can’t say enough good things about it.
Any gigs or new projects in the foreseeable future?
I’m doing some shows in D.C. the second weekend of October. I’ll tweet about them when I know more. Otherwise, I’m performing stand-up around New York, about once a week. I tweet those shows as well. Twitter, eek.
Thanks a lot, Jena, for taking the time to chat with me. I’ll be stalking your Twitter for updates. If you enjoyed Jena’s interview, let her know in the comments!