How Jena Friedman uses comedy to expose bad societal systems

The Haddonfield native comes to Philly for a standup show on March 3.

It can take several paragraphs to reel off the writing, filmmaking, hosting and appearance credits for the multi-hyphenate comedian Jena Friedman. For starters, she wrote for The Daily Show, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Borat 2: Subsequent Movie Film, interviewed presidential candidates, created the live action comedy docu-series Soft Focus on Adult Swim, and is the host of her own true crime show on AMC, Indefensible

Friedman’s also a versatile standup, touching on issues of feminism, politics and crime in her sets; see it for yourself when she comes to Underground Arts in Philadelphia on March 3. The show is a homecoming of sorts for Friedman, who grew up in Haddonfield; though, telling jokes to familiar faces isn’t necessarily her favorite thing.

“It doesn’t bring me joy so much to perform for my friends,” says Friedman on the phone from Manhattan. “I would like to see people I grew up with in the audience, but also see people that I didn’t grow up with in the audience. It doesn’t bring me that much joy to perform in front of people I know. I like to perform in front of people that I don’t know.”

Friedman got her start in comedy far from home, in Chicago, while attending Northwestern. She started doing improv as a college student, and then after a corporate job in the health insurance industry, she had an epiphany about the system in which she was working. 

“I had been performing comedy before I got the consulting, and after a year and half of working there, I realized that I was better suited at making fun of the system than working within it,” says Friedman.

And Friedman does get to challenge the system as the host of AMC’s true crime series Indefensible. Friedman, a “hipster Nancy Grace,” originally made fun of the true crime genre in a set she did on Conan, and AMC took notice.

“AMC saw it and asked me to come up with a comedic spin for the true crime genre, which I didn’t think was possible,” says Friedman. “But then through the development process we landed on the current version of the show.”

In Indefensible, Friedman pushes the story past the point when the criminal is locked up, and explores the flaws in the criminal justice system.

“It really taught me how a defense attorney can create a whole bullshit scenario, and the jury will buy it sometimes,” says Friedman. “A lot of the times when the jury buys the scenario, it has to do with their own biases, and their own biases about women.”

Friedman will be performing in the city that’s always sunny at a time when the world isn’t that sunny of a place, with the events in Ukraine, COVID-19, and ongoing gun violence, but for Friedman, the show goes on.

“There’s always crazy shit,” says Friedman. “I remember doing a show in London when there were two mass shootings in America in a 12-hour period. And I remember doing that show and talking about America’s gun obsession in the show and it was pretty heavy. When you do comedy specifically about the current moment you are always going to bump up against something. What is going on in Ukraine is extremely tragic and eight years in the making. It’s also part of a larger conversation.”

Even though her show won’t be as political as it was leading up to the 2020 election, it will still touch on politics, and Friedman appreciates the fact that she’s able to do comedy when historical events are happening. 

“There’s something cool about being able to do comedy in this perilous moment that we are in as society,” says Friedman. “From 2015-16 to now, people are looking towards comedians for their news, and the president of Ukraine is a comedian.”

Friedman also realizes the power comedians have to shape cultural understanding on an issue, and doesn’t think discussing an issue onstage means having to punch down or pander to a certain crowd (only to then cry “cancel culture” when those views are challenged).

“Cancel culture is good fodder for people who want to inflame the culture war,” says Friedman. “If you look at the history of comedians, Mae West was arrested, Lenny Bruce was arrested, George Carlin was arrested. The comedians that are quote-unquote getting canceled today aren’t really getting canceled. They are still touring and still talking about cancel culture, and are getting paid more than I’ll ever make to talk about it.”

Her Philly show will be special not just because she’s performing across the river from where she attended concerts in Camden, but because it’ll be a test run for a special that she’s taping in the summertime. 

“We are taping a show in June/July, and I just started to run it around,” says Friedman. “I performed in New York and LA, and I want to make it out to other places to see how the show will do. I’m still building, it and it’ll probably change as we start taping.”

Jena Friedman will be playing at Underground Arts in Philadelphia on March 3. Ticket info can be found here.