Your favorite comedians have faith in Jena Friedman. She has been a fixture at The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, written for Late Show with David Letterman, and recently began working as a field producer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Her video shorts have gone viral, and for all the right reasons. We sat down with her before a recent standup set in Williamsburg and watched her try to eat a bad salad. (“I guess I just don’t like watercress,” she concluded.)
HOMETOWN: Haddonfield, NJ
CURRENT CITY: New York
OTHER CULTURES: I studied anthropology at Northwestern, right outside of Chicago, and I got into comedy because of a dorky paper I wrote about improv, but I just got into it by talking to comedians because of that. I mean, I still never thought I’d do it, but I could explore it and tiptoe into it under the guise of “doing research.” I never would have started doing stand-up without getting into improv first, but improv is the gateway drug to comedy. I was an athlete growing up, and so moving to Chicago was interesting because a lot of people moved there to do something that seemed so unorthodox to me.
KINDNESS OF STRANGERS: You can do so much improv in Chicago. I remember after about a year, realizing that even though I was playing a lot of different characters, they all had a similar point of view. And then a friend of mine started doing standup and I thought, “I’ll start doing that with you,” because I was so far away from home, it didn’t really matter if anyone saw me fail. [laughs] From improv, I got this feeling like I wanted to distill what I was saying and be able to work on it and make it funnier as opposed to just putting something out there and having to let it die after the moment.
TOWN HALL: The one thing that makes young comedians better is stage time, and that’s why Chicago was so great. It’s cheap to live there and there’s so much access to be able to perform and you can see people there who have been doing it for 20 or 30 years who still just do it because they love it, so I think that’s part of what makes it such a great town.
MEET FALLUJAH!: I wanted to hone the improv I was doing, so I started writing sketches and workshopping them and acting in them. So then I wrote a play satirizing “American Girl” dolls, with a segment about a different “Refugee Girl” doll each week. It was like a Garbage Pail Kids version of that world, with refugees.
LETTERMAN JACKET: I remember comics I admired who were writing for shows, like Morgan Murphy was writing for Kimmel, so I thought I should put a packet together and try to send it to Late Show [with David Letterman]. I submitted a year before I got it. I was actually moving to LA, because I got into film school at UCLA, and about a month before I left I was asked to submit again to Letterman, and then I got it.
VOWS: The web series I’ve been working on for a while now, Ted & Gracie, is a spoof on The New York Times‘ wedding videos. The parody practically wrote itself, so I shot it, with super-talented filmmakers Keola Racela and Jen Macchiarelli, put it online, and it went viral. A few days later, after I received a cease and desist letter from The New York Times, I realized I should keep making them. The series is about a couple planning their wedding, and the guy, Ted, played by the hilarious Ben Kronberg, just happens to be a serial killer. I’m less interested in the shock value that he’s a serial killer and more interested in the idea of being in a relationship and what people are willing to put up with to make it work. The Ted Bundys of the world are far less interesting to me than the women who marry them and delude themselves into thinking that man is normal.
HISTORICAL REALISM: Letterman was great. It was incredible, and everyone was great. The most challenging part was writing for a show that has existed for 30 years. There were times when you’d write something and they’d say, “This is great, but we did something like it in ‘96.” So that was the hardest part. And you have to churn out daily content. So there were challenging aspects, of course, but it was a very positive experience.
BAD STANDUP: I saw the funniest people in the world doing improv, but what got me into standup was actually seeing mediocre standup. I was like, “I can do that.” I felt like I had to do it, and I thought, “Don’t talk about boyfriends and vaginas on stage,” but then I realized that when it comes from a place of honesty and humanity, then you can talk about anything and it isn’t hokey when it comes from that place of authenticity. And now I talk about stupid stuff, but it’s my own. [laughs] My onstage persona is pretty much just a heightened version of myself.
SOMEDAY: I’d love to eventually write and direct feature films. I do like acting, too, when it’s a role that I can actually connect with. If you can crawl inside an interesting character, then acting can be really fun. I always liked comedy. I just never thought it was anything I could do. [laughs]
FOR MORE ON JENA FRIEDMAN, VISIT HER WEBSITE.