What do they say about New York City: There are eight million stories, and sometimes it seems as though eight million of the people telling them think they’re comedians? No, that’s not it. It is a fact, though, that America’s biggest city is also its biggest comedy mecca. Hollywood may be Hollywood, but New York City is where comedians are born funny, become funny or arrive to thrust their funny upon us. I think we should meet some of these people. This is a recurring feature, a mini-profile of newcomers, up-and-comers and overcomers of New York’s vibrant comedy scene. It’s called Meet Me In New York.
Jena Friedman‘s reputation preceded her, at least to New York City in my eyes. I’d seen her name and a video from her stand-up act when I saw she’d competed in Chicago’s Funniest Person contest alongside Hannibal Buress. Not long afterward, Friedman had moved to the Big Apple and landed on my site with the show she’d written for the FringeNYC. She landed on more people’s radars a couple of years later making a parody video of The New York Times “Vows” series on newlyweds, and kept making waves — first through more of her own videos, then as a writer for Late Show with David Letterman, followed by producing segments for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Which allows for crazy synergies such as this moment captured by C-SPAN cameras during a Donald Trump campaign event leading up to the Republican presidential primary in February.
Friedman put together her own one-woman show, “American Cunt,” which she took to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last summer. One year later, she’s ready to film it here in NYC. Even if Facebook won’t let her promote it properly. “I think their ad sales didn’t like the word ‘cunt,'” she told me. “I don’t want to be the person holding the torch for that word. It’s just a fucking word. And it’s not a word that has as much of a loaded political history as other words. It’s just a word that’s been demonized. When there are so many other things that should be demonized. Like every word that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth. The fact that a word that doesn’t offend me is being censored, a word that would pertain to me — I don’t know. I don’t think cunt offends many women. I think not letting us say it on TV, not getting hired to say it, is more offensive than calling us that.”
This week actually also marks the anniversary of her big move to New York.
Before Friedman’s big taping Sunday night at The Slipper Room, she sat down with me outside The Comedy Cellar last weekend to talk about her New York stories.
Name: Jena Friedman
Arrived From: Chicago
Arrival Date: August 2008
“It was 2008. I had a play that I wrote in the New York Fringe Festival, it was a parody on American Girl dolls. August, 17th or 18th, 2008.” And you decided to stay after that? “Yeah. The play got pretty bad reviews in Chicago. They called it like a summer camp talent show, and they criticized the set design. In Time Out Chicago. They also, I’m not going to name names, because I think he’s around New York now, but (a critic) called it ‘the worst comedic attempt of 2007.’ And then we took the same show and put it in the New York Fringe, and they loved it. Time Out New York gave it four stars, and got that it was a satire. This was where I want to be.”
When and where was the first time you performed comedy? “Chicago. I was doing improv. This is really nerdy. I wrote my thesis on improv. In college, I was an anthropology major. So my senior year, I lived at ImprovOlympic. Downtown Chicago. Then I started doing stand-up a year after that, because I was onstage doing all of these different characters, but they were all afraid of STDs, and I just realized that no matter what characters I was playing, they all had a similar point of view. So I just started doing stand-up, and honing that point of view in Chicago.”
What was your best credit when you moved to NYC? Was it the Fringe production or Chicago’s funniest?
“Actually, I have an interesting story about that. I had been doing improv for two years by that point, but I’d done five minutes of stand-up. And it was hacky stuff, because I was just starting out in stand-up. It was about being a sex offender and arrested for public urination and being called a sex offender. That’s what it was. I had a friend who worked for the alderman who actually had to look up sex offender charges, and if it was public urination, she was rescinding the charges, and so I was first aware of that weird legal loophole. And so I started joking about it. And then Time Out Chicago, like I’d done a bringer show in New York. Time Out Chicago picked up that tape and put it online, and I was voted into the Chicago’s Funniest Person finals. Hannibal won, obviously. I had no right being in it because I was just starting stand-up, but the day before the contest, the same person who called my play the worst comedic attempt of 2007 actually — I have not told people this, because he’s still around — but he was like, everybody here at Time Out thinks you stole that joke. I was devastated, because I’ve never stolen a joke. But some other comic had a similar bit, about being arrested for public urination and being a sex offender. And we both did the ‘knock on the door.’ So it was really devastating. And then I did the joke anyway, because I didn’t steal this. And I only had like five minutes of material at the time. But it was one of those moments where living in that city, getting bad reviews, getting accused of joke thievery — when that is what your entree into stand-up is, it makes you a little bit less give-a-shit. You know? It gives you tougher skin.”
Is that why you picked New York City instead of Los Angeles or somewhere else when you left Chicago?
“No, I’m from here (New Jersey). And I just like the comedy coming out of here. I would come to the Cellar to just watch comics. I just like the stand-up. I liked that The Daily Show was here. The comedy coming out of here was just really edgy, and intelligent, cerebral and political. And then the comics that I’d admired had lived here. Or from here. So it just made sense.”
How long did it take you to get paid work after you moved to NYC?
“I think it took me, well, I moved here in 2008, and I got that job writing for Letterman in 2011, so three years to actually pay my rent in comedy. But I had been doing comedy since 2004-5 in Chicago.” But in terms of paid sets here? “I’m still struggling (laughs). No no no, I get paid sets, but I do festivals. When you’re touring festivals, it costs a lot of money when you’re not famous. My first paid set was at Zanies in Chicago. I got like a $13 check and I still have it.”
How would you compare the comedy scenes of New York and Chicago?
“Chicago was a really great place to start out. I would follow Hannibal around. TJ (Miller), Kumail (Nanjiani), Nick Vatterott, to music open mics, stand-up open mics. The city is weirdly segregated, so you could do an all-hipster room, like a South Side, Brian Babylon’s coffee shop on the South Side, or an all-Latino show on the West Side, or like all gay women or all gay men. You could test out your jokes in all the different pockets, and you really knew a joke worked if it worked in all of those pockets. When I got to New York, I was hosting a show at Sound Fix, and I remember the audiences were different. They were just more sensitive, or more P.C., and it was an adjustment. I had a lot of race stuff in my set prior to that, just because Chicago is really segregated and I liked to joke about that. And then I took all of that out. So, how it’s different? Chicago is still a really great place to perform, but if you want to get to the next level, it’s New York. I haven’t had that conversation in so long: The difference between New York and Chicago.”
Do you have any experiences that you’d describe as “only in New York” to your friends and family elsewhere?
“Well, the building across the street from my apartment blew up.” And now you’re across the street from Pommes Frites (which had been in that building previously) right now. “Oh, wow. I hated how that was the story, and not the two deaths.” That’s only in New York! “Yeah, there you go.”
What advice would you give any comedian who’s thinking of moving here?
“To make their own way. To not worry about getting booked on people’s shows. To create their own shows. I did that in Chicago. I started Entertaining Julia, which when I left, I gave it to Beth Stelling and the Puterbaugh Sisters. They just took that show and made it…we just kind of created something. That’s the advice. Not worrying about getting into certain places. And now I tell people, with the Internet and everything, you can really create your own thing. Help people. Don’t steal jokes. And if you’re going to accuse someone of stealing jokes, give them the benefit of the doubt because of parallel thought. There are a lot of comics, and a lot of people think the same things. So if you don’t want people to steal jokes, just tell abortion jokes that aren’t going to get you on TV for eight years. Which is what I did. But the Internet! I’m getting my abortion jokes on the Internet, which is exciting.”
And you did use the Internet to make popular videos.
“Yeah. And I did get a bunch of abortion jokes on TV in this one Daily Show piece I did that I’m very proud of, with Jessica Williams where we interviewed a fetus lawyer. So you can get your abortion jokes on, you just have to be really creative about it.”
“It’s important to set goals. But make sure the goals aren’t like, ‘I want to get on SNL,’ or ‘I want a late-night spot.’ Make sure they’re more about improving yourself, because that’s whom you’re competing against.”
What goals have you set now, where do you see yourself five years from now?
“We’re taping this on the 21st, and I just want it to go over well. I hope I don’t piss too many people off, at any point of it, because it is a little political. I have a film that we’re trying to get off the ground. It’s going to take five more years, because we’re trying to go about it the indie way. And then just trying to find out what you want to say in the most — without sounding cheesy, now it’s going to come out cheesy anyway — trying to make things that say things.”
Here’s one of her first successful videos in NYC, parodying The New York Times “Vows” section about newlyweds.
And this is a more recent interview Friedman scored with Ken Krantz, one of the key players in Netflix’s Making of a Murderer!
Finally, a sampler of Friedman’s stand-up from a few years ago:
Which NYC comedian would you like to see me style and profile next for Meet Me In New York? Send your nominations to: thecomicscomic AT gmail DOT com