Chicago-trained comedian Jena Friedman gravitates to the dark side
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When former Chicago comedian Jena Friedman helped Stephen Colbert analyze election results on a live TV special, she introduced herself to more than one group of Americans.
Colbert fans laughed at the jokes. And then other, angrier people reacted to them.
Like Colbert and millions of others, Friedman was stunned that night to see the inevitable Hillary Clinton landslide wasn’t happening. In a state of despair over Donald Trump’s looming victory, she told Colbert, “I just wish I could be funny. Get your abortions now, because we’re gonna be f—ed and we’re gonna have to live with it.”
With Rebecca O’Neal
When: 10:30 p.m. June 2
Where: The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia
The festival continues through Sunday with headliners including Patton Oswalt, Casey Wilson, Nathan Fielder, Bobcat Goldthwait and Adam Conover
The backlash was swift. On a YouTube clip of that moment, commenters called Friedman “a horrible human being.” “Disgustingly trashy.” “Evil personified.”
“It was really of the moment,” Friedman explains six months later. “I was just feeling very dark.”
And that wasn’t her only jarring remark of the night. Earlier she had said the polling results made her feel “as if I’m about to give birth to a baby that’s already dead.”
Curiously enough, the outrage stirred by that one-liner came more from men than women.
“I got feedback from women, some of whom had miscarriages,” Friedman recalls, “saying, ‘Thanks for putting my experience into words that I can articulate.’ And then I got a lot of feedback from men, like ‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ Like — I get to use that cliched term — [they were] mansplaining miscarriage to me.”
The provocative talk may have alarmed the mainstream, but it was nothing new for Friedman, who’s been pushing buttons for years on such sensitive subjects as transgender people, AIDS and 9/11.
“It’s not a shock-value thing,” she says. “I’ve always talked about what I’m afraid of and tried to make light of that. My comedy has always been dark. When I was in Chicago, it was even worse.”
Friedman grew up outside Philadelphia but landed in the Chicago area first as a Northwestern student in 2001. Then a total comedy novice, she started dabbling in improv at ImprovOlympic (now iO) and then gravitated to stand-up.
“I would ride my bike to all the different neighborhoods and do comedy,” she says, “and you just get such a sense of the city when you’re riding all around.” The best way to make sure a joke worked, Friedman found, was to see how it went over for the different pockets of people who would attend showcases on the South, West and North sides.
Missing the East Coast and eager to sample the many comedy opportunities in New York, she relocated in 2008 and in time landed some prestigious gigs, writing for “Late Show With David Letterman” and producing pieces for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
During a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015, she began crafting a set that the next year she would record as a TV special. “As the election was going on,” Friedman says, “it kind of evolved into a show that was less about me and more about American politics and Hillary and feminism and gender and all the least funny things you could talk about these days.”
The banner behind her onstage grandly spells out the special’s title, “American C—,” using one of the most incendiary words in the English language. The show debuted on the subscription streaming site Seeso and now is available on iTunes.
She also has a deal to star in a live-action sketch special for Adult Swim and this fall hopes to make her feature directing debut with “Serial Dater,” a dark romantic comedy starring Imogen Poots (“Green Room”), Timothy Simons (“Veep”) and John Cho (“Star Trek”).
For her June 2 show at the Hideout — part of the Onion’s so-called 26th Annual Comedy Festival that’s now in its fourth year — Friedman is assuming her audience already saw the Seeso special and promises a mixture of older material and new stuff, heavy on the politics.
“I’m writing furiously,” she says. “I’ll write something and then the news will change and it’s irrelevant. So I’m really gonna try to pick it up. This is a work-in-progress show, but the sales pitch is: There’s so much art that people see that’s sanitized! It’s also good to watch people work things out!”