Jena Friedman wants you to know that she’s in on the joke. And in her new book of essays, pointedly titled Not Funny, she deftly demonstrates how she has become one of the most uncompromising comedic voices of her generation, from her days as a field producer on The Daily Show, to her Oscar-nominated writing on Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, to her first hour-long stand-up Ladykiller, in which she delivered some killer abortion jokes while pregnant with her first child.
In her third appearance on The Last Laugh podcast, Friedman holds nothing back, spilling tea about her negative experience with James Corden, revealing why she decided to turn the tables on male comedians like Jon Stewart and Jim Gaffigan by asking them the offensive questions female comedians constantly get asked in interviews, and discussing that time Bill Burr “told on himself” by responding to her tweets about predatory comics.
When Friedman was on the sixth-ever episode of The Last Laugh, back in April 2019, I deemed her the “feminist Sacha Baron Cohen” for the gonzo, confrontational interviews she was conducting as part of her Soft Focus specials on Adult Swim. When she returned to the podcast in 2021—this time as an Oscar nominee for writing on Baron Cohen’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm—to talk about her series True Crime Story: Indefensible, she described herself as the “hipster Nancy Grace.”
So now, during her third appearance, to promote the release of her new book, I begin our conversation by asking if she wants to help create a fresh moniker for herself. Maybe something that compares her to the undisputed king of comic essays, David Sedaris, I suggest?
“The Not Funny David Sedaris?” Friedman deadpans without missing a beat.
The book opens with a story about a moment when Friedman felt particularly “not funny.” It was her big late-night TV debut as part of Stephen Colbert’s panel on a special Election Night 2016 edition of The Late Show on Showtime.
“I had always dreamed of one day being invited on the show as a comedian or as a guest promoting some cool project,” she writes. “Cut to election night, and there I was, living my dream, which was slowly descending into a nightmare as Stephen, the other panelists, and I watched Florida turn red in horror.”
Instead of trying to be funny as the realization that “an unregistered sex offender was about to become president of the United fucking States of America,” Friedman blurted out what was really on her mind: “Get your abortions now.”
What followed were more death threats from Trump supporters than she’d ever gotten in her life, though she jokes now that “it feels like progress to get a death threat from someone who says they’re pro-life.”
“I don’t want to criticize men, because that doesn’t pay the bills,” she continues. “But women did get a lot of, ‘It’s going to be OK, don’t worry, this is a democracy.’ Female friends of mine were crying and worrying and communicating, and the guys were, ‘It’s gonna be fine!’”
Six and a half years later, with Roe v. Wade gone and new abortion restrictions being enacted all the time, things are not fine and Friedman has been proven prescient. “People think it’s remotely vindicating, but it’s not at all, it just sucks,” she says.
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.
Why did you want to start this book on Election Night 2016?
That was a definitive moment. It’s weird to look back on your career as you still feel like you’re in it, and you’re hustling all the time, and you’re gonna keep hustling. But I have been doing this for 15 years and that felt like my coming-out party, which isn’t the right phrase. But I was behind the scenes for so much of my career, and I had just left The Daily Show when Jon [Stewart] retired and this was the first thing I did after that as a comedic personality myself in a big way. So it felt like this moment where I was no longer going to be a behind-the-scenes person. I was gonna be a personality in front of the camera! And then I just botched it so hard.
Well, I don’t know if you botched it or if the country botched it and you were there.
The country botched it, but I was there with the cameras on us, and all I could think was, “Don’t cry in front of your coworkers,” because it was such an emotional moment.
You did not cry in front of your coworkers, but you did kind of go off-script and say what you really felt. What did it feel like to do that in that moment and to have that be your big late-night debut?
Well, the comedian in me kicked in, and I was just bummed that I didn’t get a laugh. Like, why aren’t people laughing at this hyperbolic assessment of the current moment? But I also knew at the time it wasn’t hyperbolic.
So this was sort of a return to The Late Show for you because you had written for David Letterman several years earlier, and you tell a story in the book about how you learned that “abortion” was a banned word on Letterman’s show.
Not even a period reference. Maybe it had been bottled up from my time at Letterman; it just all poured out of me.
That was 12 years ago that you were there. How much do you feel has changed in comedy, in late-night, since then—when there could be a show where you weren’t allowed to talk about periods, let alone abortion?
I don’t know, and I may be about to spill some tea that I shouldn’t, but… I don’t know if a lot has changed in late-night, to answer your question, because the people in late-night haven’t changed for the most part. And I probably shouldn’t say what I’m about to say, but there are two things I want to say. One, I think it’s funny that they are rebooting @midnight, a show tied to Twitter, which is a dying platform—or maybe it’ll be tied to TikTok, which is also a dying platform if it gets regulated—rather than give a woman a late-night show. That is funny to me.
And two, [James] Corden’s team had reached out to me to see if maybe there was some stand-up that I could do tied to the book coming out. And I haven’t been in stand-up mode because I just had a baby. And while I was thinking about it, I had my newborn physically strapped to me, because the only way that he sleeps during the day is on my body. So I thought maybe I’ll just do a set about how hard it is to be a mom with my baby strapped to my body. So for a little over a month we were working on it back and forth. The booker would say, “Cut this cop joke, we don’t want to make any cops in the audience upset.” That’s how you typically work out a late-night set. Conan [O’Brien] gave me so much bandwidth. No other late-night show gave me the time of day with stand-up until Conan, and I’m forever grateful because those sets actually led to other jobs and I was completely uncensored on Conan. With Corden, I have never done stand-up on his show and don’t really know James Corden at all.
I don’t hear great things.
Well, I’ll get to that… but it was just kind of funny. I was like, maybe this will work to have my baby strapped to me, so I can kind of get away with saying whatever.
That’s a funny concept.
It’s a funny concept, and I call it out. I say, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a mom, but I’ve always wanted to be a prop comic.” Some of the jokes were from Ladykiller, my special. Others were newer things that I discovered just having a baby. So I landed on a set that I thought was pretty good. And I was just about to tape it with the baby on me, and then I got feedback that the booker said, “You know, the show’s ending and this just feels like a big “F-you” to the audience. Those were the words in the email. And it really bummed me out because it was a funny set, it was working, and to think that a new mom making jokes that work, with her baby attached to her, would bum people out too much kind of made me angry. Because I think, A, it would have been cool, B, the show is ending, so what do they have to lose? I don’t think it would have made people angry. I think it would have been relevant and hopefully funny. And maybe the baby would have helped me get SAG for the year, which is all I really want.
“Being pregnant is so disempowering in so many ways. But when you’re on stage with jokes that you know have worked when you weren’t visibly pregnant, it felt so empowering.”
— Jena Friedman
Was it only for Corden? Why couldn’t you do it somewhere else?
Well, I’m trying to pitch it to one other place. But it would have to be an L.A. show, because I don’t want to take my baby across the country. I’m trying to figure it out.
That shows you that maybe not much has changed in late-night.
In certain places. I’m just talking shit about James Corden because he’s going off the air and they cut my bit after working with them for a month on it. But then someone, to cheer me up, sent me an article about how there was a situation on a flight—
This is such a good story—where this woman had a screaming baby and James Corden was sitting next to her. He put his headphones on and turned away, and he was praised for normalizing not making a big deal out of a screaming infant and just ignoring it instead of complaining about it. And then, plot twist, it was actually his wife and kid, which is such a good story.
It’s kind of too good to be true. It’s like a perfect joke.
It’s a perfect joke. And I didn’t even know that about this guy, and of course they’re not going to be comfortable with me making jokes about postpartum depression with my baby on me on their show. Of course that’s not the vibe of their show. And I do want to say one positive thing: I do appreciate the booker for even thinking that there was a Venn diagram intersection between my comedy and Corden’s. There is not, I guess.
I like the idea of performing with your baby on you because you performed your stand-up special Ladykiller while pregnant, which has become somewhat of a trend that Ali Wong started, and Amy Schumer did, and now you did. And it shouldn’t be that notable, really, but you talked about how having the baby on you could change the way your jokes are perceived. Did you feel like being pregnant had that same effect in your special, which is so much about abortion and these issues?
Being pregnant is so disempowering in so many ways. But when you’re on stage with jokes that you know have worked when you weren’t visibly pregnant, it felt so empowering. And just to be like, “You guys have to laugh, because if you don’t laugh, you’re gonna stress out the baby.” It was so much fun performing pregnant. It was scary. I like performing in a space where audiences are scared but you still know the comedy works. And if they don’t laugh, it’s not on you, it’s on them. That, to me, is my favorite type of comedy. What I love about stand-up is having real-time conversations with an audience where you are in control because you have the mic, but they’re with you. I love that. That is my favorite thing about doing stand-up. It’s completely unfiltered. You’re communicating with people in a real way about relevant issues. I also love just being silly and making people laugh, but I love telling miscarriage jokes and making people feel uncomfortable. But not uncomfortable in a way that it’s like shock value or they’re turned off. They’re still engaged. I love that about stand-up.
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.