Writing Jokes with Jena Friedman (The Daily Show)

They were all doing stand up and writing on shows, so I thought, I guess I should be able to pay my rent.

[@JenaFriedman on Twitter]
Jena is a stand up comic and former Daily Show producer & Letterman writer

First off, is there anything you can or can’t talk about with The Daily Show?

Yeah, probably none of it (laughs).

Ah, okay. Even generally speaking?

Generally speaking, it’s awesome! I’m leaving, actually, today. Today’s my last day. But the new iteration of the show is going to be great. This current show is the best job I’ve ever had. I put it all out on Twitter. This is a great, great place. There are really wonderful, smart, thoughtful people making comedy that says something. It’s great.

How did you end up getting a job at the show to start out?

So I had written for Letterman and I was doing stand up and my friend Wyatt Cenac was actually the one who recommended me based on this web series that I made called Ted & Gracie … anyways, the job of a field producer is writing and directing field segments. So I had stuff that I wrote and produced that I could show them and they called me in and I did a sample field piece and that’s how I got the job.

When you’re researching field pieces, how do you go about aggregating information and making sure you’re prepared?

We have a whole team of people. We’ll come up with stories — Jon’s always encouraging of us doing stuff that we’re passionate about. So if we find a story and there’s a funny angle on it, we have associate producers who help us book the elements together and make the phone calls.

“The best boss I have ever had.”

One thing I didn't realize until I came here is that it’s pretty much scripted before you go out. You pre-interview the politician to get a sense of what they’re going to say, and then you sit down with them; but it’s very, very planned out. And the people we talk to are all real people. We never take them out of context … it’s all real stuff.

Do you have any experiences where you crossed the line or asked something you didn’t want to ask?

No (laughs).

You know, what? I’m going to stop asking about The Daily Show. What are you working on next?

So I have a film that I wrote that I’m directing — we’re just kind of assembling everything now. I did some stuff for the women’s vertical on VICE called Broadly. I hosted a thing and I did an interview for them. And I have a show that I’m putting up in Scotland. It’s like, a solo stand up show that’s going to be in the Edinburgh Film Festival in two weeks.

What is the show in Scotland about?

It’s a stand up show called American Cunt, and it’s basically my political comedy.

Have you ever thought about running for office? Or getting into politics directly?

Me? No. Never. I just like making fun of it.

So you’d rather stay in this side of it?

Yeah, there’s no … it never even … that’s the last thing I’d ever do. I think you can change the system more effectively, at least I can personally, from the outside of it.

What you do mean?

Right out of college I actually worked at a management consulting firm in health care in Chicago. I was very young and naive and actually knew that healthcare needed changing. I thought: “The best way to change the system is from within!”

So we would actual consult large health insurers and give them recommendations. How to better serve the community, cut healthcare costs, etc. And it taught me how limited the changes are within a system. And so that’s when I realized I wanted to make fun of it.

Aasif Mandvi investigates non-racist fallout from the Supreme Court’s destruction of the Voting Rights Act.

Didn’t you do a piece on Monsanto? And one on water contamination in West Virginia? Have you found the idea of helping people seeps into your work?

Yeah, Jon has been very cool about letting us do exactly what we want to do. I did a piece on the food worker’s strikes, and a piece on fracking as well. One piece that I feel definitely had an impact was a piece I did with Aasif Mandvi on the voter ID laws in South Carolina … I definitely feel like a pieces have been impactful in a wonderful way.

Or, I hope they have. I could be biased.

I think that they definitely have. How did you start writing for Letterman?

I had been doing stand up and I submitted a packet through an management company. And then a year later after that management company, like, dropped me, because I could never get a job (laughs), Letterman’s people asked me to submit another packet. So I submit another packet and I got the job that day.

Oh, wow. Is that the norm for writers trying to get onto a late night show?

I don’t really know. Everyone has a different path. I never thought I’d be writing for late night, but I remember doing stand up in Chicago and coming to New York and seeing women I admired like Morgan Murphy, Chelsea Peretti and Jessi Klein. And they were all doing stand up and writing on shows, so I thought, I guess I should be able to pay my rent. I should try to write on a show. I had a manager at the time and I started submitting sample packets, and submitting sample packets … so I remember submitting a Letterman packet and thinking it was so funny. I never had that confidence in a writing sample. And then a year later I heard from them and they wanted to see another sample. So I got it to them the next morning and I ended up with the job.

Do you ever go back to Chicago to do stand up?

Not enough! My family is actually from outside of Philly. I don’t go back to Chicago enough. I was there with The Daily Show Live Tour doing stand up, but I don’t really go back there as much as I’d like. It’s a great place to do comedy.

Does that make you a Phillies fan or a Cubs fan?

Uh…

Or Neither?

Uh, I don’t know. That’s baseball, right? (laughs)


Jena Friedman is a stand up comedian, actor, writer and filmmaker. You can follow her @jenafriedman & visit http://www.jenafriedman.com/


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Interview/Zuri Irvin (@withzuri)