In her new special on Adult Swim, stand-up comedian and Daily Show alum Jena Friedman adventures into the field to give us her best Barbara Walters impression, narrating in a hushed voice and asking interviewees awkwardly over-reaching questions as the host of a parody newsmagazine show. The hilarious special, called Soft Focus, premiered earlier this week and mocks the contrived seriousness of shows like 60 Minutes by tackling real, hard subjects and celebrity profiles with, well, a soft approach.
With the special, Friedman also infuses humor into topics she actually cares about. In the first segment, she embarks on the very ambitious task of ending on-campus rape. In a campaign modeled off of sex-ed syllabuses that give baby dolls to horny high schoolers in an effort to reduce teenage pregnancy, she gives three frat brothers in their senior year of college sex dolls with names such as “Cannot-Consent-Carrie” to lug around campus. When one of the men asks Friedman if he seriously has to carry around a sex doll to class all week, she responds, deadpan, “They are quite heavy, but not as heavy as the emotional burden that rape victims must carry around with them at all times.”
The show’s second segment pivots away from frat dudes to focus on finding love for Gilberto Valle, a New York City police officer who was convicted of a conspiracy to kidnap, cook, and eat women, better known as the “Cannibal Cop.” In an ominous version of a dating reality show called "Meet Your Match," she helps Valle select a lady by asking them questions like, "How fast do you run?"
Broadly chatted with Friedman about her personal experience with teenage pregnancy prevention dolls, what it was like to interview someone who possibly wants to eat you, and what other topics deserve Soft Focus coverage.
BROADLY: How would you describe Soft Focus to someone who just woke up from a 20-year cryptogenic freeze and doesn’t know anything popular culture?
JENA FRIEDMAN: Someone who just got out of a cryptogenic freeze would probably get it more because it’s basically a fucked up Barbara Walters bit. It’s a human interest segment with field pieces and interviews.
How did Soft Focus ’s segment on campus rape come together?
I had wanted to do a piece on campus rape while I was at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart [as a field producer] but it’s obviously a tough issue to cover. Adult Swim allowed me to break the mold and find a way to get into it. The specific idea of giving sex dolls to guys in fraternities came about last year when I read about how many schools were being investigated for mishandling sexual assault and what a big issue it is. Afterwards, I did research into the topic and thought about what would be some ways, if we didn’t have to live in the world of reality, to try to solve this issue. In high school, we had the program with the baby dolls and I thought it would be fun to see how that played out.
Do you think carrying around a plastic baby doll in high school reduced your chance of teen pregnancy?
I don’t have a kid, but that doesn’t have anything to do with it. In the piece, I talked to a high school health educator named Rosemary and she said that while there’s been conflicting studies on the efficacy of the dolls [to prevent teen pregnancy], she’s seen across the board with the kids in her class that the dolls teach them about consent. While this isn’t in the segment, [Rosemary] said that a lot of the young women and men in her class started talking about sex in different ways just because they had the baby dolls. While the kids didn’t really understand what consent was before the experience, the dolls opened the floodgates for conversation. It’s the same thing with the sex dolls. While they were comically jokey, it opens up the conversation in a way that maybe just watching a video [on consent] wouldn’t.
Do you think the frat men learned anything from their experience of carrying around sex dolls on campus?
I don’t know. I hope so. It was interesting. In one conversation, one of the guys asked, “Do words have meaning?” and “Do words matter?” Part of that was based on stuff that we had shot that didn’t end up in the piece where the guys had said stuff about women that I had called them out on. But I think it was cool that it was something that he started to think about organically. It was also pretty cool that the whole bit where he was asking me questions wasn’t really funny but Adult Swim still let us keep it in the show.
In the second segment, you interview the “Cannibal Cop.” What was it like interviewing someone who possibly wants to cook and eat you?
I don't really think I’m his type. I think he’s into younger women, to be totally honest and maybe even brunettes. I also wasn’t alone with him. He’s a really interesting case.
What other topics do you think deserve Soft Focus coverage?
I think a lot of the topics that we aren’t talking about. Now, we’re finally talking about real gun control after another mass shooting but there’s a tendency in our country to be a little bit more optimistic and wide-eyed, in comparison to countries like, say, the UK. We seem to shy away from heavy issues because they’re unpleasant but now in these dark times we are actually talking about things. Any subject that we’re not talking about in a candid way is a topic I would be interested in exploring.
What’s next for you?
I have another stand-up hour that I’m working on and hope to record next year.