Prank comedy has long been a limited but enduring television genre. Last year, Sacha Baron Cohen used disguises to pull off the most startling political humor of the Trump era on the Showtime series “Who Is America?” On Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You,” Nathan Fielder turned elaborate real-world stunts into unexpectedly emotional and intricate narratives. These artists expanded the ambition of the prank show while still clinging to its queasy-making juvenile roots.
The latest sneaky star of this new wave, comedian Jena Friedman, introduces a gonzo feminist perspective in her Adult Swim program, “Soft Focus With Jena Friedman.” The two specials so far (streaming on adultswim.com) don’t just crack jokes about misogynist violence. They offer the giddy pleasure of payback.
In the first show last year, Friedman, in character as an unflappable news reporter, did a biting segment on campus rape in which she persuaded three college fraternity brothers to drag around life-size female dolls called Cannot Consent Carrie. In the bracing second show last month, she built a more elaborate mousetrap involving sexual harassment in online gaming. The bit’s conceit was: If men knew what being victims of sexual harassment and abuse felt like, would that change anything?
Friedman seems to suggest that getting pranked is not that different from being a woman in a sexist culture. You are put in positions that make you feel uneasy, then isolated and embarrassed, and when you are upset, you are told to laugh it off and not be so sensitive.
Prank comedy has been dominated by men tapping into their inner Jerky Boy, and Fielder and Cohen have been criticized for making women the butt of their jokes. Friedman not only flips this script, she also represents a departure for Adult Swim. In a 2016 investigation, Splitsider’s Megh Wright reported that the channel had never run a series created solely by a woman. Responding to a thread on Reddit on the resulting controversy, Adult Swim executive Mike Lazzo wrote, “Women don’t tend to like conflict, comedy often comes from conflict, so that’s probably why we (or others) have so few female projects.”
Friedman makes a mockery of this sentiment. She has always gravitated toward conflict, whether arguing politics on Twitter or turning deadly serious subjects such as Ebola and rape into stand-up fodder. Like Fielder, she maintains a flat equanimity, but also employs a slippery charm to ingratiate herself with subjects and her audience, sometimes glancing at the camera, Ferris Bueller-style, as if to say, “See what I just did?’
More than Cohen and Fielder, Friedman is upfront about the contrivances of her production. Her recent episode began with a man with sunglasses and a gun saying the following content may be graphic or sexual in nature. The camera panned a few feet to where Friedman was standing; she gave the man a note for another line reading. “There’s so much joy in your voice when you say ‘sexual,’ ” she said, sounding disappointed. “I’d like to mute that joy and make it sound like a warning.”
“Soft Focus” features a talent-rich staff including comics Jacqueline Novak and Calise Hawkins as well as Merrill Markoe, who helped invent the camera-on-the-street comedy piece as the original head writer on “Late Night With David Letterman.” The show is not dense with jokes, even if a few are guttural, the sort that erupt when you can’t exactly believe or condone what you just saw. Hopefully there will be many more episodes.