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Jena Friedman’s ‘Soft Focus’ brings the uncomfortable laughs

| Thursday, March 1, 2018

Diane Park | The Observer

Every successful comedian reaches a point in their career when they are dwelling on the cusp. Think John Mulaney before his “New in Town” special. They are well known and widely liked by their fellow comedians, but are unknown to all but ardent comedy fans. These comedians are in a state of flux, where a pivotal project or two can make a career. For Jena Friedman, “Soft Focus” may be one of those projects. Thankfully, Adult Swim has given Friedman an opportunity to reach a wider audience with what the network describes as “a live action comedic special that explores hard issues with a light touch.”

Stylistically, “Soft Focus” looks like a piece of journalism that would air on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Friedman speaks softly and, unlike traditional investigative reporters, rarely confronts her guests with difficult questions. Paralleling Vancouver comedy hero Nathan Fielder’s proper, faux-naïve comedy style on “Nathan For You,” Friedman traffics in coy deception and uncomfortable directness on “Soft Focus.” Much like Nathan, she begins with an inane, tenuous premise for her investigation: If baby dolls can be used to deter teen pregnancy in a high school culture, is it possible for other dolls to deter campus rape in collegiate culture? Friedman draws in the frat boy subjects of her campus rape piece by implying that they will be talking about their partying habits. Once Friedman has these people in her clutches, her satire is merciless.

With regards to background, Jena Friedman is not exactly Lenny Bruce. Unlike many comedians, she has a high-powered degree and experience in a white-collar career. Her first three decades of life took her from a conservative Jewish childhood in New Jersey to an anthropology major at Northwestern University followed by consulting work at Booz Allen Hamilton. On paper, this resume has striking parallels to those of many Notre Dame students. However, during her full-time career, Friedman furiously moonlighted as a comedian, honing her craft in the mid-2000s Chicago comedy scene that produced Kumail Nanjiani and Hannibal Buress.

“Soft Focus” hilariously parodies diluted investigative journalism while also wielding satire to make a statement about femininity and womanhood in contemporary American culture. Spectacles displaying things like a sex doll manufacturer and a man who fantasized about eating women make very obvious allusions to the absurd ways in which women are objectified in our culture. Friedman’s standup can be brutally dark and sarcastic, but the men she ridicules on “Soft Focus” may be her best material yet. Her acerbic wit lurks just underneath her composed acting, tearing apart her ignorant or perverse guests with such aplomb that it’s painstakingly difficult to determine if they are even aware of their own mocking. “Soft Focus,” at times, only barely remains within the boundaries of good taste as Jena deals her ultra-concentrated satire on targets that are all pitiable at times.

Sometimes, comedians get so bogged down in making philosophical or political points that their jokes simply don’t land. On “Soft Focus,” Jena Friedman tactfully allows her pointed satire to emerge from hilarious comedic beats that coalesce into the special’s philosophy. Adult Swim has once again showcased a promising talent that will soon become an indomitable force in comedy.

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