Last year, Sacha Baron Cohen used various disguises to pull off the most startling political humor of the Trump era on the Showtime series “Who Is America?”; and 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, the comedian Jena Friedman, introduces a gonzo feminist perspective in her Adult Swim show, “Soft Focus With Jena Friedman” that doesn’t just crack jokes about misogynist violence. It offers the giddy pleasure of payback.
Last year, Friedman, in character as an unflappable news reporter, did a biting segment on campus rape in which she persuaded three college frat brothers to drag around life-size female dolls called Cannot Consent Carrie. And in a bracing episode 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?
Morally questionable humiliation has always been a part of the prank show, and the newer versions often make explicit a meanness that was always a part of “Candid Camera” and “Punk’d.” No one parodied this more brilliantly than Dave Chappelle when he imagined a show called “Zapped” in which, adults prank their kids by, for instance, having a doctor soberly tell them their parents are dead. Stop crying, toddlers, you’ve been zapped!
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 about gender disparity at the channel, Splitsider’s Megh Wright reported that it had never run a series solely created by a women. Responding to a thread on Reddit on the resulting controversy, Mike Lazzo, an executive at Adult Swim, 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 like 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?’