‘Borat’ Writer Jena Friedman Became the ‘Hipster Nancy Grace’
Jena Friedman is a former Daily Show field producer, an uncompromising standup comedian, and, as of this past year, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Now, she’s taking on the true crime industrial complex as the host of Indefensible on SundanceTV and AMC+.
In this rare repeat appearance on The Last Laugh podcast, Friedman talks about exposing “crisis pregnancy centers” in Borat, weighs in on “missing white woman syndrome,” and shares her thoughts on the death of John McAfee, with whom she conducted the definitive interview for her previous show Soft Focus.
When Friedman was on one of the first episodes of this podcast back in April of 2019, the headline that accompanied her appearance read, “‘Daily Show’ Badass Jena Friedman on Becoming the Feminist Sacha Baron Cohen.” As it turned out, that article was published on the very same day she started working on the top-secret sequel to Borat.
“It came out on my first day working in his room and he saw it and I was like, oh my God…” Friedman says of Baron Cohen, laughing. It was an unfortunately ironic start to the job that would ultimately land her an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
“I mean, it’s just an honor to be vaccinated,” she jokes of her experience at the most bizarre Academy Award ceremony in years. “That’s all I was thinking at the time. And we’ve all had such a traumatic year, the last thing anybody wants is to see their friend at the Oscars. I was just very cognizant of that. And also of what the Oscars are, which is this very ostentatious display of everything wrong with our world.”
It was Friedman’s idea to send Borat and his daughter Tutar, played by the similarly Oscar-nominated Maria Bakalova, into a “crisis pregnancy center” where the pastor who is working there suggests she keep her baby even after learning that her father is the one who “put it in her.”
She recalls being in the writers’ room for the movie and one of her male colleagues saying “there’s no way” anyone would go that far. “But if you know these places, you know that they are zealots. They’re going to be OK with incest,” Friedman says. “And I think that the guys in the room, or just people who didn’t know about these centers, didn’t really get that it was as bad as it is. What was so exciting to me about that segment was just showing people on a large scale that these places exist, that what they do is so awful, that they’re allowed to do it and it’s only getting worse.”
That scene has only become more disturbing in light of Texas’ abortion ban and the impending showdown over Roe v. Wade. “I just want to say, if there’s anyone listening who is in Texas, you can still get an abortion there,” Friedman says in the podcast before delivering one of her uniquely pointed punchlines. “You just have to call it ‘stand your ground.’”
Creative criminal defenses have been on her mind of late as she has been editing the six episodes of Indefensible, which premieres this Thursday, Oct. 14 on SundanceTV and AMC+. Friedman is a self-described true crime obsessive but never thought about venturing into that space herself until the network saw her 2019 Conan set on the topic and approached her about developing something.
“I was like, I don’t know if that’s possible,” she recalls. “And then COVID happened and I was like, anything’s possible!”
The first episode centers around expert witnesses, who deliver what she describes as “clinically misogynistic” testimony on behalf of men who kill their partners, as exemplified in the exclusive clip from the premiere episode below.
“It’s by no means a comedy show,” she says. “We’re literally creating a new genre, a hybrid genre. It’s hard for me to say it’s a comedy show because I’ve met all these people and they’re real people. But yeah, because I’m a comedian and because I enjoy so much trying to make light out of the darkness, there are moments of levity for sure.”
Finding comedy in the darkest corners of society is something Friedman excelled at in her previous show Soft Focus on Adult Swim, which featured what ended up providing the definitive interview with 2016’s second-most controversial presidential candidate, John McAfee. She maintained an odd friendship of sorts with McAfee via Twitter DM until his recent suicide in a Spanish prison.
“Do I think he killed himself?” she asks of the QAnon conspiracy theories surrounding his death. “I mean, it’s the most libertarian way to go, so yeah, sure.” Noting that he was an alleged murderer and rapist, she adds, “My vibe from him, and I could be wrong, is that he was an eccentric character and I never felt unsafe trolling him.” When I ask why, she jokes, “Because I’m an idiot?”
“Do I think he killed himself? I mean, it’s the most libertarian way to go, so yeah, sure.”
Indefensible will also explore “missing white woman syndrome” and how marginalized women, whether they are women of color or indigenous women or sex workers, are ignored by the press. “When they disappear, when they’re murdered, the media doesn’t pick up their stories,” she says.
At the same time, she does view the Gabby Petito case as uniquely “tragic” in its own right. “If Brian Laundrie goes to trial—and now I sound like a hipster Nancy Grace, which I’m fully comfortable being—he may not be convicted,” Friedman says, referring to America’s most unhinged legal commentator. “If you don’t have a witness, if the body has been decomposing and you can’t prove that he killed her, I hate to say it, but he’s doing everything right in terms of what men should do to not go to prison for their crimes.”
“The other thing that we’re not talking about as much, I think, is just the idea of the cops and their role in this,” Friedman adds. “I think a lot of people have been saying the cops have a hard time recognizing signs of domestic violence. It’s like, no, they know them. They see it from the other side.”
Then comes the inevitable dark joke: “How do you train a police force to recognize signs of domestic violence? Just go, ‘Hey, if you see a woman who looks at you like your wife does…’”
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