Jena Friedman on ‘Indefensible’ and True Crime
Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
Never one to mince words, comedian Jena Friedman is adamant that her new series is not a comedy show. Instead, Indefensible — which premieres tonight on SundanceTV — is a thoughtful new spin on the true-crime genre. In each of the six episodes, Friedman focuses on a murder case and traces it back to damning structural problems with the criminal-justice system, from misogynist legalese to overworked parole boards. That’s not to say that Friedman’s dark sense of humor doesn’t come in handy — especially her razor-sharp interviewing talents. After sitting down with the Cannibal Cop in 2018 and John McAfee in 2019 on Adult Swim’s Soft Focus, she’s ready to take on the forensic psychiatrist who testified that a sugar high could turn a man into a murderer (also known as the “Twinkie defense”).
Vulture spoke with Friedman over the phone about producing field segments for The Daily Show, the connection between good comedy and good journalism, and why interviewing a defense attorney is like “playing tennis against a wall.”
How did the show originally come together for SundanceTV?
I did a set on Conan just before the pandemic where I talked about true crime. After that, Sundance reached out and said that they were doing a new take on the genre, and they wanted to know if I would be interested in collaborating on a show. I was a little hesitant at first because my background is not in true crime. But we shot a mini-pilot where I interviewed [forensic psychiatrist and expert witness] Dr. Martin Blinder, which is part of the first episode, and afterwards, we realized that there might actually be a show.
You worked on The Daily Show as a field producer. How did that experience help your approach here, and how do you feel about journalistic comedy shows right now?
My Daily Show experience 100 percent informed how I approached these interviews; I don’t think there’s any way I could have pulled some of this off without it. I was there for Jon’s last three years, 2012 to 2015. I really loved that show, and I personally felt that we were doing something impactful. I always cite this segment that I worked on — field producers wrote and directed the field segments — about voter ID laws that a judge actually cited in a court case. We did a segment on the fast-food worker strikes, a segment on fracking, a segment on the opioid crisis before people were really talking about it in a big way; Michael Che did that segment before he left for SNL.
So we were making five-minute, digestible segments that I thought were distilling policy down in a really unique, entertaining way for people. After 2016, an … inciting incident happened, so those shows are so much more challenging. They make real stuff funny, but we’re also in this moment where we don’t have a shared reality, so satire and commentary are a lot harder. But at the same time, those shows are doing it, and they’re doing it really successfully.
One of the reasons I liked Soft Focus is because of what you’re talking about: You satirize how soft journalism can play into a lack of a shared reality, especially by platforming people in toothless ways. For this show, how did you think about platforming people?
I love Soft Focus. I think the demographic that I’m sort of … trolling in that show is a little bit more playful. With Indefensible, there was a lot of thought about platforming: Who do you give voice to? Who do you not? I actively didn’t want to talk to anyone who was convicted of murder for this show. And because of the true-crime genre, when you have families of victims in your shows, there’s so much more of a responsibility to them. It’s hard to make that light in any way.
The question here was, how do I tell this story in a way that makes sense to me, and in a way that is respectful to the victim and their family? Whereas with Soft Focus, you’re trying to meet the demographic that watches Adult Swim where they’re at with feminist comedy. My comedy audiences are pretty cool, and I think they’ll appreciate this show, but I’m not selling it to them as a comedy show. It’s definitely a departure from what I typically do, but in some of the interviews, you do see elements of Oh, there she is!
How do you prepare for centerpiece interviews like these? In today’s media world, it seems like it would be difficult to get people to commit to what they’re saying.
The more I know about somebody going in, the better. There’s an episode about the gay-panic defense, and I really studied up on legal strategies around it to prepare to interview a public defender, who’s actually really lovely. Defense attorneys are the hardest people I’ve ever had to interview because their whole job is just to be on the defense, and to be these unflappable shields for their clients. So you’re talking to them, and you’re almost kind of playing tennis against a wall! It’s really hard to break through, even if you make a point.
So I do as much research as I can, and then if I have funny stuff in mind, I try it out. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I do think that when comedians are in the role of journalists, we have a little bit more flexibility and a little bit more in our tool kit to disarm people. At The Daily Show, we would have teams of writers writing jokes for the correspondents. The topics were sensitive, but I also think that going into interviews with the name of The Daily Show behind you, people immediately got it and trusted it. With Soft Focus, people didn’t really know me or trust where I was coming from, so it makes it harder to be a little more delicate.
In 2016, you interviewed Ken Kratz, the prosecutor in the homicide case featured on Making a Murderer. Afterwards, you said that these conversations were ways of showing the “humanity” of people like that. I thought that was such an interesting way of putting it. You’re not letting him off the hook, but even his language choices can tell you so much about who he is without you having to point it out.
Ken … what a character. Jake Salyers — he’s awesome — edited that interview. When we were cutting it, I was like, “Why do I look less likable than Ken?” There were three different ways we were cutting it, and one of the ways I looked meaner than him! I’m so aware of how I come across on camera and the level of likability that I have.
For the interview with Martin Blinder, there was so much that he was saying that I didn’t have to say that revealed why an expert witness can sometimes subvert justice. At the end of the day, Blinder has the résumé he has, and he’s made the statements that he’s made, but I’m this random lady who comes in and could, at points, be teasing him. To many people, that could be seen as less sympathetic than the stuff that he’s done. You always have to be careful about that. I don’t know if it’s about gender or what, but it’s really a challenge sometimes.
More generally, what are your feelings on true crime as a genre, and how did you think about your show fitting into it?
I think people watch it for a variety of reasons and that there’s an element of escapism. I hope that this new show meets people who like true crime with something slightly different, with more of a broad view. It’s not just about the crime, but what I’m interested in is, how does this keep happening? And it’s often hard to answer that, even impossible in many cases.
Also, we all, someday, may end up on a jury. There are so many things about criminal justice that we just don’t think about, or we don’t even know about until we’re either on trial or sitting as a member of a jury. So I wanted to shine a light onto how the system works when it comes to specific cases of injustice: the different things that go into jury trials, expert witnesses, what defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes do. That’s where I’m trying to push this show. What do we need to be thinking about so that this kind of injustice doesn’t happen again?
To wrap up, you’ve mentioned a few times that you have some features in the works?
Yeah. I have this project that I’ve been trying to get off the ground forever. We’re really close, but I can’t even say anything until it happens. And I did write a feature in 2016 that was about a quarantine! It was inspired by the Ebola outbreak. One guy who worked at Doctors Without Borders got it, and it was this whole big thing for like a week while he was in New York. The New York Post wrote about him, and he and his girlfriend were on “Page Six.” I just thought, This is ridiculous.
So that inspired a script about a girl who had a one-night stand with some guy. I have a friend who’s an infectious-disease specialist; his name is Dr. Amesh Adalja. He’s really thrived in the past year. I called him and I was like, “I need an infectious disease that has a guy’s name like ‘Carl’ or something.” And he said, “Well, you should do a coronavirus because they’re gonna be all the rage!” So it was called 21 Days of CARL, where “CARL” was actually an acronym for a type of coronavirus, but it’s so weird to talk about. That was a script that I don’t think is ever going to see the light of day.