Prank comedy has lengthy been a restricted however enduring tv style. (Of course “Crank Yankers” is being rebooted.) But almost each lowbrow kind, from gangster flicks to horror motion pictures, finally will get repackaged as status, and in recent times, some expert pranksters have been making their transfer.
Last yr, Sacha Baron Cohen used numerous disguises to drag off the most startling political humor of the Trump period on the Showtime sequence “Who Is America?”; and on Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You,” Nathan Fielder turned elaborate real-world stunts into unexpectedly emotional and complex narratives. These artists expanded the ambition of the prank present whereas nonetheless clinging to its queasy-making juvenile roots. The newest sneaky star of this new wave, the comic Jena Friedman, introduces a gonzo feminist perspective in her Adult Swim present, “Soft Focus With Jena Friedman” that doesn’t simply crack jokes about misogynist violence. It gives the giddy pleasure of payback.
Last yr, Friedman, in character as an unflappable information reporter, did a biting phase on campus rape wherein she persuaded three faculty frat brothers to tug round life-size feminine dolls referred to as Cannot Consent Carrie. And in a bracing episode final month she constructed a extra elaborate mousetrap involving sexual harassment in on-line gaming. The bit’s conceit was, If males knew what being victims of sexual harassment and abuse felt like, would that change something?
After inviting male players to participate in “a virtual reality immersive experience on what it’s like to be a woman,” she provides them VR headsets that provide a imaginative and prescient of a sexually aggressive man, performed by a porn star she employed, approaching them, pulling his penis out after which masturbating right into a plant. Meanwhile, Freidman sneaks close to her topics, whose headsets defend their imaginative and prescient, and sprays them with water whereas rubbing a scorching canine on their arms. When requested afterward, Friedman denies touching them. “That’s gaslighting,” one man protests, and, in fact, that’s the level.
In the first two episodes of “Soft Focus,” which hopefully can have many extra, Friedman appears to counsel that getting pranked isn’t that totally different from being a lady in a sexist tradition. You are put in positions that make you are feeling uneasy, then remoted and embarrassed, and when you find yourself upset, you’re informed to snigger it off and never be so delicate.
Morally questionable humiliation has at all times been part of the prank present, and the newer variations typically make express a meanness that was at all times part of “Candid Camera” and “Punk’d.” No one parodied this extra brilliantly than Dave Chappelle when he imagined a present referred to as “Zapped” wherein, 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?’
More than Cohen and Fielder, Friedman is upfront about the contrivances of her production. Her recent episode began with a burly man with sunglasses and a gun saying that the following content may be graphic or sexual in nature. Then the camera pans a few feet to the right where Friedman is standing and she gives the man a note for another line reading. “There’s so much joy in your voice when you say ‘sexual,’” she says, sounding disappointed. “I’d like to mute that joy and make it sound like a warning.” And then he does the line reading again.
“Soft Focus” features a talent-rich writing staff including the New York comics Jacqueline Novak and Calise Hawkins as well as Merrill Markoe, who arguably helped invent the modern camera-on-the-street comedy piece as the original head writer on “Late Night With David Letterman.” But the show is not dense with jokes, even if a few of the laughs it inspires are guttural, the sort that erupt when you can’t exactly believe or condone what you just saw.
The best example might be the interview Friedman did with the former New York police officer known as the cannibal cop. He was accused of plotting kidnappings after writing online about eating his wife, but his conviction was overturned in 2014. In an interview, he tries to pass himself off as misunderstood, just a regular guy. Friedman doesn’t argue, just responds by asking earnestly: “What advice would you give someone who was busted by their wife for plotting to eat her and her friends on a dark fetish website?”
Friedman’s comic attack can be blunt or surgical. When the former police officer says, “I would never dream of doing anything without their consent,” she takes the conversation in a different direction, assuring him: “Well you can dream it,” she says. “That’s not a crime.” This exchange ends in a dating-game-show bit in which he must choose between three real women. Then “the winner” sits down with him and he explains that he is the cannibal cop. It kills the mood.
Friedman, playing the role of a twisted game-show host, has the camera wait on this moment, stretching out the awkwardness, then adding surreal touches that will look extremely familiar to fans of Tim and Eric, who more than any other comics defined the aesthetic of Adult Swim. (They have also spoofed the prank show.)
That this winner of the horror show of a dating game doesn’t immediately walk off stage might be its dark punch line.