I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that comedian Jena Friedman is pregnant in her new stand-up special. It’s actually the punchline to her first joke.
In Ladykiller, which begins streaming on Peacock this Friday, Sept. 30, Friedman opens by thanking her audience for being vaccinated despite all of the “misinformation” out there. “When I first heard the vaccines might cause infertility, I was like, ‘Yes!’” she jokes. “But apparently they don’t,” she adds, as the spotlight shifts and the camera pans down to reveal her pregnant belly.
Comedians performing while pregnant has become something of a trend in recent years, starting, of course, with Ali Wong, who basically made it her brand in her first two Netflix specials, and continuing with Amy Schumer, who did the same in 2019 with her Netflix special Growing. But while those comics included plenty of material about being pregnant and even the “common” experience of having a miscarriage, neither went nearly as hard on abortion as Friedman does here.
And it makes sense, given the timing. Ladykiller was taped in New York City on July 15, 2022, exactly three weeks after the Supreme Court stripped women of the constitutional right to make decisions about their own bodies by overturning Roe v. Wade. But the issue has clearly been on Friedman’s mind for a long time.
“I wasn’t pregnant when I sold the special and Roe hadn’t yet been overturned, so the confluence of those two things happening as I was prepping to tape Ladykiller made me really appreciate having a platform where I could talk about some of the things I have been losing sleep over since Roe was overturned, and to do so particularly before the midterms,” Friedman explained in a statement when the special was announced. “I hope it will resonate with viewers, and on a personal level, it has been incredibly cathartic.”
She later tweeted that she was “still in shock” that Peacock “green lit something so dark.”
Friedman wastes no time broaching the topic in her new special, informing the crowd that she is 27 weeks pregnant before joking, “and I think I’m going to keep it.” That leads into a long section about how much this country “hates moms.” Her implicit point seems to be that no one should be forced to take on what is arguably the hardest and least appreciated role in American life.
And she contrasts the trials of motherhood with the relative ease of being a dad, even referencing a friend of hers who had a solo comedy show on Broadway about deciding to become a father. “It was so good, because he had time to write it,” Friedman says, predicting that “once this thing comes out” she will never have time to do stand-up comedy again.
For most of her career, Friedman has existed behind the scenes, first as a field producer on The Daily Show, where she worked closely with correspondents like Samantha Bee, Michael Che, and Aasif Mandvi, and more recently as an Oscar-nominated writer of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. She was the brains behind the scene in that movie where Borat and his daughter visit a “crisis pregnancy center” after she accidentally swallows a small plastic baby.
Speaking about that scene on The Last Laugh podcast around the film’s release, Friedman told me that she had to convince the men in the writers’ room that the man running the consultation would go so far as to advise against an abortion that he was being told was a result of incest. “But if you know these places, you know that they are zealots. They’re going to be OK with incest,” she said at the time, adding that including the scene was so exciting for her because it was “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.”
Friedman took the confrontational comedy style she learned while working with Jon Stewart and Baron Cohen and channeled it into her own projects, first with the disturbingly hilarious Soft Focus on Adult Swim and now with Indefensible—her bold attempt to use comedy to draw attention to violence against women—which premieres its second season on AMC+ and SundanceTV next month.
Throughout all of that, however, Friedman never stopped performing stand-up, including multiple sets on Conan and her debut special American Cunt, which she developed at the Edinburgh Festival and premiered on the now-defunct streaming platform Seeso in 2016. That hour also had an extended section that she referred to as an “abortion portion.” But her new jokes on the topic undeniably hit harder coming from a woman who actively made the choice to stay pregnant.
After delivering some meta commentary about the stereotypes surrounding female comics and why she vowed to talk about politics instead of sex on stage (“Long story short, that’s why nobody knows me”), Friedman gets back to explaining why she decided to keep her baby. “I didn’t mean to talk about abortion… this late in the show,” she jokes about 18 minutes into the hour.
And it soon becomes clear how uncomfortable this admittedly dark material makes at least some audience members. “You guys are so scared!” she admonishes them at one point. At another, she informs the crowd that if anything she says makes them upset they can “feel free to leave,” joking, “I would never dare force you to do anything against your will.” That line, of course, elicits loud cheers from the room.
With her earnest political opinions and tendency to cite research and statistics about who gets abortions and why, Friedman risks veering too far into the TED Talk zone and inviting “clapter” instead of genuine laughs. But she is ultimately a good and daring enough comedian to always drop in a punchline that can take her friendly audience by surprise and even draw an unexpected groan here and there—like when she jokes that for her, life “begins at 40,” while for Republicans, it “begins at rape.”
Ladykiller is a perfect introduction to Friedman’s specific comedic sensibility, especially for anyone who hasn’t been following the ins and outs of her career over the past decade. But more than anything, it’s the inadvertent timing of this special, both in her personal life and our political moment, that make it a vital viewing experience.
For more, listen to Jena Friedman on The Last Laugh podcast.