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Comic Jena Friedman Serves up Food and Humor in ‘The Joy of Quarantine’

Friedman makes an “everything” bagel from pizza dough; makes kugel with potatoes, broccoli and green beans; and whips up cholent with Slivovitz.
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July 20, 2020
Jena Friedman; Courtesy of Reboot Studios

Comedian Jena Friedman was about to hit the road on a stand-up tour when the coronavirus pandemic put the kibosh on her plans. Confined to her Los Angeles studio apartment, she decided to explore unfamiliar territory: her kitchen. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she said. And when Reboot Media invited her to create some self-distanced content, “The Joy of Quarantine” was born.

The four-episode online series co-stars her musician boyfriend Josh Epstein of the band JR JR, whose face is never seen, and their Chihuahua, Potato. “I had to twist his arm to be in it,” Friedman said. Shot during the first month of lockdown, “The Joy of Quarantine” follows Friedman’s efforts to make Ashkenazi-Jewish favorites, with a hefty helping of humor on the side. 

“So many people are suffering and in pain. I think it’s important that people laugh when they can to take their mind off quarantine. I’m trying to marry both in this show, acknowledge the situation, but the funny things about it,” Friedman told the Journal. 

She zeroed in on the cuisine of her forebears, although she hadn’t made it before. “I was thinking about Jewish food and thought it would be interesting to take a stab at it,” she said. But without a lot of space, cooking equipment and a scarcity of ingredients, she had to improvise. 

In the first episode, Friedman makes an “everything” bagel from pizza dough; and subsequently throws together a kugel from potatoes, broccoli, green beans and onions; whips up cholent with chicken, carrots, onions, white beans and Slivovitz; and in the finale, makes her second attempt at pumpkin-applesauce babka (the first was a disaster). Epstein pronounces it “a little raw in the middle,” and deems the kugel lacking in salt, but he loves the bagel. “That was a small victory,” Friedman said. 

A former writer for “The Late Show With David Letterman” and field producer for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” Friedman created “Soft Focus with Jena Friedman,” a series of specials for Adult Swim, while building her stand-up career. Although many of her comedy heroes are Jewish — Stewart, Larry David, Sacha Baron Cohen, Sarah Silverman, and the late Carl Reiner among them —  “I don’t have Jewish humor in my act,” she said. “I’ve always done political stuff.” She’s active on social media, posting her opinions to her 50,000-plus Twitter followers. “As a female comedian and a Jewish comedian, you do get trolled online quite a bit,” she said. “It’s scary.”

Originally from Haddonfield, N.J., a Philadelphia suburb, Friedman had a Conservative Jewish upbringing, attending Hebrew school until 10th grade, when her rabbi organized a trip to Israel. Her public school had few Jewish students, so her parents made sure she had a strong sense of Jewish identity. “I appreciate that right now in this really scary moment when we have a white supremacist leader running our country,” she said. 

“So many people are suffering and in pain. I think it’s important that people laugh when they can to take their mind off quarantine. I’m trying to marry both in this show, acknowledge the situation, but the funny things about it.” — Jena Friedman

Social justice and hunger issues are particularly important to her, and she ends each “Joy of Quarantine” episode with a message of support for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. “I very rarely make comedy that my mom enjoys, but this is something she liked,” Friedman said, unsure at this point if there will be additional installments. She made the initial four with her friend Bella Monticelli directing and serving as sound and lighting designer and Epstein tasting and providing encouragement and musical accompaniment.

“He’s been a really good sport. He’s a very cool and supportive partner,” Friedman said. “I think the funniest part about quarantine is people cohabitating and trying to figure it out, especially when you’re both touring artists and all of a sudden you’re stuck together. We’ve hit a groove now but there was a point where we were exhausted and stressed out, and that was captured in the show.”

She has tried performing via Zoom, “but it’s a different form of comedy. It’s not really my thing,” she said. “Part of what I really love about stand-up is that interaction, feeding off of the audience’s energy. I’ve always been writing and directing my own stuff and that’s still going on but I think it’s going to be really hard for the next two years.”

As for cooking, Friedman won’t be competing on “Top Chef” any time soon. “I fully stopped when the oven broke,” she said. “At first I was cooking all the time but now I’m taking a break. Josh is cooking less high-maintenance food [like] fruits and vegetables. And we’re ordering in a lot.”

Watch “The Joy of Quarantine” here.

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