Talking to Anthony Jeselnik About His Upcoming Comedy Central Show, Roasts, and Leaving ‘Fallon’
Comedy Central must have a ton of confidence in Anthony Jeselnik, because the network has given him a new show with a premiere date and everything without even knowing what it’s going to be. Jeselnik and his creative time are still trying to figure that out.
But the confidence Comedy Central has in him doesn’t come close to matching the confidence the 33-year-old comic has in himself. He just exudes it on stage. A lot of it is couched behind the asshole character he performs as who thrives on the audience’s uneasiness with his abortion jokes, basically daring them not to laugh. But he possesses a genuine self-assurance as well. It’s almost like he was expecting to be given a series and wondered why it took so long. That’s not say he’s arrogant — he’s gracious and easy to talk to — he’s just well-aware of his abilities.
I recently sat down with Jeselnik to talk about his new album, Caligula, his frustrations as a writer at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and his role as go-to guy for the Comedy Central Roasts.
What’s the word on the new album?
It’s going to be a special and an album. I actually prefer the album as a format. I think the album is a more pure form of comedy. Doing a special is the only time I actually think about my appearance on stage. With a special, I’m like “Okay, I’m wearing a fucking sport coat for the first time in my life.” But it turned out great. I did a couple shows at the Vic Theater in Chicago. They were awesome. We’ve been editing it to have three different versions. I did an edited version for Comedy Central, I did this hour version for the DVD, and I’ll edit one for the CD. Those will be out in January.
For a guy like you who does one-liners, that’s gotta be tough to come up with enough new material to fill an hour. How many jokes are you throwing away to come up with that hour?
I write a fucking ton. In June I shot a special and afterward I decided all I’m going to do is write new stuff now. I came home and I wrote about 50-60 jokes per week. I would take the best 25 and I would take them to a show and read those, and take the best of those, and put them together, and shrink those down. I think I wrote 250 jokes in the month of June.
Do you keep track of them like that? Are they categorized?
Kind of. I’ll have a goal. Something like, “Okay, I have to write 50 jokes this week.” And then at the end, when it all boiled down to what I have that I could put in my next act, I have eight jokes.
Yeah, which I’m happy to do. I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time. You’ve got to do the quantity to get to the quality.
Last time you were interviewed on Splitsider, you talked about how you’ll do a show at UCB and it will go over well and you’ll leave thinking you have 10 minutes of material. But then you’ll go over to the Comedy Cellar and you’ll leave thinking “Oh shit, I only have three minutes of new material.”
So who’s right in that sense? Is one audience a better judge of material? Or is it not a matter of right and wrong?
Well, it’s like they’re enjoying it for different reasons. I’ll do a show at UCB, and it’s a free show and they’re excited because they know who I am and I’m doing all new stuff so they’re excited to see it. So they’re right, they’re enjoying it. But then people who paid 20 bucks and a two-drink minimum, they’re right too for not responding as strongly to something that might be a goofy observation and not necessarily a joke. It’s funny, to do one, you kind of have to put it through the filter of the other. And I like that. I like thinking a joke is great, and then being like “Oh, it’s not.” It keeps you working. I’ve found that if it works at the Comedy Cellar, it will work anywhere.
So the club shows are your barometer for what you’ll keep?
Absolutely. It’s also weird, because if people come to see me do an hour, then they’re there to see me. So I can get away with some different stuff. If a joke appeals to me more than it would other people, people will laugh because they enjoy seeing what makes me laugh. Whereas if I do a set at the Cellar, I’m generally doing 15 minutes in the middle of a showcase where people aren’t necessarily there to see me and my fucking dead baby jokes. That’s a little different.
You’ve been doing comedy for 10 years, right?
10 years in October.
The saying is to get good at comedy, do it for 10 years.
That’s something Louis C.K. said. [Laughs.]
How are you better now than you were five years ago when you were already somewhat established?
The experience builds you up as you go. Putting together an album was a big deal. It took me two years to turn it over. The fact that It took me seven years to write the first 45 minutes, and 2 years to write the next hour says a lot to me about growing as a comic. You get more natural. The first 20 times you do stand-up, it’s so nerve-racking because that five minutes of stage time means so much to you. But the more you do it, you do it for 10 years, 20 years, an hour doesn’t mean anything to you. You’re way more relaxed. I think your brain processes things differently. I don’t think 10 years is some sort of magical number, but it’s a nice thing to hit. It makes me think, “Oh, what is 20 going to be like?” If you get there.
You’re going to do a TV show. Can you talk about it?
I can only tell you what I know about it. The process was Comedy Central asked me to do a show that would be on four nights at midnight, which I was thrilled to do. We did it, it was great. They were like, “We love it, we want to do it.” And then they were like, “Oh you know what? We don’t want to do anything at midnight. Reruns are good enough for us ratings-wise, but we want you to do a weekly show cause we like you so much.” But now I have to figure out what that show is. We got picked up. We have a premiere date, but we’re still kind of figuring out what exactly it’s going to be. I know what the show is going to be, but I don’t know how to describe it.
I’ll open with a monologue. That’s why I want to do a TV show. If I could do a TV show that was eight minutes long and I just came out and told jokes, I would be thrilled to do that. So we’ll open with a monologue, and then we’ll have a desk piece that will be almost a parody, a much darker parody of what Conan would do or anybody else would do. And then in the second part, I’d like to have the show take on sacred cows. I don’t know how we’re going to do that yet, but something just to say we’re going to talk about rape, we’re going to talk about abortion, we’re going to talk about these things that upset people and do our best to find different ways to make them funny.
Are you ready to be a TV star? Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem like a guy who flies beneath the radar a little bit. You don’t tweet a lot and you don’t seem to be a fixture on the podcast circuit. Are you the type that values your privacy, or are you ready to jump in?
I don’t think it’s going to change me that much. I mean look at Daniel Tosh. Daniel Tosh is on TV 30 times a year and he hasn’t changed his privacy in any way. I think I’ll be the same person that I am, but I’ll just have a bigger audience. It’ll be interesting to see the kinds of problems that brings. People don’t complain to me, they complain to my sponsors. My goal is to just keep my comedic integrity. I’m not going to soften anything, I’d rather get cancelled. My writers hate to hear that, but I’d rather be cancelled than have to soften what I do. I want to just take what I do and put it in a TV show. I think Comedy Central is the only place I can really do that.
Who are you doing the show with?
The four executive producers are myself, Tom Johnson, who’s a great writer. He was early Daily Show, Lopez Tonight. We met through the Roast of David Hasselhoff and just really hit it off. And after coming out of Fallon, I wanted people who were frustrated. People who had all these great ideas but you couldn’t do them on a show. He’s been great. Krysia Plonka is one of our EPs. She did Weekends at the DL, Mind of Mencia. She handles all the non-comedy stuff. My manager Christie Smith is an EP. She’s kind of like an extra vote. I’m like, “Guys, I think it should be this way,” and the other two are like “Oh, It should be this way.” I’m like, “Christy, tell them it’s my way.”
You always have someone in your corner.
You were on Fallon for what, a year?
Were there some frustrations there? Knowing your sense of humor and your jokes and what Fallon presents on TV, it’s hard to think how that would have worked.
It didn’t really. That was my dream job. I got into standup because I wanted that job. I wanted to write on a late night show, specifically one at 12:30 because you can get away with more. I wanted to work on a new one. Like when I heard about Louis C.K. starting (Late Night with Conan O’Brien), I thought that seems so frustrating and hard, but it seems really fun and you learn a lot. And that was the case with Fallon. I think the problem was that 12:30 late night is not a 12:30 show anymore. It’s a 24-hour show now, because everything is online the next day. And so much of it is being likable. He’s gotta be likable, he’s gotta seem smart in the monologue. And that’s not anything I’m concerned with. I would pitch these jokes, and they’d say, “Jimmy can’t say these.” He was right not to say them, but that’s what I wanted to do. So I stuck with it for a year, just because I didn’t want to quit, I didn’t want to bail. And they liked me, and they knew I was funny, but those pitch meetings were disastrous. Every time I would have an idea, they were like, “No, absolutely not.” But they understood why I wanted to leave. And they’ve been great to me since I left.
So your show is going to be all those jokes you were hoping to tell, unleashed?
Exactly. In the pilot I open with a joke I was trying to get them to do for months, but they wouldn’t do it. They would almost do it, and then pull back last second. I think it was something like “Researchers have found that the Pill might not be as effective for obese women. Doctors are telling those women, ‘Don’t worry about it.'”
He thought it was going to make obese women hate him. I go, “Who cares?” He goes, “I care.”
Yeah, I can’t see him telling a joke like that.
He’s funny, but he wants everyone to love him. There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever, and it’s working very well for him, but I could not care less. I’m like “Come on, bring the hate, I love it.” [Laughs.]
You’re the heel.
Beause from your point of view, comedy should make you uncomfortable, right?
It’s like a deeper laugh. It’s a more primal laugh. I introduce things like rape and abortion and racism and cancer just to amp up that tension, and then release it in the best way possible. If people complain, I like to say, “Listen, I’m a comedian, I help people, I just don’t help people like you.” And I don’t mind that. It’s good to laugh at the worst things in the world. [Laughs.]
Are you more yourself when you’re doing crowd work? Or are you still doing the asshole character you do onstage?
It’s the character, but I try to be smarter about my crowd work. I’m not just going to slam someone needlessly. I try to do something that’s a little bit smarter and I won’t attack the thing they think I’m going to attack. I wouldn’t call a fat girl fat. I would find some other way to do things. People are terrified when I do crowd work. They’re so scared that it makes it easy for me to be nice. Sometimes I’m doing crowd work just to set up the next joke. People think I’m going to be a monster in my crowd work and I’m not, but if someone is out of line, then I’m happy to change things.
Have you had many experiences with that?
Not a lot. It’s always some drunk idiot. Some drunk lady in the back who’s there with her work friends and doesn’t know how to act. At first I’ll kind of laugh along with it and then I’ve got to stop it. And now I’m getting to the point where I’m just like “Get the fuck out.” [Laughs.] “I don’t need this at all.”
Do you ever see yourself moving more towards personal comedy? Exposing more of who you are, or does that not interest you?
It doesn’t interest me. I don’t mind talking about myself. I feel like I’m an open book and not hiding anything. When I started doing stand-up, I talked about myself. I took a class and they told me to talk about myself, but I found it kind of boring. When I listen to someone talk about themselves on stage, I’m kind of bored. I want inventive, I want to be surprised. That’s all I want is to be surprised. When I watch a guy like Louie C.K, I’m like, “You’re at the top of your game, that’s amazing, you’re great at that,” but it doesn’t interest me. Louie interests me, but he does it in a surprising way. I don’t know, it’s possible that at some point I could talk about myself more, but I feel like it’s almost self-indulgent. Like if I’m talking about a funny story that happened to me at the airport, I feel like people just don’t really give a shit. Maybe cause it’s me and they expect jokes. But I’m fascinated by jokes. People are like, “It gets boring hearing one-liners over and over again.” I’m like, “Fine, get out. I don’t care.” I would be thrilled to hear someone do one-liners for an hour if they’re good at it.
So one-liners make you laugh?
I like jokes and anything that surprises me. Like Todd Glass, I’ve never laughed harder than I do watching Todd Glass. And he doesn’t do one-liners at all, but it’s so surprising and crazy. Like Ryan Hamilton, he’s a guy who talks about himself. I think Ryan Hamilton is amazing. I think he’s going to be a giant star. He’s one of those people where the more you watch him, the funnier it gets. You get into his rhythm and his world. It’s great. I don’t need everything to be edgy. It’s hard to get me to laugh at anything edgy because I do that.
Are you going to be doing the Roseanne Roast coming up?
Yeah. I’m getting ready for Roseanne, which is going to be interesting. They’re trying to class it up a little bit, and I’m fighting against that. It’s gotten harder and harder to book. People don’t want to go up there and take the kind of shit they’ve been taking unless they have to. Sheen had to. I don’t think you can go anywhere from Sheen. They’re trying to bring it down a little bit, and it doesn’t really interest me. I’ve got some jokes that are fucking hardcore, and I know it’s going to be a fight. I’m happy to burn it down and say, “I’m doing these. Don’t invite me back next year because this is bullshit.”
You’re gonna stand your ground?
I feel like I’m a nuclear bomb on those roasts, and I’m going to turn into a .22 pistol just so I can make people feel better? Cause the audience doesn’t give a shit.
No, it seems like the more offensive the better.
Exactly. So I’m gonna come in guns blazing and see what they cut out.
Have the Roasts done a lot for you?
Changed my life. Ticket sales, you name it. I went from doing shows where a couple people knew who I was to everyone, even if I didn’t sell out the show, everyone knew who I was and they were ready for it. And I talk about rape and all those other awful things on the Roast so no one could get mad. After the Roast airs, for like the next month, it’s amazing. Everywhere I go, sold out shows, standing ovations. People are just excited to see me. And you see it taper off. I love them, but if I can’t do what I want to do on them, then I’m not interested.
People say to be good at comedy, you have to be damaged, you have to have a fucked up childhood, you have to be a total nerd in high school, whatever. You don’t seem to be that guy.
Sure. People will say, “What happened to you?” I’m like, “Fuck you.” You don’t get to ask anybody else that question. I don’t feel damaged. When I was a kid I was always angry in school. I didn’t like being told what to do, and I felt like I was kind of being herded. My audience is like myself when I was 18 years old. When I was 18, I just wanted to be bad and tell people to go fuck themselves. I guess I’m just like an angry 18-year-old who’s adjusted a little better, but I don’t feel like there’s some sort of major trauma in my life that’s made me turn to comedy. I would be happy to be writing books if I thought I could make a living writing books. I don’t think I’m like most comics. I’m always on. I’m not very needy.
Your character is always brimming with confidence on stage. How do you adjust on nights when you’re just not feeling it?
I have to hold it. Because if I fold, then the whole tower is coming down. If I’m like, “You guys are bad, this sucks,” then everyone wants to know what happened. Some people’s favorite shows are ones I think are terrible shows, but they’re still enjoying themselves. Who knows how far someone drove to see me? I’ve got to stand there and deal with it. The only failure I can think if is when I fold. If I’m like, “You guys suck.” That to me is failure.
Phil Davidson is a copywriter (in reality) and a comedy writer (in his head).