Talking to Anthony Jeselnik About ‘The Jeselnik Offensive,’ His Career Goals, and What Comedy Central Won’t Let Him Say
2013 has been a prolific year for comedy’s resident dark lord, Anthony Jeselnik, with the debut of his new show, The Jeselnik Offensive, and his new album, Caligula. Fresh off last week’s premiere of season two, I caught up with Anthony to find out what we can expect this season, if his mother is offended by his jokes, and if he was scared to make fun of cancer to actual cancer patients.
When you started out as a comic, was TV always your goal?
No, I originally wanted be a comic writer. I liked the idea of writing because you get to do it again every single week or every single night. If you make a mistake, you get to do it again and if you do well, you have to do it again. Something about that pressure, that appealed to me.
Who are some of your comedic influences?
One of my first comic influences, it’s funny it doesn’t show up at all, but Denis Leary was one of my favorite comics. I loved his No Cure For Cancer album. I love Steven Wright, I love Mitch Hedberg. I love those one-linery guys who would have these amazing jokes. They don’t really have to act out to get the audience’s attention. They just had great jokes. That’s what I gravitated towards, having jokes so good you can just kinda hang out.
What would you say was your “big break moment”?
I would say my big break was the Donald Trump roast. I had been doing things up until then, but I wasn’t famous by any means. Doing that roast was kind of my big coming out moment in comedy. People just knew who I was as a comic after that.
Was your dark style there from day one or was that something you grew into over time?
It evolved over time, it took maybe a year and a half, maybe two years. I started out telling stories and doing what most comics do, and I got sick of that. I really didn’t like doing it, and I didn’t feel unique. I wanted to feel unique and then I saw BJ Novak doing one-liners at a mic, and I thought, “Oh my god, you’re allowed to do that?” It just seemed like Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright were geniuses and I could never do that. But seeing someone at an open mic try out one-liners, I thought that’s all I want to do from here on out. So as I went down that path, and that evolved, the character of the cocky jerk kind of came out.
What did your parents think about your comedy when you first started?
They didn’t know what to think. My parents live in Pittsburgh and have no idea how the entertainment business works. They just knew I wasn’t making any money and what I was doing didn’t sound like I was doing anything. It sounded like what kids do when they’re trying to figure it out before they get a real job. They weren’t not supportive, but they weren’t supportive either, they just didn’t really understand how I was going to make money. It wasn’t until I got on Jimmy Fallon as a writer that they were totally on board. But before then, they couldn’t fathom what being a comedian was.
But what about your material? Was your mother ever outraged?
They were very cool about it because I’m never telling the truth on stage. They like it because it’s smart. The thing my parents get offended by is blue comedy. If anyone’s talking about sex, they’re uncomfortable, like “Ugh, don’t do that.” But they’re very happy, they’d rather me be telling awful jokes that are made up then telling real stories about my family like a lot of comics seem to like to do.
Congrats on the premiere of season two, what can we expect for this season?
Thanks. I think just bigger and better than the first season. The format is very similar, but I’m just a better host now. I’ve got 11, 12 episodes under my belt, so I’m more comfortable doing this job. I think a lot of the things I learned from season one are now coming into play. And also we just know what the show is now. Season one we were figuring it out up until the day of the episode every single week and we shot a lot of stuff that we wouldn’t realize until later on wasn’t right for the show. But now we kind of know what our goal is, so I think this season will be even better because of that.
Who are you most looking forward to having on this season?
I don’t have a bad guest list. I think every week is pretty solid. Joan Rivers and Dave Attell are going to be unbelievable. The two of them, they’re both idols of mine, on the show at the same time is just going to be incredible. I’m also really looking forward to having Pete Holmes and Marc Maron on at the same time. They have a real tension with each other. And when I thought of the idea to have them on the show together, I thought, ‘This is going to be great television.’
If you could have anyone, who would be your dream guest to have on panel?
If I could have anyone, I would love to get Sarah Silverman. I love Sarah; she’s one of my absolute favorites. I never give her enough credit for inspiring me, and I would love to have her on the show. Some people just don’t really ever want to do a panel show so I don’t know if we can ever get her, but she would be someone I would love to have on. We’re friends and everything; it’s just tough to get someone to fit a panel show into their schedule.
I know nothing is off limits with you, but have you ever felt guilty about someone’s reaction to a joke?
No, I honestly never have. I’ve seen people get upset, but it’s usually not the person that the joke is targeting. It’s someone that knows somebody and wants to get offended anyway. Like if there’s a guy in a wheelchair in the front row, I’ll make fun of him for five minutes and he fucking loves it, and the person next to him might get upset. But if the guy I’m making fun of is having a blast, then who cares? I’ve never felt bad about someone’s reaction to a joke. If they’re mad, it’s their problem.
Has a crowd ever gone sour on you or has an angry person ever tried to come up to you after a show?
Oh certainly, especially in the beginning when I was still green and people thought they could tell me what to do. They’d be like [old grandpa voice], “You know you think you’re funny, but when you tell some of those jokes, it’s not going to go well for you.” And I would just kind of nod my head and say, “You wait”. Now, it never happens. I don’t think I’m very approachable offstage. When people see me on stage, I don’t give off that vibe, so I think I avoid a lot of stuff that way.
Were you scared to do the cancer bit in front of the cancer patients? I was nervous for you.
I wasn’t actually, but it was kind of lucky for me because I didn’t realize that we were getting actual cancer patients until they walked in the room. We were talking about if we were getting actors or real people. The producers said they had talked with a cancer support group that was willing to do it. It was a little awkward at first, sure. You’re doing standup for like eight people in the middle of the day, but as soon as the people saw what I was doing, they got on board. Once they realize, ‘Hey, he’s trying to make us laugh,’ then it gets fun. But it’s always uncomfortable in the beginning.
It seems like you’ve had great freedom in terms of content. Has there been anything that Comedy Central has said “no way” too?
Oh yeah. They’ve given me almost total freedom. The only time they’ve ever said you can’t do anything was right after the Boston Marathon. No Viacom show could mention it, not even make fun of it, just mention it or bring it up, and that was our last episode. I was kind of annoyed about it because that’s what the show is for and so we did a bit called “Top Three Things We’re Not Allowed to Talk About” and that was kind of our way of getting around that. Now on this season, I make Boston jokes every chance I get.
How has it been trying to balance standup and making your TV show?
The two kind of feed each other a little bit. During the first season, I wasn’t able to do much standup at all. But when it ended, I went on an eight-week tour. They kind of coexist with each other. Because of the show, it’s kind of changed my standup a little bit, but not in a bad way. Now I get to go out and instead of playing six shows at club all weekend, I’m doing one show at a 1,000-seat theater. So now when I’m on the road, I’m loving it.
Is getting your own show the ultimate goal, or is there anything left on your list to accomplish?
You know it’s funny, my list was pretty naïve when I started out. If you would have told me, “Anthony, one day, you’ll put out a comedy album,” I would have been like, “Oh my God, I’ve made it. That’s my ultimate dream.” But I’ve already achieved everything I ever wanted to do. Now, the only reason I’m doing a TV show is because I wrote for Jimmy Fallon, and that was my main goal. If I had gotten the Jimmy Fallon job two years into comedy, I probably would have quit standup and I would still just be a writer today. But because it took longer, everything was a lot more formed, and I thought, ‘Well, what would my show look like?’ It wasn’t like a goal of mine. It’s just something awesome that I get to do. It’s a dream to have a show with complete creative control. But after this, I can just kind of do whatever’s fun for me. I will probably tour, maybe I’ll do some movies, maybe I’ll do a sitcom, I have no idea. It’s just going to be whatever is fun.
Blair Socci is a writer and standup comedian living in New York City.
Photo credit: Robyn Von Swank