Anthony Jeselnik, Louis CK, and the Shifting Definition of “Offensive” Comedy
Just as the news broke on Monday that sociopathic dreamboat Anthony Jeselnik’s Comedy Central show The Jeselnik Offensive was canceled (to no small amount of glee from certain New Zealanders), Huffington Post Live released a video interview with Artie Lange, where the recently sober comic addresses his past use of the word “faggot” and other offensive slurs. “Times have changed, comedy has changed,” Lange says. “We live in a more enlightened time where you should think twice before you speak, because we’re talking about people.” While Lange was only referring to himself, it was a very timely comment for Jeselnik, who has built a career out of manufacturing public outrage. But this ultimately begs the question: was Jeselnik canceled for being too much of a button pusher? Or, perhaps more importantly, should he really be considered offensive if he’s doing it on purpose?
Halloween is the perfect time of year to take the pulse of moral outrage in society. Julianne Hough was moved to tweet a public apology after the outrage surrounding her black-face “Crazy Eyes” costume from Orange Is The New Black. Similarly, a 22-year-old from Michigan has been receiving threats of rape and torture after proudly posting a pic of her “Boston Marathon” costume on Twitter. While both of these are considered “too far” in the eyes of the public, the two are wildly different in their intent: One was based on ignorance, the other on provocation.
You could really never accuse Anthony Jeselnik of ignorance. If he ever dropped a joke that was offensive, and he was previously unaware that it could be taken that way, his only apology would be that he wished he’d have known so he could’ve spruced it up for added outrage. In the same way that W. Kamau Bell has built a career on being offended, Jeselnik’s entire shtick (down to his every standup joke) is constructed around impertinence. So, if anything, expressing your outrage toward him makes you culpable in the joke — because without your anger, the motive falls flat.
I spend a lot of time in comedy clubs, and whenever I see a self-righteous audience member storm through the crowd, ready to give the comedian what-for after his/her set, they phrase their “let me tell you why you were offensive” line with a tone that suggests they believe the comedian is unaware of how off-color the jokes were. When the grievance is for something like the word “faggot”, I almost understand — because typically the kind of person who would casually employ that slur is ignorant of its meaning or impact. But if a comedian cracks wise about 9/11, Sandy Hook, or Matthew Shepherd, I’m always baffled by the backlash. What’s the point?
It’s for people like this that Jeselnik exists. In twenty-first century comedy, audiences are loaded to the gills with those who are just so damn eager to express their disapproval, that they leap at the opportunity to call foul. This creates a tension that appeals to comics like Jeselnik, who can use the fever to hook and release the rest of the comedy fans that don’t manufacture their politics.
Lange is right when he says that we’re living in a more enlightened time. Most of us can tell the difference between a comic who uses outrage deliberately, and those who are offensive out of ignorance or blind hatred. Though even in the face of this societal evolution, the reason so few have come to Jeselnik’s defense over the last year is because, if you strip away the acrid concept of his jokes, there really isn’t much left.
On the surface, there’s probably no living comedian more offensive than Louis CK. I mean, honestly, how much lower can you get than laughing about sodomizing a dead child in a field? Yet rarely do people attack CK with the same level of vitriol that they do comedians like Jeselnik or Daniel Tosh. “Of course, slavery is the worst thing that ever happened,” Louis CK said in his recent special Oh My God, defending the most universally loathed human institution. “But every incredible achievement in human history was done with slaves. … There’s no end to what you can do when you don’t give a fuck about a particular people. That’s where human greatness comes from — fucking others over.”
Not only was there no NAACP backlash from this, but CK has gotten away with being offended himself by the n-word. “Not nigger,” he explains. “The n-word. Literally, whenever a white lady on CNN says ‘the n-word,’ that’s just white people getting away with saying nigger. When you say ‘the n-word’ I’m like ‘oh she means nigger.’ You’re making me say it! Why don’t you say it and take responsibility. Just say it, don’t hide behind the first letter like a faggot.”
Contrast this with Anthony Jeselnik receiving death threats for poking fun at the death of a New Zealander that nobody had ever heard of. With all of his irreverence toward obesity, terminal illness and rape, for some reason Jeselnik’s “Shark Party” bit last spring — when The Jeselnik Offensive was only four episodes in — remains to this day his prized pig for infamy.
Following the shark attack of filmmaker Adam Strange in New Zealand, Jeselnik commented on his show “was he killed? You bet your sweet ass he was. And he had a family and everything.” This was immediately followed by a troupe of dancing ladies in shark costumes bursting into a showtunes bit, with Jeselnik making a connection between the death of Strange, and the senseless killing of sharks for their fins, and how this human had it coming.
But if you’re going to pull out the heavy artillery and make a joke about a tragedy, you better be prepared to shoot at something. Jeselnik might have been considered a witty commentator if Strange were a controversial shark hunter, but he was an ocean-loving documentarian with no nefarious background in fin-hunting. This is why CK is so beloved, and seemingly few people mind that Jeselnik was canceled: if Louis is going to roll the dice on pissing off a few audience members, he’s at least going to give them something to think about while doing it.
By stimulating different parts of the brain other than the anger-generating amygdala, audience members are too preoccupied with insightful thought to be bothered with simple outrage. So Louis CK can lay out the idea that we should legalize pedophilia in order to save the lives of children and be celebrated as a genius; meanwhile Anthony Jeselnik tweets “There are some lines that just shouldn’t be crossed today. Especially the finish line,” the day after the Boston Bombing, and he badly damages his career.
Unlike Artie Lange’s previous use of the word “faggot,” neither of these comics are ignorant of how spicy their comedy is. And, for the most part, neither are their audiences. It’s not so much Jeselnik’s button-pushing that lead to the end to his Comedy Central show, it’s that his brand of comedy was reminiscent of a child who doesn’t care if he gets good or bad attention –- so no one cared when he fell and scraped his knee.
We still have the ability to be offended in the twenty-first century, but with so many entertainers campaigning for our vote of outrage, it becomes increasingly necessary that we pick our battles with who we get pissed off at. So there’s really no time for comedians whose solitary goal is to raise our blood-pressure and get us to call foul.
Josiah Hesse is an arts reporter based in Denver, Colorado. His writing has appeared on comedy blogs The Spit Take, Laughspin and Splitsider. He is a regular contributor to the Denver alt weekly, Westword, where his comedy news column, Funny Ha Ha, appears every Tuesday. Find him on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.