When the second season of his Comedy Central show, The Jeselnik Offensive premieres on Tuesday, Anthony Jeselnik will be coming out swinging.
“We’re really going after the Aaron Hernandez thing, the football player murder,” he says. “We’re talking about DOMA. We’re talking about a wrestler who got sodomized with a pencil by his teammates. The classics.”
“Oh,” he adds. “We’re also doing a long bit about necrophilia, so that’ll be fun.”
Jeselnik, 34, worked his way from opening stand-up shows to a Comedy Central special. He was hired to write for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, then got a job with Comedy Central roasts, for which he soon became a performer.
The Jeselnik Offensive, which airs at 10:30 pm, is a mix of topical stand-up, debate segments with fellow comedians, and field pieces, all of which highlight Jeselnik’s acid tongue and unrelenting commitment to telling the jokes he wants to tell. The show’s ratings grew steadily throughout its first season, up to nearly 1.4 million in the middle of a run that began in February.
Jeselnik has made a point of not apologizing for his jokes — including one about the Boston Marathon bombings that set off a Twitter firestorm.
“I’m a comedian. It’s not my job to say my thoughts and prayers go out to people. That’s beyond useless to people,” he tells BuzzFeed. “I think when people do that, that’s lame, because you’re just inserting yourself into a tragedy, you’re saying look, I’m going to make this about me. I’m going to make a joke. I wasn’t surprised by the reaction, but I also didn’t care. If you make an offensive joke or make a joke about something offensive, you have to be willing to take that criticism… I understand that I upset them, but I don’t care.”
Below, Jeselnik talks about his show and stand-up strategies:
Do you ever want to just be super inoffensive and innocent, just to fuck with people?
Anthony Jeselnik: It occurs to me sometimes, but I’m always fascinated by dark things. I’m not up there trying to be offensive, I’m fascinated by death and these awful things that happen in the world every 60 seconds but people don’t want to hear about them. I don’t understand that. Back in the day nobody wanted to hear about sex. So when comedians talked about sex, it was this really controversial thing. We’re kind of the ones to get to them to do that. Everyone dies, everyone has something awful to them or someone they know, so it’s a shared experience that I want to talk about, and I have to have jokes because I’m a comedian.
Some people say a joke is not offensive if it’s funny.
AJ: I think everyone has their own line [of what is considered funny versus offensive]. People are like, “Is there a line?” Everyone has their own and I don’t care about them. I don’t care about your line. And if someone gets offended, it always makes me laugh, because if you’re offended by something, no matter how offended you are, you’re only offended for a little bit. You eventually get on with your life and forget about it. I’m not hurting anyone by offending them.
Unlike many comedians, you don’t do a lot of tweeting.
AJ: No, I used to. If I think of a funny joke, I want to use it in my act and I want to use it on my TV show. I don’t really care about Twitter. I used to make jokes whenever someone would die. I would make a joke about it. People would be like, “Oh, rest in peace Sherman Hemsley.” I’m like, who cares, let’s make a joke about that. But now that’s kind of become a thing on Twitter and I’ve kind of fallen out of it. I’ll make a joke and see someone made the same joke later on, and I’m like, “This is dumb, I have a TV show I can make jokes on.”
I read that New York Times article last year about Jerry Seinfeld and how he so painstakingly crafts each of his jokes, down to every little word and syllable. Are you like that, or do you like to let it flow a little bit?
AJ: Oh yeah, I always compare my jokes to making a clock. It either works perfectly or it doesn’t work at all. Sometimes I have the joke and I’ll have the idea and I can kind of see how it’ll be worded to keep the surprise there and how to say it, but I’m always trying to fine tune it and cut out words. I would compare myself very much to Jerry Seinfeld in terms of structure of jokes and just really caring about the words. It’s not like I go up there and start talking; all these jokes are perfectly worded and a lot of it is just kind of instant. I just kind of know; it’s like, you couldn’t explain to me the rules of grammar, but when you write and read it, you understand them.
This show is a quick turnaround, so how much do you pay attention to each joke for the show? It’s not like an hour-long stand-up set.
AJ: It’s harder because it’s almost like I’m doing a whole new stand-up set every week. It’s jokes that have just been written in the past few days, so it’s a little bit different of having to read off the teleprompter as opposed to having it memorized. And being a host versus being a comedian are two totally different thing, which it took me a lot of the first season to learn. If i tell a joke on stage and the crowd laughs for a minute, I stand there for a minute and enjoy them laughing before I go on to the next joke. On TV, if I stand there for a minute while they laugh, I look like an idiot who can’t remember the next joke. I have to keep it moving for the people at home. You’ve got to tighten things up, and it’s tough to do once you’re used to being a stand-up.
Aziz Ansari seems to be targeting his jokes, trying out his jokes in front of different audiences. Do you ever do that?
AJ: I love that the does that, it’s a way to grow as a performer, but I have my act that I take everywhere. I almost think of it as an rated R movie. If you see my movie at noon, it’s the same movie you’re going to see at midnight. So I like getting in situations where the crowd should not like me. Music festivals say hey, we want you to do a show at noon, I say wow, I want to see what that will be like for me. It’s not as great as a show that will be on at night, but I want to see how a crowd will react to me.
It’s like, “Oh, you want to do a stand-up for a group of Mormons?” Yes, I want to see what that’s like. “The Amish want to have you come out.” Yes, I want to do stand-up for a bunch of Amish. Even though it might be a disaster. Disasters are funny to me. As a comedian you learn from failure, so I’m always trying to put myself in a situation that does not seem ideal for my comedy and see how it works.
What kind of disasters have you had?
AJ: I remember last year on Mother’s Day, I was in Columbus and I had to do a show and it was the worst. It was people who brought their moms, they got discount tickets, and I was the last person you’d ever want to see on Mother’s Day and it was just a slog through hell. Every joke they were just like, “No! Oh no!” Like every one. And I was like, of course, you should not be here on Mother’s Day, it’s the worst thing you could have done.
You worked on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and I know you didn’t find that experience super great. What happened?
AJ: I thought, and this was me being naive, I thought they wanted me, like “We’ve got to have Anthony’s jokes on the show,” but they just wanted me to be a joke writer and write stuff for Jimmy. And that doesn’t interest me. I’m not a comedy writer, I’m a comedian, so I only write stuff that I would want to say. And sometimes I write for someone like Sarah Silverman who loves that kind of stuff, but with Jimmy, he was like no, I can’t say this. Everyone knew I was funny but the jokes weren’t working out. I didn’t care enough to try and tailor my jokes for him. I was like, here’s more stuff I could say, and it just didn’t work out. They liked me and I don’t think I would have been fired, but I was happy to leave after a year just to pursue my own stuff. But it was a great experience, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
Were there any of those jokes that you did get on air?
AJ: There was this one I remember because I was so happy it got on. It was such a weird joke. It wasn’t that funny, it was just a weird joke. And afterward they have a meeting that Jimmy should never tell a joke like that again. It was like in April sometime, and Shakespeare was born on the same day he died on, like 50 years later.
So Jimmy comes out and says “Guys, this is a great day. On this day in 1564 Shakespeare was born. And on this day in 1616, Shakespeare died. Now I don’t care what anybody says, that guy was a great writer.” And the audience just stared at him. It made it on the show that night, they didn’t cut it out, but the next day they were like, “He should not be doing fucking weirdo dumb jokes like that.”