Toward the end of my conversation with stand-up Anthony Jeselnik, the comedian admitted that he had previously “butted heads” with Comedy Central so much during the production of his previous series, The Jeselnik Offensive, that he “did an entire Netflix special about it.” Hence Thoughts and Prayers, the comic’s 2015 hour with the streaming giant, provided him with a platform to rale against the executives and standards and practices types at Comedy Central he once worked with.
Since then, Jeselnik has released a second Netflix special, Fire in the Maternity Ward, a move that — considering the streamer’s prominence in the stand-up world at the moment — wasn’t all that surprising. What is surprising, though, is the fact that the 40-year-old performer best known for crafting incredibly concise and inflammatory jokes about politically incorrect topics has gone back to work with the very network that canceled his previous series and gave him so much trouble.
Yes, Comedy Central signed Jeselnik to a multiplatform development deal late last year that, among other things, would go on to support his podcast, The Jeselnik and Rosenthal Vanity Project, and a stand-up-centric talk show that ultimately became Good Talk. This week, the first of the new series’ six episodes (featuring Big Mouth‘s Nick Kroll) will debut at 11 p.m. ET/PT. And while it is very much an artists-interviewing-artists program in the same vein as Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and the like, Jeselnik’s version is by no means playing by the format’s rules. It means to break them.
I couldn’t help but notice that, at the beginning of each episode, the camera pans over a small bust of Shakespeare. Was that an intentional reference to your first comedy album?
A little bit, yeah. I had a Shakespeare bust at my house that my sister had given years ago, to commemorate the album, and I’ve been trying to get rid of it ever since. So I was like, “Let’s do this.” I wanted a mixture of pretentious and absurd. I thought having a Shakespeare bust on top of leather-bound copies of Chelsea Handler’s Uganda Be Kidding Me and Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man would be really funny. But when we pan out at the end of the episode, it’s a bust of my face atop these classic works of literature.
When the show that became Good Talk was first announced with your Comedy Central deal last year, the press release mentioned you all would be digging through Comedy Central’s catalogs and talking to comedians about comedy. How did that concept evolve between then and the tapings?
The show really evolved. The original pitch was a clip show. I like those old Comedy Central shows that were simply a host rolling through one-minute clips of different comedians. As we kept going, we were like, “That’s not that interesting. What about bringing a comic on to talk about what they like, clip wise?” Then it became, “Why not just have one comic on, and instead of talking about clips, let’s just talk about what I would want to talk to them about?” So we almost abandoned the clips entirely. It was a pain to get the rights to them, too. It was just more fun and interesting talking to my friends.
Though you still include some clips. Sometimes they’re relevant to the guest, and sometimes it’s just a bunch of clips that happen to be about certain kinds of jokes. That, or they all include comedians doing the same thing — like taking the mic out of the mic stand. Were these bits something you specifically set out to do? Or, was it more random?
To be honest, we didn’t really have access to that many clips. You would think that Comedy Central would have this whole clip library, but they don’t really own all of it. Originally, we wanted to throw people under the bus. There are things that certain comedians do, or things that every comedian does, that make me think, “I can’t believe you do that!” So we decided to showcase those things, like how many people end their sets by saying, “That’s my time.” Or, how many people end on just a callback, which is a lazy thing that comics do.
But we ultimately got away from most of that. It wasn’t really working for us, so we just decided to find all of these absurd ways to include these clips we’d already tried to get. It went from “How do we want to do this?” to “What can we do? What’s entertaining? How long do we want to sit with it?” Some of the bits we ended up doing don’t make any goddamn sense, but we thought it was amusing at the time. But, seriously, the original intent was to throw people under the bus and the network was like, “We want to work with these people. Please, don’t do that.”
I want to return to the network in a second, but I’m intrigued by this show philosophy. At the same time that you’re having these great comics on to talk about the ins and outs of comedy, to celebrate comedy, you’re poking fun at it. Was that intentional?
A little bit. Yeah. I mean, all the people who are on the show are great comedians. At least, I think they’re great comedians, or else I wouldn’t have them on. It would be a tough interview otherwise. I wanted to have people on who were as good as me, if not better. It just adds a different dynamic to the interview process.
One of the reasons I got into comedy is, there’s a moment…if you ever see a live stand-up comedy show, where one comic introduces the other, they’re usually crossing each other as they go off. One goes off stage and one goes on. They shake hands and usually whisper something to each other, but the audience doesn’t get to hear what they’re saying. They don’t know what’s going on at all. And as an audience member, I desperately wanted to know what they were talking about. It’s one of the main reasons I got into comedy. So I thought, “What if they would just show everyone what that was?” I talk about this specifically with Natasha Leggero in her episode of Good Talk, about what comics talk about right before they go onstage. It’s not really a podcast vibe. It’s older than that. It’s more like, “We’re about to do a show. Until then, we’re just hanging out and talking about comedy and joking around.”
What’s so different about two comics discussing these things, as opposed to someone like me — a journalist and critic — asking a comedian about them?
There’s insider knowledge, insider experience. The questions just come off differently because of it. There’s just a different vibe to a comic asking another comic about their worst bomb versus a journalist doing it. There’s a different expectation in question about the answer. There’s a different understanding of the answer that’s given.
Fair point. At the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that you and your writers were poking fun at the idea that Good Talk is an interview show. It’s little things and moments, like short jokes or asides, that stand out. Like when you ask Nick Kroll about something, and before he has a chance to answer, you bust out the “Who Cares?” siren. So, yes, you’re having these “inside baseball” conversations, but you’re also lampooning them.
It totally makes sense. Yeah, I can’t take anything that seriously. We started with the concept of making this an interview show, but then I decided that I was going to break out of that. I would just be like, “No, I want to say this. I should be saying this one thing instead of that.” My instinct is to make it a joke and take it in different directions. So, we started with the structure of an interview show and thought, “What if we got sick of it and wanted to play around with the format instead?” It then becomes a game of “what if?” One of the most enjoyable parts of making the show was that aspect of it. Like, “What if Charlie Rose got sick of doing the show and went insane?” That was our blueprint.
Good Talk sports a killer writer’s room. Raj Desai, Megan Gailey, Patrick Keane, Jacqueline Novak and Mo Welch all worked on this. What was that dynamic like?
In the beginning, we didn’t have a pilot. There was no pilot for the show. They just wanted us to do six episodes, so we really had to create it from scratch. To do that, I brought two writers on at first. We didn’t audition anyone. I knew the people I wanted to work with and I brought them on. One was Raj, who’s an old roommate of mine and used to tour with me. He wrote for Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America and some other shows. I also brought on Megan. She’s a wonderful comedian and she helped me and Raj create the show.
We just kept asking ourselves questions and trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Many of the show’s cornerstones came from the first couple of weeks we worked on it, then I brought on Jacqueline, Patrick, and Mo toward the end. The show evolved as we started taping it. Lots of things kept changing because we didn’t have the pilot experience and the foundation that comes with it, and that’s exactly how we wanted it to be. We didn’t know how many questions we would need, or not need, or what else we might use for bits here and there. We did some tapings with so many extras that they lasted an hour and a half, and a lot of it just didn’t work at all. And we planned on that because I think there’s no reward without any risk.
Wow, an hour and a half of material for a half-hour program? That’s like an extreme version of what a lot of comics end up doing with their stand-up special tapings.
That’s possible. I mean, I never do that. I tape my hour to the hour. My jokes are so short that, to do an hour and a half and throw away half an hour of it just seems insanely wasteful. But I know other comics who do that. I’ve just always almost done it to time.
In many of these episodes, you joke about how you originally wanted to call the show something else, like The Jeselnik Inquisition. In one specific instance that I remember, you admit you didn’t come up with or pick the Good Talk title. Combined with all the other jokes about butting heads with the network, and your previous history with Comedy Central, I was wondering how much of that was “just jokes” and how much was based on reality?
It’s 100 percent based on reality, I’m happy to say. I don’t think the network would even mind my saying that. It’s so goddamn hard to name a TV show, because so many titles have been taken. Even Good Talk was me just throwing up my hands in the air and being like, “Okay, fine, we’ll do Good Talk with Anthony Jeselnik!” It’s generic, but legally we got it through. David Spade and I talked about this in his episode, when we discussed his show Lights Out with David Spade. He said they had a hundred different options before they came to that.
I wanted something a little more unique and fun, but Good Talk is just so generic that I thought, “Yes, it works.” The title has to tell you what the show is and I was like, “But no other shows do that! Game of Thrones doesn’t tell you what Game of Thrones is about. Why are we doing this?” So, I just threw my hands up and gave it to them, and then I tried to mention it in every single episode. And I’m sure that, if we get a second season, I will keep on doing it then. It’s like with The Jeselnik Offensive. I was always talking about doing panels all the time because the network kept telling us, “We want more panel. Let’s do more panel.” I just got sick of hearing the word, so I incorporated that into the show itself. But yeah, every time I mention the title, I’m totally making fun of the network.
You’ve made no bones about the fact that you often butt heads with the network. But it’s happened so often, like in your Jeselnik Offensive example, that when I saw you doing it again in Good Talk, I wasn’t sure if there had actually been more “butting heads” or if you were just poking fun at your notoriety.
Absolutely both. Though the only time we butted heads at all, and “butted heads” is strong term for it, was when we were discussing the title. We just kept going back and forth for such a long time that I thought it was so ridiculous. I designed this show so that I wouldn’t be butting heads with Comedy Central anymore. I’d butted heads with them so much on The Jeselnik Offensive that I did an entire Netflix special about it. If I’m coming back to the network, if I’m going back to TV, then I don’t want to fight with execs anymore. I don’t want to fight with standards and practices again. I want to just be able to do the show that I want. I want to make it fun for me and the guest. Hopefully, that fun translates to the viewers.
‘Good Talk with Anthony Jeselnik’ premieres Friday, September 6th at 11 p.m. ET/PT on Comedy Central.