Despite jokes about cancer, pedophilia, and a one-time “shark party,” comedian Anthony Jeselnik’s Comedy Central show The Jeselnik Offesnive was axed before a full year had passed. Sure, the show wasn’t doing all that great in the ratings, but it was Jeselnik’s material (and off-screen antics, like tweeting a Boston Marathon bombing joke the day it happened) that rubbed Comedy Central brass the wrong way. Yet the comic didn’t let any of this slow him down.
Having just finished his debut as the host of NBC’s Last Comic Standing (which he may or may not do again), Jeselnik is currently touring with the Oddball Festival and promoting Thoughts and Prayers, a new stand-up special that premieres today on Netflix. During our conversation, Jeselnik said work on Thoughts and Prayers began as soon as he’d finished his previous special, Caligula. Following The Jeselnik Offensive‘s cancellation, however, Jeselnik found himself wanting to break from his shocking one-liners and his onstage persona to discuss what happened — with jokes, of course.
I miss The Jeselnik Offensive.
Thank you. That’s always nice to hear. I think that show probably survived a little longer than anyone thought it would.
Do you miss running your own show, or are you over it?
I wouldn’t say that I’m over it, but it’s nice to take a break. It’s nice to be in control, but not be worried about every single thing that comes out of peoples’ mouths. I just kind of wander in and out. So I like doing both. A lot of actors will say, “I do one for them and one for me.” That’s kind of how I see things. I’m always working on my own projects, which is blood and sweat and tears. And then someone will say, “Hey, do you want to come and hang out?” Right now, I’m on this Oddball tour, where I’m doing 20 minutes a night as opposed to an hour, but I’m with a bunch of my friends. Would I rather be doing an hour? Yes. But I like that, for six to eight weeks, I’m only doing 20 minutes and I get to hang out with people. So, it’s a little of both.
T.J. Miller said the same thing about Oddball.
It’s great. You never feel like you’re letting anybody down, and the biggest part is getting to be with your friends. As you become friends with people in comedy, and you start to get more and more successful, you just stop seeing people. Everyone is on the road at the same time. They’re making movies at the same time. It’s only at comedy festivals where we really get to get together and hang out.
How long have you been working on the material for Thoughts and Prayers?
Pretty much since the day I finished Caligula, the last one. That’s when I started writing new jokes and switching things out. Then after The Jeselnik Offensive ended, I had these two longer bits that were about the show. About getting in trouble for the Boston Marathon tweet and the shark attack thing. I needed to get those out. For myself, I needed to put those down in the special. So for the next two years after that show ended, I just toured constantly. It was a sheer force of will finishing up this hour and getting it out in a relatively short amount of time.
You’re famous for dark jokes and the dark stage persona you use to tell them, but you step away from that for a bit in Thoughts and Prayers. You said you “needed” to do this, but was it difficult?
It was tough to make the transition because the audience doesn’t really know. They’re still waiting for a dark, twist at the end. I had to get it out on stage, and at this point in my career, I felt like I had the skills to approach this. It’s fun to do. It’s fun to switch it up. I love my one-liners, but an hour of them can get stale — even for me. But even the things that I’m talking about then are still jokes. I’m not talking about going to the post office. I’m like, “Here’s joke I told and what happened and why that’s bullshit.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love your dark one-liners, but I think the end of Thoughts and Prayers is the best part of the show.
Thank you. That’s so great to hear. I hope people will like it, but my biggest fear is they will tune that kind of stuff out. I never wanted to be understood as a comedian. I always thought there was something cool about that rock star mystique of playing a character: “Fuck you! You don’t get to know about me, but I’ll present these jokes and it will be very funny.” But as I’ve gotten older and done this more and more times, I kind of want to be understood. But the whole point is to be funny.
I also wondered if this was your attempt to do something a little different.
Yeah, a little bit of that. I have to evolve because people are just sitting there trying to guess my punchlines. The longer the jokes can be, the more I can hide them. So it’s part of that, but it’s also very organic. It’s not like I said, “I need to make this change right now.” I just keep on writing, and if my writing is going to evolve, this is where I’m going to. It’s a place where I feel pretty comfortable, so I think in the future, you’ll be seeing a lot more of that.
Considering how dark your humor is, you definitely seem to enjoy getting a reaction out of people. Is this a fair assessment?
It’s 100 percent accurate. If everyone laughs at a joke, I wonder if it’s too corny or cheesy. Some of my favorite jokes are the ones that get a huge laugh, but if it’s a joke where people just don’t know what to do… If people start talking to themselves after I tell a joke, I love it. I just did a show at Marshall University in West Virginia last week. It’s where they had that famous plane crash that took out the whole football team in the ’70s. During the show, I was talking to a girl in the front row who said she worked for the athletic department at Marshall. So I said, “What does that mean, do you plan funeral services?” People just started talking to each other for about a minute. Then there was some laughter. Then they applauded the boldness of it. That’s my favorite reaction. They’ll get to laugh eventually, I want them to laugh at it, but they just can’t believe that I said it. That’s my favorite.
Thoughts and Prayers has several moments like that, but it looks like you had to cut a few of them down for time.
There are a couple moments like that, yes. It’s hard to find the right audience reaction. You want the right person. Sometimes when I’m talking to someone in the crowd, it does not work when they know it’s a televised taping. People just shut down. When they know cameras are on them, and this might become a historical document, they really freeze up. We have to cut around that a lot.
Did you tape just one night in San Francisco, or several?
It was two shows in one night, but I think we pretty much used the second show. The second show is usually the better one. You’ve got one under your belt, you know the lay of the room a little bit more. We pretty much used the second show and sprinkled in edits from the first show when we needed them.
You tend to smile or grin whenever you already know what an audience’s reaction is going to be before they have time to react.
I get a huge kick out of that, but I’m not laughing at my own joke. I do not like it when people laugh at their own joke. Trust me, I am very proud of my jokes, but I am laughing at the crowd reaction. About what they’re about to do, because I know what’s about to happen. Especially if they get upset about a joke early on, I think, “Oh this next joke is really going to piss them off.” And then it’s almost impossible to keep it together.
Towards the beginning of Thoughts and Prayers, you emphasize how politically correct San Francisco is, but you probably toured in places where the material didn’t play as well.
I like it to be difficult. I would rather my special be a show where the audience is struggling, than one where they’re just so on board for everything. The major reason I chose San Francisco was over one joke that I had in the special about transgender people. I even set it up and said, “That’s the thing you cannot joke about right now.” And in some cities… If I’m in fucking Tampa, and I say you can’t joke about transgender people, they scream out, “Do it!” I hate that. I want them to be like, “Please don’t make this joke.” So I was wondering where I could go where it’s guaranteed that no one is going to start screaming “yes” when I say “transgender,” and I knew San Francisco would be the place.
If NBC decides to renew Last Comic Standing for a 10th season, are you coming back?
You know, I don’t know. I had fun doing it. When I’m up there looking miserable, I thought that was hilarious. But they took out so many amazing jokes and interactions between myself and Norm Macdonald. It just broke my heart. I understand why they had to do it in a lot of places, but my ego just made me think, “They’re going to make this show about me!” When they didn’t do that, I was pretty devastated, even though I should have known that. Hosting Last Comic was probably a mistake, but I don’t regret it. I had an interesting time, but when I watched it, I was furious.
Oh, please. It’s alright. I think if you watched it, you probably thought, “Oh, they’re cutting Anthony’s stuff.”
I did, and having seen your act before, it was easy to see that NBC was censoring a lot.
They would give me a script and there would be this really cheesy joke. So I would say, “I’m going to leave that in, but add a twist at the end.” Then they would say, “Okay great, Anthony. Go ahead and do that.” I’d think, “Oh perfect, they like this.” Then I realized they were just going to cut the twist. They’re taking a five-hour taping down to 42 minutes, so they have to cut a lot. I don’t think it was personal, but it was upsetting to see.
Thoughts and Prayers premieres Friday, Oct. 16 on Netflix. You can watch it here when it comes out. Until then, here’s a preview…