Comedy Central had something of a banner year in 2013, seeing multiple new shows immediately succeed and become staples in the cable channel’s lineup. Nathan For You, Kroll Show, @midnight, and Inside Amy Schumer were all critically acclaimed, and found considerable audiences in a fairly short period of time. Most of those programs figure to be big part of Comedy Central’s plans for the foreseeable future (Kroll Show‘s next season will be its last). However, there was one fantastic show that premiered on Comedy Central that was canceled before it had a chance to thrive: The Jeselnik Offensive. Since today happens to be Anthony Jeselnik’s birthday (he’s 36), let’s look at why this show was so great, and why it was canceled far too soon.
Long before he began his short-lived Comedy Central series, Jeselnik was known as an extremely dark comic, often telling mercilessly cruel jokes. He did not disappoint on The Jeselnik Offensive, frequently doing bits that would make both audience members and viewers cringe. But what separated Jeselnik from other “edgy” comics was that he wasn’t simply being edgy for the sake of being edgy. There was always a definitive purpose to what he was doing.
Take the bit in which he did stand-up for a crowd full of cancer patients and exclusively told jokes about cancer. Those jokes earned huge laughs from the crowd, and he was beloved by the end of the bit. The purpose of the segment — along with bringing some smiles to a support group of cancer patients — was to demonstrate that no subject is too sensitive to joke about, and in fact, anything can be made funny if the right amount of care is taken. Whereas others would think having a comedian joke about cancer to a room full of people with cancer would be crossing the line, it’s easy to see that Jeselnik brightened the day of everyone who saw him perform.
A consistent theme throughout The Jeselnik Offensive‘s run was humor that, at first glance, appeared simple, but upon further analysis, revealed a deeper meaning. Take the “search and destroy” segment, in which audience members had to fill in the endings of racist Google results such as “black people smell like….” and “white people should not…” It might’ve seemed like stereotyping, but it forced people to confront their own preconceived notions of other races. The game essentially forced people to deal with the stereotypes that they’d internalized over the years. Rather than being cheap, obvious racial humor, it made a smart comment about the role stereotyping plays in our lives, while also being hilarious.
It would have been great if Comedy Central had given The Jeselnik Offensive a chance to build a solid audience. Instead, it was let go after just one year on the air, with the final episode airing in August 2013. Of course, in a different world, things might have gone differently for Jeselnik. In a July 2013 episode of Bill Simmons’ podcast The B.S. Report, Jeselnik revealed that before agreeing to do The Jeselnik Offensive, he had been in talks with Comedy Central to host a four-nights-a-week show with other comedians that would air after The Colbert Report. It’s not a huge stretch to think this is the show that eventually became @midnight, which has thrived for the past year with Chris Hardwick at the helm. Here’s that B.S. Report episode — the entire thing is worth a listen.
It’s interesting to think of what could have been. Would Jeselnik be a star right now if he had taken the @midnight job, or would the show not have worked as well with him as the host? While Jeselnik is often hilarious, his ultra-dark deadpan tone isn’t exactly the type of thing that leads to huge ratings. Hardwick’s ultra-happy persona might just be a better fit for a show that requires someone with a reasonable amount of pep as the host. Jeselnik’s decision to turn down the @midnight gig was probably the right call, even though he’s currently left without a show of his own.
The Jeselnik Offensive could have evolved into one of Comedy Central’s flagship shows, but it wasn’t given a fair chance to develop. Jeselnik is still one of the best comedians on the standup circuit, and hopefully the follow up to his excellent 2013 special Caligula will be arriving soon. Still, I’d love to see Jeselnik get another crack at hosting a TV series. His no-sunshine-whatsoever personality might not draw huge ratings, but he’s the type of darkly brilliant comic that could easily build a cult following. Hopefully, some network will take a chance and bring Anthony Jeselnik back to the screen where he belongs.