I'm not surprised to learn Anthony Jeselnik is a fan of Bret Easton Ellis, that he was drawn to the tone of American Psycho as well as the fact that the book was banned. The comedian has cultivated an arrogant dick persona, which helps his steely delivery of one-liners about death, murder and disease land more easily. He elicits both laughter and furrowed brow.
His new Comedy Central show, The Jeselnik Offensive, takes the same approach, but in a late-night talk show format, with an opening monologue and panel of comedians riffing on the news. Jeselnik wrote for both Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, but he often felt he had no place for his edgier jokes, so he pitched the idea of his own show to Comedy Central a few years ago.
"And they said, 'We've got [Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert, we don't want that,'" Jeselnik explains from Los Angeles, where he was shaping up the show's schedule before heading to Texas for a couple weekend gigs. "A couple years went by, I did the [Comedy Central] roasts, and they said, 'What kind of show would you want to do?' I said, 'Same show.'"
His first show featured a "sacred cow" segment, where he did stand-up for cancer patients, and asked a doctor hard-hitting questions, like: "What's the best thing about being an oncologist? Always meeting new people?" The show just got picked up for a second season, which will hopefully allow Jeselnik to loosen up and fine-tune his material a bit. We talked to him about faking confidence, getting the "second smile" and being the bad guy onstage.
You did stand-up for cancer patients. You had a segment about bullying. How do you shape a skit like that, so you don't alienate your subjects? Sometimes we'll alienate them in the video. I try to talk to them beforehand, let them know we're being funny, but that we're on their side. And that makes them more comfortable.
Last month, a #firejeselnik hashtag was created in response to a Boston Marathon joke you made. What did you think of that mob mentality, and did you have to defend your tweet? I had to delete it. I can't speak against the hive mind of Twitter. It's a crowd. I didn't hit send on that tweet and and think, "Where's my applause?" I thought the joke was defensible, but I think people got mad more because I was a celebrity, not a comedian. People know who I am now. I tweeted about Aurora, no one cared.
So deleting the Tweet was Comedy Central's choice? Absolutely.
When you're sifting through news to make fun of, what are you looking for? The interesting news. The crazy stuff. They like the pop culture news, but I like some weird story where a guy got his head chopped off by a tractor.
Are people more easily upset these days? I don't think people are more upset, they just have more of a voice. They're only a offended for a few minutes, an hour, a day, and then it's the next thing. People forget, but it makes them feel better to put it in all caps, or make something trend to get you fired.
Has "arrogant dick" always been your comedy persona, or did you grow into it? I faked confidence until I was confident. I was deadpan and nervous when I started out, and I noticed that if you're more arrogant than nervous, the crowd went with it. I explored the bad guy on stage.
You've referenced SNL writer Michael O'Donoghue and what he called the "second smile," making them laugh and slitting their throat. Is that what you go for? Yeah, I think so. That shock. The biggest laugh is the laugh at a funeral, when someone says something inappropriate, and someone gets it. When you nail that, it's the biggest laugh you can get.
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You've done a few celebrity roasts now. What makes for a great insult? Something no one's ever said, but everyone knows about. If you have to explain, it's over. One of the best roast jokes is one Whitney [Cummings] wrote about Joan Rivers, where she said, "I loved you in The Wrestler."
Have you always known when you've crossed a line, or is there a component of trial and error? I never think of it like that. I'm always crossing someone's line. I've failed; that happens a few times, but you just move on. I would be bored if I never failed.
What makes you laugh, outside of watching comedy, in everyday life? Seeing a child fall down in the park, stuff like that. Seeing a kid fall over in the park is not as funny as seeing a grown man falling over. People with too much confidence. People embarrassing themselves.
Anthony Jeselnik performs at House of Blues on Thursday, May 30, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15 to $25.