Anthony Jeselnik sounds like an asshole.
He jokes about, in his own words “all the awful things,” including rape, domestic violence, the Holocaust, the mentally retarded, cancer, and suicide. The ultimate sacred cow, children, are often referenced in horrific fashion: “Yesterday I accidentally hit a little kid with my car. It wasn’t serious. Nobody saw me.” On the other end of the spectrum is a joke about the elderly: “My grandfather turns 100 years old next month. Maybe.” Christians are sure to appreciate this joke: “Who do you think was smarter, Jesus or Buddha? I mean, just in terms of not letting themselves get crucified.” Often, he switches (or multiples) taboos in one joke: “I’ve got a long history of suicide in my family. The good news is it skips a generation. So if I’m lucky, my kids will do it.”
I love Anthony Jeselnik. Not because his jokes are “shocking” or “edgy” or whatever. Jeselnik’s reputation as a douchebag comic—like Daniel Tosh—is undeserved. Jeselnik
deserves a different rep: as a precise, talented joke writer who created a memorable, perfect character.
There are two keys to understanding Anthony Jeselnik: comedy legend Jack Handey and deceased wrestler Ravishing Rick Rude. Handey and Rude don’t have much in common—unless Handey can dance like a stripper or Rude wrote for Saturday Night Live—but their influence combined to inform one damn great comedian.
The Handey influence, which Jeselnik has mentioned in numerous interviews, can be seen in the precise, writerly nature of Jeselnik’s consistently surprising jokes. Many have a Handey-like brevity, as in this joke that starts out chivalrous and ends up anywhere but: “I would never hit a woman, even if she had a knife—or a stutter.” A strong candidate for Jeselnik’s Best Joke Ever starts off as the premise of a revenge movie: “I’ve spent the past two years looking for my ex-girlfriend’s killer. But no one will do it.” Jeselnik is an absolute master of leading you down the garden path and then whacking you in the crotch with a hoe, just like Handey does with his Deep Thoughts, New Yorker pieces, and loony novel The Stench of Honolulu. Jeselnik is one of the best one-liner comics ever—in the same class as Stephen Wright, Mitch Hedberg, and Sarah Silverman—and, like Handey and Jerry Seinfeld, he has a surgical precision with language. Every word counts. It should surprise no one that this wordplay-loving comic was an English major.
In a Splitsider interview—aptly titled “Anthony Jeselnik is Not an Asshole”—Jeselnik reveals a another key inspiration: “I’m very arrogant and mean. I’m almost like a bad guy professional wrestler. I always thought it was hilarious when Ravishing Rick Rude would come out into the ring and everyone would boo him. He’s at Madison Square Garden standing up and saying ‘New York City is the worst city in the world!’ and everyone’s just throwing things at him. To me that was so hilarious and I thought if you could push that and still be funny that would be the way to go.” Through this key inspiration, plus trial and error, Jeselnik created his own version of a wrestling villain, the kind of character who wears his douchebaggery on his popped collar in jokes like this: “My girlfriend makes me want to be a better person. So I can get a better girlfriend.”
In The Humor Code, Peter McGraw and Joel Warner identify benign violation as the key to humor. For something to be funny, it needs to find its sweet spot between “Noooo!” and “Everything’s cool.” Jeselnik hits that sweet spot in a unique way. He says things that are objectively horrible (with a high violation quotient) but he says them within clever jokes and a clearly artificial bad-guy persona (making everything OK). It’s damn brilliant.
My pick for Jeselnik’s Best Joke Ever plays with his persona in a way that’s characteristic and uncharacteristic at the same time: “I think my friend Jeff is gay. I don’t know. I’m so bad with names.”
Knowing his reputation for offensiveness, most listeners will cringe after hearing “I think my friend Jeff is gay.” I certainly did when I heard this joke about a year ago at The Vic in Chicago, where Jeselnik was filming his Caligula show. I was bracing myself for a punch line that might take homophobia to a new level.
“I don’t know,” creates a nice bridge, building anticipation and worry. Then the punch line is a shockingly non-shocking shocker: “I’m so bad with names.” Surprise! This joke has nothing to do with gay people at all: it’s about Jeselnik’s bad memory. Or, to be more accurate, it’s about language, because the joke hinges on the word think. We can say “I think he’s gay” and “I think his name is Jeff,” and Jeselnik makes the most of both meanings. Once again, he leads you down the garden path before smacking you in the head with a gnome.
Jokes like this show Jeselnik isn’t an offense machine: he’s a word magician. And he’s not a douchebag—he just plays one on TV.