Anthony Jeselnik Is Not an Asshole

With 2010 over and done with, Anthony Jeselnik has a lot to be cocky about. He finished up a stint as a writer for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, returned to perform on the show as its very first stand-up, and then released his debut comedy album in September. On Shakespeare, which is as arrogantly absurd as its title suggests, Jeselnik relentlessly dishes out meticulously constructed one-liners so darkly intelligent and subversively funny that Punchline Magazine voted it the best comedy album of the year and most everyone else agreed. And yet all the recent success and accolades haven’t gone to the comedian’s head. Anyone that’s ever seen him on stage knows that he’s been about as brashly confident as humanly possible for a long, long time.

Upon seeing Jeselnik perform one quickly discovers a staggering synergy of content and attitude. That’s a polite way of saying that most of the jokes he utters edge toward the despicable and he’s just way too arrogant to give a damn. You can almost feel his audience cringe while it laughs, a little reluctant to give the guy any more encouragement but yet unable to help itself.

But Jeselnik’s swaggering bravado on stage is actually very far away from being just the marriage of an ego run amok and a stubborn lack of propriety. The truth behind his persona is much more interesting than that. It is, in fact, a deliberate creation that was designed both to reach audiences in unexpected ways as well as to give a young performer a jolt of personal momentum in a profession filled with failure and self-doubt. It’s also just a hell of a lot of fun, too.

Recently I caught up with Anthony Jeselnik to talk about the perception of his persona, the way it came into being, and how he pulls it off.

For people who may be unfamiliar with you, how would you describe your on-stage persona?

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.

Are you ever letting the audience in on the fact that you’re playing a character on stage and that this jerk isn’t really you?

Totally. Any time I break — if I smile or laugh. That sort of lets the audience know that it’s a kind of a joke. I try not to do that. If you do it on purpose it’s kind of weak. But sometimes I’ll say something so ridiculous and the audience will react in such a crazy way that I can’t help but start laughing. Because I can’t believe they’re laughing at what I just said.

But there are definitely people out there that think you are this person, right?

Absolutely. It always amazes me that people think it’s legit. But I guess a lot of stand-up comics are themselves so audiences assume that I’m like that. Some people will come up to me after the show and say, “I can’t believe you said those things and acted like that.” I’m a comedian. I’m there to literally make people laugh.

What was your act like when you first started out? How did you evolve into this very precise and arrogant guy that you are on stage now? Was it a gradual transition or were there any specific “aha” moments?

There were definitely “aha” moments. I started out by taking a comedy class in Los Angeles. I didn’t know how to do standup comedy. I didn’t know to just go to an open mic and try something. And I didn’t know what I would say. I took this class and by the end of it you would have seven minutes of material that you’d been work-shopping in there. So I had this set where I was talking about myself. But I thought as a twenty-four year-old I was pretty boring. Who gives a shit what I have to say? Then I saw someone at an open mic doing one-liners. And I thought, “That’s what I want to do.”

The funniest thing in the world to me was Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey. Instead of thinking up stories and stuff like that I would rather think of a million jokes and do the best ones. So I started taking Jack Handey books and reading them and writing my own jokes. Kind of absurd jokes. And then one night I was at an open mic and I did this joke for the first time, one about my girlfriend being addicted to chocolate. And there’s such a mean twist to it. And the audience reaction was like “ohhhhhh!” It was more than a laugh. It was what [the original head writer for Saturday Night Live] Michael O’Donoghue talks about as the “second smile.” Where the audience is laughing but then you cut their throats at the same time. It’s so sharp that they don’t know what the fuck to do. I thought, “That’s it. It’s got to have this mean twist to it.” And then my persona formed around that. I started thinking, “Who do I have to be to pull this off?”

Does the “second smile” only work with controversial and mean material? Or can you be a very soul-baring, personal guy and do it?

I think anyone can do it. I think it’s just about the surprise and the revelation. It can be personal or it could be a story. Anything that’s going to suck someone in and then cut their legs out. I don’t think it necessarily has to do with one-liners or non-personal jokes.

Do shorter jokes and one-liners lend themselves better to meanness more than longer ones?

I don’t think so. There are plenty of very mean comedians. I think it’s far meaner to make a joke about Paula Abdul than anything that I do. Everything that I say is made up. There’s no girlfriend who I’m actually putting this to. It’s just wordplay. People just fill in the blanks with their imagination and think it’s the fucking meanest thing you can say. And it’s just twenty-five words in a row.

Was part of the fun when you were starting out the fact that no human being on earth, let alone an unestablished comedian, should be so sure of himself and it just shocked people?

I don’t know how shocking it was that I was so sure of myself. I was annoyed when I first started out as a comedian. It’s not a fun process. I just kind of wanted to be ten years in already. I thought what if I go up on stage and no one knows who I am or how long I’ve been doing this? What if I just pretend that I’ve been doing this forever and pretend that I’m some sort of comic genius who you’re so lucky to see? And if you just act that way, then people don’t know. The more I kind of went with that, the more people responded. And I thought, “Wow, they’re letting me do this. I’m gonna’ see how far I can take it.”

Is there something inherently funny about arrogance? What about arrogance specifically in a performer?

A little bit. I think it’s more unusual than actually funny. Most people don’t do that. Most people are self-deprecating. I feel like it’s just different if you can pull it off. You have to really commit to it. If I start telling these jokes and people aren’t into it then I’ve got nowhere to go. I can’t apologize for anything. I’d rather just keep on going and get meaner. Sometimes it turns out great. Sometimes it’s a total disaster. But if I shrink away from it at all then they’ll think that I’m just putting them through this philosophical exercise and won’t want anything to do with it.

Some comedians will change up the pace of a set depending on how they feel the audience is responding to them. Since the timing and construction of your jokes are so precise is it harder for you to adjust like that?

Sometimes if they’re not reacting to jokes I can do crowd work to change up the pace of the show a little bit. My crowd work is mean but it’s also smart. I don’t just trash someone. I try to find some different joke to make or question to ask to get into it. Everyone loves crowd work. I slave over these jokes for years but sometimes they’d rather hear anything I say off the top of my head. If I’m doing a longer set I can explore that. But with a shorter set — ten or fifteen minutes — I sort of have to go rapid fire with my jokes and put my shoulder into them.

You have a joke where you tell people who are groaning “oooh” at something you just said instead of laughing that they’re pussies. It seems like it might have been an ad-lib. Did that line arise out of a real specific frustration with certain audience reactions?

It was totally frustration with the audience. Sometimes people think the things I say between my jokes are funnier. If there’s a good one then that’s great. If I’m doing a set and I feel in the zone and the audience isn’t reacting I’ll try things like that. But that one is perfect. Some jokes never get a good reaction — always — even though I know it’s a brilliant joke. So then I can say that. And even if they don’t laugh at the joke they’ll laugh at that. “Ooohing” drives me crazy. If I can shit on that I’m happy.

Which comedians influenced you as a joke writer and which ones influenced your persona?

Steven Wright was my favorite when I was a kid. The “how did he think of it” kind of thing really blew me away. More than anyone he was my absolute favorite. I liked Don Rickles a lot. And I liked Mitch Hedberg. When I discovered Hedberg I thought he was brilliant. But I didn’t think I could do that. It seemed impossible to even try. Those guys blew me away when I was younger. And now that I’ve gotten into comedy I like Andrew Dice Clay. I was never a huge fan of his, but now that I’ve gotten into it and kind of see more what he’s doing, he’s a huge influence. His album The Day the Laughter Died: Volume I is one of my favorite comedy albums ever.

Is it fair to say that you are testing the limits of an audience’s tolerance and seeing how much you can get away with? Whereas Andrew Dice Clay is deliberately crossing the line and trying to get people pissed at him?

Totally. That’s a whole other thing he’s doing. Even when he just did normal sets I heard he would go up and ask, “How long can I go without getting a laugh?” He would go twenty minutes without making anyone laugh when they’re paying like a hundred bucks to get in there. It was so incredibly ballsy and hilarious. I’m more trying to manipulate people into laughing at awful things and the idea of those things.

On The Day the Laughter Died, Andrew Dice Clay has this amazing and seemingly sincere line where he says: “This show’s not about laughter. It’s about comedy. You don’t have to laugh to enjoy it.” Can you explain that at all and does it apply to your own comedic philosophy?

That’s one of my favorite quotes from the whole album. I feel like comedy is the surprise. It’s taking people somewhere where they don’t necessarily want to go. People will laugh at things that aren’t necessarily comedy. And there are some comedians that do things that aren’t necessarily comedy. They’re almost like entertainers. But to be a real comedian you’ve got to have that edge. There’s got to be a rip. There are some comics that are amazing but if you go see them you know it’s almost going to be like a comfortable feeling with them. You’re sitting back and you’re entertained and they’re talking about things in your life. But with comedy people should be way more uncomfortable. And that’s the big difference: Something that no one’s comfortable hearing about — but you make them.

Does that mean you don’t feel the need to be constantly working toward getting a big laugh with every joke in your set?

In practice that means more that if I’m telling some jokes and people are laughing and then I tell one that doesn’t necessarily get that laugh I don’t crumble. I’ve got some jokes in my act that I know damn well aren’t gonna’ get a laugh. Or only the sickest guys or the biggest fans are gonna’ enjoy them. But I’m happy to tell them anyway. So it’s part of the bigger package. For a comic of my level I think I probably bomb more than most. Just because of the way it can go sometimes.

That surprises me because at the Whiplash show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater you always seem to do really well. You have a tradition at that show of performing a whole set of new material and even when a joke doesn’t work the audience still seems to respond to you. Does your persona not give you some padding in most situations?

Not at all. Whiplash is an amazing show where I can do that. It’s the only place where I can walk out on stage with a packet full of jokes and they’re happy to see someone trying out all these new jokes. And they’ll laugh at the ego of it. But I’ll walk out of Whiplash and think I have ten new jokes. I’ll take those ten jokes to the Comedy Cellar and find out I only have three new jokes. The crowds are so different. And I don’t want to be some niche comedian who has his fans, who a lot of people don’t like, and who some people don’t know who he is. I want everybody. So you kind of have to walk into the jaws of hell and make people pay attention. That’s always a struggle.

Building on the success of Shakespeare, what goals and projects do you have lined up for 2011 and the future?

I’ve got the Donald Trump Roast that will air on March 15th. I couldn’t be more excited. That’s a dream. I’ve always wanted to do that. Then I’ll pretty much be on tour and trying to turn over a new hour. I think I’ve got a new fifteen minutes maybe. But even the best joke I come up with is only thirty seconds long so it’s tough. I’m headlining and maybe trying to go into development at some point with a network. And I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.

Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.

Anthony Jeselnik Is Not an Asshole