Anthony Jeselnik’s ‘Thoughts and Prayers’

Anthony Jeselnik is so much more than “unapologetically offensive.” He is sympathetically offensive. Few comedians understand the power and importance of playing the villain, and many members of the general public fail to understand its purpose and its value. Jeselnik has received a lot of flak over the years as a result of his consistently edgy comedic persona, but few clichés have so bothered him as “All my thoughts and prayers are with you,” which is why Jeselnik has titled his upcoming Netflix special Thoughts and Prayers (coming out on October 16th).

If you’d like some idea of his offenses to date, you can listen to his first album Shakespeare (2010), his second album/Comedy Central special Caligula (2013), or watch clips from his two-season Comedy Central show The Jeselnik Offensive. His ability to intelligently offend came through most impressively during his participation in the Comedy Central Roasts of Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen, and Roseanne Barr. Most recently in his role as host of Last Comic Standing, Jeselnik put that talent to good use by defending the young comics from the sometimes harsh critiques of the judges.

I had the opportunity to chat with Jeselnik over the phone about how his jokes and persona have evolved, what purpose he believes being offensive serves, and beauty of being the bad guy.

Is this the same special that was originally slated for last year?

Yeah, I had to delay. It was a negotiating thing; it was all boring stuff but yeah. Instead of recording it Austin, I did it in San Francisco. Just had to wait a few months, but it’s the same material, maybe a few new jokes there would have been if I’d done it on schedule but otherwise same special.

You already had Caligula, which you produced with Comedy Central; were there any differences in how you felt producing it with Netflix as opposed to Comedy Central?

I don’t think there was any difference in working with Comedy Central versus Netflix, because they kinda just let you do whatever you want. With Netflix it’s a little more involved because they give you the money and say you need to take care of everything else whereas Comedy Central says, “We’ll take care of it, here’s what you’re making.”

That’s a little different, but I think in terms of the acts, I think my act has evolved. This is my third hour of comedy that I’ve put out. I think people expect dark one liners from me, and [in this special] I think I’m a little more vulnerable, maybe talking about things that upset me and bother me. I used to never do that.

You have a persona on stage that is, sort of, responsible for the darker jokes. That said, is this vulnerability and the things that “upset and bother you” coming from the real you or from the persona?

They’re kind of one in the same at that point. The persona is pretty unflappable, but nothing really upsets him. Like, he’ll get pissed, but he’s kind of already pissed. Whereas this is more about things that happened to me… a lot of it is talking about the things that kind of went wrong with Comedy Central, things that went wrong with The Jeselnik Defense and trouble that I got into. Things that pissed me off.

Do you think that this is a reaction to people becoming familiar with your joke style? Is this is a new direction you’re going in?

Yeah, but not on purpose. I think it’s just the natural evolution of the act. It’s not like I sit down and say, “Okay, I need to talk about my life now.” It’s just by doing these jokes, I kind of get bored. The audience is waiting for the punchline, they’re waiting for some punchline and it’s my goal to, even when they think they know what’s coming, to make sure they don’t. Now, even that is getting a little stale, where if I can tell a longer story, I can hide the punchline in that story. I want to be just as surprising and shocking, but I need to find new ways to do it, otherwise it’s just the same thing over and over again.

Why Thoughts and Prayers?

I named it after I had put the special together. One of the things that upsets me the most about the culture at large is the reaction to the horrible things. It’s very obligatory. When something terrible happens people get on social media and they all say the exact same thing. They all say, “All my thoughts and prayers are with you.” It drives me crazy because it doesn’t actually mean anything. You can’t even be bothered to write something original, you just say that as if you’ve just got to check off that box. I’ve gotten in trouble for a couple of things, tweeting, and it’s as if, if I’d just said “Thoughts and prayers are with you,” then it would have been okay. I can’t stand that phrase. So I had to lead with it.

What are people even hoping to gain from that sort of thing?

I think that people think that being offended means something, whether it matters in any way, when it does not. Being offended is like being a little bit annoyed: you are going to get over it. I think with social media, as I became more popular and more known, you just had more people getting offended or being annoyed by a TV appearance and that just drove me crazy. Why would I ever care? You should want art to bother you. You should want comedy to upset you. You should want that, and most people don’t.

What’s the worst reaction you’ve ever gotten to a joke?

The worst reaction I can get for a joke, personally, is silence. If I tell a joke and the crowd is like, “No, no you did not just say that,” then that’s just as good as a laugh. I like getting a little bit of both. I remember one time I was in Houston, and a guy just stood up in the back and he just started screaming at me. He was like, “I don’t agree with you.” He kept screaming, “I don’t agree with what you’re saying, I don’t agree with this.”

I was like, “Of course! You should not be agreeing with it. You should not agree with me, I should not be your hero, but you should be entertained by this.” You should be able to divorce yourself from the reality of it and say okay this guy is putting on a show. Things like that are my favorite, when people just miss the boat entirely.

What is it about laughter at tragic events that you think is particularly beneficial?

I think it can help because when horrible things happen, and I understand you need to take some time, but when you can actually laugh at it, it’s a very visceral sign that it’s going to be okay. No matter how terrible something is, if you can find a way to laugh at it, then things are going to be all right. I think that the laughs you get when you know you shouldn’t be laughing, but you have to, I think that is the most human of laughs. “I’m not supposed to laugh at this, and I don’t want to, I’m almost ashamed of myself.” You kind of forgive yourself in that moment. I just love that form of laughter.

Do you ever get the feeling like people are laughing for the wrong reasons?

Sometimes. Occasionally there are, I’m going to look at my fans. There’s an outskirt of fans that just want dead baby jokes, just want the meanest thing, and they’ll enjoy it. That’s not my sweet spot. I don’t mind having a couple of those, it gives them a curve ball, but I know there are certain jokes that I have where I want the crowd to be upset, especially with the setup of the joke. I have a joke about transgender people. For the joke to work people have to be uncomfortable when I even mention the thought of making a joke about a transgender person. But there’s always one or two people who are clapping and they’re like “Do it, do it!” and I don’t want that reaction. That annoys me. But only just for the sake of it makes the joke work. I don’t hate those people.

What’s the best outcome you’ve ever had from telling a joke?

I love when it’s kind of silent at first and people start to get it and you get this low grumbling and then more and more people who start to get it and then they’re really losing it. Then they’re laughing at the fact that you didn’t get it at first, and then they start to clap. It’ll be like a minute long thing, but if you watch the audience you can watch it take over. I love that. It’s like dropping a virus in a petri dish and watching it spread.

This might be an odd way to ask this question, but in certain video games you are allowed to follow plot points that lead to you being an evil character. A lot of people joke about how, even in a video game, they feel guilty choosing to do the “wrong” thing. What’s your take on that?

I think it’s fun to play the bad guy. It’s fun to play that way when you know the rest of the story; you know there’s a hero out there. You know it’s a video game, you know you’re playing around. Maybe I play video games differently where I don’t get that invested. I compare it to a horror movie, where people walk in, and they go in there to get scared. You don’t go in there to back up your own morals. You want to see people get murdered and killed, but you know that it’s fake, if you enjoy it.

People who get too scared at horror movies I don’t understand, because you know it’s a movie. I understand that everyone’s an actor and that someone had to write this down, and they filmed it and no one got arrested after it. A lot people look at comedy and they don’t get that. They don’t see it the same way.

This past season of Last Comic Standing, you kind of had the same mentality as when you’re at a Roast, where you had a sort of loving antagonism with the judges. You sort of used to defend the comics from time to time. Do you think that your experience with Roasts helped you with hosting Last Comic Standing?

I think that my experiences in life helped me with Last Comic Standing. I didn’t go in thinking of it as a Roast, that’s how I play, that’s how I’m funny. That was the only thing that interested me about Last Comic Standing: going up and messing with the judges when they were critical of people… especially Norm. They would say, “Anthony, can you tone that down?” and I would say no, it’s not in me. I’m standing up there, and if I can think of an insult, I have to say it. If I don’t then it becomes painful and I have to get out of there.

In your interview with The A.V. Club, they referred to you as “misanthropic,” which I didn’t feel was totally accurate. Would you say your persona’s “misanthropic?”

I don’t think it’s the best word to use, but I don’t have a problem with it. I understand why people would see it that way. I forget who the author was, but someone asked him “What is wrong with the world?” and he said, “I am.” I think that kind of fits my persona as well. I’m complaining about the wrong of the world, but I’m what’s wrong with the world. I can see that being a sort of misanthropic way to play things.

You’ve said elsewhere that you wanted to be a novelist when you were younger, and that you got into comedy and then that became the life you pursued. Is that totally out of the question for you now? Do you think maybe further down the road you’d still try to write “the great American novel?”

I think I’ve given up on trying to be a great novelist, but I could see myself writing a novel one day. I always tell people, and I’m approached with book offers from time to time, I always say, if I broke my leg and I was out for eight months, maybe I’d work on a novel. Right now, the way my career is, I really enjoy what I’m able to do now, being able to write something down and then go on stage and tell people that, as opposed to making them read it. As long as I can do that, I can kinda have to strike while the iron’s hot. Maybe in the next 20 years or you know if something’s changed, career-wise, and I just have time. Then I can see myself going back to writing a novel.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

Anthony Jeselnik’s ‘Thoughts and Prayers’