In the trailer for his fourth hour-long special, Fire in the Maternity Ward, Anthony Jeselnik tells just a single joke that draws one laugh break at the end. Most of what you see is the buildup, the tension leading into a punch line that if you’re familiar with Jeselnik’s work, you know is going to be aimed toward trying to make you laugh at situations that aren’t supposed to be funny. In the case of the trailer, a widower with Alzheimer’s getting to rejoice at his wife’s death, courtesy of Jeselnik, who in turn gets to rejoice in delivering the news to him every day.
In the special, which premieres on Netflix today, Jeselnik delivers exactly what you’d expect: patiently performed dark jokes told by the comedian who has built his reputation around finding levity in any situation. But just as important as the content is the element of surprise, which for him becomes a higher hurdle to cross with every passing year. He can no longer pull the rug out from his audiences without them already knowing that they were never safe on the rug to begin with, so how does he still maintain an element of surprise? That’s what drives him to keep writing punch lines that are so unpredictable he can still surprise people with any single joke you could pull from his set.
When you started to find the voice and style you’re known for today, it must have been quite a different feeling to deliver your jokes to a crowd who had no idea what to expect compared to now, when you have a Netflix special and most of the audience is eagerly awaiting the dark punch line. Can you describe that difference between an audience earlier in your career versus today?
I really enjoyed the beginning when I was a total surprise, when no one even realized a comedian could do what I was doing and was not expecting it. That was always really fun because people were kind of blown away that somebody’s talking like this. And now I’ve lost that element of surprise. It’s like going to see a random movie and it turns out to be a horror movie; it takes you a while to figure out what you’re watching and then you’re like, Okay, this is a horror film. Now people know exactly what they’re coming to see.
It’s almost like I’m a magician and [they’re thinking], How is he gonna get out of this? He just chained himself upside down in a water tank — how’s he gonna get out? The expectations are higher. It’s just as fun because it’s more difficult when people know who I am, but I’ve noticed people coming to see me are more inclined to follow me down the path, whereas before I had to lure them along. I think it’s a little easier because they know my reputation, but more difficult because I’ve set the bar so high and I need to clear it. People are trying to guess my punch lines, and they have more of a history of punch lines to go to, so I have to make every joke better.
Something you do in this special and in previous work is comment on the joke and the reaction to it afterward, “I don’t know if you guys know what a false premise is” and “Two jokes for the price of one” being examples in Fire in the Maternity Ward. Where are those moments borne from?
I almost just see it as a tag to the joke itself. The confidence that I portray onstage is funny, it’s part of the show, and if the crowd really reacts to the joke, a big laugh, it’s just a fun way to say, “You guys got it; you’re in this with me.” And it kind of puts them on my side a little more. It puts me in the audience and commenting almost the way that Jim Gaffigan would do with his disembodied voice sort of thing. I think it’s fun to say really confident things after a joke really kills or does worse than I thought it would. It’s fun to chastise the audience.
Do you think about specials from a career perspective, like, “This would be a good time to have an hour like this” to add something to your body of work like people you grew up admiring? Or is it just whatever happens during the time you’re putting a special together?
I really have my eyes on my own paper. I’m only thinking about getting the best out of myself. I don’t feel like I’m competing with anyone, and a lot of my idols — Mitch Hedberg, Rodney Dangerfield, Steven Wright — only put out a couple of albums each. Comedy is so different now that people don’t put out specials the same way, and you can’t really compare yourself to your idols of the past. There’s no one today that I compare myself to in terms of output. As a one-liner guy or a guy who tells a lot of short jokes, my process is different than most comedians, and I just want each special to be better than the one before it.
Is there a comic or person that you sit around and discuss jokes with?
There’s not a lot of guys that share the same philosophy of comedy that I have. You would think that I would be friends with guys that tell dark jokes. I’m not. My favorite comics are John Mulaney, Nate Bargatze — guys who are completely different than me. So we can sit down and talk about comedy, but we don’t really talk about the philosophy or run jokes by each other. Those two guys I consider singular performers. You can’t really learn much from them — what they do is what they do. I appreciate being friends with people like that and kind of learn what I can from them, but it’s not applicable. I hung out with Chris Rock for a month and there’s only so much you can learn from Chris Rock because he’s such a genius.
One comic who I think you draw apt comparison to is Norm Macdonald, especially in seeming like you don’t care if an audience doesn’t like a joke. You worked with him for a short time on Last Comic Standing. What was that relationship like?
Honestly with Norm and I, it took us a while to figure it out. It was kind of these two alpha males who had similar takes on comedy, going back and forth, that it took us a while to figure out how to talk to each other. I would make a joke to him, but it would be a mean joke and he wouldn’t understand what I was doing. We didn’t really talk shop like that. Norm is more disconnected than I am, I think. I really want a joke to get a big laugh. I don’t think it’s funny to tell a bad joke the way that Norm did. I loved when Norm would do it, but it hurts me if the audience doesn’t laugh, whereas Norm seems to take that in stride. That’s the difference: I may act like I don’t care, but I care very much.
You’ve said in the past that the Last Comic Standing job was nice because you didn’t care about it, in the sense that if they fired you, it wouldn’t be a big deal and you’d move on to the next thing. Do you still take jobs like that?
I took that job because I finished my last special, Thoughts and Prayers, and I knew I’d take some time to make the next special even better. Last Comic Standing was nine days of work and then you were done forever. I thought this would be fun, but I did care about it. I didn’t think it was going to be something people would talk about first when they talk about my comedy career, but I wanted it to be great, and when I saw the edit, what they had taken out of my performance, I was pretty upset. So I don’t think I would ever do something like that again. But I am working on a television show right now, an interview show that I want to be easy in a way. I want to make it gritty. I don’t want to have to memorize a thousand jokes. I want to be riffing and talking with my friends in a more naturalistic way that I think has been missing from my television career in the past. I don’t want it to be easy; I just want it to be simple. If you keep something simple then you can make it great. If it’s too complex you’re at the mercy of so many different things, but if you keep it simple, then you can find genius there.
One way that your stand-up is unique is that so much of it involves fictional situations and fictional characters. The character might be your mom or your dad or you, but the audience assumes you did not really kill someone or have AIDS because it’s a comedy show. This would presumably set up well, then, for a TV show about awful people doing awful things. Have you spent much time working toward writing fiction?
I tried it once and hated it. I gave the money back and said no thanks. I’m not interested in story line or characters or giving each character their due, I’m just interested in jokes. I’m really just focused on my character and the jokes that character tells. I don’t see a sitcom in my future unless someone else wrote it and said, “I have the perfect part for you.” I don’t want to create that. My interests lie elsewhere.
You’ve said before that you’ll write three jokes every morning, then put them away and come back later and see if you’ve got something to keep working with. Is that still your process, and how many jokes in an hour-long special will have started this way?
In the beginning, when I have nothing, I’ll try to write three jokes a day and then I’ll put them away until I have maybe 30 jokes, and I’ll go through them to see what’s good and what’s not. Every joke seems good when you write it, but you look back at it later and go, No, that wasn’t that good. Now my process has changed a little bit. If you watch Fire in the Maternity Ward, there are a couple bits in there — like the murder-suicide bit or the dropping-a-baby bit or the abortion bit — where I started with a kernel and just kept talking about it onstage and adding jokes to it each night until it became a full-fledged story that’s become more interesting to me. I’ve written so many jokes now that writing three jokes a day — what am I writing jokes about? How many jokes can I tell about these topics that I’ve already covered? Now it’s more fun for me to try and find the kernel of a story that might be difficult for people to hear and fill that with jokes. That’s been more my process on this new hour: finding a story and adding to it and adding to it until it’s ready.
What do you know about stand-up today that you didn’t know when you made Thoughts and Prayers a few years ago?
Comedy has changed so much with political correctness that people can’t get away with the same things they could before, except for me. That’s what I’ve learned — that I’ve somehow been grandfathered in, that I get to do all the things that other comics can’t do anymore. I think part of it is that I don’t complain about comedy. I’m never, “Oh, I can’t make this joke; I’m not allowed to do that joke!” I just find a way to make a joke anyway. I always say John Wick doesn’t complain about how many guys he’s gotta fight; he just goes in and kills everybody. I think because of that I get a pass, and it’s a great place to be in today’s current comedy atmosphere.
You’ve referenced Saturday Night Live as an influence before. Was that something you ever strove for, and would being a part of it in the future — getting to host, for example — be of interest to you? Or did it just sort of help kick you off into comedy?
I think it just helped kick me off. I think it’s a much different show now than it was when I was growing up. I know everyone says that, but I really do feel like it’s a different show today. Not just because of the show itself, but because of what’s around it. It used to be the one comedy show every week that you were like, “Let’s see what their take is on all these news events.” Now there’s a show every night doing that.
I would have loved earlier on in my career to have written for SNL, and my dream job for a lot of years was hosting “Weekend Update.” Actually a couple of years ago when Michael Che got the job, I got to audition to do “Weekend Update.” That was a career highlight, just getting to sit behind the desk and read my jokes to Lorne Michaels and people auditioning, and it went great. They went in a different direction, and I thought that said more about the show than it says about me. I was happy that I got to cross it off the bucket list, and I think that at this point in my career, SNL is not an option. I like the show, but I don’t see myself ever being a part of that tradition.
How did you prepare that “Weekend Update” audition?
It was basically me by myself against Colin Jost with like eight different people. They gave us jokes, so these are jokes that were written, but the more jokes you can bring in of your own the better off it’ll be because they’ve seen all these jokes. My advantage was that most of my jokes were my own, so I think that’s why I did so well in the audition; that was a surprise. I had a couple of weeks to write the jokes and put it together and just be as prepared as I could: Wear the suit and tie, sit behind the desk, and not be nervous. When you’re performing to an audience of a thousand people it’s nerve-racking. When you’re performing to an audience of eight and one of them is Lorne Michaels, that’s even more nerve-racking. The fact that I got through that without panicking and was able to smile and laugh and make them laugh was huge to me. I didn’t get the job, but I felt the audition went so well that I have no ill will, and it’s a great memory for me that I got to do it.
I like to ask people about something they’re really into besides comedy, and you’re an avid book collector and reader. What’s something you’re reading now that you’d recommend, and what would be a book that you think all aspiring comedians should read?
Best comedy book is a tough one because I don’t really read much comedy. I mostly read nonfiction or drama. I would say the best comedy book would be a book called Daily Rituals. He put together a bunch of different interviews with people throughout history about how they spent their day. Would they wake up in the morning and work all day? Would they go out with friends? What did they do? It’s one of the most inspirational books I’ve ever read about the kind of work you put in to be a great artist or a good artist. Everybody wants to be lazy and have it be easy. That book was very inspirational for me.
Right now, people are so surprised when I say this, but I’ve been getting into the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante. The My Brilliant Friend series of books. I’m halfway through the series and I’m just obsessed with them. Nothing to do with comedy, and I think people would be surprised that I even read them. It’s about two girls and their friends throughout their lifetime, but I’m obsessed with them. I love them.