There’s an idea in literary theory called negative capability, and it’s often described as a sense of confusion, the freedom to live in uncertainty. It’s the ability to express two absolutely conflicting truths at the same time without ever picking one as the winner. The two truths are opposite one another; they cannot both exist and both be facts. And yet somehow the work supports them both, refusing to let either idea be diminished in favor of the other.
Anthony Jeselnik’s new Netflix special Fire in the Maternity Ward lives in the world of negative capability, constantly and almost effortlessly supporting two perfectly opposite principles without ever picking a side. Jeselnik’s two conflicting truths are these: That he both is and is not a giant asshole.
This seems like a magic trick, but it’s the painstaking result of Jeselnik’s craft and his finely wrought joke structure. The shape of it tends to go like this: Jeselnik sets up some already uncomfortable or inane idea, a topic or premise pre-primed to feel like the setup for a lame joke: his blood type. Not liking kids. Suicide. A neighbor with Alzheimer’s. And then, unfailingly, he twists the original idea into something much, much worse than you were expecting. He solves the problem of his grandmother with dementia, for instance, by putting a bell around her neck. “Sounds inhumane,” he says, “but problem solved. I mean, that thing is really heavy.” His capacity to find the crueler, more depraved version of any scenario — in this case, not the inhumanity of treating his grandmother like an animal, but the wildly more outrageous, surrealist image of an elderly woman strapped to a massive, immovable bell — might be a signal of the dark state of Jeselnik’s mind. It’s also proof of his impressive imagination. It is no small feat to be that warped.
Often the surfaces of Jeselnik’s jokes are oriented outward. From a distant glance, it could look like he’s making fun of weakness. He has an extended riff on dropping babies. (“Holy shit, do people overreact,” he says, drily.) He returns more than once to the idea of racist jokes, making fun of religion, and cruelty to animals. But the subtext — and often the text — of those jokes is that he, himself, is a horrible person. The image is not of babies falling to the floor; it’s of Jeselnik nonchalantly dropping babies. And because his material is so spare, so free of any buffer between the punches, it’s like watching Jeselnik slice himself up over and over again, relentlessly. “I’ll never forget the first time I had sex. You know those stories about kids losing their virginity to the hot babysitter?” he asks. He pauses while the crowd chuckles a bit, his expression almost bored that he has to wait for them. “Yeah, I was the babysitter.”
And just in case you missed it — just in case you maybe mistook his joke about making fun of a deaf person as a joke about deaf people, for instance — Jeselnik sometimes doubles back, shifting briefly into a different register. “Now that is a fun joke for me,” he says, as a conspiratorial aside to the audience. “You think I’m about to make fun of Latinos, [but] instead I take a hard left. Smack the shit out of the deaf.” In case you missed it, he says, the joke is about me. The joke is that I am a terrible person. The joke is my own awfulness.
This is the negative capability at work. As soon as Jeselnik makes clear that he’s creating this persona on purpose, he betrays himself as a not-asshole by showing you that it’s a performance.
Jeselnik creates that balancing act very carefully with a rhythm that’s distinctly unlike the looser, more anecdote-shaped jokes of observational comics — the kinds of jokes and stories disguised as casual, offhanded epiphanies of the self. Jeselnik doesn’t spend any energy pretending that his set is a casual collection of funny bits he’s thrown together. His tempo and his structure are proudly, visibly deliberate. He is slow, delivering each line with the steady, unhurried pace of someone who knows that his own palpable pleasure or excitement would ruin the disguise and reveal his own humanity underneath his unimpeachable dirtbag mask.
But his pacing does two things at once. In his deliberate, almost bored cadences, he’s performing himself as a dick, and his special ability is to be far more dickish than you could ever be. Near the beginning of the special, he almost rolls his eyes at the audience for laughing hard at one of his lines, chiding them that this set will take forever if they continue at this rate. He’s such a dick that he resents his own crowd! Except that by letting each joke sit and insisting that no one can hurry from one line to the next without really thinking about it, he also forces the viewer to see it as a performance. You’re left for entire empty seconds, considering the line you’ve just heard as a line, as a thing that was created on purpose, as a gambit. If the jokes themselves are Jeselnik wearing the mask of the consummate asshole, the spaces he leaves between those lines are Jeselnik giving you just enough room to remember that it is a mask.
Or is it? When Jeselnik makes that short interstitial commentary about his own deaf joke — when he takes a moment to remind you that he’s the sort of awful person who would make fun of a deaf person — he does not leave it there. The whole line goes, “You think I’m about to make fun of Latinos, [but] instead I take a hard left. Smack the shit out of the deaf.” There is a pause. “For almost no reason,” he adds, twisting the perspective once again. Asshole. Self-deprecating guy who makes fun of his own worst impulses? Nope, asshole. Or maybe not …?
Sliding between both truths is a virtuosic skill, and Jeselnik performs the whole thing with a meticulous care disguised as a total disregard that becomes the perfect representation of his central riddle. His final joke is one of the longest pieces of the hour, a story about taking his friend to get an abortion, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of what Fire in the Maternity Ward is about. It weaves together his demonstration of skill, his awareness of how inappropriate this all is, his need to find the worst possible thing to say, his need to show off that he can find the worst possible thing to say, and his awareness that his need to show off makes him even more terrible. He juggles the asshole and non-asshole back and forth so many times that you almost lose track of which is which. It makes sense that this is also the peak of his self-referentiality, a joke that’s as much about his compulsion to make jokes as it is about the fastidious crafting of this particular sequence.
For me, though, the most fitting and self-referential of Jeselnik’s jokes in Fire in the Maternity Ward comes earlier in his set, in a long bit where he tries to convince the audience that murder-suicide is the best kind of suicide. He does this in a number of ways, which I will leave you to discover and feel gleefully outraged by on your own viewing time. But as part of that sequence, he asks the audience to imagine walking down the street and getting punched in the face. Just as you’re about to hit the person back, though, the assaulter does it himself, punching himself in the face. In Fire in the Maternity Ward, Jeselnik repeatedly performs that very act. He wallops the viewer over the head by being as shocking and depraved as he possibly can. Then, just as you’re about to rise up in fury, you realize that with sneakily self-immolating deftness, all of Jeselnik’s most devastating hits land squarely on himself.