It’s fair to say that a lot has changed in the world — and in the world of comedy — since the release of Anthony Jeselnik’s previous special, Thoughts and Prayers, in 2015. In brazen defiance of “that’s off-limits” and “it’s too soon” naysayers, Jeselnik has consistently used his cocky, sardonic stage persona to address troubling themes. So one had to wonder if and how his style would change after a few relatively quiet years of creative output.
His brand-new Netflix special, Fire in the Maternity Ward, which dropped this week, showcases how Jeselnik has in fact changed his style … physically. He’s abandoned the clean-cut Patrick Bateman aesthetic for a more rugged midwestern-drifter look: full beard with a solid week of scraggly neck growth, leather jacket, “worn” jeans, biker boots. He still seems entirely capable of murder (“Sometimes I wonder if I could kill someone. Do I have it in me to take a human life? And then I remember, ‘Oh, yeah, Debbie’”), it’s just that now he looks like he might have a reason for it, a backstory far beyond white-privilege-bred sociopathy. As for the material, it’s as calculated and biting as ever, a testament to the time he put in on the road with his “Funny Games” tour. He’s comfortable in the uncomfortable, taking his sweet time and letting the audience slowly lower themselves into the nightmarish bath he’s running for them.
Jeselnik’s gift resides in his ability to hone a character who’s equally despicable and captivating, so that he never has to say, “I’m just joking.” The freedom to inhabit such a world without apology allows him to gut the underbelly of any subject he chooses to broach. Fire in the Maternity Ward treads in six primary territories: family, kids, animals, racism, murder-suicide, and abortion. Each of these chunks includes a healthy dose of fourth-wall-breaking that serves as a non-patronizing way of releasing a little tension, with a bonus wink-and-nod to those in the know. Examples include:
“I don’t know if you guys know what a false premise is, but I have this cat …”
“I’m not trying that joke out, I’m showing off.”
“Watch me sell this.”
While humbly acknowledging that mere transcription can’t come close to doing them justice (just watch the dang thing), we hereby present eight of the best jokes from Fire in the Maternity Ward.
My sister had a baby to try to “save the relationship.” But I still don’t talk to her.
There are a lot of bits in this special that take a more long-form, narrative approach, but Jeselnik can just as devastatingly paint an impactful portrait of sibling relationships with only a few words.
A Strong Lineage of Assholes
I’m not even the biggest asshole in my family. I had this cousin. Everybody hated this cousin. My own family hated this cousin. And then a couple of years ago, my cousin fell off of a horse and broke his neck. We all refer to that as “The Superman Incident” because that horse is a hero.
Jeselnik’s family tree has thick branches. Thick, ruthless, nasty branches.
When I was in high school, my high school employed a blind janitor. One hundred percent totally blind. All the other kids would joke around that he went blind from masturbating too much. At the time I believed that. I was just a kid. I didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until I got older, wiser, that I realized that’s just an old wives’ tale they used to use to try to explain why he was always masturbating.
We’ve all heard the stories: “Stop making that face or it will get stuck that way.” “If you keep touching yourself, you’ll go blind.” But eventually, myths bust themselves.
There Goes the Neighborhood
One of my next-door neighbors is a 90-year-old man suffering from Alzheimer’s. Every single morning at 9 a.m. he knocks on my door and he asks me if I have seen his wife. Which means that every single morning at 9 a.m. I have to explain to a 90-year-old man suffering from Alzheimer’s that his wife has been dead for quite some time. Now, I’ve thought about moving. I’ve thought about not answering my door in the morning. But to be honest, it’s worth it just to see the smile on his face.
Jeselnik is always talking about what pisses him off, but every once in a while, a simple human interaction shines a ray of light on his dark heart.
Planning for the Future
My grandfather died a couple years ago, but he died like a king. No one was even mad. My grandfather died in what has to be the best way possible. My grandfather died in a hammock, on a beach, in Hawaii, during a sunset. That’s how I want to go out: strangled to death.
A lot of folks say that if they had the choice they’d like to die in their sleep. But why not dream big?
Uncovering the Truth
When I was a little kid, I had a pet turtle. Tiny little turtle. Kept him in an aquarium. One summer I went away to camp. While I was gone at camp the turtle died. When I got home, my dad lied to me. He said, “Anthony, your turtle is alive and well. It just went to go live with your mother.” I believed that until a couple days later. I was digging around in the backyard … and found my mom’s body. Worst day of my life. I loved that turtle.
What’s the best way to teach a child about death? Probably not this way.
My Favorite Murder-Suicide
You hear your friend Jeff just committed suicide. Your only thought is devastation: “Oh my God, what could I have done to save my friend Jeff?”
You hear your friend Jeff killed his wife and then himself and you just think, “Yikes, Jeff doesn’t fuck around, huh?”
Jeselnik has put a lot of thought into which type of suicide is the best. For about eight straight minutes he leads the audience through a mini TED Talk in an attempt put murder-suicide at the top of everyone’s list. After discrediting various suicides (“Doctor-assisted suicide? Get that weak shit out of here! Teen suicide? No. College is important!”), he begins his pitch on why murder-suicide is number one.
For the Love of the Game
I don’t know if you’ve ever helped someone get an abortion. It’s a big favor. It’s a big favor to do for somebody. Not an easy favor at all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as pro-choice as they come. But still, the whole time I’m driving her, I’m just thinking to myself, “Goddamn, there has got to be a better way to come up with new material.”
Fire in the Maternity Ward closes with an abortion joke. Correction: It closes with multiple abortion jokes wrapped tightly inside one giant abortion joke. While some may say abortion jokes are tasteless, low-hanging fruit, Jeselnik wants you to know it ain’t easy, as he discovered when driving a friend to the abortion clinic.