Since Anthony Jeselnik started comedy nearly two decades ago, his persona has been something of a cartoon villain, an implacable Lord of Darkness ready to slaughter sacred cows, cook their T-bones onstage, and serve them up to audiences bloody. But as Jeselnik has matured (he’s 40 now), things have changed a bit. After his 2015, special Thoughts and Prayers — which contained a defense of his perspective on comedy and the infamous “Shark Party” segment from his short-lived Comedy Central show The Jeselnik Offensive — Jeselnik started to expand his approach beyond one-liners and toward extended bits and stories that use his dark, economical joke-writing to achieve something greater and more ambitious. This is on full display in his newest special, Fire in the Maternity Ward, which came out on Netflix earlier this year. As he puts it, the devil has gotten older.
On this week’s Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them, Jeselnik talks about one of these new styles of jokes. It’s about dropping babies.
So you wrote a joke that starts with a misdirect about the political climate in this country that winds up being a story about dropping babies. Why did you structure it that way?
I was embarrassed by the way some of my friends reacted to the election.
A lot of it was my comedian peers’ reaction to Donald Trump. Twitter went from “Here’s a joke” to “Did you know the senator said … ?” I had to mute half the people I follow. I am as liberal as they come, but as a comedian I was like, This is revolting. It’s comedy for the sake of verifying someone’s opinion as opposed to making them laugh, and I thought, This is an opportunity. This was a way to not be like, “That Cheeto-haired …” I’m like, Are you fucking kidding me? What are you doing? You’re embarrassing yourself.
You push back on people who are like, “Political correctness is killing comedy.”
I wouldn’t have anything to do. It’s like saying, “Is the football ruining the NFL?” No, you need the fucking thing to play the game. You need to have it. I love political correctness. I love it. I support every piece of it. I don’t care if they go too far. It’s the only way I get to do what I do.
You took out a joke about hate crimes pretty late in the process. How would you then describe your personal line and how it’s evolved?
I’m 40 years old now. I’m not the same person I was when I started comedy at 23. Stephen Colbert had a quote, like, when you’re young and edgy, everything is funny, and then the horrible things you’re joking about start to happen to people that you love. My dad suffers from psoriasis. If someone made a joke about psoriasis, I wouldn’t laugh, but I wouldn’t be upset. But as I get older and more mature, I think of things differently. Also, I’ve already done it. It’s like, Why do you not make rape jokes anymore? Because I had a fucking special where I did five of them, and then I read the [Jon Krakauer] book Missoula. And I was like, I don’t think I think this is as funny as I did back then. Is there a line in comedy? I used to say no. And now I say there are a million of them. Everybody’s got one. I don’t give a fuck about yours. It’s my line that I worry about.
When you talk about Fire in the Maternity Ward, you have unsurprisingly lofty dreams of its legacy. How do you want it to contribute to the evolution of comedy?
I want to ruin it. I want to ruin a generation of comics who try to do what I do and fuckin’ fail. I love other comedians, but for what I do, the way I do it, I’m the fuckin’ best of all time, and I hope I fuckin’ destroy people. I hope people try to be like me and fuck their whole lives up. It puts a dead-end sign on a street that you should not go down. If someone’s like, “Oh, I’m into stand-up comedy,” “Oh, what do you do?” “I’m like Andy Kaufman,” “Get the fuck out of my face, you’re the worst and you know it.” I want to end a whole branch of comedy — that is just mine, and no one else can come close. That’s my goal.
You have talked about a desire for your persona to be cool. Why?
I hated comedy for having to make fun of yourself. I always loved comedy, but there was a lot of like, “I know this shirt looks stupid!” And it’s like, Why’d you wear this shirt, motherfucker? Like, You asked for that haircut. What are you doing? To be cool in comedy was important to me. Sarah Silverman was the No. 1 person for that. Where it was like, Oh, you’re hot, you’re cool as shit, and you’re still making everyone die laughing. If Sarah Silverman didn’t exist, I don’t think I ever would have picked up a microphone. I thought of it like, I don’t want to fucking be Drew Carey.
Sarah Silverman is a comedian who for a long time was associated with a persona, but over time shed it. You see that a lot. Persona comedians slowly evolving out of it. On the other hand, you have Dice. You used to describe your persona as “the devil.” Can the devil evolve? What’s different about it now?
I just think the devil’s gotten older. When people get upset about political correctness in comedy, they’re like, “I’m being the devil’s advocate. I’m starting a conversation.” I hate that. I’m not the devil’s advocate; I am the devil. I’m not trying to start a conversation; I’m ending it. Everyone else who is bitching about it is just bitching. Why complain about this? Either do your job and make them laugh, or shut the fuck up. I can’t stand this, like, “PC’s ruining comedy.” Get your shit together. Go put on a show. Fuck all of you.
What I do next will be fascinating. I believe what I’ve just done and what I’ve just put out was my best yet. After 17 years of comedy, that’s my best. People go downhill fucking fast if they stop working as hard. They can because they have the name, and people will buy tickets. But how can I keep doing this and still keep it at a high enough level? Success hasn’t made me relaxed; it’s put more pressure on me. Whatever I do next, whether it’s more personal, less personal, just strictly clever — I do not know — but I will not put out another special without it being amazing and better than what I’ve just done.
Some of your recent jokes are longer stories that feel true, in which your persona tries and fails to do the right thing. What does that suggest about where you’re at right now?
I like the idea of being the bad guy who becomes the hero. In the first season of Deadwood, Al Swearengen is the villain. In the second season, people come along who are worse than him, he has to fight them, and he becomes the hero. I like the idea of being an Al Swearengen, like, This motherfucker has cut some throats, but he’s on our side. So as I get older and wiser, I like the idea of becoming a good guy — but the good guy that nobody wants to be in the same room with.