Anthony Jeselnik’s new talk show is at least three different things at once. The framework for Good Talk is that of a talk show, constructed around the sort of self-promotional chat familiar from any late-night-show conversational segment, with questions sometimes just as inane. But the interviews are performed by Jeselnik, who’s putting on a persona close to the one he uses for his stand-up material — which, if you’re not familiar, is basically “unflinching asshole.” Jeselnik asks the questions, but frequently in such a deliberately dickish way that his guests aren’t sure what to do or whether to play along. Underneath those two things — the anodyne talk-show structure and the spiky trap of Jeselnik’s persona — there’s also Good Talk’s deeper identity: a show by a comedian who wants to talk seriously about how comedy works.
Over its six-episode season, Good Talk features comedians including David Spade, Tig Notaro, and Nick Kroll. They’re all people Jeselnik either knows well or is friendly enough with that he feels comfortable slapping a huge “WHO CARES?” stamp over their faces when he asks them a particularly saccharine personal question. The sense that Jeselnik is friends with his guests feels crucial; it’s one thing to watch a comedian stand alone on a stage and be an unrepentant jagoff, but the chemistry of a talk show makes that kind of absolute disregard for social niceties play a little differently.
There are predecessors for this shtick. Between Two Ferns features Zach Galifianakis as an even more forthrightly rude, more deliberately clueless interviewer, someone who dunks on his guests and their star images with an aim that looks haphazard, but is actually microscopically precise. Before Galifianakis, Stephen Colbert’s combative Colbert Report identity often offered interviewees a similar conundrum. When presented with someone who cannot actually be this much of a jerk, but who refuses to break character, do you play along? Do you try to dodge? Trying to best the host at his own game seems like a trap, and yet, sitting back and getting clobbered by the meanness isn’t particularly fun, either.
Within these six episodes, Jeselnik’s guests fall into two distinct camps of how they approach the puzzle of his personality. Some recognize what Jeselnik is doing as hilarious, but still find themselves vaguely flabbergasted about whether they should match his deadpan intensity. Some, though, take a few moments to dial into Jeselnik’s game and then give back every bit as good as they get, leaning into the uncomfortable, disorienting boorishness so happily that Jeselnik is eventually the one who cracks, clearly laughing out of true delight rather than put-on politeness.
The premise and mood of Good Talk means that revealing which episodes fall into which camp amounts to something of a spoiler — much of the pleasure of the show is seeing how well guests navigate the icy waters, and it’s a real treat to watch someone succeed in getting under Jeselnik’s skin. But make sure to watch Tig Notaro, who by the end has so thoroughly bested Jeselnik at his own game that when she gets in one last shot in the final seconds of the episode, he is almost shocked by how happily willing she is to play along.
Even when a guest offers less-than-interesting prey for Jeselnik’s bits, the underlying idea of Good Talk is two people having a relatively sincere conversation about how they think about comedy, and Jeselnik is not afraid of coming off as too insider-y or wonky. His “Agree or Disagree” segment, where he asks guests to agree or disagree to banally oversimplified statements about stand-up, almost always provides at least one compelling little anecdote about the craft of the form. An exchange with Natasha Leggero, for instance, reveals that neither she nor Jeselnik prefer to be vulnerable onstage, but that they understand the appeal of a rhetorical device that makes it easier for audiences to like you. “All comedians want to be musicians, and all musicians want to be comedians” seems like a fairly superficial sort of observation to agree or disagree with, and yet when David Spade answers the question, it becomes a useful lens for thinking about the way performance in music and performance in comedy are fundamentally different.
In some ways Good Talk is still a Frankenstein’s monster. There is a clear sense that several different pieces have been sewn together to create the end result, and they don’t always fit together as smoothly as they could. It’s hard, for instance, for Jeselnik to balance his flippant personal questions with the sincerity of another recurring segment where he asks comedians to celebrate the legacy of comedians who have died. And when things don’t gel with a particular guest, they really just do not gel. When they do, though, Good Talk shifts from a strange and sometimes frustratingly messy talk show into something that looks more like two master fencers really enjoying a chance to spar.