Anthony Jeselnik is a serious student of comedy. His give-no-fucks demeanor onstage belies all the work that goes into making jokes about dropping babies, suicide, and putting a bell around the neck of his grandmother with dementia. It makes sense, then, that Jeselnik admires the craft of ClickHole, the Onion offshoot that parodies the garbage of the internet. “I read the Onion before, and the Onion was making fun of newspapers,” Jeselnik recently told Vulture, “which is not really how people get their news anymore.” ClickHole distills everything we hate about the internet and how it’s been designed to hijack our dopamine receptors and keep us from holding on to any one thought for more than ten seconds. A ClickHole headline takes work, telling an entire bizarre story in just a few words. And making an article that supports that headline is even harder. There are approximately 25 synonyms for “bad son” in the dreaded “Garbage Sons” quiz. That is a herculean effort.
Jeselnik’s new Comedy Central show, Good Talk With Anthony Jeselnik, is for people who take their jokes seriously. Each episode sees Jeselnik sit down with a fellow comedy friend and talk shop and/or talk shit. It’s for people who want to be in the greenroom before a comedy show almost as much as they want to be at the show itself. Jeselnik spoke to Vulture about his love for ClickHole and its dark yet absurd humor, the tragedy of private equity, and comedians who won’t shut up about Johnny Carson.
What do you like about ClickHole?
It’s bizarre yet grounded, in a way that the Onion was for so long. But then internet journalism changed. The Onion made fun of newspapers, whereas ClickHole makes fun of the internet. I absolutely love it. It’s brilliant. ClickHole takes the BuzzFeed approach. It’s a much more updated version of the kind of crap you see that passes as journalism. Clickbait, things like that.
It’s so well-versed in that gross, jargony language that internet journalism has become. Are there words that have been ruined for you by the internet?
“Fail.” “I can’t stop watching” will ruin it for me. “You have to read this.” I’m just so skeptical now of anything that tells you that you should read it. I’m much more interested in boring, flat headlines than I am in anything that tells me it’s a “win.” “This couldn’t get more perfect.” Stuff like that is such obvious clickbait that I’m not into it.
You’re right that ClickHole is bizarre yet grounded in this language we all know and hate, but it’s also almost wacky at times. Does that work for you?
It’s wacky, but it’s a dark wacky. I’m looking at one right now, “An Incredible Prodigy: This 4-Year-Old Wine Taster Just Became the Youngest Person Ever to Pass the Master Sommelier Exam.” You read it and it sounds like [normal content] from somewhere else, until you realize it’s a 4-year-old drinking wine. I love that kind of absurd darkness. Or the absurdity of “The First Time I Drank Gatorade.” Everyone is making no sense, but they’re speaking so seriously. I’m a big fan of “Two Years Ago, This Man Was 500 Pounds. Now He Is Two Men Who Weigh 250 Pounds.” They play it so sincerely. It kills me; it cracks me up every time.
One of my favorites is a listicle, which might be my least favorite way to consume information: “5 Times the Animatronic Fox on Splash Mountain Addressed Me by Name and Told Me He Was Going to Marry My Dad.”
I remember that one, that’s a great one. And I’ve never been on Splash Mountain, but I get the joke immediately. It’s like an insane person wrote it, with utter confidence. I always think that is funny: insanity with complete confidence. You reminded me of one of my favorites, “5 of My Father’s Funerals Where He Turned Out to Be Alive and in Attendance, and 2 Funerals Where He Was Actually Dead.” It’s so stupid. Oh wait, I’m remembering so many more. “4 Times My Dad Ate a Single Oyster and Started Acting Like the Horniest Person in the World Because He Read Online They Were an Aphrodisiac.” It’s grounded in just enough reality to get that moment of recognition, but they’re insane. I love it.
Wait, “Garbage Sons” is also about a dad. Are dads just inherently the funniest member of a family?
If you think about the pictures they use, then yes. The picture of the dad with the oysters looks like a fucking soccer coach, and it’s hilarious. I love jokes that only work in this format. A ClickHole headline or an Onion headline only works if it looks like it’s in a newspaper or on a news site, if it has a picture that goes along with it. You could never get away with these jokes onstage.
But there are shared skills. Your jokes are really tight, and ClickHole headlines have to be really tight because they have to contain the whole joke. A lot of people skip the article and just read the headline. What do people who don’t do this for a living not know about making really concise jokes?
You have to take off as many words as you possibly can. People think that the setup has to lead you one way or another, but you still have to do that with an economy of words. That’s one thing I love about ClickHole: There’s a set of rules that they follow when they write. The entire joke has to be in the headline. It can’t be the kind of thing where you have to click on something to get the joke. It’s all there. Same with Onion headlines. I haven’t read an Onion article in years, but I always read the headlines. It really is looking at your joke and taking out every word that you don’t need. A first draft of a joke, you always think you’re going to need more because you’re trying to hide this punch line. So you think you need more camouflage, and you really need less. The audience isn’t watching a magic trick, they’re just listening to you. You don’t need as many words as you think you do.
Some people are just telling stories, and economy of words is not important. There are people who you’re happy to listen to prattle on. But I’ve got to be very short and sweet.
Going back to ClickHole’s institutional voice, it’s only recently that people have been able to claim their ClickHole or Onion articles. And then, unfortunately, it’s been after they were laid off.
It sounds, frankly, devastating. I would hate to be writing something so fun and not get any credit whatsoever. They don’t even get bylines. And I know they don’t get paid that well. It’s kind of a thankless job, but I am thankful they do it. I’ve met people who’ve come from the Onion who now have great careers, but it breaks my heart that something I love so much … everyone who works there is trying to move on from there. They’re trying to get into advertising, or get a TV writing gig because you really can’t make a living writing for a humor site — even a great one.
ClickHole and the Onion, the whole Gizmodo Group actually, were sold to a private-equity firm recently.
That makes sense — all these assets combining into one, where they shear content and clearly cut staff. ClickHole used to have five new articles a day. Now it’s one or two if you’re lucky.
I miss the celebrity-gossip offshoot, StarWipe.
StarWipe was great. It was really funny, but didn’t last that long. But I think ClickHole cannibalized a lot of what StarWipe did. What I wish ClickHole would do more of is the “They Said What?” when they fake a celebrity quote that is clearly bonkers. Sometimes you see celebrities get mad about them on Twitter, saying, “I never said this!”
Tell me about the new show.
The show is called Good Talk With Anthony Jeselnik. There are thoughtful questions, there’s stuff to make you think, Oh, I’m learning about comedy! — things you won’t hear unless you’re backstage before a show. But it’s also got jokes. Just putting my friends in the hot seat and making them squirm a little bit is always fun.
I got into comedy partially because when two comedians do a comedy show, they cross the stage and shake hands, and they whisper something into each other’s ear. And I always wanted to know what they were saying. It’s half of why I got into comedy. And Good Talk is for people who want to know what we’re talking about in that moment.
The handshake always fascinates me at a stand-up show. No matter how inconvenient it is for a performer with a guitar or notebook or whatever, they have to do the handshake. It’s like you have to physically touch the host to transfer control of the stage.
Yeah, it is weird. Not everybody does it. Some people will say, “Don’t shake my hand,” or will exit on the other side of the stage to avoid the awkwardness entirely. I always like it. I like that moment of “Let’s say something to each other.” One time I said, “Let’s keep talking for a long time and see if the audience thinks it’s funny.” And they did not. They kind of laughed for a second, but then they thought we were just having a side conversation, and I definitely dug a hole immediately.
This is reminding me of one of the ClickHole stories you sent as one of your favorites, “Comedians Talk About the First Time Johnny Carson Invited Them Up on His Roof to Shotgun a Diet Dr Pepper.”
That one, the article killed me. The article destroyed me. “I hope you’re thirsty, motherfucker.” That sent me over the edge.
It was great because the author clearly knew the history of comedy, the stand-up boom, and what an asshole Carson could be.
And the comics that sang his praises. Choosing Ellen DeGeneres and Drew Carey, they can’t talk enough about getting called to the couch. I thought that was perfect.
What has felt most like shotgunning a Dr. Pepper with Carson to you? Something that made you go, Oh! I’m a part of this now.
Probably the Donald Trump roast. When I did that, it felt like one of those make-or-break moments. And it changed things for me. But the fear is still there. If you take too much time off, you are quickly forgotten. But at this point, I don’t think there’s a Dr. Pepper out there I haven’t chugged. Having a failed TV show, and then coming back and doing a couple successful specials, then getting another TV show, that kind of lets you know that you’re in business. In football, if you’re a coach that’s fired and then rehired, that lets you know you’re in the system. It’s only now that I feel in the system.