BY ALEX RUSSELL
Alternative comedy has always been interested in death and divorce, but only Anthony Jeselnik is interested in child abduction and genocide. If it’s about pushing the envelope, he seems to be out to prove that he doesn’t believe there’s an envelope to push.
His comedy is intense above all else. Spotify labels him as “Daniel Tosh without the smirk,” but that doesn’t do it justice. You really need to hear it. He’s killing, to be sure, but in a way that no one is really all that comfortable with. His debut album has a story about him telling everyone in an entire town to kill themselves. It’s gonna get worse.
His 2010 album Shakespeare made a name for him, but his career took off through roasting. Comedy Central’s Roasts are generally easy jokes lobbed at soft targets, but Jeselnik is always one of the bright spots. It’s a weird way to make a career, but it showed everyone (and Comedy Central) that no one else could be called “edgy” if Anthony Jeselnik was still around.
So they gave him a special in 2013 called Caligula in which he literally announces his rape jokes with a running count of how many there are in the hour. It’s an offensive hour of comedy with a few really funny bits, but it’s mostly compelling just to watch his stage persona. He’s almost totally motionless. There’s no physical comedy. He stands perfectly still and doesn’t smile and says the most awful things a person can say short of meaning them, and it works. Not everyone likes every joke, but he’s talking about mostly untrodden ground and that’s something.
Then he got a show, which catches us up to now. The Jeselnik Offensive is a combination of two easy types of TV to make: a news show with jokes and a panel show. Jeselnik talks for ten minutes about news stories and delivers one liners, then he does ten minutes with two (so far) amazing comedians.
It doesn’t really work that well.
The problem isn’t the people, it’s the format. Jeselnik himself is outstanding, and he transfers some of his persona to the show. You can’t deadpan host, though, and when he has to emote or engage, it can get a little weird. This week had a segment mocking a recent shark attack death with women in shark costumes dancing while Jeselnik explains why this wasn’t a tragedy. It’s only a joke in that the production is so big for something so stupid. Even if you’re not offended by it (which the whole Internet seems to be) you’re probably bored by it. It’s nearly three minutes, and the joke is essentially “can you believe I’m doing this?”
The panel is a murderers’ row of today’s comedy world: Amy Schumer, Patton Oswalt, Kristin Schaal, Doug Benson, Brian Posehn, Billy Eichner, Nick Kroll. and Aziz Ansari. It takes real work to make that cast not funny, but an extended joke about sex with corpses built into a “women are fat” joke does precisely that. It’s the best part of the show, but it has trouble getting away from this feeling of “why do we care?” about shock jokes about tragedy. It might be that his comedy is more abstract in his stand up, but his show transfers very little of the gleeful bastard he plays on stage.
It’s worth checking in on to see if it’s for you, at least one time. The panel segment “Defending Your Tweet” where Jeselnik reads an old tweet to the comic and they have to explain or defend it usually works pretty well, and everyone’s obviously enjoying screwing around in the format. It just doesn’t seem to have gelled yet.
Though this week’s shark bit has gotten a lot of the press, “Cancer is Funny” is probably the one that deserves it. On his old “WTF with Marc Maron,” Jeselnik told Marc the only thing he didn’t find funny was cancer. He said he didn’t have problems joking about it, but that he didn’t easily find ways to make it funny. In this bit, he talks to an oncologist about what the best part about her job is (“Is it always meeting new people?”) and then tells cancer jokes to a group of cancer patients. It’s not just the typical shock joke, for once, and it’s actually weirdly sweet (kinda).
There’s definitely something here that they might figure out eventually. But, though Comedy Central markets the show as better than shows that make fun of reality TV and celebrities, it’s cut from the same cloth stylistically. That’s the real shame, too, because Jeselnik’s style on stage is a lot of what makes him great. They took some of the substance, but ignored too much.