Anthony Jeselnik talks roasting Roseanne, the influence of Bret Easton Ellis and the limits of offensive comedy
Sometimes being bad can be good for you, as Anthony Jeselnik can attest to.
The comedian and former Late Night with Jimmy Fallon writer created a standup persona that spits out pitch-black one-liners on subject matter such as abortion and suicide. As a result, he got spots on the notoriously merciless Comedy Central roasts of Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen, as well as a show with the channel set to premiere in January.
In between recording the Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne, which airs Sunday, and his new show, he will be performing a string of standup sets, starting with the Tampa Improv through Saturday. In a phone interview, Jeselnik discussed his show, the roast of Roseanne and blood-filled piñatas. Here are some excerpts.
Your show just got picked up by Comedy Central. Can you talk about what it’ll be like?
We’re still figuring it out a little bit. It’ll be a personality-driven show — I’m not going to be playing characters, it’s not a sitcom or anything. It’ll basically be me talking about whatever I want, that’s the format we’re narrowing in on. I could open up with a monologue about the week’s events and then we’re going to do a darker parody of late-night shows, kind of the comedy they do on that. Little desk pieces, but very dark stuff. Then I’d like to try to take on the sacred cows of comedy with each episode, take on things that people don’t really laugh at or think of as comedy, but we’re going to do it. Basically just making my act a TV show. One show, we’ll talk about abortion and on another show, we’ll talk about child molestation — something that is tough to make fun of, but we’ll do our best to make it funny for the audience.
Is the format of a darker-than-usual late-night show taken from your time working as a Late Night with Jimmy Fallon writer?
A little bit, yeah, it’s things that I learned. One of the biggest ones for me on that show was just sitting in a room with Jimmy Fallon and the other writers and we’re pitching ideas to him and then the idea was he had to say yes or no. It didn’t matter how good it was or how bad it was, if he didn’t like it, he would just say “no” and you moved on. I thought, “Oh, that’s what I want to do. I want to be the guy who makes that decision.” That really helped me in my time, because a lot of the ideas that I would have for him, I would say, “Jimmy, what if we did this?” And he would just say, “Absolutely not. I can’t do that, nor I would I want to.” I would say, “Oh, I’ll have to remember that in case I have a show someday.”
Can you remember any of those bits that you proposed that were too dark for Fallon?
Oh yeah. I remember we would always try to play games — they’d always play games with the audience — and I was trying to pitch a piñata full of blood. Just have a big piñata just full of blood and people would hit it with baseball bats until it exploded blood everywhere. He didn’t like that at all. Everyone in the room laughed and he just shook his head no. I thought, “I got to keep that in the file for a later date.”
When you first created your persona, was it something that developed over time or you locked into once?
It was a little of both. I kind of let the jokes develop the persona for me. I would go up there and tell jokes and then one day, I told a really mean joke. I didn’t want to feel like I was a young performer. I wanted to feel like I was an expert who’d been doing it for years and maybe I was just some kind of savant or genius or something. Then one day, I told a joke that had a really mean twist on it and the crowd reaction was so much bigger and it was kind of like an “ohhh” and a laugh. I thought, “That’s what I want. That’s what I want every joke to want to be.” And that’s kind of what I want to aim for.
After the Daniel Tosh controversy, there was a lot of discussion about what joke subjects are off-limits. When you’re treading that dangerous territory, do you think intent and context matters and can a joke be offensive in that regard?
A joke being offensive is nothing. People think they shouldn’t be offended or something’s too soon, that has nothing to do with comedy at all. That’s you putting some spin on it for yourself, and then it’s your problem that it’s a bad joke.
I wouldn’t say a topic is off-limits, but certainly if someone is making anti-gay jokes and saying how much they hate gay people — I don’t necessarily have a problem with it comedically and honestly, know they have the right to do that. But there’s something off-putting about that I don’t think is as defensible as saying, “Listen, this is wordplay where I’m introducing an awful topic and trying to make a joke about it.” I’m just adding intention to my jokes, whereas some people are preaching to the people. If you’re preaching hate onstage, that’s something completely different that I don’t really approve of, but again, you can do whatever you want onstage, I think.
You’ve said that one of your favorite writers was Bret Easton Ellis. What influence did he have on you, and did he have any influence on your comedy?
I’m sure it has an influence. It doesn’t really have a direct influence on my comedy, but I was fascinated by — I was a kid when American Psycho came out and I read an article in Newsweek about how it straight-up involved this hornet’s nest of people being furious and critics not defending him or anything. Then he just kind of stuck by it. The book was hugely popular, it was made into a great movie and now critics look back on it as maybe a not great novel, but definitely an important novel — one that satirized the ’80s, whereas no one really got that at the time.
But it influenced me in that it showed me that opinions change over time. A joke people are mad about today, they can admire tomorrow. That having a backlash wasn’t the end of the world — it was almost like a badge of honor. It’s almost like a journalist going to jail to protect their story. Nobody wants to go to jail, but for a journalist, that’s almost like the top thing you can do — people almost wish they had that opportunity to suffer for their art. Which I really took a liking to and just thought, “I can do whatever I want.”
You’re also announced as one of the roasters on The Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne. How has preparing your material been — just trying out jokes in sets?
Yeah, I’m trying out my jokes as much as I can, trying to write new stuff. People are always getting added to the dais and then dropping out — they announced Sharon Stone is going to be there, Sharon Stone has dropped out. So everyone’s shuffling, trying to write new jokes. It’s always kind of a weird and a very trying process, but then once you get there and do the jokes, everything’s fine. You only do these jokes once, so it’s a lot of pressure leading up to it. It’s certainly a lot of pressure and I’m fighting for jokes that Standards and Practices won’t let me do. It’s a tough thing, you’re trying to protect your babies before you go there.
There were topics they didn’t want addressed at Charlie Sheen’s roast. What are they saying will be off-limits at Roseanne’s roast?
They didn’t want rape jokes for Mike Tyson — that was the one reason Tyson would do the roast, if there was no rape jokes or mentioning him going to prison. Tyson’s such a big get for them that they kind of had to go along with that. But Sheen didn’t really have anything that was off-limits for himself until he didn’t like one of my jokes about his mom and he had them cut that out, but that’s in editing. I don’t mind so much what they edit so long as I can do what I want when I get up there. Right now, there’s certain buzz words that they don’t want you to say. I can’t really talk about what they are because I hope I can do them on the show, but there’s always a bit of a fight. Sometimes you can say, 'Hey, I’m going to say it anyway, just bleep it,” and sometimes they’re okay with that, and sometimes they say you can’t even say it in the room.
Were you a fan of Roseanne prior to roasting her, or are you coming as an outsider to her?
I’m a big fan of Roseanne. I thought her comedy was great and it was fresh and original. She was an icon of comedy, not even as a female figure, just as a comedian. I have a lot of respect for her. Donald Trump was a guy who was successful and kind of commanded respect, but I wasn’t buying into him. I didn’t care about how much money he had or anything, and Charlie Sheen was just of a trainwreck of an actor. Roseanne is a little different. I hope that I when I get off the stage, she’s happy with my set and enjoys it. That’s important to me this year.
Who were some of your influences when you first started comedy, and maybe who are your influences now that you’ve done comedy for a long time?
Good question. In the beginning, Dennis Leary was actually a big influence on me. I loved that album No Cure for Cancer when I was a kid and I liked his take-no-s--- attitude. I loved Steven Wright; he was my favorite of all time because of his, “How does he think of it?” thing, like it all just came out of nowhere. That, I loved, and I loved the one-liner thing. Rodney Dangerfield was big. Mitch Hedberg was big for me.
But now it’s a little more performance art. I’ve gotten more into the character I play onstage and now Andrew Dice Clay is a fascinating guy for me. I loved his album The Day the Laughter Died, where he’s not even really telling jokes, he’s just up there giving people s---, standing up there and there’s no laughter whatsoever, which I thought was brilliant. It’s almost like the ballsy stuff that interests me or guys who can just go up there and talk. Andy Kindler is an influence on me, Todd Glass is an influence on me — you would never know it watching my set, I just enjoy what those guys do.
What else is your future beyond your show and the roast?
I shot a special that’ll be a DVD, a special on Comedy Central and a CD that’ll come out in January right before my show premieres that I shot in Chicago last month. So that’ll be out soon, and as soon as the roast is over, I start touring for the next couple of months, starting in Tampa. I’ll do that for as long as I can until I have to come back in October and start working on the TV show.
-- Jimmy Geurts, tbt*