By Jay Cridlin
Times Staff Writer
Writing for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon taught Anthony Jeselnik a valuable lesson about the world of late-night TV.
"When I hired my staff, I made sure not to hire anyone who wanted my job," the host of Comedy Central's The Jeselnik Offensive said in a recent phone interview. "And I didn't know it at the time, but I wanted Jimmy's job. Maybe not that of late-night host, but I was kind of thinking how I would do it, second-guessing him, and of course you don't want that as a host."
That's the challenge when your comedic persona is as immaculately defined as Jeselnik's. The standup, who performs Saturday at the Straz Center in Tampa, specializes in pitch-black subject matter like rape and suicide, hammering each joke home with a shotgun blast of a twist.
For example, from this year's Caligula: "The problem with my girlfriend now is that she's got like a million shoes. Like a million shoes! And she doesn't even like to wear them. I swear, she just likes stealing from the Holocaust Museum."
So you can see how Jeselnik only lasted a year on Fallon's happy-go-lucky Late Night.
But even on his own show, Jeselnik has found he's had to temper his acidic sense of humor — and not necessarily because of network standards.
"My own act is all just me carving out jokes; I have a lifetime to do it," he said. "On a TV show, you've got one week, you've got a week's worth of material, and you've got to go. I wouldn't even call it a difference in quality, but more of a difference in style. There's a certain style you have to have to do a late-night show. We treat it like a show that would be on every night, so you want to be as topical as possible. So you're going in with stuff that I wouldn't do in my standup, frankly — but I wasn't doing my standup every week for half an hour."
Jeselnik — a polite guy in real life — said he still wanted The Jeselnik Offensive to represent his merciless standup persona as much as possible. "I wanted to make a show that would talk about the things that no other show would talk about. (Other) shows would say, 'Oh, we can't make a joke about that, someone died.' Well, we can. Let's see how much we can get away with."
Since The Jeselnik Offensive premiered in February, it has evolved beyond an outlet for comics to unleash their nastiest barbs. It's also become a testing ground for surreal, anything-goes talk-show antics — like the time Eric Andre lobbed lit firecrackers at fellow comic T.J. Miller.
"The cameras never stopped rolling, which was pretty funny," Jeselnik recalled. "I thought we were cutting. When the stage manager runs out on stage, I think, 'Ah, this is over, everyone's getting fired.' People don't realize what a big deal it is to light off fireworks on a TV show. If you were to light a match and hold it up on TV, you have to hire a fire expert to come. There's all kinds of insurance things. It could have been really bad."
But, he added: "I felt completely calm. I knew exactly what was happening as soon as it started happening."
Jeselnik has been mentally preparing to host a late-night comedy show for years. In fact, his ultimate career goal at one point was hosting Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live.
The Jeselnik Offensive premiered three months before NBC announced that Update's current anchor, Seth Meyers, would be leaving SNL to replace Fallon at Late Night. And for a moment, Jeselnik's Weekend Update fantasy flared up again.
"I talked to people when Seth said he was leaving, and I thought, 'I want my name mentioned in the room when they're talking about possible replacements,' " he said. "And my manager went and brought it up and said, 'You know, you've got your own TV show with your name on it. It's beyond Weekend Update. There's no way.' And I was fine with that. Why would I give up control at this point?"