An Interview with Anthony Jeselnik: On The Offense

In a sensitive world where offensiveness is then rampant, “insult comic” Anthony Jeselnik has encouraged us to chill out and take a joke.

His appearances on The Comedy Central Roast Of Donald Trump and The Roast Of Charlie Sheen brought his trimmed comedic style to a broader audience. Now, as the producer, writer and host of a show called The Jeselnik Offensive, there’s no guesswork about his style of comedy. The go-to “too soon?” question isn’t ever applicable in Jeselnik’s world, both in his live stand-up performances and on the tv show, which is in its second season.

The show is a platform for Jeselnik to discuss the current week’s news stories and host a panel of comedian guests to dissect other topics. Stereotypes are welcome. In his live show, Jeselnik is a real deal performer. A strong linguistic manipulator, Jeselnik is a meticulous craftsman who hones in on core humor. He’s not particularly interested in storytelling, so much as hitting the jugular joke.

If it hurts, he’s going for it.

Jeselnik executes on the adage “keep it simple, stupid,” or “KISS.” A former writer for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Jeselnik also was the first comedian to perform on the show. He’s worked the late-night circuit, including The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Conan and Jimmy Kimmel Live, and received an Emmy nomination for his work on Night Of Too Many Stars: An Overbooked Concert For Autism Education.

Jeselnik caught heat for a bit on his tv show, The Shark Party, during which he joked about a New Zealand man killed by a great white shark.

But in the simplest terms, it must be emphasized that Anthony Jeselnik is not an asshole; he just has better timing and emotional coping skills than most of us. And he’s sincerely happy to see, and joke with, his fans out on tour.

“I’m looking forward to coming to New Jersey,” he says. “There are certain places where the culture has my same sense of humor or just gets it, and Jersey is one of those places. They just understand what I’m doing. They like cheering for the villain for an hour. It’s a fun show.”

Jeselnik took some time to connect before kicking off his multi-city standup tour. The transcription is below. [Disclaimer: No one was offended during the conduction of this interview.]

Stylistically speaking, what prompted you to do insult comedy?

I thought insult comedy was more difficult. I wanted to be a writer. It’s almost like going to the gym. I wouldn’t go there and pick up the heaviest weight to get into shape faster. If you’re being silly, it’s easy to make people laugh. Being mean isn’t always funny.

In insult comedy, there’s an art to being able to insult someone and have him or her laugh at it. If I insult somebody with a joke and he or she is hurt, I’ve failed. It has to be “that funny.” It’s a thin line to walk, but if you can hate it, that’s as closest to brilliant as you can get.

Talk about the material you’ve worked on for your tour. Should we brace ourselves?

It’s the usual stuff; the worst things in the world. My goal is to make people laugh at horrible things. I find it fascinating that everyone dies. There’s nothing you can do to avoid it. Horrible things happen to everyone. People don’t like to talk about it, and they certainly don’t like to laugh about it, so if you make them laugh about it, I think it’s a very powerful thing—and that’s what I try to explore in my act.

What I’ve found in my act is that I think the difference between my act now and what I’ve done in the past is that I have more fans now and people who are starting to figure out how I tell my jokes. I have to have surprise. If I’m telling a joke about cancer and it’s not that funny, it’s a terrible joke. It’s got to be really funny to be able to hold the weight of that subject. So my newer jokes are a lot shorter—and I think a lot smarter—because I’m trying to stay one step ahead of the audience.

Now that your audience has become more acquainted with your formula, how do you deal with the pressure of crafting material that will be consistently well received?

I put the pressure on myself. I need that pressure. I wouldn’t be able to come up with new stuff. I like succeeding in coming up with that great, new joke, but I also enjoy failure. I enjoy coming up with a joke that I think is really great but [that receives a subpar reaction from the audience like] “No, that’s boring us.” That affects me and makes me work harder. So if I never failed I would never be able to get any better. But I like that pressure of trying to stay one step ahead of everybody.

During your live show, do you like doing crowd work or prefer to stick with your prepared material?

I like doing a little mix of both. I like my prepared stuff and I slave over it. I really try to make every joke perfect, and when I do, I feel like I’ve discovered a gem that no one else can take away from me. I find them in understanding the English language, and I’m very proud of myself for that.

I also think that anything in the moment, or on the top of my head, is going to get a bigger laugh. It used to really upset me and tick me off that I made these great jokes, but if I knock my drink over on stage, people would go crazy over that. But now [those types of on-the-fly incidents are] just something for the audience and keep me engaged, because I know it’s going to be something different and it’s a little challenge, off the top of my head.

Who are your favorite comedians?

When I was a kid, my favorite comedian was Steven Wright. When he would come on the screen, I was just like, “Oh my God.” I couldn’t believe that every joke he did was so brilliant and I thought, “How did he think of those types of things?” I also loved Rodney Dangerfield. I love guys who just joke, joke, joke, and don’t waste anyone’s time.

[I’m not a big fan of storytelling in comedy]. I never really liked Bill Cosby; I thought he was fine, but not the greatest. I don’t care about stories that much.

Mitch Hedberg was so brilliant. It never occurred to me that I could ever do that. It seemed like only a couple of people could. But now I think there are more and more “one-liner” kind of comics coming out.

Today there are so many comedians. People think I’m the darkest out there. I do dark [comedy]. I don’t enjoy watching other comics do dark stuff because that’s what I do. I like guys like T.J. Miller, who’s just absolutely crazy. Every show is completely different and he’s a total pro. He knows how to get what he wants from the audience, but it’s completely different and off the top of his head every time. I love that.

If Comedy Central was a pre-school teacher, and you’re a student, surely you must have found yourself in a “time out” situation, right?

I got a slight slap on the wrist at the end of season one, and it wasn’t even just because of one [specific] thing we did on the show. They had looked back and said maybe [“The Shark Party”] was a little too far, and that we shouldn’t have done this, but they loved that bit.

You never know when a reaction is going to come at you like that. [Jeselnik received significant media and internet criticism for going “too far” in joking about the circumstances of the man’s death.]

It wasn’t even that big. No one in America really knew about the incident. But people in New Zealand certainly did. I think Comedy Central’s bosses have gotten upset because they’re getting stuff about it. No one’s really mad at me. This season they’ve taken a step back. I think it’s because I talked so publically about being annoyed about their notes. It seems like they have stepped away and said, “Do what you want.” We don’t really have that many battles. They want me to be able to do what I like; they just don’t want to upset a ton of people.

Do you feel like you’re a “love me or hate me” kind of comedian? Is there any topic you won’t joke about?

There’s no topic I won’t touch. If I thought there was a topic that made me uncomfortable, I would make it my goal to write a joke about it and get it out there.

People have said that I’d never say the “N-word”; that there’s the line for me. I don’t think that’s a line in comedy. It’s just a word I don’t like and don’t want to use. I would absolutely make jokes about race all the time. I don’t think it’s so much a line as a personal choice not to use that particular word. I wouldn’t use a slur for Latinos either, because I think it takes away from the comedy and the argument I’m trying to make.

I don’t know if I’m a “love him or hate him” kind of guy because I find that the more I get out there, I see a lot of comments [to the effect of], “I thought this guy was a jerk at first; I saw him on the [Trump] roast but now I’ve seen his show and I like him now.” Or “I hated him and then I read an interview with him and realize that’s not his persona and now I get it.”

If you understand what I’m doing, you’ll love it. If you don’t—and some people don’t understand comedy—then they’ll really hate me.

I get this a lot, where people are like, “Are you joking?” and I’m like, “Fucking of course I’m joking! I’m a comedian. That’s all I do—is joke—of course these are jokes, and if you don’t get that, you have no business enjoying comedy.”

You’re in some great company with Comedy Central. Which show on the network is your favorite and why?

I love pretty much all the stuff they do. Stephen Colbert is a goddamn genius. The way he keeps it up—[his show is] all him. I think The Colbert Report is one of the best shows on Comedy Central and in the history of television. He’s amazing. Right out of the gate, just unbelievable. I love the Kroll Show. I hope he gets to do a second season; they’ll go nuts for it.

What advice would you give to aspiring comedians, other than to probably quit while they’re ahead?

(Laughs) You just have to work. Keep working; get as much stage time as you can; write as much as you can; and just keep doing it. When I would go to open mics, I would go up and bomb for five minutes. I would go home and write a new five minutes [of material], because that set bombed and I needed more jokes. A lot of comics would just go up with the same five minutes [of material] every time and just bomb every time. [If you do that] you’re not helping yourself. Just keep writing; keep on developing and know that the first couple of years you do stand up are going to be terrible, and you’re just going to have to survive. It’s about motivation and creativity.


Anthony Jeselnik is performing Sept. 12 at Tarrytown Music Hall, Sept. 13 at Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre and Sept. 14 at Philly’s Merriam Theater. He’ll also be at the New York Comedy Festival on Nov. 9. For more information, go to