The Dark Night

By Kyle Hall / Photos by Nicholas Tooman

Hair and make up by Aubree Hill for Hair by Aubree

Some of life's realities are so tragic, making light of them would be contemptible. Comedian Anthony Jeselnik disagrees.

"A lot of times, people will see my standup and say, 'How could you make that joke about cancer?'" he says. "Well, you laughed at my joke about AIDS, so f*** you."

The all-American-looking comedian with an arrogant, sociopathic stage-presence got his first shot at the limelight during a 2009 Comedy Central Presents television special. Excelling at making people laugh about things they know they're not supposed to, he made it onto Comedy Central's list of the "9 Best Breakout Comedians of 2009"  alongside now-big names like Whitney Cummings (star of NBC's Whitney) and Aziz Ansari (NBC's Parks and Recreation).

Shortly thereafter, Jeselnik landed his dream job, writing for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon . That behind the-scenes gig gave way to his on-camera notoriety, propelled in part by brutal jokes he told during the Comedy Central Roasts of Donald Trump (2011), Charlie Sheen (2011) and Roseanne Barr (2012).

Jeselnik to Trump: "Donald, you've got a great sense of humor. You've been so happy to embarrass yourself on Saturday Night Live - and in the casino business... I'm not even sure if you're aware of this, but the only difference between you and Michael Douglas from the movie Wall Street is that no one's going to be sad when you get cancer."

To Sheen: "The only reason you got on TV in the first place is because God hates Michael J. Fox ... You've convinced more women to have abortions than the prenatal test for Down syndrome."

To Barr: "Roseanne, even though you are a feminist icon, so many men have gotten rich off of you - Tom Arnold, John Goodman , the guy who owns The Cheesecake Factory... But here's something positive, because you had gastric bypass surgery in 1998, and then you beat it."

Jeselnik enjoyed critical acclaim for his comedy albums Shakespeare (2010) and Caligula (2013). His knack for flawless misdirection and ruthless one-liners, which are often as mentally challenging as they are dark ("I've spent the last two years looking for my girlfriend's killer... but no one will do it"), landed him his own Comedy Central show in February 2013.

A twisted take on traditional late-night talk shows, The Jeselnik Offensive features a not-so-traditional monologue by the namesake host, occasional pre-recorded bits and a topical discussion with a rotating panel of comedians.

The twist: instead of focusing on entertainment news, pop culture and politics, The Jeselnik Offensive takes aim at the dark, more prevalent side of current events, totally disregarding established rules of engagement.

As the name suggests, things get offensive.

"Jim Gaffigan would say he likes edgy humor, too, but he also likes talking about bacon, and you can't do both," says Jeselnik. "You can't go cancer/bacon; you have to pick one. He chose bacon; I chose cancer."

Having recently wrapped the second season of his new show, Jeselnik's back on the comedy circuit, filling larger venues and performing his dark art for sold-out crowds across the country.

PacificSD caught up with Comedy Central's most caustic character to get the lowdown on his rapid rise. Much like during his live act, he didn't pull any punches during the interview. His particular brand of humor isn't for everyone, but that's ok. As Jeselnik put it during his first Comedy Central Presents special: "I understand I'm not for everybody. But, you should probably read more."

PacificSD: You assume the onstage persona of an asshole, sometimes calling yourself a "dick." Does that persona ever cross over into your real life?
Anthony Jeselnik: The only time it would get bad is when I would get drunk, especially when I first got into comedy. I would say things to people and burn a lot of bridges early on. Insults to me are just as funny as jokes. Let's say we're in a room with a bunch of people, and I make fun of you, and everybody laughs. Then I think you and I should be cool, because it was funny. But, people don't feel that way, you know, at all. At all.

What led to the development of that persona?
A.J.: Because I was a young, good-looking white kid walking up on stage, and there are a million of us trying to break into comedy. Nobody cared what I had to say, and they didn't like me immediately. I thought that was interesting. Why not play into the villain role? Instead of trying to make them like me, I'll make them hate me, but be so good at it that it doesn't matter. You can get upset about a cancer joke, but if the guy telling it is such a jerk, it takes some edge off. You don't want your friends to be too cocky, but you want the starting quarterback of your football team to be cocky. I thought that's what I'm going to do - I'm going to be this cocky jerk so I can get away with cancer jokes.

What joke are you most proud of?
A.J.: I think my favorite joke would have to be my motorcycle joke. ("When I finished high school, I wanted to take all of my graduation money and buy myself a motorcycle, but my mom said no. You see, she had a brother who died in a horrible motorcycle accident when he was 18... and I could just have his motorcycle.") That joke always kills, and I almost didn't do it. I wrote it, and it seemed almost cliché. The thing I love about comedy, especially with jokes, is the line between genius and cliché is so thin. So thin. That joke is just so simple, but works every time.

Which of your jokes has bombed the hardest?
A.J.: I think jokes are like clocks: it either works perfectly, or it doesn't work at all. I remember I had this one I loved, but could never get it to work. It was, "I thought I was a father once, but then they did a blood test on the baby... and the baby died." I thought it was this amazing joke, and it just never got a peep of laughter. Never. I don't know that there's a joke that made the audience more upset. I always have a couple that I'm like, "I'm going to tell this for me. I know you're not going to like it, but it's ok not to like every single joke."

Was it difficult writing for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, given that his comedic voice is so much different from yours?
A.J.: The only reason I do The Jeselnik Offensive is because I worked on Fallon and I would have these ideas that would never work for Jimmy Fallon. I thought, "If I had my own version of this, what would it look like?" I would never say "We can't make a joke about that guy; he just died." That's all we would have made jokes about are the guys who just died, because that's just really fun for me.

When you appeared on the Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump, you weren't exactly a household name. How has your life changed since?
A.J.: It changed like night and day, and not just in terms of how people perceived me. I'll get people coming up to me after the shows saying, "I never knew who you were until after the roast." And, I'm like, "That's not an insult, that's how careers work." The roast was a big deal for me. For the Trump roast, I felt like this was my life. If I blow this, I've blown my life. But after the Trump roast, it was the opposite;  completely chilled out. It felt like I won my first Super Bowl or something, and the rest of my career I could just enjoy. People started to come out to see me perform, as opposed to going to see comedy and wondering who this guy was telling one-liners about dead babies. It was people who were coming to see [me] do these jokes, which changed everything.

Why didn't you take part in the recent roast of James Franco, and what are your thoughts on how it went?
A.J.: You didn't get the comic ringers, but I thought there were still bright spots. I thought Natasha Leggero kind of carried my torch for me, to come up and say really mean things. I thought Jeff Ross was amazing, as always. People say they like it when it's just friends hanging out, but they don't really like that. They really want a blood bath. They want someone to come up and get killed. And if it's not going to be a bloodbath, then don't invite me to your party. That's all I do.

Your parents made a recent appearance on your show. They're obviously good sports, but are they ever offended by your work?
A.J.: I'm sure there's a dead baby joke they don't like, but it's mostly when I bash religion. I'm an atheist, but I was raised Catholic, and they still like, pretend. When I come home for Christmas, they're like, "You're going to Christmas Mass." And I'm like, "I just shot God in the chest on my last episode. I'm not doing it." And they make me do it anyway, so they're ignorant about it. They just pretend I'm still going to heaven.

During your first Sacred Cow segment on The Jeselnik Offensive (a pre-recorded bit centered on subjects thought too taboo to joke about), you went after cancer, and did standup for a room full of cancer patients and survivors. Did things get weird, or were they as receptive an audience as they appeared to be?
A.J.: The only thing that was weird about the cancer thing is I didn't know we were getting real cancer patients for the segment. That was the first thing we shot, ever, for this show. We didn't really get word on it until I got in there, and they told me, "No, they're real. But, we have this one actress who recovered from cancer, and we're going to put her in a bald wig." So, I thought, "Let's try to do things with her," but she was such a bitch about it. Like, compared to the other cancer patients, she was not game at all. They had a great time and they were there for free, but the one actress who was paid to be there was really uncomfortable, and every time we tried to interact with her, it was a disaster.

What are the best notes you've received from Comedy Central about The Jeselnik Offensive?
A.J.: There was one joke I did about the woman from The Bachelorette who killed herself, that went, "Finally, one of those dumb bitches learned how to tie the knot." And they were like, "NOOOOO!" I fought all the way up to the head of Comedy Central, and he calls the woman from Standards and Practices and says, "Why do you gotta be such a dumb bitch about this?" I thought it was the most amazing "you've got my back" thing ever. The thing that drives me crazy about notes is there's so much of a gray area. If I say it this way, it's ok, but that way, it's not. Like, if I can't shoot God, but they say I can shoot someone else - that's when I lose it. It's the hypocrisy of notes.

You recently performed in San Diego at The American Comedy Co. Did you have any memorable moments while in town?
A.J.: There are certain cities where they get it more than others. I don't know why, but San Diego is one that just really seems to dig me. The only real memory I have is doing the morning show [on Fox 5], and they kept trying to show clips, but the sound wouldn't work. So I was just slamming them. I ruined everyone's life on that morning show. I think the clip is still online, which is pretty fun to see. I remember the guy interviewing me was so uncomfortable, that I was just going to kill him. That was a lot of fun. [Editor's note: Google "Anthony Jeselnik roasts FOX5"... It's worth it.]

Catch Anthony Jeselnik live, November 2 at
House of Blues in the Gaslamp, houseofblues.com

Copyright © 2018, Pacific San Diego
66°