Anthony Jeselnik on his jerk persona, Comedy Central roasts, and why he likes hecklers
In his comedy act, Anthony Jeselnik plays the asshole, cracking dark, arrogant, and hilarious one-liners. The persona has gotten him far; Jeselnik is now a prominent figure on Comedy Central's roasts, has a successful stand-up career, and is in development for a television show on the same network. Jeselnik will be appearing seven times at Comedy Works Downtown starting tonight and running through Sunday. We spoke with the surprisingly thoughtful comedian about how his comedy is never autobiographical, ex-girlfriend Amy Schumer, why he likes hecklers, and much more.
Westword: Your comedy persona is kind of an arrogant jerk. How did that come about and does it have anything to do with the way you are in real life?
Anthony Jeselnik: No, it kind of evolved from being the opposite of that in real life. I wasn't an arrogant jerk. I thought it was a funny character; if I was a nice guy, it's hard to then make a joke about abortion. If I played an arrogant jerk the whole way, it really opened up what I could get away with in general, which I really liked.
What attracts you about making jokes that offend people and make them laugh at horrible things?
Well I think it just puts more on the line, you know what I mean? There's more of a tension there if you're talking about rape than if you're talking about why people drink apple juice. Like, who gives a shit about things that everyone does? I wanted to joke about things that were universal but that everyone was kind of scared of. It's still just as universal to talk about death and things that creep people out, like, everyone has to deal with that. Everyone knows what you're talking about, but it just seemed like it meant more. You get accused of being all sorts of things: misogynistic, racist, etc. How do you feel about that?
If people misunderstand, then I don't feel like I have to defend myself to things like that. But I don't feel like I'm misogynistic at all as a person or even in my act. It's almost like if you say something about black people, like if you even say the words "black people," people are like "Ooh, he's racist." Whereas, no, I'm just talking about black people. So if I'm making a joke about, like, a lot of my jokes, the victim in the jokes is my girlfriend. People are like, "Oh, that's misogynistic." I don't think so, because I just feel like it's like the person that you should be the nicest to and the person that you should be loving, and so being mean to them, there's a lot more comedy there than if you're being mean to just a stranger.
Do you get a lot of hecklers?
I hate saying this, but I kind of like them a little bit. Like, I have no problem handling anyone or anything, unless they're too drunk where they just keep on talking. But I kind of like it. I like, you know, trashing someone. And I'm really good at it and I think it's fun for the show because these are jokes for this crowd only. And people always respond well to that. It's always drunk people; anyone who gets mad kind of keeps their mouth shut until they're too wasted and they think they can take me on. But I welcome it. You know, come on and take a shot at the champ.
What do you think that is? Why do people feel the need to yell out stuff during comedy shows?
I think it's like an ego thing, I feel like they get excited about it, they feel like they're helping me. If someone yells something during a show, they will always come up and tell me that they were the person who did it. Even if it was like, clearly I'm furious at them. Someone will be like "Pittsburgh sucks" at the end of a show because they think the show's almost over and now they can get their licks in, and I'm like, "What you're saying doesn't make sense and I've got to wrap up my last joke anyway so you're just kind of getting in my way." And they'll come up and be like "I was the guy who said that." And I'm like "You are an idiot." I have zero tolerance for that, because I would never do that at a show. I have zero empathy, so I have no problem just being as mean as possible.
Do you feel your stand-up comes from being amused by audience's reactions to what you're saying? Sure, I think it's ridiculous that anyone thinks that I should have to defend myself against certain things. People will be like, "You're mean." But I could not be less mean. Literally what I do is make up a person, like totally make up a person, and I don't even give them a name. There's no face to it, there's no reason anyone should get upset, and then I make up something awful that I do to them. I just can't believe that people would think that I'm being a jerk. Whereas, if I would say "You know, Mariah Carey's a piece of shit," like, no one would ever think I was being mean by saying that. But that's a real person that you're saying that about. So when you say "my girlfriend," it's not actually your girlfriend, or anyone real.
It couldn't be less my girlfriend. You know, I've dated girls who have loved my comedy and they come out to shows and people are like, "Oh, you're the girlfriend." And they're like "Are you fucking crazy?" Like, no, I would never treat my girlfriend like that, like any of that. I wouldn't date a girl who I looked at in that way, you know?
Do you ever do any comedy that has any relation to your personal life, or is it all made up?
It's all made up. It's all 100% made up. Sometimes something will, like, trigger something, but it's never actually something that happened.You've been on a lot of Comedy Central roasts lately. Do you think that has gained you a new audience?
Oh, absolutely. I don't know if even a new audience, I think it's just put me out there for more people. If I'm on Conan maybe 10,000 people, 50,000 people see me, but with the roast it's like a super bowl of comedy where there's like six million people seeing you do that. The first one really helped, because it was like, oh, who's this guy? But then the second one, it's like you're established. It changed my life. People come out to comedy shows to see me as opposed to see comedy. Which really helps a lot.
How did you get on that first roast?
I had written for the one before it. I felt like I had kind of built my act for the roast, you know, I always thought that I should be doing them. Short, mean jokes is my specialty. And then I got to write for the David Hasselhoff roast, which was a dream. I had more fun even writing on that one than I have doing all the other ones, because that was just twelve-hour days sitting in a room with a bunch of hilarious people who were also great at writing roast jokes. We would throw out stuff that would make ourselves laugh. Half the stuff we couldn't use, and that was the amazing stuff, but the writing on that I think Comedy Central already liked me and they saw me doing well writing in the room and told me before that was over, "You're gonna be on the next one." People keep saying I replaced Greg Giraldo, and the last conversation I had with Giraldo was after that Hasselhoff roast, talking about how I was gonna be on the next one and we were both excited to be writing about each other and it was going to be great, and then he left and I never saw him again.
So you said that a lot of the amazing stuff got thrown out. Why couldn't you use it? What kind of stuff was that?
Usually it's something that's so mean that nobody wanted to say it, because we're not writing for the comedians as much as we're writing for, you know, the Pam Andersons and the celebrities who just kind of show up and we give them a script. So there's stuff that people just aren't gonna say. Or some of my jokes will bomb during a roast. Like, something that doesn't get a laugh. And I'm okay with it not working, you either cut it out or something will happen like I did that joke during the Sheen roast about Mike Tyson, you know, "What can you say about him that hasn't already been the title of a Richard Pryor album?"
And not a lot of people got that, but the ones who did, that would be people's favorite joke. And then they ended up using it only because I had a little, I go back and forth with Patrice O'Neil afterward, and they had to use the joke. But I'm happy with a joke that doesn't do that well just because I think it's a really smart joke. It doesn't have to be great but people see it on TV and they can look it up and it's a fun thing to have. I never really worried about the success rate, but people do. They're like, "I don't get it, so I'm uncomfortable with saying it." They want clean, sharp jokes. They don't want to take chances, really. They don't wanna be that mean in the beginning. They're like, "Ah, that's too mean to say," and then they get up there and they're like "Oh, shit, everyone's crushing me here. I wish I had meaner jokes."
At the Charlie Sheen Roast, your ex-girlfriend Amy Schumer got a lot of flack afterward for the stuff that she said to Jackass' Steve-O. How do you feel about that?
I think it was ridiculous. There are a couple of things about that: the joke is fine. There were no problems with that joke. It wasn't a low blow; it wasn't even saying anything bad about Ryan Dunn. It was saying "Your friend died, I wish it was you." And even in the room, it didn't see like that big a deal. I know Steve-O was upset, but no one thought about it in the room. When we watched it on TV together, you know, no one thought anything of it and then all of a sudden we're sitting there and her name and Ryan Dunn's name both started trending and she's like, "Wait, what is this?"
And it was just a case of editing, where Comedy Central cut to Steve-O after that joke and Steve-O looks like he's about to start crying, but he looked sad even before that. He had a terrible set, so he was mad already, and then they show him not looking thrilled and then his fans are like "Aw, poor Steve-O" and they start tearing into her because they thought they could. I mean, she was unknown and she's a girl, and people thought, "We can go after this person." Whereas I make fun of Islam, I make fun of Down's Syndrome, I did all these horrible things that people don't even blink at because I'd already done one and people don't think they can fuck with me like that. But she handled it like a champion; she didn't apologize, you know, no matter what they tried to get her to say to calm things down. And I think she'll always kind of get some blow back from that but I was almost jealous of her. You kind of want that moment of controversy that kind of helps. I think it was almost a bonus. And I can't wait to see, I'm sure she'll do some kind of reference to it, you know, or someone will at the next roast, and it will be great. I mean, fuck those people.
You wrote for Jimmy Fallon. Do you think that affected the way you do comedy now?
I think it helped me. I think it was almost like going to college, in terms of comedy for me. It didn't make me any funnier, being in college, but it helped me on my work ethic. I equate it almost to working on a gym for a year. Where you're just sitting in a gym and you don't know how strong you are, you're just working out. And you leave after a year and you're like, "Oh my god, when I pick up things in real life it's so much easier." I think it made me a better writer just from the sheer exercise of it. Plus, I think it helps you find out what you want to do by finding out what you don't wanna do, and that was something that you didn't wanna do. I didn't want to write monologue jokes every night. I've got certain jokes I want to do, but if I just have to go up and talk about what happened that day every day, I wouldn't enjoy that. Because some days, you know, it's boring shit that happens. We would have people come in all the time to our office saying "Okay, guys, we really need a joke about Obama's tax plan today." And I'm like, we've had jokes about that every single day for two weeks, and it's boring as hell and they've all been bad, and I didn't like writing bad jokes for the sake of writing a joke.
Is there anything else you have going on that you want people to know about?
Well, Amy and I broke up, my girlfriend from the roast, which was a huge pain in the ass. But that's always nice to mention so that people aren't yelling things out at shows about my girlfriend. It was just, I mean, we're both on the road so much that it became, like, we both needed different things from each other and it was just like this isn't working out. Hopefully we'll be friends. We had a pretty great spark between us. We break up all the time and get back together but I think this is it, because we've done this so many times that it becomes almost embarrassing. We can't really talk for a while.
Do people at your shows mention Amy a lot?
I'll say like "So, my girlfriend and I..." and they'll be like "Amy Schumer!" Fuck that. Because it makes the joke real. I do radio interviews and they'll be like "What's that one joke you do about Amy?" And I'm like "I don't do any jokes about Amy." I wasn't thrilled with Comedy Central for bringing up that we were a couple on the roast. So it's kind of annoying, but I guess it's over now.
What are you working on next?
I just moved to Los Angeles, and I'm working on a TV show for Comedy Central that we'll probably shoot the pilot for in January and see where that goes. That could be really big if it happens, so we'll see on that. I'm just kind of putting all my work into that. And I'm on the road as much as I can be. I'm gonna try to do an hour special, like, everything new from Shakespeare, in May. So I'm trying to just stay on the road to keep developing new material.
What's the TV show? Can you talk about it?
Um, a little bit. Right now I'm shooting at doing my own nightly talk show, you know, Daily Show would be on at 11, Colbert on at 11:30, and my show would be on at midnight, and it would be kind of me talking about things that are going on just from a very dark point of view. I'm kind of talking about it as like, if the Devil had a talk show. It would be so awesome to do that I'm a little pessimistic about its chances. Comedy Central seems to be enthused, and I'm certainly happy about it. I've got some great people I'm working with, so hopefully it all works out.
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