Comedy Central's The Jeselnik Offensive ran its fourth episode Tuesday, characteristically taking on the politically sensitive news of the day with an irreverent send-up of Adam Strange, a recent victim of a shark attack in New Zealand. "Was he killed? You bet your sweet ass he was," Jeselnik laughed. "And he had a family and everything." The bit made a loose connection between the 46-year-old's death and the senseless killing of sharks for their fins -- "so when a shark kills a human, you gotta give thanks" -- that was followed by a song-and-dance number with sexy women dressed as sharks giving Jeselnik a lapdance. The bit stirred up the predictable outrage it was looking for, but failed horribly as a piece of provocative comedy, never coming close to the brilliant stabs that Joan Rivers and The Onion have recently laid on society.
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If Adam Strange had been an infamous proponent of unreasonable shark killing, Jeselnik's show-tunes smackdown would've made for a biting piece of comedy justice. But he wasn't. Strange was a simple, ocean-loving filmmaker who was known for his recent short film about dairy farming in the 1930s. When Bill Maher caused an outrage in 2006 with his Halloween costume of then recently deceased Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, complete with a stingray plunged into his bloody chest, he at least made the animal-rights argument that Irwin should not have been fucking with the stingray to begin with.
But Strange was not fucking with sharks, he was merely training for a long-distance swimming marathon. This makes Jeselnik's bit arbitrarily offensive, merely seeking to push people's buttons for the sake of ratings.
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I've been accused of doing the same with my little rants against tipping, voting and cruiser bikes. People charged that I was seeking out topics that were societal sacred cows, and then manufacturing an argument against them with the intention of attracting outraged commenters who would fill our blog with hits. Whether or not people agreed with me, I felt those issues had gone unchallenged for too long, and justified in attacking them -- while also enjoying a little comedic antagonism at the same time. (To this day, whenever a Denver server or bartender recognizes my name on a credit card, I get either an eye roll or some comment like "I guess I shouldn't expect a tip, huh?" Despite the fact that I always tip 20 percent.)
When an offensive joke is told, there has to be an extra dimension to it. The surface shock of "I can't believe he just said that!" will often get a chuckle out of half the audience, but to really tear those listeners apart you have to appeal to something that rings true, causing the layered experience of shock mixed with shameful recognition.
The most common route for this is the classic railing-against-political-correctness, a method that has kept comics like Don Rickles, Lisa Lampinelli and Louis C.K. filling auditoriums for years. Many comedy fans share the frustration of liberals constantly moving the goal-posts of what is politically sacred and untouchable, so when a standup attacks this head-on, it's a thrilling combination of fearful adrenaline and social relief, with all of us grateful that the martyr on stage finally had the guts to challenge a hot-button convention.
Joan Rivers was doing this long before it was popular, or even acceptable, commenting on topics like abortion and homosexuality before censors even allowed the words on TV. And the 79-year-old comic is far from turning down the volume on her discourteous discourse today, recently finding herself under fire from the Anti-Defamation League for complimenting Heidi Klum on her E! Fashion Police show by saying, "The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens."
Like rock music or ironic art, a joke like this only works if there are people who don't get it. This is half the reason people laugh so hard at offensive material: Because there are other people who aren't laughing, people who are offended and don't understand why this is funny -- but you do. This is the whole crux of social satire, and it's the reason The Onion should never have apologized for calling Beasts of the Southern Wild star Quvenzhané Wallis "a cunt." It was a very special thing to be in on that joke, partly because referring to a nine-year-old as the most unacceptable anti-female put-down is brazenly hilarious, but mostly because those who got it understood that the joke wasn't directed at Wallis, but at the despicable world of Hollywood celebrity, which only hypes movie stars with the intention of bringing them down through catty gossip. The fact that so many people were outraged by it was why it was funny.
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Anthony Jeselnik has a long way to go before he begins cooking with this recipe. While he's a brilliant standup who knows how to build up a joke in one direction, and then crush an audience by taking it in another, he has yet to reach into our minds and pluck out something that we didn't know was already there. Joan Rivers and The Onion have their finger on the pulse of the modern psyche, knowing exactly when the time is right to inch their toe across the line of offensive commentary. But I can guarantee you that nobody tuned into Comedy Central Tuesday night with the conscious or unconscious thought: Gee, I sure hope somebody brings down that swimmer who was eaten by a shark last week; that dick sure had it coming.