If you’ve watched The Jeselnik Offensive on Comedy Central, you might think its host is the very personification of the devil. Anthony Jeselnik makes the controversial Daniel Tosh look warm and fuzzy.
It’s all by design, of course. The Prince of Comedic Darkness is a prince of a guy off-stage. The only thing dark about him is his humour.
Jeselnik’s standup is smartly written misdirection on taboos such as cancer, suicide, and rape. While he’ll assign a fictional girlfriend or parent to the joke, the subjects are largely impersonal abstractions.
Vancouver audiences first got a glimpse of him in 2008, when he opened for Sarah Silverman at the River Rock Show Theatre, where his brazenly cocky persona, coupled with killer jokes, quickly won over the crowd at both sold-out shows.
Jeselnik’s humour might not be for everyone, but there’s no denying the talent behind his punch lines. “Everything in my act is completely defensible because none of it’s real,” he tells the Straight over the phone between stops on his North American tour. “These are all just concepts.”
Which brings us back to TV’s The Jeselnik Offensive. The show goes after real targets in the news of the week, and not just life’s winners—the rich and famous—or those who can defend themselves. One segment had him glorifying a shark attack in New Zealand, putting the victim’s face on the screen and giving his name.
While Jeselnik says the “absurdly offensive” piece, complete with dancing sharks, was his favourite of the first season, he admits he’d maybe do things differently now.
“The show is kind of ‘What if the devil had a talk show?’ Would the devil do a bit celebrating a guy getting eaten by a shark?” he says. “Yeah, he probably would. I mean, I want everybody to laugh at these things. I didn’t want to hurt the family. I thought the family would never see this. I think if we did it again, we would have taken out his name and not shown the picture. The picture was the big mistake. We wouldn’t have done that. But I stand by the bit.”
Jeselnik may be persona non grata in New Zealand, but he acknowledges the inherent risks of the trade.
“You’ve gotta understand when you go into those realms that you’re going to upset people and you just have to take it,” he says. “You can’t expect everyone to laugh or to applaud you for doing these edgy things. And sometimes you’ll miss. But I think comedians are artists and there’s a value in failure. It kind of works both ways between comedians and audiences. The audience has to understand that comedians are going to sometimes tell a joke that doesn’t work out with dark subjects, and the comedian has to understand that sometimes they’ll fail and it’s not the audience’s fault for not getting it or loving it.”
So does it matter that he’s a good guy whose jokes, albeit hilarious, are less than kind? It does to most of us, although some refuse to believe he’s anything but a vindictive dickhead. To Jeselnik, it makes little difference either way.
“When people are like, ‘God, he’s such a jerk,’ they should understand that I’m on-stage holding a microphone being billed as a comedian,” he says. “If people actually get mad, it’s kind of their bad. It’s not my job to convince you I’m actually a nice guy and that these are just jokes.”
Still, Jeselnik himself sometimes wonders where these cruel thoughts come from. He claims there’s no line he won’t cross, even though there is for most people—and even other comedians. “But I’m not a sociopath,” he insists. “I’ve asked my therapist that repeatedly.”
That’s good to know. He’s not a sociopath; he just plays one on TV.