Title: Anthony Jeselnik
I first watched Anthony Jeselnik when he did his Netflix special Thoughts and Prayers. Some of his jokes were kind of obvious and sophomoric but he won me over with the Thoughts and Prayer part of his routine, where he explained why he sends out really insensitive tweets after major tragedies. It was insightful social commentary that still resonates even now, I think of it whenever I hear a politician send out thoughts and prayers to shooting victims but then does absolutely nothing to help and/or solve the problem of mass shootings.
Mo Welch opened for him. She did a strong set. She’s in the mold of the the current tradition of extremely personal comedy. She is gay, grew up poor, and her father apparently spent a substantial amount of her childhood in prison. All of these topics were fodder for her humor.
She was a good opener for Jeselnik because, like him, her comedy pushed boundaries. She had a riff about how a lesbian’s finger is her penis, meeting a friend who was from Joliet (a famous prison), and joyfully exclaiming that her father did time there, and an extended bit about wanting to marry her mother when she was a child (ending with a joke about sex with her mom).
She received good laughs and warmed the audience up well.
Jeselnik then came out. His act was in the same style as his Netflix special. He assumes a character on stage. He acts cocky to the point of arrogance. He frequently assures the audience of the brilliance of his jokes. He stalks the stage like a tiger. When he gets to the punchline, he stares directly out at the audience with a fierce intensity.
And that’s the interesting thing about Jeselnik. He tells jokes. The current trend of comedians is personal. If you think of the current top comedians like Louis C.K., Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, or Chris Rock, they tell stories about themselves. Sure, they address larger themes, but they come from a personal place to express it. The trend is still ongoing. An up and coming comedian like Ali Wong goes into extremely graphic (and hilarious) detail about her pregnancy, giving birth, and raising a child.
Jeselnik stays aloof on stage. Even when he does tell a story about his father, it’s pretty obvious that it’s not based in reality. It’s like the old school unmarried comedians making jokes about their wives. It’s a vehicle to a punchline, not a personal observation.
And that’s OK. I just find it interesting how he’s going against the stream. He clearly owes a debt to Mitch Hedberg and, even earlier, to Steven Wright. Like Hedberg and Wright, he has fun with language. He’ll start talking and it follows a very predictable path and then, still staying in context with what he’s talking about, he takes a very dark twist. The unexpected path and the abruptness in which it happens is the source of his humor.
It usually is very effective. I have noticed that you can get into the rhythm of his bits. If you listen carefully and project just a bit ahead, you can with some regularity actually predict the joke, which of course lessens the impact.
I think that it’ll be interesting to see how Jeselnik’s act will be in ten years. Will he be in the same persona? Will audiences still want to see him? Over time, I see his act becoming more and more predictable. It’ll be interesting to see if it evolves.
Tonight, as usual, he tested his audience to see how far he can take them. He does a bit on baby dropping. From what I recollect, I believe that he did a similar bit on his Netflix special. I think the idea of getting people to laugh at such an obviously absurd comedic premise is a challenge to him. Similarly, he had extended bits on murder / suicide, abortion, and racism. His abortion bit especially skirted the edge of exactly what he could say that would be simultaneously funny and shocking.
I’m wondering if he had one true moment during the end of his routine. He talked, in an ironically obsequious manner, of what a great crowd the audience was. He then made an offhand comment about the time he was at Bumbershoot and half the audience walked out on him. There’s no reason to actually believe him, but knowing that Bumbershoot is basically a bunch of random people deciding to catch a show, not knowing who Jeselnik was, that could very well be the one true fact of the evening. He tossed out the little aside with just enough of a hint of a bitterness to make you think that it actually happened and that it stung him a bit.