Anthony Jeselnik on Thoughts and Prayers and Making College Kids Laugh

Comedy Features

In many ways, Anthony Jeselnik’s third stand-up special Thoughts and Prayers is what we’ve come to expect from this comic: over-the-top one liners about sexual deviancy, baby killing, and other equally wonderfully NSFW subject matter, all delivered with the winning smile and his devilish charm.

But for the last quarter of this hour-long Netflix release, the 36-year-old former Jimmy Fallon writer and superstar of Comedy Central’s Roast of Donald Trump lets down the veil just a smidge. He talks in depth about the trouble he got into for a joke he tweeted in the wake of Boston Marathon bombing and for a segment on his former TV show, The Jeselnik Offensive, poking fun at a New Zealand man who was killed by a shark. The whole segment of the special would be almost poignant if he didn’t use it too to vent about the world’s oversensitivity and to mock a certain island nation.

This new special also caps off what has been an eventful year for Jeselnik. On top of his busy schedule touring (when Paste caught up with him, he was just about to set off to do the final run of dates on the Oddball Comedy Festival), he took over for J.B. Smoove as the host of Last Comic Standing. A risky move on NBC’s part but one that paid off nicely for both network and comic.

Paste spent some time on the phone with Jeselnik to talk about Thoughts and Prayers, the conversation surrounding political correctness ruining comedy, and his tenuous relationship with Twitter.

Paste:With this new special, are you one of those people that films a special and then gets to work writing a whole new hour of material or does it take a while for you transition out the older stuff?

Jeselnik: It takes a while to make the transition because all of my jokes are so short. I may have a couple stories in each special but, as soon as the special airs, I’ll start working in new stuff. So hopefully after a year I have maybe half hour of new stuff, but I can’t just go blank slate. I have too many moving parts.

Paste: One of the things that I have appreciated is your comfort level when you’re on stage as well. You seem really at ease up there. Is that something that came pretty quickly to you, or did that take some time for you to get your feet under you when you’re doing stand-up?

Jeselnik: I realized pretty quickly that I was going to have to fake it, that I was going to have to pretend to be more comfortable than everybody else. I wanted to pretend like I was a genius when I first started so I wouldn’t have to pay my dues like other comics did, like, I’m just amazing at this. And I’m gonna pretend like I’m a god. So that’s very much an act.

Paste: You do make reference to that in the special, about how great you are as a comic, which I would agree with, but it’s interesting to hear that directly from the person on stage. Usually they try to be a lot more coy.

Jeselnik: Sure. Well, I mean, some of my jokes are so challenging that I have to have the ego behind it. I can never say, “Oh, maybe I went too far with that.” I have to say, “You were wrong, I’m the best,” because then I can tell the next joke. Because if I say, “Yeah, I went too far,” they lose faith in me.

Paste: One of the big parts of the special is the closing segment where you address some of the controversy that you have run into by tweeting a joke about the Boston Marathon bombing and then dealing with the fall out of the “Shark Party” piece you did on The Jeselnik Offensive. How did that feel to finally get that out in front? Does that feel kind of cathartic to be working that stuff out?

Jeselnik: Oh yeah, it was cathartic. That was pretty much only for me. I don’t even think my fans really knew about those controversies so much because they didn’t really explode. It wasn’t like these giant huge stories the way that Daniel Tosh would run into or Gilbert Gottfried. It was pretty much a controversy that only affected me, so I had to say it. As soon as I taped that special, I needed to never talk about this on stage again. I was like, “Ok, I’m done, that was for me.”

Paste: I loved the parts of the special where you get to see some audience reactions, and there were quite a number of people there, especially the women in the audience, who looked like they were really trying to fight the urge to laugh at some of your jokes.

Jeselnik: That’s my favorite. I like the people who don’t want to laugh. There are fans of mine who laugh too much. It’s like, “I’m not sure if you’re laughing at the twist of this, or you’re laughing at the awful idea behind it,” and then there are people who just hate it. And then people in the middle who are like, “I don’t want to laugh, but I have to.” And those are my absolute favorites. I want the people who are being challenged the entire time.

Paste: Do you think that represents at least some segment of your audience, like some people who maybe got brought there by a boyfriend or a girlfriend and didn’t really wanna go but are just there to be supportive of whoever they’re with.

Jeselnik: Oh sure, I would say there’s only about 20% of the crowd who has no idea what they’re coming to see. And of those 20%, half of them are going to be pleasantly surprised, like, “Wow, I’m on board with this, I get it.” And the other half are gonna be, like, “What is this, I don’t connect to this in any way. This is torture.” And I understand both points of view. Neither one is wrong. But I like having both of those sides in there.

Paste: You’ve been fairly busy with stand-up, especially ever since The Jeselnik Offensive went off the air, and you recently stepped into the role of hosting Last Comic Standing. How was that to jump into a network show like that?

Jeselnik: It was pretty easy. It was almost like a step down. Hosting The Jeselnik Offensive was such an involved thing and every joke on that show was coming out of my mouth I had to approve or write or tweak. It was a big thing. Whereas Last Comic Standing, I took it because it was eight days of work and I got to hang out with Norm Macdonald. So I just kind of showed up and did whatever I wanted. They couldn’t really give me notes because I did not care. They could’ve been like, “Anthony, you’re fired,” and I would’ve been, “Fine, I’ll see you guys later.” So that was a fun thing to do because I didn’t care at all, and those jobs are fun to get every once in a while.

Paste: It must be a nice place to be at in your career where you can just sort of take one of those gigs like, “Eh, this’ll be fun for a few days, and if it doesn’t work out, whatever.” Your whole career’s not hanging on it.

Jeselnik: Oh exactly. I think I taped the special, like, the day before we started. Alright, the tour is over, I can just walk right across the street and it’ll take eight days. Whether I like it or not, after eight days I’m getting paid and it’s over. So yeah, those things are fun to pick every now and again.

Paste: Do you miss the having something like The Jeselnik Offensive where it’s all you and very involved thing that you are in control of? Would you like to do something like that again?

Jeselnik: It’s possible. It’d have to be the right thing. The Jeselnik Offensive was fun for a while but we didn’t have a great story that I was excited about talking about. Then the show was kind of frustrating. We kind of needed that new story. The week or two around [Oscar Pistorius], that South African sprinter who killed his girlfriend. When that happened, we had like a great time. Talking about stuff like that was so much fun. And then nothing happened that week, I hated that. It was the same thing I hated about writing for Jimmy Fallon. If it was a slow news day, it was the worst day of your life. It was awful and I hated that feeling. So I think it’s possible I would go back to something like that, because there are certain things I would love to be able to comment on, which I can’t really now, because I don’t have a show.

Paste: Have you considered going the route that a lot of stand-ups are doing, which is writing a book?

Jeselnik: I think about writing books every now and again. I mean, I love books. I’m obsessed with reading, but because of that my bar is so high. Some comics are like, “Look, I’m gonna type something out about my life, and put it out there.” When I eventually do a book — and I will do a book — it’ll have to be something that I know could be great and special and necessary even. Also, I would say if I broke my leg, maybe I would write a book. If there’s, like, eight months where I couldn’t go on stage. That I like, I like being able to write something down to get on stage that night and find out if it’s good.

Paste: Is that a constant urge you feel: to keep busy and keep yourself out there?

Jeselnik: Not really. In the beginning I did. Now I’m more excited about my time off than I am about any sort of new thing. I’ve accomplished a lot of the goals that I wanted to and now I can do what makes me happy, what interests me. What can I do that’s different and new and exciting for me? That’s much important to me than keeping myself out there. Being out there is not that much fun.

Paste: You’ve done a little bit of acting work I know. Is that something you’d want to concentrate on for a bit, taking on some comedic roles in TV and movies?

Jeselnik: Oh sure, if the right thing came up I would love to do it, it’d be good fun. I know I wouldn’t want to lock myself into a seven year contract with CBS but if someone was like, “Hey come in and do this! We thought of you for this,” that’d be great. And you know, I’m working on my own things where I would be doing more acting, but always kind of playing versions of myself.

Paste: You talked about the small Twitter controversy in your special and obviously that has been a huge boon for a lot of comedians. Did you notice a sort of sizable expansion of your audience when you joined Twitter?

Jeselnik: No. I think the Roasts were good for me and brought me Twitter followers. And then I think just being on Twitter, I kind of found my angle. And my angle for a little while was: I’m only gonna make jokes after tragedies when people died. And as I kept doing it, more people started doing it. People started to expect it. And then it became just not fun. I didn’t enjoy myself. And I have friends who use Twitter very well, and I’m like, “Alright, maybe if I go that route, then I would be enjoying Twitter. But the way I decided to use it, you couldn’t maintain it once you got above a certain level of fame because people were looking at you to kind of slip up. Like, “Oh what’s his joke gonna be for this?” And that’s not fun. Like the negative far outweighs the positive there.

Paste: With that, how do you feel about all these conversations going on with people debating political correctness in comedy and with people like Jerry Seinfeld saying they won’t perform at colleges because of the politically correct atmosphere there? Are you seeing that as well?

Jeselnik: I see it and I welcome the challenge. Anyone who complains about PC culture is lazy and I think that it’s my goal to kind of get through that obstacle course. I like doing colleges because it’s a challenge. How can I get these kids, who are so PC, to laugh at these things? I want it to be like that. I don’t want a bunch of gross old men in the back smoking cigars saying they need more racist stuff. That sucks. So I think anyone who’s complaining about PC doesn’t want to work that hard on the jokes.

Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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