TV preview: Anthony Jeselnik loves being the jerk on new comedy show
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Comedian Anthony Jeselnik, a 1997 graduate of Upper St. Clair High School, makes no apologies for his style of dark comedy that may strike some who hear it as inappropriate. And he's happy to warn listeners up front as evidenced in the title of his new Comedy Central series, "The Jeselnik Offensive" (10:30 p.m. Tuesday).
"The most guttural laugh you could get out of someone is when someone has died and you make a joke so inappropriate it causes people to laugh," the 34-year-old comedian said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles, where he makes his home. "Then I thought, what if you could do that with every joke? And what do I have to do to pull that off?"
Mr. Jeselnik said he adopts an arrogant, undefeatable jerk persona for his stand-up performances: "I'm almost never myself on stage. I consider myself the villain."
In his special that debuted last month, "Anthony Jeselnik: Caligula" (now on DVD), he tells several jokes about an ex-girlfriend who's moved in with a new boyfriend.
"I've heard rumors that he's abusive," Mr. Jeselnik says, "which makes me want to go over there with a baseball bat and then blame it on her boyfriend.
"But I don't want to sound like a misogynist up here. My ex-girlfriend wasn't a bad person," he continues, "but she was terrible in bed. She would just lie there, screaming, 'Noooo!' That's rape joke No. 2, baby doll."
Mr. Jeselnik previously brought his humor to Comedy Central's roasts of Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen and Roseanne Barr.
"I would say [my style of comedy] is kind of dark but smart with maybe an emphasis on misdirectional jokes," he said. "My big idol is Jack Handey who did 'Deep Thoughts' on 'Saturday Night Live.' Every joke had a dark twist to it."
An example of his misdirection from "Caligula": "Yesterday I accidentally hit a little kid with my car. It wasn't serious. Nobody saw me."
Mr. Jeselnik said his parents back in Pittsburgh, Anthony F. and Stephanie Jeselnik, were concerned about his lack of income when he started out as a comedian. But now that he's found success, they're generally pleased.
"The only time they get a little annoyed is if I say something blue. They don't mind a rape joke or a death joke," he said, giving an example of a profane joke from the Comedy Central roast of Roseanne Barr that set them off. "My parents were devastated. If I ever talk about sex or be crude, that's their Kryptonite."
Mr. Jeselnik's road to success began with a desire to be a writer. He graduated from Tulane University with a degree in English literature in 2001 and a dream of writing the Great American Novel. An internship in Los Angeles between his junior and senior years of college convinced him there were other avenues for a writer.
"I got into stand-up just to become a writer," he said. "My stuff is more well written than it is well performed, if that makes sense. I get to rely on my jokes more to get me through it."
Mr. Jeselnik was hired to write for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" early in that late-night talk show's run, but he stayed for only a year.
"Jimmy had a completely different voice and wanted me there because of what I could do just in case," Mr. Jeslnik said, explaining his dark humor was to be deployed if Mr. Fallon's show had been trounced -- critically or ratings-wise -- and needed to move in a different, darker direction. "That never really happened. Jimmy wanted to be nice and make everyone happy and make everyone love him, which is the opposite of my philosophy."
Even during his tenure on "Late Night," Mr. Jeselnik continued to do stand-up shows on weekends. He said he's been back to Pittsburgh to perform.
"People in Pittsburgh don't seem to care that I'm from Pittsburgh," he said. "Maybe it's because I don't talk about being from Pittsburgh on stage. ... When I get my face painted on the Primanti Bros. wall, we'll know I've made it."
His new series, which airs after the popular "Tosh.0," will offer Mr. Jeselnik's take on pop culture and current events, taping just a few days in advance of air.
"I've always wanted a monologue to deal with the darker stories of the week, the woman who tattoos her baby, the guy who kills his wife," he said. After 15-20 jokes about the week's bizarre news, "The Jeselnik Offensive" will turn to a segment called "Sacred Cows," where Mr. Jeselnik will take a subject that's inherently not humorous (e.g., cancer) and try to make it funny. He also will welcome a panel of comedians and celebrities each week.
Of course, with a weekly show that has advertisers, Mr. Jeselnik may find his offensive commentary under greater scrutiny. Other comedians have been publicly shamed for jokes some deem offensive, including "30 Rock" star Tracy Morgan after a homophobic stand-up rant in 2011 and Comedy Central's own Daniel Tosh ("Tosh.0"), who generated criticism after directing a rape joke at an audience member at one of his live appearances.
"I'm sure someone will try to complain, but I'm not affected by it," Mr. Jeselnik said. "Everything I say is awful. My comedy is not, 'You guys remember when summer camp...' My comedy is, 'By the way, rape.' Every single joke of mine is horrible. You couldn't pick just one out. ... Just hate me across the board. That's fine with me."
First Published February 18, 2013 12:00 am