Caligula, with its connotations of sociopathic decadence, is as accurate a name for a stand-up special as any since Raw. Or possibly Carlin at Carnegie. Either way, Anthony Jeselnik hit the stage in his recent hour-long set with all the detached malice and wry amusement of Patrick Bateman channeling Mitch Hedberg.
It’s been a frenetic couple of years for Jeselnik, who signed a development deal with Comedy Central following the network’s Roast of Donald Trump in 2011. His most recent special just bowed in January, and he’s one of comedians performing as part of the Comedy Central Weekend February 22-23 at MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay, along with Jim Norton, Dave Attell, Amy Schumer and Nick Swardson.
We caught up with Jeselnik to talk about his show premiering tonight, The Jeselnik Offensive (Comedy Central, 10:30 p.m.), the benefits of insulting the audience, and just how to tweak a crowd once everyone starts expecting dead baby jokes.
Did you talk to [on-off girlfriend] Amy Schumer at all about her run at the Riviera?
I’ve performed in Vegas a few times. Some terrible, terrible gigs. I think my first ever gig was at the old Riviera comedy room. I was the emcee. The crowd hated me so much. I did two shows a night for two weeks. It was so awful. I’ve played the Hard Rock once or twice. The Mirage is such a great venue, I think it’ll be a much different—you still get the Vegas experience, but I think it’s a little more polite Vegas experience as opposed to what I’ve run into in the past.
Was there anything in particular that brought this weekend together?
I don’t know what the actual event is, whether it’s a festival thing or just an event from Comedy Central, but they asked me to do it and since I’m in production on my TV show, I can’t really get on the road that much. It’s easy for me to fly out on a Friday night and come back Sunday and just do the one show. I was grateful just to be able to come up and show people my newer stuff when I usually have to be around town. After this gig I think I’m working on the show until April and then I can go back on the road again.
Is that hard to be tied down a little bit?
Yeah. I think it would be harder if I wasn’t working on this show. I’m kind of pouring everything I have into this. Instead of thinking of jokes like I normally would be, I’m thinking of stuff for the show. I’m a little distracted, but as soon as it’s done I’m going back on the road. I miss the road a little bit, but I’m so busy here, I don’t have time to think about it too much.
Are you one of those guys who, once your special is out, you scrap the old hour and try to immediately work on the next hour?
I can’t really do that because [when] I write a new joke, it’s 20 seconds long no matter how good it is. What I do is I kind of have that hour, and I put the new stuff in as I go. I try to have a new opener right away, but it’s a lot of Caligula. And I think this time I’m going to go back to some of my early work that people maybe haven’t seen before from my album Shakespeare. Put some of the greatest hits in there so people come out and they get to see new stuff, but they get to see some favorites as well.
The format of The Jeselnik Offensive is going to be a take on the standard desk talk show?
It’s a little bit like that in that I do a monologue. A lot of it comes out of the work I did for Jimmy Fallon for a year where I kind of learned how those talk shows work and wanted to do my own version. Like a darker, less likeable version of that. I tried to do as much as I can, but it’s a weekly show. I come out and do a monologue, but then I do a desk piece – something Conan would do after his monologue, but I’ll be standing in front of a monitor. Then I’ll throw to a field piece where I interview someone or just talk about some dark subjects. I think the first episode I talk to a cancer doctor and then did stand-up for a cancer support group, which was really fun. The end of it is, instead of doing an interview with a celebrity and saying “Oh, what’s your movie about?” something I don’t care about, I have a couple of comics on and talk about a couple weird news stories of the day, give our opinions.
Is it going back to the Tough Crowd format, where you’re going to have four or five guys, or is it going to be tighter than that?
It’s going to be tighter. I loved Tough Crowd, so it’ll be a little like that, but I’m just going to have two people so I can really get involved. Instead of having four and everyone’s got to get face time, we can just have two people and cut the best of together.
Has the roast for this year started coming together?
Nope. I think they try to do two if they can, but it’s hard. You kind of have to wait for someone to come to you and say I want to be roasted. It’s just so hard to get someone to commit. I think there will be one in the early fall or late summer, but I’ve not heard who they’re looking at.
Is there anyone in particular you’d really like to roast?
I always used to say Casey Anthony, but the way people would react to that I realize it’s never going to happen. I think a good one would be Shaq. He’s been retired for a couple of years, he’s on TV all the time, he has a great sense of humor, and he’s got a lot of funny friends I think would be able to do a good job of roasting him.
Didn’t Shaq have his own roasts going on?
He tried to do something. I know he was in a roast of Emmit Smith. He was such a big part of it people kind of think of it as his roast. I’m not sure if he actually did his own. If he did, it’s over now. I think he would be fantastic. I think we almost had him a couple of years ago instead of Roseanne. He’d be a fun guy that everyone likes who’s fun to roast. They’re always trying to get a Lindsay Lohan or someone who’s a lightning rod. I’d rather roast somebody who’s cool.
You’ve said you wanted to get into stand-up so you could be a TV writer. How was the transition to performing? Was it a hard thing to accommodate, and is that how you started developing your persona?
It certainly developed out of learning to perform. Before I was even a writer, I wanted to write jokes for TV shows. I would go up and do stand-up and just tell jokes. I kind of approached it as a writer. I was a little boring about it. Like “These jokes are so good I don’t need to put my personality into it.” I was pretty deadpan. As I got more confident with the deadpan, I found that if a crowd didn’t laugh at a joke and I said, “You guys are idiots. That’s a great joke” they laughed at that. That’s really where the persona came from. That they’re enjoying me pissing all over them.
What do you think that is, that people like to take that heat like that?
I think it’s kind of the way I do it. It’s so different that people aren’t used to it. They understand it’s a joke. If I tell the whole crowd to go to hell and I’m angry when I say it, they’re uncomfortable. But if I’m laughing when I say it, they can be in on the joke and they can enjoy themselves. It’s just kind of absurd.
Has it ever devolved into a mutual loathing between you and an audience?
It happens occasionally. Sometimes I’ll come to a comedy club, and the first 10 rows are some company who rented out the theater, so I’m doing this private corporate gig for people who are just there to hang out with their friends and I’m furious. And I’m a professional, so I go through with it, but I’m not having fun, and then I resent the crowd for not letting me have fun.
The example that pops in my head is the clip of Bill Burr in Philly. It’s an amazing thing to watch.
He almost got in trouble for it, because then people would be like “Come make fun of our town,” and start heckling him to do that rant again. I think that was just an in-the-moment, brilliant “You’re going to come at me, here’s what you get” kind of thing. You couldn’t even try to replicate it.
Did your slow, deliberate pace stem from the need to create tension in an act where jokes are 30-45 seconds start to finish.
Oh, absolutely. You had to hide the punchline. I kind of talk with weird pauses in my sentences anyway, like the way a Christopher Walken would. But I fed into that because it helped hide the reveal of the joke so well. And there’s a confidence to speaking slowly. It’s like if everyone’s talking and you start whispering, people get quiet because they want to try to hear you. If you talk slow, people have to pay attention.
Now that you have the two specials under your belt, a couple of albums, is it going to be harder to provoke an audience the more people become familiar with your act?
A little bit. You almost have to provoke them in a different way. Now it’s almost like I have these fans that they’re mad at me if I don’t do certain stuff. They come up and are like “Why didn’t you tell an AIDS joke this time?” I have to find ways to do it in a smarter way. People are so used to me being dark, to surprise them I’ve got to be smarter. It’s more of a challenge. People have heard two hours of me doing the same kind of material with normal setup, weird punchline, that the jokes have to be tighter. People are trying to predict them. They’re getting better at predicting them.
You look at a guy like Stephen Wright who’s been doing his thing for a number of years, but he also only ever put out a couple of specials and two albums. Do you ever see yourself evolving your act, especially in the face of increased exposure, or do you plan to stick to your style?
I don’t know. I feel like if I get bored doing this, which I have not yet—I’ve thought about doing longer stories or maybe changing it up a little bit. But I’m always more fascinated by “Can I do this again?” It’s really hard to put together an hour of one-liners. The first time I thought “Oh, is that it?” Then I found I could do it again. That fascinated me. I’ve already covered all this ground. What else can I cover with this same style? Now I want to see if I can do it one more time. After this third album—it could be two years, it could be six years—after that I’ll kind of reassess and see where I am. If I get bored of writing one-liners and performing them, I’ll change it up. If I don’t, I’m happy to do this forever.
Was there every a point where you were exploring the space a little more, building out bits?
No, I have some longer one-liners. I enjoy doing those. If they come to me, then great. I don’t necessarily think “I have to write a longer joke here.” I like not wasting the audience’s time. I went to Europe to perform. All the European comics tell these long stories. They would say “You’ve got this great 30-second joke, but you could make that a 20-minute story if you wanted to.” I thought why would I do that? I’ve got this perfect joke. I can’t kill as much time with it, but I think it makes me work harder having these short jokes, and I think the audience appreciates that.
You’ve done The Burn, do you feel like there’s going to be an element of competition between that and the news segments on Offensive?
No. Jeff and I are such good friends now. I’m sitting in my office right now and his office is right across from mine, so we talk all the time. It’s important for me to make my show different. Jeff’s all about roasting everything, but I’m trying to get away from that. We need to make a difference. I’d love to have Jeff and I be back to back on the schedule at some point. So both our shows can exist without “Oh, he’s just doing The Burn.”
You signed a pretty big development deal with Comedy Central. Was there a lot of pressure on you signing that deal?
A little bit. You hope things are successful. The deal was for three roasts, which I’ve done; an hour special, which I’ve done; and developing a TV show which just got picked up. I think they’re very happy with the deal and so am I. But to me it felt like this is my first deal like this. You want it to be good, but I wasn’t worried like this was my only shot.
It seems like after the first roast, things blew up for you really fast. Was it heady, a big rush to have things fall into place like that?
I don’t know how big a rush it was. It just seemed like all of a sudden people just knew who I was and what I did. It totally changed my life. Instead of going to comedy clubs and performing for people who are there to see comedy, and not just me, those can be tough shows sometimes. I have a 50/50 shot of them liking me. After the roast everybody knew what they were getting, and luckily I had an act already built that was similar to my roast jokes that really helped me out. I think people who saw the roast were able to come out and get more of that from me, which helped tremendously.
This came up on Maron’s podcast once, about it being too easy to go into rooms where people were too familiar with your act. Did you ever feel that way?
A little bit. It changes the bar, but it makes me adjust. If the crowd knows who I am, maybe some jokes are easier to get away with, but that lets me explore things a little more. I can be a little weirder, I can be a little darker and they’ll go with me because they enjoy seeing what I think is funny. But it is always fun to go into a room where no one’s expecting you or people are there to see someone else, and see what that’s like too. I enjoy both of those.
Anthony Jeselnik at The Terry Fator Theatre. February 23, 10 p.m. $40. Mirage.com.