“If you loved that joke, it’s gonna be a great show. If you didn’t, get the fuck out of here,” Anthony Jeselnik said about 5 minutes deep into his set, after he’d dropped a bomb on us all about his son dying the same way as Eric Clapton’s had, “for inspiration.”
Yes, Anthony Jeselnik goes there, and he went there over and over again during his show this past Saturday night at the Straz Center. As he put it, “I make fun of tragedy the day it happens.”
He’s not making fun of the victims or trying to minimize the tragedy, he explained, but he is trying to bring a little humor to a situation where there may be none while also pushing the buttons of those blustering empathizers on the periphery, who have no real or meaningful connection to the tragedy but feel compelled to pour out their feelings about it on social media — the very same people who are quick to jump up and squawk ‘Too Soon!’ when Jeselnik crosses a line. “Your thoughts and prayers are worth less than nothing,” he commented about 45 minutes deep into his set, and likened them to wedding photographers who only take selfies. “All you are saying is ‘look, I’m going to make this about me.’”
Jeselnik is unflappable and unfazed by any sort of bad reception his jokes might get. On this night, he had nothing to worry about; the entirety of the nearly-full Ferguson Hall — a mostly 40s-and-younger crowd — was right there with him all throughout his set. Most surprising was that Jeselnik had been to the 350-seat Tampa Improv only a year before and was now playing to 1,014 people, likely a fanbase beefed up by his Comedy Central show The Jeselnik Offensive, which just wrapped its second season.
Though he did pepper his set with droll anecdotes, his stand-up technique was more akin to that of Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright, perfectly thought-out one or two-liners that play with words, ideas and expectations (“I lost my grandparents in the Holocaust … museum”). Most of his material packs a much harder and darker punch, however, and he’s gotten into big trouble with Comedy Central on three separate occasions, like when he posted a Tweet shortly after the Boston Marathon Bombing (“Guys, there are just some lines that should not be crossed … especially the finish line”). He deleted it at the threat of losing his show; his reasoning was that he didn’t want to be the asshole who had tell his crew “Hey sorry, you can't put food on the table anymore because I don't want to delete this sweet Tweet.”
He didn’t take back his comments about a Smithtown, N.Y. high school kid who got run over by a train while trying to run across the tracks. The outcry was so loud he even got his own hashtag (#jeselprick). “People who get upset about jokes are fucking stupid,” he summed up.
He set also included (but wasn’t limited to): a joke about a woman who miscarried triplets (“Isn’t it kind of funny how those things always happen in threes?”) and other inappropriate dead baby fare (see Clapton above); his fanbase (“Stupid women hate my shows; smart women don’t come to my shows”); sex offenders and child molesters (“My uncle runs a camp for kids who are about to get molested … sounds awful but he loves it”); his family life growing up (“The first time I brought home a bad report card, my dad beat the shit out of me. The next time I got a bad report card, I gave it to mom … let her take the hit.”); and his Tweet on the day of the Aurora shooting (“Other than that, how was the movie?”)
“Goddamn, this is easy,” he commented a few times during his set as the noticeably appreciative crowd ate up everything he was dishing out and never turned on him at any point.
Two little biddies were sitting in the very front row, likely season pass-holders and the eldest ranking adults in the room. Jeselnik discovered early into the set that neither of the two women had heard of him nor had any idea what they’d gotten themselves into on this night, and he periodically checked in with them throughout the set to make sure they were still with him. They, in turn, stuck around for the entire show and gave him any feedback he wanted.
After trying out some new material, he closed the show with an open Q&A. His fans mostly fired out requests for him to re-tell old jokes, which he was perfectly happy to do, but there were also a few personal questions, like “Why aren’t you with [ex] Amy Schumer anymore?” Answer: “Just lucky I guess.”
Whether The Jeselnik Offensive will be picked up for a third season remains to be seen, but at least the comic has built up enough name recognition that if Comedy Central does drop the ax on Offensive, he can make a full-time return to stand-up.
Cameron Esposito warmed up the crowd quite capably with her dry, I’m-a-lesbian-fueled humor. She’s a rising comic based in LA who had her recent debut as a roundtable guest on Chelsea Lately, and her set was a good primer for Jeselnik’s more hardcore inappropriateness. Among other things, she touched upon her penchant for jean jackets (she was wearing one on this night), the difference between living in Chicago (her home town) and LA (full of thin people living on a diet of cigarettes and sad dreams), her short time as a theology major (one of the reasons she no longer believes in god), quasi-lesbians in porn and the absurd (and not true to reality) things the directors have them do (“Scissoring is not a thing. Nobody feels any pleasure and it’s messy”), her puzzlement about how exactly it works for men and women during sex (“For us it’s easy. ‘You know what I just did to you? Yeah, do that to me.’”), and her general discomfort with strip clubs (at which point there was a rather funny back and forth with a heckler who really wasn’t heckling at all).