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Interview: Anthony Jeselnik

Will Coviello talks to the Tulane grad and star of The Jeselnik Offensive


After Anthony Jeselnik graduated from Tulane University with a degree in English, he moved to Los Angeles to become a writer. After what he describes as a disastrous first year in L.A., he tried comedy.

  "It's a lot easier to get up and tell jokes every night than get someone to read a piece of paper," he said from Los Angeles, a week before his first stand-up performance in New Orleans.

  Eventually, he landed a job as a writer for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It didn't go well.

  "I came in like, 'This is what I think is funny,' and they would be like, 'That's really funny to you, but Jimmy can't say this,'" Jeselnik says.

  Did his material ever get on air?

  "I remember this one joke, it wasn't even dark or anything. It was absurd. I thought it'll be weird and funny if he does this," Jeselnik says. "It was Shakespeare's birthday, and [Shakespeare] was born and died on the same day. So Jimmy says, 'Today, Shakespeare was born in 16-whatever, and then he died on this day in 17-whatever, and I don't care what anyone says, that guy was a great writer.'

  "After that, they told me they had a meeting. They decided they would never do any more jokes like that."

  After a year, Jeselnik quit the show rather than adjust his style of humor. His stand-up comedy and an album did well and he became known for jokes like one about a girlfriend.

  "My girlfriend loves chocolate," he would start. "She's always eating chocolate, and she likes to joke that it's an addiction. ... So I put her in the car and drove her downtown, and I pointed out a crack addict, and I said, 'Do you see that, honey? Why can't you be that skinny?'"

  Then Comedy Central hired him to write jokes for roasts. He spent four weeks writing material for the celebrity guests on the roast of actor and singer David Hasselhoff. Comedy Central liked his work so much, it put him on stage to roast Donald Trump.

  Jeselnik's dark humor was on track. He got his own stand-up special on Comedy Central, and then the network hired him to do his own show: The Jeselnik Offensive. On it, he's had guests try to guess whether paintings are by a serial killer or a famous artist. In a segment called "Sacred Cow," he has joked about racial issues, bullying and missing children (he asks a private detective whether it's better to use a "Help me find my puppy" or "Who wants candy?" approach. The detective advises the puppy approach.).

  The show has drawn some outrage and complaints.

  "The show is more subversive (than his stand-up act), because we frame it like a regular late-night show," Jeselnik says. "People think we're going to talk about normal things, but I am talking about the worst things in the world. That can trick people into getting more upset than they would."

  Jeselnik doesn't consider himself a shock comic.

  "People say, 'Oh you're just doing that to get attention,'" he says. "No, I have the attention. This is what I want to talk about. I know I am funny and can craft a great joke. My challenge is to talk about something horrible and make people laugh at it. You have to be clever to make a good joke. I am not trying to hurt people or offend people. Some people are going to be offended. But why tone it down when there are people who get it?"

  Dark humor is nothing new to comedy writers.

  "People would say that in writers' rooms the funniest joke is always followed by 'Yeah, but we can't do that, so what else?'" Jeselnik says. "But why can't I do that? Why can't I sell that on TV? [The Jeselnik Offensive] is a comedy writer's dream show."

  As was the case when he worked at Fallon's show, Jeselnik says he's still got the darkest sense of humor among his writers.

  "It's always, 'How can we pull this off?'" he says. "How can we show a baby going around in a dryer? What do we have to do to make this work? That's the challenge. If I couldn't do that, I wouldn't want to be on TV."

  Comedy Central recently picked up the show for another season, which begins July 9 and runs eight to 10 weeks. Jeselnik hopes to do another 10-show season in winter, and would like to do two 15-show seasons like Daniel Tosh's Tosh.0.

  Jeselnik's sense of humor has its roots in New Orleans.

  "In college among my friends, it was always who could say the most offensive thing or the most inappropriate thing that was the funniest. I was never afraid of failing."

  But Jeselnik never tried doing comedy in New Orleans.

  "People in New Orleans don't need comedy," he says. "They have their food and booze and stuff. You don't need it."

  That's one of the reasons he is happy to come back.

  "New Orleans is my favorite city in the world," he says. "I come back twice a year just to eat. I used to come back just to drink, but I got older."

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