Monday, June 3, 2013
Anthony Jeselnik interview
With Anthony Jeselnik hitting town on Thursday (Vogue Theatre), I thought I'd run the transcribed phone interview I did with him a couple weeks ago, which was fashioned into this story I wrote on him for the Georgia Straight. There's always more that I can't fit into a story, however, so here it is in all its glory.
May 24, 2013
"I’m kind of like the horror movies of comedy." – Anthony Jeselnik
Guy MacPherson: Jeselnik!
Anthony Jeselnik: Hey, what’s up, Guy?
GM: How are you?
AJ: How you doing, man? Correct me if I’m wrong, we’ve met before, right?
GM: We have. Twice.
AJ: Twice. I remember with Sarah Silverman. I remember going to dinner with you and your girlfriend, right? Or your wife?
GM: Yeah, me and my wife. That was after the show. And the night before the show me and a Vancouver comic went up to her room and you were there.
AJ: Yes, with drugs! Now I remember.
GM: You three. I’m a clean-cut guy.
AJ: I remember that, too. How’s it going, man?
GM: Good. It’s nice to see your success after seeing you when nobody knew who you were.
AJ: Yeah! You were right on the cusp before I was discovered.
GM: That’s right. What I like is that you’re the same comic I saw. I know it’s hard sometimes for an opener who’s not known, but you killed that night.
AJ: Oh, thank you.
GM: I saw both shows, too. And while nobody really knew you, your jokes really stood out.
AJ: Aw, thanks. I miss those days when I was totally unknown and I could just surprise the hell out of everybody. Those days are gone. But I’m still the same comic. It’s a different kind of show now that people know who I am. It’s more of a celebration rather than a ‘hey, you’re gonna get this, hope you like it.’
GM: There are pros and cons to both. You’re too young to remember when Steve Martin got people cheering for him rather than listening to his jokes and laughing…
AJ: No, but I’ve read his book and everything. I think it’s different now. I look back fondly on my early days of stuggle. I think Steve Martin didn’t really change his act ever. I think comics today have to just be constantly writing new stuff. More people have seen it. Like this show I’m bringing to Vancouver is half brand-new stuff no one’s ever heard and half classic stuff from Caligula or Shakespeare. And then I take questions and just try to keep it fresh so the audience doesn’t have a chance to start yelling out my jokes and just cheering the whole time. Because they want to hear the new stuff.
GM: When did you stop filming The Jeselnik Offensive?
AJ: It’s a weekly show so we would film every Thursday before the final Tuesday. I think maybe four or five weeks ago we stopped. Amy Schumer took my timeslot and I’ve been on tour this whole time. I think Vancouver’s my last weekend. When I come back from that, I go right back into season two of the show.
GM: How quickly do your jokes go from pen to stage?
AJ: I would consider my jokes to be like a clock: it’s either going to work perfectly or it doesn’t work at all. So when I write a joke, I usually know right away. There’s not a lot of tinkering that goes on. I’ll write a joke and think, ‘Oh, this seems good.’ I’ll try it out and if it works, then it’s in the act. But my jokes have gotten shorter now that people are starting to guess my punchlines or trying to guess my punchlines more. And now that they have these two albums worth of material to draw off of, people are getting better at it. So I’m making my jokes a little shorter, a little smarter just to offset that so people can’t really guess. It’s taken a while. And a lot of it is just doing theatres where it’s all my fans. They go a little crazier. The material goes a longer way in a theatre than it does in a club. So that’s been helpful. But I’m always trying to write new jokes. It just gets tougher the deeper I get into this because I’ve covered so many things in so many different jokes already.
GM: It’s a nice challenge, though, trying to make them tighter and quicker and smarter.
AJ: Absolutely. People are like, ‘Why don’t you do longer jokes? You can kill more time and you can have a new hour every year.’ I’m like, no, I’d rather work a little harder and subvert audience expectations. That’s the point of jokes. And even if they kind of know what they’re getting into in terms of darkness and offensiveness, I still want them to be kind of on the edge of their seats trying to figure out where my punchline’s coming from.
GM: You have a background in creative writing, right?
AJ: Yeah. What that means is I went to college for literature and took some creative writing classes. Those are the only ones I tried. But yeah, I loved creative writing. I wanted to be a novelist. But I figured out what a novelist’s life was like and didn’t want that. I would rather have a comedian’s life where, when I was young and just out of college, I could go out every night. Even though I was going to open mics and bombing, that was more fun to me than sitting in my apartment struggling with the great American novel that nobody wanted to read.
GM: That background helps with editing and making your jokes more economical.
AJ: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, I think, just knowing what writing looks like. I think one of the quickest things I learned in joke writing was to cut out all the extra words. I think that’s true for any kind of writing. I would structure my jokes almost like a haiku because I could see any extra word that didn’t belong and just cut it out and keep everything as short and tight as possible.
"If you’re a comedy fan and you understand comedy, it’s very easy to like me and to understand that I’m a nice guy. But not everyone is really into comedy." – Anthony Jeselnik
GM: Having met you, I know that you’re a nice guy. I read where you said a nice person being mean is funny whereas a mean person being mean is mean. But how are most people to know you’re a nice guy when all they see is you on TV?
AJ: It doesn’t really matter to me that they know it. When people are like, ‘God, he’s such a jerk,’ they should understand that I’m on stage holding a microphone being billed as a comedian. If people actually get mad, it’s kind of their bad. It’s like people who get too upset to watch a horror movie. They’re not wrong for that, but I know when I watch a horror movie there’s always part of me that knows this is just a movie. And I can enjoy it. Whereas some people, it’s the last thing in the world they want to do. I’m kind of like the horror movies of comedy. If you’ve really thought about it, you understand that these people are all actors and someone wrote this down and it’s special effects. But if you don’t get that and see it as just a surface level thing, I can’t help you. It’s not my job to convince you I’m actually a nice guy and that these are just jokes. People tell me sometimes I smile on stage and that lets them know, and maybe that’s a clue to you but I’m just enjoying myself. I’m enjoying the crowd joining in with me and laughing at these horrible things. That’s why I smile. I’m not doing it to say, ‘Hey, I’m just joking.’ Because I hate that. I hate that ‘I’m just joking’ thing.
GM: I’ve read that you’re unlikeable on stage or that you thought you were unlikeable. But I don’t get that at all.
AJ: I think people can see what they want. If you’re a comedy fan and you kind of understand comedy, it’s very easy to like me and to understand that I’m a nice guy. But not everyone is really into comedy. If you don’t have a great sense of humour, you’re probably not going to like me. Not everyone has a great sense of humour but there are comedians who are out there just for people who don’t have a good sense of humour.
GM: When Tosh got lambasted for his rape jokes, I thought there was a context there that they were missing.
AJ: Absolutely. I would do interviews where they’d say, ‘He said he wanted people to rape the woman in the audience, and that’s funny?!’ And I’m like, ‘That’s not what he said. That’s what you’re hearing.’ That kind of drove me crazy. That was a lot of people who didn’t understand comedy.
GM: And even some people who did.
AJ: And even if he did say that, you don’t know the context, you don’t know how it was happening. It drove me crazy to see people who would normally be defending comedy going against it, like, ‘Well, I don’t have a rape joke because I would never say that.’ Well, not everyone can pull it off. It’s not bad to joke about something, no matter what it is. It’s never bad to joke about it. It has nothing to do with how awful that thing is. And that makes me crazy with people. Like, ‘How can he tell a joke about this? How can you joke about this thing?’ Why not? I’m a comedian. I’m gonna joke about the worst things in the world and it’s never wrong to joke about something. Never.
GM: To be fair, sometimes a misstep can be made, like anyone can, and you go, ‘Whoops, maybe I didn’t do that right.’
AJ: Absolutely. It’s just as off-putting for a comedian to make an edgy joke or a dark joke about a subject and then be like, ‘Where’s my applause? Why are people getting upset?’ You’ve gotta understand when you go into those realms that you’re going to upset people and you just have to take it. Some people are kind of ignorant to comedy or they just might not care enough about comedy to not be upset by what you’re talking about. You have to take that, too. And hopefully people will defend you and you can say it’s a joke and it goes away. But you can’t expect everyone to laugh or to applaud you for doing these edgy things. And sometimes you’ll miss. But I think comedians are artists and there’s a value in failure. You can’t just be worried about failing with a joke depending on the subject. So it kind of works both ways between comedians and audiences. The audience has to understand that comedians are going to sometimes tell a joke that doesn’t work out with dark subjects, and the comedian has to understand that sometimes they’ll fail and it’s not the audience’s fault for not getting it or loving it. You just have to take it. You have to be aware that that’s a possibility.
GM: But in the current culture of comedy, truth is paramount. So maybe people are confused. Comics are talking about their real lives and now here’s a guy who’s making jokes that have no basis in reality so they might be thinking that’s really coming from you.
AJ: I’m sure that’s a part of it. But if you really look at it, that doesn’t matter. If you think it’s coming from a real place, that doesn’t mean the comedian’s wrong. A comedian doesn’t have to come out and say, ‘Hey, these are all just jokes and this is a persona.’ If you really study someone, you can figure that out. But most people don’t give it that much thought. And when people get offended, they’re offended for a day, maybe two days tops. It’s not that big a deal. But in the moment they’re very upset and they want an answer in that moment. And now with social media, they can go on Twitter or Facebook and demand something in the moment. And then it goes away. If you don’t respond to it, it completely goes away. So I think audiences are getting a little more testy about comedy where they want that instant gratification of an apology. They want the attention, kind of: ‘I was offended by this.’ And it’s become a big thing. If you’re smart about it, you’ll never respond and you just leave it be and two days later everything’s okay.
GM: It was funny to me that you could last a year writing for Jimmy Fallon without getting jokes in the monologue.
AJ: I got jokes in the monologue. Some people were disappointed I took that job: ‘Why are you doing that?’ Because it was interesting to me to be on a late night show that was starting out and trying to add my voice to it. I thought Jimmy told great jokes on Weekend Update and I was like, ‘I want to do something like that.’ And when I got to the show, it was clear that wasn’t really what they were interested in. They hired me as a joke writer; they didn’t hire Anthony Jeselnik. And they didn’t even really know that until I started submitting stuff. But I knew I wanted to be there for a year because that was the job I got into comedy for, was to be starting a late night talk show, especially a 12:30 one. Just to be there in the beginning grinding it out. I waited a year before I left because I didn’t want to answer that question of, ‘What happened here?’ It didn’t work out. They liked me and I liked them but it was just an experience I wanted. My TV show now, The Jeselnik Offensive, the only reason that exists is because I did that year on Fallon. All of my frustrations of what I wanted to do on the show ended up coming out on this show now. People were disappointed when I took the job and people thought I was dumb when I left: ‘It’s a good job and smart money, why would you do this?’ And I think I was right to take it and to leave it.
GM: It was gutsy to quit.
AJ: People said that. I was like, ‘Here’s what I’m gonna do: I’m gonna quit, I’m gonna go headline, I’m gonna do an album and keep touring.’ I ended up getting the roasts out of that. If I hadn’t left that show, I never would have been on the roasts and we would not be talking right now. I don’t think I’ve made a bad decision in my career yet.
GM: It worked out but if it hadn’t, you could easily have gotten another job writing for TV, I would imagine.
AJ: Oh, absolutely. Once you have that first thing on your resume, I mean, a year writing on Fallon goes a long way. That’s a ton of work you have to do, especially that first year of a show. I could get hired anywhere. If I wanted a writing job right now, I could kind of pick my shot, I think. Not that I would want to do that. The only way I’ve taken any writing work since then has been if it’s something I really wanted to do. Like the roasts. And Robert Smigel asked me to write on A Night of Too Many Stars a couple years ago for a couple weeks and I was like, yeah, I want to see what it’s like to work with Robert Smigel. I would be interested if something cool came up. Seth MacFarlane asked me to write for the Oscars for him and I just couldn’t do it with my show, but that’s something I would have entertained.
"I’ve done roasts three times and I’ve shown what I can do. I could do another one; I just don’t know if it interests me as much. ... If I never did another one, I would be fine with that." – Anthony Jeselnik
GM: You’ve done three roasts. Are you doing any more?
AJ: I don’t know. They were going to do one this summer and they couldn’t pull it off, they couldn’t find the person. I would have done that one for sure because it would have been right before the premier of my second season. But I don’t know. It’s not something I think about anymore, where it used to be like a dream to be on them. I feel like I’ve done them three times and I’ve shown what I can do. I could do another one; I just don’t know if it interests me as much. It depends on who it is. I don’t know. If I never did another one, I would be fine with that.
GM: I was looking forward to seeing you that first time because I knew you, and I knew that you’d be perfect for that format. But it was great because you took a lot of people by surprise because they didn’t know you. But what was so interesting was that these days you never hear of one show making a career the way the old Tonight Show used to with Johnny Carson. It was like that for you with the roasts.
AJ: Oh, absolutely. It changed my life. It was a night and day thing. That was the greatest moment of my life, I think, to go up and they had no idea what was coming. I’ll never forget sitting there watching Lisa Lampanelli go up and Whitney Cummings go up and being afraid that they would have my joke. Like, ‘I hope they don’t say something I was planning on saying.’ And I realized very quickly that I was like ten times meaner than anyone else up there. I was just so happy. It was a great feeling. But then you get on the next, the Martin Sheen roast, and then it’s, ‘Oh, you’re the guy from the roasts.’ You had to do two of them before you were the guy from the roasts. And you may as well have been on all of them from that point. So perception changes. It’s been a year I think since the last one, or almost a year, and now people almost forget that they ever happened. TV’s a crazy thing. When you’re on it, you couldn’t be more on it. And as soon as you’re off for a couple of weeks, people forget immediately. It’s fascinating.
GM: I saw you on Conan and you said you were a mean kid in high school but I can’t buy that. That’s just your persona.
AJ: I think I was on Leno when I said that. I was kind of a jerk. Like, I would try and be funny and try to defend the people being bullied. I would be a jerk to the popular kids. I would try to make fun of a teacher. There was some mean-spiritedness there but I certainly wasn’t a bully at all. I just had a dark sense of humour. I was more disrupting class than picking on kids.
GM: Did you do well in school?
AJ: I did all right. I was the classic underachiever. My parents were always hearing, ‘He’s smart, he just doesn’t apply himself.’ I would get B’s and C’s, maybe a couple of A’s. But I wasn’t a good student. But I was always reading books. I was always kind of studying what I wanted to study, what I was interested in. But I never bought that ‘you’ll use calculus one day’ crap.
GM: You’re very cool on stage and I know that’s a conscious decision. Were you cool as a kid? Or off-stage, even?
AJ: No. Every kid wants to be cool. I didn’t like getting emotional or upset about things. But on stage I just wanted to be economical with everything. I didn’t want to have any unnecessary words that I would use or unnecessary motions. I just kind of became a comedian that I would have wanted to see. And I would have wanted to see a guy being kinda cool and just being like, ‘These jokes are so great and so brilliant that I don’t need to really work at it. I’m just going to give these to you and you’ll be grateful for it.’ And it’s worked for me. But I’ve certainly seen people try it and fail.
GM: You’re a classic example of fake it till you make it in the confidence department.
AJ: Yeah, people are always saying, ‘How do you get so confident?’ You fake it. You fake it for years. And only until you start getting credits, like ‘You’ve seen him on Conan’ or ‘You’ve seen him on the roasts’, those things kind of build your actual confidence. I hated being a new comic. I hated being two months in so I thought why not just pretend? The audience doesn’t know. You could pretend that you’ve been doing it forever and you started when you were five years old and now you’re this amazing genius. I thought just pretend you’re that and the audience kinda started to buy it.
GM: You mentioned Fallon on Weekend Update and that’s something you wanted to do. Hey, Seth Meyers is leaving. There’s an opening.
AJ: Oh, don’t think I’m not aware. I know that this would be my chance. If I was ever going to host Weekend Update, it would be in this moment. I told people that work for me, I’ve said, ‘Hey, listen, I just want my name brought up in the room.’ That’s all I want, is for someone to say my name. And that happened. It’s one of those things where I don’t think I’d take the job now. Like, I have my own Weekend Update that has my name in the title and I have total creative control over. SNL, that was a dream job, something that I would love to have done, but I don’t think I could walk away from my show to do it. And I don’t think they would want me. I’ve got a show with my name in the title. They want to either discover someone or take one of their cast members and do that. And I honestly think it’s going to be John Mulaney. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t but I was surprised his pilot didn’t get picked up so what do I know?
GM: I’ve got to ask about the most controversial segment on your show: the shark attack. Even if you won’t admit it, there is a line you wouldn’t cross.
AJ: Uh, I don’t know. Everyone has a personal line. Afterwards, people were like, ‘You know what you shouldn’t have done? You shouldn’t have mentioned his family and you shouldn’t have shown his picture and had his name.’ And I was like, yeah, when I mentioned his family, I did not know he had a family. But everyone has a family. It was just a funny line of, ‘Yeah, he’s dead. And he had a family and everything.’ It was absurdly insensitive so I thought that’s okay. And when I found out we could show his picture, I thought there’s no way we could do that. But Comedy Central says you can show his picture. So let’s do it. I’ll get away with as much as I can. It’s my favourite bit that we’ve done on the show because it was so absurd. And I think the only misstep was showing his picture. But also, New Zealand doesn’t know who I am. They’ve never heard of me. My show doesn’t air there. It never occurred to me that his family would ever see this thing. The media went and took it and went, ‘What do you think of this?’ And that’s how the whole thing blew up. They would have had no idea. A guy died the next week from a shark attack in Jamaica. I think if we had done it on that guy instead of the New Zealand guy, I don’t think it would have blown up. We tried to answer the controversy on the next episode. Like, I want to answer New Zealand on this. Like say something. It was a joke statement but it was something to that effect. And people in the audience didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. No one here knows it was a big deal unless you look at my Wikipedia or you are from New Zealand.
GM: I saw it and I cringed. Because it seemed to be celebrating that this real person died rather than an abstraction like most of your jokes are. When you were on Conan and were celebrating in a general way sharks beating humans, I thought that was hilarious. But with this guy, you just sort of empathize and imagine him being your best friend or brother or father or son who died and now here’s this comedian celebrating it in a way. You know what I mean?
AJ: Sure, I can see how you’d take it that way. We thought it was just so absurd. And 30 people die a year from a shark attack. It’s this rare freak thing that happens. My thing is everyone’s going to die. That didn’t affect me in that way. Afterwards I thought we shouldn’t have done the picture. But if we hadn’t shown the picture but said the guy’s name, you wouldn’t have felt that way? Or do you still think you would have been upset by it?
GM: Well, I can’t say I was upset by it; just that it made me cringe a little. All your other jokes in standup are about vague or general topics, like cancer or rape, and they involve your fictional girlfriend or mother. They’re abstractions. They’re concepts.
AJ: Oh sure, everything in my act is completely defensible because none of it’s real. These are all just concepts. The show is kind of, ‘What if the devil had a talk show?’ Would the devil do a bit celebrating a guy getting eaten by a shark? Yeah, he probably would. I think that’s part of the thing of us learning exactly… I mean, I want everybody to laugh at these things. I didn’t want to hurt the family. I thought the family would never see this. I think if we did that again, we would have taken out his name and not shown the picture. The picture was the big mistake. We wouldn’t have done that. But I stand by the bit. I have no problem doing it. Or making a mistake. But it’s almost impossible to find online. It’s been pretty much scrubbed out of existence.
GM: You make a good case for it in saying you thought it was just so absurdly offensive, which it is because nobody in their right mind would ever celebrate such a thing. So I get that point.
AJ: We did a thing where we were talking about the Connecticut school shooter. I forget his name, but I said his name then I kind of hit my heart and pointed to the sky, like ‘I miss you, bro.’ And Comedy Central was upset about that. And I was like, ‘That’s so absurd.’ If I had mentioned the victims and done that, you would think I was making fun of the victims. And they won’t listen to that. They don’t care. So I think there’ll be some changes in season two but I think it’s part of finding your way around those things. It’s the most fun part of comedy, I think.
GM: I think that’s funny. But it’s so subjective.
AJ: Exactly. Everyone has their own line. But I don’t. But I’m not a sociopath. I’ve asked my therapist that repeatedly.
GM: Do you have an opener coming with you?
AJ: Yes. I will have Raj Desai opening for me. He’s one of the writers for The Jeselnik Offensive. Very funny guy and very dry. If you think I’m dry, you’ve not seen anything.
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