Anthony Jeselnik on his jerk persona, Comedy Central roasts, and why he likes hecklers
In his comedy act, Anthony Jeselnik plays the asshole, cracking dark, arrogant, and hilarious one-liners. The persona has gotten him far; Jeselnik is now a prominent figure on Comedy Central's roasts, has a successful stand-up career, and is in development for a television show on the same network. Jeselnik will be appearing seven times at Comedy Works Downtown starting tonight and running through Sunday. We spoke with the surprisingly thoughtful comedian about how his comedy is never autobiographical, ex-girlfriend Amy Schumer, why he likes hecklers, and much more.
Westword: Your comedy persona is kind of an arrogant jerk. How did that come about and does it have anything to do with the way you are in real life?
Anthony Jeselnik: No, it kind of evolved from being the opposite of that in real life. I wasn't an arrogant jerk. I thought it was a funny character; if I was a nice guy, it's hard to then make a joke about abortion. If I played an arrogant jerk the whole way, it really opened up what I could get away with in general, which I really liked.
What attracts you about making jokes that offend people and make them laugh at horrible things?
Well I think it just puts more on the line, you know what I mean? There's more of a tension there if you're talking about rape than if you're talking about why people drink apple juice. Like, who gives a shit about things that everyone does? I wanted to joke about things that were universal but that everyone was kind of scared of. It's still just as universal to talk about death and things that creep people out, like, everyone has to deal with that. Everyone knows what you're talking about, but it just seemed like it meant more.
You get accused of being all sorts of things: misogynistic, racist, etc. How do you feel about that?
If people misunderstand, then I don't feel like I have to defend myself to things like that. But I don't feel like I'm misogynistic at all as a person or even in my act. It's almost like if you say something about black people, like if you even say the words "black people," people are like "Ooh, he's racist." Whereas, no, I'm just talking about black people. So if I'm making a joke about, like, a lot of my jokes, the victim in the jokes is my girlfriend. People are like, "Oh, that's misogynistic." I don't think so, because I just feel like it's like the person that you should be the nicest to and the person that you should be loving, and so being mean to them, there's a lot more comedy there than if you're being mean to just a stranger.
Do you get a lot of hecklers?
I hate saying this, but I kind of like them a little bit. Like, I have no problem handling anyone or anything, unless they're too drunk where they just keep on talking. But I kind of like it. I like, you know, trashing someone. And I'm really good at it and I think it's fun for the show because these are jokes for this crowd only. And people always respond well to that. It's always drunk people; anyone who gets mad kind of keeps their mouth shut until they're too wasted and they think they can take me on. But I welcome it. You know, come on and take a shot at the champ.
What do you think that is? Why do people feel the need to yell out stuff during comedy shows?
I think it's like an ego thing, I feel like they get excited about it, they feel like they're helping me. If someone yells something during a show, they will always come up and tell me that they were the person who did it. Even if it was like, clearly I'm furious at them. Someone will be like "Pittsburgh sucks" at the end of a show because they think the show's almost over and now they can get their licks in, and I'm like, "What you're saying doesn't make sense and I've got to wrap up my last joke anyway so you're just kind of getting in my way." And they'll come up and be like "I was the guy who said that." And I'm like "You are an idiot." I have zero tolerance for that, because I would never do that at a show. I have zero empathy, so I have no problem just being as mean as possible.
Do you feel your stand-up comes from being amused by audience's reactions to what you're saying?
Sure, I think it's ridiculous that anyone thinks that I should have to defend myself against certain things. People will be like, "You're mean." But I could not be less mean. Literally what I do is make up a person, like totally make up a person, and I don't even give them a name. There's no face to it, there's no reason anyone should get upset, and then I make up something awful that I do to them. I just can't believe that people would think that I'm being a jerk. Whereas, if I would say "You know, Mariah Carey's a piece of shit," like, no one would ever think I was being mean by saying that. But that's a real person that you're saying that about.
So when you say "my girlfriend," it's not actually your girlfriend, or anyone real.
It couldn't be less my girlfriend. You know, I've dated girls who have loved my comedy and they come out to shows and people are like, "Oh, you're the girlfriend." And they're like "Are you fucking crazy?" Like, no, I would never treat my girlfriend like that, like any of that. I wouldn't date a girl who I looked at in that way, you know?
Do you ever do any comedy that has any relation to your personal life, or is it all made up?
It's all made up. It's all 100% made up. Sometimes something will, like, trigger something, but it's never actually something that happened.