Offended: Why Anthony Jeselnik will never be Joan Rivers, or The Onion
Comedy Central's The Jeselnik Offensive ran its fourth episode Tuesday, characteristically taking on the politically sensitive news of the day with an irreverent send-up of Adam Strange, a recent victim of a shark attack in New Zealand. "Was he killed? You bet your sweet ass he was," Jeselnik laughed. "And he had a family and everything." The bit made a loose connection between the 46-year-old's death and the senseless killing of sharks for their fins -- "so when a shark kills a human, you gotta give thanks" -- that was followed by a song-and-dance number with sexy women dressed as sharks giving Jeselnik a lapdance. The bit stirred up the predictable outrage it was looking for, but failed horribly as a piece of provocative comedy, never coming close to the brilliant stabs that Joan Rivers and The Onion have recently laid on society.
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If Adam Strange had been an infamous proponent of unreasonable shark killing, Jeselnik's show-tunes smackdown would've made for a biting piece of comedy justice. But he wasn't. Strange was a simple, ocean-loving filmmaker who was known for his recent short film about dairy farming in the 1930s. When Bill Maher caused an outrage in 2006 with his Halloween costume of then recently deceased Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, complete with a stingray plunged into his bloody chest, he at least made the animal-rights argument that Irwin should not have been fucking with the stingray to begin with.
But Strange was not fucking with sharks, he was merely training for a long-distance swimming marathon. This makes Jeselnik's bit arbitrarily offensive, merely seeking to push people's buttons for the sake of ratings.
I've been accused of doing the same with my little rants against tipping, voting and cruiser bikes. People charged that I was seeking out topics that were societal sacred cows, and then manufacturing an argument against them with the intention of attracting outraged commenters who would fill our blog with hits. Whether or not people agreed with me, I felt those issues had gone unchallenged for too long, and justified in attacking them -- while also enjoying a little comedic antagonism at the same time. (To this day, whenever a Denver server or bartender recognizes my name on a credit card, I get either an eye roll or some comment like "I guess I shouldn't expect a tip, huh?" Despite the fact that I always tip 20 percent.)
When an offensive joke is told, there has to be an extra dimension to it. The surface shock of "I can't believe he just said that!" will often get a chuckle out of half the audience, but to really tear those listeners apart you have to appeal to something that rings true, causing the layered experience of shock mixed with shameful recognition.
The most common route for this is the classic railing-against-political-correctness, a method that has kept comics like Don Rickles, Lisa Lampinelli and Louis C.K. filling auditoriums for years. Many comedy fans share the frustration of liberals constantly moving the goal-posts of what is politically sacred and untouchable, so when a standup attacks this head-on, it's a thrilling combination of fearful adrenaline and social relief, with all of us grateful that the martyr on stage finally had the guts to challenge a hot-button convention.