Anthony Jeselnik has had enough of America’s typical response to a tragedy. For the comedian it’s essential that we stop writing the words “thoughts and prayers” all over the Internet when something bad happens, so much so, in fact, that he titled his new Netflix special Thoughts And Prayers. In the hour-long special, out October 16, Jeselnik addresses the cancelation of his TV series The Jeselnik Offensive, his predilection for making inappropriate Twitter jokes about tragedy and his ongoing interest dead baby humor. It’s notably funny, especially when Jeselnik recounts a lengthy story about his grandma, and worth watching even if you don’t agree with him – which he believes you shouldn’t anyway. We spoke with the comedian about his special, dealing with tragedy online and who he’s rooting for in the upcoming presidential election.
At this point, do you think audiences know what to expect from you?
Absolutely, and that makes my job that much harder. It could make it easier. I could get lazy. But that drives me crazy. I’m always trying to stay one step ahead of an audience who is only sitting there trying to predict my jokes. It makes it tough.
They’re actually trying to predict the punchlines?
Yeah, I think you can’t help yourself. I think you’re sitting there and it’s like a brain exercise. Like if you’re watching a mystery on TV, you’re trying to figure out who the killer is. They’re pleasantly surprised if they’re wrong, but if they get one they’re excited. It’s hard not to do that. It would be like trying to watch a foreign movie without reading the subtitles. You’re naturally going to do that.
Why was this special the right outlet for you to address why you joke about tragedies on Twitter?
I had to do it. That’s the reason I worked so hard on the special. After my TV show ended I had done a special maybe a year before and so I didn’t have much new material, but I had these stories from the show that I needed to get out as soon as possible. So I went on the road for almost two straight years building up the rest of the hour so I could tell those stories publicly. And to do it for me – a therapeutic “I don’t want to have to think about this anymore and get it out of my system.”
A lot of people seem to be getting annoyed that the general response to a tragedy involves the words “my thoughts and prayers.”
They do. I think in the past year. It just gets worse every time. It’s so insincere. I can’t stand it. Whenever anyone apologizes they put that phrase in there and it drives me nuts. It’s like this rubber stamp that you do. I just hate it. My goal with this special is that no one will ever be able to say that again. I think everyone wants to be noticed. Because of the Internet everyone wants a piece and they want their time in the spotlight. Maybe you get that by creating or maybe you get that by criticizing. So I think people, when they’re offended, they use it as “This is a story I can tell. This is a way I can get attention.” Being offended doesn’t mean anything. No matter how offended you are you’re only offended for a little while – it does not hurt you. It’s the least amount of upset you can be.
Are there any topics you won’t touch with your comedy?
No, not at all. In fact, if I thought there was something I didn’t want to joke about or that bothered me I would make it my mission to write a joke about it. Those are all challenges to me. I don’t joke about anything that’s actually funny. There’s no fun in that. Everything I say is about something horrible.
Which joke that you’ve made about a tragedy are you most proud of?
My 9/11 joke about my mom being on one of the planes I think is amazing. Even if you were like “You can’t joke about 9/11, no one will ever laugh,” that will get you. That joke is pretty killer, even though it was 15 years after the fact. The one I might be most proud of is my Aurora joke that I talked about the special. The day after Aurora I tweeted “Other than that how was the movie?” It was a perfect joke because I didn’t say Aurora. I didn’t say shooting. You can get a joke in, but no one can really get that upset. It’s harmless but it’s deadly.
When a tragedy occurs are a lot of people anticipating your response to it?
Oh yeah. It’s kind of fallen off since the Boston marathon one. I got burned so badly that it’s become not that interesting to me, unless I come up with something where I’m like “Oh, this is great!” I don’t sit down and think of a joke like I used to, but if something pops into my head I use it. People are always like “Anthony, where’s your joke? We need your joke!” I used to be quick with it. People got upset if I was even late, if I wasn’t the first guy to make a joke. Now so many people have been making jokes like that and it’s not special or cool that I was doing it and I kind of lost interest. Other people are doing it – like lamer versions – and I’m like “Okay, I don’t need to do this anymore. I need something else.” It lost its luster. But I got a couple good years out of it.
Who are your predecessors with this sort of comedy?
I’m definitely not the first one, not by a million miles. Lenny Bruce certainly was trying to do that. He had different kinds of mountains he was trying to climb. And Joan Rivers I think did exactly that. Which is why I loved her so much. And I think people don’t do it as much now. They don’t make it their mission because you do get in trouble. You do make less money. You do become less popular. But it’s all I care about.
Do you have a goal for your career at this point?
I don’t really have a goal for my career. I kind of accomplished all the goals I ever thought I’d need to accomplish. Having my own show, doing specials, being on roasts. So now I’m playing with house money and doing what is fun and what I think is interesting. Now it’s: What do I wake up in the morning and want to do?
Do you want to continue doing roasts?
I don’t know. Creatively I feel like I’ve done them. It was kind of diminishing returns for me each time. It felt so great the first time when no one knew what you were doing. That was so much fun. But it was diminishing for me because you feel like you’re repeating yourself, which I hate. And the roasts they’ve done lately have not really interested me. I would never say no, but probably not.
Is there a Republican presidential candidate you’d like roast, though?
It’s a little too easy! I disagree with them so much that it’s like a cartoon show to me. I’m as liberal as they come. But if that came up and a Republican nominee wanted to be roasted I would absolutely be there for that. Ben Carson cannot keep it together. He would be amazing. He would be my favorite, other than Trump.
Who are you rooting for in the election?
Right now I’ve got to say Hillary. I hope Hillary bags it. I would throw all my weight behind her. I think she’d be a great president.
In the special you say that people can hate you but still laugh at your jokes. Do you think that’s true?
Absolutely. I was doing a show in Houston and at the end of the set this guy stood up and started screaming, “I don’t agree with you!” I said, “Buddy, you are absolutely not supposed to agree with me.” It’s like watching a villain. If you’re watching a movie the villain is always the best part. I always like movies where you root for the villain to win because he’s so charismatic. That’s what I’m doing. You’re not supposed to leave thinking I have good ideas. You’re supposed to leave thinking, “That was fun to laugh at.” In essence, I’m a horror movie. You sit there, you get scared and you leave happy because you know it’s all actors. No one got hurt. No one actually got killed. You enjoyed yourself.
No babies actually died.
Exactly. It’s clearly all made up. Most people get that – but some people really don’t and it shocks me. I think the people who really like me enjoy it all the more because people are actually getting upset. And I love that. It’s what I go for.