Anthony Jeselnik on Death Threats, Stand-Up, and Roasting Donald Trump
"Tonight, Anthony Jeselnik is going to leave his stamp on the roast. And tomorrow, he'll use that stamp to buy food."
That's how Seth MacFarlane introduced Anthony Jeselnik at Comedy Central's Roast of Donald Trump. And while obviously a bit hyperbolic -- like all good jokes -- there was a good deal of truth poking out beneath the surface.
That night was America's first introduction to Anthony Jeselnik. It was an audition. And Jeselnik was painfully aware that his performance in those six minutes would either spawn a career in comedy, or send him spiraling toward obscurity.
Thankfully, the former was the case, and Anthony Jeselnik officially became the only reason you should thank Donald Trump next time you see his bloated carcass trudging down the street. In the last three years, Jeselnik has become one of the most interesting comics alive, carving out a style that combines old school precision with his own brand of go-for-the-jugular material.
Jeselnik jokes about all the topics you're not supposed to joke about. He made it a point to open his last special, Caligula, with a rape joke. In the first episode of his Comedy Central show, The Jeselnik Offensive, he did cancer jokes in front of a cancer support group. The show was canceled after its second season. This did not surprise Jeselnik.
Now he's embarking on an 11-week stand-up tour that he'll use to polish the material for his third special. His first stop is the West Palm Beach Improv. But before he heads to South Florida, we caught up with Jeselnik to talk comedy, television, and Donald Trump.
New Times: Now that you are a lot more established and you have a fan base that comes to your shows with an idea of what type of comedy to expect, is it tougher to catch them off guard? Do you have to work harder to get those "ooos."
Anthony Jeselnik: Absolutely -- for exactly the reasons you just described. People are kind of anticipating my punch lines more because they kind of know what's coming, so they're getting better at it. Which means I have to be one step ahead. I've got to be a little smarter. And I don't even worry about the "ooos," I just want to surprise people. So I think I probably do get less "ooos." I have a couple that I really have to earn. I just have to stay one step ahead of everybody. It gets harder as I go, but I like the challenge. If it got easier as I went, I would probably lose interest.
How is life now after The Jeselnik Offensive? Are you focusing on stand-up? Do you have any plans to make another run at television?
Yeah, I think I'll probably get back into TV at some point. There are definitely offers that I get. But I kind of just wanted to take some time after The Jeselnik Offensive to remember why I'm in the business in the first place. The Jeselnik Offensive made me really appreciate stand-up where I'm my own boss, and no one can give me notes. I can just do exactly what I want. Since The Jeselnik Offensive got canceled almost a year ago, I've just been focused solely on stand up.
Do you look back on The Jeselnik Offensive positively? Do you see it as a learning experience, or do you look back on it negatively?
All of those things. I definitely learned a lot. It was my first ever TV show. But I'm very proud of the work we did. I think there were definitely some mistakes. But I was just looking through some of the old jokes last night, and we had some great stuff. There were some things I'm very proud of. And I think The Jeselnik Offensive is a show that would never have existed if I hadn't done it. It was always going to be a short-lived show.
When Comedy Central told me I could have a show where I could do anything I wanted, my first thought was: this is going to be quick. So I think I got away with everything I could on that show. I'm proud that I did it. But I don't know if I'd want to do it again.
Were you caught off guard by the reception of the show? You in a comedy club is one thing, but you in front of a national audience has the potential to offend a lot more people. I know you said you received death threats. Were you surprised by any of it?
I don't know if it really caught me off guard. I kind of expected it a little bit. It was interesting to find out what you can get away with when you're not that famous versus when you have a TV show with your name in the title. It was almost like you were held to a higher standard. If I'm just doing my stand-up, or I'm on a roast or something, no one can really attack me. There's nothing they can really take away from me.
When you have a TV show, they can threaten to boycott or pull advertising, so you have a much bigger bullseye on your back. Which was, not unexpected, but a little surprising. I think it just comes with the territory.
My mission statement of our show was to just do jokes about things that no one on a late night talk show would talk about because they'd get into trouble. I think if I was surprised by anything it was that getting into trouble wasn't really newsworthy. Like, when I got death threats from New Zealand, I thought, oh, next week we have to talk about this. We have to explain what happened and have an answer to it. But no one really knew that we got death threats here. It wasn't really a big deal in America.
We kind of had our hands tied behind our backs. We were dealing with this controversy and kind of duck it, but at the same time we couldn't talk about it on the show the way The Colbert Report would have done.
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You've talked before about how the Trump Roast was such a crucial moment in your career. It was really a make or break moment and you knew that going in. The whole thing sounds incredibly stressful. But despite that, did you get a chance to savor the fact that you basically had ten minutes to rip into Donald Trump, to his face, without him having a chance to defend himself?
Oh, absolutely. Everything about it was amazing. I'd always wanted to be on a roast. It wasn't like, oh, this opportunity came up. That was my dream. And I knew the only way I could mess it up was to be nervous, or to be scared. So I just put that out of my mind immediately. I was very conscious of the fact that it was the biggest moment of my life. Not just my career, my life. But I understood that I should also savor it.
I remember Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers quaterback, when he was in his first Super Bowl he said that someone told him to take a mental snapshot. Right before you run out of the tunnel to start the game, take a snapshot and just close your eyes, and memorize what's going on around you, and you'll have that with you for the rest of your forever, no matter what happens in the game. And so I kind of knew to do that during the roast. I was very aware to take it all in and appreciate it. Because it's never going to be this pure and this good again.
Is it awkward at all to roast someone that you have no relationship with? Or maybe don't like that much? I'm assuming you had no relationship with Trump before the roast and/or didn't like him very much to begin with.
No, it was not weird at all. As a matter of fact, I like Trump, because he's so successful and so synonymous with success that you can never hurt him. There are certainly people who I make jokes about where, I don't feel bad about it, but I feel like this person didn't deserve this. But Donald Trump was maybe my favorite person to roast ever, because you could not say anything that would make people feel sympathy for him. He's just an asshole who's super rich, and it doesn't seem like he could be hurt.
I was surprised by how well he took the roast. He seems like such a sensitive guy. I mean, he's consistently getting in these really petty Twitter fights and seems to take things personally. Did he say anything to you after the roast?
He shook my hand and said thank you. I think he really meant it. He understood that it was a TV show, and he can't be sensitive there. He understood what it was, and what he was trying to get out of it.
But after The Situation performed, he was like, this might be a disaster. This might not even air it's so bad. So he was very happy with me. But it's funny to see what he was sensitive about. Like, I made a joke about him dying from cancer, and he was kind of like, yeah, that's a good joke. But then I made a joke about his casino failing, and he looked genuinely upset. Genuinely upset. Which I thought was hilarious.
Really shows where his priorities are.
Exactly. On every one of those roasts you get one rule that someone can't make fun of. Like, Joan Rivers said please don't make fun of my daughter. And we were like, we understand. It's mostly about kids or family members, and we get it. But Donald Trump's one rule was we couldn't say he has less money than he says he does.
Your career is still really in its infantile stages. Do you have any long-term goals? Anything that you want to try that you haven't tried yet?
You know, not really. I achieved everything that I ever wanted to achieve once I put out my first hour special. I just like having the freedom to kind of be cool, and be able to do what I want, and to stay a little bit under the radar. It wasn't that appealing to me to be super famous. I like the idea of having my privacy a little bit, and just being able to do the work that I want to do.
As long as I can see what I want to do next, and be able to go do it, then I'll be thrilled. I'm not really worried about money or about being creative any more. I know that's just going to come with the territory. It'll be really interesting to see what happens once I tape this next hour. To see what I feel like doing next. I don't know what that will be.
Anthony Jeselnik is performing September 5 and 6, at the Palm Beach Improv, 550 S. Rosemary Ave., #250, West Palm Beach. Tickets are $25 plus a two drink minimum. Purchase tickets here, or call 561-833-1812.
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