Anthony Jezelnik: It’s Never Too Soon

I’d never heard of Anthony Jeselnik before seeing his latest comedy special  “Thoughts and Prayers” on Netflix.  It was so good that it made me go searching for more of his work.  In an interview, he said “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”…I thought it was such an empty sentiment, that I thought, let me attack this…My goal for this special is that no one will be able to use that phrase again without feeling like an idiot. “ He more than succeeded in achieving that goal.  Now, not only will people feel like idiots using it, they’ll also feel exposed as selfish attention-seeking conformists.  His comedy special Caligula, which I watched after having been so impressed with Thoughts and Prayers, showcased many of the same strengths that he’s refined even more with this year’s special.

One of those strengths is his brilliant use of the element of surprise. Even though his formula for setting up the punchline is similar for most of his jokes, he never fails to deliver an entirely unpredictable punchline.  In a world in which formula writing has become so common that almost everything is boring, he manages to use formula to create something completely unique in each and every joke.  His genius lies in using the setup to demonstrate both that he is a normal guy and that much of what is considered normal is only public conformity coupled with private hypocrisy. Every punchline becomes another refusal to participate in the charade, and the audience laughter is partly relief, that even if only for one  vicarious moment, they don’t have to, either.

Another of his gifts is  forcing audiences to admit the extent of their sadistic tendencies by catching them laughing at jokes about atrocities and taboos. Abu Graib, after all, did not happen in a social vacuum.  The closest our society has come to acknowledging the true extent of its sadism are watered down representations in popular books like Fifty Shades of Gray or movies like “Mean Girls”. His response to their laughter seems to be a mixture of contempt for their sadism, compassion for their social indoctrination, and admiration for temporarily rising about their daily hypocrisy.  While the character he plays onstage pretends to be impervious to whether the audience laughs or not, his face betrays that character by openly displaying his pleasure when they do.

Part of what makes the callous arrogant character he plays onstage offensive to people is that it reveals to audiences just how much they worship and reward those qualities, even while publicly pretending to disapprove of them.   If brilliant Pulizter prize-winning anthropologist Ernest Becker, author of The Denial of Death, was correct in his assertion that the majority of evil is caused by human’s refusal to acknowledge and accept the reality of their own mortality, Jeselnik is contributing to the eradication of evil.  For him, no joke is ever “too soon”.  His comedy refuses to elevate death, a natural and inevitable occurrence for us all, to the status of tragedy.

His show on Comedy Central, The Jeselnik Offensive, was cancelled after two seasons, partly for its controversial content. For example, for the first episode, he did a cancer-related bit—for a group of cancer patients–that he had to beg Comedy Central to allow him to include.  In the grand tradition of comedy, he’s a master at pushing the envelope and showing society aspects of itself that it would prefer to continue to deny and ignore. He responded to expectations that he publicly apologize for some of his material by saying “If you’re a comedian, that’s not your job. Your job is to upset people at times.” Comedy is one profession in which you can lose your job for doing it too well. Luckily, mainstream corporate media doesn’t have the same degree of power it once did to silence comedians, our modern-day truth-tellers.   

In reading a little bit about Jeselnik, I was delighted to discover that he’s brave enough to publicly admit his atheism.  I also discovered that I had in fact heard of him before, and even had even seen him in his role as host on Last Comic Standing that he began in July of this year. Maybe I’d even heard some of his jokes watching Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where Jeselnik was a writer for a time. His dark humor makes him uniquely qualified for the art of the roast, too, and he’s roasted several, including Donald TrumpCharlie Sheen  and  Roseanne Barr.  This review is my way of expressing my appreciation for the important work he’s doing in revealing us to ourselves.   After all, nothing changes until it is what it is.    

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