Spotlight on Stand-Ups: Anthony Jeselnik
By Haley West
“You guys mad about that one? It's gonna get so much fuckin' worse” - Anthony Jeselnik
And worse it gets, which seems unimaginable even from the get-go: dark comedic Anthony Jeselnik’s lone Netflix special opens on not one, not two, but three jokes about hurting babies. Oof. Still, it appropriately (or rather, inappropriately) sets the scene for the ensuing hour of gasp-inducing jabs rattled off by Jeselnik as nonchalantly as a grocery list. If you need a metric for roughly how fucked-up the fucked-upness is, know that dead babies sit firmly on the tame end of the twisted spectrum of taboos.
It’s not just his material that keeps the audience at the precipice of unease and rapt attention, though: his incalculable air of foreboding spellbinds the audience into accepting one off-color joke only for the possibility that there’s something far worse just around the next punchline (hint: there is). As warped and intense as his love of sharks is (re: Shark Party, a bit from an old show of his deemed so batshit-crazy-offensive it’s been erased from even the deepest annals of the internet), it makes sense that Jeselnik prowls the stage like one. His gait is slow, easy, deliberate as he treads water between jokes, and the calculating smirk eternally plastered to his face reflects that of the oceanic predator just catching its first whiff of blood. Factor in Jeselnik’s affinity for targeting audience members and it’s clear he swims among the great whites - in his words, “the champagne of sharks.”
He’s cocky, of course, but it works for him, and somehow by the time he suggests that “the Mt. Rushmore of comedy is me, four times”, you find yourself nodding in resigned agreement instead of wanting to punch him in the face. See, the thing about comedy as deeply disturbing as Jeselnik’s is that it needs to be funny - no, indisputably fucking hilarious - in order for it to see commercial success. If it were borderline comical, if it were marginally amusing, it would be too easy for us to write it off as taboo in order to protect our relationships with our moral compasses. It’s easy to dismiss a joke about dead babies when it’s half-assed - it’s nearly impossible to do the same when it’s delivered as impeccably as the many, many dead baby jokes in Thoughts and Prayers. And even if an onslaught of dead baby jokes isn’t your thing, you have to give credit where credit is due - the man can creatively kill a baby.
Yeah, it’s a fucked-up accolade, but seeing as Jeselnik himself brags “dead baby jokes have made me rich,” somehow I don’t think he’d mind the praise.