His last stand-up special, “Fire in the Maternity Ward,” included jokes about dropping babies, a neighbor with Alzheimer’s and the idea that “any trimester is good” for an abortion. It drew far more positive press than the mixed reaction to Dave Chappelle’s recent “Sticks and Stones.”
Why? Jeselnik explained.
“Chappelle is perceived as a moral center in this country. He has a very nuanced take on race. He has a very nuanced take on a lot of things. So when he attacks the trans community or talks about ‘I don’t believe the victims who say they got molested,’ I think people truly get upset,” Jeselnik told TheWrap.
He’s referring to Chappelle jokes in which Chappelle said he didn’t believe Michael Jackson’s accusers, and compared LGBTQ people to passengers on a road trip who don’t always get along.
Jeselnik said that after years of jokes about child abuse, horrific violence, and religion, people know what to expect. His jokes are carefully constructed riddles in which you always know he’s going to take a dark turn, but can almost never guess what the turn will be.
“When I walk out on stage, I’m from the first second to the last just an evil person. So no one would ever say, ‘I can’t believe Anthony is doing this’ because it’s just what I do. I think people want Dave to be someone he’s not.”
Jeselnik is acutely aware of the increased scrutiny placed on comedians today, in which jokes are often taken at face value, not as jokes, and comedians are held accountable for things they said years ago. During one “Good Talk” feature called “a segment in timeless comedy,” he puts guests on the spot by showing them old routines they might no longer care to defend.
But Jeselnik said his own routine has been “grandfathered in” to the point that people aren’t outraged by his dark humor.
During “Good Talk,” he bounces between his evil persona and serious discussions of comedy, as in an exchange with Nick Kroll about their shared love of Dana Carvey.
“I’m at a point in my career where I can look any comedian in the eye,” Jeselnik says. “I call the show ‘Night King Tonight’ because I look like Night King looking across the table ready to kill them.”
But guests quickly learn he’s there for more than a “Game of Thrones” beheading. In the show’s first season, Jeselnik brings on fellow comics and friends like Nick Kroll, Kumail Nanjiani and Kristen Schaal in a free-flowing conversation more common on podcasts than TV. (Jeselnik also co-hosts a podcast, the “Jeselnik and Rosenthal Vanity Project,” with best friend Gregg Rosenthal and Erica Tamposi.)
“I don’t like being on talk shows. I don’t like having to prepare and having some weird story or anecdote that seems fake,” Jeselnik says. “I wanted it to be authentic, not forced.”
Jeselnik is working on his next comedy special, and says “there isn’t a fear” that people are getting to comfortable with his persona. In fact, Jeselnik sees it as a challenge to innovate.
“It’s the fear that drives me,” he said. “I think he’ll always have a role in this society. Especially now. It’s fun to play a villain in a society where everyone is talking about the villains.”
“Good Talk” premiers tonight and airs weekly on Fridays at 8pm PT/11pm ET.