Comedian Anthony Jeselnik wants to offend you. He wants to tell you your clothes don’t fit you right, that your laugh is fake, and that you should quit your job. If you’re the type to go to his shows, to step into his arena, you’ll probably like it. That’s because Jeselnik is the evil BDSM god of comedy. When he tells you to laugh, you do. When he tells you he’s the best, you believe him. He wears all black, and a cocky smile. He is the Fresh Prince of roasting.
And yet, Jeselnik had to take his own fair share of emotional beatings before he got anywhere. Prior to all of this, before Jeselnik earned close to one million Twitter followers telling them he’s “fly as hell” and that they ought to die—Jeselnik wanted to be a writer. He dreamed of writing a book like Bret Easton Ellis’, full of hopelessness, drugs, and anger. He failed, badly. His professor hated his work. He hated his work. Unable to figure out what was holding him back, he decided to appease his parents and become a lawyer. When he failed at that, too, he moved to L.A., where he worked at a bookstore (from which he was fired) and went to nightly open mics (where he repeatedly bombed). He had an English major, a business minor, and no idea what to do. But he kept at it.
Eventually, he started gaining some traction. In 2009, after seven years of comedy, he gained a break that would lead to bigger breaks: Jimmy Fallon, Conan, and then, finally, his Comedy Central roast of Donald Trump. Since then, Jeselnik’s become eminently recognizable in the comedy world. He looks a bit like a 1980s bully—frosted hair, a long face, and thin side burns that run the length of his cheekbones and end in two razor-sharp points. At the show I went to during JFL NorthWest, the line-up at the Vogue nearly covered a full square block. When Jeselnik finally walked onto the stage to loud, bass-heavy music, everyone fell to their metaphorical knees, ready to be offended—together.
I’ll admit it; part of the reason I went to Jeselnik’s show is because I don’t think satire works. I like Jon Stewart, and I like John Oliver—don’t get me wrong. I just tend to agree with Alan Moore when he says that satire, especially dark satire, runs the risk of redundancy. The world is already dark. Everything evil already parades itself across Youtube. If your brand of dark comedy isn’t darker than daily life, doesn’t it run the risk of just being more of the same? Jeselnik skirts all of this by going deeper than you can imagine is safe to go. He reaches the bottom of Beelzebub’s barrel: holocaust jokes, baby-dropping jokes, jokes about murder. He makes fun of the alt-right, epileptics, white guys, the deaf.
Jeselnik seems aware of satire’s limits. He doesn’t claim that, for instance, his joke about stealing an eye from the partially blind has any positive political effect. Or that his joke about murder-suicide makes our lives any better. He hates us all, equally, merely for his pleasure and ours. The pleasure is as fun and pointless as a box of buttered popcorn, a bad movie, a freezing cold shower. And maybe that’s okay. At his recent Vancouver show, the crowd loved it; Jeselnik roasted us, we sizzled, and it was fun.