Dressed in all black, Anthony Jeselnik takes the stage of San Francisco’s The Fillmore in his new Netflix comedy special Thoughts and Prayers (premiering on October 16), and makes jokes about 9/11, dead babies and child molestation. While you may cringe a few times just because it feels like you should, you might also laugh your ass off—that is, if you’re a fan of Jeselnik’s dark sense of humor and devilish stage presence. If this style of comedy does not sit well with you, you will be horrified.
It’s all an act, of course, and Jeselnik, who first made a name for himself roasting Donald Trump on Comedy Central and had a topical series called The Jeselnik Offensive on the same network, is always looking for ways to top himself, crafting provocative new material that is, for sure, going to shock and offend someone somewhere. Here, Jeselnik, host of the most recent season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing, talks to Co.Create about how he writes and tests the material he performs in his standup specials.
The pressure is never off when you are a comedian—you constantly need to come up with new jokes, or your act goes stale, and filling an hour-long show with laughs is daunting. “The panic that sets in is crazy. Once you think, ‘My material is gone,’ all you want to do is replace it,” says Jeselnik, who started writing jokes for Thoughts and Prayers right after he recorded his last special, Caligula, in 2012 (it aired on Comedy Central in January 2013). “I pretty much started the day after I recorded Caligula,” he recalls. “I was right back out there. I had maybe five jokes and started building from there.”
By right back out there, he means right back out there working on material in comedy clubs and theaters. “I can’t just create this in my bedroom. I have to get out there on stage, and it has to be a constant process,” Jeselnik says. “If I’m trying to develop material, I want to do as many shows as I can.”
When you headline a show at a club filled with people who know and love your comedy, it’s likely you’re going to get a lot of positive reaction, however you don’t know what kind of feedback you’re going to get when you perform in front of an audience that isn’t familiar with your style. “The big test is if I just go on a random show—if I’m up at The Comedy Store on a Saturday night, and maybe my name’s not on the marquee. How does it go there? May fans know what they’re getting, and they want a little more. They want jokes that a regular audience would not laugh at because they know me—they’re aware of my style and persona. They want the deeper cuts, if you will,” Jeselnik explains. “Regular audiences need to have their hand held.”
Jeselnik likes to test his material in front of both groups. “I like to try to find a nice balance between the two,” he says. “I don’t want to only be able to perform with my audience, but I also appreciate my audience, and I want to give them something special.”
When Jeselnik is testing his material, he isn’t out to learn if something is too offensive because that’s his stock in trade. What he really wants to measure is what kind of a laugh a joke gets. “I want the biggest reaction possible. A laugh isn’t good enough. I need a huge laugh,” Jeselnik says. “I have this high bar, and a lot of times I’ll think something’s great, and the audience says, ‘No, no, no. You’re wrong.’ Maybe I keep trying it for a little bit, but they eventually talk me out of it. It’s not fun to bomb with a joke, especially a one-liner. Maybe if I’m telling a story, I don’t mind if there’s a lull because the story is important to me, but the only reason I tell a joke at all is for laughs. So if the crowd can’t get on board, then I will eventually lose it.”
“Like all comedians, I tape all my sets and then never listen to them. There’s nothing worse than the sound of my own voice,” Jeselnik says. So why record the shows at all? “I’ll record them all just in case something amazing comes up I have to listen to, but that has happened once in the past five years,” he admits.
That said, Jeselnik will continue to record—and likely not ever listen to—all of his shows. “It’s a just in case—just in case I go off on something amazing that I’ve never said,” he says.
Jeselnik writes every day with a goal in mind. “I try to write three jokes a day,” he says. “I find that that’s the amount I can get out without exhausting myself, but I’m keeping the wheels turning. Maybe it will take weeks before I get some I want to try, but that seems like a good number.”
And he likes to write in the morning. “I try to do it as soon as I can. It could be before I eat or with coffee or drinking a bottle of water or something, and then I try to read after that—read at least 50 pages of something to keep the paint wet inside my head,” he says. “I think any writer has to read whether it’s a magazine, the Internet, a novel or nonfiction. Whatever it is, you just need to put something in your head.”
Jeselnik puts a lot of time into crafting his material and coming up with unexpected conclusions to the premises he puts forward. “I’m a wordsmith where I will write the premise and think, ‘How many different ways can this turn out?’ ” he says. “Then I pick the funniest ones, the craziest ones you can’t really see coming. What I call it is third thought.”
He walks Co.Create through an example of his third thought approach, using a joke he tells in Thoughts and Prayers. “The joke: ‘My mom should have been on one of the planes that crashed on 9/11.’ Your first thought is, ‘Oh, she survived—it’s a miracle thing.’ That’s the first thought,” he says.
“The second thought will be a joke that you can think of if you took your time—if you really thought about it,” he continues.
“Third thought is one step removed. It’s something that you never would have thought of, and that’s where the best jokes lie,” Jeselnik says, relaying the entire joke: “My mom should have been on a plane that crashed on 9/11—I think.”
“No one is going to come up with that, and that’s where my comedy lives,” he says. “You have to dig it out. Not only is the diamond there, but if we can find it, it’s perfect.”