Comedian Anthony Jeselnik takes pride in joking about the topics you shouldn't joke about. Throughout his career, he's developed a snarky onstage persona delivering material about death and disease at comedy clubs, the roasts of Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen, and on his Comedy Central show, The Jeselnik Offensive.
Jeselnik joined Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg to discuss his comic style. Before earning the moniker "the Dark Prince of Comedy," Jeselnik recalls trying to win over a crowd by mimicking his comedic idol, former Saturday Night Live writer Jack Handey. "As a comedian, you start, and you start trying things, and the audience tells you what your next step is going to be," Jeselnik said. "For me, the cockier I got, and the darker I got, and the meaner I got, the more the crowd followed that. So I thought, 'Okay, this is going to be a lot of fun.'"
When asked what topics he was interested in being quizzed on, Jeselnik mentioned sharks. So in an Ask Me Another Challenge called "Sharks With Snark," Jeselnik tackled questions about the underwater predators' appearances in popular culture, like the origin of the nickname Steven Spielberg gave the mechanical shark in Jaws.
How his on stage persona differs from his off-stage persona
People are very scared of me because they've seen the stage persona, and when they meet me, they're kind of taken off guard, and I like that. I want you to be scared so that I can be seem charming. People will be like, "Oh, you're so nice." I'm like, "I'm not that nice, you just think I'm gonna be really, really mean."
Why no topic is off limits
If something made me uncomfortable, I would take it as a challenge to try and make a joke about that. That's my only goal: to find things that you shouldn't joke about, and find a way to make a joke.
Why his performance on Comedy Central's Roast of Donald Trump changed his life
If I do badly on [the roast], then everything my life has been leading up to has been for nothing. Because this was my opportunity, and if it goes well, then I know I've been on the right path and things will continue to go well. So when I did well, people thought, "Oh, you're going to get so cocky when the roast is over," because I was cocky before. But after the roast, I kind of calmed down, because I didn't have to be cocky — everyone knew.
This segment originally appeared on April 14, 2014
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR and WNYC's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. I'm Ophira Eisenberg. And you might recognize our very important puzzler from his many Comedy Central roasts, from his former show "The Jeselnik Offensive" or from listening to his top rated comedy albums. Please welcome my very good friend, Anthony Jeselnik.
EISENBERG: Is this your first time ever being asked to do a public radio show?
ANTHONY JESELNIK: Oh yeah. For sure.
JESELNIK: Last and only. In fact, I asked them when I got here, I said are you guys nervous to have me on NPR? And they said no, but if Ophira hadn't vouched for you, we would never have you on.
EISENBERG: That makes me so happy. You have no idea.
JESELNIK: I'm glad one of us is happy.
EISENBERG: So let's talk about - for any of our listeners that are not familiar with your comedy...
JESELNIK: If there is an NPR listener not familiar with my comedy, sure.
EISENBERG: We'll help them out by - I would - let's see, I would describe your style as highly intelligent, shocking one- liners. You make fun of tough stuff, whether it's death or illness or societal taboos or...
JESELNIK: Yeah, anything you think there shouldn't be a joke made about, I've got two of those.
EISENBERG: But you're onstage persona is pretty different from your offstage persona.
JESELNIK: Oh sure.
EISENBERG: When I first met Anthony, we were doing a show together and I was terrified to meet him because I just assumed that you could rip me apart so easily for fun.
JESELNIK: Physically, yeah.
EISENBERG: Physically. And then I met you backstage and you were this super great guy. But do you get that all the time that people are terrified of you?
JESELNIK: Yeah. People are very scared of me because they've seen the stage persona. And then when they meet me, they're kind of taken off guard. And I like that. I want you to be scared so that I can kind of seem charming when I'm not.
JESELNIK: People will be like oh, your so nice. I'm like I'm not that nice. You just think I'm going to be really, really mean.
JESELNIK: Yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: So you're onstage persona being the - I love the dark prince of comedy. That is one of my favorite little monikers of yours - but you - that wasn't day one for you. You developed this character.
JESELNIK: Sure. You kind of, you know, as a comedian, you start and you start trying things. And the audience tells you what your next step is going to be. And, I mean, you come up and maybe I try to be super energetic and the crowd laughs, so I keep following that. But for me, it was like the cockier I got and the darker I got and the meaner I got, the more the crowd followed that. So I thought OK, this is going to be a lot of fun.
EISENBERG: Do you remember a joke or a moment where you really harnessed that?
JESELNIK: Oh yeah. I had this joke I thought of - my idol in comedy was this guy named Jack Handy - who was the guy who wrote Deep Thoughts for "Saturday Night Live." I loved those because you were always like how did he think of the punch line, like, how did he come to this? How did he make up this joke? And I would write my own versions of those. And they were all kind of silly. And then one time I came up with a really dark one, where I said my girlfriend loves to eat chocolate. She's always eating chocolate. And she likes to joke she's got a chocolate addiction. You know, she'd be like keep me away from those chocolate bars, I'm addicted to them. And it's really annoying. So one day I put her in the car and I drove her downtown and I pointed out a crack addict. And I said you see that honey? Why can't you be that skinny?
JESELNIK: And I told that joke at an open mic. And when comedians hear a funny joke, they don't laugh. They go oh.
EISENBERG: That's right.
JESELNIK: Which is code for, like, I wish I thought of that.
JESELNIK: And when I heard that I'm like oh, I'm on to something. And then I just chased that forever.
EISENBERG: And I know from watching you a lot on stage that you are telling jokes and sometimes half of the crowd is going - there's half laughter and half oh happening at the same time. You're almost pushing them away to get them to come closer.
JESELNIK: Exactly. I'm daring you to laugh. Like it's - that's the best. If half the crowd hates me and half the crowd loves it, I'm in heaven.
JESELNIK: When they all love it it's a little weird.
JESELNIK: You know what I mean? It's like if you make like a - if you do, like, a Hitler impression and everyone's like yeah. And you're like oh no. That was not my intent.
EISENBERG: So is there any topic that you consider off-limits?
JESELNIK: No. And if I did, if something made me uncomfortable, I would take it as a challenge, as a personal challenge to try to find a way to make a joke about that. You know, that's my only goal is to find things that you shouldn't joke about and find a way to make a joke.
EISENBERG: So this is why you clearly were such a great choice for the roasts.
EISENBERG: And you first, you wrote on your first one which was David Hasselhoff. Is that correct?
JESELNIK: Yes, I wrote for David Hasselhoff, yeah.
EISENBERG: And in the next one, you performed on and that was the Donald Trump roast.
JESELNIK: Oh you've heard of him?
EISENBERG: And, you know, some people knew who you were. But you were pretty new to the huge viewing audience. And you went up there and you really roasted people in a way that was I think kind of missing from the roasts for a while.
JESELNIK: A little bit. I kind of - and I'll give her credit - I kind of took the Whitney Cummings model. And I was like just go up there and try to cut everyone's head off. Like it doesn't matter who they are, just go and try to destroy them. And that was me. People would watch me walk up on stage and be like who is this pretty little dork? What is he going to do? And then I just - I crushed everyone, yeah.
EISENBERG: So after the Trump roast, the next day, did your life change?
JESELNIK: Oh completely. It was a completely different - everyone was like oh my God, you're that guy, that was amazing. And I changed because it was like you had your moment. I was like if I do badly on this, it's - everything my life has been leading up to has been for nothing because I was like this is my opportunity. And if it goes well, then I know that I've been on the right path and things are going to continue to go well. So when I did well, people thought, like, oh you're going to get so cocky when the roast is over because I was cocky before.
JESELNIK: But after the roast, I kind of calmed down because I didn't have to be cocky - everyone knew.
EISENBERG: So the image on your most recent comedy album "Caligula" is of a huge shark.
JESELNIK: "Caligula," a giant shark coming out of the water - a giant great white shark.
EISENBERG: And when we said to you, as we do to our VIPs, they go hey, you know, we're going to write a quiz for you - anything you like - and you said sharks.
JESELNIK: Yeah. You sound more confident than I sounded.
JESELNIK: You were like what do you know, like, everything about? And I was like well, nothing. Nothing. Like even if you were like questions about your family, I'd be like I'm screwed.
JESELNIK: But what do I like a lot? Sharks.
EISENBERG: All right. I know you can handle this. But I'm going to ask you anyways - would you like to play an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
EISENBERG: What if I said hey, guess what? It's time for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
JESELNIK: Then I'd say I knew.
EISENBERG: OK good. Anthony Jeselnik everybody.
EISENBERG: All right, so you asked for a game about sharks. And we have written you a game about sharks. But it's not a scientific quiz. It's a quiz about sharks in popular culture. So our house musician Jonathan Coulton and our puzzle guru John Chaneski will be helping us out with this game. OK, here we go. The most famous shark in pop-culture is of course the shark in "Jaws." Director Steven Spielberg nicknamed the mechanical shark Bruce after someone he knew. Was it A - his barber, B - his lawyer or C - his therapist?
JESELNIK: I'm going to say B - lawyer.
EISENBERG: I would say you are correct. Of course.
EISENBERG: His lawyer Bruce Ramer. Yeah. Who should - I mean, he should put that on his business card. If he was, like, inspired "Jaws."
JESELNIK: I don't want to get too cocky but I already have.
EISENBERG: Because you got that right?
JESELNIK: Yeah, exactly.
JONATHAN COULTON: One of the most surprising on-screen shark attacks is in a 1999 movie starring Samuel L Jackson. Jackson is delivering an inspirational speech about how the team has to pull together to defeat the genetically enhanced, super intelligent sharks that are attacking them. Then out of nowhere, he gets chomped in half. What is the name of that film?
JESELNIK: Oh my. I'm so happy you asked me that question. "Deep Blue Sea" is the the name of that movie.
COULTON: Yeah, that's right.
COULTON: You a fan of the movie?
JESELNIK: I am a fan of the movie. There's some great deaths in there. I will say that when Samuel L. Jackson is giving that speech, I knew he was about to get eaten by a shark.
COULTON: Oh you dead? You saw it coming?
JESELNIK: I did. I did. Yeah, I'm not lying. I seriously - I was like he's gone on too long. He's about to get eaten.
EISENBERG: There's something going on. Do you know this? In the third Austin Powers movie, Dr. Evil's son Scott finally gives him the gift he always wanted - sharks with what attached to their heads?
JESELNIK: OK. I've never seen the third one because I'm a comedy fan.
JESELNIK: But lasers.
JOHN CHANESKI: More specific please.
JESELNIK: Freaking lasers.
CHANESKI: That's it.
JESELNIK: Balsy move asking me to get more specific. That could've gone wrong for you. I could've flipped out.
CHANESKI: I had faith.
EISENBERG: In the movie "Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus..."
EISENBERG: ...Starring Lorenzo Lamas and Debbie Gibson - sorry Deborah Gibson - this is when she got serious.
EISENBERG: A giant shark leaps out of the water and takes down an airplane. The shark which has been thawed out from a glacier is supposedly a member of what shark species that lived millions of years ago?
JESELNIK: Oh, I wish this was multiple choice because I can see the - it's like a mega - I can see the name. Megachronadon? I couldn't.
CHANESKI: It means big tooth.
JESELNIK: That's not helpful.
JESELNIK: Megachronadon? I think that's what I said, yeah.
EISENBERG: Yeah, all right.
COULTON: Mega - that's actually a giant watch.
EISENBERG: The chronadon.
COULTON: Prehistoric giant watch.
JESELNIK: I'm not going to answer it incorrectly, I'm going to pass.
EISENBERG: All right.
EISENBERG: I'm sure the people here would like their voices heard. Anyone out there?
JESELNIK: Megalodon, yes.
EISENBERG: So close.
JESELNIK: Son of a...
EISENBERG: Puzzle guru John Chaneski, how did our VIP do at his game?
CHANESKI: He got a majority of the answers correct. So thanks to Anthony, Steven Fernandez from Charleston, West Virginia, wins an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's cube and a copy of Anthony's comedy DVD "Caligula."
EISENBERG: Thank you so much. Huge hand for Anthony Jeselnik everybody.
COULTON: (Singing) Oh, the shark babe has such teeth, dear and he shows them pearly whites. Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe. And he keeps it out of sight. When that shark bites with his teeth, babe, scarlet billows start to spread. Fancy gloves though wears MacHeath, dear. So there's never, never a trace of red. SuKey Tawdry, oh Jenny Diver, Polly Peachum and Lucy Brown. Oh that line forms on the right, babe, now that Maggie's, now that Maggie's back in town.
EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.