Maybe it’s his square-jawed good looks or his vaguely laconic delivery, which recalls a younger, deeper-voiced John Travolta. Mostly it’s the fact that he gets paid to make people laugh.
Regardless, Anthony Jeselnik gets away with a lot.
“I don’t think there’s anything I say that can be too offensive,” the 33-year-old said over the phone from Los Angeles. “It’s just gotta be funny. I just think of how can I ratchet up the tension in this deal and say it in an unexpected way and make the punchline have the maximum intended effect on the audience.”
That’s why the Pittsburgh native, who headlines Comedy Works on Larimer Square tonight through Sunday, relishes diving into topics that make most people squirm. His twisted, hilariously soulless persona has cast him as a go-to guy for Comedy Central roasts from Donald Trump to Charlie Sheen.
We caught up with Jeselnik, a former writer for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” earlier this week to delve into the “collateral damage” of comedy, the worst thing he’s ever felt bad laughing at and how some audiences are still catching up to comedians.
Do you feel like you live in that delicate space between deeply offending someone and not going far enough?
That’s why I talk about things people don’t want to talk about and are uncomfortable about. It makes them that much more tense and then they laugh more. If people get offended, that’s almost like collateral damage — or they don’t have the best sense of humor. I try to explain it like a heavy metal album by a band like Metallica. They don’t put out an album and say, “I really hope country music fans get this.” If you’re offended by it, you don’t really get it.
It seems like stand-up audiences these days are sophisticated enough to differentiate the persona from the person, but I’m sure you still get people coming up to you who think your act is who you really are.
People are less aggressive with me now. If someone’s never heard of me before it’s kind of jarring, but I’ve kind of earned that I can say anything I want because I’ve been doing it for so long. You can see audiences trying to catch up to where comedians are right now, and some audiences still think of comedy as a generic kind of ’80s art form.
There’s nowhere you wouldn’t go comedically, but what’s the worst thing you’ve ever felt bad laughing at?
That would have to be the first time I ever saw a dead person. I was in Germany touring some castle, I was 18 years old and some old guy had fallen and died. (My friends and I) were drunk and tired, and after I laughed about it something evolutionary in my body just made me feel awful.
You’re also nominated for Best Club Comic in the 2012 Comedy Awards. How much does that stuff mean to you?
That’s a real honor…
I’m being sarcastic. I’m friends with every single person in that category, and we’re like, “What the fuck is Best Club Comic?” It almost sounds demeaning. It’s nice to be recognized, but it doesn’t mean anything when you’re out on stage. For comedy there’s almost like an embarrassment to winning awards. You want people to laugh. It’s bad if a comic starts to believe their own press. I don’t think anyone in the audience would ever give a shit.
And you’re taping your next Comedy Central special in June at the Vic Theatre in Chicago. When will that air?
It will be on Comedy Central, but there’s no air date. I’m taping on a Saturday and literally fly back Sunday and starting editing right away. So hopefully soon… I think there will be another (Comedy Central) roast in August or September, so that will keep me busy too. I’ve got this hour special I’m recording in June, I’d like to tour Europe this summer, I’m working on another TV show with Comedy Central, and I’ve started taking private-coaching acting classes — since you have to un-learn a bit of stand-up to do acting again… So I’ve got plenty on my plate.
How did you choose the Vic?
I’ve never seen or been to the Vic but I like its reputation. I was looking at Chicago and D.C. and I just like the way it looked and the size and it sounds like a cool venue.
What’s your favorite thing to do outside of comedy?
I’m a huge reader. I like to read a lot and I’d like to eventually write more, not just jokes but down the road.
Well, you do have an English Lit degree from Tulane.
Ha! That doesn’t necessary mean you read…
Do you have a favorite joke of the moment, whether it’s yours or someone else’s?
I do have a favorite joke and it’s definitely mine. It’s my favorite because I think it’s amazing and for some reason, every once in awhile, it just doesn’t work at all. It’s not offensive really, but sometimes audiences just don’t know that I told a joke. But the joke is: “I think my friend Jeff is gay. I don’t know. I’m so bad with names.”
John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and digital media editor for The Denver Post and the author of “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” (Speck Press/Fulcrum). Follow him @johntwenzel and @beardsandgum.