Back in April 2013, many people were reacting to the Boston Marathon bombing by offering their thoughts and prayers on social media. Not Anthony Jeselnik, though: The comedian tweeted out a joke soon after the news hit. “There are some lines that should not be crossed today,” he wrote. “Especially the finish line.”
For anyone who is familiar with Jeselnik’s comedy, this wasn’t surprising. Often hailed the Dark Prince of Comedy, Jeselnik’s known for his villainous stage persona — but that didn’t protect him from backlash, which went on to inspire Thoughts and Prayers, his new Netflix special taped in San Francisco.
“I found that people, they wanted just one reaction to a tragedy, and that is they wanted you to say, ‘My thoughts and prayers are with you.’ And I thought it was such an empty sentiment that I thought, let me attack this,” Jeselnik tells EW of that tweet. “My goal for this special is that no one will be able to use that phrase again without feeling like an idiot.”
Read more about Thoughts and Prayers and Jeselnik’s feelings on apologizing for jokes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, why San Francisco?
ANTHONY JESELNIK: I needed people to be a little upset. Like, I couldn’t have the audience cheering for every awful thing I did. I wanted people to kind of be taken aback. I have one specific joke about transgender people and for the joke to work, the audience has to be upset that I’m even attempting it. And sometimes I have audience members who will be like, “Yeah! Do it!” and I didn’t want that. You know, if I was choosing between San Francisco and Tampa, Tampa is going to cheer. And I wanted people to be a little against it. In a good way.
Tell me about the name Thoughts and Prayers.
One of the big themes of the special, the reason I wanted to put it out as fast as I could, was because of some trouble I got into while I had my TV show. I tweeted a joke about the Boston Marathon. My show was about joking about awful things as they happened, and so I tweeted this joke and got in a lot of trouble for it. And I found that people, they wanted just one reaction to a tragedy, and that is they wanted you to say, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” And I thought it was such an empty sentiment, that I thought, let me attack this. And I really just wanted to speak out about that. My goal for this special is that no one will be able to use that phrase again without feeling like an idiot.
How do you respond when something bad happens to someone you know? Like, let’s say I’m your friend, and my dog dies. What do you say?
“That sucks. Is there anything I can do for you?” Not those empty platitudes of like, “Time heals all wounds.” You might as well say nothing at all.
You recently said in an interview that you’re talking about things that upset you and bother you in this new special — obviously the statement “thoughts and prayers” is one of those things. What else?
I kind of try to delve into other controversies that I’ve been apart of. Whether it was the shark controversy, the shark attack controversy in New Zealand that I had to deal with, I was getting death threats over that.
Remind me of that.
On my television show, The Jeselnik Offensive, we did this segment the first season, and it was kind of like I celebrated a shark attack. A guy from New Zealand had been eaten by a great white shark. And we kind of celebrated it to highlight the difference between the amount of sharks killed by human beings every year compared to the amount of people killed by sharks. It was this big song and dance number. It was really over the top. And in New Zealand, where they don’t know who I am, they saw that and lost their minds. Like flipped out about it. And so I kind of talk about that. What I had to go through with that. Just trying to almost explore why I became a comedian. What it is about me that feels compelled to tell these jokes that upset people.
On that note of people getting upset, comedians keep getting in a bit of trouble for things they’ve tweeted, like Trevor Noah facing all that backlash for those tweets he posted in 2009. What’s your take on all that? Do you think there’s any case where someone should apologize for a joke?
I think no one should ever apologize for a joke. I think if the intent is pure, you’re okay. I mean, trust me, there are some bad jokes out there, and people who should not be joking at all. If you’re a politician, of course you should apologize for a bad joke. If you’re a comedian, that’s not your job. Your job is to upset people at times. And I think that this whole Twitter thing you just mentioned, it’s almost a witch hunt where people just want to find their angle. “Oh, Trevor Noah’s the new host of The Daily Show, what can we dig up on him? There’s not that much out there. Let’s go through his Twitter, let’s find these things and throw them in his face.”
Or with Daniel Tosh, “Let’s find something he said onstage and let’s come after him for it.” But the reason it doesn’t bother me that much is that whenever it happens, it can never really happen that way again because people get bored of it. People see through it very quickly. Like, the guy from SNL who just got hired, they went back through his tweets and videos, and there wasn’t the same sort of outrage about it even though he had bad jokes and very similar jokes to Trevor Noah, but no one really gave him any crap about it because they didn’t care anymore. They did it with Trevor, they felt stupid afterwards, and they were done with it.
Do you feel like you’re immune from it at all because that is so much of your persona?
In a way, yes. In a way, I’m immune. If you’ve heard of me, and you’re familiar with my work at all, this is just what I do, you wouldn’t really get upset. But there are still a lot of people who have not heard of me. There are still those people, and for them, it doesn’t really help. If they just think, oh, who’s this guy saying this joke? Like, when I got the TV show on Comedy Central, I got a lot more famous really quickly. And so people who hadn’t really been along for the journey were just jumping in and being upset by these things, and that was not my intent. But what can you do? It’s just growing pains. So yes and no.
Your jokes are known for being succinct. What it’s like thinking up an hour of new material? That sounds so daunting to me.
It is incredibly daunting. You just kind of start brick by brick. You just start piling up rocks and eventually you got a house. It takes years and you get your first 15 together, and then you can kind of build off of that. But Thoughts and Prayers is my third hour of comedy that I’ve put out in my 13-year-career, so I think I have to, for this next one, I’m going to have to stretch it out a little more. I’m going to have to be telling more stories. Because it is incredibly daunting to put that together. But it’s rewarding too.
Can you talk a bit more about how you’ll change it up?
I think I’ll just get a little bit longer. I’ll try to tell more stories. I have this one story in Thoughts and Prayers, like a story of my grandmother giving me a bible when I asked for money. And it’s this kind of long story with a big, hard punchline that I love so much, because it’s very much what I do, but it’s longer, and the audience is more involved. People are starting to sit on my jokes, or they’re waiting for the punchline, so if I can stretch it out and confuse them a little bit, I think that would help me tremendously. But it’s the same sort of style. I’m still interested in the same subject matter, but try to open it a little more so it’s not so predictable.
You mentioned your grandma. Does your family listen to your comedy?
Oh, they love it. And they all love it, even the ones who are really religious or the ones who are kind of very like on the moral high ground. They love it because they understand I’m joking. Even though I talk about my family a lot, I’m not referencing my actual family. I’m talking about this fictional family I’ve created just to do mean things to for the purposes of comedy. So if you know me, you find it much funnier than if you don’t. Because then you kind of see the wheels turning, if you will. Yeah, they love it.
Is there a specific audience you imagine you’re writing to?
Myself. I’m only doing it to entertain myself. And so let’s say I write 10 jokes, and five of them entertain me, I’m only going to try those five. And of those five, the audience might only like two of them, so I can only keep the two. So my audience is me, but the crowd can filter it out. I’ve gotta kinda have a best of both worlds thing. Because there are some jokes that I think are amazing that I cannot get anyone to laugh at. And I don’t understand why, I just kind of have to move on.
Do you have one off the top of your head?
Let me think. This one I liked: I thought I was a father once. But then they did the blood test on the baby, and the baby died.
You laughing, that’s the biggest laugh that joke has ever gotten. But to me, it’s so funny. I love that joke. But no one else likes it. No one.
You famously did cancer jokes in front of cancer patients on The Jeselnik Offensive. Is there any other group of people you’d like to do something similar with?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, the transgender community I think would be amazing. I think that would be a dream to get to have that kind of opportunity. But other than that, right now, I don’t know. That would be amazing. I would love to make a group of them laugh.
Why should people watch Thoughts and Prayers?
If you’re a comedy fan, it’s going to be something you haven’t seen. It’s going to push the envelope of what you believed comedy could be. If you’re interested in one-liners, it’s the best one-liners you’re going to hear in the next 10 years, I gotta assume. I’m one of the best at it. It’s like an evolution of me as a performer. If you’re a fan of mine, you want to see this evolution and see where I’m going. I hope that people really respond to that. It’s half one-liners, what people are used to, and the second half is a lot more personal, a lot deeper, and I think even smarter. I’m very excited to see how people respond to it. But you are going to have a response. I think a lot of standup comedy, you just kind of let it wash over you. But this will be visceral. And I think if you’re a comedy fan, it’s a must-see. And if you’re not a comedy fan, maybe skip it. Maybe don’t make a big deal out of it.
Thoughts and Prayers debuts on Netflix Oct. 16.