Anthony Jeselnik takes an aggressive approach with his jokes, including his Netflix comedy specials. The American comedian has two stand-up specials available on Netflix, Thoughts & Prayers (2015) and Fire in the Maternity Ward (2019), both of which may leave many viewers feeling awkward yet intrigued.
During the early 2000s, Jeselnik famously participated in several Comedy Central roasts. His presence alone inspired jokes from his more experienced comedic peers, but he didn’t hold back when properly roasting celebrities like Roseanne Barr, Charlie Sheen, and Donald Trump. Since then, Jeselnik has gained a large mainstream following thanks to his aggressive and uncompromising humor. In September 2019, Comedy Central premiered Good Talk with Anthony Jeselnik.
Jeselnik has admittedly built his entire career on dark comedy. Like many stand-up comics, though, he doesn’t merely say offensive things just to provoke audiences, but rather to criticize accepted cultural norms, and to inform people about his own concerns and insecurities.
Who Anthony Jeselnik Targets In His Netflix Specials
Jeselnik mostly targets parents, and uses a contrived stage persona to address their worst fears. In Thoughts & Prayers, Jeselnik begins with a joke about a baby trapped in a hot car, which will automatically offend many men and women. He then delivers a follow-up joke about women who can’t pull off sarcasm. But Jeselnik quickly shifts gears to assess the moment: “If you guys laugh at that joke... whole show goes great." Jeselnik steadily reminds the audience that they paid to be entertained, and that he’s there to provoke. In both Netflix specials, Jeselnik pinpoints the audience’s sensitivity level, and proceeds to joke about sex offenders, serial killers, dead animals, cancer, and threats to babies.
In addition, Jeselnik targets the “Joke Police.” At first glance, the comedian appears to embody overly-confident male personality traits and uses that preconception for his arrogant stage persona. Netflix's Thoughts & Prayers includes a lengthy commentary about accepted social media etiquette, in which Jeselnik discusses how people typically offer disingenuous or painfully predictable comments after tragedies, as referenced by the special's title. Jeselnik targets people who believe that comics should simply tell light-hearted jokes rather than inserting themselves into controversial discussions about society. Jeselnik reminds viewers that “I don’t tell dark jokes because I’m a comedian. I’m a comedian because I tell dark jokes.”
Jeselnik uses delayed punchlines to target people who laugh or react too quickly. For example, he’ll guide the audience along like a traditional comic, but then conclude in a dark, dark place. In Fire in the Maternity Ward, he states “If you didn’t get either joke, how did you figure out Netflix?” Whereas Jeselnik’s Thoughts & Prayers is mostly explanatory - a give and take commentary about what’s acceptable to joke about - Fire in the Maternity Ward shows Jeselnik embracing the storytelling aspect of his profession, all the while keeping the audience off-kilter about his stage persona and motivations. Per Jeselnik, “I’m not trying that joke out, I am showing off.”
Jeselnik makes a telling statement midway through Thoughts & Prayers: “I’m not good with kids. That’s my point. That’s what this whole thing’s about.” Both Netflix specials include several jokes about hurting children, which is shocking on the surface but seems to be Jeselnik’s way of acknowledging his fears about failure. Jeselnik often discusses his childhood and incorporates various members into dark jokes to paint a warped familial portrait that connects to his self-image, which he cleverly masks with a heightened sense of self. In Thoughts & Prayers, Jeselnik pulls back the curtain during the final 20 minutes for a personal commentary about family, responsibility, and tragedy. Unsurprisingly, the bit ends with a dark wink-of-the-eye one-liner. He also states, “I like to test myself by joking about horrible things and nothing but.”
In each Netflix special, Jeselnik pushes and provokes the audience to think beyond what they know to be true. He wears the Black Hat, and embraces the villain role to deconstruct questionable human behavior. During Fire in the Maternity Ward, Jeselnik says “I think that stand up comedy doesn’t always have to be funny… sometimes, it’s about pointing out wrongs in the world, even though it might not be popular.” He compares and contrasts tragedies to seemingly imply that everyone’s battling their own personal wars deep down inside. The question remains: how much effort do you want to put into each one? Anthony Jeselnik suggests that sometimes it's healthy just to laugh about fears, failure, and familial concerns - rather than presenting a faux persona to the world. And therein lies the telling irony of the comedian's stage persona.