Why Anthony Jeselnik Calls His New Talk Show 'Night King Tonight'
"I smile more," admits the stand-up with the bad-boy persona, who nevertheless promises he'll dip into "all the tools of the devil" his fans have come to love.
When it comes to comedy, the notion of "too soon" just doesn't exist for Anthony Jeselnik.
The handsome 40-year-old comic with a taste for the dark stuff revealed in a Netflix comedy special that Comedy Central nearly canceled his talk show The Jeselnik Offensive after he made a joke on Twitter about the Boston Marathon bombing — on the day of the bombing. He ended up deleting the joke (which, if you must know, went, “Guys, today there are just some lines that should not be crossed. Especially the finish line”) — but only after he realized how many staffers would be out of a job over his commitment to tasteless comedy.
In 2013, the show was canceled anyway after just two seasons. Now Comedy Central is giving Jeselnik another shot at the talk format. Like Offensive, Good Talk With Anthony Jeselnik will feature other comedians as guests. But gone are the monologues and newsy fodder. Instead, Jeselnik will grill his friends — A-list stand-ups like David Spade, Kumail Nanjiani, Kristen Schaal and Tig Notaro — on one of his favorite topics: comedy.
The Hollywood Reporter chatted with Jeselnik about what to expect from the show, which premieres the first of its six episodes on Sept. 6.
This new talk show format sounds like it may clash a bit with your stand-up persona. How do you plan on addressing that?
I think you're right. One of the reasons I got into comedy was because I loved comedians and I loved the camaraderie we had. And once you get to a certain level it only intensifies. You get to know people who are at the top of their game and learn how they philosophize about it. Especially in a time where everyone is on TV yelling about the news, I want a timeless show that I can tape months in advance. The guests don't have to prepare. They can come on and just have fun. There's actual conversation but a lot of silliness, too.
The word around town is that you're secretly a really nice guy. Is that nice guy going to come out in this show more?
It's the nice guy with all of the tools of the devil that you see onstage. So they’re both there, which I think is almost unnerving. We called the show for a little while "Night King Tonight" because it was like I was the Night King [from Game of Thrones] interviewing everyone. None of the guests really knew what the show was going to be. They had to trust me. And they're sitting across from me in the dark before the show starts and they're like, "What did I get myself into?" I am much nicer, though. I smile more on this show than I ever have but I still get my digs in. It is I guess an evolution.
And it's not like Between Two Ferns — it's not scripted, it's genuine conversations with friends?
Absolutely not. One of my biggest fears was ripping off Between Two Ferns because I love that show so much. But it is like that in that every question is almost a joke. Everything was designed to get a laugh and then an actual response about comedy.
I remember talking to Kristen Schaal and changing her mind about her comedic philosophy. We talked a little about whether or not comedy is always a surprise. And she was like, "No, my last special I did this bit where I'm just like in this horse saddle for 15 minutes." And I'm like, "It is though, because the surprise is the commitment to the bit." And she was like, "I never thought of it like that, you're right." And I love that we can actually get that sort of conversation between two comedians.
The element of surprise seems to be the single biggest key to your humor. It's kind of like you're in a haunted house — you know the joke is coming, and then it jumps out at you.
I agree with that 100 percent. It's building tension and then cutting that tension. You need the tension first, you can't just be surprised out of nowhere. I think the show kind of builds that too. Because I have playful questions and then I have serious questions that are frankly designed to embarrass the guests, and they do not know when what is coming.
There is a lot of breaking the fourth comedy wall in between your jokes, where you give the audience little instructions or rate their reactions.
Yes, of course, yeah. I mean whenever I've found a place to do that organically I enjoy it. As a comedy fan, more and more people are educated in the dialogue of comedy that they get those things. Like on the TV show I talk to Kumail Nanjiani about running a light. When a comic is onstage, a red light flashes. You’ve got two minutes, then you gotta get off. Comedy Central is like, do we need something at the bottom of the screen that says what the red light is? And I'm like, no, give the audience some credit.
It seems like it's a bit of a fraught time in comedy. What I always respect about you is that you like to push the line at a time where people seem to be pulling it back.
Even something like Louis C.K. doing a set recently at that Skank Festival in New York seemed to split the comedians I follow on Twitter. Does the show go into those areas?
I think when a comedian starts complaining about political correctness and freedom of speech they have already lost. Another term for PC culture is culture — it's just the way it is. You can say whatever you want onstage, but the audience has a right to react to it. I've just found that it's beneficial to not complain about it ever and just go do it. I don’t want to complain about PC culture, I want to find a way to make people laugh despite it. There is no point in arguing about it. So it doesn't bother me, I don't feel threatened. I don't think comedy is in a bad place. I think everything is an opportunity and I'm just trying to use this opportunity to my advantage.
What about this notion that people like Louis C.K. shouldn't be allowed to perform at all?
I don’t understand it, to be quite honest. If you can sell tickets, by all means sell tickets. There are people who are great people who give to charity and would give you the shirt off their back — and couldn't make a baby laugh. So what? Being a good person isn't why you buy the ticket. You buy the ticket because you want to be entertained. So of course he has every right. And I hope he keeps going and I want to read every article about it. I love it. But do I feel bad for him in any way? No.
I know you've taped all six of your episodes. Were there any amazing stand-out moments or things you want to tease?
Each guest treated it differently. Some people treated it like it like they were on Marc Maron and they had to get their story out; some people treated it like one long improv game, which I found really charming.
Is there a live audience?
No, it's just the crew. I hated dealing with a live audience on The Jeselnik Offensive. It gave me anxiety. TV tapings — I don't know if you've ever been to one — are not fun. So for this I was like, let's sit down for an hour and a half and just have the crew laughing, the writers laughing. So you hear laughs, it's not just silence, but there is no studio audience that we're playing too or mugging to.