Anthony Jeselnik’s appeal to his audience has only ever partially been his willingness to swim in dark and lurid waters. Part of it has also been his unabashed arrogance (“I’m not trying that joke out, I’m showing off”). The rest of it is the fact that Jeselnik is a steady hand. Audiences aren’t necessarily offended by Jeselnik as much as they are comforted by the idea that he is going to be in complete control of the situation for the entire show. His pacing is slow and deliberate. He’s never going to crack, he’s never going to falter. You have nothing to worry about.
This is certainly true of his latest Netflix special, Fire in the Maternity Ward, which delivers plenty of the acerbic baits and switches his fans love. Credit where credit is due,
even if the rhythms of a Jeselnik joke are familiar at this point, he’s still very good at fooling us over and over again. You can predict the skeleton of the joke but not the muscles. “I’ll never forget the one time I saw my Dad’s penis….” he says. “I said, ‘Dad………………….. Don’t text me shit like that.’”
The trouble is that, at this point, when Jeselnik jokes about how much he loves dropping babies, it’s like when Jared Leto’s Joker surrounds himself in a concentric circle of knives, cackling. Yeah man, you’re a bad guy. Where people would do something good and nice, you do not. Sure you like knives: you’re the Joker.
Jeselnik is not a comedian who’s defensive about being considered offensive, because his is not the self-satisfaction of the kind of comedian who thinks they just “say what we’re all thinking.” He’s obsessed with the math of these kinds of jokes and works to perfect the equations in a way that surprises people. Someone would have every right to take issue with Jeselnik over the content of his material, but I think this might be why a career that seemed destined to stir up controversy has basically skirted it altogether.
Fire in the Maternity Ward begins to lack an internal motor at a certain point. And I’m not saying that the solution to that problem is to double down on the “offensiveness” of it all, whatever that means.
Jeselnik’s first album, Shakespeare, was released in 2010 amongst a slew of impressive debuts from exciting new talents, including Hannibal Buress’s My Name Is Hannibal and Kyle Kinane’s Death of the Party. Part of the power of Shakespeare was that it served as a counterpoint to the other albums in that graduating class. In fact, all of those albums sort of served as counterpoints to each other, and Jeselnik stood out not for his ability to handle risky subject matter, but for the quiet, Loki-ish glee he took in convincing the audience to trust him.
The audience does trust him now, and they have for many years. Jeselnik can still bring that contempt for the follies of humanity to the table and make it funny. “If you didn’t get that last joke, don’t worry,” he says at one point in the show. “This next joke is just like it, only dumb.” And the final, long-form story that ends the special has a lot more energy and playfulness to it. But now that contempt has become slightly passive. It’s tough to say whether or not activating it again would really shake things up in the right way, but that sense still pervades Fire in the Maternity Ward. Between his self-conscious shocks and old-fashioned offensiveness, Jeselnik—and his special—feels too safe, too uninspired.
Graham Techler’s writing has been featured by McSweeney’s and The New Yorker, and he performs at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @gr8h8m_t3chl3r.