Pittsburgh Supervillain: Anthony Jeselnik talks evil persona, death and Twitter

Anthony Jeselnik, the man, couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to perform in front of an audience. But, Anthony Jeselnik, the performer, wants that same group to hate his guts.

“The persona onstage is a complete villain, who has nothing but complete disregard for the audience,” Jeselnik said.

The Upper St. Clair graduate — and his evil stage alter ego — are set to return to Pittsburgh at the Byham Theater this Thursday, to perform an all-new set of material.

You might know Jeselnik from his short-lived 2013 Comedy Central series, “The Jeselnik Offensive,” which skewered the most twisted and absurd news stories of the week through his pitch-black comic lens. He zoomed in on the broader topics that dominate his stand-up material, such as cancer, AIDS and death but found overlap in current events. It shocked by the minute — but only if you hadn’t seen Jeselnik before.

“If I say the word cancer during a joke, the tension just ratchets up, because people can’t imagine what I’m about to say that’s going to make them laugh at cancer,” Jeselnik said.

Aside from the dark material, Jeselnik is also known for paring jokes away to concise one-liners.

“I almost kind of write my jokes out like a haiku, so I can see every single word — I can see any extra word and where it should be taken out,” Jeselnik said. “[I want to] be like the Ramones of comedy, where every chord matter[s], and you just [go] through it as fast as you [can].”

Jeselnik spoke with The Pitt News over the phone about how people react to his material, the importance of Twitter for comics and why he’s doing people a favor by joking about death.

The Pitt News: What’s been your least favorite reaction to a joke?

Anthony Jeselnik: I get everything from laughs to boos, and they’re all fine by me. They’re all just as good. I like to have a mixture — I like to entertain half the crowd and have half going, “What is going on?” The worst thing that can happen to me is either silence — if there’s no reaction whatsoever, if they’re just bored by it — or if they groan … That will make me never use a joke again, if the audience groans at it. But boos, hate, laughter are just great.

TPN: You used to be more prolific with tweets about current events and tragedies. So were those intended to be from your stage presence or from you?

AJ: I think the thing that got confused about Twitter is it’s a little bit of both. It’s a little bit of the persona and me. I know a lot of famous people that I’m friends with have secret accounts where they have one under their name, and then they have one that’s not tied to them at all. And they can say something offensive on that Twitter and not have to worry about it being a public declaration. Like people think you’re doing a press conference. And I think that’s why I fell out of Twitter a little bit — I stopped enjoying it. Because when I was coming up, I could kind of make these raw jokes that were almost a parody of the outpouring of people getting on Twitter after something horrible happened. Everybody kind of does the same thing on Twitter. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be kind of funny if I tried to make a joke about this horrible thing?” — that everyone seems to be mourning right now. But I think that was almost a mistake because people see my name next to it, and instead of seeing it as a joke, kind of see it as an endorsement of the tragedy … And I think a lot of people don’t tweet as much as they used to. It’s just not a format that I’m that interested in anymore.

TPN: Does joking about death every night desensitize you to tragedies in your own life, or does it become easier to cope with?

AJ: You know, I understand the question, and it used to be a fear of mine when I started out — What if something horrible happens and these jokes aren’t funny to me anymore? But that worry is gone. I think it’s just a way that my mind works. People say, “It’s such a negative thing to talk about death,” but I don’t think so. For me, it’s a very optimistic and positive thing to talk about. Because when you’re talking about death every night, then you’re kind of aware that life seems that much — sweeter seems like a lame way to put it, but it does. You seem more alive when you keep death close like that. So I really feel like I’m doing people a service, and I don’t believe I’m hurting anyone. Some people might get upset, but that’s not my problem. I talk about dark subjects, but I don’t believe that I’m a dark person.

TPN: There’s a sound effect on your first album, Shakespeare, that’s hard to identify. It sounds like a rubber band.

AJ: There was one moment where I say, “What’s your name? I’m going to make you famous.” And she goes, “Kelly.” Then you hear a boom. What I used to do, is sometimes if I was doing crowd work and someone was being really difficult, I would ask them a question, and then I would hit them on the head with the microphone. It’s covered with foam, so it doesn’t hurt them, but it sounds really loud — like I just clocked somebody. But I had to stop doing that, because one night, I was doing a show where there wasn’t a foam covering on the microphone, and I did it to someone, and I like really hurt them. And I thought, “Oh, this is a mistake.” That was the last time I hit someone with the mic.

TPN: Is that the one joke you might apologize for?

AJ: Oh, I would never apologize — even for that.

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