Once upon a time, in a magical age when only doctors had cell phones, only nerds used the internet, and only mailmen had to be fired gently, stand up comedians absolutely ruled Comedy Central, an army of starving smartasses in cheap blazers holding forth on how airline peanuts are hard to open and how gay people are gay. Some of the more clever ones even got their own shows, but it didn’t last long, because a cultural prank called South Park turned into a phenomenon and showed the suits the glory of cheaply-produced shock humor. Soon their airwaves were overrun with completely interchangable, badly-animated fratboy sitcoms, none of them with a hint of Trey and Matt’s satirical insight.
Then, however, the world went crazy. And the one stand-up refuge, The Daily Show, and its Colbert Report spinoff, began making the headlines by shaming the headlines. The stoners headed over to Adult Swim to get weird, and the smartasses got internet connections and invented snark. It looked like Comedy Central would never have a monopoly on offensive ever again.
Enter Anthony Jeselnik. Himself a new-breed standup, his act traffics in exploding taboos. But what separates him from the jokeless broseph posturing of a Dane Cook or the memes-for-dummies approach of Daniel Tosh is twofold. First, there’s his disarmingly detached persona, as calmly deadpan and as winkingly contemptuous of douchebaggery as Steve Martin’s and Sarah Silverman’s. Then there’s the targets he skewers. Most “offensive” humor takes the easy shot, pointing down, like high schoolers, at the freaks lower than themselves on the social pecking order, but Jeselnik’s approach is more broad and therefore more genuinely dangerous, like a bomb demolition squad defusing our nightmares. It’s delicate work, but he’s got it down, and it’s why his new Comedy Central show, The Jeselnik Offensive, is surprisingly winning, and not just #winning. If Colbert is the ironic Bill O’Reilly, Jeselnik is the ironic Dane Cook. When he takes a girl home who’s passed out cold, he politely tucks her in, puts a blanket over her, and then leaves a note saying “You got raped.”
Three thousand Americans dying on 9/11 is Not Funny, even 12 years later. But putting babies inside giant cardboard twin towers and then feeding them airplane style, like proud parents, is a clever way to disarm the horror. The segment entitled “Latino Voices” is a metapun that features Jeselnik and his guests speaking in exaggerated Cheech Marin accents, but they don’t actually say anything about Latinos at all — the whole point is to skewer the pomposity and fake concern of the media. Conversely, his response to the full-on death porn of Shark Week is to dress up sexy models as sharks and then have them give him a lap dance. He mocks entertainment-channel fashionistas by shaming celebrity children for looking horrible without makeup. Such is the utterly nonthreatening nature of Jeselnik’s approach that he can roast a cancer support group right to their faces and give them the freedom to relax and laugh at the prospect of their own mortality. “Can you spell that?” he asks a brain cancer sufferer of his disease’s lengthy Latin name. “Could you spell it before you had brain cancer?”
The main problem with Jeselnik’s offensive is the fact that he’s usually charging the hill alone: without the Daily Show correspondents bouncing the crazy off of Jon Stewart’s horrified everyman or the experts feeding Colbert’s improv, the show turns two entire segments — fully half the show — over to visiting comedians, old-school Comedy Central style. Unfortunately, as the channel seems to have forgotten, most standups can’t riff on the spot, and the result is sort of like a “news of the weird” app, a segment that usually feels heavily edited and therefore pretty awkward. There are exceptions; Patton Oswalt and Nick Kroll, perhaps predictably, killed. (Four Loko cans are decked out in camo because their drinkers “tend to wander off into the woods.” “They’re usually hunting for a GED.”)
That said, Anthony’s tightrope act still shows plenty of promise. The most offensive thing about a recent segment was a lame, obvious, old-school joke about how Queen Latifah is overweight; thing is, it was tossed off while Anthony and his bros were jovially discussing the idea of sex with conjoined twins on a pile of corpses. The fact that such a distinction can even be drawn proves that TJO might yet evolve to work on both levels of its title: not just shock for shock’s sake, but a tactical comedy maneuver essential in fighting back against a scary new century. The humor terrorists have not won.