Anthony Jeselnik is a comedian, writer, actor, and producer. His most recent Netflix special is Fire in the Maternity Ward, and you can see him on his Comedy Central show Good Talk with Anthony Jeselnik.
Listen to Episode #100 here:
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Dropping Babies With Anthony Jeselnik
Welcome to the 100th episode of the show. It’s a good one. You’re going to enjoy it. Anthony is great. I’m going to be winding down this show. I may have a guest here or there, but it won’t be coming out regularly anymore. I’m going to be turning my attention to some other things. I have a book out, Shtick to Business: What The Masters Of Comedy Can Teach You About Breaking Rules, Being Fearless, And Building A Serious Career. I’m excited about it and it has some lessons that are important given what we’re dealing with the pandemic, the economic uncertainties and the problems that it’s all causing. I want to thank you as readers for sticking with me as I figure this out. This has been a great experience for me. This show has helped me develop a new skill, being a better interviewer and being a better listener. Admittedly, I still have some improvements to make. I’ve had a chance to meet incredibly fascinating people that I otherwise wouldn’t have. I’ve learned a ton. Many of the conversations that were in this show, the insights have shown up in the book and have changed the way that I see the world. It’s been fantastic and I hope you’ve learned something along the way, been a little bit entertained and had some good laughs.
I want to thank you for reading. I hope you enjoy this episode. I look forward to connecting with you in other ways, whether that be through what I’m going to be doing with my book, webinars, classes, speaking, etc. Also, as you may know, I’ve started a new show, something completely different than I’ve ever done before and it’s off to a great start. It’s stretching me and it’s called Solo: The Single Person’s Guide to a Remarkable Life. I’m hoping to use some of the lessons that I’ve learned here to make that show even better. I want you to know, I appreciate you. I hope you’re holding up and please reach out if I can help in any way. I hope you enjoy the episode.
Our guest is Anthony Jeselnik. I’ve never done this before, but I got a kick out of the first paragraph of his Wikipedia page, “American comedian, writer, actor and producer, he’s known for his dark comedy style, which emphasizes ironic misdirection, nonsequiturs, biting insults, arrogant demeanor, and a stage persona that frequently takes amoral stances.” This is me speaking. You see him on Good Talk With Anthony Jeselnik on Comedy Central and his stand was special, Fire in the Maternity Ward, can be seen on Netflix. Welcome, Anthony.
Thank you for having me.
Did you write that intro to your Wikipedia page?
I’ve written nothing. I don’t even know how to edit. I’ve had people be like, “You’ve got to take this off of there.” I would agree with all of that, except for arrogance. I would use the word confidence.
If you weren’t working as a comedian, writer, actor or producer, what would you be doing with your life?
I shudder to think. I got fired from every job I’ve ever had before I became a comedian. Even the jobs I’ve gotten from comedy, I’ve usually gotten fired from. Stand-up is the one thing that you do for a couple of days and you move on and that’s been helpful. I’d probably be in a circus or something.
Had you been fired for nearly everything you’ve done?
Pretty much. I left Fallon on my own. I quit that job. It wasn’t quitting. It was like, “I’ve been here long enough, I’m going to move on.” Usually, I get fired. Maybe it’s my Pittsburgh roots or my family upbringing that I never wanted to quit a job. I would check out mentally and they would notice and I would get fired eventually.
I’ve had the opposite problem. I’ve never been fired. In some ways, that’s worse.
I’ve been lucky to get fired because I don’t get stuck in a job. People who are miserable at their job and they keep showing up. It’s hard to leave something when you know you’re getting that paycheck, but if you get fired, it’s out of your hands and you’ve got to hustle.
Life has made that decision for you. Thankfully, you haven’t been fired from comedy and been canceled. I have to admit I’m a fan. I’m going to try to act naturally. What do you have against babies?
I don’t have anything against them. I think they are the perfect victim of a joke. It’s pure innocence and you say the word, baby, and everyone understands you should not do anything bad to them. I do nothing but bad things to them.
This is in Fire in the Maternity Ward. The drama baby bit is in there. First of all, the way you say baby, that’s purposeful.
I’ve heard people comment on the way I say baby, but it’s not on purpose. It’s the way that I talk.
I didn’t know stand-up can be that nuanced, is that you noticed consciously or unconsciously that you get a bigger laugh when you say “baby” a particular way and then you start saying it that way to maximize the laugh.
There are a lot of words that I say differently in the way that I talk. People were like, “You sound like Christopher Walken or you sound like John Malkovich.” I thought it was something that I came with comedically as I was doing my act. It’s a way to hide punch lines and deliver jokes better but my dad gets it. My dad will be talking and someone will say, “You sound like Christopher Walken.” It’s a family thing.
There is work on how you pick up. There are mannerisms in the speech patterns of people in your life. We have a mutual friend, he’s a friend of mine. I don’t know if he’s a friend or acquaintance of you, Shane Mauss who is going to be on the show. He’ll be in the episode after yours.
I know Shane. I would say I know him enough to say hello, but I don’t know that much about Shane.
I noticed, I’ve picked up a thing where I can’t do it right here. It’s not a laugh, but it’s an acknowledgment that something’s funny that Shane does and I do it from spending a lot of time with the guy.
I’ve done that. There are comics that I can’t watch anymore because I pick up mannerisms or things they do that are fun. I used to watch Dave Attell when I lived in New York, every time he did a set at the Comedy Cellar. One day I came upstairs and said, “I’ve got to stop doing this.” I would take mannerisms, certain things that he would do and I would do them myself because they were fun. If you’re talking to someone with a Southern accent and you start speaking to Southern accent because it seems interesting and you’re being rude.
That’s different than sports, for example. If you play basketball, you’ll steal another player’s move and people welcome it. They’re complemented by it.
I don’t know if you mean the way they dribble or skateboarders evolve after watching each other. There are plenty of guys who still do Jordan’s tongue wag and things like that. That seemed fun.
The pursuit of comedy is focused on the novelty that there’s almost nothing that you’re allowed to be too similar.
I have a friend who we talk about aspirational jealousy where you can see something someone’s doing and you want to do something similar. You don’t want to steal their act, but you want to experience what they’re experiencing, but you want to be singular and you don’t want to take too much. I rarely watch comedy unless it’s absurd because then I know I’m not going to run into anything. If I hear like, “You’re like Daniel Sloss.” I keep hearing that name. I’m aware of him, but I’ve never seen anything he’s ever done because people compare us and it’s not a knock on him. I don’t want that in my head.
You also avoid that inadvertent joke, stealing stuff that happens where people forget that they heard something and then reproduce it.
[bctt tweet=”When you say ‘baby,’ everyone understands you shouldn’t do anything bad to them.” username=””]
I don’t worry about that much as I worry about something being taken off the table from me. I end Fire in the Maternity Ward with a long story about abortion and I heard that Louis C.K.’s special 2017 opens with a joke about abortion. I was like, “I won’t watch the whole special.” It’s Chris Rock who was like, “It’s nothing like your bit.” I still didn’t want it in my head. I didn’t want to know.
That aspirational element, at this stage in your career, where do you find it?
I’ll internalize something, I’ll watch John Mulaney’s The Sack Lunch Bunch and it was like, “This is interesting watching a comedian do this other format, but I want nothing to do with it.” I would see someone do something and be like, “Do I want to do a sketch show? Do I want to act? Do I want to do this?” Usually, the answer is no. I enjoy the little niche I’ve carved out for myself.
I compliment you for that. I want to finish up with the baby stuff. I like the idea of picking the thing that seems off-limits and it is not off-limits. People have done this with things like rape jokes and stuff. I like the idea of this sweet, innocent stimulus.
Baby jokes had been around forever. It’s Vaudeville if you want to go back. How do you make a dead baby float? One cup of root beer or two scoops of a dead baby. I forget the comic’s name, but it’s one of the oldest jokes there is. It’s not I’m reinventing the wheel. I brought it back.
I’m a little older than you, but I remember these truly tasteless joke books in the ’80s filled with dead baby jokes. Are you not a family man?
I don’t have kids, but I’m a godfather to two kids. I’m an uncle. I enjoy family.
Most of it comes from you’re not supposed to do this. It is an arousing, heightening stimulus. When it lands, it lands big.
Comics love to give advice. When I was starting, someone said, “Never joke about hurting animals because everyone in the audience imagines their cat.” I said, “Challenge accepted.” Every special I’ve done or every hour I’ve done has at least 5 or 6 jokes about hurting the animals because I thought, “If I can get them to laugh at this, good for me.”
That seems to be a theme for you, which is, “Let me heighten the challenge. This thing is hard, how do I make it harder?” Your stage persona seems built on that promise of, “I might not be that likable, to begin with. Let me make myself absurdly unlikeable and I know this is my opinion. It flips.”
I couldn’t even explain why it works. I know that it does work. When I started trying to do that, people followed me with it. I kept going and it’s fun. It’s more fun to play the villain than it is to play the hero. I never wanted to be liked. I’m going to work hard that you got to respect it and you can enjoy that.
You use that term villain in my presence once before when I asked you to do this and I’m not sure you’re the villain. Let me make a case. You’re not a hero. First of all, I have a tiny glimpse into why it works for you. My humor research collaborator, Caleb Warren, he’s at the University of Arizona. His Doctoral dissertation was on coolness and what makes things cool. What makes things cool is this idea of being optimally deviant. You’re not deviant, we put deviant people into prisons and we exile them and so on. Certainly, people who always play by the rules, they’re not cool at all, but when you look at cool people and cool things, they have this level of autonomy where they fit in, but they don’t fit in. They sit in this sweet spot that moves as the culture moves and as people start to gravitate to something cool. Coolness is this fleeting thing. The world of rap is filled with folks like you in the sense of people who know and say how great they are. That’s not a comedic persona, typically. Usually, it’s more of an all shock, self-deprecating thing and you’ve taken it in the other direction.
I don’t think I could have been a comedian and been self-deprecating. I never thought I’d be a comedian when I was growing up. I love comedy, but I saw comedians as the guy wearing the bad Hawaiian shirts with bad haircuts, which could make fun of himself and I thought that was lame. It was like, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it in a cool way.” I agree with everything you’re saying, but I would add a level of comfort with it. You’re comfortable no matter what because you are cool. The audience likes you or they don’t like you. It’s all the same.
You don’t give a shit. I like that term unapologetic. With time you’ve embraced it, you dress better on stage. Wasn’t it a thoughtful process?
That’s money. It’s like, “Now, I can afford it.” I don’t have good taste, but I know what I like and I buy the most expensive version of that and I wear it all the time.
I love that because I’m like, “He’s undergone this. He’s got a better haircut and he’s got these cool jackets he wears.” The reason I say this is because money factored into it a little bit, but I decided to dress better when I teach. I wear a suit when I teach, but no tie. I did it as a thoughtful element. You’re not a hero, but in my opinion, you’re not a villain. You’re an antihero.
I certainly wear a black hat, but I do some good things.
You don’t have the purity of a hero. You’re not Luke Skywalker. You’re more like Han Solo or Don Draper. To me, antiheroes are the coolest people on TV.
I always compare myself to Al Swearengen from Deadwood. You’re introduced as a villain, but then worst people come along that you end up becoming a hero in your right, even though you don’t have this morality. I’m never a voice of reason. My jokes aren’t telling people how they should behave or what they should do but I get away with it.
How long do you think you can get away with it?
Going this or do you think I have to have some moral message in my comedy at some point?
I don’t think you need a moral message. It’s refreshing not to have someone preach.
I never wanted to preach. I never wanted to complain. I can get away with it as long as I’m doing comedy. I don’t know if I’ll be a lifer, if I’ll be doing this in my 60s but I like to see how far I can go. I’m amazed that I’ve done as much as I’ve been able to do. The fact that I’m working on my fifth-hour because my heroes never did more than 2 or 3 hours.
Who are they?
Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg and Rodney Dangerfield. To do short jokes had a smaller shelf life and it was a different time when people weren’t doing as many specials. There wasn’t the turnover that there is, I benefit from that. When I first started, I was like, “Can I get fifteen minutes of this? Can I get 30 minutes of this? Can I do it for an hour? Can I do a second hour,” and now it’s, “I’ll see how far I can go without getting too repetitive.”
The reason I asked that it’s not a critique in any way. It’s an observation. I don’t want to say people move on, that search for novelty lends itself much to people peak and then they come down. If they’re not reinventing themselves in different ways, I don’t have an answer.
It’s like a sequel to a movie. How many sequels can you get away with before people abandon the franchise? I love those days where I came out on stage and people had no idea what they were in for. It was this shock. People know what they’re getting and they can still enjoy themselves, but it’s not like blow your hair back the moment that it was. When I was opening for guys like Doug Benson and walking half the crowd who paid to see someone else or couldn’t sit through me to get to them. The people who stayed were blown away. Doug would say after shows, people come up and be like, “That guy who opened for you.” He would say they would either say, “Is a genius or is the worst person I’ve ever seen.” You either love me or hate me. I’ve found my audience and my audience has found me that it’s not the surprise it used to be.
Does that change your approach at all?
Did you lean into it even more?
I’ve got blinders on and I’m one joke in front of the next and it eventually forms the hour, but I don’t have a goal. I’m like, “This hour is going to be like this.” I keep writing and figure it out as I go.
We might as well get this over with because I know you’re going to make fun of me about my forthcoming book. I have a book that’s coming out.
I’m not making fun of the book, just the title.
The title is Shtick to Business: What The Masters of Comedy Can Teach You About Breaking Rules, Being Fearless, and Building a Serious Career. You’re in the book for something else, but you said something that I love as a behavioral economist and business school professor is you figured out your audience. You don’t care about your non-audience and then you work to delight your audience. That idea you have blinders on, you don’t care about. This is one of the lessons called to create a chasm. Dropping baby jokes, abortion jokes and so on are good at creating a chasm. When you look at the best comics, that’s what they do and they don’t complain about it. You’re more like a politician than you’re like a musician as a comic. Typically, when someone doesn’t like an artist, a musician, it’s not that they hate the person, they just don’t care. When someone doesn’t vote for a candidate, usually they hate that person.
Everyone thinks they have a great sense of humor and if they don’t like something, they’re almost offended by it. They don’t say, “You’re not funny to me.” They say, “You’re not funny.” They would never say, “This music isn’t fun for me.” They don’t think about it that way. It’s easy to ignore it but something about comedy and I don’t think people get upset at the comic. They get upset that other people are laughing at it.
I use that thing all the time. You can’t say something’s not funny. You can’t say, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is not funny.” It’s in its fourteenth season. It’s funny, it’s just not funny to you.
If I ever feel insecure, the biggest comedy of the year is The Big Bang Theory. A show I’ve never seen an episode of, I have nothing to do with it. I’m sure that people who work on it are great, but it’s this mass appeal that it’s folly for comics to chase. If you get it, great, but you should be doing what you want to do.
I’m trying to do more of that with my life. Antihero or villain, spending time with comics is inspirational to me because more than anyone else, they live the life the way they want to live it and that’s cool. One of the lessons in the book it’s called reverse it. I argue that the reversal is comedy 101. Even if you’re not taught it, as a comic, often have a good instinct, which is people call it misdirection or whatnot. You bring people one way and then you take them completely in the opposite direction.
I shot an elephant in my pajamas. What the elephant was doing wearing my pajamas? I have no idea.
The joke that I have in the book. It’s the pack of cigarettes joke, strict parents.
I’ll try to remember as best I can. When I was a kid, my parents caught me smoking cigarettes and they made me smoke an entire pack of cigarettes to teach me an important lesson about brand loyalty. I tried to forget jokes as soon as I’ve taped the hour so I can make room for the new stuff. Some I remember forever, but some are like, “The wording’s a little bit off.”
The sentiment is there. I laughed out loud with that and I thought it’s a great example of the reversal. Everybody’s thinking the thing that they should be thinking. When it comes to that technique, is that something that you naturally have and do or are you a mathematician when you’re writing jokes like that?
I think of myself almost like a miner. I’m mining for gold. I’m going to search for this area of getting caught smoking cigarettes and how many different ways can that go? I like the idea of parents making you smoke a pack of cigarettes to stop you from smoking. It was like, “What can I do with this?” I have a joke in a couple of specials about a nun hitting me with a ruler. I was trying to figure out how to twist that and get the reversal on it. That sometimes you’re in it. It is numbers and coming up with the many situations and then finally you find it. The best jokes are almost like the punchline is as far away from the premises as you can get it and still have a connection. Trying to get a spark in between two wires and the further apart those wires are and still get the spark, the bigger the laugh is but they have to make that connection in their head.
This idea of you have these premises or not even premise, topics, it sounds like you challenged yourself. “I’d like to do something with that.” You have this written down. You spent time on the nun.
I would always come back to it. If I write a joke and it doesn’t work, I delete the whole joke because I want to think of that premise again and have a new take on it. If I have it written down, then I’m going to keep on going back to that. If you delete it, you’ll think of it again. If I keep coming back to something, and I’m not always successful. Alzheimer’s was one that I was trying to crack. I finally got it in my special. I finally got away that even Alzheimer’s, such a horrible thing. People hear the word and if they haven’t in their life, they’re already cringing but then I had the joke that I’ve never heard a complaint about it.
This is the knock on the neighbor’s doors?
Yes. I keep thinking of alligator wrestling and I can’t crack it to save my life, but for some reason that keeps coming back to me. Eventually one day, maybe I’ll have a joke.
Do you like what you do?
I love it.
I could tell even looking at your face as you’re talking about this alligator joke, you’re like, “I’m going to crack that one at some point.”
I love writing. I was talking to someone else about like, “Would you let people give you jokes?” I said, “Absolutely not. I don’t even want to hear it.” It’s almost like saying, “Let me perform your jokes for you.” Do you think that comedians want to be up there on stage getting the love? I get as much if not more pleasure out of cracking a joke. When I say crack, I mean solving a premise in a way that I do from performing it. I love writing jokes. After every special, you’re almost like, “What do I do for the next one?” It’s like, “Do I get personal? Do I try to tell more stories?” I always come back to I truly love coming up with a joke in the fewest amount of words possible, the shortest possible joke and knocking it out of the park. That is why I do this.
You’re old school, Hedberg or Steven Wright-like in that way. You like the writing process, which is great. For me, it took me a long time to start to enjoy writing. It didn’t come naturally to me. I had to practice what happened.
I don’t think it comes naturally to anyone. Specifically, when I started, I would write a joke that I was excited about and would do well and then the sphere would overtake you as you’re writing more jokes and you’re like, “Did I write the best joke I’m ever going to write? Am I not done?” When you write a new one, it’s as good, if not better. That process starts again. I started to fall in love with that process of that self-doubt and then overcoming it and you got to keep going.
Interestingly, you say this because as an academic, I’ve been in academia and I’ve had two things that have happened that are reminiscent of that feeling. The first one is I wrote my best paper in grad school, the second paper I published and I co-wrote it. It has the most citations and so on. My second-best paper I published. The first paper’s on mixed emotions. Can people feel happy and sad at the same time? The second big paper it’s not nearly as big yet, at least I hope it could be, is about what makes moral violations funny? It’s your act. I wrote a paper trying to explain why people laugh at Anthony Jeselnik. What’s striking about the humor research as a body of work is I’m confident that I’ll never do anything better than that in academia. I could keep trying until I retire. I’ve done my legacy-building work, so to speak. I could keep chasing it and I enjoy the process of writing papers and doing research enough that I could do that but I’m at the point where I need to do something else.
[bctt tweet=”Comics love to give advice.” username=””]
If someone looked at all your work, they would agree with you or do you think this is all in your head?
They would agree with me.
I’m always surprised at how people respond to my work. Once you put it out there, it’s out of your hands. I always think that everything I do is better than what I did. The way people rank my specials in my hours is always a surprise to me and it doesn’t bother me at all.
The thing about academia is that academics are good at scorekeeping. People are judge-y. You have things like citations and whether your papers are assigned in PhD seminars. When you go up for tenure, you don’t even get evaluated based upon your entire body of work, but they pick 3 or 4 of your best papers and send them out to senior scholars to evaluate. In many ways, you don’t even get judged on average. You get judged on your winners, which is nice because if you write a shitty paper, it doesn’t affect you at all. I don’t need to figure it out here with you. I have other questions I’d rather ask.
I’m not envious of the life of academia. If you read Stoner by John Williams, it’s a book about a guy who does a life of academia and how miserable he is. It seems like things are out of your control. One thing I love about stand-up is it’s much in your control. You can get up as much as you want and work on what you want. In academia, a lot of it is political.
There’s a capriciousness especially the publication process that leads academics to say that it’s the best job in the world, but then to constantly complain about it. There is a little bit of this freedom of the stand-up comic that is enviable. That said, the flip side of academia is this notion of tenure. You’re unfireable at least. The term is unless you commit, there’s moral turpitude, it’s in the contract somewhere.
Let’s lean into this. You may not even know this, but I launched another show as if I’m not busy enough. This is how easy it is, I got two. It’s called Solo: The Single Person’s Guide to a Remarkable Life. I’ve done maybe ten or so episodes and it’s getting a fabulous response, way bigger than the comedy stuff in some ways. I have people texting me, emailing me, reaching out on social media saying, “I can’t believe this exists.” It is essential to use the term that we talked, it’s an unapologetic approach to being unattached whether it be now or forever. It’s designed to be a positive message, which unfortunately most people don’t get.
There aren’t movies about the joys of being single. You’ve got to end up with someone at the end of the movie. Otherwise, it’s unhappy. I’m happily single and I would say that I’d rather be lonely than be annoyed. Whenever I’m listening, I’m like, “I need my alone time.” I’ve realized you’re almost trying to feed into someone’s idea of happiness by forcing a relationship and I’ve certainly had relationships but I’m happily single and not looking for anything. People are surprised by that and it’s like, “I’m happier than you are in your marriage because I can do whatever I want.”
I may have picked up a new reader then. I like that idea too. Let’s talk about this if you don’t mind. First of all, the idea is that marriage is overprescribed. When 86% of people do it at least once in their life, it’s probably too much. There’s almost nothing else of that many people. I don’t think even that many people get through high school. I’m being hyperbolic. I want to give you a chicken and egg question, and I plan to ask this of several stand-ups and that is, which of these statements do you think is truer? That being a lone wolf helps you become a better stand-up or becoming a good stand-up leads you to be a lone wolf?
Both are true in a way. Both feed each other. I was always a lone wolf anyway, but also having a sense of community helps you develop material. Being a lone wolf might make you a better stand-up, it might give you your perspective, but you don’t have the stimuli to keep coming up with material. You need a little bit of both. I don’t like going to parties, but I try to force myself to go to come up with new material. Otherwise, I’m reading books all the time. They’re both true, but if I had to pick one, I would say being a lone wolf makes you a better comic.
Certainly from a lifestyle standpoint, that seems to be the case. Lots of time alone writing, being out on the road, heading out at night, going to the store and doing that work.
You’ll hone your perspective. If you see a movie with someone and you go out and you start talking about it, you end up sharing an opinion on most. If you watch it by yourself, you walk out and you have your opinion and that solidifies for you.
I stumbled there because I was trying to remember you were saying entertainment is focused on coupling up. Even if it doesn’t where I’m thinking like movies, have you seen the Clooney movie, Up In The Air? That’s a lone wolf style.
I know several comics who told me they cried during the movie because it reminds you of that life of being a comic and going through the airport by yourself and always traveling by yourself. It’s one of the reasons that even as a lone wolf that I bring my opener on the road that I always tell them I can look at someone and roll my eyes. When the manager comes into the room and starts trying to be your friend. I can look at someone and be like, “God, this guy.” That helps.
I thought Up In The Air does that about as well as a movie, Ken. There’s a bunch of movies that bug me from a solo perspective. I understand from a rom-com perspective and so on. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those movies. It was essentially the Holly Golightly, the very elegant Hepburn. In the movie, she ends up with the writer, that charming but maybe a little bit vapid writer. She does it in the book, she leaves him and goes off and marries a Saudi Prince or something like that. The other movie is About A Boy, the Hugh Grant movie where he’s a bachelor. It’s unapologetic. It starts off lone wolf-like and he’s part of a huge family of community of people. Those are crowd-pleasers.
It made me think of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. When John Candy reveals that his wife has passed away, this is his first Thanksgiving alone. Steve Martin invites him into the house to have dinner with him and his wife. His wife has been hearing Steve Martin complain about this guy for a week and then she invites him into the house. There’s a theory that John Candy’s wife is in a suitcase in his big trunk he’s been carrying around the whole time that he’s killed his wife. I love that theory. That makes the movie much more enjoyable.
Have you noticed this about television and film? I recognize this is an episode of I’m Not Joking and we’re talking about it like it’s an episode of Solo. The third episode of Solo is Why Are Superheroes Single? I interview an English professor who’s the expert on comic books and he talks about how this hero’s life is singular. To be a superhero almost requires being unattached.
I read comic books and I agree with it that, “For a hero to have the closest person in their life, someone that they lie to is not a heroic thing to do.” If you’re married to someone and you’re not telling them your secrets, it’s not like Spider-Man and Mary Jane where she knows and he had to reveal it to her eventually. When the person closest to you in your life, you have to lie to all the time and not a heroic thing. You have to be single with dead parents.
One of the striking things about television and film is the number of widowers that exist. Writers kill off women all the time to have an unencumbered man who is seen positively.
This show, The Unicorn, is all about a widower who’s the most attractive man in the world, he’s got a young daughter. He’s was a great husband and it’s sympathetic. Like George Clooney in ER, he’s a womanizer, but he’s a pediatrician. It’s like, “You got me.”
What’s fascinating about it is women don’t die as men die. There are tons of widows in the world.
There’s a sadness to a widow, but a widower is this land of opportunity.
It’s cheap to do it versus the guy being a longtime bachelor. It shows you the stigma of being single or even being divorced and single. In both cases, those guys are harder to write a story. You read Greg Dean’s book and I met him when I was working on my first book, The Humor Code. He’s a mathematician in a sense. He has a way to go about approaching jokes. That book had a big effect on you in terms of getting started, kick-starting things. What do you think?
I was working in a bookstore and they were three different books about stand-up comedy and this was the shortest one and maybe the cheapest, maybe the least expensive. I grabbed that, read it and got what he was saying, the joke formula and different things to do. In the book, it said this guy teaches a class in Santa Monica. If I had read this book in New York, I don’t think it would’ve affected that it did living in LA. Having moved there I started taking the class.
We sat in on the class, my coauthor and I, we sat in the day he was teaching riffing, which was fun. It was cool to sit in on that.
The problem with the class is that you have to teach to the whole class. Comics are individuals, but when you’re teaching someone to do it for the first time, you have to say, “Talk about your life.” You can’t say, “Write dark one-lines on this to have a clever twist on it.” I’ve got a lot from the class and I don’t think I could have gone to an open mic and walked up there. I would’ve been lost and not had any structure that I would have failed miserably and it never got on stage again. By doing the class, I had some structure that I eventually got away from. It gave me that for seven minutes to be able to go and workshop and then eventually get away from. People think that a stand-up class teaches you to be funny. It teaches you to take the mic out of the stand. Don’t find the light, things that I’m glad that I still use but funny had nothing to do with it.
I’ve done stand-up three times in my life and that’s probably twice too many. My first time out on stage and an open mic, I pulled the mic out of the stand and the cord came out. That’s my start.
Greg Dean is the example of somebody taking out the teeth. They’re nervous they pull it out and hit themselves right in the mouth and knocked the teeth out that I was like, “Move your head to the side and pull the mic out that way.” That I’ve always done or I leave it in the stand.
I’m an educator, I believe that you can’t teach people to be funny and become elite truly, but you can cut the learning curve. Whether it be these tactics and even giving people a glimpse into the grind behind it’s useful to be a professional class.
You have to get behind the wheel and drive by yourself, but the driver’s ed class gives you what you need the confidence to be able to start doing that. The movie Comedian with Jerry Seinfeld taught me more about stand-up than anything else I’ve ever read or seen. I consider the day that movie came out in theaters, which is the first time I saw the first showing at a theater on Sunset that was playing Comedian. The day it came out on October 11th, 2002, I consider to be the day I started doing comedy. That’s my comedy anniversary.
It’s interesting you say that because I started studying humor in 2008 and I’ve watched Comedian around then and it had a huge effect to get a glimpse into the world. Why it has such a big effect on you because it gave you that backstage view?
It was this guy who was a comic god starting from nothing and building up that it was like, “No matter who you are, what you’re doing, you had to keep on writing and keep working.” He’d getting onstage and failed and the failure was good. Everyone’s going to fail. It was Ira Glass talked about how the biggest obstacle in any young artist’s life is that they want to become an artist in whatever art form they choose because they have great taste and they love certain things, but their ability level is not at their taste level. They have to get through those formative years at the beginning where their talent catches up to their taste. I would go to open mics and bombs and not understand. I knew I was funnier than these people that I was watching, but I wasn’t getting laughs and it was driving me nuts. Once I saw that movie, it was like, “Keep going and eventually things will come.”
I want to ask a few other things, these things that I picked up. Does David Spade have one of your favorite jokes?
I have a home in Boulder, Colorado. It’s a JonBenét Ramsey joke. I’ll give a glimpse into it. It’s an old joke in classic David Spade fashion. He’s like JonBenét Ramsey. He goes, “Not that hot without her makeup.” What is it about that joke that tickles you much?
Part of it, it’s the way he says it as if it’s completely acceptable that he’s judging this person and she was part of these beauty pageants. Everyone thought of it as a poor girl who was murdered. The idea of making her a sex symbol was hilarious to me and to be blasé about it as if she wasn’t dead. It destroyed me when I first heard it.
It certainly seems aspirational for you. It was like, “You are not supposed to be making fun of this for multiple reasons.” One is it happened a long time. It’s about a child and a brutal murder.
It’s universally getting away with it. No one got mad at him for that joke that I love that what do you have to change? What’d you have not to say? It’s not even what you say, it’s what you don’t say. I’ve been thinking about it a lot because of Kobe Bryant’s passing and the comics who got in trouble for making a joke and I did not. I made a joke and it had nothing to do with Kobe. When I’ve made jokes about tragedies the day-of, I’m careful never to mention the tragedy. I talked about the Aurora movie theater shooting and the joke was other than that, how was the movie? I don’t say Aurora. I don’t say theater shooting. Even the tweet that almost ended my career, the Boston Marathon tweet, I don’t say Boston. I don’t say marathon. I don’t say bombing. It was one of the reasons I was upset that I was made to take it down and delete it because I thought I played it perfectly. You can see it and it doesn’t set off those triggers to people.
I’m going to sound like that. I wrote a paper about this idea of too soon and approached it from a different standpoint about how the passage of time can help transform. The theory that we use for what makes things funny we call it The Benign Violation Theory, that people laugh at wrong things yet okay, things that are threatening yet safe. In the paper, we say like, “Too soon comes about because you don’t have enough. What’s the psychological distance?” The passage of time, the actual physical distance, relational distance helps transform violations into benign violations. That’s only one lever that you can use to take a tragedy and make it into comedy. There’s a bunch of other levers, for example, this victim lever is an important one. It’s why The Onion could get away with its 9/11 issue because it didn’t make fun of the victims ever. It made fun of the terrorists. That’s an interesting perspective. You’re one of a small select group of comedians who are well-known for making a comedic reference to a tragedy soon after so much so that people text you don’t do it. You know something’s happened even before it’s happened. I never thought of it in that way that people know that you’re talking about it, but you never reference it.
If you saw it you wouldn’t know what you were talking about. You can’t trip any of the wires. I don’t know why that is, but you don’t want to be a troll. I’m truly trying to make people laugh and not upset them on this day. I’m not trying to be too clever, but it’s subtlety. It’s a nuance.
That’s probably the most villainous part of your act.
It’s anything that deals with reality. I have an Eric Clapton joke, which is one of the only jokes where I’m referencing a specific tragedy that he would be upset if he heard that joke and I’m sure he has but everything else is completely made up. I use family members a lot because you get that relationship right away. I don’t say, “My friend, Jeff, my friend, Eric.” I don’t want to keep introducing new people saying your brother gives you everything you need to know. When you’re commenting on the news, these are real people.
What was the origin of these tweets? Did you decide, “I’m going to start doing this?” Did it happen and then you got a positive response?
I saw it as a challenge and that I was good at it and then I started trying to do it too much. It took me a while to realize I don’t have to do it. Only if I have a good joke because if someone’s like, “Where’s the joke?” and you don’t do it, those people go away. If your joke isn’t ready and you do it, you hear about that for a long time. It took a while to learn.
When there is a tragedy, you seek an opportunity but if it’s not there, you pass?
Yeah and a lot of it is social media. The special thoughts and prayers people are like, “You don’t like people mourning on Twitter.” It’s the word thought. It’s the phrase thoughts and prayers rote that you’re not putting any thought into it. When David Bowie passed away and people are giving their remembrances of talking about concerts. I’m not making fun of those people. It’s people who are like, “Thoughts and prayers for the family of David Bowie.” That I’m like, “You’re not doing anything.” I understand the communal mourning that can take place, but social media has changed things much that I was lampooning that. I would never make fun of someone if they were upset about something in real life. If it was in social media, I could twist that, what everyone else was doing. Without Twitter, I wouldn’t have ever thought to do it.
You are quite good at roasting people, planned or unplanned. Where did that come from?
I always enjoyed the roasts.
Will you do bust on? Do you have a bunch of sisters and a brother?
I have three sisters and a brother. I’m the oldest of five.
Was there a lot of roasting in that family, busting on each other?
Yeah, but it was mostly me. I was the best at it and not much a bully, but I was the clever one. Even in class, in school, kids make fun of each other. I remember this one girl told me we were friends, but she would say, “I would go home and think all day of something to say to you and then I would come into class and say it to you and you would immediately think of something off the top of your head that would make me look like an idiot.” It was an instinct that I was good at and I don’t know if it was a defense mechanism that I turned into an offense mechanism, but I loved it. I loved the roasts because once they started being televised, it was the hardest jokes. I worship Jeff Ross before I ever got into comedy because he was good at finding the way to say it.
[bctt tweet=”At the beginning of your career, there will be formative years where your talent catches up to your taste.” username=””]
That guy’s incredible. Also, his willingness to get up close and personal with “victims targets” that you probably shouldn’t. I’ve watched a clip of him roasting the Boston PD. They invited him into the Boston Police Department. He sat in the briefing room and roasted these cops and it was cringe-worthy.
I’ll never forget his joke about Courtney Love like, “How does Kurt Cobain look better than you do?” This was years after he died. She was a mess at that show. She was on something. I couldn’t imagine any other person going there. The roast has gotten much meaner and evolved as new performers come in. Ross is the prototypical roaster, the godfather of the roasts I would think.
I had a Julie Seabaugh on this. She has a book on roast battles. This is a comedy form that is a fun one, especially in a politically correct age. It’s headed in completely the opposite direction. The Comedy Central Roasts are fascinating. They puzzled me because I had done a bunch of looking into the Friars Club Roast. These old school roasts where friends roast friends. The Comedy Central ones puzzled me because these are not friends. I realized and I want to get your reaction to this. The secret to why those roasts work is because everyone roasts everyone on the show. You roast your fellow roasters as well as the target. That gives you the license to be as vicious as you need to be funny. Does that make sense?
I would say it’s almost like there is no designated hitter. If you’re a pitcher in the National League and you bean somebody, you’ve got to go up to the plate and you can take a hit too. In the American League, if you bean someone, you’re an asshole. You don’t have to face it.
Someone else gets beaned as a result. One of the things I do at the end of Shtick to Business is while the whole book is about what we can learn from the masters of comedy, in terms of thinking differently, being more innovative and building a career. I end with an epilogue about, why not to be like a comedian and the errors and problems the comedians face. One of those things is being unhealthy. Comics have one of the least healthy lifestyles.
They can. There are certainly people who extremely healthy.
I bring this up because you strike me as one of the healthy types.
I’m healthier than most I would say.
We were setting this up and you’re like, “I work out at 4:00.” That’s a good indication that you’re healthy.
I work out 4 or 5 times a week with the trainer. I work out hard 90% of it is because I grind my teeth badly at night that the only thing that resets it is a hard workout. It’s almost to take care of that.
You work out for your mind, your emotions more than your body?
It’s my body. It started with my mind, but it’s almost like a reflex that I can’t fall asleep or relax without clenching my jaw. For that hour, my jaw relaxes while I put myself through hell.
I have a little bit of the same issue. I have a bunch of deadlines and I fall asleep fine but I’ve been waking up. It’s an overactive mind, a little bit of anxiety. For me, I usually sit in this sweet spot where it gets me up and going, keeps me vigilant but on occasion, it gets in the way.
You don’t want to be too comfortable. If I were too comfortable, I wouldn’t have the drive to write and perform and be getting better. This teeth-grinding thing is the pebble in my shoe, but I’m still climbing the mountain. I still have to do it.
I’ve learned to appreciate that part of myself. Know that it is a bug but if I did away with it, then I’d have to do away with a lot of things. Going back to Solo, one of the principles that I have working on these ideals and that is to live on your edge. Try to live on your edge where you’re not too far across it where you’re hapless, but you’re not too far below it where you’re bored. You sit in that sweet spot of you’re constantly pushing yourself and recognizing that you want to always be on your edge. The moment you sit in the rocking chair, you’re in trouble.
I can’t believe you talked me into doing two shows.
I can’t help it because the baby thing, I was like, “I wonder if this guy’s not a family man.” The lone wolf thing, I’m not surprised to hear. You have this amplified personality on stage where you’re the person you are dialed up a bit.
I used to say that and then someone wrote a profile on me and they interviewed my friends and one of them said, “That’s Anthony, but without all the warmth.”
You subtract, you don’t add?
It’s not calculated. It’s how I’ve evolved as a performer and as a person that I don’t think about. It’s not like, “I’ve got to take the warmth out.” This has gotten me laughs, let’s follow this. That until I see someone else say it, who knows me well enough that I’m like, “I understand why they would say that and I agree with it,” only then do I realize it.
The question I have is this and we were talking about Kobe about that second chapter in life. You could argue that Kobe had that lack of warmth. He named himself The Black Mamba but then a Black Mamba mentality doesn’t serve you off the court as a family man perhaps in the same way then you turn into Jordan. Michael Jordan is dead inside.
I don’t know if I would agree with that. Kobe took the Mamba mentality as he called it and applied it to his family and applied it to making movies and creating stories. Whereas Jordan still much wants to be playing basketball and we’d love to get in a time machine and go back, whereas Kobe was happy to leave that behind and focus his intensity on being a great father and being happy. You can be almost competitive about your happiness. That’s why it was much more tragic that he was enjoying and successful at that second act where most athletes or entertainers are not. That I hope to have a second act like that where almost like an aging punk rocker that you did the hardcore shit when you were younger and as you age you can soften, but you still have that street cred. You still get the respect that if you start corny and trying to be likable, that as you age it doesn’t age with you and you can’t go back.
I read an article, Jordan was around 50, 51 or so and he was contemplating trying to make a comeback in the NBA. He needs to lose some weight and all this stuff, to start a new book.
That Onion article that Michael Jordan was wearing his uniform under his suit and it’s like, “I’m wearing a suit but you can see the Bulls Jersey underneath it.” He would love to still be. He just didn’t find the way out. A lot of that is planning. Kobe planned. He saw it and Jordan did not.
It probably helped that his dad was a player. You get a glimpse into what life is like afterwards. Most people never have a plan. They start doing something that they’re good at doing and they keep doing it without ever considering because they’re not getting fired, they’re never forced to come up with a different path.
They don’t realize that they’re going to change. If you’re an athlete, you don’t realize it’s going to get harder to rebound after a game. If you’re an entertainer, you don’t realize that the people strike while the iron is hot, the iron is going to cool down to the point that you can’t work anymore and you better be prepared for that. I don’t know if it’s because of the offensive nature of my comedy. I’m ready for my career to end at any moment. I saved my money and if it ended tomorrow, this was it. If I can’t make jokes anymore, what do I do then? I’m prepared for that.
That makes good sense because you have freedom. When I was young and poor, I liked the money because I could eat and house myself. My pursuit of wealth is not for wealth’s sake, it’s for autonomy. Is that to get to the point where you have fuck you money?
I always like to say I don’t have fuck you money but I have fuck you everything else.
I suspect if things keep going, it’s a matter of time.
When it comes to money, I was poor when I started. Once I wasn’t living week-to-week, I felt like I had all the money in the world. Jimmy Kimmel would say, people would say, “Money can’t buy happiness.” When he started, he couldn’t go to lunch with his friends. Once he had money, he was like, “Money does buy you happiness when you’re that poor,” but now I fear regret. I fear retiring and then looking back in years and be like, “That was stupid.” That’s the fear. That’s how I think of money and money’s important to me now and that if I take a job and they’re not paying me, then I know they don’t care and I’m not going to be taken care of. If I’m doing a free stand-up show, I can’t count on the lights and the mic working. If they’re paying me a lot of money, I know that they have to respect it because I’ve taken jobs where I’ve taken less than I thought I was worth thinking they’d be like, “You’re doing us a favor. Let’s take care of him.” They don’t. They respect you less than I want respect. That’s all I care about money-wise.
I’ve had this experience with the talk I gave. I’m working on a new talk. The process is similar to yours, but it’s not the same. I look for opportunities when I have a new talk to give and I remember asking, “Can we film it? I want to be able to watch it and maybe even get some tape for a sizzle reel or something.” They’re like, “Our contract doesn’t allow you to do that.” I was like, “Can I hire someone and bring it in?” They’re like, “No, you can’t.” I’m like, “I’m doing this for free.” My sense of if I had charged my normal rate, even if they said no, they would be saying no differently. They never value it.
People don’t respect free.
First of all, I can’t imagine you retiring.
It would never be a hard retirement. Every time I’m done with the hour because I think of it in terms of hours. Once I come on with one joke, I’ve got to build an hour around it. Otherwise, that joke goes to waste. People retire because they don’t want to go to spring training. That beginning part that, “I don’t have it in me to go through the hard work.” When I start a new hour, I’m bombing at the comedy store every night during the week for months until I get to build that fifteen minutes that becomes the keystone of the hour. Once that becomes too painful or I’m too rich and comfortable to go out and do it, that’s when I stop. I don’t know if I’ll ever retire. I can always write more, maybe go into books or act. I’ll never be like, “I’m done.” There might come a time where I don’t live in LA anymore. You’ve got to bring me in but I don’t know when. I don’t have a plan for that.
You have a show called Good Talk, where you’re doing the opposite more or less and doing it better.
Comics have to go through this interview process all the time. Morning radio is a rite of passage for every comedian and these different late-night shows. We have to answer the same questions in a funny way that I like lampooning that and parroting that. It’s been fun to sit and talk with my friends and instead of having to write everything and go through standards and practices and get notes. If we’re riffing it off the top of our heads, it’s much more fun. It’s fun to watch and no one can give you notes that I like.
I have one note. You’ve got to tell Comedy Central to get more people in the audience.
We didn’t want an audience because if there’s an audience, you have to play to that audience. You and I were doing this live and there were 100 people there, it would be a much different interview. The people there are our writers. It’s a few people and we might open that up a little more. In season two we’ll have a couple of guests, but no more than ten people in there. The crew was allowed to laugh, but we had to cut that out for sound issues. We didn’t want an audience because it changes the way that people answer questions. You want to be more entertaining as opposed to being honest and open.
The only reason why I gave that note is that the episodes I’ve seen there is some laughing and it seems sparse. That’s because those are people in the room.
They’re far back but we want it that you can hear a laugh when you say something funny, but it’s not distracting enough that you’re playing to it.
Is there anything in particular that you’d want to talk about or that you’re interested in, things that are on your mind, things about comedy? I’ve been doing this where I’m like, “Is there somebody you want to talk about?”
When I coming into this, I knew that the book was called Shtick to Business, but I didn’t know anything else about it that I wondered if people want to talk about the business side of comedy. I hate it so much and don’t care at all that I’ve surrounded myself with the best people, manager, agents, lawyer, a business manager that I get to stay out of it. There is a series of checks and balances where I know I’m getting my money and things are being taken care of, but at the same time, the negative of that is I can never fire anybody. I’ve got the best person that if I fire them, I’m always going to have to get someone worse. If I get mad about something, it’s frustrating.
I have a story in Shtick to Business about Bill Murray’s 1-800 Number. He got rid of his agent. If you want Bill Murray in a movie, you can’t call his agent because he doesn’t have one. You’ve got to find his 1-800 number. Have you heard the story?
Yeah. You call and leave a message and sometimes he calls back. Sometimes he doesn’t. I’ve heard on Lost in Translation, the movie in Japan, the day they start filming, they’re not sure if he’s going to show up. It’s that thing. I’m a little more professional than that. Jack White doesn’t have a cell phone. Jack White from The White Stripes and other bands and musicians don’t have a cell phone. He has an assistant who does it, but he doesn’t carry that around that I’m going to get to that level. I don’t need a 1-800 number, but I would love not to have my cell phone and to not be checking email all the time, to get rid of that entirely and be able to focus on life as opposed to that contraption.
It’s that pursuit of freedom. To me, wealth can help you pursue autonomy. Fame works against it.
David Mamet wrote an article that I loved. He said, “Every artist starts out with 100% freedom.” My first open mic, no one had any expectation I could have done anything. I give it an interpretive dance or tell one-liners but as you become more famous and you become more entrenched in the art, you lose that because people have an expectation. People come to buy tickets to see me. If I do the interpretive dance they’re asking if they got their money back. You’re spending your entire life trying to get back to 100% of creative freedom. I don’t know if that’s true across the board, but it’s always been interesting to me that you become a prisoner of your success. Luckily, I love what I do. I see comics who chose a different persona and they get stuck with it. This persona will age well. I knew that I didn’t want something that would be funny in my twenties and would seem lame as you got older. It was like this guy, I’m playing the devil. The devil can be of any age.
It works even better as you get older because you become more accomplished and you can like, “I’ve done this.” It’s like Gilbert Gottfried in that way. This voice, his character, having to turn it on, turning it off and how do you ever abandon it? Regarding the book, thanks for indulging me. I like the idea of you want the best where possible, the people who you’re going to collaborate with, team up with are going to be way better at what they do then you could ever be and way better at what they do than anyone else in that sense. Imagine someone is reading the blog and they’re an aspiring entrepreneur or there’s someone who’s stuck in the corporate machinery and they want to take their career to the next level. What advice or what do you think as you look back at your life and what worked for you that you might say to them even though they’re not going to be a comic?
First, I would say I’m glad I’m not you. I would say, “Bet on yourself.” When push comes to shove, bet on yourself because if you put the work into it, that’s the best thing you can do. You can’t rely on other people. Even having a great manager, the manager can help me do things, but I have to want to do them. They don’t bring me things. It’s like, “I want to do this.” I have it. I have the new hour. I go to my agent and my agent doesn’t write jokes for me. I say I’m ready to tour and they put me in whatever room I want. They get me the best deals and I can trust them, but I have to do all the work myself.
I always like people who bet on themselves.
There was a thing. It was GoldenPalace.com. It’s one of the first betting websites and they would pay boxers to spray paint GoldenPalace.com on their back. They would always do it to the underdog and it would be the guy who would probably lose, but he’d get this money on top of it. One guy finally said, “Can I bet the money on myself?” They said, “Yeah.” He beat the hell out of the guy and ended up doubling his money and won a ton off that and they stopped doing it. I love the idea of being confident that you took this thing that the only losers did and then won the fight.
They did something with the bottom of your shoes. There were a bunch of these things. I believe that too. I have a personal story in the book. The final chapter is called Take a Bigger Stage and I talk about coming to a bigger place. Comics moving to LA and New York, taking a bigger platform. For example, the story of Steve Martin moving from stand-up to television, film and increasing reach. In the final part, I talked about taking a bigger perspective. I tell a personal story where I say that the comics when it comes to their material, they ask why? Comics are good about, why do we do this? They’re almost childlike in terms of that perspective. When it comes to their life or their lifestyle, they ask why not?
I tell a story about this dinner I host at these academic conferences. You have to imagine how boring these academic conferences are. They’re mind-numbingly boring, especially after you’ve done them for years. It’s the same thing over and over again. I host this dinner with my professional friends who’ve become personal friends. This was when I was starting to reshape my career and starting to study humor. I do a lot of talking at this dinner. I can’t help myself among friends and I’m showing off and having a great time. One of these meals I decided like, “I’m going to sit back and listen and pay attention.” What struck me about this group of people and these are accomplished academics.
These are people who got PhDs at Ivy League universities and elite business schools. I listened to the way they talked about their professional problems and they were complaining because that’s what academics do at dinner. They had this perspective that I never had growing up poor and being a state school kid and not being at an elite university, which was these problems were annoyances. They weren’t sharks to be afraid of, they were mosquitoes to be squashed. I remember thinking at that time like, “Why not me? Why can’t I learn to think like this? Why can’t I become more?” There’s this term in psychology about being either having a prevention-focused mindset or having a promotion-focused mindset.
I grew up with a prevention-focused mindset, which is you want to avoid bad things happening. You might do well on an exam, but you do well because you’re studying hard to avoid an F. You might do well in your career because you don’t want to be homeless. These folks have what’s called a promotion-focused mindset. They’re focused on achieving things. They’re never worried about failing. A promotion-focused person studies hard because they want an A on an exam. They work hard in their career because they want a nice house, that thing. That idea of betting on yourself is a promotion-focused mindset.
[bctt tweet=”Every artist starts with 100% freedom because your audience doesn’t have expectations yet.” username=””]
I didn’t think of it that way. I thought fear is the greatest motivator and nobody wanted me to become a comedian. My family, my friends were like, “You’re throwing your life away.” I wasn’t allowed to fail. I was embarrassed to say I was a comic for the first few years until I got on TV and became a little more known that I could point to something. I thought the only thing worse than that was someone who used to do comedy and know someone who said, “I used to do stand-up, but that seemed like I’m not going to let that become my life.”
That was at the beginning, but does the fear still motivate you?
Yeah. I’ve set the bar high and I don’t want to have people leave my show and say, “He used to be funny.” I need to keep getting better and better. It’s a real fair.
To me, what motivated me in life was the fear and then I added this layer of anger onto it to do it. I’ve worked to give both of those things up. By the way, anger works like, “I’ll show you.” That’s the Jordan approach to basketball. The problem is that it turns you dark inside.
You have to be careful. Anger is a helpful motivation but bitterness that will ruin you. I have a therapist. I work hard not to be bitter. When somebody makes me angry, I use it, but I talk about it to never let something become bitterness never because I’ve seen it happen to comedians, actors, we call it the light goes out in their eyes. They’re still working and they have all the money, but they don’t have that light that used to have that I’m terrified of bitterness.
My therapist helped me to give up anger, which is instead of doing it to show them, I do it because I want to do it. That’s helped me a lot in terms of being a happier person and approaching the work with joy more.
I’m not arguing with you. I’m saying it’s good for you. You probably have a happier life than I do, but I like getting mad.
Also, I don’t have the same job. The thing about jokes is they’re often pointing out what’s wrong with the world.
I forget whose quote this was. Someone asked him what’s wrong with the world? He said, “I am.” I love that.
Anthony, this was fun. I appreciate you doing this. I know you’ve got a workout to get to. What are you going to do?
It’s Pilates. I focus on not throwing up my back when I did my other workouts.
One last question, what are you reading, watching or listening to that’s good?
I’m listening to the new Lil Wayne album, Funeral, which I love. It’s great. I’m watching the Michael Vick 30 For 30 documentary. I saw parts 1 and 2, which I love. It’s one of the best 30 For 30s I’ve seen in a while.
What makes it good?
It’s insanely well done. Vick is a part of it and opens about his screw-ups. You see a documentary about something fascinating, but it’s done poorly for some reason. This is fantastic. I finished a book about the Spider-Man musical, but I’m in the middle of The Outline Trilogy by Rachel Cusk. I finished the first book. I’m in the middle of that and I’m going through a Joan Didion phase. I’m trying to read all the Joan Didion that I have not read.
I don’t even know who Joan Didion. Is that bad?
You’re making a face. What does Joan Didion do?
She’s in her 80s, she’s written some of the best memoirs and essays. Have you ever heard of The White Album? Her book of essays, Play It as It Lays, was one of her novels, maybe the greatest writer in American history. It’s in top ten up there with Mark Twain and others. I love Bret Easton Ellis growing up. She was Bret Easton Ellis’ favorite writer. I’ve gotten into her. I’m a huge fan.
I was a Psychology major, not an English major, maybe cut me a little slack.
Not knowing who Joan Didion is no slack.
I always ask that question to my guests and one of the things that are striking about my guests is how well-read they are. It’s not all comedians, it’s funny people generally. I get music rarely. That’s fun to get a little bit of music. You get lots of TV. I get lots of books. It’s no surprise that the world’s funniest people read books.
I’m surprised because I talked to comics about books and no one reads. I was thinking to be a writer, you have to read all the time. It can be the back of a bottle of shampoo, but you’ve got to read something. Most people look at me like I’m crazy when I talk about books.
In my book, I say that, “Reading is nutrition and writing is exercise.” You need both together. Anthony, this is great. I’m glad to get you into two shows. I appreciate it.
Thanks for having me.
- Shtick to Business: What The Masters Of Comedy Can Teach You About Breaking Rules, Being Fearless, And Building A Serious Career
- Solo: The Single Person’s Guide to a Remarkable Life
- Anthony Jeselnik
- Good Talk With Anthony Jeselnik
- Why Are Superheroes Single – Solo past episode
- The Humor Code
- Julie Seabaugh – past episode
- Fire in the Maternity Ward
- The Outline Trilogy
- The White Album
- Play It as It Lays
About Anthony Jeselnik
Anthony Jeselnik is acomedian, writer, actor, and producer. His most recent Netflix special is Fire in the Maternity Ward, and you can see him on his Comedy Central show Good Talk with Anthony Jeselnik.
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