Anthony Jeselnik: Defending Rape Jokes, Pretending to Be Evil

Star of Comedy Central special says his onstage persona is like a Bret Easton Ellis character

Anthony Jeselnik opens his new Comedy Central special, "Caligula," with a rape joke — and it gets more offensive from there. The special gets its title from Jeselnik's answer to a question about what person, living or dead, he would most like to meet.

Getty ImagesThe comedian, a former "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" writer famed for his flawlessly constructed jokes and brutal insults at Comedy Central roasts, knows he isn't for everyone. And that fellow Comedy Central star Daniel Tosh was excoriated last fall for an offhand rape joke during a standup set.

Jeselnik's special has three.

Why does he think he can get away with that? Because jokes are jokes. And because he's very nice in real life.

"If people think I'm being serious, then they won't laugh," says Jeselnik, who also has a new Comedy Central series debuting next month. "But if they realize, 'Oh, this is a nice guy who's just pretending to be like this,' then it's hilarious."

We talked with Jeselnik about how he writes, how "American Psycho" author Bret Easton Ellis helped him find his voice, and what offends him.

TheWrap: You saw how much heat Daniel Tosh got for telling a rape joke last year. And then for this special, you not only included one rape joke, but three – and announced right at the beginning that you were going to do three. Why?
Jeselnik: It's funny, I actually recorded the special before the Tosh controversy. I probably may have done it differently. With all of my jokes, I try to do topics that are tough to make fun of. There's nothing funny about rape. There's nothing funny about it. That's why I try to make jokes about it.

So I thought, it's funny to open with a rape joke. No one ever does that. It's crazy. And then set up that I've got two more coming, so people know what they're getting into. It's a good way to set the bar for the audience.

And then the Tosh thing happened, and I was like, oh geez. Now it's almost like you're trying too hard. I'm probably done with rape jokes, to be honest with you. We'll see how the reaction is to the special. If people get on my case about it, then I might want to do it again.

You're more likely to tell them if people get on your case?
Yeah, because it interests me when people tell me not to do something. It's one of the reasons I got into comedy, just wanting to do what people say I shouldn't be doing. If someone gets in my face and says you need to apologize for these jokes or we're going to try to ruin your career through the Internet, then that's just going to make me write as many jokes as I can.

Is there a way to write a good rape joke, as opposed to a dumb one? Are there certain rules, like you, as the comedian, can't be the rapist?
I hate putting any rules on comedy, like 'You can never do this.' But I think that if you're not really kind of 'winning' in the rape joke it helps people laugh at it. … I think any bad rape joke is a lazy rape joke: If the punchline is rape, and that's it. If you're like, 'Oh, look how edgy I'm being by mentioning rape or mentioning raping someone.' If they're in no way surprised by it. … If you introduce rape in there just to up the tension a little bit.

You’re great at the magician's trick of making people focus on one thing — look what I'm doing with this hand — and then surprising them with something out of nowhere. Your motorcycle joke is a perfect example. Were there bad versions of that joke before you got it right?
No, actually. A lot of those jokes — I kind of describe them like clocks. They need to work perfectly or they don't work and will never work. Most of these jokes kind of come to me all at once. Like the motorcycle joke was all in one chunk. If I come up with a version that doesn't work, I usually just delete it and hope that maybe I'll think of a joke again, maybe years down the line, think of it and put it together in a different way.

You talked on Marc Maron's "WTF" podcast about how much you like Bret Easton Ellis' Getty Imagesbooks. It seems like your comedic persona, which I assume isn't the real you, could almost be a Bret Easton Ellis character. Not Patrick Bateman, necessarily, but maybe the narrator of "Lunar Park."
Absolutely. Absolutely.

How much did Ellis influence your character?
I'm sure a lot. Probably more than I would even admit to. … Probably more than I would even recognize. Because I've read him so much. He's one of those authors that I've re-read a lot, especially his early works. "Glamorama" is one of my favorite books ever.

I just thought that bad people are funny people. I'm not trying to be an example to the crowd of what a person should be. I'm not telling you what you should do to be a man. I'm an evil person onstage. I'm a bad guy. And you can kind of laugh at that.

This guy's like that immoral, total asshole. The biggest asshole in the world, I think, is just a very funny thing to be. That's what my persona is. And his books are full of those kinds of people.

You're from Pittsburgh. I've lived there, and if I can stereotype a bit, people from Pittsburgh are incredibly nice.
Nice and racist, yes.

Do you think you can play a totally evil person because you are, deep down, a nice kid from Pittsburgh?
I think it's funny because I'm a nice person. For a nice person to be doing something really mean is funny. For a mean person to do something mean is just mean.

Have you read "Mother Night," by Kurt Vonnegut?
Oh yeah, one of my favorite Vonnegut books. I love it.

The narrator pretends to be a bad person — he poses as a Nazi propagandist in order to help the U.S. government — and Nazis come up to him all the time and say, "You're doing a great job." The moral is to be careful what you pretend to be, because that's what you become. Do you ever draw the wrong crowd? People who say, "This guy's just like me — a racist homophobe."
Occasionally I'll have a joke where… the crowd gets way too excited about it. Or if I tell a rape joke and somebody might go, 'Yeah, rape!' Ugh. What a piece of s—. But I'm not going to change what I do because a couple people take it the wrong way.

What personally offends you?
What personally offends me is lazy comedy. Like a comic who thinks, 'They'll think this is funny.' I think that comics who think, 'This is what I think is funny, I'm going to try to sell it to them' – those are great comics. People who are just like, 'Oh, this'll work' – that annoys me because you're wasting my time as an audience member. Show me something clever that I couldn't have thought up.

What makes you mad? Not just in comedy but in the world.
Hypocrisy really makes me mad in the world. Or people who think they have it all figured out, or tell you what to do. … People are very absolute, like "That's not funny." And what they're really saying is "That's not funny to me." And they can't say, "That's not funny to me" because they'll sound like an idiot.

Do you find that people who say things aren't funny tend not to be funny?
Totally. Everybody thinks they have a great sense of humor. Most people do not. But everyone likes to laugh. If they're smart, there's plenty of people who say, "That's not funny to me — but I understand it."

"Anthony Jeselnik: Caligula" premieres Sunday at 10/9c. His new series, "The Jeselnik Offensive," premieres Feb. 19.