Shakespeare Is Arrogant: An Interview With Anthony Jeselnik
Anthony Jeselnik is quickly becoming one of our favorite comedians around here in the TLB offices. He just released his first comedy album Shakespeare on Comedy Central Records, has appeared on many of the late night talk shows, and was selected by both Comedy Central and Variety as an upcoming comic to watch. Jeselnik’s rise has come from hard work and time spent honing his craft, he’s worked hard for the last 8 years to become an overnight success.
After we caught his set live at Comix about a year ago, we can’t disagree with any of the praises people are putting on him. So it was doubly great that Anthony took time out of his busy schedule writing killer one-liners to answer a few questions for us.
So, tell us about the new album? How did it come together?
I’m really proud of Shakespeare. I had always wanted to do a comedy album, but I wanted to make sure I was ready to make a very strong record. Comedy Central Records approached me about a year ago and it felt like the right time. It was a little difficult because I wanted to do it in New York City, but I’m not a big enough draw to book myself into a club for the weekend. So I ended up doing two shows on a Wednesday and Thursday at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre. The first show was on Cinco de Mayo and it was a minor disaster. But the second show was awesome. The whole album is pretty much that Thursday night.
Why Shakespeare as the title?
I name all my jokes. “Shakespeare” is the name of my closing joke, which seemed appropriate for a comedy album title. Plus, it just sounds arrogant as hell. I definitely wanted something that sounded arrogant and timeless.
What comedians would you say had the biggest influence on you?
Rodney Dangerfield, Steven Wright and Andrew Dice Clay for sure. Wright for the jokes and Dice for the stage presence. I was never a big Dice fan growing up, but I heard The Day the Laughter Died three years ago and it blew me away. But my biggest influence as a joke writer comes from Jack Handey.
Has anyone ever told you your delivery has elements of Christopher Walken in it?
Constantly. I talk that way normally, but I’ll exaggerate it on stage. It really helps with the timing of a joke. I can really add some extra tension before a punch line. Plus it’s a fun way to talk.
You once said that the most important thing for new comedians is to continue with your act even when no one is laughing so they can practice being heckled. What are some of the most memorable hecklers you’ve had to deal with?
That quote is wrong, actually. What I said was that comedians should continue with their act even when no one is laughing because you never know who is watching or who is going to walk in the room. Rodney Dangerfield called it “Being a tank.”
That doesn’t help with hecklers. If someone heckles me, I shut them down. I’m usually pretty nice with a heckler, actually. But I was just in Toronto and some 21-year-old rich kid heckled me within a minute of taking the stage. I kept asking him “who are you that you think you could come to a show and act this way?” All he would say was “my dad is well known in Toronto.” That just made me more furious. Finally, after I trash this kid for a few minutes the club throws him out. As soon as he’s gone, the kid’s friends say “his dad is ‘The Cash Man’” and the audience goes crazy. Apparently, “The Cash Man” is the “Crazy Eddie” of Toronto. He buys used jewelry and makes a lot of bizarre, corny commercials and everyone hates him. I went on to have the set of my life.
How long does it take for you to come up with an album’s worth of material? I’d imagine hundreds of jokes run through your head all the time.
This album took seven years to put together. I’ve been doing stand-up for eight but I didn’t latch onto this joke style at first. But that’s seven years of finding my voice and figuring out how to write jokes and perform them. I’m excited to see how long it takes me to write the next one. I write a lot. A joke will just pop into my head a couple of times a day, but I work to write as many jokes as I can. I’d say I only try one out of every five jokes I write and one out of every ten jokes I try ends up in my act. It’s a process.
Do you often find people who are legitimately offended by your material?
People are always going to get offended. But rarely does anyone tell me about it. I used to get people coming up to me after shows when I first started and they would tell me to ease up or stay away from certain subjects. But now I think the audience can tell I’m beyond saving. But there are certain subjects I cover (suicide, retarded people, race, etc) that I know push buttons. The trick is to make the joke so funny that people can’t get upset.
Have you ever come up with a joke and thought, “Wow that is too mean even for me?” And if so what was it?
Ha. I’ve never written a joke I thought was too evil. Although I do have a file full of jokes that I think are hilarious, but can’t get an audience to laugh at.
Here’s my favorite: I thought I was a father once. But then they did a blood test on the baby and the baby died.
What can fans expect from you in the future?
A lot. I’m going to keep on writing new jokes and headlining all over the country. But I’m also going to work on my acting and developing my own projects for TV and movies.
We’d like to thank Anthony for talking to us. You can follow his exploits on Twitter and pick up his new album Shakespeare which is in stores now!
And if you haven’t already, check out Anthony’s set on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon that was recorded the other night.