It is actually quite simple to be offensive. All you have to do is figure out a mainstream value and champion the opposite. People generally like X, therefore you say Y. It is not a complicated process. However, creating an hour’s worth of stand-up that seeks to have every single joke make light of every subject that makes every person in a room wriggle in a seat takes a considerable amount of skill. Regardless of how you feel about the offensive content at hand, there is no denying that Anthony Jeselnik is a skilled joke writer. Consistently relying on making a crowd uncomfortable might sound gimmicky on paper, but Jeselnik shows throughout Caligula, his latest stand-up special, that he is quite gifted in utilizing a slight shift in perspective or wording to make a mundane setup lead to an intentionally offensive and hilarious punch line.
The best part about Jeselnik’s act is the ego and confidence he can demonstrate while saying the vilest things possible. Every joke is told with a completely unapologetic air of arrogance. Not only is he aware that what he is saying defies any sense of decency or morality, but he also remains certain in each joke’s ability to get the entire crowd either hissing or laughing. This part of Jeselnik’s evil alter-ego can even present itself without the assistance of a joke about babies dying on 9/11 or about Holocaust deniers. After all, the opening line on Caligula to a theatre packed with screaming fans is, “I know, right?”
The sort of character — and I am not entirely sure that is the right word — Jeselnik uses onstage does not rely solely upon trying to offend a crowd’s sensibility. Similar to other comedians who craft a set rooted in the idea of pushing what people are willing to or even able to laugh at, Jeselnik spends time reminding the audience about how the laughter for one joke and the hisses for another only proves their hypocrisy. If you are willing to laugh at the misfortune of others, then why act callous when you are reminded of your own misfortune? Of course, Jeselnik presents that underlining question by telling the audience they are wrong or lack a sense of humor when laughter turns to audible groans. But he performs such an aggressive manner of calling out a lack of empathy surely just to keep up with appearances.
Connecting a piece of culture or entertainment to your personal experiences is an inevitable part of being part of an audience. You are bound to take in something, analyze how it is related to your own life, and react to it accordingly. Doing that with a set like Caligula is, however, bound to make you outraged at some point. The easy solution is to pass it off as simple entertainment — sometimes it is just fun to laugh at really terrible things. Those groans and hisses from the people who are not too fond of a rape joke or a domestic violence joke do serve, though, to feed Jeselnik’s material as well. Being offended seems to be part of the process. The crowd is obviously uncomfortable with a joke and that negative feeling is used to charge the next joke. Every reaction is used to fuel another bit, making Caligula a collection of jokes that expose and prey upon the insecurities of a crowd, which is exactly what you should expect from Jeselnik’s evil stage persona.
Final Rating: The amount of hyperbole is takes to make a joke about shipping a child to Africa funny (100,000 some kind of units of measurement) out of the number of times I have to write “number of times” in a rating because I won’t just write a comprehensive score like “9” or “A” or “Thumbs up” or “Did you read any of it?”
You can buy Caligula via iTunes as a CD or DVD.
Or via Amazon:
Here’s a sample of Caligula, by way of a bit about how Jeselnik has felt about some of past girlfriends: