When the news came down that Jimmy Fallon would be replacing Jay Leno as the host of The Tonight Show, there was fervent speculation about who would replace Fallon on Late Night. But I was on vacation that week, so allow me to submit Anthony Jeselnik as far and away the guy who would get the most laughs for all the wrong reasons while alienating the traditional late-night talk show audience. Along with Tom Green, who has made it clear his major influences have been late-night hosts, Jeselnik is one of very few comedians who is both heavily influenced by legends in the format, and a natural fit as a late-night host.
Jeselnik will be the first to remind everyone that he was the first comedian to perform on Fallon’s incarnation of Late Night, though it’s highly doubtful his brand of standup could make the transition to The Tonight Show when Fallon moves there. His abrasive stage persona and brand of walk-the-line dark humor, running at sensitive issues head-on to prove anything can be mined for humor don’t mesh with the history of toned-down humor, even at that hour. But if there is a Hell, and it has a late-night talk show, Anthony Jeselnik will host that show for all eternity. I mean that as a high compliment, and I don’t think Jeselnik would quibble with that gig. His Comedy Central show, The Jeselnik Offensive, has made me laugh more in a 10-episode first season than anything else on television so far this year.
At a time when most comedians who get their own cable shows lean heavily on sketch comedy, Jeselnik combines the declining late-night format with the podcast. Each episode opens in classic monologue style, but always focuses on tragic news and dark humor, such as a man who attempts to cut his own arms off at Home Depot, or the WNBA Draft separating “who’s going pro and who’s going to be the tall high school gym teacher.”
He then transitions into several recurring bits—this week is “Sacred Cow,” an oft-hilarious segment that takes a subject deemed off limits, and proceeds to make a ton of jokes about it. This could spiral into disaster, but every week, Jeselnik and his writers prove that the key to making jokes about touchy subjects is actually being funny instead of simply trying to be edgy. Jeselnik even handles commentary of his style of humor well, with tonight’s episode listing “The Top 3 Things We Can’t Talk About At All, For A Number Of Reasons That Have Been Made Clear To Us, Repeatedly,” eliciting a bunch of laughter simply through the format of a list without revealing any verboten topics.
In the back half of every episode, Jeselnik transitions to a format that would fit right in on any comedy podcast, bringing two comedians on for a panel discussion, riffing on more news stories like the Sklars and countless other do every week. And just like a podcast, the success of these segments is directly proportional to the strength of the panelists. Luckily for Jeselnik, he’s been able to call in a ton of favors to reel in outstanding guests over the course of the season. There’s no point in listing all of the hilarious comedians who have appeared this season when reading the list on Wikipedia will suffice. Sure, there’s a Jeff Ross in there occasionally, but for the most part, a stellar lineup of comedians.
For the finale, Reggie Watts and Kumail Nanjiani sit in to talk about Justin Bieber’s moronic entry in the Anne Frank guestbook in Amsterdam (“The world’s worst way to get into trouble in Amsterdam”), and to play “Great Artist Or Terrible Person,” guessing whether paintings belong to criminals or revered artists. Much of the humor in this part of the show comes from the rapport between comedians, and Nanjiani and Watts fit surprising well together, riffing and laughing together while Jeselnik tries to keep up the arrogant, supremely confident sheen of his persona, but frequently breaks into laughter. The Jeselnik Offensive doesn’t ever veer into being actually offensive, because everyone is having so much fun finding smart and incisive ways to make comedy out of difficult situations. Nanjiani in particular is a quote machine during the panel, proving once and for all that his Franklin & Bash role is his version of David Cross in the Chipmunks movies.
The final segment, “Defend Your Tweet,” in which Jeselnik digs up an old tweet by each of the panelists and confronts them with it, shouldn’t work at all. But unlike just about every other instance of integrating Twitter and television, this segment also brings laughs. It finds a good use for hilarious tweets by comedians while commenting on the blasé attitude everyone has about the permanence of Twitter.
Next week, Comedy Central debuts Inside Amy Schumer, another show designed around a rising standup comic. It already has Kroll Show and Key & Peele in addition to many other relatively new and successful shows. But The Jeselnik Offensive is one of the best. It’s a highly intriguing and reliably funny take on the late-night format, and one that packs more laughs in one episode than Russell Brand or W. Kamau Bell could muster during an entire season on FX.
- Nanjiani on Franklin & Bash co-star Mark-Paul Gosselaar: “I’m not gay, but if you see a unicorn, you want to ride it.”
- Nanjiani again, on Jodi Arias’ painting: “It’s nice, but it’s not something you’d nail to a wall… like a boyfriend.”
- Nanjiani, on fire, talking about one of Hitler’s paintings: “I would pay up to $6 million for it.”
- “It’s like someone whispered the word ‘banana’ into a piece of silly putty.”