In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Comedian, host, and sometime hardass, Anthony Jeselnik has made a career out of being a little bit sensational. He’s gleefully fought hard to push the boundaries of what’s okay to joke about, from cancer to obesity, earning both groans and laughs along the way. He’s a harsh comedian, and one that revels in his ability to wheedle a joke out of just about anything.
Jeselnik’s latest project is Thoughts And Prayers, his new Netflix special that premieres exclusively on the streaming service Friday, October 16. He’s also on tour through this weekend as part of the Oddball Comedy Fest, where he’ll share a stage with everyone from Amy Schumer to John Mulaney.
Anthony Jeselnik: That’s a good one. I’ve had a lot of bad jobs.
Applebee’s dishwasher was a bad one. That was bad because I walked in and said I needed a job and they said, “We can either hire you as a cook or a dishwasher” and I didn’t know how to cook. So I took dishwasher and after three months, I realized that I was getting half the pay and they could have taught me how to cook; they could have trained me for that. That was tough.
I also used to work at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, which was really embarrassing because I was doing really well as a stand-up so people would recognize me at the movie theatre and that was absolutely humiliating. They’d say, “You were good on Conan last night,” and I was like, “Thanks. Would you like some more popcorn?”
The A.V. Club: Did you have to put your favorite movie on your name badge at the ArcLight? That’s a thing there, right?
AJ: That was even worse for me because when I got my badge, they didn’t print my favorite movie on there; they forgot. So I was the only one with a blank and people would walk up and say, “What’s your favorite movie? What’s your favorite movie?” and I would pick Out Of Sight, the Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney movie and then I would have to explain that. I hated it.
AVC: When did you know it was time to quit?
AJ: I got another job. I had been kind of working as an accounting clerk for TV shows and at the end of the season, everyone gets laid off and everyone in Hollywood gets unemployment for six months while they’re looking for a new job. So I would just do stand-up for six months and think I was really making it, and when my unemployment ran out, I had to get another job immediately, which is how I ended up at ArcLight. A couple of months later, one of my friend’s old bosses hired me to work on season two of Deadwood and I just jumped at the opportunity, like “Get me out of here!” So I was only there for like two-and-a-half months, but I will never forget it.
AJ: I don’t know. With comics, you always talk about a big break, but there are a lot of big breaks in your life and not one of them makes a big difference.
I would have to say mine has nothing to do with money. I was doing an open mic—I had been running these open mics in L.A., which is such a thankless job. I was getting a couple of laughs here and there, but one night I made a room full of comedians go, “Ooh!” after a joke and I knew after I’d done that, like, okay, that’s what I wanted. To make these bitter, jealous assholes openly, audibly jealous of what I did. I’ll never forget it. Jennifer’s Coffee. Saturday nights, Studio City.
AVC: So they thought your joke was good? That’s why they went, “Ooh”?
AJ: They thought it was great and they were just like, “Ooooh, we hadn’t thought of that. That’s something new!” “That’s funny, but we’re also all jealous of you.” That was a big moment.
AJ: I mean… I don’t want to spoil it. I don’t want to give away the things I’m working on right now. But I will tell you I have several plans in actions, and they all involve the Jews.
AVC: Fair enough. Seems best not to get too specific there.
AJ: Exactly. I don’t want to wake up with cops surrounding my bed tonight.
AJ: I was a weird kid because I liked to be alone, but I craved attention. It was important for me to be cool, but I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. So I was either talking for the sake of talking, or I was curled up with a book somewhere hiding from everyone. I think the reason I became funny was because if I made people laugh, they would let me keep talking.
AVC: That seems like the classic comedian dichotomy, though: Quiet people who also just like to perform sometimes.
AJ: Yeah, but I don’t think there were a lot of comedians who were big readers when they were kids.
AJ: Sharon Stone. When Basic Instinct came out, she was like the perfect storm of sexuality, violence, controversy, and “fuck you.” She was the first starlet where every interview she gave, she was like, “Fuck you” to everybody. She was from Meadville, Pennsylvania, and I remember that because nobody is from Meadville. As a kid in Pittsburgh, you’re like, “Wow. That’s practically next door,” and I was obsessed with Sharon Stone.
AJ: I actually get entrance music. Whenever I go on stage, they play whatever I want, which is always kind of interesting because before I’m on stage, everyone is enjoying themselves then all of sudden they blast Schoolboy Q at top volume. Right now, my entrance music is Mac Miller’s “When In Rome” because I like to walk out to the part where they’re saying, “I’m at the top of the game / Scoreboard / Scoreboard / Scoreboard / I’m at the top of my game.” I just love that part as my entrance music.
AVC: Do you choose your exit music, too?
AJ: No, there’s usually no exit music. Or it’s just the same song over again. I usually like to hear that applause.
AVC: And then the lights come on, and there’s house music that’s like, “Get the fuck out of here.”
AJ: Oh, I tell them lights on immediately because I don’t want the [audience] thinking there’s an encore. There’s no encore; show is over.
AVC: The concept of a comedian’s encore is so weird. You end on a big beat and you have to come back out?
AJ: I’ve done that twice, and it’s been a huge mistake. Huge applause, like they’re applauding so much that I’m like, “I have to go back out. They’re going to love this.” Then you go back out and it’s terrible. I’ve never done well with that; it’s a huge mistake.
AJ: Well, it’s 1:30 p.m. I woke up, ate oatmeal—I eat oatmeal every day—and I wrote three jokes. I try to write three jokes every morning, although I don’t know what they are. I write them as fast as I can, then I put them away for a month. So I couldn’t even tell you what they are, or if they’re good. I just assume they weren’t. Then I got my ass handed to me by a Pilates instructor, I took a cold shower, and now I’m doing a couple hours of press.
AVC: When you write those jokes, are they something you’ve been thinking about for a while, or do you just come up with them on the spot? If you have four jokes in mind, do you save one for tomorrow?
AJ: Sometimes. That’s rare. The night before, I’ll try to write down a couple of subjects. Maybe I’m like, “Okay, I’ll write about a turtle” or “I’m going to try and write about this.“ It gives me some guidance, but usually I just get to that three, and if I get to that fourth one, I jot down a note about it, but I try to actually create the joke the next day.
It’s tough to do three a day, every day. It’s not easy.
AJ: When I was a kid, I used to get it all the time. When I was a kid, there was a kid on this show called SeaQuest DSV named Jonathan Brandis. I think he might have been in Ladybugs and Pop-Tarts commercials, but everyone was like, “You look like the kid from the Pop-Tarts commercial” and it would drive me crazy. Then he killed himself. Then people stopped saying that to me. It was pretty great.
I don’t get it so much anymore. I used to write for Jimmy Fallon for the first year of that show, and I was in a sketch during the first week. It’s where I’m in the audience and Jimmy and I go back and forth, and I really wanted to watch it live, but I didn’t own a TV. So I went with my friend from bar to bar in New York, around the time the show was going to start trying to find someone to let us watch it because I didn’t own a TV. We finally found a sports bar that was kind of empty and the guy was like, “I’ll do it, but I have to put it on every TV in the bar because there’s no way to do it on just one.” So all of a sudden, the music stops and all these people are like, “This is the first week of his show. Why is he doing his monologue right now?” Everyone is watching, then all of a sudden I’m on screen and—I’ll never forget this—some guy in the back of the bar screams, “Fuck. It’s Dane Cook!” I thought that was the funniest thing. But that’s the last time, I think, that someone confused me with someone else.
AJ: My resume now would be my picture with “Fuck you” written at the bottom of it. If you don’t want to hire me off of that, I don’t want to work for you.
AVC: You could be a set accountant like you were before.
AJ: I feel like if they checked my references for who I worked for when I was an accountant, nobody would hire me.
AVC: I don’t know why they wouldn’t trust you.
AJ: Well, I wasn’t bad with money. It wasn’t like I was holding money. It was just when people called and were like, “I need this check,” I’d be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m a comedian.” And I would just hang up the phone. Things did not get done on my shift. I resented having to do anything.
AJ: I guess you can say I collect books. I love books. I’m not a very materialistic person, but I’ve got so many books. I like to walk around book stores as if I’m walking around an animal shelter. It’s like, “Oh, I have to get that one! I can’t leave that one there!” Half the books I have I haven’t even read. But I have like eight copies of Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama in seven different languages. Just weird things I end up collecting over time. But I enjoy it. My house looks like a library.
AVC: Do you travel with books when you’re on the road? Or are you a Kindle man?
AJ: Yeah, I take a book or two, so if I finish one, I can go to this one. I have a Kindle with me depending on what I’m reading. But I always have something with me.
AVC: Do you come home with 10 more books than what you left with?
AJ: I try not to buy books on the road. The only place I can’t resist is Powell’s Books in Portland. I go in there and I walk out with so much shit.
There are a couple of bookstores in L.A. that I frequent, and I always walk away with a ton of stuff. And, of course, Amazon. I’ll wake up in the morning and not remember books that I bought that previous night.
AVC: Are you buying books that you like already or are you buying books that you’ve heard are good?
AJ: It’ll be like I read a review and be like, “That’s cool” or I’ll read the history of something and I’ll want to read more about that and I’ll look it up and see that there is a book about this or that. Or at the bottom of the Amazon page it says, “Readers who like this also like that” and then I go down a rabbit hole of different things.
AVC: That happens to me a lot with non-fiction stuff on Amazon. I think, “Maybe I do want to learn more about rats in New York City” or whatever.
AJ: Absolutely. Like, “I want to read the oral history of Genghis Khan,” but you will never read that book. But it sounds cool in the moment.
AJ: The first thing that pops into my head is my mom’s tacos. My mom makes this really amazing, authentic Mexican food. She was part of a military family, so they grew up all over the world and she’s a great cook. Her Mexican food is the one thing I ask for whenever I’m home. I’m like, “Make me as many tacos as you can!” But, I feel weird asking my mother to cook my last meal. It’s like, “Hey, mom. I’m about to be executed. Could you run over here with some pots and pans and make me some tacos?” So I’m going to say no to that. I’m going to say that I want my last meal to be steamed Maryland blue crabs with Old Bay and drawn butter.
AVC: Do you want apps or desserts or drinks? Sides?
AJ: Drinks for sure. Drinks like crazy. I would have as many beers as possible with those crabs. No appetizers, maybe some oysters, and then no room for dessert; I’m just full of crabs. That’s how I eat crabs.
Bonus 12th question from Wendell Pierce: If there were no repercussions and the trail wasn’t an issue, who would you like to make love to the most right now in the world?
AJ: You know what? Wendell Pierce! I’m a huge fan of The Wire; I would have taken it to Wendell. Big time. Big time.
AVC: And what do you want to ask the next person?
AJ: I can’t find out who the next person is?
AVC: It’s a musician. I’ll tell you that.
AJ: If your house is on fire and you can only escape with your life and one thing, what one thing would you take out of your house?
AVC: What would you take?
AJ: I got to think my laptop is the one thing that is totally irreplaceable. Either that or my son. Laptop. I’ll go laptop.
AVC: Well, you could back up your laptop to the cloud and then you wouldn’t have to make a choice.
AJ: People say that and I have no idea how to do it. I have my three jokes a day. I’ve got to take my laptop. There’s no second choice.