Anthony Jeselnik Uses His New Netflix Special to Punch Himself in the Face

There’s an idea in literary theory called negative capability, and it’s often described as a sense of confusion, the freedom to live in uncertainty. It’s the ability to express two absolutely conflicting truths at the same time without ever picking one as the winner. The two truths are opposite one another; they cannot both exist and both be facts. And yet somehow the work supports them both, refusing to let either idea be diminished in favor of the other.

Anthony Jeselnik’s new Netflix special Fire in the Maternity Ward lives in the world of negative capability, constantly and almost effortlessly supporting two perfectly opposite principles without ever picking a side. Jeselnik’s two conflicting truths are these: That he both is and is not a giant asshole.

This seems like a magic trick, but it’s the painstaking result of Jeselnik’s craft and his finely wrought joke structure. The shape of it tends to go like this: Jeselnik sets up some already uncomfortable or inane idea, a topic or premise pre-primed to feel like the setup for a lame joke: his blood type. Not liking kids. Suicide. A neighbor with Alzheimer’s. And then, unfailingly, he twists the original idea into something much, much worse than you were expecting. He solves the problem of his grandmother with dementia, for instance, by putting a bell around her neck. “Sounds inhumane,” he says, “but problem solved. I mean, that thing is really heavy.” His capacity to find the crueler, more depraved version of any scenario — in this case, not the inhumanity of treating his grandmother like an animal, but the wildly more outrageous, surrealist image of an elderly woman strapped to a massive, immovable bell — might be a signal of the dark state of Jeselnik’s mind. It’s also proof of his impressive imagination. It is no small feat to be that warped.