On the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, the comedian Anthony Jeselnik posted this tweet: “Guys, today there are just some lines that should not be crossed. Especially the finish line.”
It was not received well. After pressure from Comedy Central, which broadcast his short-lived show, “The Jeselnik Offensive,” he deleted the tweet. In his new Netflix special, “Thoughts and Prayers,” he has punch lines about abortion, child molestation, pedophilia and dead babies, but the only thing he expresses regret about is erasing this joke. His hour of rigorously insensitive, finely crafted comedy feels like penance for a betrayal of a perverse artistic conscience.
We are living in the age of the joke controversy. On the Internet, they seem to arrive with the frequency of subway trains. But despite what you might have heard, a new political correctness is not ruining the art of comedy. In some quarters, it may be helping.
The power of online outrage is highly overrated. Trevor Noah didn’t lose his job over idiotic tweets and Stephen Colbert wasn’t canceled over an Asian joke. Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham survived criticism of racial and ethnic jokes. Even comics without star power who have set off furors, like Sam Morril and Kurt Metzger, are doing fine. Does fear of backlash make some comics self-censor? Probably, but if the possibility of blowback makes artists think twice before delivering a rape joke, that’s a good thing. Comedians have never been able to joke about provocative subjects without repercussions, and what’s often overlooked is how, during the past few decades, the ability of comics to push the line of good taste for a national audience has actually dramatically increased.
It is easier than ever to see the kind of risqué comedy that was once the province of the big-city club. Today you can say all of the curses in George Carlin’s famously brilliant seven words you can never say on television on the Internet and several of them on cable TV.
The cantankerous debates online today can be seen as moral pushback and a reminder that those dastardly censors at the network were standing in for audiences with strong opinions about what is offensive. Since these squabbles now begin online, comedians are more likely to be harshly criticized in public, but this presents a new foil for comedy that depends on violating social or ethical norms, a broad tradition that includes everything from National Lampoon to Sarah Silverman. While many try to give high-minded explanations for button-pushing jokes, anyone who sees enough stand-up knows the truth: Transgression gets laughs.
The real consequence of the proliferation of joke controversies is that the realm of the taboo has appeared to expand. There are more lines to cross, more things you’re not supposed to say. Artistically, this is good news for Mr. Jeselnik, whose trademark aesthetic is succinctly crafted setups punctuated by misdirection and a shock. “I lost my grandfather,” begins one joke on the new special, before a sober pause. “I lost my grandfather in the Holocaust museum.” In this joke, there are two twists in a dozen words, the second one lasts less than a second, right before he says “museum.” Then he caps the joke by ratcheting up the absurdity and nastiness: “It was the Holocaust museum of modern art, which is just like a normal Holocaust museum, except you walk around all day thinking, ‘I should have thought of that.’ ”
His jokes have the rhythm of a magic trick and the concision of a bubble-gum-pop lyric: Not a word wasted. Mr. Jeselnik, who has the smug smile and good looks of a Neil LaBute villain, has always been a spectacular joke writer in search of a good subject. He’s such a formalist that he can indulge in some truly lame puns. “I ran over a deer,” he says on the special. “Dear, dear friend.”
The special not only keeps current on taboos (mass shooting jokes), but he turns them into the subject of his show, filmed in San Francisco, because, as he says, people think it’s the most politically correct city in the world. He makes a show of a tense relationship with audience members, needling them, anticipating and insulting their reactions. It’s the rare special in which the cutaway shots are to people not laughing. What makes “Thoughts and Prayers” a departure for Mr. Jeselnik is that two-thirds of the way into the special, he says he’s finished with his jokes, which he explains were all fiction. The rest of the show, he says, will be honest. He begins with something that sounds like a mission statement.
“I don’t tell dark jokes because I’m a comedian,” Mr. Jeselnik says. “I am a comedian because I tell dark jokes.”
Building on this point, he concedes that he’s messed up in the head (in coarser language): “I can’t help myself.”
But he sends mixed signals, arguing that his subject matter is also a choice, a test of the purity of his comedy. One wonders if Mr. Jeselnik has ever also considered it a sign of weakness, a crutch that his audience has come to expect. Wouldn’t benign jokes about airplane food be the real test of his craftsmanship?
Mr. Jeselnik is not as indifferent to his audience as he seems, and he knows the possibility of going too far raises the tension of his jokes, which then result in bigger laughs. When it comes to criticism, he doesn’t play the victim in interviews or defensively cry “Free speech!” like some comics. He understands he’s going to be disliked and uses it. The sociopathic persona is a choice. “You can hate me and still laugh at me,” he says. “That’s how talented I am.”
What’s odd about the prevalence of online dust-ups is that they can pose more of a problem for cautious or clean comics, which is why it’s not that surprising that Jerry Seinfeld has been so outspoken about political correctness. Mr. Seinfeld and Mr. Jeselnik are both alert to contemporary mores, but only one of them wants to violate them aggressively. When Mr. Seinfeld went on “Late Show With David Letterman” toward the end of its run and did a set that he had first performed in the early 1980s, Mr. Letterman told him his material hadn’t aged. Mr. Seinfeld disagreed, pointing out that fat jokes (he had told one) are now more taboo. He’s right, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make them, if you’re willing to take the heat.
By Jason Zinoman from The New York Times