Jeselnik finds his niche with wicked one-liners

On stage, audiences learned to love-hate Anthony Jeselnik.

Off stage, they’re still not sure what to make of him.

The more people have come to know what to expect, the more they line up to see Jeselnik as the charming sociopath methodically teeing up one-liners about rape, AIDS, incest, abortion — you name it.

Sure, there are people who don’t get the joke. Same people, he figures, who get mad at an actor who plays a villain. Them he’s not so worried about.

“It’s so insane for me to be acting this way and talking this way, of course it’s a joke,” he says. “It’s on them. This is make believe. This is entertainment. You should get that.”

Still, Jeselnik says he shares a problem with frequent Las Vegas headliner Andrew Dice Clay, one of “splitting the difference between your onstage persona and your real-life persona.”

“In this interview right now I’m being a nice normal person. On stage I’m the opposite,” Jeselnik explains by telephone. But when he lands somewhere in between — as a talk-show guest or part of a TV panel — “it’s hard for me to find that difference. To talk as myself but still using the comedic persona, that can confuse people.”

It complicated his panel show “The Jeselnik Offensive,” which came and went on Comedy Central last year. “It was tough to fit that persona into a host role. It didn’t quite click the way my stand-up persona clicks.

“It’s a tough problem but one I’m excited to have because I need to keep it interesting for myself,” he adds. “If everything just got easier, it wouldn’t be as much fun.”

The 35-year-old says he’s already achieved every goal he could have imagined as a youth and is able to have “no goals right now in a good way … I feel like I’m playing with house money in a good way, where I’ve got total freedom.”

Jeselnik broke through as a stand-up after writing for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts. Everything changed when the network let him perform on its Donald Trump roast in 2011.

“I had started to headline before that and put out my first comedy album (‘Shakespeare’). I would be in a place like Kansas City where maybe 10 percent of the audience knew me from doing stand-up on TV or hearing my first album, but the rest of the crowd was just there to see comedy. So it was very interesting to see people try to get onboard or fall off the boat right away.”

But as soon as the Trump roast aired, “Everyone who was there was there to see me be that guy.” The one who said Jeff Ross has been doing comedy since “Whitney Cummings was nothing but a glint in the eye of the man who raped her mother,” or that Larry King was “so old he’s actually one of the Jews that killed Christ.”

In structure at least, Jeselnik is an old-fashioned, setup and punch-line comedian who figures he gets one to two laughs per minute, rather than a storyteller who can stretch a routine and pull from his own experience.

“The first year I started, it was maybe six months before I got into the one-liner game,” he says. “At first I tried to just talk as myself. ‘Here’s a funny story about what happened to me in college, or me getting fired from Borders books.’ Not cookie-cutter stand-up but just everyman, kind of stand-up, and I hated it.

“I was really bored, and I was only 23 or 24 years old and I didn’t really have anything interesting about me.

“So I thought, what if I could just write jokes? Where I could be more of a character and write about topics I was interested in, which were dark, offensive topics. Try to make people laugh at that. Almost right away I realized I was on to something.”

Jeselnik also had to find a way to deliver it. Blessed with leading-man looks instead of being one of those stand-ups who just looks funny, he had to find a different way to sell his one-liners. “I never like to turn the laughs back onto myself. I always like to be offensive, as opposed to defensive,” he explains. “I’m gonna make you laugh at these things you probably don’t want to laugh at, but I’m so good at what I do I’m gonna make you do it.

“As I just started to act more cocky, the way I look kind of fit into that and the audience bought it.”

He started thinking about Jack White and other rock stars who project cool. “Even though I’d only been doing stand-up for a year or two, I acted like I’d been doing it for 10 years and pretended I was a comic genius, and the audience went with it. … You fake it until the audience believes you.”

Sometimes all too well.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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