Comedy Central hasn’t held a “roast” since 2016, but it feels like it’s been way longer than that. The event, born out of the New York Friars Club tradition, features a stable of comedians and marginal celebrities making deliberately tasteless jokes at the expense of the roastee. Pamela Anderson, William Shatner, Flavor Flav, Larry The Cable Guy and Joan Rivers have all sat in the hot seat throughout the show’s run, starting in 2003. The jokes are gleefully offensive and occasionally funny, but the whole thing feels a little archaic now. The idea of reveling in tastelessness for the sake of it — AIDS, 9/11, haha — just seems kind of dumb and juvenile in 2018.
Depending on your palate, comedian Anthony Jeselnik is either the exception to that approach or an example of it. Fittingly, the Upper St. Clair-born comedian was introduced to mainstream audiences at the 2011 roast of Donald Trump (which, once again, feels like a million years ago). He joked about Larry King being old and Jewish, Law and Order actor Jerry Orbach donating his eyes, and actress Marlee Matlin being deaf. In terms of low-hanging fruit, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, of MTV’s Jersey Shore, was also there.
It’s hard to pinpoint, but Jeselnik’s approach feels smarter and funnier than standard roast-fare. The same elements are there, but his delivery and timing sell it way better. It’s more often funny, rather than shocking for shocking’s sake. It’s a persona — an arrogant, mean and asshole-ish one — but still, clearly an act. If you’re curious, his Comedy Central show The Jeselnik Offensive works as a good intro. He also worked as a writer for The Late Show With Jimmy Fallon in 2009.
On his 2015 special Thoughts and Prayers, Jeselnik says “I like to test myself by joking about horrible things and nothing but. One of my favorite ways of testing myself, I like to make jokes about tragedies the day they happen. I don’t believe in ‘too soon.’ I’m on a tight schedule. And I’m good at it.” He goes on to talk about the Aurora, Colo., shooting at The Dark Knight Rises premiere and his related tweet, “other than that, how was the movie?”
Yeah, it’s not for everybody. But if it fits with your sense of humor, Jeselnik is right: He’s good at it.