Review #13 – Anthony Jeselnik’s Fire in the Maternity Ward

Look, Anthony Jeselnik is controversial. I mentioned to a friend what show I was going to, and he said, “Is he the one who tweeted, ‘Other than that, how was the movie?’ after Aurora?” And I said “Yep” and he said “I love that guy.” But he is a very different kind of controversial than the comedians who, say, whine about the PC police or whatever. Those people tend to toe the line, see what they can get away with. And look, I don’t think that there are topics that should be fundamentally out of bounds for comedians, but saying awful things and then calling them “comedy” doesn’t somehow inoculate you from criticism. Clearly felt racism under the veneer of a joke is still just racism.

Anthony Jeselnik’s comedy doesn’t work like that. He spends his entire hour so far past the line that the questions you ask are different. The over-the-topness of ALL of it is The Point, where casual-ish misogyny (more on that in a bit) is mixed with an extended riff promoting murder suicides. Putting them together, having the line always in the rearview mirror, means that the idea that you might hit your wife is seen as just as sick as intentionally dropping a baby. And they are just as sick as each other! All. Of. It. Is. Bad.

The clearest evidence of The Joke is in the moments where Jeselnik the character begins to brag about his brilliance and how good he is at writing and structuring jokes. In past specials, he has taken to explaining what makes so good. He didn’t do that here, but he definitely spoke down on people who didn’t put two and two together. But all of this braggadocio is played for laughs. Regardless of whether he believes the things he says about himself – he does and should, because he is very good at writing jokes – he welcomes you laughing at him for it. He’s laughing at himself too. Because that’s what it’s all about.

But some people don’t get the joke. Three years ago, I was staying in a Hostel in Prague. I had just found out about Anthony Jeselnik and was listening to his stuff on whatever music service I used back then. Another guy in the four-person room was from Canada. He was rich as heck and really kind of gross in the way he talked about women. But I needed some company being alone in a new country and… whatever, I hung out with a douchebag for a day. Sue me.

Anyways, I played him some Anthony Jeselnik, and that was when I realized that this kind of comedy really is a mirror. Because he was laughing at something he found relatable. I was laughing at something that was objectively terrible. His identifying with what is overtly lampooning humanity’s terrible impulses is unnerving at best. That reaction I found more disconcerting than his offer to show me nudes he had been requesting from women on Snapchat.

So, the experience of seeing (or even enjoying) him requires a little bit of introspection. First, you need to know why you’re laughing. Are you laughing because it’s ridiculous or because you’re awful? And then, you have to ask: When every single joke is too far, what does it say about You if you only laugh sometimes? Every joke is just as expertly written and performed as every other one, so to laugh at some and say “Oh gosh! How dare you!” at others speaks to an unfortunate cognitive dissonance. All. Of. It. Is. Bad.

And yet.

Fire in the Maternity Ward is probably the tamest special yet. One of the reasons I wanted to see this enough to buy a front-row-mezzanine ticket was because I wanted to know what 2018 had done to his comedy. Would he double down on the most problematic stuff, as some – again, wah wah wah PC police – or would he change his targets? And it is distinctly the latter. He doesn’t complain about political correctness. Only once does he talk about the fact that he’s now in a position where maybe he shouldn’t make racist jokes; lesser comedians might have used that to set up a series of racial jokes as a Screw You to The Man or whatever. Someone only vaguely familiar with Jeselnik’s work might expect the same of him. But that isn’t what he does. Because, quite honestly, he’s better than that.

And indeed, much (key word) of the overt and ridiculous misogyny, racism, etc. that was so prevalent in his earlier work is missing from this special. But it doesn’t feel neutered. The jokes remain transgressive as heck – and, as ever, much of the comedy is targeted at children – but some topics just aren’t as funny in 2018. At one point, he tells a story about a white supremacist sending him fan mail. The punch line is fake, but the setup is probably true. And even if it’s not, he’s certainly had the thought, and that thought has had an impact.

What makes seeing Jeselnik different from just hearing his words is watching him soak it all in. He is very deliberate in everything. The steps he takes on stage are as purposeful as the pauses before his punchlines. Seeing him revel in the discomfort of the audience and also enjoy the material that he has crafted – he actually broke into laughter twice before starting a joke, which I hadn’t seen before – gives you a very different impression of who he is than an audio album.

So I’m glad this will be coming to Netflix, that people will get to see his face even more clearly than I could in my excellent seats. His comedy isn’t for everyone. It may not even be for most people. Indeed, a handful of folks walked out during the show, I guess somehow unaware of what they were in for. But if it is your thing, and for the right reasons, then you can’t go wrong with a Fire in the Maternity Ward.

Eight Point Three out of Ten

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