Anthony Jeselnik’s Shakespeare was one of the best comedy albums of 2010. For the listener, however, it was limiting, in that one could not actually see Jeselnik: his devilish smirk after each joke, his languid, deliberate strides across the stage, his on-and-off smiles—his breaking of character.
Fortunately for Caligula, Jeselnik’s newest hour filmed at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, we are privy to the visual aspect of his comedy, an element that only enhances the overall quality of his brand of humor.
After taking the stage to raucous applause, Jeselnik puts out a simple, “I know, right?” It’s a perfect distillation of his character and his comedy. In just three words, he’s able to set the tone for the entire evening: a self-absorbed, conceited prick is going to grace you with his presence. You’re just damned lucky to be there.
The crowd is on board from the very beginning. After all, they knew whom they came to see. When, two-thirds of the way through, Jeselnik says his next set of jokes will get “increasingly more offensive,” the ovation is immense. And almost every time he addresses the crowd, the laughter is on par with that received by his scripted material.
After bringing up rape at the top of the special, Jeselnik says, “I feel like it’s very important to open up my show with a rape joke.” And a couple bits in, he reassures the crowd, “You guys are doing great so far.”
Consistent crowd work can be a crutch, a way to get through a bad set—a means to an end. This tactic is especially uncalled for on an album or a special, where the comedy needs to translate to the listener after the fact, not solely resonate with the audience members in the present. Jeselnik’s crowd work, however, is part of the show. On stage, he’s a character, by no means himself. The constant addresses to the audience therefore reinforce the qualities we despise yet laud in his character: mean, offensive, downright evil behavior.
When Jeselnik asks a woman in the front row what she does for a living, she replies that she’s a psychology student. After he asks what school she attends and she provides the name of an inferior one, Jeselnik snaps with perfect timing, “So you’re not gonna be a good psychologist?” The woman cups her face in her hand and howls with laughter, as does the rest of the crowd. From any other comedian, this is a dick move with no apparent purpose other than making an audience member feel awful. With Jeselnik, though, it’s part of the show: a quality joke that stays within character and keeps the laughs coming.
Jeselnik’s comedy is a façade, and we’re all in on the joke. We see through the exterior and enjoy it for what it is. Aware from the onset what we’re witnessing, we know how to interpret the jokes: take nothing literally, and appreciate the craft.