Jeselnik tests every boundary in his latest stand-up special, "Fire in the Maternity Ward." (Illustration via Juliana Renk, University of California.)

Anthony Jeselnik’s ‘Fire in the Maternity Ward’ Gives the Bird to PC Culture

If dark, controversial humor is your cup of tea, then drink up.

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If dark, controversial humor is your cup of tea, then drink up.

Like it or not, Anthony Jeselnik walks the walk. After releasing his fourth hour-long stand-up special, he’s only solidified his status as one of the most infamous stand-up comedians working today.

Over the past half-decade, Jeselnik has been reaping the benefits of a career slowly built. He got his big public break performing in the Comedy Central roasts of David Hasselhoff and Donald Trump, and since then has been releasing material and touring steadily, even having a brief run as the host of the Comedy Central show “The Jeselnik Offensive.”

What really cemented Jeselnik into comic history was his previous special, 2015’s “Thoughts and Prayers.” It was a brutal hour that consisted of Jeselnik’s trademark slow-built, cringe-inducing setups and graphically violent punchlines, all of which are smoothed out by his confident delivery and repeated assertion about how he is on par with the greatest names in pop culture.

While Jeselnik admits that essentially all of his autobiographical material is fictional, he has claimed that the last 20 minutes of “Thoughts and Prayers” are completely true. Right after, he launched into a candid monologue about his career choices and how little he cares about public reception.

There are a lot of reasons that warranted Jeselnik doing that set. His comedy is so deliberately offensive that attempting to convey it in print would take out all of its comedic value. In a world where the careers of comedians like Louis C.K. are falling apart in the face of their past actions, it is fair to wonder how much of a person’s material can be truly separate from their personality. As a result, comedians are increasingly being forced to dissociate from their onstage persona in hopes of remaining politically correct. In “Fire in the Maternity Ward,” Jeselnik makes the choice to continue his career on his terms with no regard for public reception.

“Fire in the Maternity Ward” indulges many of the same techniques as Jeselnik’s other work. For the most part, he capitalizes on the same one-liner structure that brought comedians like Mitch Hedberg and Dimitri Martin into the spotlight, but he adds his own spin to the style, which makes it so that only he — as he asserts repeatedly throughout the hour — could have possible conceived of the jokes.

Jeselnik’s definition of humor aligns surprisingly well with that of most other people’s perception of the concept. He sets up a premise and, just when you think you know where a joke is going, he delivers a punchline so absurdly contrary to what you might have guessed that it is difficult not to laugh. That contrast is at the heart of so much comedy, but what sets Jeselnik apart is the extremeness of his subject matter.

This time around, nothing is too out of line for Jeselnik; almost all of his jokes touch on harming children, dropping babies, abusive parents, murder, derogatory language, abortion, religion, race, disability or disease. By discussing matters like these, in conjunction with his delivery, Jeselnik often adds a second, shock-induced tier of humor to his lines that has earned him a huge reputation.

One of the biggest differences in approach I noticed watching “Fire in the Maternity Ward,” compared to his past work, is how much more he saturates the special with discussion of himself and his comedy. He carries himself with a rapper-like confidence, including lines about how he is a master of his craft, and “If you’re not laughing at this one I don’t know what the f—k to tell you.” 

If you’re wondering how someone could make four specials playing into this style of comedy without getting cancelled, that’s a reasonable point. The main reason Jeselnik has been so well-received the past few years is the anticipation factor. Many look at “Thoughts and Prayers” as a work of brilliance and have been waiting for his follow-up to it for years.

After how in-depth and personal the climax of his previous special got, it only makes sense that many would have high hopes for its successor. Yet, even “Fire in the Maternity Ward”‘s clincher — a 15-minute story about taking a friend to get an abortion — feels more like a longform rendition of his other material than a revolutionary piece of self-reflection. Throughout the special, Jeselnik sticks to his guns, for better or for worse.

When you watch him perform stand-up, you see a one-man show that addresses contemporary issues from a very niche perspective. If you expect any form of accommodation for the audience you will be sorely disappointed. Jeselnik has made his philosophy on comedy abundantly public, and it is up to you to decide whether you fit into that niche or not. No one is forcing you to like it — god knows Jeselnik himself doesn’t care — but his work is undeniably palate cleansing.

If you have a high tolerance for controversial material and are looking for a stand-up special that has a masterful use of language and impressive control over a crowd, “Fire in the Maternity Ward” could very well be for you.


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