Anthony Jeselnik Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto ON, September 30
Published Oct 01, 2016Having honed this sociopathic, bone-cold persona, Anthony Jeselnik has to have some weird fans. In the case of Jak Knight, who opened the show, his admiration of Jeselnik's work in high school brought him to this moment where, not only was he opening for a hero, he owned the room with stellar, playfully dark riffs on sex, racism, police brutality, female Islamic terrorists, and one of the greatest jokes ever told, by his mother.
After a gushing intro by Knight, Jeselnik strolled on stage, gently roasted and thanked the kid and, calmly declared, "That was nothing, check this out."
And then Jeselnik, playing his biggest Toronto show to date, debuted a new hour of harrowing yet indisputably funny material that played up his chilly, dysfunctional, socially indifferent presence in comedy, as one of the most finely tuned joke machines ever born.
Any time he visits Toronto, Jeselnik is very comfortable riffing on local stories and here, he went right into a bit about the World Cup of Hockey, kind of making fun of Toronto and Canada while also congratulating our victory and, as a Pittsburgh-bred man, thanking us for sending the city Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel. This is notable simply because it exhibits his presence in the moment; you'd think a guy sitting on such perfect material might want to dispense with the crowd work and get to it. But, as his writing and performances suggest, Jeselnik is a patient, attuned, almost sensitive man. Almost.
"It's a strange time in my family," Jeselnik said early on. "My grandmother is suffering from dementia. She forgets who she is, wanders out of her house, and gets lost for hours. So what I did was, I tied a bell around her neck. It sounds inhumane but problem solved. That thing is really heavy."
A Jeselnik joke is a lot like a suspense or horror movie — it's unsettling, surprising, a little terrifying, and you just can't look away. The "worse" they are, the funnier. He took some crowd questions near the end of the night and one of them spurred him on to tell a ten-minute story about driving his friend to a clinic so she could get an abortion. It was indescribably out-of-hand — the mock insensitivity to the situation and wild corners of his mind that this trip flashed some light into was unreal.
But that's the Jeselnik sweet spot. His set is a kind of cathartic outlet for disturbing things we think but shouldn't think. It's as dark, funny, and real as the world around us.