A ruthless and hysterical hour of comedy that skilfully pushes moral boundaries without really pushing them at all.
The thing you notice — perhaps not for the first time — while watching Anthony Jeselnik: Fire in the Maternity Ward is that Anthony Jeselnik is handsome. Rare, for a comedian. The funny bone is best exercised when it’s being used to fend off playground bullies. Comedy is a defense mechanism, after all, an antidote to the cruelty of life and people and sometimes genetics. If you can laugh at yourself nobody else can laugh at you; if you can make someone else laugh, you can make someone like you without having to be particularly handsome or clever or popular. It’s why comedy is so universal, which is a theme that Netflix has promoted time and time again. (And again.) Every culture in the world has alienated people for whom being funny is a sword and a shield. Why, then, is Anthony Jeselnik, a good-looking, clearly smart and seemingly well-adjusted man, such a hysterical stand-up comic?
The answer is because he’s handsome. And because he’s smart. And because he’s well-adjusted. He can’t find sustenance in the low-hanging fruit of self-deprecation; nobody would buy it. His entire stand-up routine isn’t constructed around exaggeration, as with most comics, but fabrication; he’s playing a character, a made-up sociopathic supervillain who welcomes you to laugh at his boundary-pushing, pitch-dark gags because the persona is too outlandish to be believed.
Jeselnik clearly knows this too. He doesn’t poke fun at political hot-topics, which are too clearly delineated into opposing teams, one of which might think they’ve found an ally in him. He instead takes aim at universal tragedies and truths where there lives a kind of morbid agreement — or acceptance, anyway. Everyone in their right mind can agree that dropping babies isn’t a good thing, or that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s aren’t funny, or that murder-suicide isn’t fertile territory for jokes. And yet that’s where he lives, at least for an hour. The comedy is in how everyone involved knows he hasn’t moved in for good.
Fire in the Maternity Ward, Jeselnik’s new Netflix special, showcases that he’s a master of the old Steven Wright style of affectless delivery and last-minute misdirection. His quickfire comedy isn’t strictly comprised of one-liners, but the hour is a short story collection, not a novel. He’s constantly teeing up expectations and then quickly swerving them. A rapid succession of short jokes can get tiresome quickly when they’re told by a lesser comedian, but Jeselnik’s routine never does because he has managed to locate that perfect balance between being obvious enough that you think you know where he’s going but consistently clever enough that you never really do.
Fire in the Maternity Ward is macabre and ruthless, and it plays with moral boundaries all the time, but it never feels like that’s what’s going on. There’s never a sense that Jeselnik believes a word he’s saying or is cashing in on provoking an easily-outraged demographic. There’s no real vocal opposition to his comedy because his comedy isn’t adversarial; everyone’s in on the joke. In today’s ludicrously sensitive age of woke progressivism, Jeselnik gets away with saying outrageous things because there’s no confusion between his subjects and his targets. He doesn’t have targets, really. The fun is in how he plays with language and misdirection, how he waves the left hand so you don’t see what the right is doing. It’s comedy in the classic sleight-of-hand mold — only an illusion, and the gorgeous assistant never really gets hurt. These days, that might be the most boundary-pushing comedy of all.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.