In a joke he refers to as a “test,” Anthony Jeselnik starts his special, Thoughts and Prayers by telling a joke about finding a baby in the back seat of a locked car. Right away, you know whether you’re going to enjoy the next hour of your life. Either a) You’re going to laugh at the joke or b) You’ll turn off the special immediately and spend at least the next sixty minutes trying to cobble back together your faith in humanity.
The next forty minutes or so are filled with jokes of varying cleverness, all falling within that same dark-blue realm of comedy. Whether it’s child molestation or the Holocaust, there is no concept too sacred for Jeselnik to make light of. If he hasn’t joked about your particular hot button topic, it’s just because he only had an hour to fill.
When Jeselnik delivers, especially after a particularly salacious joke, he’ll often grow an arrogant smile, like a kid brazenly eating the cookie he just got caught stealing. That smile typifies his whole onstage persona. His hair looks perfect, his eyes are dead, and he holds his microphone like he’s worried a homeless person has sneezed on it. On-stage Anthony Jeselnik plays doesn’t seem to have a soul and that’s cause for concern.
Because the subject matter is so dark and the performance is so cold, the jokes trigger both laughter and fear. One starts to wonder if this may actually be the real thoughts of a horrible man. Jeselnik seems aware of this concern and peppers the jokes with little meta-commentaries about how yes, these are actually jokes but these comments never do lower the red flags beyond half-mast.
That’s why the last twenty minutes of Thoughts and Prayers is so crucial. The niggling doubts about Jeselnik’s humanity are finally able to calm themselves down when he takes a long step back from the cruel persona in order to talk about what it’s like to be a comedian telling these sorts of jokes. For nearly a third of the special, we feel like we’re getting real insight into the life of a genuine, if not overconfident, artist. Even if this isn’t the real Anthony Jeselnik we’re meeting, it’s a much more comforting, impassioned, second character that ultimately succeeds in making the whole experience a safer space to have fun with words and taboos.
Rating on my Netflix: 4 stars