Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
**Before I begin, I apologize for the long absence between the last piece and this one. I am well aware that while sporadic, I should be posting with more frequency. I also admit that I missed the deadline for writing up a piece on Kroll Show. Maybe next season. Also, I promise that there will be a piece on Out There and maybe Loiter Squad sooner than later. Why have I been absent? I have been doing extensive work on Retrospective pieces. That’s right! Very soon, you’ll have pieces on Bunheads (coming next week) and Delocated. Keep an eye out, and I promise to keep Channel Surfing alive in the meantime.
I am well aware that in this column’s brief existence, I have done THREE pieces on Comedy Central shows. The reason is simply that the channel has produced some promising work in establishing itself as an actual comedy channel. True, nothing this season has even compared to last year’s brilliant Key & Peele, but what we have gotten is something great (Nathan For You), something awful (the Ben Show), and something bizarre.
The something bizarre is the Jeselnik Offensive. For those unaware, the host is Anthony Jeselnik, who has made a career out of being offensive. With albums called “Shakespeare” and “Caligula,” he does whole bits on rape and death. While I am more familiar with his work via appearances on the podcast Doug Loves Movies, I have never found him too out of control when it comes to off color jokes, nor do I find him particularly hilarious. He rides the fine line with me of being acceptable, or a very calm person’s Doug Stanhope.
With that established, I figured that I would give his new show a shot. Immediately, right off the bat, it feels familiar. With the quota that every comedian of note in the past five years getting a show, it only seemed inevitable that Comedy Central would give Jeselnik his own, aptly titled show the Jeselnik Offensive in which he takes the familiar news show format akin to the Daily Show or the more recent Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and just makes a whole lot of offensive jokes in segments that end up coming across as stand up routines. Fair enough. Russell Brand on Brand X is making a career out of this.
The one notable thing when comparing this show to even the Ben Show is not why are they offensive, but how are they approaching it. True, I admire Ben Hoffman from the days of Infomania, but after a few episodes, it is clear that he is fine tackling easy targets and being extremely rude to people. The cleverest that Hoffman has been is getting a barbershop quartet to sing about porn videos. Even that is repetitive and unfortunately repulsive at times. He is based in a world of gimmicks that don’t feel like he has creative control, but more that he only had five ideas for the whole season.
Compare that to the Jeselnik Offensive. In the episode with John Mulaney and T.J. Miller, there are numerous references to rape, women’s body issues, and racist comments about black people. While the formatting is different from the Ben Show’s sketchy nature, it almost seems to be tackling the same subject matter, but more successfully. Maybe it is because Jeselnik is more established, but maybe because it feels like he actually put time and effort into his jokes.
I have seen one episode before this that featured Amy Schumer (who will also have her own show in the near future) and I found it a little dumb, hitting low targets. However, I was intrigued enough to give the show a second chance. I picked a really solid week to do so, as the topics included Breaking Bad scripts, James Holmes, and somebody who faked a rape. These were all spread out across segments known as Panel, Sacred Cows, and Gun Shot Wound or Italian Food. At very least, there is a structure to the Jeselnik Offensive that forces the material to come across more layered and at least look professional.
For the most part, Jeselnik definitely feels like a stand-up comedian in his delivery. From the opening monologue, it had the familiar scenario-set up-punchline flow. This traditional outline has worked in the past, and while these jokes were meant to be “offensive” or off color, they worked because they were short and despite pushing buttons, didn’t feel entirely insensitive. For the most part, that is the appeal of Jeselnik throughout the entire show. The worst that can be said is his topics are too easy, but the best that can be said is that they can be short and sweet.
It all depends on how you dig racism. However, I feel like even he is prone to a few easy punches akin to the Ben Show. While the Sacred Cow segment in which he insulted women’s body issues, he turned it into a creative skit that involved talking to people varying in weight on a teeter totter. A simple sight gag that while offensive, was subtle enough not to take away from the fake sense that Jelenik was getting down to the sense of an issue. The Ben Show equivalence? Playing a tuba while a fat man walks down the street.
Possibly the biggest reason to come back to this show is not Jeselnik himself, but the promise of two panel guests that are forced to riff on whatever the host wants to talk about. For instance, James Holmes is a consistently referenced topic in this episode and T.J. Miller uses the phrase “raped to shreds” consistently. While it seems a little much, it is the chance of the guests riffing into a clever idea that gives me intrigue to keep watching. I was more into John Mulaney’s riffs, which were more subdued than the other two, but equally as appalling.
Still, probably the best segment has the least to do with racism. Defending Your Tweet is a game in which the guests are forced to defend things that they said on Twitter. While there is a chance for offensive subject matter, it is essentially a fun game of trying to spout nonsense. It works because there is really no structure and it just leaves everyone open for self humiliation. It doesn’t always work, but at least it gives us a nice break from the offensive humor.
In the end, what makes the Jeselnik Offensive a solid show is not that it is well written jokes about easy targets, but that it treats offensiveness as a normalcy. It is neither too taboo or off limits. It is spoken almost with reverence. While it definitely has the flaws of any typical offensive joke, it doesn’t feel familiar enough to feel as stale as the Ben Show. Depending on how you like your humor, the Jeselnik Offensive may be one of the more entertaining shows currently on Comedy Central. At very least, it continues my belief that Anthony Jeselnik has charisma and is able to deliver these gags with enough dignity to not make anything feel uncomfortable.
I probably won’t become a dedicated viewer, but if a guest is on that is worth noting, I may pop in for a quick visit. Jeselnik at very least has one of the more authentic voices on the channel and that gives him the edge when it comes to a familiar format and a style that could go easily wrong. He isn’t as brash as the Ben Show nor too timid to be considered false. This is a show meant to just have fun and say what’s on your mind, and for the most part, it succeeds.