The last bit in Anthony Jeselnik’s new Netflix special, his grand finale, could never have been about removing a mole. That it was actually a decadent, 15-minute joke about abortion is something of a statement on both Jeselnik’s deadpan act and the issue itself.
The joke is a story. Jeselnik regales viewers with a tale of his trip to an abortion facility, escorting a friend to her procedure (which actually happened). “Don’t worry guys—wasn’t my baby, wasn’t important,” he assures the audience.
That follows some 40 minutes of quick hits like, “When I was a kid, my family used to move around a lot. But now they’re all fat as f-ck,” which was immediately preceded by, “I think, like a lot of guys, I’ll never forget the one time I saw my dad’s penis. I said, ‘Dad, don’t text me sh-t like that.’”
Jeselnik’s delivery is sadistically slow, and the stream of disjointed jokes pulled from one template gets exhausting. Even so, the comedian’s unwavering commitment to his bad-guy act feels refreshing amid a sea of stand-ups confusing themselves for superheroes. He never breaks character, even when he breaks the fourth wall. (Jeselnik looks directly into the camera more than once.)
This is solidified somewhere in the middle of his set, when Jeselnik savagely mocks the trend of stand-ups breaking for a Very Serious political interlude mid-special (a tactic frustratingly espoused by his ex-girlfriend Amy Schumer). After a long build-up about the importance of comedians “speaking truth to power,” he says, “My biggest pet peeve in America today is people will see all this horrible stuff going on and yet they still overreact to sh-t that just does not matter.”
“For example,” says Jeselnik, “have you ever dropped a baby?”
He never drops the persona. And the persona is a terrible human. Actually that’s his punchline, engaging the audience in an escalating game of “How bad can this guy get?”
Apparently bad enough to spend a long 15 minutes making light of abortion, which wouldn’t actually be funny if everyone agreed abortion were totally casual. Like a bit earlier in the set that saw Jeselnik rank different forms of suicide, this one is predicated on the callousness of the narrator. But what’s there to be callous about if it’s just a clump of cells?
The story’s darkness mirrors the darkness of the issue. Describing the abortion facility, Jeselnik jokes, “The whole place is filled with kids for some reason. I mean, I thought they were kids. Turns out they were just ghosts.” When informed by a Google search that a succulent is the best gift to give someone after an abortion, he demurs. “I would never be like, ‘Oh, here you go, Jessica. Here’s something else you never have to take care of.”
It’s grim. And it could never have been about a mole removal. The joke works because Jeselnik’s lack of sensitivity is laughably inhuman. (“For Jessica, With Love,” a dedication screen reads after the set.)
What’s so inhuman about having some fun with a harmless medical procedure? The bit isn’t exactly pro-life, yet it relies on the notion that abortion is difficult. But why should it be if there’s no value in what’s being extinguished?
Jeselnik’s willingness to go there with his act, rather than clumsily chase wokeness points for whatever vain reason, preserves the important tradition of stand-ups debasing themselves for the sake of comedy, not posturing as moral champions. That’s an important tradition because it creates the contrast that helps us more clearly distinguish good from bad. It’s also much funnier.
“Fire in the Maternity Ward,” as the special is titled, ends with Jeselnik recalling an interaction with a woman who stood up at a recent show to say, “Excuse me, Anthony, but what the f-ck is so funny about abortion?”
“Lady, I just told you,” was his response.