Fire in the Maternity Ward is stand-up comedian Anthony Jeselnik’s fourth comedy special. Released on Netflix on April 30, this is Jeselnik’s second Netflix special. It follows 2015’s Thoughts and Prayers.
How would one describe Jeselnik’s act to the unaware? In the school of Andrew Dice Clay, he created a charismatic and politically incorrect onstage persona. He adopted a style (mastered in previous generations by the likes of Rodney Dangerfield, Steven Wright, and Mitch Hedberg) heavily reliant on short jokes, one-liners, and creative punch lines. But what he serves is dark, cringe-inducing humor. And he is devilishly clever at it.
Emphasis on the word clever: his is a very unique brand of misdirection. He has a reputation, more so than simply going for dark, twisted way-outs and resolutions, but also of arriving there in unexpected and unpredictable ways, a lot of times serving you a horror show that far outdoes the one you thought you saw coming.
For example, in 2013’s Caligula, his second comedy special, there is this joke: “I don’t think I ever got over my grandmother’s death when I was a kid, my grandmother died from a heart attack, during my ninth birthday party, literally while she was eating cake, and I guess that must’ve screwed me up a little bit, you know, I mean, I still have birthday parties, but now I’m just… careful with what I wish for.”
Unlike Dice Clay’s though, Jeselnik’s persona is not flashy or rambunctious. No, he is serene and composed. His delivery is measured, as he calmly and slowly paces back and forth on stage. However, on display here, is the mind of a ridiculously self-confident jerk that despises everything that is clean and wholesome, and somehow gets away with it.
In 2010’s Shakespeare, Jeselnik’s first comedy special, after delivering yet another absurdly twisted joke, he goes: “What an important joke that was! Like, if you’re listening to this right now, hit ‘pause,’ call someone you love, tell them that joke, and then apologize that you don’t have my timing.” He convincingly embodies the arrogant at ease with his own arrogance, and yet manages to make him come across as charming.
In fact, but for the obvious caricature being played, his persona flirts dangerously with what could be considered sociopathic humor. Unafraid of that tension however, Jeselnik commits to his Machiavellian mission of poking at our moral fortresses. Tragedies, suicide, abortion, rape, racism, the mentally challenged, transgendered people: he always finds an angle to make you laugh and/or cringe.
Although, interestingly (and this perhaps opens up a window into Jeselnik the writer), in a 2011 appearance as a guest in Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Jeselnik confessed to being uncomfortable using the word nigger in his act. More than anything, more than unveiling a moral line that his onstage bravado may have led you to presume he didn’t have, that admission offers an insight into an orchestrating mind. He is not just gratuitously insulting what you may hold dear just for the sake of doing so.
Another glimpse into the intellect pulling the puppets’ strings can be found in a recent Vulture interview. In it, a question about the aptness of a comparison of his style with that of comedian Norm Macdonald (both aloof and seemingly indifferent to the audience’s approval) led Jeselnik to disclose that, contrary to what his onstage persona may suggest, he’s not disconnected from the environment: “(…) it hurts me if the audience doesn’t laugh, whereas Norm seems to take that in stride. That’s the difference: I may act like I don’t care, but I care very much.”
Jeselnik got into comedy seventeen years ago. But his start explains the explosive cocktail that his act is, and the niche he conquered. An English major, who had come to the realization that he was never going to be a novelist, he moved to Los Angeles upon graduating, looking to get involved in the creative field somehow. He got into stand-up comedy as a way to get into joke writing, never envisioning a career in stand-up.
A handsome, good-looking guy, far from the stereotypical comedian, Jeselnik early on found himself impelled to embrace the villainous role: when he started doing open mics, he realized that people already hated him when he got on stage. He already had the good looks, and so he had very little room to be likeable. He saw that as an opportunity, and rather than shying away from that hostility, he welcomed the challenge.
Having grown up idolizing Steven Wright, he had always thought of that particular style as ingenious and out of his reach. But watching comedian B.J. Novak in person at an open mic made him change his mind and convinced him that not only could he do one-liners: it was actually what he was better suited for.
In the early stages of developing his voice, while experimenting with material, he mostly went for absurd humor. But this one time, he was taken aback by the audience’s guttural reaction to a dark joke, and immediately knew that he had found his currency, and that that tone was what he was going to chase.
So, in a way, he inventively stumbled on this potent formula. And roughly eight years into his career he releases his first stand-up special, Shakespeare, a work that displayed his personality as both writer and performer already consolidated. Three years later, Caligula reinforced that. He starts to build a following, but now audiences are hip to what he’s doing, they’re not caught off guard anymore. He cannot afford to get predictable because now the bar is set higher.
Four years ago, Thoughts and Prayers comes out, and not only does he maintain the high standard, he starts to tinker with the recipe, and adds a few wrinkles to his game. Maintaining the short joke format (craftily climaxing every thirty seconds or so), he starts to weave the one-liners into longer narratives, and starts to shy away a little bit from pure fiction to interact with the cultural backlash to his material, and, without breaking character, ends up getting somewhat personal.
Fast-forward to this year’s Fire in the Maternity Ward. Four years in between specials, and the wait was absolutely worth it. The time he took to put this one out really demonstrates his commitment to the craft. The end result is that he managed to maintain his edge. You still don’t know which direction he is coming from, and his command of the stage seems ever more poised and self-assured.
The absurdity, the unpredictability, and the darkness have been stewed to perfection. As a whole, his style seems to have developed into a less fragmented thing, increasingly toying with the idea of developing stories into longer bits. There is a five-minute joke on why murder-suicide is the best of all suicides, a five-minute bit about dropping babies, another five-minute one about racism, and a 15-minute abortion bit that leads him to disagree with his internet search results about which is the worst gift you can get someone who just had an abortion.
At this point, Jeselnik is clearly playing chess. Don’t let the crudeness of it fool you: he is a comedian engaged in high problem solving. More and more, his writing takes you on a carefully crafted ride. The psychological seduction of the audience, the milking of pauses for dramatic effect, the nonchalant riding of the visceral reactions to his subject matter, the clever asides in between jokes – in short, the theater of it all: nothing is left to chance.
Sometimes comedic personas don’t age well, especially when they’re more shtick than substance. But Fire in the Maternity Ward confirms a suspicion that you may have had since Shakespeare: that underneath the gimmick, there’s brilliant writing. It may be coarse but it was never lowbrow.
Jeselnik is tactfully refining his persona to evolve as he himself ages, mindful of the dangers of not calibrating his juvenile and macabre comedic sensibility going forward, and mindful of the dangers of not growing. It sounds paradoxical to speak in these terms of a comedian that traffics in abortion and rape, but Fire in the Maternity Ward is a work of maturation.