‘Anthony Jeselnik: Caligula'
Anthony Jeselnik's stage persona is that of a skilled and singularly satanic joke comic, a rare methodology at a time when comedians are telling stories rather than getting in and getting out in two lines or less. But he is not a throwback to the Borsht Belt — if there is a precedent to Jeselnik, it is Don Rickles, the greatest insult-comedy practitioner of the 20th century. The main difference is that Rickles laughed off the insults and let everyone know everything was OK — he didn't really hate them. But Jeselnik comes across as a cold, steely, controlled sociopath, and when he smiles, it's because he has said the worst thing possible and made an audience laugh at his delivery, admire his skill and wonder about the karmic payback awaiting them.
In “Caligula,” his follow-up to 2010's “Shakespeare,” Jeselnik continues to explore the worst human impulses and the frontiers of acceptable material, and there is no endpoint on that horizon. Jeselnik, who slightly resembles “Justified” star Timothy Olyphant and shares his ability to stare, scare and speak with measured menace, is governed by the philosophy that personal offense is the enemy of comedy. Audiences that disapprove are invited to leave. But while watching “Caligula,” even the most thick-skinned, jaded misanthrope will find his or her breaking point, and Jeselnik ensures this with a final 20-minute stretch in which he continually ups the ante. People who love and value anything or anyone should tread gingerly into “Caligula” with the understanding that Jeselnik will throw it all under the bus and smile.
Jeselnik recently appeared on the “Nerdist” podcast and said that he had to invent a character and adopt a posture of pure, grinning evil in order to put forward this material, and there is an unexpected by-product to what he does in “Caligula.” By torching absolutely everything that is pure, good and true, Jeselnik also seems to be trying to neutralize the real villains of this world who intend to commit genuine harm with their words. This does not make “Caligula” any easier to take, but truly adept comics are always delivering a carefully conspired subtext. That said, the extras on the DVD, culled from Comedy Central roasts of Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump and Roseanne Barr, prove that Jeselnik can also just burn people to cinders without any deeper meaning.
— George Lang