The Lighter Dark Side of Humor and Empathy — Anthony Jeselnik


Yours Truly on the third day of summer, Upper Lochsa River, Idaho, Mary Nielsen photo.  For perspective, that’s a 95 gallon boat, basically submerged.

After an exciting weekend with one of my original passions — whitewater kayaking with my son, Conor, who I’m super-proud to say ran the Lochsa River, our Class III-IV backyard world-class gem — I came back and needed a little brain-down-time.  I found this special by Anthony Jeselnik on Netflix.  Jeselnik is specifically a super-dark-humor comedian, so whether you enjoy this or not is really going to depend on whether you like this kind of thing.  His special, ‘Thoughts and Prayers’, is at this link on Netflix.  And since this blog will stay up, it means that ‘this special is now available on Netflix for a limited time.’  Here’s a clip on Youtube of one of the funnier pieces:

Jeselnik is taking mental models of what Grandma is supposed to do and giving you a multi-level take on the truth.  I’m not going to say more, because I want you to listen to the clip.  But the short version is that Jeselnik is one of the few comedians that blurs the meta-line on the v-Meme stack successfully.

Humor has always been interesting to me — especially because what people laugh at is often a key indicator of psychosocial development.  Slapstick is low empathy AND meta-linear — the helpless sap steps on a banana peel, and knocks his head.  That’s as linear a cause-and-effect algorithm as one can come up with.  And if that person isn’t in your Out-Group, your own developed empathy will prevent you from laughing.

It’s not to say that slapstick can’t ascend to a high art. There are extremely sophisticated versions that can amaze.  The Three Stooges were strange geniuses in their own right.  But for the most part, slapstick is boring.  And especially, I’ve found that cruel slapstick (Jackass, anyone?) is a stimulant for the empathy disordered.  They get into watching someone else get hurt.

More evolved, empathetic humor involves connecting to you and your life events, often with the pathos and vulnerability exhibited by the comedian.  It often involves real multi-solution thinking — what’s really going on with a particular character and their life.  Authenticity is the grounding connector here, and by relating directly to the ambiguity of the comedian’s various predicaments, we gain hopeful insight into why we do things, good or bad.  Or how they can be both at the same time.  I’m a Mike Birbiglia fan, FWIW.  Here’s a clip of his work.

But Jeselnik’s humor is different.  Jeselnik’s performance character delivers empathy-disordered humor, aimed at attacking the empathy disordered.  Jeselnik is a true Vampire Hunter, and says as much.  This clip, discussing what he does as his performance character, from a real perspective, is after he’s gone through a whole 40 minutes of content that is, at times, very funny, yet leaves one feeling more than a little uneasy about the fact that you’re probably  laughing.  In this piece, he attacks the inherent narcissism in the statement ‘Thoughts and Prayers’.

But that’s not how he ends his special.  The clip below is that.

Is it a cautionary tale about how those that hunt the Undead turn into them, regardless of their best intentions?  Or has he just stacked the meta-deck one more level?  You can listen and decide for yourself.

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