Anthony Jeselnik is one of the top comedians in the world, starring in Netflix specials and playing sold-out shows around the world and telling dark, brilliant jokes built on irony and misdirection. But 20 years ago, he was just a struggling 23-year-old, trying to figure out what to do in life. Then he saw the documentary Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian, which premiered on Oct. 11, 2002 and parallels Seinfeld’s work to put his standup act together after the success of the Seinfeld series with the struggles of rising comedian Orly Adams. (Adams is still very much in the game today.) Jeselnik spoke about the doc on the latest episode of The Jeselnik and Rosenthal Vanity Project (JRVP), his podcast with NFL writer and podcaster Gregg Rosenthal. The two have been best friends for nearly 25 years, and recounted how after college, Jeselnik was not, in Rosenthal’s words, “fun to be around.” Jeselnik agreed.
“I was not a good place. It was like that after-college — I think a lot of people deal with this — that after-college malaise, we’re you’re like, ‘I don’t have the structure. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life.'”
He was living in Los Angeles with no job or clear direction. But trying comedy helped him get to a better place.
“You know, sometimes people make excuses,” Jeselnik said on the podcast. “Where they’ll say like, ‘Oh, this guy. He’s kind of being a dick right now, but he’s depressed.’ And I would think like, ‘Well, take care of your depression. Are you seeing a therapist? Are you taking medication? What are you doing? Are you working out? What are you doing? Try to get over your depression.’ If you’re just sitting in it, I’ve got no sympathy. But I think by me saying I’m going to try to do comedy, everyone was just relieved that I was working on it. That I was trying to find something that I was going to do.”
So he tried standup a couple of times. The first time went pretty well. But: “I did standup again a couple of weeks later, at like an open mic, and bombed so hard that I had a panic attack — and didn’t know it was a panic attack at the time, and couldn’t get on stage for months,” Jeselnik continued. “I would go to an open mic, I’d like to look up online with the open mics were, and I would go and just sit in my car and think ‘I should get out,’ and I just like couldn’t do it.”
Then the promotion for Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian caught his attention. He remembers looking forward to the release date.
“I knew it was hitting theaters on October 11,” he said. “I just went by myself, went and saw the first showing at like 12:30 at the Sunset 5 Laemmle and walked out and it was like a weight came off my shoulders. It was like, ‘Okay, now I know how to do this — how to do stand up, which was just go up a million times. Hit every open mic. It doesn’t matter if you bomb. Keep writing, keep going up.”
Jeselnik is now on a 20th anniversary tour, performing new material and some of his best-loved jokes from past albums. He doesn’t consider Comedian to be a perfect movie — or Jerry Seinfeld to be an infallible comedian. But he does recommend the movie to anyone who wants to be a comic.
You can listen to the whole story on the Jeselnik and Rosenthal Vanity Project. Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian is now streaming on Netflix.
Main image: Anthony Jeselnik in his Netflix standup special Fire in the Maternity Ward.