IF YOU leave Anthony Jeselnik's Merriam Theater performance tomorrow convinced he is the biggest jerk in the world, then it will have been another successful gig for the 34-year-old Pittsburgh native, who might just be the funniest stand-up comic working today.
That's because Jeselnik is a salmon swimming upstream against the rushing currents of political correctness. In his act, he is likely to joke about such ostensibly taboo topics as AIDS, suicide and domestic violence.
So how, in a society that seems to have made hurting someone's feelings a heinous crime, has Jeselnik risen to the point where he is headlining theaters and has a gig coveted by pretty much anyone who fantasizes about being a comedian - his own Comedy Central series, "The Jeselnik Offensive," which recently wrapped up its second season?
"I think it's by committing to being the villain onstage," he said during a recent phone call. "I'm a completely different person [offstage], but onstage I think it's really funny to be a complete jerk. You can get away with being that kind of character in a movie; people will laugh. But onstage, you kind of push people's buttons.
"But people get it as long as you go all the way."
Jeselnik, whose humor might be described as the result of an experiment that crossed the darkness of Louie C.K. with the absurdity of Steven Wright or Emo Phillips, admitted he has had post-gig encounters with audience members who took umbrage at something he said.
"I just say, 'That's horrible that it happened,' " he offered. "But a lot of people's brothers die of cancer. If you want to take it personally, you can, but I don't understand why I should change what I do because of you. If my dad died of cancer, I might not laugh at your joke, but I wouldn't come up to you afterward and say, 'Hey, you shouldn't say that!'
"If you're there enjoying all these other jokes, you just can't pick one you're against, and that I should change for you, because everyone has something [tragic in their lives]."
As a result, the only form of self-censorship Jeselnik imposes is on material he doesn't think makes the grade.
"I'm just upset by weak, easy comedy," he said. "If you're telling a joke because you think the audience is gonna laugh at it, that's different than telling a joke because you laugh at it. You know, I'm telling all my jokes because I think they're funny. I'm not trying to entertain the crowd, I'm doing what I want to do."
Jeselnik - who during the interview referred to himself as "the devil onstage" - also has had to deal with other repercussions from the public persona he has created for himself.
"I remember asking [comic] Jeff Ross when I was doing the [Comedy Central] roasts, 'Jeff, this is kind of weird. I'm getting famous now, and I'm meeting famous people that I think are cool, and they're weird around me, they're kind of scared of me. What do I do about that?' " he recalled. "He was like, 'Don't worry about it, you have a mystique.' And I was like, 'I have a mystique! That's cool!' So now I don't worry about it. People are relieved to find I'm not really like this, but I don't mind if they go in with preconceived notions."
As for tomorrow's Merriam set, which kicks off the eclectic 2013-2014 Kimmel Center Presents series, Jeselnik is expecting an overwhelmingly partisan audience. "There's something about Philly, just that attitude," he said. "They really enjoy seeing me be a jerk onstage for an hour."