Scene Editor takes on Los Angeles Times Op-Ed in defense of stand-up comedy
September 20, 2018
Tom Segura is a funny guy. With three specials on Netflix, a successful podcast co-hosted with his fellow comic and wife, Christina P., as well as his very own feature on the popular YouTube show “Hot Ones,” it goes without saying that Segura has a devout following. Without major corporate backing, and a fairly D.I.Y. approach, one not uncommon in the comedy world, Segura’s success can only be credited to his comedic style.
I think he’s funny. Each and every time I’ve watched his material, it has sent me and my friends into peals of laughter. But hey, it’s 2018. Everyone’s got their own opinion.
Segura is no stranger to vulgarity or offense. His older material detailed his fantasy of a foreign language learning system based on a hardcore pornographic narrative, wish for a baby crying in a theater to be stabbed and thoughts on the promiscuity of any woman with facial piercings.
In his most recent set featured on Netflix titled “Disgraceful,” Segura takes on his usual brash persona. Amid his other coarse material, he details his wish to build a wall around Louisiana, as well as his longing for the days when one could use the term ‘retarded.’ This latter bit stuck a nerve with Los Angeles Times contributer Lawrence Downes who published a scathing Op-Ed in response to Segura’s comments. Despite Segura’s disclaimer that the word itself was never meant to demean anyone with any affliction, or worse yet, be directed at them, Downes remains indignant.
In this bit, Segura feigns a nostalgia for the word ‘retarded,’ wryly breaking down the difficulty of communicating the slang meaning of the term in different words. “You can’t say retarded anymore. It was just here, don’t you remember? ‘Retarded.’ People get very upset. I don’t really support the arguments against it. When people are like, You shouldn’t say it. And you’re like, Why? ‘What if there’s one … over there?’” Segura says. Admittedly this commentary is blunt and offensive. It ruffles feathers. But, I hate to say, that’s really the point.
Downes shares that he is heavily involved with the special needs community in his article titled “Comedian Tom Segura gets nostalgic for the R-word and mocks Down syndrome for laughs. That’s despicable” (sic). He cites that his two older brothers competed in the Special Olympics, illustrating how close to home Segura’s comments hit.
It’s not hard to see how somebody with this background could be so offended by these comments. When having a history of close, loving relationships with people with these aforementioned conditions, it’s the obvious choice to engage in a knee-jerk reaction to any vaguely coarse commentary. But this really isn’t fair.
I take issue with three major pitfalls in Downes’ article. First, he is quite aggressive in his commentary, taking personal jabs at Segura. “There is another moment in Segura’s show when he is complaining about how he’s been on tour for a long time, too long, a toll on his composure. ‘Don’t you hate everyone?’ he asks. No, Tom, we don’t. Not everyone, not even miserable people like yourself. But we do hate what you’re saying, and the way Netflix amplifies your contempt,” Downes writes.
He also attacks Segura’s audience—people he has never met, nor has any semblance of an understanding of their social views. “I thought about how he and his audience seemed to deserve each other. I thought about the hazards of getting offended by a comedian. This is the trap we fall into, we who make the mistake of caring. It’s a stupid thing to do in Segura’s world, where everybody has something about them worth mocking,” he says. This is not acceptable. Misplaced condescension and hatred towards a large group of people seems to be the very thing he’s protesting. Furthermore, in a response that claims to be about respect and awareness of feelings, it’s a cheap shot to deride someone, calling them ‘despicable.’
This takes me to my second issue. Downes seems to miss the very point of this entire stand-up special. The title ‘Disgraceful’ seems to sail over his head. The imagined character that Segura inhabits for his time on stage is meant to be a hideously crass figure—to a laughable degree. This isn’t a TED talk. Segura’s job is to be the comedic gadfly; making us consider our view of the world while slipping in a laugh here and there.
Third, it seems, quite flagrantly, that Downes isn’t well-versed in his understanding of stand-up comedy. As he notes in his article, Segura could be considered your classic ‘insult comic.’ He takes no prisoners, and is equal opportunity in his ridicule of any social group.
The artform, on the whole, takes no issue discussing the nasty bits. Comedians from all walks of life have, for ages, been given free reign to discuss otherwise taboo topics. Why? Because nobody else will. Because in comedy, we are meant to put down our guns for a while and laugh at the clown on stage. Segura’s stage presence is different from his everyday behavior because while performing, his antics are supposed to lighten otherwise touchy subjects. It’s not like Segura is the only guilty party here. Myriad comics touch on topics even more widely considered “offensive” than Segura’s comments.
Jimmy Carr, the famed U.K. comic, is perhaps more coarse in his comedic approach. His most notorious bits touch on retardation (far more offensive than Segura’s, I might add), abortion and the Holocaust, to name a few. Jim Jefferies, who hails from Australia, is known for what may be considered ‘islamophobic’ commentary, jokes about sodomy and molestation. The now-ostracized Louis C.K. was perhaps the most blunt in his offensive routines. He is known for his dangerously derogatory comments regarding pedophelia, the LGBT community and the black community. In the latter two, he would openly invoke the N-word, and the term ‘f*gg*t’ with no reservation.
These are not easy topics to discuss, and that’s why comics discuss them. They take the edge off and peel back the layers of absurdity that envelop our world. If you, Mr. Downes, represent the vanguard of polite speech in comedy, where was your commentary on these? Does your silence on these subjects up until now suggest your endorsement of other vulgar comedic commentary? The logical impasse here is if content is dangerous, or just offensive to you?
I won’t pretend that the comedy world is without its own bevy of issues. As the #MeToo movement has grown, allegations against some of the world’s most respected comics have come to light. The aforementioned Louis C.K. has sadly become the prime example of this. However, it was his offstage behavior that earned him such notoriety lately. It was not his painfully intense onstage presence that caused this, but instead his violent and inappropriate behavior with women.
It will always be the case that what is uncomfortable can be made funny. Typically unsavory discussions can be made light by the carefree temperament of a comedian; ambling across a stage spewing fake vitriol pell-mell. Sometimes we need a break from sanity. This is the indispensable job that Tom Segura performs in his acts. So give him and the rest of the comedy world some space to do what they do. And please—learn to take a joke.
Contact Noah Sonnenburg at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.