Netflix is being petitioned to pull Tom Segura’s latest comedy special because of his bit about his right to use the word ‘retarded’. He and those defending him are claiming that honoring that petition would infringe on their right to free speech. He maintains, (in this not-even-that-funny bit), that he has the right to use this word — the same word kids used to insult each other when I was in the third grade. Now he’s offended that people are offended by it. The hypocrisy seems to be lost on him. And he’s not the only one.
Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Jerry Seinfeld, and other comedians have thrown their own tantrums about the sensitivity police and the increasing impositions of censorship on their comedy. They shake their head and rue this country’s return to its Puritan provenance.
But they’re not being censored. They’re just being told not to use a mere three or four words with violent histories. And instead of considering the oppression of the lived experiences of the people labeled with those words they’re decrying their own “oppression”.
While Segura was not making fun of the fact that some people have Down’s syndrome he does reserve the right to use ‘retarded’ as a synonym for stupid. Or perhaps I should say his “right” to use the word ‘retarded’. And to be able to say that anything he thinks is lame or inefficient “has a 23rd chromosome”. He also claims that while not all disabilities are funny, some are. He lists three that he’s particularly tickled by. And states that if you don’t think those are funny then “you’re a piece of shit.” And I quote. Look. I’ve seen Tom Segura live twice. He’s a reliable good time. But sniveling that censoring one word is the gateway drug toward a dystopian censorship of all the fun words is not his finest work. He just sounds like a pissy teenager who wants to curse in church.
Besides. You’re not being told that entire topics are off-limits. You’re just being told that if you talk about those topics or refer to them you can’t use certain words or labels while you do. And while some topics should always be off-limits, that’s not censorship. And it is most certainly not oppression. It’s just human decency. And if you need me to list which topics should remain off-limits, (it’s a short list), you probably wouldn’t agree anyway. But strides toward striking a few words from our casual vernacular are not dictatorial. They’re just a redirect.
So. Here’s how it goes: when a persecuted or ridiculed group decides that a word that labels them is pejorative — and you’re not a member of that group — stop using that word. It’s really not that hard, Louis C.K.
Now, when a people group that has been persecuted decides to reclaim the very racial epithet or offensive term that has been used in the course of their historic and ongoing persecution, and use it for their own purposes, and you’re not a member of that group, YOU STILL DON’T GET TO USE IT. And by the way, this isn't about swearing. Doug Stanhope is hilarious. But if you find swear words in general to be offensive, most stand-up comedy likely isn’t for you. And that’s ok. Check out Dry Bar Comedy. But remember, when creating a binary, you can have the cleanest career in the game and still be a serial rapist in a sweater vest. Just because you don’t cuss doesn’t mean you’re not capable of masquerading as an affable father figure peddling jello so you can drug women and violate their unconscious bodies — FOR DECADES.
Clean doesn’t automatically equal good any more than dirty equals bad.
Comedian Patton Oswalt nailed this distinction when sort of apologizing for not being able to keep up with politically correct terminology. His emphasis was encouraging people to listen to the heart of what people are saying. His example was the unforeseen and ungrateful wrath RuPaul incurred for using the word “tranny” by the younger trans community, the very community she helped to gain mainstream acceptance for over her tireless decades of advocacy and creating visibility.
Open-hearted folks can accidentally use outdated terminology just as easily as hateful people can use politically correct terminology to manipulate any narrative. Oswalt’s imperative is to listen to the heart of what anyone says, no matter how progressive, or regressive, their language sounds. We’re all sharing this sandbox so let’s not disregard “playing nice” as an unfair sacrifice of your own sovereign identity.
Members of persecuted groups are more entitled to feel safe, non-threatened and un-insulted than a comedian is entitled to roll around in the same punchline trough in perpetuity. As I have said on many other topics, if you want to be a member of any society, sure, it’s a free country. You’re free. But your liberty ends where the rights of others begin.
And this is where all the pissing and moaning falls apart for me. If racial slurs and derogatory terms are carrying the entire weight of your punchline, YOUR ROUTINE IS PROBABLY NOT FUNNY.
Workplace weirdo and compulsive masturbator Louis CK has a bit about a time he almost used the n-word to appraise how well a barista had “made the shit out of” his coffee. Whether or not he harbors any malice toward Black people is immaterial. Not surprisingly, it’s not a funny routine. He also uses it as an excuse to slide in the words f@ggot and c*nt as well. Like a child who knows he did something wrong, he stops, looks at the audience with the briefest gleam in his eyes to see if he got away with it. What this routine does accomplish, however, is showing his fans and non-fans alike a glimpse into his psyche — that service people who do a particularly good job at meeting his needs, in this case making a cappuccino, are spontaneously, almost compulsively, equated in his mind with the most hurtful word for Black people. The n-word apparently offers itself to his psyche when he is pleased by someone who has served him well.
If you’re still struggling with the distinction, consider this routine from Jim Jeffries. Who, by the way, is no stranger to complaining about hypersensitivity. And if his depression manifests as the beast with two backs, his misanthropy is the face we see most while it holds his self-loathing tight. Despite his domestic violence jokes and Bill Cosby rape jokes, he once nailed the distinction between topical censorship and more etymological censorship. I don’t know if that was his intention but I appreciate it.
He has a routine where he basically says that gay guys are fun and lesbians are not. Gay guys are the life of the party but lesbians will definitely ruin any dinner party by “getting all political”. I’m not a member of either of those groups. So I cannot speak for them. But I can say that he told his joke, punchlines and all, without using the words f@g or d!ke. Nor does he claim he should be able to because he’s a comedian and comedians are “supposed to” push the envelope, as many of them claim. As an aside, I don’t know that we all purposefully entered into that social contract with them so much as they just did it and we all went along with it.
Here is a more recent example. If Joe Rogan had simply made fun of Bruce Jenner for transitioning to Caitlin Jenner, his closing routine in Triggered would have, in fact, been transphobic and regressive— two possibilities he acknowledges before continuing to the actual heart of the joke: that sometimes men, outnumbered by female family members, like himself, can feel emasculated by all the feminine energy in the house. Perhaps when those women are obsessed with fame and high fashion the outnumbered males in the pack acquiesce to the emasculation as a survival mechanism like so many creatures in the animal kingdom. And that perhaps Jenner’s Kardashian step-daughters are actually demons in designer shoes who tricked him in his sleep. That makes the joke about gender roles, family dynamics, demonic possession, and materialism — not just pointing and laughing and saying ha, ha, that man is a woman now!
Comedians are not being oppressed. They’re just being called to a higher standard. So rise to meet it. Our best comedians are intelligent. So instead of lamenting your oppression from the comfort of talk show couches, grow your vocabulary. Instead of refusing to evolve. It’s like they’re refusing to change their underwear. What once looked fresh and sexy can change. And it’s only the old dogs refusing to learn new tricks that aren’t aging well. They’re rusting in contrast to the sweeping range, sophistication and honest self-reflection we see in comedians like Ali Wong, Iliza Shlesinger, Hasan Minhaj and Trevor Noah. They’re smart, sharp, self-aware, socially aware, tech-savvy, gorgeous and good for the environment. Basically, they are the Tesla Roadsters of new American comedy.
Look. I know bread costs a lot more than it used to. And that people are always looking at their phones instead of each other. And that you had to walk uphill in the snow both ways. But this is not to say that you have to be young and attractive to be funny. Not all old white men are disgruntled tire tread. Jeff Foxworthy still personifies the complexity of a crushed beer can. But Dana Carvey is the relatable empty-nester we need in a world once dominated by withering shock jocks like the reanimated body parts from a hazmat dumpster that is Howard Stern. Or Don Imus. Whichever. Their interchangeable and rotting palaver is the corpse the cops only find when the neighbors complain about the smell.
Old(er) men are not all grinning skulls deluding themselves into thinking that all porn stars and playboy models are entrepreneurial nymphomaniacs they just happened to have the good fortune to meet. But the predominantly male complaint about having to adapt to minor changes in language seems symptomatic of the same toxic male entitlement. And it makes the comedy of those who don’t, by comparison, seem that much fresher and edgier — two talismans of comedic ingenuity.
Dana Carvey might only be as cool as the canvas tote you got as a thank you for donating to PBS but he still seems like the funniest guy at any dinner party, someone you’d be delighted to find yourself in a conversation with at an obligatory work function in real life. He remains un-drunk on his own celebrity and just chats with his audience. He muses with decent insight on a range of topics and an unpretentious presence. A much-needed lack of pomp in today’s media.
The last stop on the rails to obscurity is the comedians who call upon their revered elder, George Carlin, who famously said if he’s not offending people he’s not doing his job — another social contract we never signed. The comedians who hold his vulgarity in high esteem act like they inherited the revolver their grandfather used to kill Nazis. Sure it’s dangerous. But its legacy has been entrusted to them from the guild of the great foul-mouthed torch-passers like Richard Pryor and Katt Williams. They believe themselves to be using it nobly, for a greater purpose. And like the Knights Templar or the Assassins, they do not, cannot follow the rules made for the rest of society. But the peasants, the simple masses, are trying to take away their specialized weaponry, their swordsticks, and kukris.
Maybe Carlin used offensive language as the vehicle for his scathing social commentary. But “bad words” weren’t his secret weapon. And the current call for “censorship” is not a bleeping of bad words to protect our delicate sensibilities. It’s a call for compassion.
In a world where comedians have long been our most adroit political commentators, bloggers have recently become some of our shrewdest social philosophers.
While John Pavlovitz waltzes with some sentimentality that doesn’t resonate with everyone, (some would call him a sanctimonious prick, a word pairing I wish I had more opportunities to use), he says this about the backlash from the growing call for political correctness:
“Whenever someone expresses outrage at the political correctness they’re supposedly being subjected to by the world, invariably that outrage is because they’re being asked to participate more fully in civilized humanity. They’re being asked to evolve with the rest of us — and they are vociferously resisting.
Political correctness is code language. It’s a dodge.
It’s citing some nonexistent speech-suppression conspiracy theory, in order to avoid levels of kindness and respect that the rest of us are aspiring to — and that the person in question objects to.”
I can’t tell if these comedians hate change or empathy more. But the ouroboros of comedians claiming to be offended by people being offended is hilarious. I hope they’re kidding. And I hope the joke is on us.