May 19, 2024

According to Marlon Wayans, the number one rule in comedy is “You can’t be afraid to offend.”

Four of today’s hottest comics came together for Variety’s stand-up comedy roundtable — Marlon Wayans (“God Loves Me”), Tom Segura (“Sledgehammer”), (“Salute Me or Shoot Me”) and Matt Rife (“Natural Selection”) — to discuss the state of comedy.

In the past few years, many comedians have argued that political correctness and increased sensitivity have negatively impacted the art form. A fresh face in the scene, the 28-year-old Rife ignited backlash last week over a joke about domestic violence in his new Netflix special. In an Instagram story that followed, Rife offered a fake apology and directed anyone offended by his jokes to a website for special needs helmets. This roundtable conversation was filmed before the release of Rife’s special, but during the conversation, Rife shared with his fellow comedians that “intention matters.”

Segura argued that the outrage that infests social media doesn’t reflect what he’s seeing on the road. “Go to the clubs, and you see somebody go for the joke, and you can’t describe it,” he says. “It pops. Audiences go nuts. They’re looking for people to make these jokes. It’s like there’s two realities. Some people believe the reality online is real. It’s not the real world.”

Wayans, whose 23-year-old son Kai is trans, spoke about the backlash surrounding fellow comedian Dave Chappelle, who last year sparked outrage and protests over his jokes about transgender people in his Netflix special “The Closer.” Wayans has publicly and passionately supported Kai during his transition.

“Every comedian has a right, under the First Amendment, to have their own personality and speak of things they want to,” Wayans said. “They’re not supposed to be responsible. Sometimes, in comedy, you have to be reckless. I’m as much a comedian as I am a Black man. I’m always going to protect comedians. Dave [Chappelle] is a dear friend. I love him to death, and I have a trans son. I could give him my opinions, but he has every right to feel how he wants. Me as a parent, when I do my special, I’ll handle it differently.”

Jay noted that sometimes the loudest critics of a joke aren’t necessarily representative of the entire community. “When people ask, is this too much for the LGBTQ community? Who is representing the community? Because there’d be three or four people talking, and they get to decide what the whole community thinks, feels or is going to react?” he said. “That’s the same with [the] Black [community]. As much as there are people who are offended by something, there are people who get it and understand the intent. So because you’re being the loudest about it, it shouldn’t exist?”

The Critics Choice Awards and, for the first time, the Golden Globes are honoring stand-up comedy in its own individual category, which has brought excitement to those who feel its recognition is overdue.

“People in entertainment still see stand-up as the lowest rung, like we’re fucking circus jugglers,” Segura said. “This is a great step, and it’s awesome they will give someone recognition. It isn’t easy. Listen, Meryl Streep would shit her pants if she had to do stand-up. The big hurdles will be getting voters to watch it, not the two people they know.”

Wayans echoed Segura’s sentiments, saying, “This is an art form that isn’t appreciated enough. Doing standup teaches you how to be a writer, a producer, a star and a director every night.”

For many new-age comedians, social media is the primary avenue for going viral and gaining notoriety. But Rife, Jay, Segura and Wayans encouraged those pursuing a career in stand-up to not upload every piece of material they have to the internet — and to learn from the best, as the panelists named influences such as Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Robert Townsend and the Wayans Family.

“I grew up in a house with my favorite comedians,” Wayans said. “When it was my turn, I realized that comedy is about your point of view. Before I did ‘God Loves Me,’ my mom died, and I was working on a really funny set about her dead ass — because death is funny. Then I was watching the Oscars, and Will slapped Chris. I said, ‘Oh, shit. Ma, I love you, but we’ll get to you later.’”

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