Tom Segura: Disgruntled Ghost Story Teller

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Tom Segura: Disgruntled Ghost Story Teller

From the look of disdain he wears on his face, Tom Segura might seem like another comic prone to rely on the lewd, crude and rude to get laughs. But just let him open his mouth and that impression quickly changes. It’s not that Segura’s stand-up doesn’t venture into crude territory—it most certainly does—but his simmering wit and acerbic storytelling reveal a more purposeful and hilarious comedic approach than someone concentrating exclusively on being crass for crassness’s sake.

Married to comedian Christina Pazsitzky, with whom he also co-hosts the popular podcast Your Mom’s House, the Segura we see in the new Netflix special Mostly Stories (which debuts on January 8) has undergone rather significant changes since 2014’s Tom Segura: Completely Normal. He and his wife recently had a son. If becoming a father might seem like it would soften Segura, think again. Sure, he may be responsible for a life, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to throw away the unflinching attitude that sees the funny in many topics, even taboo ones.

The Los Angeles-based comic functions at his best when telling stories, elaborating on experiences he’s had or situations he’s encountered that truly do raise eyebrows. Life’s more mundane moments, like getting a cup of coffee, become wild anecdotes in Segura’s hands. Mind you, they’re not wild for their energy—Segura’s delivery preferences the staid over the strident—but for the sober “Can you believe this shit?” attitude with which he tells each one. Peppering his recollections with impressions, weighty pauses and all manner of facial expressions, Segura underscores human behavior, including his own, in all its absurdity. He a comic keenly attuned to catching those questionable quirks that provoke most of us to simply roll our eyes.

Segura’s newest Netflix special Tom Segura: Mostly Stories debuts on Friday, January 8. He spoke with Paste about fighting for an ‘anything goes’ attitude in comedy, being a father and that one time he received more hate mail than he ever imagined for a bike riding joke.

Paste: Many comics today come under fire for taboo material. You seem interested in pushing for that comedic freedom, like when you talked about the conjoined twins as monsters in Completely Normal. Why is it important to maintain comedy as a space where any subject goes?

Tom Segura: I’ve always just maintained the idea that it’s kind of fun in stand-up to be able to say anything that comes across your mind, as long as you can get a laugh out of it, if you can find a funny point within it. There’s also this whole thing of taking what people say on stage so literally and out of the context of a performance. I would never say something like that at a dinner with people in a regular conversation. To me, on stage it’s a heightened reality, so I’m making this exaggeration that I think most people understand, and that’s what they’re laughing at. They understand the point that I’m making is that I don’t want to see something crazy or unusual or a deformity when I’m watching television. To do stand-up, you have to dress up the language a little.

Paste: Absolutely. You’re allowed to say things that most of us can’t in our daily lives for obvious reasons.

Segura: Yeah, I’ve always thought that, for me, the biggest thrill in doing stand-up was always getting away with something. That’s kind of the rush. The thrill is that you said something really offensive to somebody, but you still hooked them somewhere in your explanation of it. Or somewhere in your joke they still sign off or they laugh, maybe even against their own will or better judgment, and they go, “I can’t believe I laughed at what you said.” That’s the biggest thrill.

Paste: What an idea that laughter becomes something of a sign-off. How interesting.

Segura: I’ve done all types of jokes and topics where people go, “That was insensitive to this group”’ or “I can’t believe you said that, that was racial or sexist.” Any number of characterizations of it. But then they go, “It was so funny,” or “I so saw the point you were making I couldn’t help but laugh.” And you go, “Well, that’s kind of the fun of doing stand-up.”

Paste: True, and if you were to start editing down jokes for any kind of racial, sexual or political content, what are you left with? Very little.

Segura: It would be over. I remember years ago, when my first half hour special was on Comedy Central, I did a bit about bike riding that’s on my first album called Thrills. It didn’t make it to the half hour that aired, but they used it to promote the special, so it was online. And there was such a crazy backlash from the bike riding community about how offensive…because the bit was essentially that some cyclists are self-entitled and oblivious and drive like assholes, and something along the lines of I want to hit them with my car. I broke it down with a lot of jokes. What was funny to me was I got a lot of hate mail. That’s still in my whole career that’s the most hate mail I’ve ever received.

Paste: From cyclists?

Segura: Absolutely. It’s not even close actually. I did that joke across North America, and I did it in a lot of cities with huge bike riding communities. Most of the time when I did that joke live people would come up to me and be like, “I ride my bike six days a week,” and they would laugh because they knew I was talking about a specific segment of that community. They understood the joke, and I think most people did, but people who saw it in a three-minute clip online, they wanted to launch at the guy that is talking shit about them. They’re like, “I bet your fat ass can’t even ride a bike!”

Paste: But you’ve always got those people who are going to take offense no matter what.

Segura: Of course. But let’s say you go, “It’s dangerous that you talk about hitting people with bikes,” which, you know, is kind of ridiculous if you’re taking it literally. Of course, of course I don’t really mean to do that, but then you could also say, well, what about all the other jokes I have? Do those also offend you? And is it dangerous? And should I then start editing all of those out? And then you’re not left with any jokes.

Paste: We seem to be in hyper herd mode at the moment, but any self-aware audience member would be aware that you’re not telling people to go murder cyclists.

Segura: Of course. You know, you actually need people to be offended. That’s something that took me a while to realize. That’s kind of why something ends up getting a reaction, you have to have your moral guidelines of what you find okay and distasteful. That’s how comedy plays. But when people want you to stop, or when people think that their feelings mean more than anybody else’s…you see blogs about “I was deeply offended by this joke,” and I want to go, “Well good for you, man, that’s awesome. There were 500 people at that show, I guess 499 liked it, and other than acknowledging that you didn’t like that, what else should be done? Do you just want validation for your feelings?”

Paste: It’s about being visible as an audience member. They just want someone to see them, I guess.

Segura: Yeah, you see it more in recent years obviously with, you know, it’s easy to post something, we have the internet, so it’s…I always wonder…sometimes I think those people just want a pat on the back.

Paste: Your delivery makes you such a standout. Many comics bring a gregarious energy to the stage, which can overshadow some of their writing. But you weave your stories with a quieter sensibility. It reminds me of this very disgruntled man telling modern day ghost stories, because the writing and the delivery take such precedence. How long does it take to land each story’s shape?

Segura: I love that. It varies story to story. In my newest special, all the stories took place over basically the course of a year to a year and a half. There are some big stories throughout. I love doing stand-up where you go and you experience something that day and then you talk about it onstage, and if there’s enough going on in it, it can be a story that stays in your act. It’s not like a local thing, like “Oh, I went to your museum here today,” and talk about that. Sometimes you tell those stories and the beats just find themselves. You tell it and you realize, “Oh, this is like an 85% ready to tell story,” and you do it for a couple of months and it’s good to go. I always think about finding your way into a joke. Sometimes you have the wrong approach to telling the story or the joke, and that can take longer to figure out my way into telling this.

Paste: So the ending and middle are clear, but you don’t know how to get it off the ground?

Segura: Well, sometimes you realize this is really funny, what happened, but in what context am I presenting it? I’m telling it for what reason? What’s the defining statement that you can then support the statement with the story? So sometimes if you have no statement about the story, that’s what needs work. Make the story worth telling. Don’t just say, “Here’s a story.”

Paste: You’ve lived in a few places before settling in Los Angeles. That kind of nomadic lifestyle had to yield some interesting perspectives. How did it train you to pay attention?

Segura: I guess it happened naturally, because I did always live in different cities growing up, and I’ve always been more reserved, kind of introverted, quiet and observant, so it’s been a natural thing for me to watch people, to sit back and then to be able to tell that story to somebody else about what I experienced that day. That’s why this special feels the most authentic to me, because it’s really me just being myself up there, but all the traveling and I think new schools—I was always in new schools. It made you want to fit in, I guess, and see what people were like. All that stuff lends itself to doing stand-up, I think.

Paste: Definitely in your case. You seem willing to take a backseat and let an event unfold, as opposed to inserting yourself into the story and overshadowing what could be funny about it.

Segura: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think that’s something that a lot of comics do. I think they rush to insert themselves too quickly sometimes, where if you just let things play out it’s almost funnier that what you’re seeing in your commentary is even funnier than what you’re doing in it. Sometimes.

Paste: How has fatherhood changed your comedy, if at all?

Segura: When I shot the special, we were about five or six months pregnant. I talk about that. I talk about the fact that I’m expecting, and going into getting her pregnant. Yeah, and I’m pretty crude about it, just so you know. Now we have a three week old, and I am now talking about that on stage, but that’s obviously not in the special, because it was afterwards.

Paste: Female comics are always asked how they balance motherhood and comedy, so I’d like to turn the tables. How do you balance fatherhood and comedy?

Segura: I’ve heard this kind of stuff before, and it’s totally true. No matter what your occupation is parenthood makes you think about use of time so differently. For comedians, we’re all basically inherently lazy, it’s like laziness is just part of the DNA. Comics get up at noon or one or two in the afternoon, and kind of do things at your own pace, whether that’s working on your act or going through life. The biggest change is to think about what do I have time to do right now, because honestly I was just used to being like “I don’t know. Who cares? I’ll do whatever I want…”. Just kind of laying around, and now I’m like “Oh shit, I’ve gotta do this. I only have half an hour to do something.” And of course the sleep deprivation is brutal. It’s really crazy. It’s really nuts. Some people can really function well on six hours or five or whatever, and I’ve never been like that.

Paste: I wonder if it will yield trippier jokes as your brain starts to come unhinged in its own sleep-deprived way.

Segura: I wonder. I’ve been talking about him, just trying to work out material. Even my first shows this past week after he was born, I talked about him for 15 minutes, and just trying to figure stuff out, but yeah, your brain definitely is working slower when you have no fucking sleep.

Paste: Your marriage seems like it would naturally involve a lot of joking. Has that fallen by the wayside since having your son, or has it become exacerbated?

Segura: We use jokes a lot to diffuse those crazy situations. When we’re up and sleep deprived together, my wife will look at me and go, “Do you want to give him back?” There are a lot of comments like that, but that just helps us get through the moments.

Paste: Comedy can be this lovely salve to a situation.

Segura: You need the laughter to get through it.

Paste: You’ll have people read this and go, “I can’t believe she said this about the baby!”

Segura: Of course, “What a bad mother!”

Paste: Right, because no one’s ever had that thought ever.

Segura: I know. I think I opened one of my shows this weekend, and said, “You know, my wife had a baby.” And then my next sentence was, “I can understand when parents kill their children.” There was laughter, and then there was a lot of oohing and aahing. And I’m like, “No you shouldn’t do it, but I totally get why you would.”

Paste: But then you have those people who take that joke too literally.

Segura: For sure, for sure. I heard somebody say, “Let’s go.”

Paste: What’s a comedic project—maybe podcast, show or festival—that you’d like to take part in, but haven’t yet?

Segura: I have a pilot deal, so I’m going to be writing and shooting a pilot, which is really exciting to me. It’s for TruTV, and it’s a scripted show, which I’ve always wanted to do. That’s what I’m most excited about. Honestly, I’d like to do more in terms of TV and film as an actor and writer, so that’s the stuff that I’m really excited for. I always have that thing too where I’m anxious after I put out material, and it’s that period right now where I’m like, “Who knows how this next hour will shape up?” But even though it’s kind of scary, it’s also exciting because you know you’re going to get there, but you don’t know what it’s going to be like yet.

Paste: There’s that idea that what furthers creative growth has to be frightening.

Segura: Absolutely. You have to have those butterflies before you say something sometimes, where you’re like, “I don’t know how this is going to land” but that’s usually the stuff that lands the biggest.

Amanda Wicks is a New Orleans-based freelance writer specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.