Clean comedians laughing all the way to the bank
EmptyRequired reading for most comedians looking for a new angle on their schtick might include a dictionary of street slang, a copy of "Grey's Anatomy" and maybe even an international guide to vulgarities. But there's a growing subset of comics and corporate event planners going in the opposite direction of traditional edgy comedy -- by keeping it clean.
"I think it's a case of ear fatigue," observes Carlos Oscar, who has managed to keep his gigs free of swears, racial epithets and below-the-waist explorations for more than ten years, yet still performs in clubs across the country and has been regularly featured on Comedy Central. "When you hear everything being said on 'Def Comedy Jam' in your supermarket, it just stops being that interesting, let alone funny."
Oscar and fellow comedians such as Brian Regan, Kerri Pomarolli, Sue Murphy and many others ultimately discovered a valuable brand in being different. And Pomarolli, a regular sketch performer on NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," found that being Christian was a motivation for keeping away from blue material.
"A lot of my act has to do with my faith, actually, because it's so rare. It's like that old joke that the Christians in Hollywood had a meeting and only four people showed up," she says. "The unusualness of not hiding faith has become a kind of trademark."
Personal conviction to stay clean might be an admirable quality, but if club owners and booking agents aren't on board, the clean movement wouldn't stand a chance.
"For me, it all started with my mother," laughs Rene Harte, co-owner of the Palm Beach Improv in West Palm Beach, Fla. "I was so proud of being one of the few women improv owners, and I wanted her to come to the club. She just wouldn't listen to the swearing ... so I had to build a night around her."
Harte's "Bleep Free" clean comedy night began five years ago and is currently selling out 350-seat shows. "And we're talking about a Tuesday show. To do that well so early in the week is saying something."
Harte adds that she has often deliberately booked comedians who were plainspoken about their faith, but not because of an overt religious prejudice. "I just knew that even if the crowd went sour on them, comedians who were clean as a matter of faith weren't going to panic and go dirty just to get a rise out of people."
Reeta Piazza, who books comedians for the Hollywood Improv, sees a similar bottom-line payoff. She acknowledges that a roaring off-color set is a trademark for a number of comedians, but that it is just a part of a bigger corporate whole.
"Our 8:00 show is basically a bunch of couples coming from dinner," Piazza says. "And they just won't want to hear bathroom humor. I don't censor my comics, but I can make more bookings for them if they can be funny and clean, it's that simple."
In the corporate event circuit -- where gigs can pay well into in the thousands of dollars -- clean isn't just good marketing, it's a legal matter. Cory Ford, owner and president of Clean Comedians in La Mirada, Calif., who handles a roster of 500 entertainers and books more than 1,000 events a year, has seen an average 20% annual increase in demand for clean comedians since he bought the company three years ago.
"My corporate customers just can't take a chance," Ford offers. "The implications are huge in terms of lost business, offended clients, employee complaint or -- worse -- lawsuits if one of our comedians can't keep it aboveboard."
To Harte, swear-free stand-up might be of increasing value, but if the comedic chops aren't there, then it's just a gimmick.
"I think it's actually tougher to learn the craft without offending people," she says. "Working blue can be a crutch. If you can avoid that and still be funny, then you can work anywhere -- and you'll know you've got it."