Clean comedy isn't comedy -- it's politics
On Sepember 19 Denver crowds will unload a serious amount of cash on an event titled "The Clean Guys Comedy," which features such stand-up legends as Jamie Kennedy (Scream), Uncle Joey from Full House, and some other folks you vaguely remember from somewhere. The comics themselves aren't what's selling this event, though, and neither is the content of the show: What sells "clean comedy" doesn't have anything to do with comedy at all. The singular defining appeal of these shows is the absence of something: Essentially, if you are a clean comic, nothingness is your identity.
Often a comic who is branded as a clean performer will deride his filthy counterparts by claiming it's easy to get a laugh if you curse and talk about your penis. "It's just harder," Bob Newhart has said of the agony of performing without the "fuck" crutch. "I got a certain satisfaction out of getting a response from the audience and knowing I'd done something that may be harder."
This may have been the case in Newhart's day, when placing two actors in the same bed, or uttering the word "bathroom" or "pregnant" on TV, was tantamount to a snuff film. But cursing or admitting you masturbate in a 2013 comedy club isn't going to release any sociological tension and get a bigger laugh than something clean -- because anyone who regularly attends comedy shows doesn't find anything unusual or shocking about this type of content. Sigmund Freud's relief theory of laughter is still alive today, but you have to go a lot farther than crossing the puritanical line of "blue humor" to get this kind of response out of a comedy crowd.
But for the most part, people who attend a show billed as "clean" aren't the kind of people who regularly attend comedy shows. If comics are asked to keep cursing or controversy out of their sets, it's most likely because they're playing a corporate show or family event. This is where the real money is in the funny business, so it makes sense that someone working in an industry that is not known for its financial security would take these gigs. But they aren't going to garner any kind of following with these audiences -- they aren't the kind of people who read The Spit Take or Laugh Spin. This doesn't make them bad people, they're just not comedy people. It would be like me showing up at a football game, not liking all the violence, and requesting a separate show be designed to appeal to my pacifist sensibilities.
You rarely see this in the music industry, where audiences show up to see a specific band because of the cultural connection they have with it. No straight-laced suburban geriatrics ever stumble upon a Kottonmouth Kings show looking to hear "music" and are shocked at all of the gratuitous dope smoking. But often comedy show audiences will have a handful of people who came out merely for the generic anticipation of "humor," knowing nothing about who is on the bill. And if anything crosses their ultra-specific definition of offensive material, they begin to seek out shows billed as clean, where the performer services a utilitarian need to provide a set built around not upsetting anyone.
"I think for what we're trying to do, if you can say it on national television, that's what we're defining 'clean' as," said Clean Guy of Comedy Dave Coulier in a recent Westword interview. "Because we can't really define it. That's for the audience to define."
With this quote, Uncle Joey (do we really need to call him anything else?) has illustrated the paradox of the clean comedy industry: There is no clear definition of inoffensive material. Uncle Joey provides no clarity in his reference to national television, because, as the Hollywood Reporter pointed out last year, "The Supreme Court and FCC have refused to articulate a clear indecency framework."
According to the Federal Communications Commission's website, the definition of indecent content is "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities." As distracting as the phrase "excretory organs" is, the keyword in this sentence is "contemporary," an adjective that, by definition, is constantly shifting.
Many audience members at a comedy show may have entirely different definitions of what contemporary standards of indecency actually are. You're dealing with time when you use a word like "contemporary," and since comedy crowds range from teens to seniors, they will all have come of age in a different era. And definitions of obscenity are shifting with every year the VMA's and Comedy Central remain in business.
This summer I spoke with one of Denver's most accomplished comedians, Chuck Roy, about performing at clean shows. Roy is openly gay, yet is not allowed to reference this fact at a show billed as clean in "any venue in America, not even Red Rocks," he says. "Comedy Works is the only place that lets me do that. They'll put me on the family shows, and only this last month did I start doing jokes where I reference my boyfriend."
Yet at the same time, as I pointed out in last week's column, Jeff Dunham is allowed to not only be incredibly offensive to an LGBT audience while being one of the top-earning clean comics in America, but is also considered widely offensive to ethnic minorities. So clearly a clean show is marketed toward a very specific demographic -- one that rarely, if ever, attends comedy shows, and would be shocked at what goes on there.
Because of what I do for a living, I'm at a different comedy show several times a week -- so naturally, I encounter material that annoys or offends me all the time. Bill Engvall has a bit that, with complete sincerity, suggests that chickens have never existed outside of domestication, which insults my intelligence as a bipedal human being. But I'm not going to request that shows begin marketing themselves as "non-dipshit comedy" just so I can be assured that I won't ever encounter this type of mouth-breathing humor again.
The problem I have with clean comedy isn't that it's bad comedy. Some of the best comedians working today could be considered "clean" (Jim Gaffigan or Mike Birbiglia come to mind). It's the high mindedness of billing a show as "clean" that irks me. It's the use of the word "family" in connection with clean -- as if anyone who enjoys a humorous take on the subjects of sex and death (the two most important motivators of human behavior) are somehow not suitable for procreation. But most of all, it's the overlapping of the motive behind that word -- clean -- with the cultural designation of stand-up comedy that really fucks me up.
Because ultimately, catering your set to the nebulous moral standards of a mass audience doesn't make you a comedian, it makes you a politician.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.