Hi Dave – I was talking with another comic about that court case in Canada a few years ago. A customer in a comedy club sued the comic over his (adult) language. She claimed to be stressed and shocked and won the case. We record every set mainly so we can hear which jokes work and how well. Now it’s important to document what was actually said. This was a case of a comic being accused of using inappropriate language in a mandatory “clean” show. – BM
Hey BM – I remember that case and wrote about it in a FAQs article when the verdict came down. A lot of people in the comedy biz were shocked over what happened. To borrow a phrase from an influential club booker, who seems to repeat it every time we talk, comedy clubs are “The Last Bastion of Free Speech.” In other words, he feels as long as the comedian is funny it’s okay to have an opinion to say what he or she wants on stage and not worry about being politically correct.
But it’s not that simple.
It didn’t take a court case for most working comics to understand there are limits on language and topics depending on the venue, audience and event. For example, what you can expect to hear during a late night show in a comedy club vs. a corporate event will be different.
As you mentioned, it’s important to record all your sets. This is a great way to help you improve as a writer and performer. If your performance is funny the audience will laugh. If it sucks, you’ll hear crickets from the segments of the room where your family and friends are not sitting.
You can develop your act off their response.
As you also mentioned, recording your set is a way to “document” what is said on stage. Based on the result of the court case, having proof of what you said can be just as important.
Some performers may not realize this, but did you know that some club owners or managers record the shows? It’s nothing new. Many clubs have a permanent camera installed and aimed toward the stage. Before that in “ancient times” (pre-video cameras) quite a few had an audio recorder going.
I know. I’ve been around since the “ancient times” and saw this happening.
I’ve also seen this documentation (proof) used to show performers that what they advertised (promised) was not what they delivered. And in some cases, it justified the talent booker not paying the performer.
This past winter I received a call from a talent booker to warn me about a certain comedian who was promoting himself as a clean (G-rated) act. He had scheduled the comic for a corporate show and was called-out by the client because the comic not only talked graphically about sex, but also dropped the F-bomb in the process.
Of course the comic protested. He said his material was not that dirty.
So the talent booker told him to prove it. Send the audio or video. The comic couldn’t because he didn’t record. So it came down to the client’s word vs. the comic’s word.
Can you guess who won?
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Yeah, the angry and offended client with big corporate $$’s to spend on his next event. The booker still hoped some of that money would be spent on one of his performers, so case closed. The client demanded and received a refund, so neither the talent booker or the comic was paid. And since the talent booker wasn’t used to getting yelled at by clients because the performers he works with are expected to understand the event and “know the audience,” he called other talent bookers to warn them of the potential nightmare that comes from working with that particular comic.
That’s how I heard about it.
So now getting back to the article you mentioned, I’m guessing the judge made a ruling based on whose lawyer sounded most convincing. I don’t remember reading about the comedian recording his set. If he had, it might (or might not) have saved him time, trouble, money and future work. It’s important for creative artists to have freedom of expression, but I’ll also add this from a business side of the creative entertainment business:
There are certain limits.
What do I mean by that stipulation?
A comedy club normally is for people ages 21 and over. If someone fits that demographic but is easily offended, then they need to follow the rule of “buyer beware.” If the show is announced for “mature audiences only” you can bet the comic on stage will practice his or her right of free speech at some point or another. If someone doesn’t like it – they should leave.
It’s similar to watching television. If I don’t like a show I’ll change the channel. But I won’t impose my beliefs on someone else who might enjoy it. As an example I’ll use all the violent murder and detective shows on prime time that I have no desire to watch. But they pull in high ratings, so who am I to prevent others from tuning in? Instead, I’ll just change the channel to The Voice or a rerun of Seinfeld. Those are the types of shows I enjoy watching.
But performers also need to be aware of the event and audience.
As mentioned above, a late night comedy club show will be different than a corporate event. Comedy clubs are where comedians can practice free speech, while corporate comics need to be funny using G-rated material.
To prove (document) my point, here’s an experience with someone that “did not know his audience” that I still find unforgettable and unforgivable…
Many years ago I took our young son to a very well known amusement park. It wasn’t Disney because they have standards about this stuff. But as we walked around all these rides and games meant for little kids, I saw a guy wearing a white t-shirt with the F-Bomb spelled out in all it’s four-letter glory in BIG bold black lettering as in “F(bomb) YOU!”
Sorry Mr. Living-On-The-Edge, but that was not the time or place for your political incorrectness. Performers who work in the comedy and speaking biz will understand. It’s called knowing your audience and the audience this idiot had was a bunch of little kids with their parents.
This goes both ways.
Performers must know your audience. Audiences must realize where they are. If it’s a corporate show it’ll be clean. If it’s a comedy club, chances are something will be said that’s not appropriate for young kids or anyone easily offended.
When you cross the line, that’s when the trouble – and bad-mouthing phone calls – can start. Your best defense is to always record your set and be sure it backs up what you’ve been hired to do.
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