Hi Dave – I have one question. As a new comedian does my material have to be clean? – J.N.
Hey J.N. – Your question will sound familiar to more than a few readers because it comes up quite often. But you know what? New comedians ask because it’s important. And there is no right or wrong answer. Comedy is both a creative art and a business, but to be successful in this business as a creative artist there is one first goal:
How you get there is totally up to you. As one very famous comedian told me (and it’s in my book How To Be A Working Comic), “If you swear in real life, you’re going to swear on stage.” On the other hand, if these words aren’t already in your vocabulary, don’t add them simply because you think it’ll make you funny. That’s not who you really are, and an audience will pick up on that.
There seems to be a market for everything, so whether to work clean or dirty is a personal decision. But since you brought up the question and I’ve never been known to give short answers, let’s look at your potential choice from another point of view. We’ll call it…
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The deal is that everyone must start at the beginning. Since you specifically said, “new comedian,” that’s what we’ll focus on. Public speakers (corporate, college, professional organizations, etc.) already know they must work clean. If they don’t, then they’re not speaking much – if at all.
Along with learning how to write and perform, you’ll also experience different audiences, different venues, and different types of shows. For instance, many comedians love late night, beer-soaked crowds in loud comedy clubs. Others would rather perform for more sophisticated (and I’m using that term loosely) audiences at corporate events.
Have you thought about that? I’m guessing it’s still too early in your career to even consider when your first step should be just getting experience on stage. But eventually it will become both a creative and business decision because different markets have different audiences and hire different types of entertainment.
What markets do you want to play?
These are questions every entertainer (not just comedians and humorous speakers) must consider. As a creative artist with a unique way of expressing yourself, who is your audience? And as a businessperson (I’m talking about you), how can you build an audience to support your creative endeavors?
When you’re just starting out it could be any demographic you can think of, from late night open mics to charity fundraisers. And if you’re serious about this biz you need to understand the value of stage experience. You won’t become a working comic just sitting in your living room doing bits in front of your mirror or for the family dog. You must get in front of an audience and shape your material and delivery based on their response.
If they laugh it works. If they don’t, then you need to make some changes. An audience will tell you, which is why you want to get on stage as often as possible.
So… who is your audience?
Would they want clean or “adult” material? That will help determine what’s best for you.
I’ve worked with comedians who are Born Again Christians and I’ve worked with the most X-rated acts you’ve ever heard. It doesn’t bother me either way. I’m a coach and I’ll coach performers in whatever direction they want to go. And if you already know what direction that is, then find places to perform with audiences that will enjoy your material.
But regardless of what anyone else will tell you, there are also rules in the comedy biz. The rules are made by the people that hire comedians for specific audiences.
For instance, you can’t perform X-rated material on network television shows such as The Tonight Show or Jimmy Kimmel Live. You can get away with a lot more than decades ago when Johnny Carson ruled late night, but these shows still have to deal with FCC (Federal Communications Commission) enforced standards and censors.
On cable television and satellite radio, pretty much anything can be said. But it also depends on the show. I doubt The Howard Stern Show and The Disney Channel fight over guests from the same talent pool. But here are a few more questions to think about…
Would you rather appear on either The Howard Stern Show or The Disney Channel or someplace in-between? Who will appreciate (laugh at) your type of humor and material? What venues and markets do you eventually want to play?
It all comes down to knowing your audience.
You can work X-rated if you want, but just be smart enough not to go on stage with your X-rated material if the audience is filled with grandparents taking their grandkids out for a fun(ny) night of live entertainment. On the flip side, don’t expect to do your best Disney material in a late-night dive bar in front of a beer fueled crowd upset that the bartender turned off the televised cage match wrestling extravaganza for your comedy show.
Get the picture?
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A lot of experienced comedians can play to both audiences. Why? Because they have the experience AND material that can be customized (cleaned up or dirtied down) depending on the audience. In other words, their punch lines don’t get laughs simply because they contain the F-Bomb or other words that will get them banned by the FCC from network television. They can go either way because the material is just as funny with or without them.
A great example of this are comics that work on cruise ships.
These comics need two different sets: family and adult. The family sets are performed during the before and after dinner shows. These are two separate shows since passengers are assigned one of two dinner times. One group is entertained earlier in a large theater while the other group eats – and then they change places. As it says, these shows are for families. Later that night the same comics will do adult shows for (as it says) the adults in one of the lounges or bars.
These comics go from G-rated to X-rated within a couple hours.
Keep in mind I’m not asking anyone to change who they are on stage if it goes against who they want to be on stage. Yes, this is a business, but it’s also a creative business and a way to express your creativity. If your niche is X-rated, go for it. It’s the same with clean comedians. Just don’t go for it in front of the wrong audience. It’s common sense when you think about it.
So, to finally answer your question as a “new comedian,” I would suggest you work on writing funny material. And I’ll repeat: funny material. I’m talking about material that will stand up on its own and will be just as funny to an audience with or without a few gratuitous F-bombs and other choice words or expressions.
Practice and develop your talent as a writer. How would you deliver your set during an afternoon business club luncheon as opposed to at a late-night dive bar? Better still – ask yourself which venue you prefer.
Wait a minute! I almost forgot to mention something…
Just to make your decision interesting, keep in mind the people that hire comics for corporate events, holiday parties, retirements, banquets, etc… are the ones who attend business or social organization meetings. They ALWAYS pay comics, humorous speakers and entertainers waaaaay more than any beer-soaked guy in a dive bar. That’s why corporate events are much more desirable for many working comics than a weekend gig at Billy Joe’s Yucks at the corner of Dive and Bar.
Then again, an uncensored Comedy Central Special or a becoming a favorite guest on The Howard Stern Show can take almost any comic’s career to a new level. But to get there, the comics had to be funny. Working clean wasn’t a rule they needed to follow.
So…? Is it better to work clean or dirty as a new comedian? You need to make that decision – and one of the best ways to find an answer is to know your audience.
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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!!