Freedom of speech comes with a price

Dave – What are the implications of mocking a device or its creator? For instance, I’ve made comments in my act about a medical device that could be construed as less than savory, yet funny. But the backers of this device are my current employers and have been known to be surly regarding their investments. I know of one nurse who wrote a novel about her experiences and was summarily fired. Not that I fear such action, but… well… I still have a mortgage. – M

Hey M – Any topic is pretty much fair game in comedy. But you’ll have to make your own decision about this one since it involves your current employer. I believe in and support freedom of speech. But in practical real-world situations (your mortgage would qualify as one of those) you must consider the consequences. If you think the material will come back and bite you in the you-know-what and cause you to lose your job, then it’s best to keep your mouth shut.

I like to point out that knowing your audience makes a difference in how far you can go with free speech. If you’re making a living as a comedian and talking about your personal life, then making fun of your former employer (former husband, former wife, former co-workers – you get the picture) is no big deal.

They’re all fair game when it comes to sharing humor.

But to be on the safe side, it’s probably a good idea not to mention them by name. I’ve seen that scenario come back to bite a few comics in the you-know-what.

It also helps that you don’t have to deal with these former associates after your performances. But that’s not a rule written in stone. I’ve watched comics on stage use their current family members, employers, and co-workers as the source of comedy material. It depends on the relationships and in many cases these “victims” enjoy being part of the show.

Freedom of speech is the center of the comedy universe.  The topics can include whatever is on your creative mind.

How far you take it… well, it depends…

There are comedians who are family friendly, and others billed as “for adults only.” And no one can tell you one style is better than the other. It depends on personal taste. And the comics making a living either as clean or dirty can do it because they know their audience.

But on the flip side of this comedy creative universe is the comedy business. What you say can sometimes affect your career. Here are some thoughts…

When I scheduled comedians for the television show A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, we gave the performers some guidelines on material. These were strictly for business reasons such as ratings and legalities.

First, demographics showed that our largest viewing audience was in the Bible Belt. Therefore, we couldn’t let the comedians make fun of God or religion. If they did, a lot of fans in these areas would stop watching the show. Advertisers would stop buying commercial time because the consumers they were aiming for wouldn’t be watching their commercials anymore. And since that’s how the show made money – everyone involved would risk losing his or her job.

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Secondly, the producers of the show didn’t want to be sued if a comedian badmouthed a product – like the medical device you mentioned in today’s question. For example, comedians couldn’t say McDonald’s sucked, or Taco Bell gave them heartburn. Those companies could come down hard with a team of lawyers to protect their reputations.

Comedians were warned before show tapings not to practice their freedom of speech when it came to these specific topics. Of course, some ignored the warnings. But it didn’t matter because they didn’t have any control over the outcome – it was all business related. That’s why you can watch episodes where certain comics are only on for four or five minutes instead of the standard seven-minute set.

They didn’t follow the “rules” and the forbidden material was cut out before the show was broadcast.

It’s also important to note saying the F-bomb on network television is still forbidden. You can say it at certain times on certain streaming and cable shows, and all day long on others, but not on the major networks. So as a comedian, you must play by the rules if you want to sit on a chair next to Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel or Seth Myers.

But on stage in a comedy club, comedians can say those things. You can make fun of companies, religion or whatever you want if – and this is the business side talking – you bring in paying customers. Most club owners support the art and creativity of stand-up but are still in it to make a living.

Now in your case, as a beginning comedian who still needs a regular paycheck until your career takes off, you must protect yourself. How far will your employers let you go before they get offended and fire you?

I’ve had more than a few comedians in my workshops that were police officers. I’ve always found it interesting because some felt they had to use a stage name and never mentioned police work during their sets because they were worried their superiors would crack down on them. Others didn’t care and talked about being a cop and what they did on the job.

It’s a personal decision that I couldn’t make for them because I couldn’t predict the repercussions.

So, in your case you need to figure out what or if there will be any fall-out or flack from your bosses if you do this material on stage. You want freedom of speech, but you also have a mortgage.

One last thought. Even “stars” must be careful in certain situations. Without mentioning names (but if you’re really into the comedy biz I’m sure you can think of a couple), they’ve made headlines practicing free speech on stage by making horrendous remarks about politics, religion, race, or sexual preferences. It probably wouldn’t have been that intense or newsworthy if they hadn’t been well known from starring on television and in movies. In some cases, there were a lot of protests and the comics eventually had to publicly apologize to salvage their careers.

I happened to see one of these (no names!) comedians a couple weeks after one of these newsworthy episodes at a popular comedy club. He confronted the situation right away and admitted to the audience he got in a lot of trouble for what he said. He promised he wouldn’t talk about it and was finished with the subject. But as a comedian – he then told the audience he was going to pick on a different group instead and launched into that material.

Some audience members laughed while others didn’t.

But he was practicing the art of free speech and made a choice about how far he would go regardless of what the consequences might be. That’s a personal decision and you have a right to make it. But just make sure you have both your artistic and business thinking caps on when you make it.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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