Why clean comedy is becoming big business

Brian Regan and Jim Gaffigan have been household names for years, but they are being joined by a growing crowd of comics who have crossed off more than the late George Carlin’s famous 'seven words' from their repertoire.

Michael Gibbons
Adam Christing, president of CleanComedians.com, interacts with audience members at the Ritz Carlton in Dove Mountain, Ariz., in October 2015

Parents with kids sink their teeth into meatballs with pili pili sauce here at Rosalind’s Ethiopian Eatery as Joe Dungan steps into the lounge spotlight.

“I’m Joe. Single by choice … the choice of all the girls who’ve ever gone out with me. Fun fact: I attended California State University Northridge … which got 12,000 applications and only accepted the very top 11,500. I graduated in 4-1/2 years. It would have been four, but I couldn’t find parking….”

Joe is the first of 10 comedians who will take the mike for the next two hours, distinguishing themselves by what is not in their material – crude, off-color, or sexually based jokes. The G-rated showcase is the idea of Kene Zen a local, Los Angeles entertainer. The 25-year music manager was getting to know lots of comedians who really felt they wanted to go clean but didn't feel they could go it alone. Mr. Zen’s idea: a showcase evening of clean comedy once a month. He was surprised by the breadth and depth of interest by comics.

“The demand for this is amazing,” says Zen, who began organizing the showcases in March. “They are attracted to the idea of more cerebral legends who got you to laugh and think at the same time ... really gave you something to hold onto. They tell me that is the more satisfying way to perform and hone a respectable craft.”

Clean and blue humor have coexisted since the first homo erectus slipped on a banana peel and both still thrive. But, while cable and streaming services have launched R-rated humorists like Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., and John Oliver to stardom, audiences also are eagerly venturing into establishments and events where no blushing is warranted for anyone from 8 to 80. Household names such as Brian Regan and Jim Gaffigan are being joined by a growing crowd of comics who have crossed off more than the late George Carlin’s famous “seven words you can't say on TV” from their repertoire.

Audiences’ desire to come together to laugh is motivated by everything from businesses looking for work-safe entertainment for conferences to religious reasons to families’ desire to take a tween to something both child and parent can enjoy. In these trends, some culture watchers see a possibility of bridging today’s fragmented society.

“Humor is rising to help close the gap that has been widening between religions, ethnicities, and different communities,” says Joe Boskin, a professor emeritus of social history at Boston University. He sees humor’s saving grace during this political season, in particular.

“So while the political landscape is ever more polarizing and divisive, our comedians are doing just the opposite – bringing us back together with laughs,” Professor Boskin says.

Notwithstanding the success of raunchy comedies at the box office and on cable, Boskin says he is seeing a renaissance of humor in America which he calls a “golden period of comedy,” driven from both sides – comedians who want to work clean and audiences who are yearning for it.

“American history shows there are periods of great welling up to reach the American dream, not in the economic sense but the idea that this is an egalitarian society that wants to look at itself in a more moral and inspirational way,” he says. One such period, Boskin says, was in the 1830s and ’40s, then again in the 1950s and ’60s.

The current tilt toward more clean is a sign of something deeper in the national zeitgeist, says Boskin, adding, “There is a hungering for more community and spirituality.”

The yearning by communities to laugh together could be seen as a nascent antidote to divisive politics, partisan news feeds, and family couches marked by family members staring at glowing rectangles rather than one another.

'What is it with these kids? First they want a Game boy, then a Nintendo, then an X-box. Now they want an iPad…. I don’t have money for that … I just went in and took off the knobs on their Etch A Sketch….' – Kathy Westfield, CleanComedians.com

The growing trend is perhaps most prominent in the arena of corporate fundraising – where marketers don’t dare alienate possible investors. But the phenomenon has also grown with the expansion of mass and social media.

The Internet’s reach rewards comic material that hits the widest audience. (Think Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians Riding in Cars Getting Coffee,” and the proliferation of YouTube channels that include zany baby and kitten videos). NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” has been a solid ratings performer for more than a decade.

Late-night show hosts on broadcast TV – who still outdraw their cable counterparts (before YouTube and Facebook views are added in) – still run a clean show. As Mr. Seinfeld once told a reporter, why work on a joke you can’t tell on TV?

Television has played a crucial role in the evolution of American comedy, in particular clean material. Prior to the rise of mass media, comedy was raw and bawdy, from Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata” to William Shakespeare, points out Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “Once broadcasters had both advertisers and large audiences to please, comedians had to clean up their act,” he says.

Mae West was once banned from early radio for a racy skit about Adam and Eve, he says. Once the Federal Communications Commission began regulating the public airwaves, the possibility of losing a license renewal over a few curse words or suggestive material turned early TV into a paragon of clean comedy, he says.

Not until cable began to emerge in the 1970s did the strictures on comedy begin to loosen. And blue material has flourished as cable has expanded.

“It used to be a comedian could eke a living in clubs but the dream was always to be on TV,” says Professor Thompson. 

Now, as then, he points out, financial concerns are driving today’s rise in PG-rated jokes. Now, “it’s the corporate circuit that is once again fueling the demand for clean material.”

‘I was just in Los Angeles. I was speaking at this animal rights barbecue…’ – Adam Christing, CleanComedians.com

At an early evening silent auction at the Yorba Linda Country Club, the hors d’oeuvres-munching crowd is muscling up to tables spread with items ranging from National Basketball Association tickets to school uniforms.

“It’s $150 if you want it … and $300 if you don't," quips Taylor Hughes, the evening’s comedian/emcee, as he sidles up to a parent pausing over a football scholarship item. “Besides, you’re going to spend that much on your boy anyway, why not do it now so the school gets the money?”

Within minutes, not one but both of the football scholarships are snapped up by chuckling parents.

“We're finding that when people are laughing, they are more loose with their purse strings and wallets,” says Jennifer O'Donnell, president of the Parent Teacher Fellowship of Friends Christian School, which is holding its annual fundraiser. A critical element in that equation – as hundreds of similar fundraisers are finding nationwide – is an entertainer whose material is clean.

From Habitat for Humanity to the Salvation Army to Kiwanis Clubs and Chambers of Commerce, the money rolls in as the audiences roll in the aisles.

This has really grown phenomenally,” says Bob Westfall, whose events have raised $520 million for nonprofit groups ranging from Convoy of Hope to the international Mercy Ships to Westmont College in Santa Barbara by hiring clean comics. He hired his first clean comedian six years ago and has done 50 events since.

It's good business, says Mr. Westfall. 

“What we need from this is someone who can very quickly turn a room filled with 100 strangers into a tightly-knit community in a tiny amount of time,” Westfall says. “To really embrace donors and bring them into your family, you can’t have an entertainer who drops F-bombs and traffics in sexual innuendo.”

It was a colleague who suggested CleanComedians.com, which promises “laughter you can trust” and carries bios and clips from about 30 clean comedians.

“Clean comedy is on the rise,” says founder and president Adam Christing, who also wrote the book, “Comedy Comes Clean.”

 Later the same night, Mr. Hughes takes the stage. He explains the evening's goal of raising $40,000.

“We can do that by getting four donations of $10,000 or 40,000 donations of $1," he says. "Either way, we are going to stay here until it gets done.”

“I like this way more than in the past,” says Nicole Birrell, a mother of two at table 11. “Then, the auctions were just competition ... now it’s fun and funny and you can tell people are dropping more cash.”

The evening's take is $55,000, 37 percent above the goal.

'I journal, which is a way of basically capturing sadness in a book….' – Cary Odes, Los Angeles comedian and teacher

Cary Odes has worked in clubs, churches, cruise ships, and Chamber of Commerce events for more than 35 years. The Second City alum and TV veteran now teaches stand-up comedy classes in Los Angeles.

After a recent class performed its routines at the Hollywood Improv, the group sat in a circle to hear Mr. Odes talk about decisions for the future.

“You can get a laugh with a few F-bombs and crotch grabs; it isn't that hard. It’s like hitting a wall with a cannon. Anyone can do it,” he tells his students. In the group are an event planner, an engineering student, an actress, an IT manager, and a corporate trainer.

“The real skill is to get a crowd roaring with ideas that happen above the waist,” Odes continues. “You have to be really skilled and accurate for that.”

He tells the story of a well-known Chicago comic who was an amazing emcee. When an area-based producer wanted to make a video of several top locals, “this fellow was scared because it had to be clean, which only left him with about two minutes of material. I learned very quickly that anyone with money to spend wanted a clean show.”

And then there is the way a comic moves up in the business.

“You start as an opening act, and a headliner wants a certain kind of act before him, someone who won’t go blue, and who gets the crowd excited but not burned out," he says. "No headliner wants to follow a guy who gets the audience into raunchy stuff. Because once they are there, they aren’t going to come back. The mood of a room only goes one way, down. You can’t follow an act that does blue material with your insights into the political landscape.”

Scott Roth/Invision/AP/File
Comedian Jim Gaffigan performs at a David Lynch Foundation Benefit for Veterans with PTSD at New York City Center on April 30 in New York.
‘My wife always tells me camping was a tradition in her family ... I say it was a tradition in everyone’s family until someone came up with the concept of a house ... If it's so great outdoors, why are all the bugs trying to get into my house?" –  Jim Gaffigan

One of the comics at a March “clean comedy” showcase was Grace Fraga, whose many riffs run the gamut, but who is trying to develop her clean side.

“Clean comedy is more highbrow, more intelligent, and appeals to a higher intellect,” she says. “I don't particularly enjoy crude for the sake of being crude, as some comics do.”

Because of that personal preference, she says she has worked hard on her comedy.

“It took me a while longer to get better with laughs that are clean than those that were dirty, so I worked on my jokes and in the long run it has paid off and I am happy for it,” she says.

One subject she mines is her own figure: “I invented a new diet called the swimmer's diet. What I do is I eat underwater, cause food weighs less. I’m proud to say I weighed myself underwater and I only weigh 3-1/2 pounds.”

Another comic at the showcase, Sammy Obeid, says he can operate on several levels, but knows that staying clean “will get you the most work.” He says there are several “layers of clean. Corporate clean, where you don't use dirty words or get sexually explicit and church clean, where you don't even bring up religion.”

He capitalizes on his Lebanese heritage. "My father is from the Middle East, my mother is from the Middle East of Texas. My blood is pure oil."

‘In a store I saw that peanut butter and jelly in the same jar stuff. What's the point to that? I'm lazy but I want to meet the guy who needs that. “I could go for a sandwich, but I'm not gonna open two jars.” ’ – Brian Regan

Two of the hottest comics in America right now – both pulling in six figures and more per show – are known as “squeaky clean”: Mr. Regan and Mr. Gaffigan.

Miami-born Regan capitalizes on facial expressions and body language to punctuate his observations, and he typically touches on everyday events, such as eating Pop-Tarts, flying coach, or shipping a package with UPS. He also mines childhood, including Little League baseball, elementary school spelling bees, and the science fair.

Elgin, Ill.-born Gaffigan's humor largely revolves around fatherhood, observations, and food.  He often focuses on his life as a Catholic, father of five, and living together with his wife, Jeannie, in a small Manhattan apartment.

“If you’re cursing … it can get in the way,” Gaffigan said in an interview with Salt Lake City's Deseret News. "If you're talking about the small stuff … you can't really be that hyperbolic about it. I can't be that angry about a box of doughnuts.”

Beyond all this, blue material tends to play itself out faster than clean material, points out Wheeler Winston-Dixon, author and social film historian at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

“How low can you go? How filthy can you get?” he asks. “It just gets boring, and people are looking for something that actually gives them a chance to think, and then laugh, as with observational comedy, rather than going for the lowest common denominator every time.”

He and others note that both clean and raw comedy have always existed side by side, and many comics have developed material for both worlds.

“There are good, serious PG and PG-13 movies and serious R and unrated movies. We can expect the same with stand-up comedy. It is not one or the other,” says Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media, and Popular Culture at Arizona State University. “Nor is the relevant question: Can a comedian be serious without being explicit? In fact, some comedians are good at both.”

Dick Guttman, longtime press representative for Jay Leno, notes that the former “Tonight Show” host still maintains a rigorous schedule of 300 performances a year and has a full range of material.

“He knows what will play in Peoria, he knows what will play in Pittsburgh and New York, so he has varying degrees of clean and edgy material, that caters to the audience in front of him,” Mr. Guttman says.

‘I’m half Irish and half Korean … My parents had different stories for me growing up. They told me at the end of a rainbow is a pot of kimchi…’ – Ron McGehee, CleanComedians.com

Every two or three decades, there is a discernible adjustment, he and others say.

In the 1950s, for instance, American comedy was moving steadily along with many, same-named comedians (Joeys from Bishop to Adams and Forman, Jackies from Gayle to Gleason to Mason to Leonard) when four names appeared to remake the paradigm: Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters.

Winters’s zaniness and improvisational skill made him inimitable, Sahl was a never duplicated mashup of political observation and personal analysis, and Gregory and Bruce broke every taboo in the book.

“[T]he old order, the Catskills way of playing it safe and avoiding controversial subjects, disappeared,” writes Kliph Nesteroff in his 2015 bestseller, “The Comedians.”

“I heard my first Lenny Bruce and my life changed,” he quotes Carlin as saying.

Comedians flocked to the newfound freedom and the club experience began to be overtaken by what many call “guaranteed raunch.” G-rated megastars like Bob Hope began to be few and far between. People who used to hire Hope shied away from hiring any comedians because there was no guarantee the material would not go south.

“Twenty-eight years ago, our group used to hire Bob Hope," says Jill Caviezel-Hoots, director of philanthropic development for Kings Regional Health Foundation (KRHF).

After that, the foundation began finding that comedians only had about five minutes of clean material that they would exhaust before reverting to their club acts.

So for years, KRHF switched over to other forms of entertainment, from musicians to jugglers – even Cirque du Soleil. 

“About four or five years ago we started hiring comedians again and we began noticing that our audience members were staying around longer," says Ms. Caviezel-Hoots. "So we asked them, and they told us they love to laugh.”

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