As a veteran comedy performer—specifically a comedy magician—who has performed at the gamut of venues over the course of almost four decades, I’ve found that working “clean” is just good business. It has nothing to do with being politically correct or even coming from a moralistic viewpoint. It essentially boils down to one thing: if you offend your audience, you’re not going to be invited back and it could hurt your chances for future work due to the negative opinions of other people.
I worked comedy clubs for a couple of decades back in the mid-80’s when the “comedy boom” was taking hold. It seemed that every town in America that had a gas station had a comedy night at one of their bars or taverns and, according to the Professional Comedians Association then, there were 5000 touring comedians on the road at any given time. The comedy scene was popular and hot with the public and a comedy performer of any type—comedy magician, ventriloquist, stand-up comedian—who had even a modicum of talent was able to work regularly. Comedy agents at the time were looking for any warm body who had a black and white headshot to fill the raft of venues who wanted a comedy show at their place.
It was also a different time in the nation’s culture. Cable TV hadn’t been around that long and network television with the top 3 networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, pretty much dominated the airwaves. And with this came the network censors who ensured that any material being shown to the general public had no more than a PG rating. Because of this, when people went out to see a comedy show back then, chances are the material done by comedians was going to be risque. The thinking from comedians was that audiences didn’t want to see the “clean” material they could see on TV. They wanted to hear more edgy comedy that wasn’t allowed on television—and that included profanity.
“Blue” comedy was hugely popular for a time due to big-name comics like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison and others paving the way for skewering and poking fun at formerly taboo TV topics.
I must admit, I was drawn into this culture of blue material when I first started performing in the clubs and my act was pretty raw at the time, due to the nature of the business. But as time went on, I began to see how this form of comedy could offend some people.
In a nightclub where the general public can pay admission to see a show, this kind of comedy is acceptable. The rationale is that “if you can’t take hearing it, then don’t come.” But in a private party or corporate setting, where the majority of comedy performers make their living today, this is simply bad business. And in a politically correct environment today where social media and blogging, where virtually anybody can have a platform to voice their opinions, bad news travels even faster.
Again, I’m not moralizing here and I’m the last one who would be prudish or pass judgement on another performer’s choice of material. I’m still attracted to comedians who are fearless and take on subjects that are sensitive or taboo and yet can still make them funny. People like Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle who tackle topics of race, sexism and “outrage culture” continue to be my comedy heroes. But from a business standpoint I learned early on that if you offend one member of the audience, you may as well have offended the entire audience.
And let’s face it, bad news and reviews travel much faster and get to more people than anything people say that is positive . I’ve heard horror stories from other comedy performers such as where the CEO’s wife was offended by an off-color joke. Not only was the performer chastised and given a bad review but the meeting planner’s job may have been at stake as well for booking the performer in the first place.
I remember reading a Jay Leno quote where he said, “Funny is funny”. He was speaking about the fact that you don’t need to be off-color to be funny. This is from a comedian who has been squeaky clean his entire career, who helmed “The Tonight Show” for over 20 years and still does over 100 corporate dates a year. When I first heard this quote over 25 years ago, I started aligning myself with cleaner material to the point my material never offends or even gets close to crossing the line. And even if I work an occasional comedy club, I still work clean and am just as funny to the audience.
Working “clean” ensures that no one will be offended which means more positive feedback, more happy clients and audiences—and more work. It’s just good business.
Timothy Pitch has been a professional comedy magician for over 35 years and has performed almost 6000 shows in his career. He has performed at corporate events, private parties, cruise ships, fairs and festivals and schools all over the US and Canada. Contact Timothy at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (352) 638-4284.