Clean Comics in a Dirty World

Via @Will_Antonin, an interesting piece in the WSJ about the state of “clean” comedy in America today:

If you listen carefully as he tears through his set, something else is apparent: Jim Gaffigan works clean. He resists profanity. He doesn’t rip celebrities with crude insults. He won’t reveal everything you didn’t want to know about his sexual urges and private parts. At a time when comedy is as filthy as it’s ever been—the industry euphemism is “edgy”—Mr. Gaffigan, working clean, has become one of the hottest comedians in the country. He was one of the top 10 touring comedians in North America last year, according to Pollstar. 


In a climate where the profane has become mundane, sticking to clean comedy might seem like engaging in a form of monastic abstinence, or just square. For Mr. Gaffigan, “it’s just how it comes out,” he says, blaming his Midwestern roots. “There’s something about cursing in public where I have a hesitation to do it.” 


There is a school of thought that adding nasty language to jokes is like riding the Tour de France on EPO—a booster shot that not everyone takes. “We used to kid that it was kind of like Hamburger Helper. There was no real meat there, just some little idea that was pumped up by being dirtier,” says Jimmy Brogan, former head monologue writer for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” who performs around the country billing himself as a clean comedian. 

Gilbert Gottfried, known for the weapons-grade raunch of his often-hilarious TV-roast monologues, says when he was starting out in comedy, he’d skip vulgarities to see if his lines were fundamentally funny. 

“I’d say ‘have sex with’ rather than the four-letter word. I wanted to see which bits actually worked by themselves,” he says. 

Getting laughs with just clean material, as Mr. Gaffigan does, “is harder. It’s just harder,” says Bob Newhart, who sold millions of albums working clean and starred in two hit TV series. “I got a certain satisfaction out of getting a response from the audience and knowing I’d done something that may be harder.”

I recommend the article, but I am stunned–stunned, I say–that anyone can write an article on clean stand-up comedy and not mention the best clean stand-up working today, who also happens to be the best stand-up period: Brian Regan:

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