I have spent more time writing this post’s title than the post itself. And if you peek to see how long this post is, you might appreciate what I mean.
In the middle school years growing up in Pennsylvania, I had a little old TV on the floor of my bedroom where I watched about ten and a half channels of whatever happened to “stream” via the UHF/VHF antenna.
I watched a lot of sitcoms, probably all of them, a lot of Arsenio Hall, Garry Shandling, Joan Rivers, Howard Stern. I tried to laugh at most SNL skits but learned to laugh when it was truly funny, which was maybe twice in 90 minutes. I craved watching comedians who were truly funny, and I was very picky. I don’t remember being drawn to the news or drama. Just liked comedy. I liked the weather, too.
Seinfeld’s first episode of season two began over apple cinnamon herbal tea with my secret ingredient of a half cup of sugar. I would follow the same herbal sugar drink ritual watching his show the first few seasons until I heard someone quoting it once in biology class. Then I stopped watching it. Always a little odd like that.
While watching comedy in those days before the Internet, I never seriously entertained the idea that I wanted to write or perform comedy as a profession, or even someday as a blogger, though the blogging may have crossed my mind once or twice.
I first caught the bug of wanting to try out stand up once when I was twelve watching an old Bob Hope Christmas Special, trying to memorize the jokes so I could tell them in seventh grade in hopes of becoming wildly popular. I forgot them all, and therefore did not become popular.
I caught the stand up bug again when I became completely enamored by a late night show filmed on a famous stage in Harlem.
When I first craved doing stand up
After SNL, at 1 AM early Sunday morning, I would stay up to watch Showtime at the Apollo, when amateur comedians and singers attempted to launch new careers at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. I had never been drawn to talent shows like Ed McMahon’s Star Search or the Jerry Lewis Telethon. But the Apollo stage somehow grabbed me by the ambition gland and wouldn’t let go. If I could perform anywhere, the Apollo was the place for me.
Why would a young white kid dream of performing before a mostly all black audience?
The answer is simple: It’s because I thought of a joke I could perform there.
I still remember bits of my act:
I would get on stage, meet the host, which at the time was Sinbad, one of my stand up heroes who I’ve seen twice:
- Once on a Philadelphia stage for an hour and a half in 2008 laughing so hard I broke my jaw (instead of saying LOL I’m trying to start new lingo that would replace LOL with BMJ)
- Standing behind him in line at a Sam Goody in LA in 1994. I was buying Ride’s new album “Carnival of Light” on cassette while he had a stack of at least a hundred CDs.
So I’d step on stage to meet Sinbad dressed in suit and tie, not Sinbad in a suit, but me in a suit. I would come not as myself, but in character as the most stereotypical, out-of-touch white guy from the middle of stereotypical suburban white America. Arguably, I would be acting as me.
(If you are getting uncomfortable reading what you believe are racial overtones, please stop here, turn around, and walk away.)
My character would be an intensely serious, business-minded professional, slowly enunciating every syllable of every word in true out-of-touch white man form. That would be made clear as I talked with the black host.
(It’s not too late to go.)
After the host directed me to the microphone center stage, I would stiffly and almost robotically walk up to it and then looking up toward the ceiling say, “Well, hello out there.”
I would pause, as if I was expecting something.
“Don’t you say, ‘hello,’ back?”
And then looking down to closely examine the crowd, I would jump back and say, “Oh! Oh! Well! I admit I was prepared for a slightly different crowd tonight.”
Jeering from the crowd, I’m sure, would have already begun.
And then taking notes from my jacket, I would say that I had jokes meant for people who were…..more like me. I would say that as if I didn’t know that was offensive.
(Why are you still here? It’s okay to leave!)
Expecting the jeers to change to full-on boos by that subtly racist comment, I would shred the paper and say in thick white-speak, “Well, golly gee whizz [or similar expression], maybe I can let loose a little bit tonight. Maybe you will appreciate me for who I really am. ”
Then I would try to convince them that while I was very white on the outside, I was very black within. What would follow is a string of stereotypically white comments I would claim channel my “inner black,” in hopes that they would be so thoroughly entertained that I would have a chance to perform again.
I came up with the act before In Living Color and well before the Bill-Clinton-is-the-first-black-president era, by the way. Ahead of my time, so ahead of my time…
My act may have been inspired by Eddie Murphy’s SNL skit where he dresses as a white man for a day, going on to learn the advantages of white living, like parties on public transportation when only whites are onboard. Humor addressing racial stereotypes kills me every time.
I tried out some of my Apollo material when I worked at McDonalds, where I was often the minority. My black audience of coworkers laughed at almost anything I said, even if I was serious, so I was pretty convinced I could have killed on stage at the Apollo, whether my act was polished or not.
A fellow former McDonald’s employee (at a different location in a different time) who actually did perform before an all black audience, is none other than Jay Leno. He used to open for Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a black musician who was famous for playing a flute while singing. He did both. At the same time. He was also blind.
On a recent Jay Mohr podcast episode , Leno explains how the visually impaired Rahsaan would energetically announce to his all black audience,
“‘I wanna welcome you brothers! We’ve got a brother here! He’s gonna talk about the white devils. He’s gonna talk about…’
“and he would just do this whole black militant rap thing and he’d get the crowd all worked up.
[and then Rahsaan would say]
“‘Please welcome brother, Jay Leno.’
“So I would walk out [and whisper], ‘Shhhhh, shhhhhh. He doesn’t know I’m white!'”
Of course, the crowd ate it up, and so did Rahsaan, which is why he liked to travel with Leno.
I LOVE this style of humor. Why, you might ask? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I hate racism, especially racism between white and black Americans. I hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it. I’ve seen it up close and lived it. Maybe a little more comedy can bring us all together. I don’t know.
When I last wanted to do stand up
Last night, as a matter of fact, was the last time I wanted to do stand up.
All these years have passed thinking about trying out stand up but I have never done it. Instead, I’ve tried out becoming a sit down comic through my writing on this blog and a couple of books I’ve been working on.
Then last night, my wife and I drove downtown without any plans. As we arrived downtown, we passed a comedy club and decided to do a U-y [how is that spelled, anyway? Yewee? Do people still say that?] to check it out.
When we walked into the club I asked when the next show is.
“Nine o’clock but it hasn’t started yet.”
“What time is it now?”
He didn’t answer me. This place isn’t funny at all, I thought. I took out my phone and saw it was exactly 9:12.
Even if the show wouldn’t be funny, I was actually going to watch amateurs stand up. I was so excited.
We paid $30 for admission and our hands were stamped with the word, “Insufficient.” I changed my mind. This place is definitely funny.
We took a seat when my wife remembered she had left her phone in the car. So I left quickly to get her phone before someone broke into my car to steal it. I’m paranoid about that sort of thing. I saw a car with a Macbook Air in the backseat the other day. I came so close to stealing it and selling it on eBay.
By the time I got back, an improv group was in the middle of their act. Everyone was laughing. Unfortunately, I missed just enough that I couldn’t laugh, as I learned to do during the unfunny SNL watching days. Before I knew it, they were finished.
Just then, two women got on stage and began to perform a burlesque show…and we walked out.
I have no interest in blue comedy, or the off-color sort. None. It’s just not funny to me.
Here’s one of those annoying lists explaining why.
Five Ways Clean Comedy is King
Now besides being the conservative, white, Mormon, Republican, neanderthal, backward tea partier, science-hating, apocalyptic, Bible thumping, intolerant, gun clinging, loser, consitutionalist, close minded human that I am, I do believe that I have a fairly open mind. And with that mind as open as I can possibly get it, I have to say why clean comedy is king.
Two days ago on a Reddit Ask Me Anything, when asked about why his comedy is clean, Jerry Seinfeld said,
“I was comfortable in the only medium I had at the time. And when I began my career in the 70s and 80s, you had to be clean to get on Johnny Carson or any of the shows. So that’s what I became, and I found I liked it better anyways, because it felt harder and like more of an accomplishment when you could pull it off.”
Additionally, another über successful clean comic Jim Gaffigan also backs me up.
In a recent Nerdist.com interview with Gaffigan, host entertainer and comedian Chris Hardwick said, “I’m so jealous of your ability to write clean comedy that is funny,” to which Gaffigan replies with a sarcastic, “Jesus tells me to, and I listen to what the Lord says.”
While Gaffigan mockingly ties his clean humor to Christianity, as if no religious person swears or tells off color jokes, well, um, uh, um he’s probably right. If you are religious, you are more likely to enjoy clean comedy. Comics are funny, though, because they take on any issue, squeezing as much irony and humor from it.
Today, the freedom to go after traditional morality has definitely been filled by comedians. The default comedian, I believe, is a swearing, atheist liberal. The most common jokes are against religion and conservatives, sex and drugs, because those jokes are easy. These are the jokes anyone can tell. Jokes that maintain a certain morality are harder to pull off. And I think they are funnier.
Gaffigan makes it sound like his writing partner, his wife, pushes him to be clean. “I have new stuff that my wife despises,” he told Hardwick. “There’s this writing partner who says ‘this is lazy’ when it comes to something filthy.”
Is Gaffigan’s wife right? Is blue comedy lazy?
Now, I will say that there are topics in the blue category that cannot be described without filthy language. Comedians since forever have tackled just about any topic head on, which is the freedom comedy depends on. Some of those topics are blue by definition. That doesn’t change the fact that, like Seinfeld said, writing clean comedy is more difficult to write. It’s hard work.
3) Unfinished joke
Continuing on the topic of laziness, Gaffigan said that he used to drop an f-bomb on occasion.
“Now I rarely do but it’s an indication that I haven’t finished writing the joke.”
Here’s my take: If you think a joke requires explicit and shocking language, the joke is there, already in the language. You’ve done the thinking for everyone. You’ve shocked them with your words, right there, on the spot. The best humor, I believe, is shocking them when they have to put two and two together. It’s more subtle that way, and somehow more complete.
Here’s another way of looking at it. The main reason I haven’t frequented comedy clubs is because 98% of them are blue comedy havens. Why would that be most prevalent in these small joints? It’s because it is full of amateurs. They want the quick laugh. They are amateurs. Blue comedians can still gain in notoriety and fame, but there’s a reason why Sarah Silverman and George Carlin aren’t household names. It’s why someone like Hardwick says to Gaffigan, “I’m so jealous of your ability to write clean comedy that is funny.”
4) Clean is more creative
Gaffigan goes on to say, “I mean, we’re creative people, and I’m not that smart, but can’t we think of an adjective besides ‘bleep?'”
5) “Clean comedy is much more difficult to write” – Gaffigan
I love writing comedy. I’ve written 40 posts and about 2/3 of them are intended to be funny. Whether they are funny to you, or not, is out of my hands. But they’re funny to me! Some of them are, anyway.