After I’d been doing comedy in Toronto for about a year there were comics who called me “the dirtiest mind in comedy.” A moniker I acquired because just as Robin Hood’s “Little John” was big, I was clean. Squeaky clean. I didn’t talk about drugs, alcohol or sex and I didn’t swear at all. Not even the fairly innocuous “shit” or “crap”. “Hell” would even be given some serious thought before being inserted into my act. The obvious question is: why? Why would a comedian, who is just starting out and has no idea what is funny, put restrictions on himself like that? It wasn’t out of some moral obligation, or because I was some sort of holier-than-thou prude. It was a choice and one that I need to go back to the beginning to explain.
The first few times I did stand up it was in Hamilton, Ontario: A blue collar city with two steel plants that did little other than serve as a source of unemployment and a barrier to any meaningful revitalization. The best description I’ve heard of Hamilton is “Downtown Hamilton looks like downtown Toronto if everything went out of business.”
Much like the rest of the city, the amateur stand up scene was far from thriving. There was a club that had a monthly amateur night and that was about it. And month after month, show after show I’d find the same ten guys on stage.One particular night I was watching the show, anxiously waiting for my five minutes to be unfunny, and I realized all the other comics were telling the same type of joke. But these weren’t knock-knock jokes, or mother-in-law jokes, or even hacky airplane food jokes these were what I call “So I was Fisting this Hooker” jokes. Don’t know how one of those jokes goes? Well, the basic structure of which was as follows: The comedian would, very casually, state something shocking and offensive like “So I was fisting this hooker…” as if they were telling the audience about reading the newspaper or taking a nap. They would then proceed to outline some story that got even more raunchy and vile, and would likely result in multiple prison sentences if it hadn’t been entirely made up.
It was shock humour, but the problem was that EVERYONE was doing it! It’s hard to stay shocking (or funny) when half a dozen people get on stage and try to “out-gross” the other person. I remember sitting there thinking “Jesus Christ! This is terrible! I wish someone would get up there and do something different.” And that’s when it occurred to me that I could be that something different. I could be that breath of fresh air.
So I started writing clean material, and I can honestly say it made me a better writer and a better comedian. As soon as I had to throw out topics like sex and drinking -which, lets face it, are major preoccupations for young men, myself included- I was forced to come up with new topics. If I felt strongly enough about something that I wanted to swear? Too bad, I had to write it a different way. I had to master subtly and suggestion, which weren’t easy so I ended up writing and rewriting. I had to perform and perform again. I didn’t realize it at the time but I wasn’t getting good at being clean, I was getting good at the process of comedy.
Now at this point some of you might be thinking that I don’t like comedians who swear, or that I look down on dark material and dirty comedians. Let me assure you that isn’t true.
In my mind, swearing is a tool. If used properly it can quickly convey emotion or drive home a point. It’s a tool that comedians like George Carlin, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. have used their fine mastery of to create truly amazing social comentary. Then by contrast there are those who are using the tool like they’re bashing open a walnut with the handle of a screwdriver.
In my opinion you need to be smart about when you swear: F-bombs should be used as exclamation marks, not commas. If you don’t know what that means, you’re not smart enough to swear.
As for not liking dirty material let me say that what I don’t like is BAD material. When dirty jokes are done well they’re great but when they’re done badly they are terrible! They’re a bit like a reverse horror movie: the good ones make you laugh, the bad ones make you uncomfortable.
I’ve seen comedians proudly state how they “refuse to be censored” or are “challenging social norms” but all too often they are just being edgey for the sake of being edgey. There’s no substance behind it. You can be shocking to make your point, but being shocking shouldn’t be your point. There is a reason certain things are taboo, and it’s because they make most people uncomfortable. So if you’re going to take an audience there you need to make it worth their while. To put it simply: If you’re going to take me to a sewer, there had better be ninja turtles.
So as I was starting off in comedy these were the choices I was making and the things I was observing and learning. Everything was going along fine as a clean comedian, until one day I suddenly found myself with a strong desire to tell jokes about science which, I think you will all agree, does not lend itself to humour as easily as a failed date.
Trying to find a way to get an audience on board with such a difficult topic was near impossible, and I failed repeatedly to make it funny. Then, one night I was at a random open mic and had a little extra stage time after I had run through my prepared clean material. To fill the time I just started talking about how frustrating it was to have every biology story on the internet riddled with comments like “Evolution is bullshit.” Much to my surprise it got a huge laugh.
I’d found a way in. A way to make a difficult topic accessible. It was that emotional short cut that allowed me to instantly convey my opinions on a subject. It suddenly made sense to swear. It was suddenly a tool I had found a use for. I no longer had to set myself apart by being clean because the topics I was talking about set me apart.
It’s a new choice that I’ve made and hopefully audiences feel that even though I’m swearing, I’ve made a good and intelligent points. Or maybe they’ll think there was a better way to make those points and I’m just swearing for the sake of swearing. In that case they can go join gravity. That’s right, I can say that now. I’m not that guy anymore.