Be Funny Without Being Raunchy
By Uma Thakar, ACB/CL (Toastmaster Magazine) My first gig as a stand-up comedian was at a comedy club in Melbourne, Australia — my hometown. I was different in every way from all the other performers. I was female, I was brownskinned (I’m originally from India), I had a foreign accent and, to top it all, my humor was clean.
In other words, I didn’t use any profanity or sexual material to spice up my act. I relied on physical comedy, cultural riffs and creating characters onstage. After a few more stand-up shows where my family-friendly humor was again the exception rather than the norm, I began to wonder if I was the only comedian to eschew off-color material. But then, performing this year at the 2011 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I discovered a troupe of successful comedians in a production called Squeaky Clean Comedy.
“Most clean comedy is aimed at kids, but we specifically wanted to produce a show with sophisticated humor that would appeal to adults, without relying on cheap shock tactics or crudity to do it,” said Eugene Wong, executive director of Candlelight Productions, which presented the show.
In the production I attended, emcee and comedian Michael Connell (pictured, left) was the highlight of the evening. Connell has regular gigs at comedy clubs across Australia and has also performed in the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand. He says he found that “working blue” (using liberal doses of profanity and sexual references in his act) restricted his audiences to pubs and clubs.
That point was made clear by the broad range of the audience members at this show. The ages spanned
from a 9-year-old girl to a man in his 80s. In between were teenagers and families –– and the laughs were plentiful among all age groups.
“By going clean, I opened up a whole world of gig opportunities,” says Connell. “I performed at everything from the kindergarten picnic to the Rotary club dinner.”
When he started performing his new style of humor, Connell says he wasn’t getting many laughs, but
because his humor was clean, people didn’t mind giving him a go. “Once I was good enough,” says the comedian, “I just kept working clean so I could get corporate gigs, TV and radio spots, and work in other areas where only clean comedy will do.”
Toastmasters and Humor
For Toastmasters who want to excel in speech competitions, the examples of Connell and his Squeaky Clean colleagues are heartening. The Toastmasters Speech Contest Rulebook states that speakers in all Humorous Speech Contests shall “avoid potentially objectionable language, anecdotes and material.”
As far as speeches given in club meetings, Toastmasters International does not place restrictions on topics, content or language. But because clubs typically reflect a diverse membership, the organization recommends that members be sensitive to religious and cultural diversity in their group when making choices regarding topics, the nature of speech material and the language they use.
In addition, individual clubs do have the right to limit speech subjects, content and/or language with the
consensus of its members. Club leaders should guide members on how to observe good taste and sensitivity in the context of their club.
Steve Jans, a member of the Westend club in Billings, Montana, is a comedy buff. He says Toastmasters gave him the confidence to do standup. “Just the thought of getting up and speaking in front of people terrified me before I joined Toastmasters,” says Jans, who recently performed at a local event called Relay for Life, which raises funds for cancer research.
When he performs, he doesn’t use profanity or raunchy material. “As a Christian, I don’t believe in talking like that,” says Jans. “I’m keeping it clean, and I’ve been pretty successful that way.”
At the urging of his late friend and mentor Josie Skibstad, DTM, he started an advanced Toastmasters
club in Billings last year specializing in humor. In the Jolly Jesters Humor club, members focus on humorous speeches; they practice stand-up comedy and improvisational humor in the Table Topics portion of the club meetings.
Funny Days Down Under
Like Michael Connell, others in the Squeaky Clean group are veteran comics. All except one are Australian. Typically, they employ observational humor about day-to-day occurrences that we can all relate to. In the show I saw, Beau Stegmann brought the house down with a routine that described his love of reading junk mail. Mike Klimczak entertained the audience with his rapid-fire delivery and used audience participation to great effect.
Klimczak describes his comedy as “wicked, not rude.” Dave Wiggins, a New Zealander who is originally from the United States, performs at fundraisers, international festivals and corporate events.
As a comedian myself, I was interested in how other standup performers survive the pressure to work blue. According to Wong, “There are always people who are convinced that clean comedy can’t be funny, but most of our [troupe’s] comedians don’t make a big deal out of being clean.
They just are. Audiences see their shows and then walk out commenting how funny the show was and only later realize that it was clean.”