Let me begin with a Fact that I feel I must share when I write a piece like this. My main influences in standup were George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Sam Kinsison. When I started doing standup my act had bits about race, religion, and abortion. It wasn’t exactly a perfect show for being a good MC, but I figured out how to stay within the boundaries of what I was told to do and still received opportunities.
Now I get into the part that isn’t going to be popular with a lot of my readers. The Onion fucked up with their tweet calling a 9 year old girl a cunt. They know it too, which is why they quickly put up a strong apology for it.
I believe you can hit any subject and make it funny, but the more controversial, the more work you have to put in on the joke. Now the Onion is a big money making enterprise. They have corporate sponsors. Just like I said about Gilbert Gottfried’s tweet about Tsunami victims, when you get in bed with corporate sponsors you lose some of your freedom of speech. (this was another unpopular view with many of my comedy friends, as well.)
Pure freedom of speech doesn’t exist in the comedy world. Even at a alternative coffee shop-type of open mic, if you start making jokes they find racist, you have a chance of getting told not to come back. You could tell the same jokes at a redneck bar and get big laughs, but if you start touting the great successes of the Obama Presidency that could be your last time at that place. I totally believe you need to push the audience out of their comfort zone, but you have to measure how far that can go before you end up wrecking the gig for everyone else.
MC’s have to work under different rules than closers do at comedy clubs. This doesn’t mean that most headliners have free reign. Unless you are drawing your audience (see making the venue a bundle of money), you have a tightrope to follow.
Let me use the C word as an example for this. I have played full-time comedy clubs that have it written in the contract that you can’t use that word. I remember talking to a booking agent who told me he lost a weekend room because a comic (who ended up doing well on Last Comic Standing the following year) went off on some female heckler and called her a cunt a few times. This booker was no prude, as he was supportive of a lot of edgy acts, for example he consistently booked Doug Stanhope early in his career. But he was pissed about this because this comic’s action took down a room, not only because he lost 7500 bucks in yearly commisions, but also costing other acts 52 weeks of gigs.
I’m sure the Onion has used cunt in the past for good comedic effect, but when you use it in context of a well-loved 9 year-old African American girl, hard to get many on board. Sure you win major points for the people who love to see someone say something shocking, but I think it is hard to see it as any work of art.
It has killed me, but I have waited a long time in this piece to extol the virtues of my talents. Can’t wait any longer. I have tried to do jokes about every subject to Challenge myself and the audience. I’m adding in something I wrote last year about my experience with the C word. I had a lot of comics tell me they learned a couple things from it, so thought it was relevant.
FROM May 25, 2012 piece, The New C Word
I believe pretty much any word or subject can be made funny to almost anyone with an open mind. Having said that, saying stuff to be shocking for shock sake rarely works and is generally lazy writing. I did a show recently, where the venue let an open-mike comic who had won a contest recently, get up in front of me. He tried to do a lot of shocking material and even used the word Nigger in a bit, which did nothing for the comic except make the audience uneasy.
I discussed the topic with him afterwards. It first should be mentioned that this young comic was very liberal politically and meant nothing racist about the bit he was trying to do. The problem was that he wasn’t good enough to make the joke he was trying to do funny. I explained that when you start out as a standup it’s important for your future stage time opportunities to not do any stuff that is really offensive in tone. As someone whose favorite comics were Carlin, Hicks, etc. this was hard for me to follow at the beginning, but I had enough sense to realize that I needed to dance the edge between edgy and offensive, if I wanted a chance to keep getting onstage.. Remember that Carlin started off doing standup as a comedy team and then progressed over into doing silly characters with some edge, like the hippy dippy weather man. Hicks didn’t start off discussing his hatred of the first gulf war. Not even Doug Stanhope began as standup trying to walk the average crowd member right from the start.
Even when you reach the point of feature act, you have a hard time being very edgy and getting work because as I have outlined before, headliners don’t want to generally follow someone with an act like that. Even when you reach the headliner spot, if you are not a big draw act, you need to watch what you say. I have been told by clubs that certain words are not to be said, with Cunt top of the list. I have always agreed with that one, because I have never seen a comic in my career say that word and not set themselves back. I heard jokes about rape, incest, religion, murder, etc. which have gotten good laughs, but the word Cunt has always been the exception. Until now!
So I’ve been working on a bit about how I hate when people tell a parent like myself who has a child with special needs that “God only gives you what you can handle.” Watch the clip below and see how I have found a way to make this work in the most unlikely way.
- So I take an idea that already makes people feel uncomfortable…calling bullshit on the idea that God only gives you what you can handle. Then I mention how God’s results are far from infallible on this subject.
- Next I bring up the most hated person in America…Casey Anthony.
- From there I discuss how I go up to women and use the word cunt.
30 seconds into this bit the audience is feeling really uncomfortable and some are angry because of my discussing of the worst person in their world. Within in 20 seconds, they have went from this place to laughter and applause. And most of both of those reactions were done by women. It was a visceral reaction created from having to deal with stuff they didn’t want to have to deal with at a comedy show. 1) God’s infallibility. 2) Casey Anthony. 3) The word cunt. What brought a bigger laugh was I hit a total release valve of this tension. This is my favorite type of standup.
I know this piece is totally self-congratulatory. It should be. I worked hard to make something work on a level that I didn’t think could be done, but through some strange cosmic math equation, the only way it could work was to combine these extremely difficult elements.
Now could have I gotten the timing and exact wording right to make it work earlier in my career. Doubtful. This was something that worked because I know how to deliver stuff in a way that will work.
Oh I should mention I have only done this joke a handful of times since I wrote it 2 months ago. The problem I have with it is that the word Cunt is such a red flag in most comedy clubs that I’m concerned to say it, even though I have had no one say they were offended by its use after the show. I need to work every week to meet my family’s bills and I don’t want to give any venue any excuse to not book me, just because I said a word that is on their no-fly list. It’s just the facts. Look, very few big-time headliners read this blog because they are busy buying Bentleys and getting blown by Charlie Sheen-level escorts. What I write here should be good advice for almost everyone who reads this piece. I know it seems a little contradictory as I mentioning how you shouldn’t be too edgy, but then I’m celebrating how I use the biggest no-no onstage for positive results. Ok, let me be as clear as I can be.
If you are early on in your career, feel free to write on any subject, but be really careful about how far you push things. You probably aren’t good enough to get away with being too edgy, plus even if you are, until you prove you can do a funny PG-13 type act as a MC and then feature act, you are going to be seriously limiting your opportunities to get to the stage where you can be freer in your material. Oh and whatever you do, don’t use the word cunt unless you can do it in a way that gets women laughing. As the first explorer to scale Cunt Mountain, I will mention that there were lots of comedians I passed who had bombed out on my way to its top. It’s thin-air up here, but I feel like I accomplished something way harder than reaching the top of the Everest. Good luck with your efforts on the climb and if you need a good sherpa to help you reach these heights, drop me a line.
Today’s Wrap Up
Political correctness is a pox on comedy, but don’t think you have absolute freedom of speech. The booking agent, the club, and yes, the audience has a say in this. My favorite comics have always been one’s with an in-your-face type act. I appreciate the Seinfeld’s, Regan’s, and Gaffigan’s, but my passion has been for comics who really push against conventional thinking. Using CUNT in some ironic way doesn’t really do that for me. Think about that the next time you write a more controversial bit and see if you can shape it into something a little smarter and a little less incendiary. And if you reached this point and think I’m a pompous windbag who is afraid of really pushing the envelope, I hear you and my clear response is a simple, fuck you Cunty McTwatlips.