Why Clean-Cut Comics Are Cleaning Up - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Why Clean-Cut Comics Are Cleaning Up

Why Clean-Cut Comics Are Cleaning Up

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because funny doesn’t have to be effin’ filthy. 

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Working a room of 6,000 doctors and their families at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando, Florida, dapper comedian Dan Nainan is breaking out his best material — and every bit of it is G-rated. “People always tell me, ‘Your dad is from India and your mom is from Japan — so that makes you half-Asian!’ ” He waits a beat before dropping the punch line: “Where do they think India is: Antarctica?” The crowd roars with laughter. Sexual innuendos and off-color obscenities won’t go over with this buttoned-down bunch — these folks prefer their jokes as wholesome as apple pie.

And you thought you couldn’t hear a joke these days without somebody dropping an F-bomb or making dick jokes. Less than a year after both scandal and age dethroned Bill Cosby, the dean of G-rated comedy, a new crop of clean-cut comedians are proving that “above the neck” stuff can do as well as material that’s below the belt. (A line we stole from Nainan.) Their names may not ring a bell just yet, but comedians like Nainan, Jenna Kim Jones and Narinder Singh are gaining traction in the stand-up circuit, the way Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres did in clean comedy’s heyday in the 1980s. And instead of beer-soaked comedy cellars, they’re getting gigs at Mormon megachurches in Utah, a society of morticians in California, Donald Trump’s ritzy golf course and even a black-tie gala for President Obama.

Studies reveal that dumping racism, homophobia and other touchy topics can be a boon for creativity.

It may seem like a shocking development in an industry that Billboard has gauged at $300 million annually, one built on explicit punch lines, gender bashing and fart jokes, says Adam Christing, author of Comedy Comes Clean: A Hilarious Collection of Wholesome Jokes, Quotes and One-Liners. And it’s not like the nasty and naughty has disappeared — Kevin Hart is bleeping his way to the highest-grossing comedy tour of all time this year. But the growing clean scene includes Jim Gaffigan, the so-called King of Clean Comedy, who’s also among the top-grossing touring comics, according to Pollstar. And then there’s South African Trevor Noah, the new, fresh face of The Daily Show who has been dubbed the “cuddly” guy you can take your sweet ol’ grandma to see, says Christing. (Cuddly as he is, Noah declined OZY’s requests for comment.) 

Technology has played a part in some comics coming clean, says Noam Dworman, owner of the Comedy Cellar in New York City, specifically mobile phones and video cameras that can discreetly record shows. “If somebody blurts something out in the wrong way, it can be career threatening,” Dworman notes (just ask Michael Richards, Kramer of Seinfeld fame, whose racist remarks went viral in 2006).

And while the political correctness police have put pressure on some raunchy comedians, studies reveal that dumping racism, homophobia and other touchy topics can be a boon for creativity. Singh, a Sikh comedian in New York City who riffs on relationships, religion and being marginalized at school, says he’s forced himself to dig deeper and find truly edgy material rather than rely on cheap “yo mama” jokes.  

While cable powerhouse Comedy Central’s target demographic is 18- to 49-year-old males who generally revel in raunchy stuff, there’s a “tremendous” untapped market for clean comedy beyond television, says Nainan, who’s itching to open the country’s first chain of clean-comedy clubs. There’s the corporate world, with venues like cruise ships, business functions and conventions, not to mention a whole wild world of more conservative countries where dealing in raunch could get you arrested. For corporate comic Tom Mabe, clean equals green. Mabe says he rakes in more than $5,000 for his 45-minute shows around the country — compared with a few hundreds bucks for a headliner in a typical comedy club.

There’s also the path of podcast comedy, where entrepreneurial comedians can expand their audiences to those who might not attend a live show. Mormon comedian Jenna Kim Jones earned the coveted title of “swear police” when she helped bleep out curse words during her gig at The Daily Show. Now, her independent comedy podcast gets 50,000 downloads per month. 

While they may not be posting risqué selfies like Chelsea Handler, clean comics can have rough edges. Noah was called out about tweets some people found racist and sexist when he was named Daily Show host. Nainan was charged with simple assault after he punched a journalist following a show in Washington, D.C. But those transgressions haven’t slowed the rise of clean comedy, which has drawn rave reviews from some powerful folks, including Obama. And while funny doesn’t have to be filthy, as Nainan says, POTUS got a little naughty after he saw Nainan perform: “Dan,” he quipped, “is f***ing hilarious.”  


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