Jerry Seinfeld famously prefers not to swear during his standup set, believing that four-letter words elicit a a cheap laugh from the audience. If there is truth to that, perhaps it is a truth that comedians have known throughout the history of their craft. As Jim Gaffigan explains here, the majority of comedians have always told so-called “clean” jokes. It was only recently that humor took a turn for the vulgar.
But that is not a judgement on “dirty” comedy, says Gaffigan. For comedians like Chris Rock, that language is what is required to communicate in an authentic voice. And that authenticity is more the soul of comedy than society’s which words are used to deliver punch lines. Gaffigan says he happens to prefer discussing mini muffins and avocados more than the romantic details of his marriage (and he thanks comedians like Richard Pryor for allowing him to feel comfortable in that space).
Gaffigan has the unusual quality of being Catholic — unusual in the world of show business, at least. But it affects his comedy remarkably little, he says. Never has he censored himself because of religious dogma, but his beliefs inform who he is, and therefore what kind of material resonates as authentic to him. Comedians do not want to convert you to their faith, he says. They want only one thing: to be funny. And that requires a great diversity of comics all being truthful to their own circumstances.
Check out Jim Gaffigan’s book,Dad is Fat.
And tune in to the The Jim Gaffigan Show.
Jim Gaffigan: Most of my friends are atheists I would say. And so being a self-identified Christian is so loaded in my field of standup comedy which has such a contrarian spirit. Look the Catholic Church has done horrible things. Horrible things. You know sexism bigotry, just monstrous things. But so has the United States of America. I mean genocide, enslaving people. But I’m still American and I feel a sense of pride in that. I’m not apologetic. Like when I travel internationally and if people are negative towards Americans I get angry. I get annoyed. So for me it’s not about the participants in this belief system that I share. It’s what the belief system provides me. The concept of mercy is very appealing to me. The concept that there is something greater than me that is forgiving is very important to me. But being a comedian – it’s such a strange path being a comedian because I’m also a clean comedian. I’m considered a clean comedian. Which is a very backhanded compliment. Comedians don’t want any adjective. They don’t want to be a female comedian. They don’t want to be a black comedian. They don’t want to be a gay comedian. They want to be a comedian. The only adjective that a comedian wants is funny. Like if you’re attractive you don’t want to be like, a funny good looking comedian. They just want funny. And so being a clean comedian is, it’s weird because it’s almost kind of like an asterisk. It’s like Yeah, yeah, you can be a funny clean comedian. Comedy has such a rich kind of irreverent fighting censorship mentality.
So being clean, you know, Mark Twain was clean. George Carlin was clean before he did the seven words you can’t say, right. So clean is not a great adjective. But that being said from a historical standpoint most comedians were clean. There were one or two that – there was Lenny Bruce but the rest of, a majority of them – not a majority but I would say a great portion of them were clean. So I did an interview a year ago with Larry King who’s now 109 years old. And he told me the interesting thing is he used to ask comedians why are you dirty? That was the question he would ask them. And now he asks why are you clean? I like to think that George Carlin and Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor broke all these barriers so that I could talk about mini muffins. Comedians do the type of comedy they’re going to do whether it’s irreverent, obnoxious, yelling or quiet. They do the type of comedy they’re going to do and then people give credit or criticism to it. So in other words people will go that person is so brave. Are they brave or that’s the type of comedy we’re going to do anyway. So people will say thank you for being clean. I’m like that’s just how it comes out.
I’m not sitting there, you know, people sometimes will say why are you a clean comedian. And I say because Jesus told me. It makes no sense. It’s what works for me. So what works for Chris Rock and Louis Black and Dave Chappelle is what they do. Now clean and irreverent and filthy are these strange kind of adjectives. That’s not to say that individually comedians aren’t challenging themselves. But challenging yourself is not I’m not going to curse or I am going to curse. You challenge yourself in being more honest and being more authentic or talking about an issue in a creative way. So that’s why you’ll see some people just preaching these social issue as a comedian. And in my opinion, yeah those are important social issues. But it’s not funny. But if you can craft it in a funny way, in a more subtle way where you’re reflecting on how all human beings and maybe addressing homophobia is much more potent. But again like I said, I think comedians just do what they’re going to do. I’m from a small town in Indiana. I curse every day but I’m not the type of person that’s going to stand in front of 1800 people and discuss the love life that I have with my wife or bury my wife on state. It’s just not my mentality. So anyway, that’s my rant on that.