"Keep it clean, yeah?" Words to strike fear into the heart of even the most assured comedian. Admittedly most of the time this request isn't being uttered in an attempt to rob the comedian of his or her voice. In fact, some people think they're being helpful in advising you to drop the edgy stuff. When I was relatively new to stand-up I had a well-meaning promoter tell me "don't do anything naughty, keep it clean," at the exact moment I was introduced onstage in a West End comedy club. Utterly baffled - he'd seen my act and knew my tone, why had he booked me? - I was lost onstage as I flailed for vaguely PG observations from my honest, blunt and thus often crude material.
I could lose the swearwords, that was fine. I prefer to use phrases such as 'Hangman's gallows' when referring to my skin mitten anyway, so no loss there. I could even avoid talking about sex and dating, even though at this point in my life that seems to rule out a large chunk of my humorous experiences. In all seriousness though, what was permissible to talk about? I had a new bit about going through a particularly stressful (and thus to me, particularly hilarious) rectal exam. Was that clean? It's only the arse. Everyone has an arse. It's medical, clinical, that's clean right? I panicked and skipped it. Could I talk about drinking? Was that appropriate?
I had some stuff about my mum, that would do. So I told some exaggerated stories about my mother from a set I hadn't used in ages because it was no longer in keeping with my onstage persona or tone. I lost the audience's trust as soon as they saw my wide eyes over the suddenly enormous hump of the microphone. I flagged, flailed and sloped off stage to sit in a corner and mutter (decidedly un-clean) promises into my gin never again to attempt a last minute editing of style.
I should have kept my head and been honest to my persona onstage, which I've worked hard at. I should have done what I always do; speak truthfully about painful or weird things that have happened to me in a way that hopefully provokes empathy and laughter. Bombing I could deal with. Bombing because I didn't know what I was doing up there, that was a whole new level of pain.
So what does 'keep it clean' mean? My first understanding of it was that you're performing to a distinct set of audience members, perhaps younger, perhaps older, who for some reason need to be wrapped in tissue paper and protected from the F word and the finer details of life, like sex and rectal exams and my spam wallet. Fair enough, some people hate swearing, they'd like to be entertained and amused without having to sit through something littered with expletives. Also, I have a fair vocabulary in my head. Why use a hollow swear word when there are far more descriptive, evocative words that could add so much more to the picture I'm trying to paint?
So lose the swearing, that I can understand. As I get more comfortable onstage with every passing week, month, year, I find that I am swearing less anyway. Sometimes though, 'keep it clean' means something altogether different. Sometimes it simply means 'keep it bland'; stick to the vanilla option and don't rock the boat. As Bill Burr said on Jeff Garlin's excellent podcast By The Way, "That's the thing, when somebody says they want you to 'work clean', a lot of times they don't just mean don't say the naughty words, they also mean don't have a point of view on a topic... So if you're talking about the war in Iraq, the only point of view you can have is, 'I support the troops, we gotta get this done,' you can't say anything else."
Performing to an older than average crowd? 'Keep it clean' in that context is often code to remind you that older generations don't like sex and don't want to hear about it. Patronising nonsense. I hate to break it to you but our parents and grandparents were knocking boots long before we were bumping uglies and crossing a threshold in age doesn't shut down desire, not does it erase the inherent comedy in being intimate and vulnerable with someone. Everybody poops? Well everybody shags too.
Similar prejudice rears its head when we consider that when male comics talk about sex, it's a permissible reference to their experiences of life and relationships, but when female comics do it, it's somehow risqué. Remember, the female body is supposed to be pure, a vessel for life, it can be admired but never played with. Women discussing their enjoyment of sex is still seen as a bit 'unclean', regardless of swearing or vulgarity.
'Keep it clean' is so often just a fast and loose way of asking a comedian to do some pleasant observations about the world without actually passing any kind of judgement or opinion on the state of society. Where's the fun in that? I may not agree with many of the fiery opinions I see onstage at comedy clubs but I'd much rather hear them, consider them and explore them than watch someone sit on the fence or wonder why they can never find a pen when they need one.
Many comics starting out find the need to be clean an alarming cloud hanging above their heads. A lot of comedy competitions (still the best way for new comics to be discovered) frown on swearing or 'vulgar' content, or ban it altogether. Well, if your set is suitable for all audiences, or you can do tailored sets for different audiences then bravo. It is wonderful if your message can be adapted in its communication so it can reach more people. For me, I'm not worried about the number of people I can reach, I'm concerned about the message I choose to communicate to the smaller group of people I'm deemed appropriate for. I'm also not about to shy away from blunt observations of my personal life where people may find solidarity, intrigue or entertainment. Fuck keeping it clean, let's just keep it honest.