What Is Considered Clean Comedy (And Why It Matters)

What is clean? There are so many definitions of clean and so many interpretations that clean comedy is often broken up into types of clean. As a comedian, you definitely need to know the definition. And yeah, there are a lot of different versions out there.

There are four main types of clean comedy.

  • Club clean, which is something that would not offend most people. No cursing or sexual references.
  • TV Clean, which is comedy acceptable on network television. Innuendo is acceptable.
  • Church Clean, tight with no innuendo or hint of obscenity.
  • Squeaky Clean, think G-rated comedy. Kids could tell these jokes. 

When I started comedy I thought there was only one type of clean but I soon learned that not all clean comedy is equal. It is important to understand the types of clean so that you do not think your set is clean but the club, host, or paying party does not.

Clean is thrown around often without it being laid out in a way that all comedians can understand. So instead of being subjective, I have laid out what I have learned while performing as a clean comedian.

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Clean Versus Blue Comedy

Often when talking about comedy, two things that you’re going to hear people talk about “clean” and “blue”. “Blue” is cursing and sexual jokes. Anything that would not make it on TV or be said in front of a normal family is considered blue. 

Blue is the rated R, NC-17, and X material of comedy. This is most comedy you see on HBO and sometimes Comedy Central but you won’t see it on network television. 

For example, many of Jim Gaffigan’s new comedy specials are considered clean. However, some of his jokes might still be considered “adult” for children. This does not mean he curses or uses bad language it just means that his innuendos or examples may be sexual in nature while not being explicit. This does not mean he is blue, but rather one level of clean.

So what are the different levels of clean and what do they mean?

Club Clean

Club Clean varies by the club. One club may be okay with cursing but not with sex jokes. Once might be okay with sex jokes but no drug references. 

So if you are unsure what club clean means to the club, it is always best to ask. When someone says, “Hey, I want you to do clean”, make them be specific. Ask them what you are allowed to talk about or not allowed to talk about. When I have been e-mailed by comedians that are coming on my clean comedy show I spell out what is clean. 

There is no blue, no sex. You can make innuendos about drugs. You can make innuendos about relationships. But you can’t say any acts. You can’t say any drugs and you can’t act them out. For example in a club clean show, you can’t say, “I’m snorting cocaine.” But you can say, I snorted this thing the other day.

So clean when it comes to clean, it’s no, it’s not talking about sexual relations and no talking about drugs. Club clean definitely does not allow for talking about murder, rape, or hard profanity. 

TV Clean

TV clean varies by every show and every network. Usually, it’s cursing that is blocked by TV. If you are familiar with the history of comedy you have probably heard of George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can’t Say On TV bit. 

Now you can say some of those words on TV.  Sure not network TV but TV nonetheless. It didn’t use to be that way but thanks to cable TV you can say some words and innuendos on network TV that even a few years ago were a no-go.

The same rules apply here. Ask before you build your set although just know that even if you build a clean set, the network may still force you to make changes. This is why being as clean as possible is always better.

Church Clean

Church clean is that same kind of stuff, but even stricter. That joke you wanted to do about the President. Probably won’t fly in church clean. A lot of times they won’t let you talk about or make fun of like religious things either. Just know if your set teeters on PG-13 you may still have to clean it up so it’s PG.

My first experience with church clean was during a clean comedy competition. I had one video and it got me into the competition. During a competition, everything was TV clean. They just wanted to clean material that was PG-13. After the competition, we did a show at a church and we had to do church clean. And I was like, what’s church clean? They said “No foul language service. You can’t say hell or damn or whatever.” I had a great joke about horror movies and serial killers that’s clean but it was a cut.

I think they just thought the word serial killer would probably freak somebody out. But I did that joke before in the clean comedy contest and it killed. The rule for church clean is to keep it PG because not all PG-13 topics are church acceptable. 

Squeaky Clean

Then you get to squeaky clean. You wonder if Club is PG-13 and TV is edited PG-13 and church is PG that must mean that squeaky clean is basically rated G. So anything that you’d see in a Disney movie, on Nickelodeon, or pushed by kids’ television is passable for squeaky clean.

There are shows that are specifically for kids. For instance, in Los Angeles, there is a club called Flappers that does a Saturday show called “Two milk minimum”. It’s just for kids and family. 

So it’s all kid stuff so they have like they don’t have a ton of comedians there. They have like jugglers and magicians and whatever because then you can’t really offend anybody with stuff like that. A comedian might tell a joke that’s not offensive to most people, but because someone has their kids where they might be more sensitive to it. 

Clean As A Deterrent

Clean comedy is tough because people have different ideas of what clean means. You might get asked if you work clean and you might say “Yeah. I only do clean.” And they say, “Oh, well, you might not want to be on this show.” 

When people get to see comedy and they hear the word clean or they hear that a comedian is clean they sometimes think you are a goodie two shoes or not fun so they block you out.

While this doesn’t always feel good. A clean comedian can work more places than a blue comedian. Why? Well if you can write and perform clean you can do any kind of humor since your jokes and wit do not rely on cursing, sex, vulgarity, or crude humor. This is big especially if you ever want to write for TV.

Clean Comedy Is Harder Than You Think

When I started comedy I tried different kinds of comedy when I started out because searching for your voice is the most important thing. If you start blue it’s hard to walk that back. 

I found that blue comedy does not fit me. It doesn’t fit my look and it doesn’t fit my character. My persona just doesn’t jive with blue. You have to think about how people perceive you and decide if that’s who you want people to think you are. Just ask Andrew Dice Clay.

Working clean is a process because you can make fun of anything and still keep it clean. I mean there is a learning curve of learning the art of it and the craft and how to write punch lines; tags and all that stuff and it doesn’t hurt to start with clean material.  I was taught you can dirty clean but you can’t clean dirty.

Should I Be A Clean Comedian?

If you want to make money, “clean” is an important style to be able to do. If you do corporate work, cruised ships, or special events you have to work clean. Every one of those places had an image to maintain and do not want their image destroyed because a comedian said something gross, vulgar, or offensive.

There are also a lot of places if you go to do a showcase at a club like The Laugh Factory or Flappers they want you to be clean. Your first time on the showcase, they want clean and then after that, they can do both. 

What if all your stuff is blue? You’re never going to be able to pass a showcase. You’re never going to be able to get to the next stage because you couldn’t do a clean. 

So if you have if all your jokes rely on shock value and F-bombs and whatever, when you take it out is it still funny? If it’s not, you’re never going to go anywhere.

Stay true to yourself. If you’re a clean guy, stay clean. If you’re a dirty guy, go ahead but know it’s a harder road.

How To Decide To Be Clean (And How I Decided)

I went to a comedy coach and he coached me to be a little blue. He wanted me to do blue material. And I had some jokes that I did but I never performed them on any show. The pressure was big. I spent money and time crafting jokes that I never used.

I did a couple of mics with them and they went well but when I told my wife some of the jokes and she’s like, no, these are terrible. Don’t do that. Don’t do these jokes. I was like, well, what do I do then? 

This is a comedy coach telling me this is my character. That’s what I should do. So here I am confused. What do I do? My wife said he might not be the right coach for you. That was an expensive lesson.

I don’t do anything offensive. I don’t want to offend anyone. I want to be able to reach as many people as I can with comedy. I want to be able to bring my friends and family and not have to worry about them getting offended or even my co-workers. 

I would love to bring co-workers out. And that would just that I mean, if I wasn’t performing clean, I’d be worried about that the whole night when I’m performing like, you know. Are they recording it? Are they putting it on Instagram? Is my boss going to see it?

I want my kids to see me perform if I say a dirty joke that’s not good. What if I hear my kid repeat that dirty? I’m not going to be happy with that. So that’s how I decided I would only do clean. 

As I started doing more comedy I was told by a lot of bigger comedians that, if you want to be on TV or if you want to be on late night work clean. Don’t do material you can’t do on TV.

I started to see the funny thing that happened to me was I started doing clean. One time Brian Regan came out here to do stand-up and I saw all these people that I knew watching Brian Regan. He is a super clean guy. And I thought that’s it. Those people that I already know are a builtin crowd for this type of comedy. 

So if I can do clean, maybe not as funny as Brian Regan, obviously, but if I can do clean, I already had this built-in audience who are paying 50, 60, 100 bucks to go see Brian Regan, who will pay five, 10 bucks to see me. So that’s what I really focused on it. 

It really clicked when I had a kid come up to me and repeat my joke to me, like, repeat it. I was at this house party with people who had come to one of my shows and their kids were like, hey, I love your stuff. Let me tell you a joke. I was like, OK. And he told my joke back to me. It was awesome!

Why Being Clean Is The Path To More Money.

If you can’t write squeaky clean in your own stuff, how are you to do it for somebody else? I had a pretty famous comedian reach out to me and say, hey, can you write some clean jokes for me? That was my first paid writing gig. I wrote a bunch of jokes for them. They were all clean.

Because I was clean and because I had clean material on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, they knew that this guy can write clean because he was doing clean already. It opened doors to writing commercials, cards, jingles, speeches, and even TV and web series.

Clean comedy is not easy; it’s not easy to define. But it is a path to money and consistent work that I found helped me build a career inside and outside the mainstream comedy world.

Comedy is all about being true to yourself and presenting a true version of yourself on stage. If you like to curse and make fart jokes maybe clean comedy is not for you. There are several comedians making a living by not being clean, however, being clean gives you a leg up early and allows you to make money in ways blue comedians cannot much sooner. Remember you can always dirty up clean, but you can’t clean dirty.

James D. Creviston

James D. Creviston is a writer, blogger, comedian, and podcaster in Los Angeles. He is the producer of the wildly popular Clean Comedy Hour stand up show, as well as the co-host of The Clean Comedy Podcast. James has been doing stand up for the last three years and has performed in LA and NY at some of the hottest clubs. James is a former veteran of the United States Navy as well as a graduate of the University of Las Vegas, Nevada. He is an avid comic book, television, and movie nerd. James can be seen performing his clean comedy all over the United States and heard giving advice on his weekly podcast The Clean Comedy Podcast.

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