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Jim Gaffigan, Brian Regan, other comedians find that 'clean' works for them

In a world of increasingly low standards, there are a few in the entertainment business committed to staying clean. Comedians Brian Regan, Jim Gaffigan, Henry Cho, Jenna Kim Jones, Jeff Allen and Sinbad tell the struggles and benefits of being clean.
Erica Palmer, Deseret News Modified: August 7, 2014 at 10:26 pm •  Published: August 8, 2014

Jeff Allen wanted to stop swearing.

For the Southerner who grew up among blue-collar construction workers, cursing was always part of his everyday language — and it filled his comedy routines. But when Allen found himself struggling in his career as a stand-up comic, he decided to see if dropping the swear words would help.

So he took his young son with him to his acts at the nightclub, offering to pay him 25 cents for every curse word that slipped through.

Although it took some adjusting — he owed his son as much as $3 by the end of one show — Allen found that once he did away with the swearing, he had a pretty clean act. He also found his stories getting funnier and more eloquent because he was forced to dig deeper instead of falling back on curse words as punch lines.

"It was just a conscious decision to see if I could do it," he said. "And then I realized through the challenge that there's something to be said by parameters and boundaries. … When we live within those parameters, we are as free as we've ever been. I learned that within my comedy."

Stand-up comedy is all too often associated with crude langauge and sexual humor, but there are "clean" comedians out there — entertainers like Allen who consciously avoid profane language and objectionable subject matter. Their career trajectories and reasons for working clean vary. Allen, who says he was an angry alcoholic, was seeking a change. Jenna Kim Jones keeps her act clean so she can sleep at night. Henry Cho took advice from legendary comic Jerry Seinfeld. Brian Regan is simply re-enacting situations from his life. And Jim Gaffigan just likes to talk about doughnuts and bacon.

But they all have a few things in common: a knack for finding comedy in everyday life, a strong emphasis on family, a love for making other people laugh and a track record that shows you can be funny without being crass. And in many ways, being clean has proved to be an advantage in their careers.

Why be clean?

Regan regularly performs before sold-out audiences. He has performed on "The Late Show with David Letterman" dozens of times and has produced multiple CDs and DVDs. He said his comedy is clean not for religious or "overly wholesome" reasons but because that's just what he finds funny.

"Clean to me is not the point of my comedy," Regan said in an interview. "I don't sit down at a blank piece of paper and say, 'All right, try to write clean jokes.' That's not my mission. My mission is to write about things that interest me, and I tend to like to talk about everyday stuff."

Regan said the word “clean” is more descriptive of the tone than of the comedy itself.

"Take a famous band, like the Beatles or something,” he said. “Their music is clean, you know? But you wouldn't say, ‘Wow, why do you write clean music?’ It's like, well, (they) just write music. And people take away from it what they want to take away from it."

Gaffigan, a Grammy-nominee and New York Times best-selling author, said the subject matter his comedy is built on naturally lends itself to being clean.

"It's not really necessary to curse when you're discussing doughnuts," Gaffigan said in an interview with the Deseret News. "I might curse one on one with someone or if I’m angry, but I’m not someone who would necessarily feel comfortable cursing in front of a large room, unless it was completely necessary. That’s not to say that I’ve never cursed in my act. …

"If you're cursing … it can get in the way. If you're talking about the small stuff … you can't really be that hyperbolic about it. I can't be that angry about a box of doughnuts."

Gaffigan's second book, "Food: A Love Story," will be released this month. His first book, "Dad is Fat," was on the New York Times best-seller list for 17 weeks in 2013, according to Comedy Central. He is currently on tour nationwide.

Jones, who recently released her debut comedy special, "#SorryNotSorry," on DVD, keeps her act clean because of religious convictions.

"I'm a Mormon," Jones said in a Deseret News interview. "I've chosen to live my life a certain way. I've made commitments to myself and to God. That's such a big role in my whole life. For me, it feels really cool and it makes me feel really confident that I can make people laugh, too. I don't have to be dirty. I can live what I believe every day, and I don't have to put that aside."

Jones went to school at New York University and worked at Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." She was in charge of time coding language so the editors could bleep it out on TV, which earned her the nickname "swearing police."

Jones, who recently got married and moved to Los Angeles, where she does stand-up, writes blogs and makes podcasts, said being a clean comedian isn't just a decision she made one day, but rather is a reflection of her lifestyle and something on which she'll never compromise.

Cho and Allen are practicing Christians, but they decided to work clean because it just made sense.

Cho has appeared on NBC's "The Tonight Show" and CBS' "The Late, Late Show," and he has a one-hour Comedy Central special. Allen has appeared in specials on Comedy Central, Showtime and VH1 and is a regular magazine columnist. Both comedians are currently on tours focused in the South, and they said that a good part of their careers is centered on church, corporate and government events. They both said that most of the events they do wouldn't consider hiring a questionable comedian.

Cho, a Korean-American from Tennessee, focused on the business aspect of being clean. He considers himself a "comedian who's a Christian" rather than a "Christian comedian." He has taken the clean route since working with Seinfeld early in his career.

"His attitude was, why work on a (dirty) joke that you can't do on TV? Why put in the effort?" Cho said in an interview with the Deseret News. "Even if I wasn't going to be a clean comedian personally, businesswise it's still a good decision. … I've developed a brand, and the Henry Cho brand is clean comedy. I'm 100 percent clean, and everybody knows that."

Allen, who grew up as an atheist, began his stand-up career performing in casinos and nightclubs. At the same time, he said, he was an alcoholic. He said his comedy was "angry" and he was often run out of clubs for his social commentary. Although his content wasn't filthy, his acts were rife with swearing.

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