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.
"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 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.
Removing the swearing from his acts opened doors.
"I just took the language out and realized, I'm not a dirty act," he said. "I was just angry. It's night and day (businesswise). If you're looking at it from terms of success, (now) I can work anywhere."
Allen was later introduced to God by a fellow comic who gave him a Bible. Although he didn’t go clean for religious reasons, he said, his Christian faith has softened his heart and made him less angry, which has changed his comedy completely.
Sinbad, who emerged in the 1980s and has appeared in TV and films such as "Necessary Roughness," doesn't shy away from grittier topics such as racial tension, socioeconomics and sexuality. However, he's labeled by Comedy Central as "clean" because early on in his career, he did away with cursing.
He remembers performing at a club early in his career and everyone, including himself, was cursing like crazy. He described them all as "bad imitations of Richard Pryor."
But the next night his father, a Baptist reverend, came to watch his routine. Sinbad decided to do the same act, just without the swearing. He found that removing the harsh language allowed him to take some of his jokes even further. He now knows that objectionable material isn't a requirement for good entertainment.
"It's like the new TV shows … unless you show nudity and sex, the show's not real," he said. "But sometimes, the nudity gets in the way of the show. I like my vampire shows. Just give me some vampires."
Regan, Allen and Cho agreed that although clean comedy isn’t the norm, they never feel tempted to make their comedy more "adult."
"I've always been clean, so it's a no-brainer for me now," Cho said. "If I was ever going to be dirty on stage, it would have been early in my career when I was in Podunk towns working 50 weeks a year and people were cussing me out."
"I don't put pressure on myself, and I don't allow myself to put pressure on the world around me," Regan said. "I've always felt that any performer, and a comedian is included in that, should be pumping out what they like and not what the people like. It's too hard for me to sit back and try to figure out what everybody in the world is looking for. I don't have that big of a brain."
Jones said she has previously been tempted to throw in an edgy joke or swear word if her act isn't going well. But now the only temptation comes from job offers for projects that don't fit in with her values.
"If I can sleep at night and feel good about what I'm doing, then that's way more important to me than making a million dollars telling jokes that I'm not comfortable with," she said.
Gaffigan and Jones like to talk about food. Cho jokes about his unique perspective as an Asian Southerner. Allen pokes fun at parenting and marriage. And Regan talks about everything from airplane rides to food labels to his visits to the doctor.
Regan enjoys how "incredibly mundane" his subject matter purposefully is. He once read a preview of his show that described him as the comedian who talks about "food, travel and doctors."
"I remember thinking, 'Wow, I'm putting myself to sleep reading this,’ ” he said with a laugh. "And I'm thinking, I don't know who is going to read this article and go, 'Honey, we have to check this guy out! He's exploring our favorite topics for comedy!’ ”
His acts contain many true stories. (Yes, he did have to drive himself to the emergency room once.)
Regan said finding comedy in everyday life is a lot like picking the basketball team in a high school gym class and having "that one kid" jumping up and down and shouting, "Pick me!"
"That's what I feel like my jokes are doing," he said. "I'm just walking in a mall and I'll see a funny thing and I feel like it's jumping up and down waving its hands going, 'Hey! I'm kind of funny! I could be in a comedy show!’ ”
"What people don't realize about comedians is that they are extremely self-aware," Jones said. "And with that, it drives them a little batty. You notice all these things and you are thinking about them all the time, so you can see the funny in it.”
While many comedians rely on shock value for their jokes, Regan and Gaffigan both said they try to avoid that approach.
"Sometimes I think people who do participate in shock-value comedy or shock-value anything, sometimes the reaction they're getting is just, 'Oh my gosh, I don't believe he said that!’ ” Regan said. "And it's like, I don't want to get that kind of reaction. I want people to go, 'Oh, hey, that was funny. That was funny, and I'm going to laugh.’ ”
"My personality's not really constructed on cursing, and my material's not really constructed on shock," Gaffigan said. "… If you're on stage for an hour and 10 minutes and you have something that's really filthy that gets in the way that's shock-based, then how do you follow that?"
Allen, who has seen both sides of the comedy business, said that truly funny punch lines require a lot more than just shock.
"Bill Cosby said that the F-word is not a punch line," he said. "So if your punch lines are all dirty words, to me that's pretty sophomoric and lazy."
Family plays a big role in the lives of these comedians.
"How you are raised, what you see and everything around you, all of those influences leave a thumbprint on what you do with your career," Sinbad said. "My father was so prevalent in my life. … Being a preacher's kid, going to church, whatever that did, that also had a part."
Jones said although her parents thought she was crazy for wanting to be a comedian, they always supported her.
"My parents have always been extremely supportive and have always told me to do what I love and try to be good at it,” she said. “Even now, (my mom) gets more nervous than I do when she watches me perform. But they are very supportive, really happy for me."
Allen, a father of two, said he was at the park one day when a little boy from the neighborhood tapped him and said, "Mister, can I tell you something? The funniest man in the whole wide world lives over there." He was pointing to Allen’s house. The boy told Allen that he heard it from his friend who lived there.
Allen went home with a smile on his face and told his wife, "I caught my son being proud of me."
Regan, also a father of two, remembers a time when he was performing and noticed his son backstage laughing in the middle of his act.
"As happy as I was to make the thousands of people in the audience laugh, I'm even more amazed that this little boy thinks I'm funny," he said. "I'm proud to say that (my kids) are proud of me. And it just means the world to me."
He said that at the moment his first son was born, he decided that he would only work half the weekends out of the year, and "being a daddy" would be his No. 1 job.
New York resident Gaffigan calls himself an "unlikely father of five." He said it's a difficult task, and he often gets looks and questions when people see him out on the busy New York streets with five kids under the age of 10.
"But I obviously love it," he said. "I don't relish being exhausted and kind of overwhelmed, but the whole parenting thing is just amazing."
The joy of laughter
All of the comedians agreed they love making people laugh.
"Laughter is still the best medicine," Cho said. "When I come offstage and somebody goes, 'Wow, I really needed that; things haven't been going well in my life,’ that's still the coolest thing."
Allen said he once had a U.S. soldier come up to him after one of his shows and say that Allen’s comedy tapes helped him and his fellow soldiers lighten the mood during hard times when they were stationed in Iraq for the Gulf War.
“I think when people are laughing, they feel good,” Regan said. “And it feels good to make other people feel good. And you know, one thing I like about comedy is I can trust the reaction. You know, people can fake a lot of responses in this world, but it’s hard to fake a laugh.”
Aaron Shill contributed to this story.