Doing sex related material is very similar to doing racial jokes in the sense that it is a delicate topic which must be handled carefully (as you can read about in the post below this one!). Just like how some comics use racial material for pure shock value, sometimes sexual jokes are used to baffle audiences and catch them off guard in order to get a response.
It is important to remember that a response is not the same thing as a laugh. Audiences may initially laugh because they are shocked, but once the "I can't believe he just said that" wares off, it is up to the content of the material to do the work. If it is not clever, unique, or something different than basically just describing an awkward porno, then crowds everywhere will grow tired of your set fast. It is easy to go on stage and say whatever disgusting things make your friends laugh, but you cannot build a set based only on that. A purely sexual set may start off strong, but once a crowd figures out that dirty material is all that the comic has to offer, the laughs and attention quickly fade because nothing new is being presented.
The key here is to bring something fresh to the table, or to shine a new light on a topic by presenting it in a way that no one else has noticed or mentioned yet. There is little artistic value in just talking about sex, which is why everyone stopped caring about Howard Stern years ago. Some comics have made careers on doing strictly dirty material, however it is becoming more and more rare due to the fact that audiences are constantly evolving and becoming more and more appreciative of clever and smarter (high brow) material.
The clip I have attached below is from Donald Glover's episode of Comedy Central Presents, which shows exactly what I am talking about here. Enjoy.
Until recently, black comedians could get away with saying pretty much whatever they wanted about white people while white comics were not allowed to mention black culture or stereotypes without being labeled as a racist. This double standard has started to fade mainly because of the courage that many progressive comedians have been exemplifying by testing out material that toes the line of being tastefully offensive. Ten years ago, no white comic would dare use a "black voice" or even make fun of rap music without being so overly careful not to mention that it is a parallel to african american stereotypes. The topic of race was completely off the table unless you yourself were a minority, and even then you could only make fun of your own race...and of course white people.
The main reason that race can now be openly discussed in comedy is because audiences are no longer as uncomfortable with it as they used to be. Because the general population is not as closed off or gun shy to a comedian bringing up such a taboo topic anymore, a joke concerning racial matters can be a crowd pleaser, if it is tastefully done. However, there is a difference between being edgy and being a flat out racist, which is never funny, just ask Micheal Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld) after his N-word filled tirade which killed his career after it was posted online in 2006.
Being clever about something so delicate and rarely discussed in the open is a difficult thing to do and does not appeal to everyone, so it is extremely important to know your audience before trying out race material. One perfect example is how racist and unfunny jokes got Jeff Dunham's Comedy Central show cancelled (thankfully). Jeff's DVDs, which were filmed in southern towns with all white audiences, sold great because the audiences who purchased the specials enjoyed seeing his puppets like the black pimp or Achmed the Dead Terrorist. However, once Comedy Central gave him his own show, the puppets and jokes, which would have fit in more at a Klan rally than on a basic TV show, outraged the younger and more intelligent audiences that he was not used to.
There is a not-so-fine line between being clever and using observational humor based on race and just being ignorant. Comedy is not about offending people, it is about being able to make previously unseen connections between things in an amusing way. The video below is a joke of mine that I told in April at my college, so hopefully you can see what I mean. Enjoy.
On Wednesday night, as I was sitting in the green room of The Laughing Skull Lounge waiting to go on stage for their weekly open mic, I was chatting with another comedian friend of mine backstage. As the two of us sat alone waiting for our turn, Atlanta native Chris Tucker walked into the room and introduced himself as if he were just an average guy. He sat down with us and instantly began chatting about how the night was going, the comedians who were going up, and even what material we were going to try out in front of the crowd that night. After a while, he started getting ready to go on stage to surprise the crowd who had no idea that he was there. It wasn't until he began getting into the zone that his body language changed and he began to get quiet and appeared just as nervous and anxious as any other comic. As the comedian before him went on stage, Chris began pacing back and forth while listening to music on his iphone to get himself pumped up.
Once the host introduced the next him by saying, "Give it up for your next comedian, Chris Tucker" the crowd just clapped normally until the moment when he walked out and everyone realized that it was the guy from Friday and the Rush Hour movies, then they completely lost their shit. After everyone calmed down and got their pictures, he delivered a solid 10 minute set and then returned back to the green room and looked for the same validation that every comedian craves as he asked "How was that? Was it good?" The man that the audience saw was the same man who they expected Chris Tucker to be, however the man that was behind closed doors was just another comedian who was doing what he loved to do. He was able to use his celebrity status on stage to do what all comedians strive to do to an audience: getting the crowd on his side. Once that connection was made and he had their attention by getting everyone on board, it was up to his material and his presence to deliver, which he did. After his set, he hung around for a little while and was able to hear my set and a couple other comedians perform. When I returned backstage, he was super supportive and told me how much he enjoyed it, which felt amazing coming from someone with his experience.
This unexpected evening showed me that Chris really is just a friendly, nice, and personable guy who truly loves the art of stand up comedy. By getting to know someone who has achieved what many comedians drive toward and seeing them in a way that most people do not was an eye opener. I now know that being a celebrity or a pro does not necessarily change who you are as a person or a comedian, but it does change how people perceive you.
For anyone who has been to an open mic night, watched "family friendly" material on TV, or received a forwarded email of a stand up video from their parents; odds are that you have seen a comic talk about how terrible marriage is or complained about how their kids are annoying. While there are famous comics who have done material on these topics, it does not typically appeal to new audiences...mainly because it isn't funny. If audiences wanted to hear someone complain about how terrible life is, they would just watch Fox News. Because most people who go to comedy clubs are younger, they are not able to relate to the material that the sad married guy is presenting, which makes many baby jokes impossible to connect with. Even when seasoned comics like Louis CK and Jim Gaffigan do family related jokes, they are still used sparingly, mixed in with other topics, or used a a reference to other subjects.
As Doug Benson says in Season 1, Episode 2 of The Benson Interruption (which you can watch on Netflix Instant!), "Once a comedian has a baby, they are no longer funny." In this episode, Brian Posehn continues by discussing how he hates it when edgy comedians have a baby and change completely. If you haven't seen this happen to a comedian firsthand, imagine when your cool friend has a baby and from that point on he keeps inviting you over to his house to watch home videos of his son swinging at the park, except instead of boring home movies, he is awkwardly talking to strangers in a comedy club about changing diapers.
I am not saying that good family material is impossible to do, but you have to be smart about it and make it relateable by creating something that hasn't already been heard over and over again on ABC Family. It is important to write about what you know so that you can be yourself on stage, but it is important to "jazz it up a bit". I know a lot about the French and Indian War, but I don't talk about that on stage because it isn't funny...yet.
The documentary "American: The Bill Hicks Story" which focuses on the life and comedic career of Bill Hicks has recently been added to the Netflix instant cue, meaning that people will actually watch it now. Bill Hicks is ranked by numerous polls and websites as one of the top 10 comedians of all time, however many people who are casual spectators of stand up have no idea who he is. Since his death in 1994, the world and style of stand up has evolved into something completely different than it was when he was performing in the same era as Jay Leno, George Carlin, and Seinfeld. To anyone who is into the alternative and progressive modern comedy scene, the material that Bill is saying in the movie is not funny or relevant, just like how George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" bit is no longer shocking or hilarious like our parents try and convince us.
Because the world's view on humor has changed so much, what was funny then is not quite as funny to us now. A perfect example is how every time someone recalls which cast of Saturday Night Live is their favorite, it is always specific to which cast was on when they were in their twenties. Personally, when I look back at the first few seasons of SNL staring the Steve Martin and John Belushi crowd, i do not find it anywhere near as funny as the current cast with Bill Hader, Will Forte, Jason Sudakus and Andy Samberg. Even looking back on the 90's all star cast of Adam Sandler, David Spade and Chris Farley, the material and writing seems childish, repetitive, and based on someone falling down at the end.
Humor is relevant, subjective, and constantly evolving. What is funny to us now will not be funny to our children or generations to come. Thirty years from now, we will be failing to explain to our kids why we loved watching Tosh.0 and why Mitch Hedberg was so damn brilliant. To put this into perspective, remember that William Shakespeare was thought to be the father of modern comedy at one time, while now he is the reason lonely high school kids cut themselves.
From the stand point of an up and coming comedian, the Bill Hicks Documentary was amazing. To be able to watch the material not in the same mindset as if i were watching a modern comedian, but to take into consideration when and where it was originally performed made the jokes seem artistic and beautiful in their own way. Plus, it is a brilliantly put together example of a common man who had a passion for comedy and drove himself to live his dreams at any cost, which was way more inspiring than the every Jennifer Aniston movie combined.
The Laughing Skull Lounge in Atlanta is arguably the best progressive comedy club in the world. Even though it only seats 74 people, this room has brought in the biggest names in comedy and hosts a weekly open mic which showcases the best up and coming comics who come from states away just for their five minutes on the famous stage. While they are known for the amazing comedy that graces the stage in the intimate room, this small club in the back of the Vortex Bar and Grill is also the home of the Annual Laughing Skull Festival. To win this festival means phenomenal exposure, contracts with talent agencies, and the establishment of your name as a professional comedian.
In order to register as a performer, visit www.skullfestival.com to submit your application, a 3-10 minute video of a set, and $40. Hundreds are expected to register, but only 160 comedians will be chosen to perform at the preliminaries which are located in Atlanta, Indianapolis, LA, New York, and Seattle on January 3rd and 4th. The deadline to submit is September 1st, so get your shit together NOW.