Dave – What are the implications of mocking a device or its creator? For instance, I’ve made comments in my act about a medical device that could be construed as less than savory, yet funny. But the backers of this device are my current employers and have been known to be surly regarding their investments. I know of one nurse who wrote a novel about her experiences and was summarily fired. Not that I fear such action, but… well… I still have a mortgage. – M
Hey M – Any topic is pretty much fair game in comedy. But you’ll have to make your own decision about this one since it involves your current employer. I believe in and support freedom of speech. But in practical real-world situations (your mortgage would qualify as one of those) you have to consider the consequences. If you think the material will come back and bite you in the you-know-what and cause you to lose your job, then it’s best to keep your mouth shut.
I like to point out that “star power” makes a difference in how far you can go with free speech. If you’re making a living as a comedian, then making fun of your former employer (former husband, wife, teachers, presidents – you get the picture) is no big deal. They’re all fair game. But “star power” also only goes so far.
For an example, think Charlie Sheen. Once considered indispensable for the success of the sitcom Three and a Half Men, his choice of words aimed at his employers is why Ashton Kutcher has taken his place as one of the “men” and earns million dollar pay checks.
Freedom of speech is the center of the comedy universe. From talking about your family (Ray Romano) to taking on the government (The Smothers Brothers). It’s about telling it as you see it and why comedians look up to legends such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin.
On the flip side of this universe is the comedy business. What you say can sometimes affect your career. Here are some thoughts…
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When I scheduled comedians for the television show A&E’s An Evening At The Improv, we had to give the performers some guidelines on material. These were strictly for business reasons such as ratings and legalities.
First of all, demographics showed that our largest viewing audience was in the U.S. Bible Belt. Therefore, we couldn’t let the comedians make fun of God or religion. If they did, a lot of fans would stop watching the show, advertisers would stop buying commercial time because there wouldn’t be as many people watching their commercials – and everyone involved in the show would risk losing their jobs.
Secondly, no one involved with the show wanted to get sued. For example, comedians couldn’t say McDonald’s sucked or Taco Bell gave them heartburn. Those companies would come down hard on the producers to protect their reputations.
Comedians were warned before show tapings not to practice their freedom of speech when it came to these topics. Of course some ignored the warnings. But it didn’t matter because they didn’t have any control over the final outcome – it was all business related. That’s why you can watch episodes where certain comics are only on for four or five minutes instead of the standard seven minute set. They didn’t follow the “rules” and the forbidden material was cut out and left on the editing room floor (this was before the “delete” button became the norm with digital filming!).
It’s also important to note saying the F-bomb on network television is still forbidden. You can say it at certain times on certain cable shows, but not on The Tonight Show. So as a comedian, you have to play by the rules if you want to sit on the chair next to Jimmy Fallon.
But on stage in a comedy club, comedians can say those things. You can make fun of companies, religion or whatever you want as long as – and this is the business side talking – you bring in paying customers. Most club owners support the art and creativity of stand-up, but are still in it to make a living.
Now in your case, as a beginning comedian who still needs a regular paycheck until your career takes off, you have to protect yourself. How far will your employers let you go before they get offended and fire you?
I’ve had more than a few comedians in my workshops who were police officers. I always found it interesting because some felt they had to use a stage name and never mentioned police work during their sets because they were afraid their superiors would crack down on them. Others didn’t care and talked about being a cop and what they did on the job. It’s a personal decision that I couldn’t make for them because I couldn’t predict the repercussions.
So in your case – since you’re not a “star comedian” yet (but soon – right?) you need to figure out what or if there will be any fall-out or flack from your bosses if you do this material on stage. You want freedom of speech, but you also have a mortgage.
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One last thought. Even “stars” have to be careful in certain situations. Without mentioning names (but if you’re really into the comedy biz I’m sure you can think of a couple), they’ve made headlines practicing free speech on stage by making horrendous remarks about race or sexual preferences. It probably wouldn’t have been that intense or newsworthy if they only performed in comedy clubs, but these comedians were well-known from starring in sitcoms and movies. There were a lot of protests and they eventually had to publicly apologize to salvage their careers.
I happened to see one of these (no names!) comedians a couple weeks later at a popular comedy club. He confronted the situation right away and admitted to the audience he got in a lot of trouble for what he said. He promised he wouldn’t talk about it and was finished with the subject. But as a comedian – he then told the audience he was going to pick on a different group instead and launched into that material.
Some audience members laughed while others didn’t.
But he was practicing the art of free speech and made a choice about how far he would go regardless of what the consequences might be. That’s a personal decision and you have a right to make it. But just make sure you have both your artistic and business thinking caps on when you make it.
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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop:Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.
For details about upcoming 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com
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