Posts Tagged ‘audience response’

Freedom of speech comes with a price

January 1, 2019

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

What did you say?

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 knowing your audience makes a difference in how far you can go with free speech. If you’re making a living as a comedian and talking about your personal life, then making fun of your former employer (former husband, former wife, former co-workers – you get the picture) is no big deal.

They’re all fair game when it comes to sharing humor.

But to be on the safe side, it’s probably a good idea not to mention them by name. I’ve seen that scenario come back to bite a few comics in the you-know-what.

It also helps that you don’t have to deal with these former associates after your performances. But that’s not a rule written in stone. I’ve watched comics on stage use their current family members, employers and co-workers as the source of comedy material. It depends on the relationships and in many cases these “victims” enjoy being part of the show.

Freedom of speech is the center of the comedy universe.  The topics can include whatever is on your creative mind. How far you take it… well, it depends…

There are comedians who are family friendly and others billed as “for adults only.” And no one can tell you one style is better than the other. It depends on personal taste. And the comics making a living either as clean or dirty can do it because they know their audience.

But on the flip side of this comedy creative universe is the comedy business. What you say can sometimes affect your career. Here are some thoughts…

When I scheduled comedians for the television show A&E’s An Evening At The Improv, we gave 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 Bible Belt. Therefore, we couldn’t let the comedians make fun of God or religion. If they did, a lot of fans in these areas would stop watching the show. Advertisers would stop buying commercial time because the consumers they were aiming for wouldn’t be watching their commercials anymore. And since that’s how the show made money – everyone involved would risk losing his or her job.


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Secondly, the producers of the show didn’t want to be sued if a comedian badmouthed a product – like the medical device you mentioned in today’s question. For example, comedians couldn’t say McDonald’s sucked or Taco Bell gave them heartburn. Those companies could come down hard with a team of lawyers to protect their reputations.

Comedians were warned before show tapings not to practice their freedom of speech when it came to these specific 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 before the show was broadcast.

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 and all day long on others, but not on the major networks. So as a comedian, you have to play by the rules if you want to sit on a chair next to Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel or Seth Myers.

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.

You call these jokes?

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 that 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 worried 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 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.

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 hadn’t been well known from starring on television and in movies. In some cases there were a lot of protests and the comics eventually had to publicly apologize to salvage their careers.


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I happened to see one of these (no names!) comedians a couple weeks after one of these newsworthy episodes 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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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!


Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up ComedyComedy 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 comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing.


Going for the “perfect” performance

September 24, 2018

Dave – I’m working to get the whole stage fright thing out of my system. (My first time on stage) I was so nervous because I didn’t know the material that well. The problem my friends and I noticed is I am too much of a perfectionist. I understand things won’t be perfect but for some reason I feel the need to make it perfect. – T.D.

Hey T.D. – A lot of comedians and speakers are perfectionists. They struggle over finding the right word or phrases. For instance in the comedy world, they always want to know what word is funnier than another.

Example: Cucumber or banana. This debate will go on forever…

That’s why they continue to write and test out material (words and phrases) during live performances. They record their sets and listen to audience reaction. When an audience laughs – it works. If they don’t laugh – then the comic needs to edit or rewrite the material and repeat the process until it does work. If it still doesn’t get a laugh from the audience, then the comic needs to discard that bit and write something else.

Of course there’s more to it than just that simple explanation. Stage experience, your comedy voice, delivery, timing and the make-up of the audience will also determine what works and what doesn’t during any performance. But even when everything is working in your favor, will it ever be perfect?

In a creative artist’s mind – probably not.

Should I question this?

You might debate this, but I believe that creative artists always think they can do better. It’s a creative person’s curse. It’s also what drives them to constantly do better work. The goal is perfection, but it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack, (sorry, I had a drive that took me past miles of farm land this week and can’t shake it out of my mind). It’s a never-ending journey to a place impossible to reach.

Let’s put this into musical terms, as I tend to do when coaching comedians and speakers. And since I’m a “classic rocker,” stick with me while I use a classic example…

Sited as one of the greatest songs by The Beatles is A Day In The Life. It closed the legendary album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and is a true John Lennon & Paul McCartney composition. That duo is also sited as the top composers of their generation. So put it all together – and it’s the perfect song. Right? Well, it could have been better. Listen closely as the final chord fades out. Someone forgot to turn off the air conditioner in the recording studio and it’s heard in the background.

Perfect? Close, but not quite.

Comedians can walk off stage after an exceptional performance and say they “killed,” which is the comic’s term for having a great show. But I sincerely doubt many would say they could never do better. They could watch a video of their set and probably have no problem finding a gesture or a facial expression – or a line or phrase or whatever – that might have been done differently and gotten a better audience response.

It’s the creative curse. There’s always room for improvement.


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So my point is not to worry about being perfect. Just do your best. Film and television actors – and musicians in a recording studio – get to do multiple takes and use editing in an effort to make the end result perfect. But just like with A Day In The Life, a creative artist will probably think they could have made it better.

In fact, the imperfect result could even be better than you’d planned. And in case you haven’t caught on, this is another excuse for me to share a great story…

In one of my comedy workshops at The Improv a number of years ago, an aspiring comic wanted to be “perfect” – his exact word. (And if T.S. is reading this – yeah, I’m talking about you!). He wrote and memorized his set word for word and went on stage prepared to deliver it that way. He was doing an okay job of it, but a few minutes into his set he forgot his material. He suddenly yelled, “Oh ****!” and THREW himself against the (fake) brick wall, fell over a stool and landed on the stage.

That was so funny!

It was pure frustration and the funniest thing we had seen in that workshop. Myself and everyone else cracked up in laughter. It was a GREAT comedy performance!

We all tried to convince him that he had found his performing style. It was honest and real. It was comedy and funny. But he didn’t believe us. It was not his idea of the perfect set and he would never allow himself to do that in front of an audience – even though it happened during each of our following workshop sessions.

The night of our show at The Improv, I reassured each workshop member they would have a fun set. They had worked hard and were prepared. No worries. But when I got to T.S. – I told him that I hoped he would screw up and forget his material. He looked at me like I was nuts – “Are you serious?” He said there was no way. He had been practicing for days and would do the perfect set.

Do I need to continue with this? Okay…


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He went on stage – got a few minutes into his set and WHAM!!!! He forgot what he was going to say next. He threw himself against the wall, fell over the stool that was on stage and hit the floor in frustration. The best part was that it wasn’t an act. It was real. It was the highlight of our show and he earned the biggest laughs of the night. I thought it was perfect.

Afterward he admitted he’d had a great time and according to audience response, his set actually worked. But he also thought he could do better next time…

The bottom line is to be creative and have fun. Every opportunity you have on stage or on the speaker’s platform is an opportunity to grow as an artist. You want to experiment and take chances. Creative people need change, which is why comedians write new jokes and speakers spin off their messages into different programs for different audiences.

You can try to be perfect on stage, but don’t sweat it when you’re not – because nobody is. The idea is to just be better next time.

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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!


Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up ComedyComedy 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 comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit

Copyright 2018 – North Shore Publishing.