"It takes more brains and emotional intelligence to entertain without swearing than with, and I think you are a very emotionally intelligent white dude.
p.s. When you wanted to smash those women's muffins at the street fair on a hot day, I could really relate lol"
The above comment is obviously part of a nice email and I don't think this person was trying to be a jerk. She was just trying to give me some advice that she felt would make me a better comic. And I have to admit that I sometimes struggle with the whole working clean versus working blue.
There are definitely nights when I get off stage that I've cursed so much that I feel like I have a bad taste in my mouth. It's on those nights that I think back to the beginning of my career.
(Cue dream sequence music and release the dry ice)
When I first started my comedy career, believe it or not, I worked squeaky clean. In fact, the first half hour of material that I wrote, was so clean that I didn't even use the word "heck". I prided myself on not cursing at all. One of my early, personal triumphs was writing a bit about "Who was the first guy to ever give the finger?" (What's the deal with the finger people…Is this CRAZY?…) And the thing I enjoyed most about the bit was that I never gave the finger at any point during the joke, yet I still was able to convey the idea and get a big laugh.
I worked this way for the first two years of my career. And in the process, quickly gained a reputation as a funny, new, clean comedian. A lot of people would tell me how great it was that I worked clean and that I was going to be a "TV Guy". I remember people telling me, "You're perfect for the Tonight Show. They are going to love you."
I have to admit; I loved hearing all those compliments. And with each one, I was already envisioning myself sitting on the Tonight Show couch and having Jay Leno ask me, "How in the world did you become so funny?" This fantasy also included a rock star and an A-list actress, sitting to my right, in equal amazement of my abilities. Of course the night ended with me playing drums in the rock star's band, hooking up with the actress, and somehow accepting an Oscar… I forget how it all played out. It was a long time ago.
Anyway, the weird thing is, when I look back and think about it, I realize that I didn't work clean in the beginning because I was a "comedy purist". I mean, I have to admit, part of the reason I worked clean, was I wanted to make sure that I learned how to write a joke and that I was actually funny. But the main reason I worked clean was that I was afraid to work dirty. I didn't have any confidence on stage. So I didn't work blue, because I wanted people to like me. I wanted the crowd to like me, I wanted the headliners to like me and I wanted the club owners like me.
That may sound ridiculous, but that is the major reason that I took that approach. I noticed a lot of headliners would complain to the bookers, if the opener worked too dirty. I didn't need that stress. I was under enough already.
Basically, I was 23 years old, mentally about 11, had zero self-esteem, and I didn't possess any sort of mental filter. At that point in my life, anything someone told me, I believed. If someone said I was good. I thought I was good. If someone said I sucked. I thought I sucked. I had no ability to shake anything off, so the last thing I wanted to do was irritate people and bring negative attention that would feel like shotgun blasts to my thin-skinned comedy torso. And I certainly didn't want to offend anyone in the crowd, because I didn't possess the skills to be able to handle them if they turned on me.
Early on, I had my entire act memorized. Every night I did the exact same jokes, in the exact same order. Yet I would still make a set list before going on stage, because I was so afraid that I was going to forget what I wanted to talk about. If that wasn't psychotic enough, I had another Rain Man compulsion. When the MC was about to bring me up, I would quickly untie and then re-tie my sneakers. I was deathly afraid that they were going to somehow come undone and then I would trip on my way up to the stage and be completely humiliated.
Some nights, during my set, the top part of one of my feet would start to tingle from the lack of circulation, because I tied my sneakers so tight. Even though I was aware on stage, as to why my foot was falling asleep, it never occurred to me to end this ridiculous ritual. The thought of avoiding potential humiliation as opposed to losing a couple of toes was an easy decision for me to make. To put it mildly, I was an absolute mess of a human being.
Every night when I went on stage, I would recite my act rather than DO my act. It was like there was an invisible teleprompter rolling in front of me as I presented my material. I couldn't even bring myself to take the mic out of the stand for the first 8 months of my career. I was too afraid that I would either drop it, or that it would take too long to get it out of the stand. Whatever the imagined scenario, it would all end with me being laughed at and having my little stand up dream die a shameful death.
Despite my precautions, I still got heckled on a regular basis. (Looking like Ron Howard was never an asset) And whenever I did, it would completely throw me off. I didn't have any problem stopping my act. I didn't have any problem addressing the heckler. The problem would come when I would try and return to my act. I could never remember where I was.
This would create a looooooooooong three-second pause that in the embryo stages of being a comedian would feel like 35 minutes. My brain would go into panic mode about .7 seconds in.
"Oh my God…What was I talking about?….Fuck, FUCK…think…fuck…Oh God they're waiting…everybody is WAITING…TALK! ….OH GOD…they know, they know EVERYBODY KNOWS… I'LL NEVER GET BOOKED HERE AGAIN….THEY'LL TELL EVERYONE….MY CAREER IS OVER…SAY SOMETHING… FUUUUUUUUCCCCKKK!!!!!"
Two second into this thought process my mouth would be dry up. At 2.2 seconds in, the meticulous teleprompter reading me, would mentally faint. And then I would just be standing there, starring at the crowd. My brain would no longer be in my notebook. It would just be blank, looking back at a crowd that was looking back at me.
It was in those moments that I would actually truly notice the crowd for the first time. Then it was like the regular me would just start talking. But it didn't feel quite feel like me, because I was way too self –conscious. Despite that fact, this nervous version of me would just start talking, stalling for time, while teleprompter guy was being revived in the back of my brain.
During these terrifying moments on stage, when this "in the moment" me was stalling, I noticed that I would immediately begin cursing and speaking the way I did off stage. It wasn't a Tourette's kind of cursing. It was more conversational. Actually it would have been conversational if I could have controlled the nervous quiver in my voice. Picture Don Knotts auditioning for Pulp Fiction. (Not getting the part of course) But it felt really good, really natural and above all: It felt like me.
Those early episodes of losing my place and having to improvise are the most vivid memories I have of learning how to become a stand up. Those moments would always be my favorite part of the show because it seemed like real comedy to me. Jokes that worked night after night seemed liked the repeated moves they teach you in a karate class. Where as having to deal with something in the moment on stage felt like an actual fight where you don't know what your opponent is going to do.
Early in my career, these real deal moments would only last for an excruciating 7 or 8 seconds, before the teleprompter guy would regain consciousness. (WE'VE GOT A PULSE!) Then the "In the Moment" me would disappear, along with the nasty words and I would mentally go back behind the podium and continue my wholesome act.
After sets like this, I would be really frustrated. I felt trapped in my act. And I was also becoming aware that I wasn't being myself on stage. I was so busy trying to learn how to write jokes that I didn't notice, I became this "Stand Up Comedy Guy", the second I began my act.
On stage, I was a happy, sort of goofy guy, and off stage I was actually a really angry and depressed person. It took a minute, but eventually I realized that this first approach wasn't working for me. I wanted to feel the way I felt during those 7 to 8 seconds. Cause even when it went bad, I still got an incredible rush from it. So thus began my long journey towards being the foul mouthed jackass that I am on stage today. I was sick of being locked in my act. And I didn't want to talk about cookies and end tables on stage. I wanted to vent and go off on things the way I did in my every day life.
So the more I began working on becoming the guy who made my co-workers laugh, the more that cursing just sort of naturally worked it's way into my act. I like to think that I wasn't cursing for the sake of cursing. I was just kind of talking the way that I talked.
By this time it was the fall of 1994. This was a great time to be a comic. OJ had been arrested, the last of the Dan Quayle jokes died a merciful death, and I was having a great time on stage trying to figure out how not to sound like an insurance salesman. I was finally beginning to tell stories and I was pretty psyched about the new direction I was headed. But once the cursing was in my act and I wasn't "TV Guy" anymore, I started to get the first negative comments of my stand up career.
"Wow, I never heard you curse on stage before."
"Dude, what happened to you?"
And my all time favorite:
"You shouldn't curse. That's not you."
Those comments bugged me, but they were my fault. All those insights were based on the phony "Please Like Me" persona that I presented on stage for two years. And all they did was reinforce my decision to become more of myself on stage:
Becoming "Me" took about ten years. It wasn't until about 2004 that I felt I had finally begun to get it right. It was a very long process that involved a lot of bombing, and deliberately going on in front of crowds that I knew were going to scare the life out of me. I went up in front of all kinds of different groups of people and I had a lot of brutal sets, but the great ones kept me going. It was a ton of work, but in the end. It's all paid off. I'm 16 years into this thing and I'm having more fun on stage than I've ever had. And the reason I'm having the fun I'm having, is because I took the time to figure out what works for me on stage.
So anyway, that's the story as to why I perform the way I do. I do it, because it works for me. And admittedly, there are many nights where I feel I need to clean it up a little bit. And even worse, some nights I feel like I'm up on stage just yelling and not even telling jokes. I'm just screaming for 50 minutes. But despite this, I don't think I will ever go back to working squeaky clean. It just doesn't work for me. I don't know. This may sound ignorant, and prove the above person's initial point, but sometimes you just have to use the word fuck to get your point across.