I recently attended a Flight of the Conchords show. If you haven’t heard of them, check this out (their stage is a little more elaborate nowadays). Two of the funniest guys I’ve ever seen, and they put on a great show. Unfortunately opening up for them were three separate stand-up comic acts – Arj Barker, Eugene Mirman, and Kristen Schaal. All three of them are very talented and have obviously worked at their craft for many years. But while their delivery and timing were very much refined, their subject matter was not. Each act predictably degenerated into obscenity-laden discourses and perverted soliloquies.

This seems to be a common thread of any show involving comedians. A couple years ago I went to see the Sklar Brothers (I’m a big fan of the show Cheap Seats) and was subjected to the same thing, both from the Sklars and even more so from other acts whose names I’ve chosen to forget. We actually walked out of that small club during one of the nauseating acts and I think we were even heckled on the way out for being too principled. There are multitudes of clubs here in Hollywood/Los Angeles, and I guarantee that any show I chose to go to on any given night would be offensive at best and would leave me worse for the wear.

So why are they so vulgar? I have two theories:

First, stand-up is hard. Standing by yourself in front of a large group of people and trying to get them all to laugh is an arduous task. It has to be an awkward, awful feeling to have a joke or entire set bomb. There’s nothing worse than doing your thing and getting no reaction at all from the crowd (this goes for musicians too). So I think the vast majority of comedians resort to whatever they can to get some sort of response. If you can’t make them laugh, swearing and being as distasteful as possible will at least elicit some groans and make you “memorable”. Thus, as comedians have paid their dues and struggled to stand out in their chosen field, raunchiness has been ingrained in the comedy club culture. Sadly, even when the lucky few are successful enough to make a living doing what they love, they can’t or won’t leave that culture behind.

Second, people just do what appeals to the lowest common denominator to make money. This is true in movies, television, music, comedy, the internet – pretty much any form of publicly consumed media you can think of. Entertainment executives certainly know where the money is. Its no coincidence that almost every big-budget comedy made is extremely lewd, each trying to out-raunch the last. Television is right there as well (think South Park, or almost anything else on Comedy Central), and of course the mainstream crowd eats up profane musicians, especially rappers. Exactly why obscenity appeals to people is the subject of a future post, suffice it to say here that most comedians are very much aware of what they’re saying. Many a filthy punchline is followed by a “sure hope you didn’t bring your kids tonight…” or a “sure hope nobody here is easily offended…” Even the Conchords set went downhill when they performed a couple of their “off-color” songs (influenced by what they think people want to hear and almost certainly co-written by comedian friends), ruining what could have been a extraordinary performance.

With so much talent in the world its a shame that so much of it is tainted. Rare is the comedian who can invoke laughter without resorting to crudeness (Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld). Rare is the movie that causes audible expressions of amusement without leaving the viewer feeling like they need to take a shower after watching it (Napolean Dynamite). These are the true geniuses of comedy in my opinion. I wish there were more.