How do you define "funny"? For many, it's the unearthing of light in dark places. Or an appeal to our baser instincts; the space in which we teeter on the border of human decency. Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Lisa Lampanelli: All today's most prominent comics lace their acts with explicit language and the taboo. And we lap it up.
Which is why the global rise of "Clean" comedy—and its cousin, "Christian" comedy—may come as a surprise. Defined by industry glossaries as the opposite of "Blue" (explicit) material, "A comic can technically be considered clean if he avoids cursing. 'Squeaky clean' material eschews ribald or shocking topics of any kind. Saying 'cock' is definitely blue; saying 'masturbate' and making the wank motion is technically clean, but blue-tinged."
But why ban the tool that so often puts the punch in the punchline? Can a sanitized, swearword-free act really make people laugh?
Yes, says Hannah Boland. The mother of three is Australia's queen of clean, and she has tasked herself with bringing G-rated humour to the masses. Boland, 34, entered the comedy scene in 2014, when she booked her own stand-up tour, despite having never stepped onstage. "I can be a little bit bold like that sometimes," she tells Broadly, on the phone from her home in Southern Highlands, New South Wales.
They don't bother with the comedy festival, because they know the words comics use are filthy.
A devout Christian, Boland advertised herself a "Christian Comedian" on her first tour, seeing it as a way to attract Christian audiences as well as warn non-Christians planning to attend her show of the occasional church-related joke. "Church people tend to get the church jokes, and non-church goers not so much," she says. "I only do church jokes really when I am performing at churches or to a Christian audience."
"A lot of Christians are put off going to stand-up comedy performances," she says. "And it's not just the language. I think a lot of things comedians choose to laugh about are probably things we shouldn't really be laughing at. I've heard world-famous, 'likeable' comedians laugh about the spread of STDs in high school kids, and the sad backgrounds that see many women end up in the pornographic industry.
"One comedian I saw recently did a short set on how he encourages his 22-year-old daughter to invite her friends to sleep over as often as possible, so he can perv on them. It's sick and twisted, but people laugh because that's exactly what our world is – sick and twisted."
Despite her continued faith and church jokes, Boland has since rebranded herself as a clean comedian, and says her goal is a careful, compassionate approach to comedy. I wonder if her compassion stems from losing two young children to medical complications, then suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, clinical depression, and anxiety. But she says her sensitivity comes from "my Christian worldview".
"It's my desire to build people up and give them the gift of laughter that stemmed from those tragedies. Laughter, however fleeting, was such a precious gift to me during my darkest times. I really want to bring that to other people. It's not necessary to offend people to be funny."
Think Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan and Brian Regan. They just don't brand themselves that way.
Boland uses the terms "treading cautiously" and "as inoffensive as possible" a lot. It makes you think her set might be about as funny as Sunday school. But actually, watching her on YouTube, I don't notice the absence of "blue" content. In one routine, she jokes about having the chronic pain disorder fibromyalgia:
"You can have a fibro fog," she says, "which is pretty much as it sounds – it's a brain fog. It can last for weeks or months at a time. You can also get a fibro flare. Now, normally you'd think a flare in a fog would be a good thing…"
The comic is quick to say she's "no prude". She gets frustrated by some of her "quite prudish" Christian audience members, adding that "actually, in the Bible there is a lot of vulgarity, and there is quite a bit of coarse language". This, she says, is why leaning more towards the brand of clean comedy made so much sense to her. Despite the interconnectedness of both genres.
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Some of the world's most successful comedians, for the most part, work clean. Think Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan and Brian Regan. They just don't brand themselves as such. But, Bolands says, being overt about it is how she ensures her Christian audience sticks with her, while simultaneously enabling her non-religious (yet clean-seeking) audience to grow.
She says there is a market for people looking for entertainment without the risk of offence. They just don't know where to look for it. "I'd heard from people saying they don't even bother looking through the comedy festival guide, because they just know some of the words the comics use are filthy."
Boland, who recently launched Clean Comedy Australia, an initiative aimed at promoting and connecting clean comics, is used to the cynics. "I had somebody ask me the other day, 'Why would you even bother doing clean comedy?'", she says, "And I said to him, 'Well, if I'm clean and largely inoffensive, and I'm not excluding anybody and I'm being respectful, why would you not want to be [part of that]?"
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Humor, some may fairly argue. Self-censorship does make clean comics' jobs "very difficult", Boland concedes. "If you look at it from a mechanical point of view, swear words and vulgarity are two very effective tools for writing comedy. Given the nature of what I'm trying to do, those tools have been taken away from me. So I have to work a lot harder to make the show just as funny."
By Boland's account, it's working. "I have had so many people, usually blokes, who normally love the edgy, crass and irreverent comics on the circuit, but have found themselves laughing the whole way through my show without a single swearword or vulgarity uttered." One industry bloke, who had worked for famous performers such as Rodney Rude and Tina Turner, told her she was like a breath of fresh air. "And that's what it's all about – being a breath of fresh air in a world fixated on the perverted and vulgar."