What Do Comedy Bookers Mean When They Say They Want it ‘Clean?’

clean or dirty

A booker contacts you and wants you to do a show. Then they say something like,
“Oh and I want a clean comedy show…”

What does a booker mean when they say they want a ‘clean’ comedy show?

It really depends. I’ve heard things from bookers that were like, “You’ve got to be able to do it in front of your grandmother…”

You don’t know my grandmother! What if my grandmother was like this:

Esther Hersh as Gangster Granny on The Ben Show from Jerry Corley on Vimeo.

If my grandmother was like “Gangsta Granny,” then I could probably get away with anything and my act wouldn’t be clean at all.

The important thing to remember is that the responsibility falls on you to clarify what that individual booker means by “clean.” Because in the end, if you fail to reach that booker’s definition of clean, he/she is probably not going to have you back or worse, won’t pay you for the show you did (read till the end).

So ask them specifically what they mean by clean. You might say, “Do you mean PG clean or G-rated clean?”

Ask who the audience is.

In some audience’s you can do jokes about sex other audiences you can’t. And there’s a way to do sex jokes clean and not so clean.

The general guideline with doing sex jokes in a clean (network TV) environment is that the jokes can’t be graphic. You can say “we were having sex,” but the moment you mention anything that brings to mind a specific image of genitalia or bodily fluids, positions, etc., then the material is no longer clean.

When doing comedy for network TV, the network will has a department called ‘Standards & Practices.’ It’s a bunch of lawyers who work for a network who decide whether or not the content is suitable for the network’s viewer. They will determine what’s ‘clean.’

Here are a couple of examples from Brian Kiley, the head monologue writer for Conan O’Brien who has done more than a dozen spots on late night TV. Many of his jokes are about sex. But they are considered clean enough for network.

“My brother is not the brightest guy in the world. He had heart surgery recently and he said to the doctor, “Doc, when can I have sex?” And the doctor said, “When you can walk up a flight of stairs, you can have sex.” And my brother said, “Why? Who’s up there?”

“When my wife and I were first married, she would yell out the name of her old boyfriend. The Weird thing is, his name was also brian… so she would yell out, “Brian. Not you… the OTHER Brian.”

So you could see that in these jokes, Kiley gets away with doing these on The Late Show with David Letterman. Even the one about his father needing to turn in sperm sample. But in the context of the joke the sperm sample was a medical procedure, not a sexual situation, so it passes the test.

But here’s where the definition of ‘clean’ gets tricky. What if you were doing an event at a high school in front of students, parents and administrators? Could you do the sperm joke or the sex jokes? I guess it depends on what school right?

So when it comes to doing clean, context has a lot to do with it.

There is no absolute definition for clean. Here’s something you should never do…

I was on the road with this comedian from Salt Lake City and we got a call from a booker in the middle of the week to do a corporate show for a bunch of gold miners. It was a dinner and everyone was well dressed. The pay was $1000 for the headliner and $500 for the feature act.

When we got to the event this huge dude in a tuxedo comes up to us–There’s something scary about a huge dude in a tuxedo. Like, first of all, what tuxedo company rents shirts with a 22-inch neck?

Anyway, he says to us, “We need this show to be clean because the wives are here.”
The comedian I was working with was told by some other comedian that when they want it clean all you have to do is ask the audience, “Do you want the clean stuff or the dirty stuff?”

So He got up onstage and said, “Do you want the clean stuff or the dirty stuff?” And one guy yelled out “Dirty!” So he said, “How do you make Martha Stewart scream? You f*ck her in the ass and wipe your dick on her drapes.”

That was his opening joke. Yeesh!

I looked over and the huge dude in the tuxedo popped a vein and said to me, “get him off the goddam stage.” So I had to go up on the stage and tell him he was done. Then spent the next 5 minutes making fun of him to recover, and then had to honor the contract and fulfill the 90-minute obligation.

Needless to say, that comedian didn’t get paid.

Whether you decide to work clean or not is up to you. You don’t have to pick one over the other. You can work clean for certain events and work blue for others.

From George Carlin to Louis C.K. to Amy Schumer, even though they are known for being blue, they each clean it up when they do network TV.

But if you know how to work clean and still get laughs then the simple truth is that you’re going to work more.

But if you’re going to work clean, find out exactly what they mean by it.

‘Clean’ might mean different things to different bookers, but there’s one thing that is for sure: When the booker says “Your show needs to be clean,” you don’t make it “dirty.”

Don’t Suck! The 9-minute Comedy Mastermind Session


This could be the most important 9-minute comedy lesson of your life.

In the next 9 minutes you’re going to learn a lot! I mean a ton! I’m calling this article my 9-minute Comedy Mastermind Session.

When it comes to comedy writing and theory, my argument always focuses on structure.

“Structure is king!” I’ll usually say.

Listen to the Audio Version

Getting to the point and getting the laugh with a strong point of view while saying something that actually means something is crucial but structure is where the laugh occurs… not just trying to be funny.

This next 9-minutes focuses on that.

Structure is really the keys to the car that drives comedy success. I’d argue that it’s not just important, it’s crucial!

Side-by-Side Comedian Comparison

In the next 9 minutes you’re going to look at two comedians.

Rob Delaney and Brian Kiley.

Delaney is your classic internet sensation comedian. His rise to notoriety came via Twitter where he had 1.26 million followers! But you’ll soon learn that Twitter comedy doesn’t necessarily interpret into stellar stand-up.

Brian Kiley is the head monologue writer for Conan O’Brien. Kiley is a master of structure and joke telling. But his joke telling style is so well finessed that it doesn’t seem like he’s us telling jokes.

Take a look at these two comedians as they appear on 2 different late night shows.
Structure vs. No structure. It’s Kiley with solid structure and Delaney with just telling a story and trying to be funny

You be the judge…

…and as always I would love to hear your comments.


Rob Delaney

Let’s take a look at comedian Rob Delaney. He performed a set on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He wasn’t prepared, he lacked structure and he totally shits the bed…

Caution: You might have to will yourself to watch the entire 4.5 minutes. But it’s important that you do.

Brian Kiley

Now let’s watch 4.5 minutes of Brian Kiley. Brian is a master of joke structure. You don’t have to be like him or deliver your material in this more “joke” form, but you’ll easily see the difference between structured and unstructured material.


In my view, structure is king.

Brian Kiley’s set is far superior in it’s structure and it’s story-telling than Rob Delaney. In fact, rumor has it that Delaney tried to make sure that this didn’t get out. I get it.

I’m not posting this to slam Delaney as a comedian. I’ve been doing stand-up for nearly 30 years, I know how hard it is to get on T.V. So big props to him for just getting the spot. But when you get there you’ve got to have a structured set.

Your effectiveness is judged by laughs per minute. If you’re not getting laughs, the audience is tuning out.

A stand-up comedian’s time is also limited on late night TV shows. Comedian’s sets have been running around 4 minutes 30 seconds! I just watched comedian Dulce Sloan on Conan and she only had 3 minutes!

You gotta get to the jokes fast and keep them rolling! If you don’t you might wind up like Rob Delaney and totally shitting the bed.

There are two primary ways to learn how to build comedy and story structure into your comedy act: 1. Get up and try it and learn through trial and error and hopefully find your way to doing what the successful comedians are doing… or 2. Drop in on one of my comedy classes and learn why people laugh and learn the structures that trigger that laughter. You can also really jack up your comedy writing skills at one of my Weekend Comedy Writing Workshops.

Opportunity for Writing in Late Night TV Continues to Grow

late night tv hosts

If the powers that be made a decision to do a reality show about Late Night television hosts they might go with the name: “10 and Counting,” (at least for now), because that is the number of hosts that are currently on the tube in both cable and network.

Checking the picture above, (from Vanity Fair’s David Kamp; Photography by Sam Jones), they are as follows: Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Trevor Noah, James Corden, Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Larry Wilmore, Jimmy Fallon, and Bill Maher.

Ten late night hosts. Who would’ve thought that day would come? I was going to make a lame joke about “10 Little Indians,” but these days, someone out there would read it as racist and I’d get put in front of the PC firing squad, or be labeled a racist, despite the fact that I’m Choctaw.

But that’s not the point of this post. The point is to provide you with the eye-opening realization that Late Night TV is not going anywhere. It’s here and it’s not just thriving; it’s EXPLODING.

The pay is $4000 a week, minimum for a staff writer on a network show. If you write a 2-min. sketch and it makes it to air, you get paid an additional $4K. So a good writer can make a great living in Late Night.

It’s seems like not a day goes by when another sketch or clip from one of the late night shows goes viral on the internet.

I can remember a day when Leno and Letterman were fighting over the hosting spot for The Tonight Show. If you don’t remember this, it was BIG. They even wrote a couple of books about it and did a movie.

At the time pundits thought that that battle was going to wind up fracturing the audience and other doomsday theories that teetered on the ultimate demise of Late Night T.V. as a viable entertainment format.

But it’s Hollywood. Those are the same end-of-the-world elite who said that the VCR was going to lead to the end of movie theaters, as the T.V. was going to lead to the end of radio and the radio was the end of live performances.

And, in case you didn’t know, the internet is leading to the end of it all. 🙂

But those who know the internet are keenly aware that it is just an additional way for everyone to get even more exposure.

The fact is Late Night T.V. is big and it’s continuing to grow. From the picture above you can see clearly that all the Late Night hosts are male. But that’s soon going to change as Chelsea Handler plans to launch her new Late Night show on Netflix sometime in 2016.


Not only that NBC is planning an all-comedy Video-on-Demand (VOD) portal called ‘Seeso,’ that is already developing original content. (Yeah, I know, what’s up with the name?).

But what does this mean for you? Opportunity!

The opportunity for writing in Late Night TV continues to explode. We’ve never had more movement in that industry. There are more shows. And more shows need more content. Who’s going to provide that content?  Comedians and writers like you!

It’s time again to start thinking about putting your Late Night Writing packets together and start submitting.

Writing for the fickle and very specific format of Late Night television takes a unique skill set. Learning that skill set could set you up with one of the coveted jobs as a Late Night T.V. Comedy writer.

Why coveted? The pay is $4000 a week, minimum for a staff writer on a network show. If you write a 2-min. sketch and it makes it to air, you get paid an additional $4K. So a good writer can make a great living in Late Night.

And with 10 hosts and growing, there’s never been a better time than now to prepare.

Leave a comment below if Late Night TV Comedy Writing is something you’re coveting! And if it is, what is are the top 2 obstacles that are stopping you from going for it?

Why Are These College Kids So Damn PC?

political correctness

Today, I got an email from a student of mine:

The lesson I learned tonight is that university students are PC to the point that it is unnatural. These are the people posting PC crap all over Facebook! At first I was confused about my inability to connect with the crowd. I felt it from my first joke (about marriage/children).


Some of the other comedians were outright angry at the sensitivity of the audience. This was the first time any of us had performed at a college.

If comedy is indeed a “veiled attack”, then these 19 year olds don’t know comedy! But I got to thinking: If it is funny TO THEM, they will laugh. One guy got up and talked about how after eating chicken vindaloo, his “asshole was blistered”.

At the comedy rooms he never gets a huge laugh with that bit. But last night the crowd loved it. What the fuck? They seem to love descriptive vulgarity … so long as you only make fun of yourself.

Then he went on to say, “After the show I read an article in which Seinfeld says stay away from college campuses at all costs. However there is money to made at such places…

So how do we make this work?”

First, for all the brilliance that is Jerry Seinfeld, he is wrong on this. Jerry is old school and seems stuck in an era that–as far as the 18-24’s are concerned–doesn’t exist. And it seems the more interviews I watch, read or listen to with Seinfeld the more he’s turning into his stubborn old Jewish Dad on his show ‘Seinfeld.’

Due to Jerry’s celebrity, he will continue to be able to work no matter what, but if he doesn’t adjust, he runs the very real risk of becoming mainstream obsolete.

One of the things you learn as an artist, writer, musician, is that different generations have different perceptions of life, therefore their tastes for what’s considered acceptable, changes.

Change, Update or Become Obsolete

Political correctness is nothing new. I started to see this clearly about 23 years ago. Don Rickles did an appearance on Comic Relief in 1992. Rickles is the original ‘insult comic.’ But of course the crowd was filled with people who were at the event to support the benefit to raise money for the homeless and disenfranchised; a very ‘politically correct’ crowd, indeed.

Rickles spent his 7 minutes fighting several groans.

Rickles is a fast and funny comedian, but his inability to play that type of audience was evident.

Rickles showed how out of touch he was with an evolving society.  Trying to explain his insults by saying, “I love the ‘blacks;'” (in fact, candidly using a politically incorrect term to explain his act), exposed him as severely dated.

He reminded me of my grandmother when I brought my friend over to dinner. She referred to him as the ‘Colored boy.’ Which was totally weird because he was Puerto Rican. (Kidding).

Being out of touch made Rickles obsolete in the mainstream. He still plays Vegas, but mostly for the crowd that fits his age group and remembers Rickles for Rickles.

Don’t get me wrong, I hold Seinfeld and Rickles in extremely high esteem. I just want to call it how I see it.

Adjust, but don’t lose your voice or your edge!

George Carlin was able to continue to fill venues and remained a college favorite until he died. He kept his voice, kept his edge but also had something for everyone. Carlin was never only one voice.

I remember him saying. “You gotta put in some observation, some wordplay, some fluff. Fluff is important to remind everyone that although you think religion is bullshit, it’s still a comedy show, so lighten the fuck up.”

At some point Carlin also, said, “I don’t give a shit what the audience thinks…” The moment Carlin groomed his act to get on Late Night T.V. and did the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine for two years, I knew as far as that statement was concerned, Carlin had to eat those words. He adjusted and chose the material that was right for that audience.

In fact, we’re all full of shit if we don’t think we care what the audience thinks. Because, at the bottom line, isn’t that why we’re on stage in the first place? If we don’t get a laugh, we figure out the joke until we do. In essence, we all pander.

But I digress…

It’s About the Audience

Yes, the college kids are overtly PC, but it’s not “ruining” comedy. As a comedian/writer you should learn the acronym M-A-P, Material-Audience-Performer. The material has to suit the performer and suit that audience. When the audience changes, the material has to adjust.

I once played a corporate in Salt Lake City. The guy who hired me said that this was a very hip group and they like to make fun of everything, (famous last words, right?).

In my act, I started doing my Mormon section of my set list, (making fun of Mormons). The audience wasn’t laughing.

Evidently, the audience that likes to make fun of everything, did not like making fun of Mormons.

I needed to figure out why this audience wasn’t laughing or I was sunk.

A guy brought up a piece of paper and I read it. It said, “This crowd is mostly Mormon.”

So I looked at the audience, read the note out loud, took my set list out of my pocket and said, “That explains why that part of my act isn’t working.” And I tore up the set list.

The audience laughed at the candid remark, (because I made fun of myself), and I went back to my act, and instead, made jokes about Jehovah’s Witnesses.

They felt superior, loved it and laughed!

I adjusted my material to fit the audience, but if I took that experience and I said, “Wow whatever you do, avoid doing corporates at all costs,” because I’m unable to adjust to the crowd, I might as well get out of the business now.

Does this make sense?

My point is this: learn to work the crowd. Learn to adjust your material and shift gears so that the audience follows your trajectory.

In the email above, my student said “if comedy is, in fact a ‘veiled attack,’ then they don’t know comedy.” Allow me to talk about this briefly because comedy is a veiled attack; we’re attacking something. Even ourselves.  But the key is to attack UP. Attack above yourself.

  • If you’re white, don’t pick on minorities
  • If you’re male, don’t pick on women (without recourse)
  • If you’re female, male, hispanic, black or other… don’t pick on Special Olympics kids.

This is a shortened version of the attack philosophy and it’s only if you don’t have a valid reason, (IE: If you’re a male don’t pick on your wife or ex unless they cheated on you or did you wrong and you share this information with the audience; now you have reason to pick on them and the audience will actually crave for you to retaliate; simple story telling.).

One Solution: Lot’s of Self-Deprecation!

That being said, you should check out my deconstruction of Daniel Tosh. He’s loved by the college kids and he’s soooo NOT PC!

So why does his material work?

One reason is that he provides lot’s of self deprecation. The edgier the attack the more Tosh picks on himself. The reason he does this is to remind the audience that he really doesn’t take himself too seriously. This allows him to ‘step over the line’ then knock himself down a peg or two.

When you watch his act, you’ll see this pattern repeat. For those who are struggling with the idea that comedy have definite structure, it’s a great lesson. Tosh is masterful at this!

Second Solution: Double Down!

The second is when he does hit on something that’s politically incorrect, he doesn’t bail on it, he doubles down. He pokes at it and pokes at it until the audience (mostly 18-34 males) laugh out of the embarrassment that they shouldn’t be laughing at that joke.

They are also laughing at the ambivalence of Tosh; that Tosh doesn’t care that they didn’t laugh, (or instead, groaned), at the original joke. They audience recognizes that same ambivalence in themselves and since recognition is a top laugher trigger, they laugh.

Doubling down could be as simple as saying something like, “I’m going down this road with or without you people…” Or “Hey I’m twenty-one, this is the shit I talk about,” or “One day you’ll look back and laugh at this, like maybe the day when you actually become adults.”

The point is that all audiences have a degree of overt political correctness corrupting their ability to laugh openly at certain jokes from a comedian–

Be Unstoppable, Don’t Give up… Just figure it out!

Remember Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes? He ate it!
Did he say, “Avoid the Golden Globes at all costs?” No. He came back the very next year and had a great time making fun of the previous year’s performance!

College kids might be more PC than usual, but the object is to figure out what they laugh at, then figure out out of the stuff they laugh at what resonates with your persona, then approach your college set that way.

Go to a college show! See what the kids are relating to and write some stuff that fits your persona but also resonates with the crowd.

For the last two years. Comedian and former student, Tony Ming, produced some shows at Cal State University, Northridge.

He had five comedians doing sets for around a hundred and fifty college kids who were just starting their college careers. All of the comedians were our students…

I gotta tell you right now, none of our students bombed. That’s right, none. I’m not saying that to blow smoke up anyone’s ass. It’s just the plain truth. Each one went up on stage and had terrific sets with solid laughs every 18-20 seconds.

Their sets were all about their obstacles, and their struggles to figure stuff out.

The first year, Brian Kiley was headliner. Brian is the head monologue writer at Conan O’Brien. He performed for fifty-three minutes and  EVERY JOKE WORKED!

His jokes worked despite the fact that Brian doesn’t really have any dynamic change in his emotions. His jokes are just nearly perfect in their structure.

Fifty-three minutes in front of a PC college crowd. Rocked.

The following year, I was the headliner in that same room. This time there was an even larger audience. I actually struggled with a few jokes. In my head I was like, Wait a minute. This shit kills at the clubs. What’s up?  I then shifted gears, made fun of myself. Made it more interactive, (within my material), with me encountering or sharing similar obstacles with the kids in the crowd and the set went well.

Bottom line is, while still staying true to my style and my voice, I adjusted.

Because after all, this is show business. If the material doesn’t resonate with the purchaser, then, in order to survive, you have to adjust.

I learned a long time ago to approach my comedy as both an art and as a business. Most comedians miss this part of it.

Show Business is two words

Most comedians approach this business like,  “Screw the audience, this is about my art.”

To a certain extent it is, but… “Show-BUSINESS” is two words and ‘business’ is usually in all CAPS.

Every performer, must understand is the the “Golden Rule,” which is: “He with the gold, makes the rules,” and if the one with the gold wants it clean or very PC then you have to be able to adjust.

You might consider having several different types of sets:

  • A set for the clubs (Can get blue, (use profanity or graphic sexual situations), maybe edgy, or politically incorrect)
  • A set for Colleges (Extra sensitivity toward being clean and very politically correct).
  • A set for Cruises (Two 45 minute sets; one clean, one a little edgy for the midnight show).
  • A set for Corporates and Fund raisers, (clean and focusing on theme and interests that usually appeal to the business or industry you are performing for).
  • A set for Late Night, (A set on late night is 4-minutes, 30-seconds. It’s ‘T.V. Clean’)

It’s something to consider and take seriously, because those college kids will be out of college soon and be the primary audience members of the clubs and mainstream performance venues.

A comedian interested in having longevity should adjust when necessary or resolve to becoming obsolete.

When You Do the Work…


Just wanted to post a quick shout-out to my boy Joshua Jackson.

Joshua just won the Clairmont Comedy Competition in–of all places–Clairmont, California.

I was humbled that Joshua thanked me in his celebratory post on Facebook.

Josh attended the Stand Up Comedy Clinic for a while and busted his butt developing his act.

Week after week Josh went from a guy who didn’t do a lot of stand-up to really developing into someone who understood the fundamentals.

Every week Josh showed up to class early, asked questions before class, was not afraid to disagree when something wasn’t working, and applied the new lessons he learned to his material.

Then what happened?

Every week he would get better. His act got tighter.

He had a terrific showcase set at the end of the class session.

Then he’s continued to develop by performing and learning and finding his voice, knowing that stand-up comedy is a blend, a craft of comedy structure and genuine persona.

Stand-up is not just getting up there and telling stories. Stand-up is about consistency; being able to get up there night and after night and deliver.

Comedy is about your character trying his best and continuously bumping into obstacles along the way. That is the underlying structure to all comedy.

It’s structure that gets the laughs gets the bookings and wins competitions. If you look at the sets on T.V., they are structured. You look at all the successful comedians, they use structure.

Which is why we teach it at the Comedy Clinic. Structure pays off and it’s what gets you the laughs per minute that are coveted by talent coordinators and bookers.

Laughs. That’s an interesting concept, huh? Trigger the laughs in the audience consistently–every 18-20 seconds, (that’s what they want at the clubs and on T.V.), and you will find yourself winning more competitions, booking more gigs and getting more work.

At the Comedy Clinic, we have broken comedy down into a science. Combining the science of laughter, (the 9 psychological laughter triggers that are hard-wired into our brains), with the 13 proven comedy structures that are used by all the top comedians.

Using the mechanics of comedy combined with your true persona and performance, delivers the best, crisp, laugh-filled comedy.

Our comedians prove it time and time again.

Great work Josh. I appreciate the shout-out, but remember I just gave you tools; YOU did the work!

Rock on!

Checkout our new upcoming classes and see if you’ll be the next winner of the next competition.

And while you’re at it, give a shout-out to Josh over on his page on Facebook.