I'm considered by most people to be a clean comic. By that I mean that I don't swear that much, I'm not overly crude, and most of my jokes don't offend people. For the most part my act isn't anything that you wouldn't see on late night TV. Unfortunately "clean" is a term that is relative to each audience and my version has it's limits.
I found this out recently when I was offered a corporate show performing for what I was told was a "church group." This was a bit of a concern for me because my jokes may be TV clean, but they aren't necessarily "church clean."
I told this to the booker who offered me the show and added that I could probably perform an hour of "church clean" comedy, but that it would not be a very solid show as I would have to use some of my B material. This, I was told, would not be a problem as long as I was able to perform for the entire hour.
Whenever a booker tells you that a comedy show doesn't have to be funny it's never a good sign. It means that he knows the show is going to be bad no matter what and he is just trying to collect some money. I realized this right away and should have declined the work. Unfortunately, I have a hard time saying "no" to a good paying gig and decided I could tough out an hour at a bad show for a few bucks. I just didn't realize how tough it would be.
I knew that a church group meant the show would have to be clean, but I was lead to believe I would be performing for a group of adults celebrating a night at a dining hall. When I tried to confirm details about the show I was given vague information by the booker until just days before the show. It was then that I learned that I would not just be performing for a church group I would be performing IN THE CHURCH ITSELF!
I'm a religious person, but the idea of performing my material in a church is beyond intimidating. What might be a harmless joke in a club could be a damnable blasphemy on holy ground. I had visions of the statue of Mary crying blood tears and a lighting bolt zapping me through a stain glass window. These fears were only made worse when I was told that it would be a BAPTIST church.
I don't have a lot of experience with Baptists, but in comedy they are considered the religion with one of the worst senses of humor, second only to Muslim extremists. Now I would have to try to make them laugh and on their home turf.
Despite the odds stacking up against me I tried to remain optimistic. After calling the show organizer (the church Reverend), I discovered that I wouldn't be performing in the church exactly, but rather in the cafeteria attached to the church. Not quite holy ground, but still close enough for lightning strikes.
I also learned that the "group" would consist of roughly 300 members of the church, many of whom were senior citizens, however there would be several younger families in the audience including more than a dozen young children. The "event" was an ice cream social that they held once a month with family friendly entertainment. This month that entertainment was me.
So to recap, I found myself performing comedy in the cafeteria of a Baptist church on a Sunday afternoon in front of nearly 300 people eating ice cream. Many of them senior citizens as well as a handful of children.
I know there are some comedians out there who could rise up to this challenge. They would take the stage and dazzle the audience with their wit. Make the old people smile and the children laugh. I'm sure they could keep it clean and funny and end the show to a standing ovation. Someday, maybe I'll be that kind of comedian, but right now I'm not even close.
To be fair I did not have as bad of a show as I thought I might. I did get some laughs and I was able to keep the audience entertained for the most part. However, to say that the show went well would be such a lie that it would make a politician blush.
Before the show I carefully reviewed every joke in my set and made sure that it wouldn't be offensive. None of my jokes used any swear words, involved any sexual situations, or included any crude topics. Despite this I estimate half of my jokes received disapproving silence from a majority of the crowd. Possibly the worst was my closer where I joked that a lot of people use holidays as an excuse to celebrate the 7 deadly sins. It wasn't until I was in the middle of the joke that I realized religious conservatives wouldn't approve of the idea of celebrating sin, especially using Christmas as an excuse to be greedy. It seems obvious in hindsight, but I swear it caught me completely off guard.
Every moment of the show was a struggle. From the awkward introduction of how I was a last minute replacement for a comic whose parents had just died (a lie told by the booker), to my big silent closer which was tagged with an apology to anyone I may have offended. I spent 45 minutes working harder than I ever have on stage before wrapping it up 15 minutes early. If anyone noticed my set went short they didn't speak up.
One way I can tell how bad a show goes is by how much I sweat when I'm on stage. When crowds are tough I have to animate myself more, pushing energy into the crowd in the hopes that they give some of it back. On a good night I walk off stage like I'm the star of a deodorant commercial. On a bad night I might have some pit stains. If the shows really bad you might see my beads of sweat on my brow.
That night I brought new meaning to the phrase "sweating like a sinner in church." By the time I got off stage I looked worse than Robin Williams at the end of a marathon. My shirt was so soaked I could have wrung water out of it. I'm sure it was obvious to everyone who I met after the show.
Despite it all I didn't hear a single negative word about the show. Not from the Reverend, the booker, or the audience, many of whom said they had a real good time. I got my check and left town as fast as my Camry would take me. All in all it was one of the most stressful shows I've ever done. I pray (no pun intended) that I never have to do it again. Unfortunately, I am not at a point in my career where I can say no to a good paying show and I know if I get an offer like that again I'm sure I'll take it. May God Help Me.