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Episode 1: Just Trying to Be Funny

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WORLD Radio - Episode 1: Just Trying to Be Funny

The story of a guy trying to make it in the world of clean comedy—on his own terms, and in his own words.


LES SILLARS, HOST: Welcome to the very first episode of Double Take. I'm Les Sillars. We're a narrative podcast. Journalism plus storytelling. Informed by a Biblical worldview. We've got a great season coming up. This first episode is called: Just Trying to Be Funny. Here it is.

DENNIS TOOLEY: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Gutty’s Comedy Club.

Gutty’s is in Indianapolis. G-U-T-T-Y-apostrophe-S.

DENNIS TOOLEY: Are you guys ready to have fun tonight

AUDIENCE: Wooooohooo!

Here’s comedian Brandon Young.

BRANDON YOUNG: I am 41 years old. I'm middle aged. I tell that to this friend, my friend’s like, “You are not middle aged. There is no way you're making it to 82. Like, like, 52 tops, really.”

Brandon’s a big guy. He towers over most people. He lives in San Diego and works for Truck Hero selling aftermarket auto parts. But when he clocks out, Brandon sits down in his bedroom and writes jokes.

BRANDON: I guess what I’m trying to say is you know you need to lose weight when your shadow starts setting off automatic doors.

Clean jokes, that is, because Brandon is a clean comic. He doesn’t curse, and he doesn’t talk about sex or stuff like that. He became a Christian soon after he got into standup, but his jokes aren’t just for Christians. They’re for everyone. He’s not political, either…for the most part.

BRANDON: I haven’t been to Chucky Cheese in years but... I've got all these little Chuck E Cheese coins floating around everywhere... I think thousands of years from now, archaeologists will be digging up the United States. They’re gonna find all these little Chuck E Cheese coins. They'd be like, “Wow, their president was a giant rat,” which is kind of true depending on which political spectrum you lean.

Gutty’s is a comedy club that markets itself as clean, family-friendly, and “dry bar.” Which makes it rare.

BRANDON: I've done a lot of bad things in my life. Like tell those last jokes for instance.

It’s a fun show and the audience is having a good time. But there’s one problem: what about tomorrow’s audience? This question haunts most comedians, including Brandon.

BRANDON: I mean, even though the joke will work one night, it may not work another night with a different audience. And you just, it's hit or miss sometimes.

MUSIC: THE PLACE INSIDE, Silent Partner

Standup may sound like just a fun hobby; an excuse to be funny and get paid for it. But doing comedy means being funny to everyone night after night. And working clean means you can’t have the advantage of shock. It’s a challenge–one that Brandon is willing to take on.

Some comedy is pure silliness, but most comics see their role as making fun of things that deserve it. They expose foolishness or injustice and hold them up for a large round of contempt. But that’s difficult to do well and consistently. You have to be observant, insightful, and surprising.

That’s partly why mainstream stand-up is dominated by comics who work “blue.” Some can be really funny, but they’re also crude and profane. They talk about things that people might think but don’t say. They try to connect with audiences while keeping them off balance.

Working blue means that comedians can use shock to get audiences to laugh, and shock comes cheaper than surprise. But it also means they have to keep escalating their language. Be more shocking than the last comic. So they don’t just break taboos—they mock them. And along the way they transform how our culture thinks about things. Talks about things. They reshape our very language.

Anything for a laugh.

MAKE’EM LAUGH: Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh / Don't you know ev'ry one wants to laugh? ...

Today, the story of a guy who’s just trying to be funny. On his own terms, and in his own words. Doubletake correspondent Rachel got us a backstage pass to Gutty’s. We’re going to follow Brandon, punchline by punchline, as he tries to stay relevant in a world that’s leaving his language behind.

I’m Les Sillars. Here’s Rachel with the story.

MAKE’EM LAUGH: … Just slip on a banana peel the world’s at your feet / Make’em laugh, make’em laugh, make’em laaaaugh! ….

Part I: When Brandon Met Comedy

RACHEL COCHRANE: The first time Brandon Young got on stage at a comedy club, he had no idea what he was doing.

BRANDON: So I'm like, well I'm in Oklahoma City, nobody here knows me. I've got my brother here. So he and I were running jokes by each other. So I did my four-minute set.

It was open mic night at The Looney Bin. About 10 years ago. There were about 15 people in the audience. Most of them were other would-be comics.

BRANDON: So I did four minutes, I got one laugh out of one joke that I don't even tell anymore. And I was hooked.

That’s when he realized how hard comedy is. Brandon became a Christian about two years after that first open mic. In a way, that made comedy even harder.

BRANDON: I think honestly, it’s kind of who I am now. I wasn’t always like that. So you should write to who you are, so if someone’s not a Christian... then that’s who they’re going to be onstage.

Brandon doesn’t have an agent. He does his own booking and performs anywhere he can get a gig. One weekend it’s a church in a small town. Another it’s a downtown bar.

Gutty’s is a comedy club without the usual fixings of the late-night comedy scene. Steve Rivera is the founder of Gutty’s.

STEVE RIVERA: And what happens is people laugh so hard, their bodies ache, right? Their head hurts. They’re smiling so hard, then their gut hurts. And that's where the gut busting laughs come from. Gutty’s Comedy Club, and that's when it was born.

Gutty’s abides by one rule:

RIVERA: ...clean is green, meaning you get more money, more opportunities, if you can work clean.

After booking Gutty’s, Brandon worked on his material for months. Last fall I started checking in with Brandon every couple of weeks.

RACHEL: Here we go. All righty. So you said you've been working on crowd work?

That’s the term comics use to describe when they improvise jokes tailored to people in the audience.

BRANDON: I’ve been trying to do a little bit more crowd work. So with longer sets, I do about 45 minutes to an hour...

Most of the time, Brandon would recap his recent shows for me. He’d talk about how the audience responded, if they loved it, or if they didn’t love it. Sometimes, I was the test audience.

BRANDON: So this is kind of a new one. I've got to work it out a little bit...

Brandon uses a lot of observational humor, based on stories from his life and experiences. Some of them land well. Some of them, well, don’t.

BRANDON: It's like, “Whenever I'm driving with my wife, she does a thing where she'll be looking at something and gasp. And it makes me think I'm about to get into a major car accident or whatever, right? So I ask what the heck's going on? She's like, ‘Oh nothing. It's just that the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale isn't happening this year.’” Something small like that.

RACHEL: Yeah ...

The challenge is to craft jokes that surprise instead of shock.

Surprise is a positive reaction; shock is a negative one. People laugh at vulgar and grotesque punchlines because they’re jarring and aggressive.

These two reactions tend to distinguish clean and blue comedy. People who watch clean comedy expect to be surprised. People who watch blue comedy expect to be surprised and shocked. Brandon’s challenge is to captivate both audiences without using the shock tactics, which is easier said than done.

After the break: Why did blue comedy take over? How did we get here?

Part II: How did we get here?

ARCHIVAL RECORDING: High minister of happiness: Will Rogers. Former circus and rodeo performer, and headliner at Vaudeville ...

When I was researching comedy, I started with the good old days of vaudeville in the early 1900s. Will Rogers was one of the first clean standups on America’s biggest stages. Here he is talking to Carl Laemmle, who owned Universal Studios at the time.

ROGERS: I’m going to represent the audiences, you know, who paid to see the pictures. At an affair like this nobody ever represents the audience, you know?

ADAM CHRISTING: I really feel that Will Rogers is a great inspiration to me.

That was Adam Christing, Chief Entertainment Officer for cleancomedians.com.

CHRISTING: Even though Will Rogers did a lot of political humor. Everybody wanted to hang out with Will Rogers, whether they were Republican, Democrat, Independent, or non-political. Because he had this likability factor. Also he was the common person’s comedian.

Will Rogers was a star because he made his comedy for everyone. At that time, most everyone wanted clean comedy. And vaudeville had to protect itself from public scrutiny. So really, standups like Will Rogers were clean out of necessity.

ANNOUNCER: … and starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello!

COSTELLO: Heeeey Abbooooooottttttt! ...

Vaudeville faded in the 1920s as comedians like Abbott and Costello took over radio in the 1930s and 40s. They were clean, although they could occasionally be a bit suggestive.

ABBOTT: Well, never mind that Costello, where have you been all week? What have you been doing?

COSTELLO: Oh boy! Have I been having fun with Connie Hayes.

ABBOTT: No kidding.

COSTELLO: Last Saturday I took her to a football game. What a game! What excitement!

ABBOTT: Any passes?

COSTELLO: No, her mother was with us.

Comedians also moved into movies and TV. But there was a problem: a series of scandals with comedians, actors, and actresses had given Hollywood a black eye. Religious organizations and politicians demanded Hollywood clean up its act.

To ease the pressure, the movie industry voluntarily adopted a strict moral standard called the “Hays Code” in 1934. It was named after the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. It said, quote, “no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” The Hays Code set the tone for the whole entertainment industry for the next 30 years.

Then, in 1972, comedian George Carlin developed a stand-up routine that changed the nature of comedy forever. It was called ‘Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.’

GEORGE CARLIN: There are 400,000 words in the English language and there are 7 of them you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is. 399,993 to 7. They must really be bad.

He didn’t really think they were that bad.

CARLIN: Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.

No, we’re not going to repeat them here. But a parent heard Carlin’s routine on his car radio, with his son. That eventually led to a famous 1973 Supreme Court case, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. In this case, the court found Carlin’s act to be, quote, “indecent but not obscene.” That is, in some contexts, you can say those words on television.

That cracked opened the floodgates.

Comics had been raunchy in clubs and bars long before Carlin. But the big names on TV and in the movies—Groucho Marx, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope—they knew there were limits. After Carlin, vulgarity gradually left the clubs and spilled over into radio and TV. Then it all went online. Now relentless profanity and vulgarity are just normal in mainstream standup.

So it’s not that clean comedy is new. It’s been here the whole time. It just used to dominate the mainstream, and now it doesn’t.

CHONDA PIERCE: You get back in the bed, you toss and turn and sweat it’s pitiful. And my husband, you know I been married 30 years to this man, for 30 years–don’t clap. You don’t know him.

Christian comedian Chonda Pierce is Emmy-nominated and has gold and platinum records.

CHONDA PIERCE: Idn’t it funny? I love a room full of Christians. Some of’ em will laugh and some will go, “Ooooh.” We shouldn’t laugh at that. You can laugh at that. I’ve said that to his face. Now he sleeps good. You know for some reason as he gets older he just sucks the walls through his nostrils. That was my dream, as a young girl.

But she might have been even bigger in 1955. She’d have fit right in. But these days, she says, working clean can limit your career.

PIERCE: Because of my faith, and because of, you know, the subject matter I like to talk about, it has limited me, I'll probably never have an HBO special or Comedy Central special, you know, because that seems to be reserved for the ones that like the dance on the edge.

MUSIC: MINOR BLUES FOR BOOKER

Ironically, clean comedians like Brandon who refuse to break societal taboos have become the outsiders looking in. Doubletake producer Anna Allen and I decided to see for ourselves what that’s like. Up next: The Set-up

PART III: The Set-up

RACHEL: Alright, so we’re just walking into Gutty’s here. Ok, so Dennis, how’s it going, it’s been a while since I talked with you.

DENNIS TOOLEY: It’s going ok.

RACHEL: Yes?

That’s Dennis Tooley. He helps run Gutty’s with Steve Rivera. Dennis is sort of the dad-figure at Gutty’s. Everyone calls him “Pops.” He gets around in an electric wheelchair, a result of his battle with MS.

Gutty’s looks like a normal comedy club from the outside. But inside are lots of families, instead of clubbers and couples. And instead of beer and liquor, there’s soda and popcorn.

On this Friday night Keith works the concession stand. He’s a big guy in black. He would be really intimidating if not for his concession stand comedy.

KEITH: Alright we have a snack pack, we have pizza, a drink, a candy of your choice… they’re all high comedy content so calories don’t count tonight.

He says Gutty’s feels like a home.

KEITH: From the first time you come in, you’re not a stranger. You just automatically feel like family…

About an hour before the show begins Clint Hall arrives. He’s the “feature” comic who warms up the crowd for about 10 minutes. As the “headliner,” Brandon gets a 45-minute slot. He shows up a bit later, and he and Clint move to the greenroom. It’s a small alcove next to the stage.

Brandon and Clint talk shop until Brad, the host, arrives just before showtime. It’s the first night and Brad explains to me that that means everyone’s on-edge. But Clint’s happy the audience is small. About 20 people. They fill half of the available tables.

Clint says that with big shows, you never know what to expect. He would rather have everybody in a small crowd enjoy his set than get a mixed reaction from a big crowd.

Brandon and Clint have found different ways to handle pre-show jitters. For Brandon, it’s working on his daily Duolingo. He’s learning French on the language app. For Clint, it’s scribbling his set on a napkin.

And just like that, the show starts.

DENNIS: Are you guys ready to have some fun tonight? Well then help me welcome to the stage your host for the night. The very funny Brad Riggler!

BRAD: Alright. Been trying to get with these guys for a while to do the clean comedy, and, uh, approached Steve a while back, I was like, I want to get on one of these clean comedy shows. And, like, Brad, you’re funny, but, uh, don’t know whether you’re clean, you know what I mean? I was very offended. I just cussed him out right there in the church parking lot.

Brad mostly talks about headlines and recent events. Then ...

RIGGLER: Put your hands together for Mr. Clint Hall!

Clint gets the mic and delivers his first line completely deadpan.

CLINT HALL: My name is Clint Hall. I actually want to make sure we all get off on the right foot. So, full disclosure. Clint is just a nickname of a family name. My for-real legal name is “Clenneth,” C-L-E-N-N-E-T-H because my mother Clarissa and my father Kenneth thought it would be romantic…for me to have to spell my name to everybody.

Clint talks about his hometown and his job working in the federal food stamps program. He fits the stereotype. He’s got business clothes on, like he just got back from the office.

CLINT: Here’s a fun fact about me and the food stamp program. Did you know if somebody has a felony warrant out for their arrest and they're actively avoiding the police it is illegal for them to receive food stamps? You know, in this day and age of metadata and spy satellites and facial recognition software, how we find out if somebody has a felony warrant out for their arrest?…Ask them. I’ve got to be the luckiest caseworker in the world, because 28 years, not a single Yes. Thank you everybody. I'm Clint Hall.

Clint nods his head and walks off the stage.

BRAD: Let's hear from Mr. Brandon Young!

Brandon’s first joke is going to be a take-off on an old drinking saying from his wild college days: Beer before liquor, never been sicker; liquor before beer, you’re in the clear.

This crowd seems unlikely to recognize a reference to a college drinking song. But Brandon thinks it’ll work for a gag about vaccines. He ran it by me during one of our check-ins last fall.

BRANDON: “I recently heard that it is suggested, if you have the Moderna vaccine, you should get a booster of Pfizer and vice versa.” ...And I say then, “Moderna before Pfizer never been wiser. Pfizer before Moderna, a lot of concerna.” So...

RACHEL: That I, that’s, thats, .. um ...

So after practicing it for months, tonight he brings it out, first thing.

BRANDON: COVID has been pretty rough. Right? I did recently hear something though. That about the booster shots. Like if you got Moderna for your regular shot for the vaccine, they recommend getting Pfizer for your booster shot, and vice versa.

Like which one’s beer? Like is Moderna, is the thing, it's like Moderna before Pfizer never been wiser, right? Pfizer before Moderna a lot of concerna...I'm bringing her to all my shows. Thank you very much, uh …

Brandon’s referring to a lady at the table on the far right. He decides to work her group into the act.

BRANDON: Okay, you guys right here. Okay, if I can guess two people if I can get their first and last name at either these tables …

Brandon points to two tables at the front.

BRANDON: I'm kind of a magic guy so... will either anybody at this table give me $20?

He addresses this challenge to the lady with the laugh. What she doesn’t know is that Brandon’s friends from high school are sitting at those front two tables.

BRANDON: Okay, starts with a T: Tom. Okay, got his first name. Okay, I see he's got a Detroit hat on. His name starts with a D, am I right? Darryl, Darryl, Darryl and Tom. Okay. This is where it gets interesting. Last names. Last name, okay, all right, my last name is Young. This is, I'm going out on a limb. It's your last name Yaun. Tom Yaun! And Darryl Monjoe! $20 please.

Eventually Brandon lets her in on the prank. The rest of his set seems to go smoothly. He talks about his weight, his hometown, his family, his friends, his wife, and then topics he calls “miscellaneous.” After about 45 minutes, he closes.

BRANDON: I’m Brandon Young, thank you so much, enjoy the rest of your night.

RACHEL: [from greenroom]: Alright, the host just walked onstage Brandon’s walking off.

BRAD: Let’s hear it for Brandon Young!! You guys have a good time tonight?

RACHEL: Hey!

BRANDON: Hi!

RACHEL: How’d it go?

BRANDON: Eh, ups and downs, hit or miss, some parts, but for the most part it was ok… They’re a good crowd, they’re into it. I was doing crowd work a little bit, I didn’t have much of a rhythm with it, I don’t think. But I think some spots, I hit really well, so.

So, to recap: it’s the first night, the crowd is small and nerves are high but all in all, Brandon feels it went OK. But what about tomorrow’s audience? Brandon’s job is far from over.

Anna and I asked some audience members how they felt about it.

ANNA: How about your favorite part? …

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Being able to laugh without having, like, foul language. I mean he didn’t make the f-word funny. And that’s what I love about clean comedy is they actually have a vocabulary and a sense of humor, it’s not just, you know, I can say this word a million times and make that funny.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: He interacted a lot with the audience and that was good too.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, that’s really good when they interact with the audience…

ANNA: Was there any low points of the show, you think? What’s your honest opinion?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: No, not really. I don’t think so.

Tonight’s show was a success. The hard part is over. Brandon, Clint, and Brad made it through the first night, so doing it again shouldn’t be that hard. Or so they think. Up next:

MAKE’EM LAUGH: The show must go on! Come rain, come shine, come snow, come sleet. The show must go on! Make’em laugh! Make’em laugh! …

PART IV: The Show Must Go On

It’s the second night at Gutty’s, a Saturday. Brandon, Clint, and Brad are relaxed. The nerves from last night have dissipated. They anticipate a good show with a big crowd.

Instead of frantically writing on a napkin, Clint’s at ease in the corner, playing on his phone. Brandon’s feeling good as well.

There are more people, but when I talk to them they seem less open than last night. Each table forms its own little bubble. Some look like church folks, and others have face tattoos and wild hair.

Two couples walk in…sit down at a table on the right side.

RACHEL: … Well, I was wondering if I could ask a few questions.

MAN: Sure.

This is a little hard to make out over the background music. But I ask them if they’ve been to Gutty’s before, and they say no. They’re Gutty’s “virgins.” I ask if they’re excited for the show and they say they’re a little disappointed because they thought there would be alcohol.

RACHEL: Have you guys been to Gutty’s before?

MAN 1: First time. Virgins, we’re virgins. We’re Gutty’s virgins. *laughs*

RACHEL: Are you excited for the show?

WOMAN: We’re excited for the show, but we were a little disappointed because we thought there would be like *pause* drinks.

MAN 2: Beverages.

WOMAN: Beverages, sorry.

Later on, I asked them if I could tape their reactions during the show. They declined, saying, “it might not be so clean.”

It’s just about showtime, and everyone’s ready. And then the doors open.

RACHEL: And this lady just walked in. She’s got bright pink hair, very exciting mask. Hi.

SEARS: Hi.

RACHEL: I’m Rachel.

SEARS: Hi, I’m Sears.

RACHEL: Nice to meet you, Sears.

SEARS: Is this the greenroom?

RACHEL: Uh, it’s right here … Are you hosting?

SEARS: No, he just gave me 10… So he texted me, I’m friends with him.

RACHEL: Uh, Dennis?

SEARS: Dennis.

RACHEL: Oh cool.

Sears tells me that she is also a survivor of MS like Dennis. But unlike Dennis, she doesn’t work clean.

SEARS: You don’t want to follow me on clean comedy. They were like “you remember it’s clean comedy,” I was like “I’ll rewrite some stuff,” so.

Sears doesn’t normally do gigs like Gutty's. Family friendly and clean are not her thing. But her comedy mentor, Louie Anderson, recently passed away and Dennis offered to let her do a 10-minute routine. Sears thought Louie would want her to do it, so she said yes.

Sears goes to find Brad for directions. She’s the “guest” comedian, but Brandon, Clint, and Brad had no idea she was coming. The show is about to start, and now they need to figure out how to work her into the program. They decide to put her on first.

That means her job is to get the energy up for the other comics. If she bombs, they have to work uphill. Brad gets up on stage, does his bit, and introduces Sears.

SEARS: Anyways, my name is Sears. And uh, no I’m no relation to the store, because I haven’t declared bankruptcy…yet. And I mean, I do apologize for my hair. I mean when I left the house, it was windy. It was blonde and in a bob when I left.

Sears has just started and already the audience is pretty dead. Brandon and Clint exchange glances as they listen from the greenroom.

SEARS: When I was going through chemo, I didn’t have to shave… anything. I saved a lot of time and money.

Clint and Brandon look increasingly nervous. And then she gets into the heart of her act.

SEARS: Oh c’mon, you can laugh at cancer. You have to laugh at cancer.

Not this audience. Nobody’s laughing at cancer. The most she is able to get out of the audience is a few chuckles here and there. But then the room goes completely silent when she explains that yesterday her mentor died of cancer.

SEARS: I lost my mentor to cancer yesterday. He was a dear friend, and the first time he ever called me on the phone was actually five years ago yesterday.... And you know it’s funny because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I enjoy doing standup because we need more laughter in this world. We absolutely do, you know? And you have to laugh at cancer, and you know, I mean, there’s- Who has been affected by cancer in this room?

Hands go up around the audience.

SEARS: Right, every single person, almost. If you haven’t, God bless you, that’s, that’s a miracle, you know? But we all have. And we have to laugh through it and laugh at it.

Sears then plays a voicemail that her mentor sent for her birthday last May. Louie Anderson was a three-time recipient of Emmy Awards, host of Family Feud, and writer of his own books, cartoon series, and sitcom. Funny enough, he was a clean comedian.

SEARS: So basically what I’m saying is you guys, just laugh as much as you can. And live your life because we die once we live everyday. Thank you guys so much for letting me come and have a good night.

Sears’ message feels like a eulogy. Beautiful, but serious and weighty. Now Clint and Brandon are supposed to get out there and “make’em laugh.” Imagine trying to tell jokes at a funeral.

BRAD: … he is the pride of Dale, Indiana. That’s right, it’s Mr. Clint Hall!

Clint takes the stage.

CLINT: Give another hand to Sears and Brad Riggler everybody.

CLINT: I am very glad to be here, my name is Clint Hall. I want be sure we all get started off here on the right foot…

Clint goes into his opener about his name. It lands fairly well. People are starting to warm up again. But he has to work a lot harder. He starts doing some crowd work, asking them questions, anything to get more of a response. By the time Clint walks offstage, the crowd is smiling again, but they’re still reserved. Brandon’s got a challenge ahead of him.

BRAD: Put your hands together and welcome to the stage Mr. Brandon Young!

BRANDON: Alright, let’s give it up for all the comics you’ve heard tonight: Clint, Sears, Brad. How many of you guys have heard of me before?

*one lonely clap*

BRANDON: Yay! Fellow comic in the back, appreciate that.

Don’t worry, I haven’t heard of me either, so it’s fine. I’m basically the Dale, Indiana, of comedians, so …

And just like that, Brandon’s into his set. But this time he spends a lot more time in crowd work.

BRANDON: Anybody have a celebrity crush they don’t want to admit to? A celebrity crush anyone?

The audience last night responded immediately to this prompt, but not tonight.

BRANDON: Somebody, got a celebrity crush at all? There’s no celebrities that you find attractive? Are you guys willing to talk at all during this show?

Does anybody here have a celebrity crush? Cause it’s really gonna help my joke.

WOMAN: Daniel Craig.

BRANDON: Daniel Craig. How old are you?

WOMAN: Too old.

BRANDON: Too old, ok. That’s fine.

Brandon is trying to single out someone in the audience who is enthusiastic and play off their energy. It worked last night. But tonight no one responds. It’s beginning to feel desperate.

BRANDON: Where are my married couples at? You guys married at all over here?

One couple raises their hand hesitantly.

BRANDON: There’s one married couple proud to be married, alright. Do we have any married couples that are really happy to be married besides that couple back there? There you go. Good answer. Man! Is this like the depressed Saturday night?

But Brandon keeps at it, working the room like a politician trailing in the polls. He teases people relentlessly, mixing in jokes from his set. After about halfway through his set, they finally start responding.

BRANDON: These are some really bad puns that I’ve written, okay. Will we ever find a watch that’s easy to read? Only time will tell.

I asked the lady at the store if she knew how much the hat she was wearing cost, she said, “Not off the top of my head.”

I asked my brother if he liked my shirt. He said it's too small for your body. I said that's a little clothes-minded of you.

It’s picking up again, and Brandon’s only got 15 minutes left. Then suddenly, a table with two couples gets up and leaves.

BRANDON: Oh I didn’t talk to you! Oh! Ok, if you guys have to be a part of it your friends have to be a part of it too, alright? They thought they were going to get away with it, that’s why that whole table left, right? Yes, that’s exactly why they left.

Brandon plays it like nothing’s wrong, but everyone’s glancing over at the gaping hole in the audience. You can hear the strain in his voice. He’s not quite sure what’s going on or why they left. But he keeps going.

BRANDON: I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life. I have a lot of regrets. But if there is one thing that still haunts me to this day…it's ghosts. *audience laughs* Please don't boo me, okay, you guys, just don’t boo me.

The people who left were the couples expecting Gutty’s to serve alcohol. But Brandon doesn’t know that. As far as he’s concerned, they left because they didn’t like his comedy.

Gutty’s isn’t for everyone it turns out. Some people want the late-night club scene, with drinks and raunchy comedians. That’s up to them.

BRANDON: From like a comic’s perspective. I’m up there, and I see them leaving, and I’m like am I doing too much crowd work? Are they not liking me for some reason? And then Hoss told me, they probably just didn’t know it was a dry club.

Hoss is the house comedian.

BRANDON: I was like, ok, I feel a little better, but that’s the one thing, when you’re onstage, there’s probably like 50-60 people in the crowd, even if everyone else is having a good time, you just see, you just fixate on that one person, and focus on that one person for a long time when they leave for no reason, and it just bums you out the whole night.

Brandon thought tonight would be a slam dunk. It wasn’t. The two worlds of clean and blue comedy are just at odds. Dissonant. First with Sears, and then with the couples who walked out. But Brandon struggled through it.

After the show, everyone is packing up to leave. People are talking and making their way to the door. Over the noise you can hear Sears remark to Anna...

SEARS: Clean is hard.

It’s a little hard to hear. She said “clean is hard.” No kidding. With all the pressure to do blue material, it’s hard to keep a family-friendly source of entertainment afloat. You’re wondering which jokes will land and which won’t. And underneath it all is the struggle to stay in the ring, to stay relevant in a culture that speaks a different language.

An audience member spoke to Anna after the show.

ANNA: … and how did this compare to the others?

MAN: I’m used to dirtier, but it was different going to a clean show, so. I don’t know, it was weird not hearing people cursing.

ANNA: Yeah, was it a good weird, bad weird?

MAN: No it was good, it was different… you don’t see much of it.

That’s how a lot of people see clean comedy. Weird. Kind of fringe.

A handful of performers, many of them Christian, have built careers and won awards working clean. People like Tim Hawkins and Chonda Pierce. But even they are mostly known in certain circles.

CHONDA: You know, Rachel, what's hard is comedy is subjective.

That’s Chonda.

CHONDA: What some person thinks is clean, and other ones, my mother will wash their mouth out. You know, my mother when she would fuss at me for saying, butt on stage or butt crack, I would go, “I'm gonna take you to a comedy club. So you'll think, your daughter's an angel,” you know… And down through time, language has changed, you know, just like music changes in the church, our vernacular changes as well.

What's more, the language of comedy shapes the performers themselves. Maybe the fallout from Carlin’s ‘7 Words You Can’t Say on TV’ has been as damaging to comedians as it was to the culture.

There’s a much-debated stereotype that comics are depressed. That they compensate for inner struggles and insecurities with wildly extroverted personalities. There’s even a name for it: the “sad clown paradox.”

It makes a strange sort of sense. Humor often taps into our struggles. Our pain. It’s the voice that we turn on to escape from our problems, or even understand them. We want to make fun of the things that trouble us most, and so comedy becomes a window into the culture. Into ourselves. Proverbs says that “even in laughter the heart may sorrow.”

CHONDA: Probably, I would imagine a lot of comedians would say for every funny story they share, there's three or four that's not so funny that they've either stuffed down, or they're trying to avoid it. So they get try to get funnier and frightening or louder and louder, dirtier and dirtier, probably trying to cover up some pain that they're carrying. And for me, I think I remember a time when that was true when comedy was a great outlet. And it was a great place to hide, you know, how I really felt. But you can't sustain that.

Both clean and blue comedy try to deal with life in a broken world. But they do it in very different ways, and using very different language. Blue comics deal with darkness by becoming dark themselves. They tend to be subversive. Antagonistic. They attack with words. Not all do, and many can be very funny.

But clean comedy reminds us that becoming dark isn’t the best response to a broken world. We can find joy and laughter, even hope, in the midst of struggles. And sometimes even because of them.

If art is beauty that connects your reason to your emotions, your head to your heart, then what does that make comedy?

CHONDA: Comedy has to be a love and an admiration. I admire the art of comedy. It takes great tenacity. It's a hard craft. It's putting the right words together at the right place at the right time to evoke an emotion out of someone. And, and so, it comes with an art.

Brandon admitted to me that he’s not the funniest guy around. But we need people like him, and clubs like Gutty’s, to make the effort. To help us laugh at ourselves. To find humor in trials, and then maybe even find God along the way.

The famous playwright Christopher Fry wrote in 1960 that comedy happens at the point where darkness is distilled into light. He wrote, “Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith. … In tragedy we suffer pain. In comedy, pain is a fool, suffered gladly.”

BRANDON: If I'm only called to perform for dozens of people then I’ll perform for dozens of people. You don't know what's going on in people's lives. Then there's someone in that audience of 24, 36, or 130, that is having a rough day, and all of a sudden they hear something I say and they're like, “Oh, that's a good joke.” And just brightens up their spirit a little bit, then, job accomplished.

MAKE’EM LAUGH: And you can study Shakespeare and be quite elite / And you can charm the critics and have nothing to eat / Just slip on a banana peel / the world’s at your feet / Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh, make’em laugh ...

OUTRO

SILLARS: This episode of Doubletake was reported and written by Rachel Cochrane, with reporting help from Anna Allen. Produced by the journalism program at Patrick Henry College, with support from the creative team at WORLD Radio.

Thanks for listening! Go ahead and give us a review on your podcast app and start following us. You can find out more about Doubletake on our website, Doubletakepodcast.org or at wng.org/podcasts. And send a note to us at [email protected] We really want to know what you think about this and all our episodes. If you’re so inclined, share this on social media and give us a shoutout. Thanks so much! We'll see you next time.

TEASER

On our next episode of Doubletake.

LES: Do you think of yourselves as refugees? Ranya Bailey: In some ways, I mean, I think, on principle, yes.

The story of a family that had to decide if and when the dangers of staying home outweighed the risks of leaving.

ANNOUNCER: In 1993 the father placed his severely disabled daughter Tracy in the cab of a truck and filled it with exhaust, ending the 12-year-old’s life.

JASON BAILEY: You could, you'd hear that right away walking into the first patient encounter, ‘I think I need to end my life.’ And that was quite staggering. ...

LARRY WORTHEN... it kind of shows that there's a there's a price to be paid when we take God out of a society.

MONICA GARTNER: Angry. Upset. My hair rises in the back of my neck. It means that your life isn't worth living.

JOE BOOT: It was the most disturbing piece of political theater I've ever seen in my life.

JEFF BARROWS: So if they're moving from Canada to the US and thinking, Oh, we're going to be able to escape this, the news I have for them is, no, you're not. It's here as well.

That’s next Friday on Doubletake.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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