Straight From the Source: Why standup comedy doesn't have to be dirty

  • Business humorist Greg Schwem's audiences include executives from McDonald's, Southwest Airlines, Ace Hardware and the CIA. Schwem said he's a clean comedian and wears that badge proudly.

    Business humorist Greg Schwem's audiences include executives from McDonald's, Southwest Airlines, Ace Hardware and the CIA. Schwem said he's a clean comedian and wears that badge proudly. Courtesy of Greg Schwem

  • Greg Schwem has been a full-time comedian for nearly 30 years and has found his niche entertaining Fortune 500 companies and professional business associations.

    Greg Schwem has been a full-time comedian for nearly 30 years and has found his niche entertaining Fortune 500 companies and professional business associations. Courtesy of Greg Schwem

 
By Greg Schwem
Special to the Daily Herald
Updated 3/4/2019 9:59 AM
Editor's note: Greg Schwem is a standup comedian/emcee/columnist/blogger/greeting card writer/author who grew up in Arlington Heights, attended Prospect High School and now lives in the Southwest suburbs. Much of Greg's work pokes fun at today's corporate world and shares his musings on fatherhood. He takes his act to business meetings and outings. And in that sort of environment, he says, it pays to keep it clean. But then, with one notable exception 40 years ago, that's always been his M.O.

Standup comedy is hotter than ever.

Or is it?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Yes, audiences are still packing comedy venues, and there is a greater awareness of comedians and their art, according to Zanies General Manager Bert Haas, who oversees three clubs in Chicago, Rosemont and St. Charles.

Meanwhile, opening monologues from Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert go viral on social media within hours after the late-night hosts tape their shows.

And yet audiences, in Haas' opinion, have grown more judgmental, particularly younger generations.

"Audiences are very sensitive to topics," he said. "Anything perceived as racism or homophobic, it's like, 'Oooh, we can't laugh at that joke because we might be perceived as racist.' It's hard for comics to get on a roll."

What's a comedian to do? Or say?

I have been a full-time standup comedian for nearly 30 years. In June 1989, I resigned my job as a television news reporter in West Palm Beach, Florida, to pursue my dream. After several years of performing in clubs from Omaha to Biloxi, I found my niche speaking to, and entertaining, Fortune 500 companies and professional business associations.

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Some call me a "corporate comedian," although I prefer "business humorist." My audiences now include high-ranking executives from McDonald's, Southwest Airlines, Ace Hardware and the CIA. Yes, even America's covert intelligence community likes to laugh at itself!

Invariably, the front row of these audiences also includes the company's human resources director, nervously tapping his or her foot and waiting for me to utter a profanity or perform extended riffs on sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity and other topics that have garnered the "taboo" label simply because audience members -- even a single audience member -- may find the material distasteful.

My contracts often contain language forbidding me to perform "material of an offensive nature," a gray phrase if there ever was one but a requirement I must adhere to.

I'm proud to say I've never had an issue with a client. And that's not due to pure luck. I choose to be a "clean comedian" and I wear that badge proudly.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The choice to work clean was actually made for me, when I first dipped my toe into the churning waters of standup comedy. At 16, I performed a five-minute open mic set at the Comedy Cottage, one of Chicago's first full-time comedy clubs, nestled on River Road near O'Hare airport. Performing to a crowd of, well, bar patrons, I nervously let an F-bomb -- OK, maybe a couple -- drop during my set. Afterward, a kindly audience member approached me in the parking lot.

"You're 16 and you look like you're 12," he said. "Why would you use language like that? It doesn't go with your appearance. Or your material."

At that moment, I vowed to perform without cursing, a decision that has paid off significantly. I've never been turned down for a job because I was "too clean." Nor have I ever been approached by an audience member who claimed my show would have been more enjoyable had I thrown in a few profanities, described my genitalia or told you, the audience, that your political beliefs were wrong and mine were correct.

My material tends to focus on family life (a never-ending source of humor when you're a dad with two daughters), the frustrations of technology (have YOU ever tried to teach your 82-year-old mother how to work an iPad?) and, lately, health.

My Fitbit recently dubbed me "awesome" after I walked 50 steps. I didn't have the heart to tell it my "exercise" was composed of 25 steps to the refrigerator for leftover Super Bowl chicken wings and 25 steps back to the couch.

Does that mean I think ALL comedians should perform profanity-free shows and not talk about their sexual exploits or their opinions of the #MeToo movement? Of course not. I also feel they should be free to perform it without being lambasted in social media or, worse, being forced to publicly apologize for jokes.

Tracy Morgan was forced to do just that several years ago after some, not all but some, audience members took offense to his anti-gay material. Meanwhile, Boston comic Bill Burr's routines are littered with F-bombs, and he's been filling concert halls for years.

Is material about having a gay son funny? Is the F-bomb humorous? Obviously, Morgan and Burr think so and should therefore be allowed to incorporate such topics and words into their acts.

Audience members who think otherwise can voice their displeasure with silence or by not purchasing tickets to their shows. Another suggestion for skittish comedy patrons is to vet the comedian before paying to see him or her live. Even the comedy club's emcee should have a few performance clips on YouTube.

The bottom line? It's my job as a comedian to make you, the club patron, or you, the IBM meeting planner, laugh. You paid me for that privilege, so I want to send you home with a smile on your face as opposed to a spike in your blood pressure.

For me, working clean increases those odds.

You can find evidence of Greg Schwem all over the place:

• Greg's website: https://www.gregschwem.com/

• Greg's YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/gregschwem

• Greg's web series, A Comedian Crashes Your Pad: https://www.youtube.com/acomediancrashesyourpad

• Greg's Funny Dad website: http://funnydadinc.com/

• Greg's books: https://www.amazon.com/Greg-Schwem/e/B004HE94CK

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