Comedian George Carlin made his reputation uttering the seven dirty words that couldn't be said on television repeatedly.
Adam Christing has built his business on dirty words too except he promises never to say them.
Comedians who get gigs through his Clean Comedians booking service are required not to swear or engage in obscenity.
"It doesn't have to be filthy to be funny," said Christing, 40, who has been performing comedy and magic since he was in grade school. Even in eighth grade, he found that humor could bring him success when he ran for class president as the class clown.
"My opponent said, 'Do you really want to elect a clown for student body president?'" he remembered. "Do you really want to legalize pencil fights?' Apparently they did. I was elected."
Christing started booking acts 14 years ago, after realizing there was a demand for "clean" comedians at corporate and other events where obscenity is a no-no. His La Mirada-based business now boasts 120 performers, including straight stand up, comedy-magic, comedy-music, jugglers, physical comedy, improv teams, a comic auctioneer and emcees. Clean Comedians will book more than 500 shows this year at conventions, business events and school events, generating revenue of $1 million.
Sybil Horn, director of promotions for Administaff Inc. a Houston-based human resources outsourcing firm, used to dread booking comics for sales and client conventions. "I would sit there with my fingernails digging into my hands," she recalled. "Death to the corporate meeting planner who hires a bad act."
Good clean comedy has never really gone out of style. Even as Carlin, Lenny Bruce and others were blazing R-rated paths, Bill Cosby appealed to grandparents and grandchildren alike. More recently, there's been Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld.
Christing guarantees good clean fun so much so that all his performers sign a seven-page contract banning them from using seven specific dirty words (though not the same ones Carlin parodied). They also agree not to rely on "toilet humor" and remarks insensitive to a person's "race, ethnicity, gender, sexual behavior or disability." The contract was necessary because some comedians early on cut out the obscenity but then proceeded to make sexual innuendos and other inappropriate material.
"A lot of people are used to saying 'bitch' or 'bitchy.' Or they say 'pissed off,'" Christing said. "Go into a business in Utah and say that and it will be your last gig." Gay humor is also off limits.
Christing gets to be picky about hiring, claiming that the company turns away dozens of prospects each month. "First is the comedy quotient," he said. "Then it has to be squeaky clean. And they have to do at least 40 minutes of material. You can have 20 minutes as opening act in a comedy club but that won't cut it as an after-dinner act at a corporate event."
Nicole White, the company's talent coordinator, said some comics "will call every week with a new joke or they will leave a 15-minute voicemail for me with every impression they have ever learned."
Part of the appeal, said comedian Scott Wood, is that corporate events pay more than comedy clubs. Comedy club headliners can make $2,500 to $3,500 for a weekend or longer gig, but that likely means two shows a night for several nights. The average corporate event might pay $2,000 for a single, 45-minute set.
"I know a lot of guys who are very funny and work dirty, but who are now starting to come on the bandwagon," said Wood, 43, who does one-liners and impressions and has appeared on Comedy Central.
Like others with a "clean" act, Wood believes it's harder to write clean than dirty ("My wife hates the way I dress. The other night she's like, 'Look at you nothing matches.' Which made me mad because I was naked").
He said clean work nets him close to a six-figure income, which is considered good for a journeyman. But there are strings attached. A comedian working a club can show up late, perform and leave. The corporate gigs require them to keep a strict schedule and often socialize with the clients before and after a performance.
Clean Comedians pays its acts between 50 percent and 90 percent of the gross contract, depending on the performer, client and event. They charge on average $3,000 per corporate gig, meaning the comic could make anywhere from $1,500 to $2,700. School assemblies and private parties go for as little as $500.
Christing, who grew up in La Mirada, was "bit by the magic bug" when he was 9 years old, leading to his acceptance into a Magic Castle junior group as a teenager. (He remembers being told: "Your magic is not that good, but you are really funny so we will let you in.")
He attended Biola University, an evangelical Christian university in La Mirada, where he still lives with his second wife and two children. (He has two children from a prior marriage.)
In 1990, a friend came to him with the idea of booking themselves as "clean comedians." At the time, he was struggling to make ends meet. "It was really like bells went off in my head," he said.
In one month, he performed 62 shows, including one at a morticians' society. But he quickly realized there was even better money booking other performers, and he started the agency while continuing to take gigs. By 1992, he had 10 acts, hired a booking coordinator and moved the business out of his house and into an office.
At the time, dirty comedy was popular, with Andrew "Dice" Clay and shows like the "Def Comedy Jam" pushing the limits of good taste. But moderation appears to be settling in. "The shock value wore off. You just don't need it," said Budd Friedman, owner of The Improv comedy club.
He's built the corporate roster through a combination of repeat business, referrals, direct mail and cold calling. Still, Clean Comedians only has a sliver of the corporate event market, and Christing is fishing around for a strategic partnership with a large entertainment company. He believes he could grow the business 10-fold through the large national media buys such an arrangement would afford.
His formula for bringing the business this far: "Fake it till you make it."
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