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Jim Gaffigan, Brian Regan, other comedians find that 'clean' works for them

By Erica Palmer

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Aug. 8 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Jim Gaffigan says it's hard to be angry when you're talking about doughnuts.

Alan Gastelum

Jeff Allen wanted to stop swearing.

For the Southerner who grew up among blue-collar construction workers, cursing was always part of his everyday language — and it filled his comedy routines. But when Allen found himself struggling in his career as a stand-up comic, he decided to see if dropping the swear words would help.

So he took his young son with him to his acts at the nightclub, offering to pay him 25 cents for every curse word that slipped through.

Although it took some adjusting — he owed his son as much as $3 by the end of one show — Allen found that once he did away with the swearing, he had a pretty clean act. He also found his stories getting funnier and more eloquent because he was forced to dig deeper instead of falling back on curse words as punch lines.

"It was just a conscious decision to see if I could do it," he said. "And then I realized through the challenge that there's something to be said by parameters and boundaries. … When we live within those parameters, we are as free as we've ever been. I learned that within my comedy."

Stand-up comedy is all too often associated with crude langauge and sexual humor, but there are "clean" comedians out there — entertainers like Allen who consciously avoid profane language and objectionable subject matter. Their career trajectories and reasons for working clean vary. Allen, who says he was an angry alcoholic, was seeking a change. Jenna Kim Jones keeps her act clean so she can sleep at night. Henry Cho took advice from legendary comic Jerry Seinfeld. Brian Regan is simply re-enacting situations from his life. And Jim Gaffigan just likes to talk about doughnuts and bacon.

But they all have a few things in common: a knack for finding comedy in everyday life, a strong emphasis on family, a love for making other people laugh and a track record that shows you can be funny without being crass. And in many ways, being clean has proved to be an advantage in their careers.

Why be clean?

Regan regularly performs before sold-out audiences in Utah. According to his online biography, he broke Seinfeld's record with five sold-out shows in Salt Lake City in March 2010. He has performed on "The Late Show with David Letterman" dozens of times and has produced multiple CDs and DVDs.

He said his comedy is clean not for religious or "overly wholesome" reasons but because that's just what he finds funny.

"Clean to me is not the point of my comedy," Regan said in an interview with the Deseret News. "I don't sit down at a blank piece of paper and say, 'All right, try to write clean jokes.' That's not my mission. My mission is to write about things that interest me, and I tend to like to talk about everyday stuff."

Regan said the word “clean” is more descriptive of the tone than of the comedy itself.

"Take a famous band, like the Beatles or something,” he said. “Their music is clean, you know? But you wouldn't say, ‘Wow, why do you write clean music?’ It's like, well, (they) just write music. And people take away from it what they want to take away from it."

Gaffigan, a Grammy-nominee and New York Times best-selling author, said the subject matter his comedy is built on naturally lends itself to being clean.

"It's not really necessary to curse when you're discussing doughnuts," Gaffigan said in an interview with the Deseret News. "I might curse one on one with someone or if I’m angry, but I’m not someone who would necessarily feel comfortable cursing in front of a large room, unless it was completely necessary. That’s not to say that I’ve never cursed in my act. …

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