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Restriction: A Double-Edged Sword For Comedians

A regular theme for comedy (especially today) is pushing boundaries and seeing just how far you can take a joke. In a way, it’s kind of the golden rule where “anything goes as long as you’re funny.”

As audiences change, there seems to be this inner conflict the general public and even some comedians have: we want things to be funny, but more and more people are becoming sensitive. Take for example Kevin Hart and his alleged homophobic tweets from years ago. People are in a way looking for any reason to get upset, even if it means focusing on your past.

Even as I see comics on the scene, new and not-so-new, it’s gotten to a point where many comedians are actively self-editing to a point where they are watering down their own comedy, because they’re afraid to ruffle feathers and they end up delivering bland material.

Is this completely negative or is there a positive?

Here’s my take on this.

I’m not a big fan of restriction.

Let’s face it, as comics, a restriction is not something we outright applaud. We’re artists and being able to express yourself to the best of your ability requires freedom to do that. That’s why I love a comedy club environment. It’s a place where you expect the performer on stage to really give it their all and not hold back; you can really experience comedy gold when the comic is given the platform to really push it.

At its worst, I have seen instances where restrictions are just nonsensical. I saw an Instagram post from Mark Normand for a charity performance where there was a list for performer guidelines. The comments section on this post was even more hysterical, but when one of the eighteen guidelines (yes, I said eighteen) says “no hospital bashing,” you kind of wonder if they’re serious. And seriously, what comic out there is actually hospital bashing?

Something like this extensive list only makes it difficult for comics to truly be a comic and it often ends up reducing what they originally had to a TED Talk, which is just boring.

There is an upside.

The restriction is inherently negative for comedians, but it’s also going to be something we run into at some point in our careers. While that particular Mark Normand instance is a nightmare scenario, there are positive instances of restrictions for comics. Think about the comic that receives the late night television spot. Late night spots are hard to come by and they are much different than a comedy club spot. Not only do you have to think about what material is late-night worthy, but you also have to think about certain topics that are relatable to a mass audience and something a network would allow. It’s about more than just you at that point and your art has to suitable for the brand you’re working with.

My initial response to restriction will always be to go against it, but when it comes to business you have to look at it as a challenge to conquer because satisfying whoever hired you can lead to even more work.

My own personal experience with restriction involved a charity show in Levelland, TX. The imposed restrictions were very simplistic; just be generally clean (no profanity or sexually explicit content). That was fine, and it challenged me to rewrite material I had previously in a way that could appeal to a wider audience versus just being used in the club. It also made me learn where I can make a joke more impactful thus making this challenge a positive experience.

For comics, you have to take what you get and be aware of your audience. Not every stage is going to be in a club so you have to know how to adapt. Is it the best situation to have restrictions imposed on you? Of course not, but it’s always going to be a learning experience for what you can do with your comedy and test your versatility.

Got questions or something to add? Comment below and tell us your thoughts!

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