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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 February 2007, 12:03 GMT
Can clean comedy be funny?
From left: Russell Brand, Peter Kay, Eddie Izzard, Bernard Manning

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

It's the first day of Lent, and the Church of England is launching a stand-up comedy club to try to make the period a little less solemn. There's one rule - keep it clean. Will this still get the laughs?

The chances of Chubby Brown appearing at The Laughing Sole, Birmingham's newest comedy club, are very remote.

The club's founder, Helen Tomblin, hopes to keep the material clean and says that cutting out the swearing and crude material can enhance the standard of the humour.

The club is part of a wider effort by the Church of England to make Lent, which began on Wednesday, a bit more fun. The Love Life, Live Lent campaign invites people to share clean jokes about what is traditionally a period of abstinence and solemn reflection in the run-up to Easter.

Peter Kay is not completely clean but what he does is find common ground with a lot of people - that's why he's successful
Comedian Andy Kind
But do clean laughs still pack a punch? A visit to any comedy club on a Friday night would suggest many acts rely on risque material sprinkled with bad language. And when the Brit Awards were broadcast on prime-time TV last week, presenter Russell Brand offended some viewers with his explicit tales.

Andy Kind, a Christian and a stand-up comic, believes there is such a prevalence of crudity on the circuit that all new comics mistakenly think that is a blueprint to follow. But there are successful exceptions.

"Peter Kay is not completely clean but what he does very well is find common ground with a lot of people. Laughter is all about recognition and he's so successful because he finds common ground with more people than any kind of comic. That's why he's successful, not because people are aware of him as dirty or clean."

Keep it bland?

There are crude comics who are also brilliant, but it's the subject matter which makes them so, not the language. And Kind fears people who like clean comedy can feel excluded and not catered for.

He believes the tide is starting to change as clean comedy nights are being launched elsewhere, but crude material will always have a place.

Arthur Smith
A well-placed swear word is a marvellous bit of grammar
Arthur Smith
Comedy without any "grit" would be very bland, says comedian and writer Arthur Smith.

"Humour is meant to challenge a bit. I agree that some comedians swear too much but a well-placed swear word is a marvellous bit of grammar. Used just into the punch line, maybe as the penultimate word, a big swear word will probably enhance the laughter.

"Just a stream of filth can be dull. And if you are a bit nervous on stage the swearing is a way of hiding a lack of material."

Comedy also needs cruelty and victims, he says, and while observation comedy like Peter Kay's is often victimless, too much of it can be sterile.

In finding its targets, his own generation steered clear of the mother-in-law or Pakistani jokes of the past and instead attacked the ruling class.

Ginger hair

But other comics believe it is cruelty to a live audience that needs to be reined in.

Janice Connolly, who worked with Peter Kay on Phoenix Nights and will perform at The Laughing Sole when it opens next week, says: "I don't like audiences being terrified to sit at the front and the good comedian isn't the one that makes people feel shamed or abused or awkward."

Jim Bowen
I like to sit comfortably with my wife and daughter and watch a good comic
Jim Bowen
Making hackneyed jibes about people's jumpers or ginger hair are becoming less common, she says, and some comics like Russell Brand manage to be rude but kind at the same time.

"I don't think comedy should be offensive, but I won't take the edge off my material. A lot of it is physical anyway. Laurel and Hardy were clean and very funny. Good comedy is clean comedy."

For veteran comics, staying within the boundary of what they think is acceptable becomes instinctive.

Jim Bowen, who describes himself as "69 plus vat", says: "When you're my age you've got your own standards and they're subliminal.

"You don't analyse it too much because the comedy is squeezed out of it and you have to be true to yourself."

He believes Little Britain can be offensive while Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson also cross the line.

"My criteria is just to be funny and I like to sit comfortably with my wife and daughter and watch a good comic. Sadly I know I'm in the minority."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I don't think there is a need to swear in comedy - if it's a good joke then it's good with or without offensive language. Two of my favourite stand up artists very rarely swear - Bill Bailey and Tim Vine - but I think they are brilliant, witty and very clever comics. Tim Vine is a Christian who has made it relatively big in a secular scene.
Paul Childs, Ormskirk, Lancashire

The two funniest comedians I've ever seen are Bill Bailey and Milton Jones. Most of Bill Bailey's comedy is clean, harmless fun, although a bit political at times (no harm in that). And Milton Jones is a Christian, as well as being a Comedy Club regular. He's also popular at the Edinburgh Fringe. Comedy can be clean. I watch comedians and shows with swear words, and they CAN be funny. But it takes more intelligence to come up with clean comedy, because you don't resort to cheap swear word jokes, or jokes about sex...
Pete Collins, Bath

As the greatest stand-up of them all put it, at Jongleurs Jerusalem: "Wine-water, water-wine. Jus' like that."
Tim, Bangkok, Thailand

Of course comedy can be clean and funny. Three words - The Goon Show. Find it on BBC Seven.
Tom, Coventry

Surely this is missing the point, regardless of whether a comic uses bad language or 'crude' subject matter, if you find him funny watch him, and if not don't. But to say offensive comics aren't funny is an insult, take Billy Connolly for instance.
Michael Band, Glasgow

Two words....Tim Vine
Brian, Eastleigh

As a stand-up comedian my act started becoming good when I removed all the swearing. There is a belief amongst new comics that throwing a swear word into any sentence will help it get a laugh - this is obviously untrue. However, comedy should be challenging. The best comedy makes you sit uncomfortably for a while and have a think as well as a laugh and sometimes talking about controversial subjects is necessary...
Dave Howarth, Leeds

I have seen a comic Milton Jones on the circuit, he is hilarous without the need to be swearing all the time. I think swearing is a cheap laugh, for emphasis it is funny but all too often it is just to cover bad material. Check out Milton Jones and see what I mean.
Helen Heywood, Esher UK

When we are no longer allowed to laugh at jokes mocking political correctness (including racism), it will be a very sad day. I agree with Arthur Smith entirely - swearing isn't necessary, but done correctly it can enhance a joke.
Ian Yates, London, UK

Billy Connelly is excellent - he uses swearing but his style is so good you forget - but on the other hand I used to enjoy Lee Evans - until I saw his live act - totally ruined by his swearing, swearing can just be put in to fill the gaps - no skill needed. Its more about how and when its used - blasphemy is always wrong. I'd love for us to have clean comedy, just think how popular The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise were - good clean FAMILY comedy.
Cathy , S Wales

Having grown up with the Muppets and Bill Cosby, there are plenty of good clean jokes and gags. The teller just has to paint a picture and draw the audience into it.
Candace, New Jersey, US

It is a shame that some genuinely funny people have taken the new swearing routines to be the norm because it does belittle the comic's act. Fair enough for those targeting teenagers who will always find swearing funny, but surely the best ones want to make the more sophisticated audience laugh as well. If the C of E audiences reach good comics then it can only be an influence of good for us all I think.
Alistair Moss, Orkney

The best stand-up comedian in the country is Daniel Kitson. I have seen him in a variety of environments and can work any space. He doesn't have to use bad language and his best work is story-based. Peter Kay is offensive in a very different way - check out the racism in Phoenix Nights for example.
Phil Harrington, Newport, S Wales

Clean, Christian Comedy. I'm losing the will to live just reading the article.
MB, London

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