Editor’s note: This story was first published Jan. 27, 2023.

One of my first memories of seeing standup comedy was on a family vacation. The hotel we were staying in had HBO, and Robin Williams was onstage.

My parents overheard, and that was the end of that.

Years later, my fiancee introduced me to the CD “Brian Regan Live” — which quickly went on repeat. After having kids, we discovered a clean comedy playlist on Pandora that we could listen to with children in the car. As my kids got older, they fell in love with Jim Gaffigan.

Clean comedy, it turned out, was a thing.

In 2023, stand-up still skews adult. Some comedy clubs, like The Comedy Catch in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wiseguys in Utah will give comics an age rating based on the profanity and sexual references in their material. Most get an R-rating. More often than not, that hour-long special on your streaming service is intended for “mature” audiences.

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Then there’s Nate Bargatze — “one of the hottest acts in comedy,” according to The Atlantic — who performs three shows at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City this weekend. Bargatze used to perform midnight shows in New York that were billed as “uncensored” but wouldn’t have needed censoring anyway. Or Leanne Morgan, who never wanted to say anything on stage that her three kids couldn’t hear at home.

Dusty Slay can joke about growing up in a trailer park and once being an alcoholic but still do a show “you could bring your aunt to.” Anjelah Johnson-Reyes won’t market herself as “clean,” but the “whole family” can watch her act.

Jerry Seinfeld does a pretty clean show, too.

So while it’s still more subgenre than genre — more something you have to find than something that finds you — there are clean options on your streaming service, your social media feed and at your local comedy club.

So, why would a comic choose this route? According to the comedians I asked, there’s a pretty good case for clean comedy.

What is ‘clean’ comedy?

For clarity, let’s define what clean comedy is and isn’t.

Comics who avoid profanity and refrain from overtly sexual and vulgar material — or “blue” comedy — are generally labeled as “clean.” But it’s not kid comedy.

Morgan, a Tennessean who delivers jokes with a classic Southern accent and is currently headlining a national tour, says she works in the PG-13 range. She’ll talk about menopause, marriage and underwear — but “not in a nasty way.”

“I do use some innuendo,” said Morgan in a phone interview with the Deseret News. “I talk about real things, but I don’t use language and I’m not graphic.”

Slay, a Nashville-based comic who has performed on “The Tonight Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and Netflix’s “The Standups,” says he tries to do an act that can be enjoyed “without anyone being embarrassed.” But it’s still grounded in “adult experiences.”

“I definitely have some PG stuff,” Slay told me in a phone interview. “I have some G-rated stuff. But if you come see me in the club, I’m for more of a mature audience. ... I try to find a way to talk about (adult experiences) that can be relatable without being gross.”

Among those adult themes is alcohol. Slay’s audiences quickly learn about his upbringing in an Alabama trailer park and his struggle with alcoholism. He’s been sober for almost 11 years, but he’s also not afraid to joke about his drinking days.

“I can talk about what a mess I was because I’m not an alcoholic now,” he said.

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Johnson-Reyes does a show that’s clean enough for grandma, but she doesn’t embrace the “clean” label and thinks it can carry a stigma. Her material is adult themed but also age appropriate.

“I don’t cuss, but I do still talk about adult content, meaning my marriage and stuff like that,” she said. “But it’s not going to offend your kids. But I don’t know if they’re going to relate and understand.”

Why do comics work clean?

The comedians I’ve interviewed have simple answers for why they work clean.

“It’s just how I grew up,” Bargatze said. “That’s basically it.”

“It’s really just who I am,” Morgan said.

“I’m just doing what I do,” Regan said during a 2016 interview. “I’m not trying to please anybody. I’m not trying to please a particular audience. I just do the kind of comedy that I like, and if somebody out there gravitates toward it, then wonderful.

Bargatze pointed to his Southern Christian upbringing.

“I could never be dirty in front of my parents,” he said. “Not that that’s the only thing stopping me. It just was never going to happen.”

Bargatze, who Variety called “preternaturally likable,” hosts a weekly podcast called “Nateland” alongside Slay and fellow clean comedians Brian Bates and Aaron Weber. During a 2022 episode, the group discussed the evolution of language in comedy, starting from George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” to today, when “the floodgates have opened.”

Bargatze made the point that comedians simply need to be authentic.

“As a comic, just be what you are,” he said.

Slay talked about never swearing in front of his parents. When I asked him about the comment, Slay said he’s had a few jokes throughout his career that might be considered dirty and has used cuss words “for impact” on occasion. But “doing a lot of cussing” just isn’t part of his personality — especially when he’s around older individuals.

“It may be a Southern thing,” Slay said. “I just have respect for my parents and respect for my elders.”

So, was it a conscious decision for him to keep his language relatively clean on stage?

“A little bit,” he said. “I’ve never been a very dirty comic. ... I want to be the kind of comic that you can share with your family.”

Morgan, who already had three children before she began doing standup, describes herself as a “person of faith” and said she didn’t curse in her home. Morgan says she was once told: “You can’t clean up dirty.”

“I thought that was good advice,” Morgan said. “I’m a mama, so I never wanted to say anything that I didn’t want my children to hear.”

Career prospects for a clean comic

Leanne Morgan | East 2 West Collective

Morgan didn’t start selling out shows until she was 53 years old. She did comedy for 22 years, but her children were always her first priority. She had to “find a different path,” one that included more gigs at churches, corporate events and fundraisers than at comedy clubs. That allowed her to “keep her foot in the door.”

She now has a Netflix special, “I’m Every Woman.”

“If I had been nasty, I couldn’t have kept my toe in the door and raised my kids,” she said.

During the podcast discussion, Bargatze argued clean could be an advantage.

“Competitive standpoint, if you’re on the fence of being clean or dirty and you think you think you could be clean, I would be clean,” he said.

Slay, who describes his comedy as a mix between “redneck and weird,” said it’s “hard to say” if clean or blue provides the better career path.

“If it has had an effect, I would say it’s positive,” he said. “I’d rather be the kind of comic that families can sit around and listen to. If I can be happy with the success that I have and also bring families together, that’s great for me. If it hurts me in some sort of way in the long run, so be it.”

Dusty Slay

For comedians in 2023, opportunities to build audiences go beyond comedy clubs and late-night television. Social media has been a game-changer.

Johnson-Reyes, whose career took off after going viral on YouTube, called social media “the new Johnny Carson show.”

“You don’t have to get a late night spot,” she said. “You can just have a video go viral. And that can blow up your spot. And now you’re touring.”

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Morgan’s big break came after she hired social media consultants as a “last-ditch effort” to expand her career. A clip of her joking about her experiences at a Def Leppard and Journey concert posted in 2019 “turned things around for me,” she said.

“I found my people, and they found me,” said Morgan, who has a book coming out in 2024. “It’s like a community of friends, and it is sweeter and more wonderful than anything I could have imagined. And I know it’s a God thing. God had a plan for me.”

Morgan loves seeing as many as three generations attend her shows.

“I’ll see an 80-year-old man who you know has never been to a comedy club,” she said. “And it’s precious.”

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