Lately, I've been returning to the open mics and loosely booked showcases to try out new stuff. I have found myself wondering if I have become a prudish old man or have younger comics just confused saying something shocking with being funny. Just to be clear; being dirty on stage is fine. It has to be funny first and then happens to be dirty. Not the other way around. Being dirty will produce a reaction but if laughter isn't in the top five responses, its not a joke; its a cry for help!
I closed a showcase recently where the preceding comics carpet-bombed the audience with jokes about jizz, rape, and pedophile jokes. What makes a comic think that after an audience hears 4 other comics bomb with their jizz, rape and pedophile jokes, he is going to get them with his jizz, rape and pedophile jokes? More to the point, if you are new and trying to get opening work, what club is going to want someone to open a show with that? Comics will say, "Louis C.K. does this kind of stuff!" Yes, he does. He also has 20 plus years of skill and rarely is dirty for the sake of being dirty. If a comic like Louis C.K. makes a jizz joke, it usually serves a wider purpose in some social commentary bit.
Then there is the conversation starter of, "No subject should be off-limits." I agree. However, putting all of the most challenging subjects into one seven minute set doesn't work either. A litany of porn, jacking-off, and "women are bitches" jokes isn't going to produce laughs when you are pushing buttons in the crowd. If the joke is about pushing those buttons, it actually stands a better chance of working than something that simple ends with your yelling, "jizz!"
I really do believe no subject is off limits. I also believe most comics don't approach difficult subjects correctly. A female comic asks me, "even rape?" Even rape. You can make a joke that makes fun of peoples attitudes about rape. You can use the word rape in a set up to something else. What you can't do is make light of rape. Besides, it is a loaded word. Bringing it up is bound to create an emotional reaction in more than a few women in the audience. This is a sad reality of society. Thats why young male comics throwing the word around should never be surprised when the audience doesn't go for their rape jokes.
No one gets into comedy to be told what to do. I'm not telling other comics what to do. The audience however, is. When a joke didn't work last year, last month, or last week, why are you still trying it? If a joke ends in a moan from the audience over and over again stop doing it. If you want to tell the audience about your drinking problem, porn addiction, or masturbation habits, go for it. It's your stage time. You just can't be surprised when the audience responds negatively. Then again, if the audience you're performing in front of is other comics waiting to go on after you at an open mic, this stuff is probably working. At a certain point in any comic's early development, shitty open mics where "anything goes" actually hurt. The goal isn't to get the loudest reaction at an open mic on a Tuesday night, the goal is to make a paid crowd laugh hard and often at a club or theatre that is paying you. Here is where the "sell-out" argument starts.
Selling out and getting work aren't the same things. When I work a club, the audience is coming to my home. I am allowed to do whatever I want. If I am working a private or corporate event, I am going to their home. I have to play by their rules if I want to be paid. Somewhere along the path to whatever career I have, I learned that an audience laughing at jizz jokes isn't usually the audience that will pay my bills. I also learned that what I wanted to talk about at 25 no longer interests me at 43. Besides, all jokes aren't created equal. Dick jokes are easy. They will almost always work. So when they don't work you really have to ask yourself whose fault that is. It's not the audience's.
A stand-up comic's job is to train the audience to see the world through his eyes. Jizz jokes might be part of the personal formula for finding out how to do that, but when so many people around you are shouting the identical punch line, you have to wonder just how unique your view is.