The Zen Comedian, when asked whether it is simply a crutch to rely on dirty material, had this to say: “Jokes come from within, and they should never be censored.” As always, the Zen Comedian’s advice may at first seem inscrutable and unsatisfactory, but I believe that when considered fully, it holds great wisdom. I take this counsel to mean that no joke was ever enhanced either by the addition or subtraction of objectionable material, and that it is a mistake to consider the cleanliness of material as apart from your bit’s core subject matter. When writing material, if your mind naturally goes not the realm of what is considered “dirty” material, it is important to let your mouth go there too (that’s what she said).
For a modern example of this principle taken to its greatest fruition, I look no further than Dave Attell, and his consistently impish demeanor. In his most recent special “Road Work,” he has a bit where he considers that his sex toys were probably made in China, and this excites him. “I know it’s sick but it does make it a little more erotic knowing that little hands have been all over them, doesn’t it?” I don’t know if Dave Attell actually thinks this about his sex toys, but when thinking of jokes about sex toys, this consideration made him laugh. This is what the Zen Comedian means in saying that “jokes come from within,” and it is this type of honesty that the Zen Comedian warns against censoring.
I’ve been working on a bit that might be considered “dirty” by some, but it contains a greater honesty about myself than I have heretofore achieved. I tend to open a set with this joke, stating first that “you may not think it to look at me, but I am a dues-paying member of the pipe-layers union.” I then pause as around half the audience laughs and the other half wonders what I mean, then I clarify with a simple statement: “Because I lay pipe.” This joke is honest in that do share an active sex life with my girlfriend, and in that I genuinely giggle to myself when I consider well-worn colloquialisms like “laying pipe” used in this way. I love this bit in the exquisite pause I allow myself between the first and second punch line, and in its brusque honesty.
Not long ago, I would never have developed a bit like this, because I might have deemed its use boastful, but that would have been censoring myself. When the Zen Comedian says that jokes should never be “censored,” I don’t believe he speaks of vulgarity per se, but only that the jokes should come out of you unencumbered by too much thought. So the Zen Comedian’s core lesson, it seems to me, is that the comedian should never compromise what in his or her jokes is most funny, regardless of its level of vulgarity.