Laugh Lines: Keep It Clean
Dirty words are for the birds...
By Gene Perret
It may have started with Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during halftime of the 2004 Super Bowl, but lately more crudities are appearing on television programs. Actress Diane Keaton let a colorful adjective slip out during a daytime interview. Jane Fonda used a vulgar noun when she was a guest on The Today Show. Several celebrities have spiced up their awards-show acceptance speeches with obscenities. The implication is that street language is now acceptable.
It shouldn’t be from the podium.
There are good reasons why working clean should remain the preferred platform protocol. Following are several reasons why inoffensive presentations benefit both the speaker and the audience:
Dignity: Part of a speaker’s mission is to present an impressive image. That’s why we dress fashionably and appropriately. It’s why we’re concerned with our posture and our bearing while center stage. We want to project an image that not only deserves, but demands attention.
Our image is as much a part of our message as our text is. Once I sat in the audience while a well-known motivational speaker preached to his listeners that they could “have anything they wanted.” Unfortunately, as he spoke these words he unbuttoned his suit jacket. A young lady seated behind me whispered to her seatmate, “I guess he wants to have that pot belly hanging over his belt.”
Everything we bring to the podium affects audience reaction – including our vocabulary. It’s difficult to appear intelligent, dignified and respected if we use words that are coarse, undignified and distasteful.
Respect: As speakers, we expect our audience to respect us. We’d like them to be attentive and considerate to us. But that respect must flow in both directions – from the audience to the stage, and from the podium to the listeners.
Indecent language shows little respect for the audience.
If you were invited to dine with someone’s family, you wouldn’t be welcome if you laced your dinner conversation with unseemly language. As a speaker, you are an invited guest. You don’t know everyone in the audience. Therefore, you shouldn’t presume that they will welcome tasteless language just because you prefer to use it.
It’s called “offensive language” because it offends – or at least, it has the potential to offend. Some speakers may argue, “Well, it doesn’t offend me.” That may be true, but the speaker is not the only one who hears the words he or she speaks. The audience hears them, too. As invited guests, the listeners’ sensitivities should take precedence over the speaker’s.
Creativity: A speaker is judged not only by the message conveyed but also by the conveyance of that message. It’s the orator’s obligation to not only say something worthwhile but to say it in such a way that people can understand it, relate to it and seriously consider its value. This requires skill and creativity.
As a comedy instructor for both performers and writers, I would rigidly enforce my own “no blue material” edict. Many of the students kidded me about that, playfully labeling me “The Prude.” Prudery, though, had nothing to do with it; concern for the craft was what I was emphasizing.
My contention was that once beginning comedy performers or writers resorted to blatantly off-color material, they would come to depend on it. Consequently, they would abandon the search for deeper comedy content. They’d surrender to the easy, shocking blue material and leave the truly innovative, more perceptive humor unmined.
To illustrate, let me tell you a story about Winston Churchill. There have been slightly different versions of the famous anecdote, but the basic tale is this: A woman who disliked the British Prime Minister once insulted him by saying, “Winston, if I were your wife, I would poison your tea.” Churchill responded with, “Madam, if I were your husband, I would drink it.” Isn’t that a more forceful and inventive response than merely retaliating by calling her an obscene name?
The same applies to a speaker’s salient points. Certainly throwing an unpleasant adjective in front of your points highlights them. Isn’t it, though, more effective to find some sparkling, acceptable, more articulate way of capturing your audience’s attention?
The profane is easier, surely; the romantic, lyrical, philosophical language is more effective – and more appreciated by the listeners.
Responsibility: You, the speaker, are representing whomever hired you – the corporation, the association, the school, whatever. Certainly you’re offering your own views, insight and logic on whatever topic you speak on, but you’re doing it with their imprimatur. Your speech reflects on them.
It’s unwise and it’s unfair to use language in your presentation that they might be held accountable for.
Focus: A speaker steps onto the podium because he or she has something to say, something that’s worth listening to, something that will in some way benefit a goodly portion of those who hear it. That speaker has a message. However, even the most edifying theme is worthwhile only if it is heard and remembered. Those who hire a speaker for educational purposes often advise, “Give our people something they can take home with them.” In other words, give them something they can reflect on and use for some time to come.
But if you use spicy language in a lecture, it can be more distracting than productive. It can cause controversy. What good is it to deliver a beneficial lesson if people talk more about the way it was delivered – in a negative sense – than about the lesson itself? A good speaker wants people to remember what was said and not the ill-advised language used in saying it.
Reputation: There’s a saying in show business – “You’re only as good as your last show.” You can have years and years of solid performing behind you, but give one bad performance, for whatever reason, and offers start dwindling.
A reputation is a valuable commodity for a speaker or an entertainer. It’s also very delicate, as that show business adage illustrates.
Professional speakers live by recommendations and word of mouth. One offensive presentation can destroy both. Even if you sincerely feel that some of your indelicate language is acceptable, is it worth including it if it might endanger the years of good will and solid reviews that you’ve already built up?
Good Business: Speakers want to get bookings. There’s hardly any sense in being a speaker if you have no place to speak. You want your reputation and your presentation to have broad appeal. Therefore, it’s counter-productive to introduce something into your act that limits your appeal. Indelicate language in your presentations can do just that…and that’s just bad business.
It’s Great to Be Back: Whenever I do repeat performances I begin with a story about a court-ordered hanging in an old Western town. A politician happened to be in the town on that eventful day and asked the mayor if he could address the people gathered there. The mayor said it was all right with him, but he would have to ask for the condemned man’s permission. The condemned man said, “I don’t mind if he speaks, but could you hang me first? I’ve already heard his talk.”
It’s wonderful to be able to use that opening, because it means I’ve gotten repeat business. Professional speakers depend on that. Being hired back for an encore speaking performance means more money in the speaker’s pocket.
So once you’ve got the first engagement, don’t jeopardize the invitation to come back by using language that might offend.
Let the celebrities lace their acceptance speeches with profanity if they like. Let the movie stars inadvertently say something untoward in their interviews. Let comics defend their blue material. From the platform, though, let us continue to work clean.
Gene Perret has won several Emmys for his work on The Carol Burnett Show. He was Bob Hope’s head writer for 12 years and has written many books about humor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.