Standup comedy enticed me with my first exposure, at an age so young I don’t remember. Johnny Carson, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and Rita Rudner filled our tv screen, and their jokes filled our conversations. I even remember Sinbad’s debut on Star Search, and watching each rerun of it. “Baby?….Where’s my credit card?!”
The Twin Cities has a rich selection of comedy events, from the most professional to the most amateur, any night of the week. Now the mother of three preteens, I hoped to find within it a pocket of kid appropriate shows so they could experience it live.
So I asked a few local comics. Many simply said no, they didn’t know of any “clean” or “kid-friendly” shows in town. My kids will soon all be in middle school. I wasn’t thinking especially kid friendly, so much as not-too-raunchy. They are used to foul language and some sexual content, but my kids would not enjoy over-the-top raunchy.
National acts may indicate “for all ages,” but this does not equate to a “G” movie rating. A comedy event with several comedians in the line-up is likely to have adult humor. Local professional comedian Mike Brody advises getting familiar with a performer’s content online, but know what you find online is not a guarantee of content you can expect on a given night. This is especially true if the footage you find aired on national network television, as it was likely censored.
Improvisation, however, has some cleaner options. Alsa Bruno, a local improvisation artist with Blackout Improv and others, says that some improv groups try to keep their content suitable for most ages, in order to make it accessible to a wider audience. Rated-G is a group that has gone the extra mile to make their act truly kid-friendly. I took my kids to see their recent performance at HUGE Theater on Lyndale just south of Lake Street. They rolled their eyes at the title (again, middle schoolers), but laughed a ton and even admitted to having fun afterwards. The audience submitted themes in a basket to draw at random, and my daughter’s idea was used in their performance. “Mind blown,” she said, wondering how they made it work.
I took them to a few other theatrical events around town billed as kid-friendly. These were great events. But my attempt to keep their exposure kid friendly left me thinking about what they were missing.
One thing Bruno, Brody, and other comics helped me better understand is why standup does not fit easily inside the box of kid-friendly entertainment. In stand up, the person entertaining you stands alone, and as herself rather than playing a character. Comedians harvest personal experience for material, extracting painful ironies and awkward circumstances, to then twist and time for the laugh. Many jewels of life experience that make comedy sing are less kid friendly. It is hard enough to make all that work onstage, without adding the constraints of censorship.
Then I realized. This discomfort, the humor in real life, is the very reason I want my kids exposed to comedy. It is a palatable introduction to tough topics and experiences in life, and sometimes not so palatable. But my kids are at the ages where they are hearing about adult topics anyway. Lifting the veil of censorship allows conversations we should be having, and inspiring them in the most fun manner. I find the greatest comedy is that which makes us question the world.
So I have stopped looking for kid-friendly, and started looking for shows that allow the under 18 crowd. This is more easily found with national acts booked in larger venues, but some clubs might work, as well. I’ve found that comedy club rules around under 18 or 21 admission varies, so always inquire with the club directly to be sure.
I still survey content ahead of time, but I worry less about controlling the situation. If my kids hear something they are not ready for, the inevitable conversation afterward are lessons they need to learn anyway. They may as well learn to laugh about them.
Sally Vardaman Johnson is an essayist who recently began performing standup comedy to stretch her creative muscles and show her kids you’re never too old to try something new. You can read her occasional pondering at sallysmart.wordpress.com, and follow her on Twitter at @vardaman_sally.