Music & Entertainment

Profanity and Morality

Steve Martin

Lesson time 9:16 min

Steve discusses the questions that face every comedian when it comes to vulgarity and political correctness.

Steve Martin
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Certain performers can do foul material. It's fantastic. Richard Pryor-- I'm not saying that it was foul, I mean, not by today's standards-- but it can be. It could be so funny, and somebody else has it, and it's vulgar in some way, and I mind it. And other performers, it's just up to the performer, but I don't have any judgment on the type of material. It could be completely dirty or completely clean. I don't care. That's not how it works. It's all about this thing called comedy and how you make that work. And I hate to sit here and go, there's no real answer. I could just give you directions. That's what's so great about it. There's no one way to be a painter. There's no way to solve it. And even if somebody solves it, they solved it personally. And someone else comes along and is also fantastic. [MUSIC PLAYING] There is definitely an argument for your position on political correctness. And you can violate it, I think, to a degree, or not violate it, which I think is actually preferable, because I think there's a lot to PC that is good. And there's a lot happening that is not so good. People are probably too easily offended, but we're in that sort of backlash stage of people being offensive. So I think that'll all settle out. And sometimes I've seen artists break boundaries and went, ooh, and then later, you kind of thought it was funny. But when you break that boundary, when you say I'm going to talk about this, you're defining yourself. And it's about your-- and this is not judgmental. It's about what your morality is. So you're kind of defining your morality. When Madonna came on the scene, she was really pushing a morality boundary, talking about vaginas, and this, and the way she dressed, and the religious things. But now that's sort of common. It became almost passe. So this is a question that is almost unanswerable. Because you'll know, if you're a non-PC person, you're going to learn very quickly how far you can go. So I'd just be very careful there. If you're going to test it, make sure you test it privately so it doesn't stick with you. And today, something can stick with you forever. [MUSIC PLAYING] It's very-- relatively easy to do comedy that insults people, because there's always us and them. And I think that's perfect when you're young. As I get older and I've had more experience, you become more empathetic to people. And now like a thing that would have meant nothing to me, you know, 30 years ago, I go mmm, somewhere there's someone watching who might be overweight, who might be this or that. And I start to feel for them. But it's not the purview of the young to become too sensitive I would think. But it's very interesting to think of what is kind comedy? And kind comedy would usually reflect back on yourself. You would make fun of yourself rather than other peopl...

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One of Steve’s first gigs was at the drive-in movies. When the audience liked a joke, they honked. In this comedy class, Steve shares insights from performing for cars and humans over a 50-year career spanning sold-out arenas and blockbuster films. Learn how to find your voice, gather material, develop an act, and take your comedy writing to the next level.


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Very pragmatic and useful. I'm glad I took this. My both sons, 9 and 12 years, are picking up this really well too. Mr. Martin is super good!

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Eddy J.

I really agree with this on profanity. It all depends on the character it is coming from. Besides my all time favorite Steve Martin is George Carlin. One thing I never understood is sometimes his choice of cursing. His material and thoughts were so orignal thought provoking and hilarious. Then he would say at the end "Fuck!" Or "The Goddamn politicians!" etc. This material and act even character did not need this at all. I wondered why he did it? Did he think it added emphasis on the material or punctuated it and made it funnier? I think it would have been just as strong without it in most cases.


Sensitivity does seem to come with age... “Knock knock. Who’s there? Tank. Tank who? You’re welcome”. Lolz 😘💕

Nadine J.

I literally cannot get over the value offered in this course. Kudos to all of you up there and the way Steve Martin compassionately critiques each script. What a great group, so brave, vulnerable, funny and helpful. I loved this critique most so far. Something about Will that is so contrasting — at first very nervous and sincere and then super connective, and you can see how hilarious his acts might be. I could relate to this one a lot. Probably also because I have a super hard time with the news. I'd probably be laughing through tears at this one. I thought Steve Martin's critique on the baby part was perfect too. Saying it once was more than enough and mumbling it comedically would change the shock to laughter and comic relief.

A fellow student

I like singing and i like to write comedy. I have not been before an audience. Profanity can be funny if its not used all the time. I don't use it. I write about how couples meet, date and enjoy sexual trends, They have evolved from the sexual revolution to today. . By the way 21st century man is close to cave man in his romance. Great lesson. Hope to submit a copy of a comedic monologue soon.

Darien B.

I agree how some comedians of take things too far with material without fully understanding the practical ramifications of their actions. Like how if someone is overweight, or disabled (Like Myself) i think we should try and find ways to make a joke funny but without having to resort to foul language or insult comedy.

Jordan C.

(Hey, french canadian here so, if some sentences sounds « fucked up » I'll make a Justin Bieber of me and say « Sorry » :P) More seriously, I really do agree with M. Martin. I'm in my mid-30s, so maybe I've started to be more empathetic, but I do think being harsh if it doesn't add anything to the joke is kind of a lazy act. I've been in the advertising world and if I learned a useful thing is this : don't say it in 6 words if 3 can do the same job. It is a fact for a copy, for a punchline and I think it is true about vulgarity : If something else less harsh can fit without any cost for the laughs or the act, use it instead. In the end, it's elevate your creativity and individuality. ;)


Regarding profanity and morality: it really does come down to your onstage persona--the person you want to be up there. I can't imagine angry George Carlin not swearing (profanity) or racist Archie Bunker being kind or even politically correct (morality). But if you're just throwing obscenities into your act to get a laugh, that's lazy. Likewise, it's very easy to create camaraderie with an audience by singling out a shared enemy or making someone the butt of a joke, but again, this is sort of lazy. I think there's a caveat here, though, because many of us (myself included) grew up swearing and curse words are part of our everyday lexicon. So should we actively work to remove these words from our act or our writing? If they're what's getting the laughs, then maybe we should. But if our material is strong enough to stand on its own and the curse words are part of our language (like an accent or a regional, cultural, or professional dialect) or if the meanness is part of our persona, then I say fuck it (and fuck whomever is offended by it), leave it in there.


Doug Stanhope is one of the exceptions to the offensive comedy rule. He makes fun of taboo topics - but he does it out of compassion for others, not spite. I think kind comedy rule is simply: if you have walked in the shoes of the experience you want to talk about, you can personalize it and go for it. The bottom line is to like people to be successful as any artist and that means bridging the distance to form a connection. Us vs. Them pushes people away and they won't likely be on your side.

Rony S.

I watched Doug Stanhope earlier this year. He told tales so obscene that I didn't know whether I was offended or in simply in awe. Either way, he killed, I laughed to the point of tears. After the show I decided I needed to at least attempt stand-up comedy once in my life.

Robert A.

I don't use profanity. I don't care for using it. The reason is because I know it doesn't take talent to say some cuss word. Its being kind of desperate to get the audience on your side, and laughs right away in my opinion to go way overboard with profanity. Thats why I don't do it. I like being different as much as possible and work for laughs. Thats why it's not my style. But I don't think less of any comedian who does it. But I just encourage any aspiring comedian to just be funny.