In Utah County, the jokes have been rated G for all audiences.
A Mormon, a Catholic and an atheist walk into a comedy club…and the Diet Cokes they order are the dirtiest punchlines in this story because this club is in Utah County. Ask anyone who has made their final exodus from Utah County and they’ll tell you the culture of Happy Valley leaves much to be desired, but the strange milieu of prevalent cultural influences were the perfect conditions to create a petri dish in which the bacteria of a burgeoning comedy scene can grow. A squeaky clean comedy scene, the germs of which have become Utah County’s main cultural export, partially thanks to the viral nature of social media. We endeavored to discover the secret of the scene’s evolution and laud the success of the comedians, performers and content creators at its core.
How did Tanner Rahlf get into stand-up? He needed friends. His first lonely year at BYU-Idaho, Rahlf found his way to open mic nights in Rexburg where he found his birds of a feather.
“There is something wrong with every comedian,” he says. “When I started doing comedy in Rexburg, the college had started a club for people with depression and we all joked that there was already a club for people with depression. It was everyone doing stand-up at open mic nights.”
From there he moved on to BYU in Provo and once again, not knowing a soul, found his way in the then flourishing stand-up, sketch comedy and improv scenes. With friends he met at ImprovBroadway, Rahlf co-founded a sketch comedy group called The Darned. And, as the name implies, the group mostly works clean.
“Sure, offensive humor can be very clever,” he says and often works blue, but he understands the culture that creates an audience for clean comedy. “I grew up Mormon having to censor myself, and so I know there are people who won’t like a certain kind of joke and I can work within those parameters.”
But, like all of the comedians we talked to, he doesn’t think clean comedy is lesser than other types of humor.
“I kind of love and hate Jim Gaffigan fans,” he says of the famous comedian known for his all-audiences brand of humor. “They’re like ‘he’s just so clean’ but I watch what he does as a comedian myself. He’s not good because he plays clean. He’s good because he’s a great comedian.”
These days, he hosts the standup nights at ImprovBroadway and believes that just as sketch and improv comedy in Utah County have blown up, stand-up is the next big thing.
“You can feel it in Provo,” he says. “There’s something about to burst. I’m seeing some of the funniest stuff at the open mics that I’ve ever seen. It’s palpable. Audiences are craving more standup. There is a joy and a rush for the audience and the comedians. Like we’re all in on the same joke together.” —Jeremy Pugh
Naomi Winders came up through what is now an established channel. The writer, actor and comedian is in her second season on Studio C, a wildly popular show on BYUtv that is considered the gold standard of clean sketch comedy. She got her start in Divine Comedy, a student-run BYU campus group that is often scouted by Studio C producers.
“Not everyone who is in Divine Comedy goes on to appear on Studio C,” she says. “But the Studio C producers often look at Divine Comedy actors when they are casting because they know we perform clean comedy at BYU.”
Winders hasn’t ever played blue. All of her comedy has been in the family-friendly realm.
“I work with a lot of people from Los Angeles and New York that have struggled to transfer to clean comedy,” she says. “But that’s the only kind of comedy I’ve done. It’s not a lesser form of comedy. It actually opens up even more topics. Raunchy humor falls into cliche easily. Jokes tend to be about sex, drugs, drinking. In the clean comedy realm, we’re mining other subjects and looking for the absurdity of everyday life.”
A lot of the appeal for clean comedy audiences is that the whole family can enjoy it together, but that doesn’t mean it’s “little kid” humor.
“You see the type of jokes that are being fed to kids on Disney or Nickelodeon,” she says. “They’re not very clever. It’s like they think the things that adults think are funny kids won’t. But kids are smarter than you think and creating a comedy show that doesn’t rely on raunchy humor creates a universal type of comedy that anyone can relate to.” —JP
Dry Humor @ Dry Bar Comedy Club
If you share the wrong thing with the wrong person online, you can get into trouble. That was one of the modern pitfalls Dry Bar Comedy was trying to avoid when it started bringing shareable, comedic content to social media. Dry Bar produces one-hour, “clean” stand-up comedy specials at their club (also dry) in Provo, takes their top comics on tour around the country, and in August launched a streaming app (Dry Bar Comedy+) where you can watch them all.
Keith Stubbs is the person responsible for booking the slew of comedians necessary to support the release of three new specials each week. Stubbs is a stand-up himself—with his own Dry Bar special—and owns the Utah comedy institution Wiseguys Comedy, which he’s run for a couple of decades now. It’s that experience that tells Stubbs when a comic has what it takes.
“I book Dry Bar comedians that honed their craft at places like Wiseguys open mic nights,” says Stubbs. You get just three minutes to make an audience laugh at their open mic nights. “It sounds like nothing until you’re up there, then it feels like forever,” says Stubbs. “It takes a lot of work to become a good comic. And a lot of rejection. After they’ve worked hard and had some success, Dry Bar gets the comedians that take off.”
While Wiseguys takes all kinds, including some big-name, potty-mouthed headliners, Dry Bar deals exclusively in the clean stuff. But for Stubbs, himself a “funny for everyone” kind of comic, it’s not about dirty or clean, “It’s just funny. That’s the idea.”
After 10 seasons, Stubbs says Dry Bar is looking to expand into other projects beyond stand-up specials, like scripted, sketch and improv comedy.
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If you are a parent of young children, the dilemma that brothers Peter and Tyler McKellar faced will feel familiar.
“We both have kids and realized that there was something missing from our lives,” Peter says. “Parents often get stuck watching kid shows and, as adults, it’s mostly painful. We wanted to make something that would make both kids and parents laugh.”
The McKellars dabble in stand-up and improv but their day job work is in advertising. They had been producing commercials that involved puppets. That’s right. Puppets. A light bulb went on.
“We set out to make something for parents like us,” Peter says. “Something with puppets.”
That something was Nine Years to Neptune on BYUtv, a show with a cast of 11 puppets and two humans who set out on an expedition to Neptune. Sort of.
“The space thing is really just a way for us to confine a number of characters in one space,” Tyler says. “It’s a workplace comedy that throws together a bunch of strangers who have zero experience or qualifications for being in space. It’s basically a mash-up of Gilligan’s Island and The Office.”
The tradition of creating universal humor through the universal silliness of puppetry goes back to Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, says Dallin Blankenship, Nine Years to Neptune’s puppet captain (yes, that’s an actual job title). Blankenship studied under Micheal Earl, the Muppeteer (also a job title) who you would only recognize as the front half of Snuffleupagus. (Snuffy requires two Muppeteers.)
“I learned from Earl that there are two kinds of Muppets, order and chaos. Neptune offers this juxtaposition between humans and puppets, Blankenship says. “The humans are creating order and the puppets are creating chaos.”
And, that battle between chaos and order, Blankenship says, is something we can all laugh at. —JP
Chris Miller is the preeminent historian of the clean comedy scene in Utah, although he prefers to call it “G-rated Comedy.” In his early 20s, Miller was making his career as a voice and TV and film actor. Lincoln Hoppe, a writer and performer in BYU’s first comedy company, The Garrens Comedy Troupe (which performed from 1993 to 2001), invited him down to Provo to teach and coach the students.
“What ended up happening was they taught me improv,” Miller says. “They put me on stage and threw me into the deep end. Apologies to anyone who saw those early shows but things took off. That was 33 years ago, and I was there for all of it.”
Miller moved around the scene and eventually landed at ComedySportz, a franchise with locations in LA, Chicago and, surprise, Provo.
“Provo’s ComedySportz was full to the rafters,” Miller says. “I’d guess I’d call that the tipping point. We had this critical mass of audiences who understood what we were doing and a format that keeps things moving. We had full houses of these enthusiastic audiences who knew why they were there.”
Miller thinks that the appeal of clean comedy is that comics and writers are meeting audiences where they are and not trying to push them into places that they don’t want to go.
“It’s like serving tea,” he says. “If you offer them tea and they say, ‘no thank you,’ you don’t pour it down their throats and insist they will like it. We practice consensual comedy.”—JP
When Natalie Madsen arrived at Brigham Young University as a freshman in 2007, she says there wasn’t much of a comedy scene back then. “That was a while ago,” she says, admitting to aging herself. (She and I are the same age, so at least she didn’t call herself “old.”) “There was ComedySportz, but there wasn’t a lot else…There were certainly no comedy shows on BYUtv.”
“When I first started, it was kind of small, and to watch it grow throughout the years has been rewarding,” she says. Rewarding because Madsen is one of the founding members of the group that, arguably, got the proverbial ball rolling. Along with her compatriots in BYU’s sketch group, Divine Comedy, Madsen helped create the BYUtv show that would become a clean comedy juggernaut: Studio C.
“At the risk of sounding conceited, I think Studio C has helped the comedy scene in the area grow,” says Madsen. “If this would have been the scene when I first came, I would have been surprised. Divine Comedy was so fun, but we never thought we could get paid to do it.”
After eight years on the air as part of Studio C, Madsen and some of her other castmates are still getting paid to do it. They went on to create JK! Studios and the comedy web series Freelancers. Because of Madsen and company’s family-friendly jokes, they’ve attracted an army of devoted young followers.
“We’ve always had the philosophy that we just write what we think is funny. It just so happens that kids and teens really like it. But, we never sat down and said ‘let’s write a show for 13-year-olds.’” Madsen says their young followers are highly effective fan ambassadors, proliferating the clean comedy content on social media and converting friends and family. “It’s one of the best things about doing comedy—seeing how many people we can reach.”
As far as what they deem “appropriate” for their particular brand of comedy, Madsen confesses, “It’s a gut check. We were all raised in religious backgrounds, so we wanted to stay away from swearing and sexual content, and stick with things that our parents, siblings and kids could watch.”
Still, no matter how squeaky clean your comedy is, there’s always someone who wants it to be even more sanitized. “We did a sketch with a homeschooled character, and we got opposite reactions from people who had been homeschooled. Some said ‘Oh gosh, this is hilarious and dead-on,’ but others were offended that we were perpetuating a stereotype.”
When Studio C did, arguably, their biggest sketch—Scott Sterling hit in the face with the soccer ball—people complained about that, too. “They told us, ‘this is too bloody, this is too realistic,’ but we were really proud of it,” says Madsen.
Madsen’s philosophy? “If we get feedback from people who are offended, I just kind of forget. Don’t paint yourself into a corner. Everyone has different standards. If we catered to our audience’s standards, we wouldn’t even be able to make a show.”—Christie Porter