Striding to center stage with microphone in hand, Henry Cho, 49, introduces himself as a full-blooded Korean who was born and raised in Knoxville, Tenn. "So I'm South Korean," he deadpans, drawing a quick laugh from a friendly crowd at Stardome Comedy Club in Birmingham, Ala.
Pausing several seconds for the laughter to fade, the veteran stand-up comic launches into a 40-minute routine that touches on everything from academic expectations for Asian-looking people—"I had no idea I was supposed to be smart," he quips—to parenting a little girl after raising two rambunctious boys. "(Boys) just kind of wake up and run around and break stuff . . . (Now) I gotta learn to listen and have feelings," he says, flashing a well-timed expression of anguish.
What the audience never hears from Cho, however, are four-letter expletives; comedy centered on sex, drugs or violence; mean-spirited humor about religion or politics; or jokes at the expense of his late mother. "My dad told me never to make fun of my mother, so I never have. She's off limits," he says respectfully.
"It's 80 percent harder to develop a clean act. Every comedian knows that," Cho acknowledges after the show.
Still, the husband and father says he can sleep better at night knowing that he takes the high road when he's delivering his shtick on stage. He also believes that "bleep-free" humor has the broadest universal appeal.
"The thing about clean comedy is you don't lose anyone," he says. "If it's clean and funny, who's not going to laugh? It's win-win."
Laughs for the whole family
Delivering entertainment in the spirit of Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin and Ellen DeGeneres, a maverick breed of classy stand-up artists is traveling the American comedy club circuit with the G-rated mission of helping the whole family laugh out loud.
While not a household name, Cho is among the funniest in the genre, according to Bruce Ayers, 61, owner of Stardome Comedy Club.
"If you're one of those people who think that clean comedy can't be funny, come see a Henry Cho show. He does it without using a single curse word, and people are falling out of their chairs laughing," Ayers says.
For Cho, his religious faith has set the parameters for what he will—and won't—say on stage. "I'm a Christian—bottom line," he says. "I try to walk the walk and talk the talk."
Cho was a college student at the University of Tennessee in 1986 when he delivered his first monologue during a comedy competition. He was rewarded with a standing ovation, quit school two days later and, within a year, leapfrogged to headliner status. In the 1990s, he walked away from several offers to star in his own TV sitcom, fearful of how Asians would be portrayed because network executives refused to give him creative control. He's gone on to host his own one-hour special on the Comedy Central network and packs clubs wherever he goes, including Las Vegas. "I've made my choices," he says, "and I can live with them."
Making a choice
Every comic faces the choice of whether "to work blue, or not," says TV and stand-up comedy pioneer Bob Newhart, who was living in Chicago in the late 1950s when he developed his understated brand of humor.
"It was certainly tempting for me at times not to work clean, especially in the mid-'60s and going into the '70s," recalls Newhart, 81. "You figure, 'That's what they want; give them what they want.' But I just never really felt comfortable doing it."
Today, he's glad he stuck with his instincts. "When you can keep it clean and still make people laugh, it's that much more gratifying," says the Grammy Award-winning funnyman, who still performs about 20 stand-up shows a year.
Newhart is no prude, however, and especially admires the work of the late Richard Pryor, who used off-color urban language to joke about life in the inner city. "For Richard, bad language was essential to his jokes," he says. "What I do have a problem with are comics who use bad language when it's not integral to the story—just for shock value."
Defining what's dirty can be tricky, but "people generally know it when they hear it," says Newhart, joking that he learned the meaning of many expletives while serving in the Army when "those words often were directed at me."
The power of words
Los Angeles-based comedian Maria Bamford, 40, understands the power of words.
"I'm constantly developing my material. Every word is thought out, and I'm always rewriting," says Bamford, who grew up in Duluth, Minn. (pop. 86,918).
Her sense of humor was influenced by comics Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, radio humorist Garrison Keillor, the TV cast of Saturday Night Live and even her older sister, Sarah. "She's a pathologist and she's very funny," Bamford says proudly.
When she moved in 1994 from Minneapolis to L.A., Bamford dabbled with a few swear words in her act. "I think I was trying to be hip and cool," says Bamford, who gradually ditched that approach and concentrated on cleaner comedy with an offbeat edge and a quirky delivery—landing her a plum role in holiday Target commercials for the last two years.
"Swear words or things that are dirty are the easy laugh. But when you hear them constantly, they kind of lose their power. You almost can't hear the material for all of the swearing," she says.
For stand-up comic Ryan Hamilton, 34, a clean show simply reflects who he is.
Growing up a Mormon in Ashton, Idaho (pop. 1,129), Hamilton dreamed of becoming a late-night talk show host while attending school and working part-time on a potato farm. At age 19, he found some humor in wearing a suit and tie while traveling by bicycle during his stint as a student missionary.
After graduating from Brigham Young University in 2001, his planned career in public relations took a detour after seeing Mitch Hedberg perform at a comedy club in Boston. Fascinated by the experience and eager to put his own sense of humor to the test, Hamilton began performing at bars and clubs across the West. In 2008, he moved to New York City, where he enjoys seeing how audiences react when he tells them he's from Idaho, then tells them: "Y'all just had an image of a potato popping into your head, didn't you?"
Keeping his act clean is easy for Hamilton. "I don't curse in my normal everyday life, so it's not like I'm changing the way I talk when I'm on stage," he says.
He also likes the uplifting, happy vibe that clean comedy creates in a room. "You can laugh at a dark show but then walk away feeling kind of heavy," he says. "I enjoy an audience laughing just as hard at clean comedy and walking out feeling a little better about the world."