Most commonly labeled as "off-color" are acts concerned with sex, a particular ethnic group, or gender. Other off-color topics include violence, particularly domestic abuse; excessive swearing or profanity; "toilet humor" / scatological humor; national superiority or inferiority, pedophilic content, and any topics generally considered impolite or indecent. Generally, the point of off-color humor is to induce laughter by evoking a feeling of shock and surprise in the comedian's audience. In this way, off-color humor is related to other forms of postmodern humor, such as the anti-joke.
Off-color humor was used in Ancient Greek comedy, primarily by its most famous contributor and representative, Aristophanes. His work parodied some of the great tragedians of his time, especially Euripides, using sexual and excremental jokes that received great popularity among his contemporaries.
Jonathan Swift, an Irish satirist in the 17th century, used scatological humor in some of his pieces, including his famous essay A Modest Proposal and his rather crude poem "The Lady's Dressing Room", in which the speaker comments on the goings-on in a 17th-century woman's room, including her business in her chamber pot.
Dirty jokes were once considered subversive and underground, and rarely heard in public. Comedian Lenny Bruce was tried, convicted, and jailed for obscenity after a stand up performance that included off-color humor in New York City in 1964. Comedian and actor Redd Foxx was well known in nightclubs in the 1960s and 1970s for his raunchy stand-up act, but toned it down for the television shows Sanford and Son and The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour, stating in the first monologue of the latter show that the only similarity between the show and his nightclub act was that "I'm smoking". American society has become increasingly tolerant of off-color humor since that time. Such forms of humor have become widely distributed and more socially acceptable, in part due to the mainstream success in the 1970s and 1980s of comedians like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's alter-egos Derek and Clive, Dolemite, and Andrew Dice Clay. George Carlin and Richard Pryor have used it as an effective tool for social commentary.