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Note (1): This list is written mostly for the benefit of new comics - not for the condemnation of seasoned acts. Just because you see an older comic doing something referenced here is no reason to start hurling tomatoes. A lot of this material became cliche' because of overexposure in the '80s, and any comic you see may have written it well before it became hack.

Note (2): These guidelines may not apply in Britain. From what I understand, Europe got its stand-up boom a bit later than we Yanks did, and thus it is entirely possible that English audiences have not seen these topics a million times.


INDEX
  1. Things Are Different Than Other Things
    1. "L.A. is different than..."
    2. "Men and Women are really different..."
    3. "Cats are different than Dogs..."
  2. Any Stereotypes in the Crowd Tonight?
    1. "What's up with these 7-11 employees?"
    2. "And I said 'Put down the Donut, officer'"
    3. "Black people walk or talk or dance differently than White people." (Then demonstrate)
    4. "Now, folks... I have nothing against homosexuals..."
    5. "I was in Alabama recently..."
    6. "What would Romeo and Juliet be like in da hood?"
    7. "Horror Movies wouldn't work if the characters were black!"
  3. Did You Ever Notice That Observational Comedy is Getting a Little Old?
    1. "I fly on airplanes a lot..."
    2. "Bob Dylan/Michael McDonald/Michael Jackson sings funny."
    3. "You can't hear what the guy's saying at the Drive through."
    4. "What's up with these Remote Controls?"
    5. "Do we have any pot smokers in the house?"
    6. "Anybody remember Gilligan's Island?"
    7. "I saw a lotta construction on Highway Blah Blah..."
    8. "You gotta be careful these days, lotta diseases out there..."
    9. "Have you seen that commercial where blah blah blah?"
    10. "Have you guys seen this nicotine patch?"
  4. Topical Material Should Be Topical
    1. "So Howard Taft is in the news again..."
    2. "What's up with this Lorena Bobbit, huh?"
  5. The Comic Tackle Box
    1. "...and that's just the women!"
    2. "What if O.J. Simpson sang the Brady Bunch theme?"
    3. "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I'm the illegitimate son of Mario Andretti and Fred Flintstone!"
    4. "Am I going too fast for you sir?"
    5. "Well folks, it's about time for me to get out of here..."
    6. "And the washing machine sounded something like this..."
    7. The "list"
    8. "... it's just me"
  6. You Folks Like Impressions?
    1. Jack Nicholson
    2. Robert DeNiro
    3. William Shatner
    4. Elvis
    5. Christopher Lloyd as "Reverend Jim" from Taxi
    6. Others to stay away from
    7. Do you really have to be told this?
  7. That Reunion Tower Sure Looks Like a Penis
  8. I'm Not Making These Stock Lines Up People!
  9. Wait a Second... I'm a Hack!



SECTION 1: THINGS ARE DIFFERENT THAN OTHER THINGS

1a "L.A. is different than..."

A ton of comics move to Los Angeles to pursue a television or film career and write a lot of material based on the little differences between LA and their former place of living. The trouble is that comics have been doing this since the beginning of time and the chances that you'll have an original observation are slim.

1b "Men and women are really different..."

No kidding.

Volumes could be written about how comedians pit the genders against each other and turn the club into a kind of "Battle of the Sexes" with the losers generally being men. Typically, female comics will appeal to their sisters in the crowd for support in male-bashing ("Am I right, Ladies?") and males will hunt for approval among a usually shy male audience ("Oh, you guys wouldn't be saying that if you weren't here with your women! If it was just us guys it would be different!")

Guys don't ask directions, girls take a long time to get ready for a date, married men are stupid and whipped, women take too long when shopping, men hog the remote control, men leave the toilet seat up, etc. etc. Aside from the fact that sweeping generalizations about gender are inherently sexist, these gender based topics have been covered a lot -- brilliantly at times, but a lot nonetheless. Another typical angle on this is stating something that women generally do (i.e. go to the bathroom together, dance together, compliment each other on their looks) and applying it to very masculine types for comic effect ("You never see two guys doing this! Hey Joe, your skin is looking lovely lately.")

Don't say you weren't warned.

1c "Cats are different than Dogs..."

Andy Kindler's magazine article "The Hack's Handbook" says that this bit boils down to "Dogs will do anything, cats don't care. Example: Cats won't fetch a bone. 'You fetch it. I'm getting something to eat. And take away this cheap shit and get me some real food.' Dogs will eat lard and Spam!" The whole pet thing has been a road comic's staple bit for years now. Don't do it.

SECTION 2: ANY STEREOTYPES IN THE CROWD TONIGHT?

2a "What's up with these 7-11 employees?"

I know that Apu on The Simpsons is funny, but that's because many brilliant writers have worked very hard to actually write jokes for him. Mostly comics just do a poor characterization of a Middle Eastern/Hindu and throw in a couple of cheap shots about Slurpees or a dot on their forehead and leave it be.

2b "And I said 'Put down the Donut, officer...'"

Yeah, cops eat donuts a lot. Haven't heard that one before. Same goes for "Orientals can't drive.", "New Yorkers/taxi drivers are rude." or "Black men have large genitals" Whoopee.

2c "Black people walk or talk or dance differently than White people." (Then demonstrate)

Racists, back me up on this!

2d "Now, folks... I have nothing against homosexuals..."

When comics deny their homophobia or racism before a joke, you can be sure that they are trying to soften the blow of one of the most homophobic or racist jokes you'll ever hear. "I have a lot of gay friends..." is usually followed with something extreme not unlike "But fags suck don't they? And they should all be put to death!"

Airline stewards and the not-so-recent "Gays in the Military" debate have given comics a new way to avoid writing by merely doing their "really effeminate fag voice". Even though any homosexual Marine could probably kill a stand-up comic instantly with his bare hands, audiences still laugh at the lame bit about the girlish soldier who likes to re-decorate and flirt with the rest of the troops. Don't do the "fag voice" unless it has a really good joke behind it, because otherwise you're getting the laugh at the minority's expense and they really don't deserve your scorn.

2e "I was in Alabama recently..."

And let me guess... hmmm... were the people there stupid and inbred perhaps? The stupid incest Southerner joke was put to rest when Dennis Miller said, "There are people in Alabama who are their own fathers." That's it. It doesn't get any bigger or better than that.

2f "What would Romeo and Juliet be like in da hood?" OR "Could you imagine if the President was Mexican?"

Typically the pattern is: It wouldn't be that way if it was my ethnicity! Because if it was my ethnicity it would have a lot of stereotypes associated with my ethnic background! Stop this. It's an easy joke.

2g "Horror Movies wouldn't work if the characters were black! Because they wouldn't peek into the bushes... they'd just run!"

Not only is this the same pattern as above, but it's been stolen from Eddie Murphy who took it from Richard Pryor.

SECTION 3: DID YOU EVER NOTICE THAT OBSERVATIONAL COMEDY IS GETTING A LITTLE OLD?

Have you ever noticed how a lot of stand up comedians seem to say "have you ever noticed" all the time?

Observational Comedy was pioneered by George Carlin and Robert Klein in the '70s and brought to life in the '80s -- an era where no topic was too mundane and "the little things in life" became more appealing than "The Big Picture". In fact some topics were so trivial that comics had to feign hatred just to keep their sets interesting (as in: "You know what really pisses me off? Nail Clippers!")

I won't go so far as to declare all observational comedy hack, but the passion has gone out of the love affair. And there are certainly a lot of "little things" that already have been noticed once too often. Like:

3a "I fly on airplanes a lot..."

Yes, I'll bet you do. Or you used to when there was more of a road to work. However, every other comedian in the world did too, and you all wrote bits on it. Bits on the safety devices, bits about not being allowed to smoke, bits on inept pilots, bits about your seat only reclining just an inch or two, bits about what you'd do if the plane was going down, bits about the seat being a floatation device etc. etc.

3b "Bob Dylan/Michael McDonald/Michael Jackson sings funny."

No duh. Let's move on.

3c "You can't hear what the guy's saying at the Drive through."

Let me guess: So you just mumble back to them. That's original.

3d "What's up with these Remote Controls?"

"What's the use of the eject button?... Our parents in the old days had to get up and change it manually... Guys hog the remote... We can't just watch one channel nowadays..." Heard it.

3e "Do we have any pot smokers in the house?"

"I don't have a joke about that, I just wanted to see who I can hang with after the show!..." Pot jokes always turn into a reference about the munchies so stay away from that gag. Also, the one about pot being different from the other drugs ("There's no gang wars over pot, just pillow fights...") has been done.

3f "Anybody remember Gilligan's Island?"

Yes we do. And we don't know how could they get so lost on a three hour tour or how is it that the Professor could build so much stuff but he couldn't build a boat to leave with. It'll just remain one of the great mysteries of our time. However, since we're so aware of the dilemma, don't bring it up.

3g "Saw a lot of construction on Highway Blah blah blah"

This one's more typical of the Midwest I hear. A comic gets into town and asks where the big construction site is. Then he/she gets to relate by using his/her old jokes about the "Men Working" sign ("They should change the sign!") or the Slow/Stop sign ("That describes how they're working!")

3h "You gotta be careful these days, lotta diseases out there..."

"Remember when it was just STDs? Now herpes is like nothing!" Or the old standby condom jokes "Who's NOT going to buy the larger condoms!" At the checkout line: "Price check on extra small condoms". "I'm wearing one now!" And "I wear two condoms all the time and when I'm ready to have sex, I just take off one!"

3i "Have you seen that commercial where blah blah blah?"

"The Hack's Handbook" calls commercials "The Hack Happy Hunting Grounds" and notes The Clapper, the "I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up", the "This is Your Brain on Drugs", and the "You can do anything while wearing these Tampons" as overdone. I'd like to add the Douche commercial ("Sometimes I don't feel so fresh"), the Psychic Friends, the Chia Pet, and any shyster lawyer who gets you a big settlement.

3j "Have you guys seen this nicotine patch?"

"Now, I'm up to three patches a day! I gotta start smoking to get off the patch!"

SECTION 4: TOPICAL MATERIAL SHOULD BE TOPICAL

4a "So Howard Taft is in the news again..."

It's pretty clear that a topical comedian has to write more currently than others. Hey, that's the price you pay for the ease of having premises delivered to your doorstep every morning. There's nothing sadder than an outdated topical joke. Saying, "Anyone remember the LA riots?" is just as good as telling the audience "I haven't written much this decade."

There's no good rule for determining a joke's shelf-life. Some large topics will be good for a year or two. Others will go out of date within days. Just stop patting yourself on the back for how great you think your joke is and think about whether the event would still be on the minds of the audience.

An updated version of this FAQ (done without my knowledge by the way) mentioned this rule:

    Watch Leno, Letterman, and Conan's monologues the day after the story breaks. If one of them does a bit about it, the shelf-life is about two weeks. If two of them cover it, give it one week. If all three of them cover the story, it's already hack.
I think this is a little too harsh. If you're doing the same punchline those guys are, then of course you'd better give it a rest. But I feel that topical comedians are almost obliged to cover the big stories -- just beware of the easy angles. And, as the update mentioned, watch out for topics that really aren't news. The fact that the topics are in the New York Times doesn't suddenly turn your bad viagra or Monica Lewinsky dick jokes into brilliant issue-oriented comedy. Any "legit" excuse to go blue is an excuse you can bet will used to death on the road -- like in the following example.

4b "What's up with this Lorena Bobbit, huh?"

One of Nostradamus's quatrains goes as follows:

"And a woman named Bobbit shall strike at a man's center and there will be much mirth made."

Okay, I was kidding (Please, no flames from the Nostradamus people.) When this FAQ was first written Bobbit jokes had swept like a runaway train through the club scene. The reason it was so popular was that comics could turn the genders against each other with a topical bit that's also a dick joke. (One comic I saw actually made it a racial bit as well by saying "Why do all you white women always have to go cutting people's dicks off?!")

But besides the fact that the topic was pretty hack to start with, it's clearly too old and too overdone to even touch now. Same goes for Tonya Harding, The Menendez Brothers, Pee-Wee Herman and Barney the Dinosaur. Monica Lewinsky's just around the corner.

SECTION 5: THE COMIC TACKLEBOX

5a "...and that's just the women!"

The "Bait and Switch" is a classic comedy device that'll stay with us probably forever (for what else is comedy than setting up expectations and then switching gears against those expectations?) However, boil the device down to its bare bones and you get a joke that comics are starting to do to death. Set up a character that's really obscene and then say, "Okay Rabbi, calm down!" Describe a very masculine group and top it off with "...and that's just the women!" If you have one of these, make sure the gag is better hidden.

5b "What if O.J. Simpson sang the Brady Bunch theme?"

Nothing says, "My only comedy influence is Mad Magazine" like a lame parody of a beautiful song. Never mind that it kills. Songs always get a cheap laugh, and the lamer and more scatological the parody, the better the reaction. The truth is that song parodies haven't progressed a lot since you were in third grade (remember "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, Robin laid an egg..."?) and you're appealing to the crowd with a juvenile device that every child flocks when they get tired of knock-knock jokes.

But wait! Don't throw away your brand-new Ovation guitar on account of this FAQ. Music acts don't have to be hack. Songs are a good way to close (nothing like closing on a big performance thing) and original music or new takes on old styles can be very funny if you can pull it off (I'm thinking of Steve Martin's take on the song his grandmother taught him.) But just taking a popular hit and throwing a bunch of dick references in it is pretty lame.

5c "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I'm the illegitimate son of Mario Andretti and Fred Flintstone!"

Or any other two people. I think Judy Carter (or Gene Perret) says something about making your first joke about your appearance. However, this old gag about linking yourself to a celebrity or two is done quite a lot, and never really well. The only writing you have to do with this joke is to find people who look like you, and what good is that?

5d "Am I going too fast for you sir?"

A typical trick is to pick someone up front to turn the audience against by making the person look really stupid, either by pointing out their confusion or by explaining the last joke to them. I know of at least two comics who poke fun of the same seat at exactly the same time during their acts.

"The Hack's Handbook" also recommends asking the person their name and then repeating the question in sign language as if the person was deaf. If you truly have an idiot bothering you (not an uncommon experience) and you have an interesting way to point out such stupidity, then by all means do it. But don't slam somebody for the sole purpose of making you look smarter and don't just make fun of their speech.

5e "Well folks, it's about time for me to get out of here..."

It doesn't take much Show-Business savvy to realize that one should close big. That means saving your best joke, or most "Performance-heavy" joke for the last. However, a lot of comics see this as a time to break out all the bells and whistles (the props, the unicycle, the Elvis jumpsuit, the trained monkey act, etc. etc.) Don't rely on some big extravagant wacky thing to get an applause break to leave on. The audience came to the club to watch something humorous, not a rap song, a guitar solo, a balancing act or a sappy story about how your grandfather just died. You're a comic. Please close with something funny.

5f "And the washing machine sounded something like this..."

An unauthorized addition to this FAQ mentioned sound effects and other pantomime goofiness as a device they called

    ...the "Invisible Prop". There's no punch line. Nothing is clever about the bit. But people will laugh up a storm if you can illustrate your bit with second rate pantomime. Hack comics use this technique to bolster their humor void acts. Don't do it, even if you have some incredibly amazing sound effect you want to showcase.

I think stretches the definition of "hack" a bit, but it's certainly worth mentioning as a recipe for bad comedy. Comics who do voices and pantomimes can do themselves a great service by watching Brian Regan as much as possible. Regan is a guy known for his tremendously goofy persona and very physical act. But if you see enough of him, you'll notice how well crafted his bits are. Every bit starts somewhere and goes somewhere according to a very clever logic. The set-ups aren't just excuses to do a wacky character or a goofy voice. It's this attention to the writing that makes him a great comic rather than just a class clown who gets cheap laughs from crazy antics.

5g The "List"

Another one that made its way into this FAQ while I was on sabbatical. If you know who wrote these, please tell me so I can properly credit the person.

    "You burrito munching-no job-zit freak-retard-etc-etc-etc"

    Is it funny to call someone a burrito muncher? Probably not. Is it funny to tell someone they have no job? Nahh. Is it funny when you call someone a zit freak? Nope. But string them all together, and hilarity ensues. The longer the list, the funnier it is! Not only is it an unfunny crutch, but it's hack. Rent White Men Can't Jump if you need proof.

I think this is a case of getting a bigger reaction for writing, learning and performing a long speech. You know, if you use these tricks to win audiences over with clever and challenging material, then by all means go for it. But if you're trying to sell 'em snake oil, don't be surprised if people consider it hacky.

5h "... it's just me"

Also uncredited:

    "Hey, does anyone like gay porn? Oh, so it's just me."

    Typical crutch guaranteed to get a laugh. Ask a rhetorical question to which nobody in their right mind would admit to. Then follow it up with, "It's just me". Oh I get it, the hack denigrated him/herself. Ha ha ha ha! Hacks often use this line, but it's a truly accomplished hack who can use it as a callback -- and believe me, there are plenty who do.

5i "Did I say that one out loud?"

    "Who said that? I can't believe I said that!"

    Hack says an outrageous line. The line is delivered in such a way that it sounds like it was Ad-libbed. Hack follows it up with "Did I say that one out loud?". The audience thinks they've seen the hack say something s/he didn't really want to, when in fact, the line is cold, calculated, and precisely inserted in their routine.

I would add that any "planned mistakes" are pretty lame. Sometimes it's obvious to the audience what you're doing and that's fine. But like "...am I going too fast for you, sir?" if you're trying to squeak out laughs by pretending you're doing an improv every night, it's not exactly admirable.

SECTION 6: YOU FOLKS LIKE IMPRESSIONS?

6a Jack Nicholson

Please, please, please, do not do Jack Nicholson. Jack Nicholson is done so often that even poking fun of comics who do the Nicholson impression is now a cliche'. Just stay away if you value your dignity.

6b Robert DeNiro

"You talking to me?" Yes, I am and you've almost as over done as Jack.

6c William Shatner

Every sketch show in the world does a Star Trek bit. Don't rehash it on stage. If a bit starts with the phrase "Captain's Log..." then you're starting off already with a 99 on the hack meter.

6f. Elvis

Who among us can't do Elvis? The fact that there exists a cottage industry of professional Elvis impersonators should be a clear warning that your take on the King had better be wildly original.

6e Christopher Lloyd as "Reverend Jim" from Taxi

I'm not sure why this is done so much, but it is. Perhaps it's an easy impression.

6f Others to stay away from.

Don Knotts, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot, Sean Connery. 'Nuff said.

6g Do you really have to be told this?

Another piece of advice that crept into the FAQ goes...

    Don't dress up and act the part of your favorite comic! Besides the fact that you'll never be as funny as the original, what would you think of the person who impersonated you? Does that thought have the word "loser" in it?

Of course, if you have an original take on the comic, go for it. But for the love of all that is holy, don't try to ride on the coattails of someone else's act. That's just pathetic. Unless you have something unique to say, just save your "Fire Marshall Bill" impression for your non-comic friends.

SECTION 7: THAT REUNION TOWER SURE LOOKS LIKE A PENIS

Again, I didn't write this section. But it does seem worth mentioning.

    When a hack comes to a new city on tour, most of their 'new' jokes about the city will have been done to death. You can be pretty sure that at least one comedian in Dallas, at some point in their illustrious career, will have noticed that Reunion Tower (already nicknamed the Dallas Phallus) looks like a penis.

    American comics visiting the UK find it necessary to do Sean Connery impressions. Everyone in Scotland can do a Sean Connery impression, and might even make a joke in the process, which most visiting comics don't bother to do.

    You don't have to shy away from doing a truly original take on some aspect of a new city, but the obvious stuff has been done much better by the locals than you can imagine.

Sure wouldn't hurt to run the local material by a local before assuming it's gold.

SECTION 8: I'M NOT MAKING THESE STOCK LINES UP PEOPLE!

Some stock lines have been around since the age of vaudeville, yet still work because audiences haven't heard them. But again that doesn't mean you should do it just because it gets a yuk. The following are old lines in the public domain that are undeniably hack.

  • (An overweight comic's opening) "Let me move the mike stand so you can see me better."


  • (A waitress drops something) "Just put that anywhere."


  • "Keep drinking folks, because the more you drink the funnier the show gets."


  • (point to the microphone) "There's a reason they don't give these things out at the door, pal!"


  • "Hey, I don't come to where you work and knock the gas pumps out of your hands (or french fries, or dicks out of your mouth, etc.)!


  • "Hey I remember my first beer!"


  • "Where'd you learn to whisper? A rock concert? In a helicopter? Or some other place where whispering wouldn't be very effective!"


  • "How many of you rent Pornography?" (No one answers) "Yeah, a five billion dollar a year industry and I'm the only one!"


  • "I'm available for Children's Parties!" (Yeah, you and a thousand other comics who think they're shocking).


  • "Excuse me, am I interrupting your conversation with my act?"


  • SECTION 9: WAIT A SECOND... I'M A HACK!

    Don't panic! There's hope for you yet. All the inventive comics I know started out doing hack material. I myself began with a Brady Bunch song, an inner child joke and a dream. When you start you don't know any better. Learn what you're doing wrong and keep writing until you find your voice.

    And don't fret if you have a really great joke about a topic that's a little shaky. Mike Welch (welch@ix.netcom.com) writes:

      "I feel that an accomplished writer can take on ANY subject, even a HACK one and do something brilliant with it...at least in theory."
    I agree. But the rule should be, if everybody's going to be talking about the same subject, you'd better make sure that your joke is brilliant.

    And that's what it's about, isn't it? I'm sure that most of you got into this business because you love the art -- and if you're getting into it now for the money, then you've got another thing coming. Art is always reinventing itself and comedy is no exception. Remember, "Good Evening, Ladies and Germs!" used to be funny!

    It's the next generation's responsibility to determine comedy's direction and I wish you all good luck in that endeavor. You've been a wonderful audience. Good night!



    REFERENCES:

    "The Hack's Handbook" by Andy Kindler. National Lampoon February 1991 pp. 34-36

    Many thanks go out to:

  • Kim Binstead (kimb@ling.dai.ed.ac.uk)
  • Avi Liberman
  • Sue Lyon (100433.2577@compuserve.com)
  • Tim Mitchell (sic@bitstream.net)
  • Andy Nulman (nulman@vir.com)
  • Peggy O'Brien
  • Chris Pentzell
  • Andy Rudge (andy@comedy.demon.co.uk)
  • Arlo Stone
  • Mike Welch (welch@ix.netcom.com)
  • and Andy Kindler

  • for all their help in putting this together.

    This FAQ is Copyright 1995-2001 by Steven Rosenthal, and is made available as a service to the Internet community. It may not be sold in any medium, including electronic, CD-ROM, or database, packaged with any commercial product, or published in print, without the explicit, written permission of the author, Steven Rosenthal, and the FAQ maintainer, Steve Gelder.