ISSN 2327-3666

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October 16, 2018

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO HACK STAND-UP COMEDY

Radical Critique via The Hack's Handbook / Critique / Steven Rosenthal


THE    H   H    AAA   CCCCC  K   K
       H   H   A   A  C      K  K
       HHHHH   AAAAA  C      KKK
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       H   H   A   A  CCCCC  K   K   FAQ

HACK (from the British word Hack-neyed) adj. Over
used and thus cheapened, trite. (From THE
AMERICAN COLLEGE DICTIONARY) 

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 some of these 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 is just now getting a stand-up boom like we Yanks
had ten years ago. 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 Flinstone!" 
        4."Am I going too fast for you sir?" 
        5.The invisible prop 
        6.The "list" 
        7."... it's just me" 
        8."Well folks, it's about time for me to get out of here..." 
  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."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 a 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 (ie. 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 as far as it
goes. 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" Whoopie.

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 male in the Marines
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... hmmmm... 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 comedian's seem to
say "have you ever noticed" all the time?

Observational Comedy was pioneered by Carlin in the 70's and
brought to life in the 80's, 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 the 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 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 come 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 in the last three years." 

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.

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).
The truth is that Bobbit jokes swept like a runaway train through the
club scene for the simple reason that you 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 is 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 probably Barney
the Dinosaur. 

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 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
Flinstone!"

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 pick 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 The Invisible Prop

"So I'm wearing a beanie with a propeller on it while walking down
the aisle of the grocery store..." Comic puts hands on imaginary
cart, walks around the stage and makes propeller noises. Audience
roars. 

This scenario illustrates 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.

5f The "List"

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.

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

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.

5h "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 says something
s/he didn't really want to, when in fact, the line is cold, calculated, and
precisely inserted in their routine.

5i "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.

Section 6: YOU FOLKS LIKE
IMPRESSIONS?

6a Jack Nicholson

Please, please, please, do not do Jack Nicholson. Jack Nicholson is
done so often and people have made fun of those comics who do him
so much that even poking fun of 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

Hey, I can impersonate Elvis! Why don't I put him in a
wacky situation, like bungi jumping, and sing the
Flintstones song in his voice?

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. 'Nuff said.

Section 7: "THAT REUNION TOWER
SURE LOOKS LIKE A PENIS"

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.

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 ("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 goes out to: 

      Kim Binstead (kimb@ling.dai.ed.ac.uk) 
      Avi Liberman 
      Sue Lyon (100433.2577@compuserve.com) 
      Chris Pentzell 
      Arlo Stone 
      Mike Welch (welch@ix.netcom.com) 
      and Andy Kindler 

for all their help in putting this together. 

This FAQ is Copyright 1995-7 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,
Steven J. Silberberg 

(c) 1995-7 Steven Rosenthal stevenr@cinenet.net