What is Hack?

After the show in Lansing with my friend Elizabeth.

Besides being a thief of other people’s material, the worst thing you can be labeled as a comic is being a Hack.  It’s a tricky thing to label someone and I generally stay away from saying another comic is a hack. Sure, there are a few comics who only do bits that are worn-out topics, but with very few exceptions, we are all working on topics that have been done before. Much like music, it’s nearly impossible to go at a topic that’s never been treaded on. I decided to write on this today when a friend of mine said he was worried that other comics think he’s a hack because he doesn’t do alternative comedy.

Let’s think of it this way. The show on TV that might be the most hack is…The Office. I mean, the very original concept of the show was developed and done brilliantly in England by Ricky Gervais. Sure the NBC version is different because the writers and actors are different, but it still holds the same structure. Now a lot of comics who like to throw-around the word hack most, are also some of the biggest fans of The Office.  Now I do think The Office and shows like Parks and Recreation are hacky shows, just because they use the same style as Gervais’ The Office? Nope, I think both shows have done some pretty great stuff, but they are far from being extremely original.

I’ve never had anyone call me a hack, but I’m sure some comics have thought a bit or 3 of mine was hacky.  I purposely use some easier subject matter in my show because I want everyone in the audience to laugh. Call me a populist, but I can’t afford to get a bad report, as this is the job that pays my family’s bills.  Now, I’m a smart guy and I want to respected by my peers, as well, so here is how I go about resolving the 2 groups.

I have a general style of trying to mix intelligence and silliness.  Recently, I’ve taken an older joke of mine and added some social commentary to it.  The bit starts with a joke on Target and Wal-Mart and then moves on to how all of us have a store we make fun of.  People who shop at Macys make fun of people who shop at Target, people who shop at Target make fun of people who shop at Wal-Mart, and people who shop at  Wal-Mart make fun of people who shop at the Dollar General… And  people at the Dollar General…well they are just happy there is place where a dollar will buy some shit. Now let’s fill our cart with useless crap.  We need to keep those Chinese kids working.

The only thing worse than reading a joke is having some break it down, but I will give it a try to make my point.  I know this bit might be the hackiest thing in my act, but I don’t care because I think it subliminally takes on our consumer-driven culture, how the Chinese produce everything in our country and how we don’t care what conditions they work under as long as we get our stuff.  The Chinese kids joke gets some groans because people don’t like to acknowledge that element of it, but I keep it in, because it makes it worth the other parts to me.

Part 2 of the bit has me discussing how a friend had told me about a new movement where people try to go a year without buying any non-essential product.  He says we should try it.  So we start at Midnight. By 12:15, I had bought a sham-wow. I couldn’t help it, that Vince dude is so convincing. It’s like his words are hypnotic. Fettuccine, linguine, martini, bikini and I’m off to find a hooker to slap-chop.

Now I know a Sham-wow punchline is far from original, but it sells my point how we are slaves to buy non-essential products. It is what our world economy is based on.  Now do I stand in front of the audience and break this down like I’m a visiting professor at the Wharton Business School? Nope, my job is to make people laugh. I seem to be one of the few left, though, that still thinks it’s important for a comedian to include some social commentary in their act.  I think I’m from the last generation that feels a duty to do more than just offer up irony and jokes about unicorns and fairy dust.  If that is the subject matter you like to discuss, that’s cool, but be careful who you attack for being a hack. There are as many hacky alternative comics as any others.  It’s just like alternative rock bands.  When there are so many of them, what makes something really alternative?  There are the originators and then there are the bands (comics) which just take from the cool influences and do a paint by numbers version of it.

So what is hack? I guess I think hack is when a comic only offers up jokes that have obvious punchlines.  Topics cannot be hack, only the way the joke is constructed can make a joke hack.  At least, that is the way I look at it.

One thought on “What is Hack?

  1. I don’t think either of your examples are hack. They’re friggen funny.

    I’ve mostly heard of hack in terms of joke stealing, and not so much in the context of just being unoriginal. I suppose then, the key would be to spend time thinking about possible directions and not take the most obvious route out. I mean every joke isn’t going to be a diamond, and sometimes old standards can be fun in a real time context.

    I have observed that whenever people take in a lot of one art form it removes the enjoyment because of experience/overexposure. I can watch a horror film and tell you exactly what is coming next because I’ve seen hundreds of them. Luckily, our audiences are not connoisseurs of comedy with an alleged sophisticated palate.

    I try to focus on improving my material and hope everyone else is working as hard to be the best they can be.

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