THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO HACK STAND-UP COMEDY
BY Steven Rosenthal
THE H H AAA CCCCC K K
H H A A C K K
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H H A A C K K
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.
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
5. Christopher Lloyd as "Reverend Jim" from TAXI
6. Others to stay away from
7. Celebrity Impersonations
7. "That Reunion Tower Sure Looks Like a Penis"
8. I'm Not Making These Stock Lines Up People!
9. How to Tell if a Topic will be Hack Before it is.
10. 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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
6f Others to stay away from.
Don Knotts, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot.
6g Celebrity Impersonaters.
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?
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: HOW TO TELL IF A TOPIC WILL BE HACK BEFORE IT IS
Any news story which allows a hack comic to cover a controversial subject
by saying "hey, I just saw this on the news..." will be done to death
within two weeks.
Look out for any news story dealing with genitalia (Viagra, the Lewinsky
scandal,) gruesome murder (OJ, Dahmer,) bodily mutilation (Bobbitt,
Harding/Kerrigan,) or any other taboo subject.
Also, be on the lookout for innocuous news stories where the joke is
obvious: Dan Quayle jokes were already rampant when the "potatoe" story
A good gauge of how soon a topic will be hack is to 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.
"Wait, does this mean I can't cover any controversial news stories?" Of
course not. Try the two-week rule: if it's a major news story, do the
topical bit for two weeks, then drop it or sell it to a hack. This keeps
your act fresh, keeps you writing, and makes it look like you just thought
your stuff up.
SECTION 10: 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 (we...@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!
"The Hack's Handbook" by Andy Kindler. NATIONAL LAMPOON February 1991 pp.
Many thanks goes out to:
* Kim Binstead (ki...@ling.dai.ed.ac.uk)
* Avi Liberman
* Sue Lyon (10043...@compuserve.com)
* Tim Mitchell (s...@bitstream.net)
* Andy Nulman (nul...@vir.com)
* Andy Rudge (an...@comedy.demon.co.uk)
* Chris Pentzell
* Arlo Stone
* Mike Welch (we...@ix.netcom.com)
* and Andy Kindler
for all their help in putting this together.
This FAQ is Copyright 1995-8 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) 1995-8 Steven Rosenthal ste...@cinenet.net