Thursday, September 08, 2005

What is "hack?"

It's a term you hear a lot in comedy, usually from comedians.

"I dropped that bit two months ago because it felt hack."
"That guy's act is a little hacky."
"Ish? That guy's a complete hack."
Hack comes from "hackneyed," meaning overused or trite. Either that or it comes from someone saying, "if one more comedian talks about the difference between men and women, I will hack his arm off." No comedian wants to be thought of as a hack by other comedians. But what qualifies as hack is highly subjective. Like pornography, I know it when I see it.*

I think comedians tend to be more sensitive to this than audiences, mainly because comedians hear a lot more comedy than the average person, and see a lot more comedians. By the time the average person hears a Viagra joke for the first time, I've heard it 15 times from 6 different comedians. And if I had a Viagra bit that wasn't pretty unique, I'd drop it.

Here's a summary of topics that comedians have nominated as hack on another website:
- airplane food
- white guys can't dance
- "telemarketers are annoying"
- Michael Jackson might be a little strange
- Online dating
- "Why won't men ask for directions?"
- Impressions, especially Robert Deniro, Christopher Walken
- My mom is [one nationality] and my dad is [different nationality] which makes me [a hilarious combination of the two!]
Whose opinion matters? The comedian's, other comedians' or the audience's? If a comedian is killing, getting booked, and making money, who cares if the other comedians think his act is hack?

Example: here in the Golden State, we elected Arnold Schwarzenegger as our governor. This was good fodder for jokes-- for awhile. Then, by and large, comedians got bored with it, and so did audiences. By the time I heard my fifth Ah-nuld impression, the needle on my hack-o-meter was jumping.

Then I went to New York. Comedians in New York were still endlessly amused by our Austrian action star governor, and the audiences lapped it up. I never did any Schwarzenegger jokes. But after months of hearing them in California and then in New York, I wanted to send a cyborg back from the future to kill me. Nevertheless, in New York, the Schwarzenegger stuff was working with the audience. So was it hack? I'd say no. On it's way perhaps, but not yet there.

Sometimes a topic seems hack on its face. Air travel. Dating. Parents. But if you have a unique perspective, and you have something interesting to say, then I don't think it matters that it involves those things. What makes it hack is the lack of anything unique, the lack of any new point of view. Brian Regan's material covers topics that are not new, but his point of view is unique. Like a jazz musician he never performs any bit exactly the same way twice. Year after year, people shout out requests for his old material because each time he does it, it becomes new again.

*The original quotation is credited to Supreme Justice Potter Stewart: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material [pornography] . . . but I know it when I see it." And yes, I'm aware of the irony that this quote itself is hack.


At 3:37 PM, Blogger Carolyn B. said...

Interesting perspectives; I'm enjoying the contents of your blog and the humor in your delivery. ;o) I love listening to comedians and reading some of the behind-the-scenes structure of their careers.

I checked out the ChuckleMonkey website too and noticed something in the Lord Carrett interview; he mentioned a "type" of comedian -- one who specializes in recovery humor after bombing. Made me wonder about the different types of comedians there are out there.

The categories I thought of as general themes for certain comedians include:
Magic act combo with humor
Goofy Shit Happens to Me
Clever Word Play
Easy-Going All-Purpose Comedian

Any others to add to the list? And what do you think's in vogue? (Really -- I'm not taking a poll. Just curious.)

Cheers - Carolyn B.
(Arrived here from "She Just Walks Around With It" link)

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Ish said...

Carolyn-- may I call you Loopy? Loopy--

You really hit all the bases as far as themes go.

As far as what's in vogue, there seems to me to be a backlash against the observational style of Jerry Seinfeld. "What's the deal with salt shakers?" And a definite trend towards more personal material. A comedy teacher once told me, "there's only one subject in stand-up comedy: you."

One other thing that is in vogue, I guess, is the current Frankenstein of comedy, Larry the Cable Guy. He has the best-selling comedy album of the last 25 years, I'm told. I'm not a fan. But all the same, his success is pretty impressive. It still kills me though, that driving to see Brian Regan in a nice, 800-seat comedy club, I had to pass by the marquee for LTCG on the HP Pavilion, the 16,000-seat arena where the San Jose Sharks play.

At 9:58 AM, Blogger Carolyn B. said...

Sure, call me Loopy! It's accurate way beyond the bounds of my knitting blog, anyway. ;o) Thanks for the feedback. I'm glad to hear that the observational type of humor is more in vogue; it's my pref anyway. I'm guessing that it's also harder work to do, since you have to dig deep for the really personal stuff.

By the way, have you noticed how many comedians are getting their own TV shows now? David Spade, Adam Carolla, etc. I wish there were more of 'em!

Had to laugh at your Larry the Cable Guy observation. I was dropping my oldest daughter off at high school recently and saw one of her classmates tearing around the corner in his tiny truck, with a truly gigantic sticker plastered across the top edge of the windshield. It said, "Git 'er done!"

Okay, I'm from the South. And even **I** am still working out what the heck that means. ;o) I'm thinking it's just another way to say ... "Yeehaw!"

Cheers - C.


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