Episode 11: What's the Deal with Hack Comedy
Part One: What is Hack Comedy
There was a time, not too long ago, when pretty much ALL standup comedy was garbage.
My first standup comedy memory is Dana Carvey’s 1995 Critics’ Choice Standup Special. I was obsessed with this thing. He played the piano and talked about OJ Simpson and George H.W. Bush. I didn’t understand most of the jokes, but I did get that it was funny because he was being funny. He was a grown man doin’ goofs, and that was awesome. This was that era of Comedy Central where they had about twenty hours of programming, mostly standup, and SNL reruns that they played on a loop. You got used to watching your faves. Then I discovered HBO standup specials like Chris Rock and that early Dave Chappelle, and of course that1998 Seinfeld special, I’m Telling you for the Last Time.
As kids, we aren’t very good critics. We have no basis for what is great versus what is cliche. That’s why you can get by in Elementary School by regurgitating the same old tired jokes and double-handed fart noises. In 1994, you could be the funniest kid in class with one Ace Ventura quote. There’s no point of reference, so you’re getting by with pretty hackneyed discourse.
Like so many young men, I began to develop my understanding of what was funny and what sucked. With the comedy revival of the mid 2000’s, most of my friends and people like us gravitated to “SMART” comedians. There was meta-comedy and anti-comedy, comedy that was so self-aware that it was doing comedy. I started to plumb the depths of what makes comedy “good” and “bad.” What were the conventions of “hack comedy.” I remember listening to a contemporary comedian saying that Macguyver jokes were all the rage in the 1980’s. Every club comedian had a joke about how Macguyver could take two bizarre objects and make another object. This was the beginning of my obsession with hack standup jokes.
My personal definition of a “hack” joke is an observational cliche that doesn’t really expose much about the human condition or make any insightful commentary. It doesn’t provide the “that’s so true” or “I never thought about it like that before” excitement of a fantastic joke. "Hack" is derived from the British term "hackneyed", meaning "overused and thus cheapened, or trite." Within standup comedy, “hacking’ is also used to describe those comedians who steal jokes from others. There was a famous issue with Dane Cook and Louis CK, where CK accused Cook of stealing the premise of one of his jokes. This is fairly common. During my time as a local standup enthusiast, I took a great deal of joy from watching hack performances.
Writer/Comedian Steven Rosenthal says this about observational comedy: “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!")”
Apparently, comedy was only recently “unhacked.” In the beginning of standup in this country, people were almost all hacks. From Wikipedia: “From the Catskill and Vaudeville beginnings of stand-up comedy, hacking was common as there were few chances that a performer from one area would meet one from another and a single twenty-minute set could sustain a comic for a decade.” It was the same situation as the kids in elementary school regurgitating the same jokes: there was no frame of reference, so you always felt like you were seeing an original act even though you were probably seeing the same shit as everybody else.
Have you heard of the “what’s the deal with airplane food” joke? What’s your recollection/understanding of it?
Part Two: What’s the deal with airplane food?
This episode stems from a random thought I had about the premier hack bit of 80’s-90’s comedy. It was famously mocked in a sketch from SNL. Jerry Seinfeld hosts a gameshow called “Stand-up and Win” where he proposes a series of “What’s the deal with” questions, and three hacky 90s comics provide their punchlines.
-Jerry asks the question: "What's the deal with airplane food?" and the character played by Rob Schneider responds, in a very Seinfeldian affect, with “I know! Could this stuff taste any worse? It's like, "Thanks, but no thanks. I'm still stuffed from that huge bag of smoked almonds!"
Apparently, this was the correct answer. People consider “what’s the deal with airplane food” to be a particularly Seinfeldian joke, although he never actually made this joke. He does, however, have a whole lot of great airplane material. This entire concept became various memes during the meme era (which we are still in, though that is rapidly evolving).
When we grew up, hack comedy was the norm. Although we weren’t going to comedy clubs in the 90’s, it’s easy to assume that the jokes were probably of the same ilk. This was a time of mostly apolitical comedy, and even when it was political, the jokes were hack as fuck. Consider the Late Night monologues of Jay Leno, a mainstay of my childhood, which commented on the daily news with the sharpness of a pillow. We have moved away from this in the comedy mainstream now. In 2022, adept comedy fans are willing to engage with storytelling-based comedy. You can think of all the groundbreaking comedians who used a confessional rather than observational style. Some of us are even ready to confront emotionally jarring moments and silence to let a moment build. Hannah Gadsby’s special Nanette caused quite a stir, and it was praised for its emotionality. Patton Oswalt had a whole special about the death of his wife. They’re doing more of a narrative with humor than punchline-based jokey jokes. Obviously, this is better. It’s more relatable and exciting and raw, but I do really miss the shitty standup of the past, if only because it is fun to mock.
I found an absolutely INCREDIBLE Chicago Tribune article from 1998 which features the comic Andy Kindler (famous for his amazing Comedy Central roasts and some acting stuff). In 1998, calling out hack bits was the rage amongst the Standup intelligentsia. Kindler describes hack comedy tropes as “jokes about fast-food restaurants, airline food and things that you find at a mall.” It’s essentially “consumer comedy.” You see something, find it to be fuel for a dumb joke, and throw it into a joke format.
I’m going to quote a chunk of this interview:
“Kindler says some hack comedians like doing vocal effects, the most popular being the electronic-sounding "squawk" that comes when using some type of intercom like those at a fast-food drive-thru.
"Hacky comics still enjoy the sound effects," Kindler says. "This is so weird, it's 1998 and I still hear people doing this a lot."
Affecting his best hack comic voice, Kindler says: "I was flying on a plane, and the pilot came on and went (Squawwwk!), `It's 1985, and if you look to your left, there's a comic doing a McNuggets joke. (Squawwk!) It's 1987, and if you look to the right of the airplane, there's a comic doing a Reagan impression.' "
Other hack premises:
- Feigning sincerity about embracing a certain group, just before slamming that group mercilessly (Kindler: "I have nothing against gay people, but. . .");
- pretending a concept just appeared off the top of one's head (Kindler: "Oh, oh, oh! Here's another bit I've been doing for the last 50 years that I'm going to have to make sound like it's new!");
- and addressing someone in the first few rows as though he or she were stupid (Kindler: "I was reading a book today . . . a book is something that has pages in it").”
Part 3: The Hack Handbook
Another incredible source that I found http://comedyunderground.com/seattle/hackfaq.txt
In the late 90’s, comic/writer Steven Rosenthal wrote something called THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO HACK STAND-UP COMEDY, in which he sources ANDY KINDLER’s The Hack Handbook. Just reading this brings me so much joy. First of all, it is dealing with 90’s politics, so there are several instructions like NOT making jokes about The Menendez Brothers, Tanya Harding, and Monica Lewinsky. It also says to steer clear of the CURRENT issue of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the military. It hearkens back to a time of pure HACK. If you’ve seen stand up from the 80’s/90’s, or simply heard about it, then many of the hack conventions in this document will ring a bell. Rosenthal wrote this as a guidebook for emerging comics to avoid tired conventions. Now, however, a set with all of this awful material would be praised as ANTI COMEDY.
(JUST TO REFERENCE)
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
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
7."... it's just me"
8."Well folks, it's about time for me to get out of here..."
6.You Folks Like Impressions?
5.Christopher Lloyd as "Reverend Jim" from TAXI
6.Others to stay away from
My favorite HACK conventions that Rosenthal discusses come from what he calls “The Comic Tackle Box.” These are the classic bits that a comic would go to for easy laughs. Honestly, some of these still crush ass.
5c. MAKING A JOKE ABOUT TWO FAMOUS PEOPLE THAT YOU LOOK LIKE. "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I'm the illegitimate son of Mario Andretti and Fred Flinstone!"
5d. PICKING ON SOMEONE AND ACTING LIKE THEY’RE AN IDIOT. “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.
5e. "... 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".
5f. 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?".
He also goes over classic 80’s/90’s impressions:
6a Jack Nicholson
6b Robert DeNiro
6c William Shatner
He also mentions the “this thing is different than that thing” trope. Section 1: THINGS ARE DIFFERENT THAN OTHER THINGS
1a "L.A. is different than..."
There is a classic dichotomy between NYC and LA that hack comics explored. 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.
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.")
Remember how casually racist and sexist stand up comedy was in the 90’s? Rosenthal points that out, too. I saw this kind of lazy joke-writing at comedy clubs in South Florida. One of the most ridiculous examples was a garbage comic who made a joke about the “black” squirrels in New York’s Central Park. If you can imagine, he used the existence of black squirrels as an opportunity to make reference to an outdated stereotype of assumed black male criminality. It wasn’t an astute observation. It was just a really bad joke. After some tepid laughter, the guy said “You all are sick for laughing at that, and I LOVE it.” He clearly thought that his work was more subversive than it actually was.
Part 4: The Reckoning
This isn’t about shitting on people’s art. I’m not trying to be a douche, but it is legitimately FUNNY that so many people in the 80’s and 90’s were exploring the art of stand up comedy through the same lame formula.
What are some other hack art phenonoma?
What do you think the new form of Hack comedy is?