January 15, 2013

Definition Of A Hack: By Joe Fernandez

It’s a term that most comics do not want to be called. It means you’re unoriginal, derivative, and/or a joke thief. It is generally someone who is disliked and in some circles detested for taking comedy to its basest level.

I don’t speak for all comics, but I know hack comedy offends my sensibilities for a multitude of reasons. I could go through all of them, but the main one is this; I’ve always felt the reason to do comedy or any avenue of performance is to build upon what you’ve been given. To try and steer whatever performance style you’ve chosen and take it in a new direction. To innovate. To create whatever the next movement will be.

As an artist, my favorite stories are hearing about when movements came about. Muddy Waters coming from Mississippi to create what is now known as Chicago Blues. Jack Kerouac (Even though I hate ‘On The Road’) and his creation of the beatnik movement. And of course, comedy. The Second City creating an original format that is still widely used for sketch and improv comedy shows. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin taking stand-up comedy from the basic set-up, punchline format to meandering thoughts and personal opinions. Someone truly being themselves on-stage.

What makes me dislike hack comedy is that they are wasting everything that’s been given to them and recycling through what’s already well-worn territory. As someone who performs, in any form, you should be looking at what’s been done and say, ‘how can I take this to the next level.’ I look at someone like Reggie Watts and wish I had come up with a show that amazing. It’s not someone standing in front of a microphone saying pre-planned bits. He is considered a comedian but he is beyond stand-up. He’s a musical performer who improvises entire shows full of mostly comedic songs. That is innovation. That is setting the bar for future comics to follow in suit and hopefully improve upon.

That’s not to say there isn’t value in someone being able to perform well with great material and delivery doing a regular stand-up set. But the material and delivery need to be something different. The comic needs to be making an effort to discover new ground and experiences that either haven’t been explored before, or at least giving a unique vantage point on a topic that has been covered. And doing it in their voice. Not Steven Wright’s. Not Chris Rock’s. Their voice.

So to be telling jokes about ‘The Price is Right’ or how you’re a certain race and here’s the stereotype we all know about said race, it’s a slap in the face to all the groundwork laid out before you by the comics who helped move stand-up to the next level.

To look at the work of your predecessors and instead of improving upon it, you take the secure route, knowing that if you follow their mold you are assured some level of success. That is what drives people who truly care about comedy (or any form of art) insane.
So if you’re wondering if you fit into the qualifications of a hack, here’s what a hack is:

What makes someone a hack is a lack of creativity, yet a need to still be successful because they like the idea of fame. They want to be on TV, to sign autographs, to be in movies, etc. The problem is if you don’t have the talent, you use whatever means are at your disposal. Being a carbon copy of those that have come before you. Allowing yourself to use jokes you know are simplistic and easy to find instead of pushing yourself to try and write something you don’t think anyone else could think of. Material that would truly set you apart. It is a lack of care or a fear of failure. That trying what you want to do on- stage won’t work, so you stick to what you know will succeed, even if it is of a standard fare. Some comics may not be aware that what they’re doing is hack comedy. That they’re bit about Wal-Mart is a real winner. Though they may not be aware they’re doing it, that just means they aren’t students of comedy and haven’t been around comedy enough to understand they’re doing a stereotypical joke. Just because you’re unaware you’re doing hack comedy doesn’t make it any better.

This is what fuels the ire for hack comedy. That while others are toiling away at notebooks and computer screens and racking their brain on how to figure out this new bit they think is really different and unique in the hopes an audience will appreciate their efforts, the hack comic is working on an Al Sharpton impression that has been done to death. Working isn’t even the right term. You’re mimicking the people who mimic Al Sharpton. After all, it’s easiest to do a joke when you already know it works. Which is why joke thievery is the most heinous of artistic crimes.

First of all, coming up with an original premise, or at least a unique take on a premise that has been talked about is very difficult. There’s only so much of the world out there to comment upon. To then go to mic after mic and try out different wording, different delivery, different pauses, and to finally get a joke that works only to have someone swipe it away from you seems like the most callous and selfish thing a performer can do.

It is easy to tell the joke of another person when you know the beats to hit that they worked so hard to figure out. The intonations, the precise wording that if one extra syllable were to be used it would zap the punch out of the joke. I understand why joke thieves do it. It’s an easy way to achieve fame and as long as you don’t care about having a sullied reputation amongst other comics, audiences could give less of a shit whether you’re telling your jokes or someone else’s.

What it all comes down to is, do you care? If you do, there’s no real conceivable reason why you should be considered hack. Because it means you’re making an effort. And if you’re trying something different, you’re going to fail plenty of times. More so than any hack comic will ever experience. And there are plenty of hacks who will make a living doing comedy. Tons do and tons more will. The only thing to keep in mind is that that’s as far as they will progress. They will never be able to mature, to transform, to be the person on the cusp of something great. They will never be anything more than what the average person in an audience would call funny. It all depends on what you want your contribution to be. I’d much rather fail in the attempt to create something special than have moderate success that will never leave an impression on anyone.

I got into comedy because I saw shows that blew my mind and wanted to give people that experience. The nights I had as a kid from 8th grade and beyond going to see live shows as well as the specials I saw on Comedy Central are what left an impression on me.

Seeing Andy Kaufman willing to make an audience hate him by reading from ‘The Great Gatsby’ because the crowd was a bunch of assholes requesting for him to do his foreign character ‘Latka’ is what inspired me to stay true to myself. The level of spite he had for people requesting a character he had now come to loathe because all he wanted was to continuously create, and here an audience was, asking him to regress and be what they wanted him to be. And he could have done it. He could have gone for the laughs he knew were waiting for him if he did the ‘Latka’ character. But he didn’t back down. And because of that risk he took, though the audience that night hated him, he inspired plenty of comics (myself included) by doing something honest and true to himself.

On the flip side of the coin, I was also inspired by the litany of improv shows I saw in high school where storylines were so perfectly interwoven you questioned whether the show was truly improvised. Those shows affected me in a different way.

Seeing all the audience members enjoying themselves, getting a refreshing break from whatever was bothering them and sharing an experience with their fellow audience members and the performers on stage. That’s what drew me to performing as I’m sure it did for many other comics.

Clearly, you want the audience to enjoy themselves when you go on-stage. But you have to do it on your terms. That’s at least my ideal and how I feel like I’ll achieve what my goal is as a performer, which is to create an experience for the audience that they won’t soon forget.

The idea that maybe that night sticks in someone else’s head and it inspires them the way it did for me. Or that someone saw my show and it left an impression on them. That they won’t forget the night they saw my show and that it will be a good memory they carry with them. I don’t want to create easily forgettable moments or shows. I want to make something that gives people goosebumps. And even if an entire crowd hates me, if one person loved the shit out of it, that’s all I can ask for.

And as long as you strive towards that, I don’t think it’s possible for you to be hack.

If you are content with doing jokes that are standard and easily conceived, so be it. Just don’t be surprised that despite the fact that you can make an audience laugh, you won’t have the respect of fellow comedians. You should want to make the back of the room laugh as much as you want to make the front of the room laugh. And if you can’t do that, it’s indeed a sign that maybe you’re on the wrong side of the creative fence.


Contributing Writer: 
Joe Fernandez