Eric Haines, comedyrocket.com
Comedy, one-man band, and variety for short attention spans
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About "Hack" Material
by Eric Haines
The term "hack" gets thrown around in comedy a lot - and it can cause a lot of problems. Let's start by defining the term... "Hack" is short for "hackneyed," which means 1.) "Overused", or 2.) "Ordinary and unimaginative". The working definition also includes those who steal jokes from joke books or other comedians. Notice that hack does not refer to the integrity of the joke itself, assuming that the joke is not stolen. A comedian can write an original joke from their own imagination, which will be hack if the idea is so obvious that it has been covered by others in the mass media or on stage. It often happens that two comedians will come up with the same idea independently and write bits that are similar. This is acceptable. It is a far greater sin to steal a joke or premise from another comedian and rewrite it by changing a few words and calling it your own. That is plagiarism.
There is a prejudice against variety and prop acts in the comedy field. This is justified if the acts are using stock material and/or a stock delivery style. Cookie-cutter jugglers and magicians doing routines they got from a book, as opposed to an original act with their own material, are in this category. If you call the format, i.e. "Juggler", "Variety", "Prop" or "Guitar act" hack, you are incorrect. There is nothing that has more overdone than a jaded comedian holding a microphone and droning on with an observational monologue. It is the originality of the act itself that makes it hack or makes it original. The Amazing Jonathan, Penn & Teller*, Gallagher and Carrot Top are all Variety acts with an original presentation. Someone who tries to act LIKE any of these acts is being hack unless they are an impressionist.
Being hack in the style you use is rampant in stand-up, especially for open mikers and even features. I keep having features who idolize Doug Stanhope and do their best to be him, but only on the shock side of his act. There’s already a Doug Stanhope and he is shocking and funny. Find your own voice.
If you think you are a misunderstood artist and spend your time advertising for your drug habit from the stage or going for shock value rather than laughs, its been done. You had a childhood, you go to coffee, you are much more of a rounded human being with an entire life to draw material and a point of view from than you give yourself credit for. Your drunken promiscuous college years are only a small slice of who you are (Ok, for some of you, maybe not...).
The argument that an impression of Jack Nicholson is hack is correct because it is overdone - however, if it is done with an original twist or idea, it is not. (Or if you do it so incredibly well that the audience doesn’t care if they’ve seen it before.) There are no limits on what is usable for comedy as long as it is a fresh take on the idea. The Crocodile Hunter is a valid target for comedy, but once 500 comedians all have a routine about him it's time to cut and run. The audience and the industry get tired of the same ideas, or even the same jokes all the time, so find a take that is so different it catches everyone by surprise or bail.
If it's a "stock bit," including stock heckler lines, it's hack. Every comedian keeps some street jokes in their back pocket, because a lot of what we do is survival in front of a variety of audiences who may not have a refined taste for original comedy. Their palate may only handle stock macaroni and cheese when I've brought them filet mignon. Do what you have to do, but always try to be original. Write some original heckler lines that no one else uses, and don't borrow lines from other acts.
Do what you're interested in and what is central to your point of view and your performance. Playing guitar is not hack, it's lack of imagination that's hack. Observational comedy is not hack, but sounding like every other observational comedian is hack. It's not those pants that make you look fat, it's the fat that makes you look fat. (A hack line that works as a metaphor! Ironic!)
Be original in everything that you do - it's the one approach that never goes out of style.
*Here’s an example of something mundane done in a way that is not hack. Penn and Teller do a standard card trick that is unremarkable to anyone who has dabbled in magic. The difference? They did it on the David Letterman Show using giant cards made of diamond aluminum and forklifts. Is this your card?
Technical Juggling and Laughs Per Minute
By Eric Haines
Juggler/ comedian Chris Bliss created a video of himself doing a 3 ball routine to a Beatles song. Jason Garfield replied with a video doing a 5 ball routine to the same song entitled "Bliss Diss", and the debate raged on over who was the better juggler. Chris Bliss video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8f8drk5Urw&feature=related
Bliss Diss video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYUXaYCkv-A
Both were good routines, in fact excellent, depending on the aesthetic of the viewer. The comments from viewers were like a battle between political candidates or really inarticulate mud wrestlers. Some called Bliss an underachieving hack for daring to come up with an original routine that only used three balls, some called Garfield a soulless technician who lacks artistry and kicks puppies. For me, the argument is as if someone said that BB King is a terrible guitar player because Eddie Van Halen uses more notes.
Chris Bliss had a routine that emphasized the emotion of the song used as a background, and kept the number of objects at three. The routine was choreographed to the music, and emphasized the artistry of juggling, the way that BB King would use very few notes, but convey a greater range of emotion than a lightning-fast guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen.
Jason Garfield wants only the development of technical juggling; by dismissing all other forms except the most technically excellent, he opens the door to a burst of development in that area. He strips away the clutter to reveal one bit of truth about juggling, the same way a performance sports car like a Lamborghini will beat a Bentley in a race every time. The Lamborghini is true in the arena of high speed performance, but the Bentley is not built to compete in that arena; it is built to please the senses in luxury, style and beautiful engineering. It buries the Lamborghini when judged by those merits. At one point I owned a Jaguar Vanden Plas- beautiful car, but useless in a race against a Viper.
When people view each juggling routine, they respond to whatever their preferences are for juggling, whether the technical merit of the 5 ball routine by Garfield, or the more artistic sense of Bliss. It's as if they are choosing between a Bentley and a Lamborghini. Unfortunately, the on line discussion boards are cluttered with comments that argue that (metaphorically) the Bentley isn't a car if it can't beat the Lamborghini in a race.
In stand-up comedy the technical equivalent is laughs per minute, or LPM. It is usually applied to nightclub comedy, not comedy writing for films or sit-coms. Most comedy contest winners have sets with a higher LPM, making it an effective way to evaluate a comedians set, or an excellent excuse for bitter drunken comedians to tear apart each others sets behind their backs. By definition the comedian uses all his/her skills to eliminate slow moving bits to increase LPM. Those who are locked in to that technical pursuit are as confused as Amish tourists at a New York strip club by humorists like Garrison Keillor, who have a slower paced, amusing style. Personally, my tastes in comedy include everything from Buster Keaton to George Carlin. I see LPM as a tool, a reminder that I need to punch up my act. There are other elements, particularly visual elements, that are more important to me.
As a fan of technical juggling, I juggle 5 clubs and 6 balls in practice, but my emphasis is on comedy. The dedication and time commitment for keeping 5 clubs performance ready is spent on other performance skills like song writing. If I had the ability to maintain a high-level technical juggling routine in my show, rest assured I would, but I am not dedicated enough to technical juggling to do more than five balls and four clubs in performance. If I haven't written comedy patter to go with it, it remains in my practice sessions.
As a fan of high LPM comedy, I strive to add punch lines to achieve a high rate of laughs, but I still keep things in my act that have a longer set-up or a visual impact, because those bits interest me as a variety performer. My truth would be that whatever a performer does to keep the audience engaged is valid, whether they are a mind-blowing technical juggler, an amazing acoustic guitar player a high LPM comic or a low-key humorist. I'll buy it if it's compelling, but if they don't engage the audience, they suck.
My point is this: If Bliss's routine had sucked, Garfield wouldn't have felt the need to do a parody of the routine. If A Prairie Home Companion had no comedic value, it wouldn't have a following. Just like politics, the extremists frame the debate and hold up their grain of truth as being the only valid point of view. When he was asked what kind of music he liked, Louie Armstrong replied, "Good music."
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Choosing material: dirty or clean
By Eric Haines
When a comedian starts to develop an act, they go through a period of trying to find a voice and point of view that the act will be based on. Initially they use the things that make their close friends laugh, then the things that make a group of other new comedians laugh. When they make the move to being a paid opening act, they soon find that what works with close friends and other comedians doesn’t work as well with an older audience, a theater audience or an audience in a small town. The most effective test group to find out what works in a room of average people is a room full of average people, and so the new opening act keeps working different rooms and discovering how to adapt material to work in different situations.
I recently did a show where the opening act walked several people before I got to the stage. It wasn’t because the material wasn’t well written, or well presented. It was simply too dirty for the audience in that room. I keep my show clean, but I know that there’s a place for all kinds of comedy. If an opening act asks me if I want to put limitations on what they do, Ill tell them to do what’s funny- do what works for you and the audience. Perhaps I should be more clear- do what works for you and the audience that is there that night.
I have a basic philosophy: There are no right or wrong answers, only more or less effective choices.*
It doesn’t matter if an act is dirty or clean, what matters is if what they did was effective. The bigger question is whether they were effective in the circumstance they were in that night (i.e. the age of the audience, the room, the conditions of employment.)
Using this premise as a guide, lets test the theory.
1. Is it possible to make a car that runs on wood rather than gasoline? Yes. Is it more or less effective than gasoline? Less. More pollution, less horsepower.
2. Is it possible to live on a diet of McDonalds Big Mac sandwiches and Top Ramen? Yes. I proved that in college. Is it more effective than a healthy diet? No, it is not. I proved that in college.
3. If you get a big industry audition for your own sit-com, should you break out your killer unicycle routine? Not if you want to be effective- they cant have you ride your unicycle on the show each week. They’re more interested in what their writers can work with, which is a developed character and a strong point of view.
4. I was told by a successful comedian when I first started doing comedy that the comedian should always wear black pants and a shirt with a tie. Using that logic, Carrot Top will never make it big until he starts wearing a tie. If you are in a bar in a small logging town in northern British Columbia a tie is not an effective choice- you’ll put up a wall between you and your audience. You’d probably want to choose a more casual look, maybe a t-shirt or even a flannel shirt. Do you wear ripped jeans and a gravy-stained t- shirt to do a show for an accounting firm? Maybe, but its likely your credibility and your paycheck would be greatly reduced unless you were well dressed for that gig. There is no right answer about how to dress, except use common sense and dress appropriately for the gig.
If a comedian knows that they are required to wear a suit to go on Letterman, but they’ll look stupid wearing a tie to perform for a biker rally, a comedian should be able to size up the audience when it comes to material as well. If its in a restaurant in middle America and the median age is 60, adjust the material and maybe don’t do a set that slams Jesus and retarded people and closes with graphic sex. If its an audience that paid money to see the dirty comedy show that was advertised, don’t do your G-rated set about Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer.
If someone walks out of a comedy show, the chance that they’ll ever try it again goes way down, which cuts into my paycheck in terms of closed rooms and low audience turnouts. If the comedians don’t make an effective choice in choosing material to suit the audience, they effect the health of the comedy industry.
I'm obviously pro clean comedy, both personally and for the sake of the industry. Using food as a metaphor, profanity is like a very strong spice. A little goes a long way, but if you use it appropriately it can give an extra kick to the dish without overpowering it. Many people seek out Cajun food, for example, that may cause stomach upset in certain people, while other people will travel miles to get a good Cajun meal. There is a market for both spicy food and blue comedy, but the larger markets are for food and comedy that are not overpowered by a single ingredient.
The food metaphor also works to illustrate the down side of clean comedy. Everyone has been to a buffet style restaurant where they have gone so far to not offend the taste buds of the old people who eat there that the food is too bland and uninteresting to eat. An over 65 acquaintance of my family (who has never seen my show) actually said this to me: We went to see Bob Hope in concert and he was just so dirty! Bingo. $6.95 all you can eat.
The statistics I last saw said that between 61 and 79 percent of the American people identify themselves as Christian. Of the remaining percentage, most identify themselves with a religion other than Christianity. If the general audience is religious, why block the biggest market? If a comic has the ability to write clean material for the one-nighter in a small town, it is likely we will all benefit in the long run, with more of the general American audience viewing live comedy as something they will go to. Of that general audience a large percent will gravitate to adult-only or specialized shows. The bigger the general pie, the bigger the slice for those who develop an audience just for their kind of humor.
What about Chappelle show, Chris Rock and South Park! I hear you screaming at your monitor. These are incredibly popular shows with dirty content, and they’re popular in middle America, too! Course, they still ain’t as dirty as this one act I saw....
Watching TV in your own house gives you the ability to be anonymous, and also the ability to change the channel if the subject is too extreme. In a live show the audience is captive. They have two options: stay for something they don’t want to see or leave. If the act is funny enough they will stay even through raunchy material, but they will walk out of a shockingly angry or blue set unless the audience is tailor made for it, or the club has advertised for it. A professional feels for where the line is.
But its a comedians job to push the line! Yes, but not at the expense of killing comedy in that room after you are there. And not at the expense of a corporate never using a comedian for entertainment again. A scorched earth policy kills work for all of us. Is it worth closing a productive room because you wanted to see how many people you could walk that night? My advice is choose your material wisely each night to build a comedy audience for the entire United States, then develop your show to target a fan base and market for your specific type of comedy, and advertise for it. Its show business, after all. Be true to your art within the framework of building a market for art, then find places that are willing to promote a show that advertises your point of view.
**Footnote for all of the philosophy majors: I have a basic philosophy: There are no right or wrong answers, only more or less effective choices.* This applies to Art. There is, however, moral right and wrong. To say there is not would open up the argument that Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews was ineffective rather than wrong, or to argue that a cold blooded murderer is effective as long as he is not caught.
The e-mail that triggered this article:
Hello Eric......I wanted to apologize for not staying for your act last night. After listening to the subject matter of the first two comics, dissing Jews, Jesus and mentally disabled people, I just couldn't take any more. I was so offended by them and was afraid that you would be the same way. My husband and friends stayed and they had so much fun and said you were just great. I am sorry I missed that. Maybe in the future, the opening acts could be screened as to their subject matter. I do hope to see you perform one day.
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Eric Haines lives in Washington state. He is a comedian, one man band, stilt walker, comedy juggler and variety artist.
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