Hack material, to some extent, is subjective. There’s a comic in San Francisco who has based his entire career on dick jokes…and he’s one of the funniest comics I’ve ever seen. His dick jokes are clever. I’m chuckling right now thinking about them. I wish I could write a dick joke that good.
Also, dick jokes are hack AF and you shouldn’t ever tell them.
As you can see, it’s tough to give consistent advice when it comes to hack material. Every premise has been done, every nook and crannie of humor has been mined, so it would be fair to say that all material is essentially hack. But it’s also true that some premises are revisited more often than others, and some joke premises have been used and abused so often that the mere mention of them makes comedians cringe. Airplane food, doing laundry, dick/vagina/period/masturbation jokes…hack premises.
Hack premises change over time, so here’s a quick list of premises and joke structures that I personally consider to be hack:
Jokes about vegans. Just…stop.
Any joke in which some version of “mom” is the punchline. “A heckler started yelling about how I’m not funny and I suck at comedy and how I’ll never succeed and I was like, ‘I think you’ve had enough to drink, mom.’”
Whole Foods is expensive amiright
The tag where you say you’re just kidding. “My gf got mad because my dog farted in our bed last night. I’m just kidding…I don’t own a dog. I’m just kidding…I don’t have a gf. I’m just kidding…”
Starting your set with a joke about your appearance. Deduct extra points for any version of I look like if this one obscure celebrity fucked [other obscure celebrity or inanimate object] “I look like if Steve Buscemi fucked a shower curtain from 1975”
“My wife and I just had our eighth anniversary.” Smattering of applause. “Yep, that’s the exact amount of applause that deserves.”
“I lost 20 pounds this year!” (Applause.) “I gained 30 back.”
Jokes about chipotle
With all of that said, I have a hilarious joke about Chipotle and it gets a huge laugh every time, so fuck you and your judgment.
Seriously, if you have a joke that fits into a hack premise, but to your knowledge it hasn’t been done before, more power to you. Don’t steal jokes, obvi. But if you have a dick joke that makes you laugh, and makes audiences laugh, and it’s never been done in the way you do it, cool. Just be aware that other comics are going to judge you. But other comics tend to be jerks, so whatev.
As we’ve already determined, every audience is different, and some aren’t going to vibe with what you’re slinging. That’s fine. But if what you’re slinging is a bunch of jokes about race, abortion, religion, etc., you’ve severely narrowed the demographics that are potentially receptive to your material, and that means you’ve multiplied the number of crowds that will hate you. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily. There’s a market for blunt, mean, angry comedy. But understand two things:
1. It’s a relatively small market. Sure, there are people who will want to hear your hot take on abortion, and once you get HUGE (like, Chris Rock huge) you can reach any demographic—no matter how niche—and can afford to say whatever the hell you want. But when you’re starting out, the audience you’re trying to entertain includes soccer moms, PTA presidents, police officers, teachers. It also includes bookers for your local comedy club…and they may not appreciate those topics and/or be worried that their patrons won’t share your taste for controversial subjects. When you’re starting out, “edgy” material puts you at a distinct disadvantage.
2. Let’s be real: your abortion joke probably isn’t funny. Because
a. Abortion jokes have been done to death (I’ll show myself out) by every comedian who wants to be edgy and
b. It’s really hard to make with the funny about awful, tragic shit.
If your race/abortion/religion humor isn’t working, it’s not because the crowd CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH. You’re just not good enough or famous enough to make baby-death funny. Learn to get laughs with other material, get good, then feel free to revisit the controversial stuff.
Myth #1: There are no bad audiences.
I once opened for a guy whose entire act was a PowerPoint presentation about the tech industry. This was at a comedy club in Silicon Valley, on “technology night.” He killed, because of course he did. It was a hometown crowd. But I guarantee he would have experienced a different reception in a Texas dive bar. It’s always dangerous to generalize, but this is my party and I’ll generalize if I want to: a Texas dive bar crowd is unlikely to lose their collective mind over jokes about “boolean loops” and “code refactoring.”
The idea that all crowds are created equal is nonsense, and as a comedian you need to realize that not all audiences will enjoy your particular brand of funny. To put it bluntly, you’re eventually going to run into a crowd that hates your face.
If you end up in front of the wrong crowd, don’t beat yourself up. And don’t beat them up, either. Nothing is worse than a bitter, bombing comic who’s berating the crowd because his/her material isn’t working. Every once in a while, bombing is no one’s fault. Try to win them over, and if you can’t, do your time with as much grace and poise as you can muster, preserve whatever dignity you can, then shrug off the L and move forward. You literally can’t win them all.
To clarify, I’m not saying you should give up if the first couple minutes of your set aren’t working. I’ve watched comics open to boos and end with a standing O. (And vice versa.) I’m also not providing excuses for bad comics. If you’re bombing regularly, that’s not the fault of crowds; that’s on you. Actually, let me say this: if more than 1% of your sets are going poorly, you’re not a good comedian yet. A professional comic does well 99% of the time. And as you get better and better, you will be offered better shows in more desirable venues, in front of excited, paying crowds, and you will have been selected by bookers because they know that you will do well in front of those crowds. As you get better, everything gets easier, and 99% of the time you shouldn’t be struggling. But 1% is still statistically significant: out of 100 shows, at least 1 of them will probably suck.
And that SHOULD be the case. No matter how big you get, you’re going to need to try new material somewhere, and that means you may occasionally accept crappy bookings, you may end up in a dive bar in Texas. You may be standing in front of an audience that hates your face. When—not “if”—that happens, don’t sweat it, roll with the punches, get back on the horse, blah blah other cliches.
This website used to be an outlet for silly observations, but now I use it to offload everything I’ve learned about standup comedy. Which isn’t a lot, but it’s also not nothing. I know stuff. Hopefully it’s useful. Enjoy!
A comprehensive step-by-step guide for standup comedy beginners.
Amy Baldwin is co-owner of the mother/daughter sex shop Pure Pleasure in Santa Cruz. Never heard of a mother/daughter sex shop? Listen for details. Amy joins us in the bedroom/studio for an uncensored chat about sex toys, anal, and the miracle of lube.