What’s the difference between hack and stock?

Recently a comic buddy by the name of Gabe Kea posted something negative about using the line, “I’m also available for children’s parties…” which we’ve all heard hundreds of times.  The odd things is people in the audience still laugh at that line as if they’ve never heard it (they have though, right?).  Most comics trace that line back to Bill Hicks but it’s been said so many times it’s considered just a stock line that anyone can use.  Yes, anyone can use it, but should they?  (No)  So when is it okay to use a stock line, and what’s the difference between stock and hack?  There’s plenty to debate on this topic, but since it’s my blog we’ll go with my opinion as well as some other comics who I discussed it with while working together. 

We determined a stock line as a joke that also serves a second purpose depending on the situation.  For example, there are multiple stock lines for dealing with hecklers…”I don’t go to your workplace and knock the… out of your mouth”  There are stock lines for doing certain announcements, “Tip the wait staff, one of them is pregnant.”  (By the way, never say that.  It’s ignorant and disrespectful to make the people working hardest the butt of a joke.)  Sometimes comics use a stock line about a small town they’re performing in.  Because so many places are the same, they work virtually anywhere.  I used to say, “Christmas is over, take your decorations down…” and the small town would roar as if I had actually researched this and was soooo mad.

The difference between stock and all-out hack is if that line serves no other purpose than to get a laugh.  Going with the prior example of “Available for children’s parties…” there is no other purpose.  Sometimes a comic with an ethnicity other than white might say, “Damn, they finally let me out of the kitchen…” for a laugh.  Geoff Tate and I considered these hack because they serve no other purpose than to get a laugh, yet way too many comics have used them over the years.  There’s actually quite a few dealing with being a non-white comic.  I could understand mentioning race in a small-town gig because if it’s an all-white crowd/town then yes, the comic does need to mention that elephant in the room (sad, but that’s ‘merica).  However, there are more original ways to do it (especially when they know you don’t work there in the kitchen).  It’s not just comics of color, but other noticeable things, “Where my big girls at?” would be hacky pandering.  Too many sets open that way (although I might start opening mine that way just for the irony).

In a comedy club setting there is almost no excuse for needing a stock line other than delivering announcements as the MC.  In a smalltown gig in a bar where they didn’t know a show is going on, you may need a little stock to win them over early on in your career.  If you’re faced with reoccurring situations such as performing in small towns, dealing with hecklers or you’re a minority performing in front of a lot of white crowds, take the time to come up with your own lines to handle these things.  They don’t need to be breakthrough jokes that kill, but at least let them tackle the issue you’re having.  A lot of comics, including myself, need to do this for our merch pitches.

Here’s something I do for Sunday shows at my home club..  On Sunday nights at the St. Louis Funnybone we tend to get more African Americans in the audience.  With some of my racial material this makes white people nervous.  I have a joke about church that lets everyone know, especially the nervous white people, that I am aware and comfortable joking about race in my set very early on. 

If you’ve heard “your” stock lines done by a number of comics, they’re hack or too close to hack to be in your set.  This can lose you respect from the comics you’re working with and ultimately cost you gigs (money).  The number one way most of us judge each other as people is by our acts.  Very often it’s accurate. 

For more tips on the little details (as well as the larger ones) in comedy, check out my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  It’s available in paperback on Amazon as well as ebook format for Kindle, Nook, iTunes, etc.

5 Disappointing Things That Happen to Most Comics…

In a few weeks I’ll hit my 14th comedy birthday so I thought I’d reflect on some of the not-so-great things that I’ve had happen.  (If I just went over my best moments that would be a little obnoxious.)  As mentioned before, my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage has been labeled pessimistic by a few people.  None of these readers were actual professional working comedians.  So if you’re going to try comedy as a profession here are some things you can look forward to overcoming…

1.  Your friends show up to a terrible show…  They finally made it!  After twenty previous “Let me know next time you’re performing!” statements they actually followed through.  Sure you comped their tickets, they were late, and it took multiple texts and phone calls before they understood how to be an adult, but they’re finally there to see you.  Aaaand, it’s not your best show.  The crowd is half empty, you have to go up first, and things just aren’t hitting.  Get ready for an awkward post-show conversation where they put on their best acting chops and tell you they thought you were funny.  After they leave you get to picture their car ride home where they all discuss your poor life decision.  Meanwhile, you’re killing it at the 10:00 show they didn’t stick around for.

2.  The famous headliner you worship and get to open for cancels…  The booking felt too good to be true.  Four nights with someone you’ve looked up to since you even considered doing comedy years ago.  You’ll be best friends by Sunday night!  You promote it on Twitter and Facebook for weeks, maybe even months.  You have that girl you want to impress on your guest list and then 5:00 the day of…the big name cancels…as does the group of 30 who was going to attend the first show Saturday…and the rest of the crowd.  Looks like your profile pic is going to have to stay set as you and your dog for two more months.  Back in 2003ish I was supposed to open for Jim Gaffigan in Columbus.  Obviously he wasn’t as famous as he is now but it was still a big deal.  He canceled the week for a set on Letterman or Leno.

3.  Sold out show, great set…no merch sales?  You just had the set of your life in a packed house.  It’s Friday and most of the crowd just cashed their paycheck a few hours ago.  They actually applaud your sales pitch for your merch that you’re going to sell after the show.  You run back to your car and get more stock while the headliner is up because the box you have right now might not be enough.  The headliner isn’t even selling merch so you’re the only market in the lobby!  …Fifteen minutes later as the crowd clears you’re standing by an undisturbed table wondering what the hell happened.  (April 2012 Crackers in downtown Indy)

4.  Sorry man but… (the game’s on, chilifest is happening downtown, we were packed last week)…  You returned to one of your favorite one-nighters where you had a wonderful show last year.  You can always count on a filled room.  You sold three dozen t-shirts last time and killed it but as you pull into the parking lot, you realize that you’re in the front row of cars.  No one is there because the bar got lazy and didn’t promote the show.  Yes, sometimes it’s for one of the above reasons but those are usually just excuses.  You realize that the bar hasn’t updated any of its decor in nine years (Is that a neon Zima sign?) so of course they can’t hang up a poster letting people know you’re coming.

5.  I didn’t hit record…  Did you know that if you have your Square App plugged into your phone the microphone doesn’t pick up sound?  Ever accidentally click the night vision option on your old camcorder back in they day when recording a set?  …The same camcorder whose battery dies in eight minutes if you leave the tiny video monitor flipped open?  Or maybe you just didn’t click the right button…”I swear I saw the red light on!”  Or hell, maybe you did record the set from a device right next to the chattiest table in the room.  I’ve had many sets I’d be proud to put on an album to sell…Of course none of them were recorded correctly or at all.  Something will inevitably go wrong.  What’s that?  Have a professional come in a record it?  That’ll pretty much guarantee #4 will happen.

For other great reasons to try this ridiculous profession read Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.

(Feel free to share this with others)

The best way to help the comedy industry

Last week one of the St. Louis comics did something that more of us should do.  She said no.  Micaela Mohr has been running an open mic at a bar on the south side of St. Louis on Friday nights.  I’ve noticed that there have been a few conflicts with this bar’s scheduling and comedy has been pushed aside on certain nights.  I haven’t even talked to her about it, but the bottom line is they weren’t respectful to the open mic or her and so she ended it.  Good!  The worst thing we can do as comics is continue to allow the disrespect when there are other options.  The key is figuring out when those times are.  It’s showbiz, so you’re going to have to learn to take a lot of crap, but there are some instances when enough is enough and this was definitely one of those times.

Several months ago I wrote a post about how much you should charge when doing a gig that a booker or club didn’t set up.  The best thing you can do for the industry is say no if the money isn’t enough.  It’s hard to turn things down when you have bills to pay, but in the long run you’ll have much better gigs when they’re willing to take you serious enough to provide real pay.  The problem with low-dough shows is that the bar will put little to no investment in their promotion.  You might drive 7 hours for a gig in front of 8 people.  Ever notice how they always say, “I don’t get it, it was packed last time?”  They’re lying.  It’s never packed.

As a feature it’s harder to negotiate because you just want to make money and it’s already a set amount determined ahead of time, but if you’re putting together you’re own show, get something other than a “percentage of the door” up front.  In the meantime, learn to say no.  Quit giving comedy away.

For more tips on comedy and the business side of it, order Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  Also available on iTunes!