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.

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