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Hack is a term used primarily in stand-up comedy, but also sketch comedy, improv comedy, and comedy writing to refer to a joke or premise for a joke that is considered obvious, has been frequently used by comedians in the past, and/or is blatantly copied from its original author. Alternatively, it may refer to a comedian or performance group that uses hack material or similarly unoriginal devices in their act. Since comedians and people who work with comedians are typically exposed to many more jokes than the general public, they may recognize a topic, joke or performer as hack before the general public does; as a result, even performers who do well on stage may be considered hacks by their peers.

The word "hack" is derived from the British term "hackneyed" meaning, "over used and thus cheapened, or trite".

Occasionally a performer will be one of the first to develop a joke about a specific topic, and later on others will follow suit to excess. This renders the topic "hack" to new performers, but is not considered a detriment to the originator of the material.

Reusing humor can also be joke thievery if it is taken without permission from another specific comedian.


From the Catskill and Vaudeville beginnings of stand-up comedy, hacking was common as there were few chances that a performer from one area would meet one from another and a single twenty-minute set could sustain a comic for a decade.

In the late fifties and early sixties, Will Jordan perfected a caricature performance of Ed Sullivan (Incorporating mispronouncing the word "show" as "shoe") that became the basis for all other impersonators that followed. Soon after, Jackie Mason, Rich Little and others began adapting Jordan's caricature to their own acts. This resulted in many of Jordan's shows being canceled due to other performers doing his bit two weeks previous to his shows at the same venue. John Byner, in turn, developed his own, oft-imitated, version of Jordan's caricature that George Carlin cited as being set up with the words, "Now you know!"

In the sixties, comedy took a turn for the more personal. Comics like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin were no longer regurgitating joke after joke, but instead were offering insight to their own lives from a comedic point of view. As a result, jokes and persona were largely unique to the performer. Hacking proved more difficult, but also more offensive to the writer.

In the seventies joke theft became more prominent again with the boom in popularity of comedy and the eighties and nineties saw the popularity of stand-up comedy increase. With the advent of pay-cable networks, comics were afforded the opportunity to perform their routines unfettered.

For many years, Denis Leary had been friends with fellow comedian Bill Hicks. However, when Hicks heard Leary's 1992 album No Cure For Cancer, he felt Leary had stolen his act and material. The friendship ended abruptly as a result.

At least three stand-up comedians have gone on the record stating they believe Leary stole not just some of Hicks' material but his persona and attitude. As a result of this, it is claimed that after Hicks' death from pancreatic cancer, an industry joke began to circulate about Leary's transformation and subsequent success (roughly; "Question: Why is Denis Leary a star while Bill Hicks is unknown? Answer: Because there's no cure for cancer").

Also in the nineties, began a nearly universal hack of an impression of Bill Cosby, the style of which was first unveiled by Eddie Murphy in his concert Raw.

More recent times have seen public rivalries between comics over the subject of hacking. Louis CK has maintained a relatively quiet rivalry with Dane Cook over three bits on Cook's album, Retaliation that allegedly bear some resemblance to three bits on CK's album Live in Houston. This claim is further complicated by both artists having performed bits on naming kids that strongly resemble "My Real Name", a bit from Steve Martin's album, A Wild and Crazy Guy.

Joe Rogan, by contrast has been very open in accusing Carlos Mencia of hacking.

Hacking in the media

Hacking is not limited to stand-up comedy. Often entire premises in film and television shows are taken from comics or even other media.

Dick Cavett and Woody Allen often cited to each other the many instances of their jokes appearing in television shows without their permission, sometimes even falsely attributed to each other.

Allens' jokes and topics were regularly stolen by the highly successful television show, Laugh In. This proved extremely painful to Allen.

In more recent times a bit performed by Sam Kinison regarding Jesus' domestic issues after the resurrection later appeared in sketch form on the Comedy Central show, Mind of Mencia starring Carlos Mencia

Several episodes of The Simpsons, including "Missionary: Impossible", "Treehouse of Horror XIII", and "The Italian Bob" have poked fun at Family Guy, implying that MacFarlane's show is guilty of stealing jokes and premises from the Simpsons. However, the producers of both shows have said that there is no serious feud between the two of them and their shows.

Recourse and consequences

There is, historically, very little legal recourse taken in cases of hacking. Some comics, however, have chosen to exact their own justice. W. C. Fields reportedly paid fifty dollars to have a hack comic's legs broken. Boston stand-ups Kevin Knox and PJ Thibodeau interrogated Dan Kinno in the green room of a comedy club.

Typically, the repercussions of hacking are limited to personal animosity. On this issue, it sometimes appears that the offended comics are alone in their concern. For example, on February 10, 2007 at the Comedy Storemarker in Los Angeles, Joe Rogan argued on-stage with Carlos Mencia, accusing him of hacking other comedians' work. According to Rogan's account, he had just finished his act and introduced the next performer, Ari Shaffir, as a comedian who opens for "Carlos Men-steal-ia". Mencia took offense and walked on the stage. The Comedy Store later cancelled Rogan's shows and suggested he "take a break" from the Comedy Store, which was then followed by Rogan's manager (who also manages Mencia) dropping Rogan. The entire incident was filmed as part of Rogan's internet reality show, JoeShow. It was then made available to watch or download at numerous websites, including Rogan's.

Joe Rogan said, "People take plagiarism so seriously in all other forms of media, whether it's music, newspapers, books, but with comedy, it's like, 'You're on your own, fucker.'"

The internet, however, has opened up a new medium for "outing" a hack. Websites like YouTube allow users to upload videos and share them with others. This has made it much easier to show evidence of joke thievery in a public forum.

Steven Rosenthal and Steve Silberberg have published a Guide to Hack to help new comics avoid hacking, which references (and gives credit to) an earlier work on the same subject by Andy Kindler called, The Hacks Handbook: A Starter Kit.

Commonly cited examples of hack joke topics in stand-up comedy

  • Viagra, especially in regard to erections lasting longer than 4 hours.
  • Airplane Food.
  • Wearing Comical Clothing.
  • Prop Comedy.
  • The Comedian's Personal Appearance, including;
    • The comedian's resemblance to the probable offspring of an unlikely celebrity coupling, such as Chewbacca and Estelle Getty
    • An overweight entertainer beginning his act with threats to use his tremendous girth or proposed outsized hunger as a weapon against audience members.
    • Jokes about being bald.
  • Masturbation, specifically offering a number of slang terms for the act in rapid succession.
  • Michael Jackson
  • Outdated topical humor, such as a joke about Lorena Bobbit or the Macarena.
  • Ethnic taxi drivers.
  • Hurricane names.
  • Terror alert codes.
  • Impressions
  • Differences Between Groups of People.
  • Invading Canadamarker.
  • Jokes about the differences between Los Angelesmarker or New Yorkmarker and another place in America.
  • Jokes about being part one race and part another, and halfway embodying stereotypical characteristics of each.
  • References to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV); the length of time spent in queues, the demographics of those lining up, etc.

Common examples of hack punchlines

  • The "Mom Switcheroo:" When a character in a risque story involving the comedian is revealed through the sentence "So I said, Mom--" to be the comedian's mother.
  • Overweight comics saying "I'll move the mic stand so you can see me."
  • "The only way you would have a funny bone in your body is if I was having sex with you."
  • Puns involving Michael Jackson "Getting Off" with regard to the children involved in molestation scandals
  • "I don't go to your job and knock the dick out of your mouth" (and variations, when dealing with a heckler)
  • "One in three people is (ugly/annoying/etc) if the person to your left isn't and the person to your right isn't, it's you."


  1. ""
  2. From The Magazine : Radar Online
  3. Steal this Joke: Louis C.K. vs. Dane Cook vs. Steve Martin | Dead-Frog - A Comedy Blog
  4. Joe Rogan confronts Carlos Mencia at Comedy Store - People
  5. [1]
  6. YouTube - Mencia Steals From Sam Kinison
  7. [2]
  8. The Complete Guide To Hack Stand-Up Comedy
  9. NATIONAL LAMPOON February 1991 pp. 34-36

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