In search of the ULTIMATE comedy equation

I don’t know if you have seen it, how could I? I don’t know who you are.  But if you haven’t do yourself a favor and hop over to youtube and search for ‘hack lines magicians say’ by Paul Draper and Jason Andrews.  (Or Click here).  This funny little clip started me on one of my Think Journeys –

What makes a line a ‘hack’ line? AND, Does it matter?

One thing Paul and Jason say in their written description of the clip is ‘We just don’t like it when some insert them into their shows without the work to make it their own’ and I agree with their sentiments.  I would also like to use this forum to add some more comments.

But first a confession…k6

I have worked as a comedian and a magician for 30 years, I have headlined comedy clubs, performed on cruise ships, even appeared in Vegas, New York and London’s West End, and in all of those venues I used many of the lines on that youtube clip.  There I said it.  Does that make me a hack? What is a hack line anyway?  Well according to the guys above, one that is overused, another sentiment that I agree with, but just for fun I am going to delve deeper and add a different spin.  You see I believe there is no such thing as a hack line, just as there is no such thing as an old joke – OK I know there are some jokes that are very old but bear with me, here comes the spin – if you haven’t heard it before it’s new to you. Even though it might actually be a really old joke, the perceived age of a joke at it’s re-telling depends on the jokee (the person hearing the joke).  Oh dear, this is all beginning to sound very quantum – maybe a joke also has ‘mass’ which is the number of people who have heard it.So if being old does not make a joke old what does?  Two things.  Firstly, how many people have heard it and secondly, how simple it is (simple is good as it makes it memorable and easy to tell).  All this has absolutely no relevance to someone who has never heard it before.  They only care if it is funny, and if it is they will tell their friends who will probably tell them they have heard it before.The most amazing thing about these old jokes is that they are usually good jokes.  This is why  they are told and retold many times and why they are so memorable.  So maybe we need to add a third  to our list of things that make an old joke old – it needs to be very funny.  This maybe clearer if I put it a different way – If it is not funny, no-one will re-tell it so the joke will wither and die before it reaches puberty.The joke itself is also only one part of the comedy equation.  We have to add in the comedian, the teller of the joke – the joker.  The Joker adds so much to the joke.  A good comedian will bring a bad joke to life, a poor one will kill off even the best stories.

There is a great old showbiz saying  ‘A comedian is a man with a good memory desperately hoping that the audience have a bad memory’.  This is truer of a comedian whose material is largely from the ‘shared’ pile rather than the ‘original’ pile.   The same is true for a magician only we have two inbuilt extra problems.  Firstly, because of it’s very nature magic is more memorable than comedy – it is both visual and verbal, we remember what we see more clearly than we remember what we hear.  Secondly  the plot lines that we use have fewer variations (eg Classic burnt bill routine or cut and restored rope, virtually the same plot only with different objects).

The main reason a joke is funny is because of the element of surprise.  Same thing goes for a good magic trick.  If it is a vey good joke you may listen to it several times and still find it funny.  This is partly because you remember the good feelings the first time you heard it.  Eventually you will tire of the story.  Again the same goes for a good magic trick with a slight difference, magic has the element of ‘how is it done’ which will keep some interested for little longer.  Eventually our trick will go the same way as a good joke.  With the reshowing it will soon be old to many and only new to a few.

That is the bad news… but here is the good news – there is always a new audience, even for the oldest jokes.  And to prove it here is a very old joke.  It is from a Greek double act Hierocles and Phiagrius, and taken from their book ‘The Laughter Lover’ first published in the third century AD. A barber, a bald man and an absent minded professor take a journey together. They have to camp overnight, so decide to take turns watching the luggage. When it’s the barber’s turn, he gets bored, so amuses himself by shaving the head of the professor. When the professor is woken up for his shift, he feels his head, and says “How stupid is that barber? He’s woken up the bald man instead of me.”In answer to the question ‘what makes a hack line hack, and does it matter?’ I have to say this.  To be a good comedy entertainer (including comedy magicians in this group) you need to know the mass of a joke and the comedy experience of the jokee to judge how funny it is going to be.  So it is all about knowledge and experience – something that good comedy entertainers have. If we make a study of comedy we will learn that those old hack lines have their place in our arsenal but they are weapons to be treated carefully as they could backfire at any time.  We should continue to study and learn about the arts that we practice.

I am still on my search for the ultimate comedy equation.  I know some of the parts (naivety of the jokee, experience of the joker, mass of joke, etc).  If you have any ideas or can put this into an equation type format I would love to hear your ideas.


Keith Fields
P.S. Here is a solid gold comedy secret that will guarantee a great laugh from other magicians or comedians – try this.  Use a hack set up but add a different punch line to it.  I started to use the old line ‘save it for the end, I’ve got a weak finish’  and changed it half way through to ‘save it for the end, it’s not that I have got a weak finish, I’ve actually got a very strong finish, I’m just not doing it today’. Result – Huge laugh!
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