You may have heard someone say that so and so is a “hack” comic or that such and such tells a lot of “hack” jokes, but wondered what that meant. Well, since I have nothing better to do I will tell you. Hack is what comedians say when something has been done a lot. Like for instance airplane food. You may wonder why that may be such an issue for comics and the answer is rather simple. Unlike musicians, or actors comedians rely heavily on unique aspects of life. That is what make Louis C.K different from Chris Rock. They are both funny, but they have unique outlooks on life. Comics rely on this because unlike a singer or an actor the material is what makes the comic. I would go as far to say that material is 90% of comedy and the rest is the stuff they score in comedy competitions, but the audience at large doesn’t really care about. 100 singers can sing the same song and it will sound different because the singer’s styles are different. Some jokes (I would say a large amount) won’t even work with certain styles. Could you imagine Chris Rock doing Mitch Hedberg’s material in Chris Rock’s classic style. No! It would not work.
So with that being said, when you do write jokes, it is advised to stay away from subjects that have been done a lot. The problem with that is depending on who you talk to that could be anything. Some will say don’t do airport material and some would say don’t do stuff about your kid. I think when people talk about hack material what they miss is the fact that when you talk about these subjects you are supposed to be putting your unique perspective on the topic. Louis C.K. does stuff about his kids all the time and no one would DARE tell him that he is a hack. Why? Because he goes at it from a different angle. I believe that there is no such thing as hack material. There are only so many topics in the universe and so many comedians that you are bound to encounter a subject that has been discussed a lot. If you want to talk about airplanes then go ahead, but make sure you do something that make people laugh. When the joke you are telling is about a much used subject and your punchline is basically the same things others have said, but with different words, then you are not showing the audience that you have a unique take on things. So, there is no hack material. There are hack comedians though!
Now a hack comedian is someone that goes through the “tropes” of comedy without really putting their unique touch on it. I have seen plenty of comics just get up and do material that has been touch on before, and everything from the premise to the punchline is stuff that is in the common domain. What I mean by that is, everything that they are saying is already known to the audience even before they says it. What makes comedy cool is that what you begin with doesn’t always have to end the way people expect. You don’t have to talk about relationships in a way that everyone knows every beat that you are going to hit on before you get there. That is what makes things funny. You punched a hole in a common notion or you are pointing out things others take for granted. I think hack comics steam from a couple of sources. First, the person doesn’t know how to write good material. Writing great jokes is hard. And sometimes instead of digging deep and going for something, a lot of comedians would rather go an easier route. Second, some comics out there see this as a job, and they just want to get through it and collect the check. The thing is you can’t just collect a check after just standing up there for an hour in complete silence so they do material that is funny, but not really “going” anywhere and think they are good. Lastly, I think hack comics just want people to laugh and so you go for what works. If it is a popular subject people will probably laugh. Like ex material. Everyone has an ex they hate. If you just say some stuff that has been said before you will probably get a laugh. And sometimes that is all people want.
I would suggest that if you are worried about walking into hack territory to don’t worry about it. If you are adding your uniqueness to your material people will see that. I have seen some comics that are so adverse to talking about things that others have talked about a lot that they will go into the opposite direction and go so specific or abstract that a lot of people get turned off by it. What you should want to do first and fore most is be funny. You should want to be the funniest person on planet earth. How you get to the funny isn’t as important as being funny. So, focus on that first. Talk about the stuff you want to talk about. If you want to talk about your exes then do that. Just make sure that you are adding something and taking your audience places that other comics can not. Once you think about it like that you won’t worry about hack material.