"Taste has no system and no proofs."
— Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'"
1. TO START WITH COMEDY. There is only one unimpeachable criterion: Is it funny? But a question follows close behind: Funny to whom?
2. Apocrypha from the world of television: A sitcom writers' room is working late into the night, trying to generate the perfect gag to punch up a scene. Joke after joke is pitched, but nothing seems to work. The scene remains stubbornly flat. Finally, a writer pulls out a box of index cards and rifles through them. He stops, pulls out a card, and asks: "Can the floor be wet?"
3. A Hack can get a huge laugh out of an audience. And yet he can also rightly be calledunfunny. When we employ Hack as a pejorative, we call into question the audience's taste. We say, in effect: You are laughing only because you have no taste.
4. Meanwhile, to himself and to his fans, a Hack is justified by his success; he need not justify himself otherwise.
5. The comic who recycles old jokes, confirms stereotypes, pantomimes his way through his act, and makes folks chuckle without in any way threatening the established order is offensive to us precisely for failing to offend.
6. A Hack comic is a sheep in wolf's clothing, "poking fun," never "killing." He is the jester who won't risk the king's displeasure.
7. Just as there are three types of comic (The Innovator, The Inheritor, and The Trickster), there are three corresponding types of Hack comic.
8. Whereas The Innovator creates new forms, The Hack-Innovator's sense of originality is based on ignorance of his predecessors. He believes he's the first in the world to utter these jokes.
9. Whereas The Inheritor employs old forms to new effect and introduces new areas of content, The Hack-Inheritor simply recycles old material. He might be a cynic, or just someone who doesn't see beyond the easy laugh. His act is empty ritual, capitalizing on the our recognition of familiar routines.
10. Whereas The Trickster creates through inversion, disruption, and destruction, The Hack-Trickster, by constantly announcing that he is a trickster, remains safe and contextualized, thereby precluding any real disruption. He is who Steve Martin makes fun of when he says "I'm a wild and crazy guy."
11. Hack is not limited to comedy, obviously. There are Hack novelists, journalists, poets, screenwriters, musicians, magicians, designers ... the list goes on — but not endlessly. Doctors, for instance, are rarely called Hacks — they are called, rather, quacks. It is unclear what a Hack firefighter would be, or a Hack cashier.
12. It is hard, too, to imagine a Hack teacher. One can be asleep at the wheel, as a teacher, and still not be called a Hack. It doesn't seem like the right term. And yet teaching requires performance, a sort of audience, creativity, and what we might broadly call the personal ingredient. Teachers are excluded from Hack because they don't have to compete for their audience.
13. Which brings...