It happened in college.
That’s when Zack Hammond decided he needed to be a comedian. He experienced comedian Christopher Titus’s “Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding”—a comedy appearance treating his dysfunctional family, and Zack decided comedy could be a way for him to better cope with the dysfunctions in his own life.
A Comedian Is Born
Zack began attending all of the open mic nights he could. When he turned twenty-one, he signed up to perform at Wise Crackers (when it used to be at the Clarion in Scranton), and he shares that “it sucked.” The host announcing it was his first night to perform probably didn’t help. The guy that heckled him for being an English major probably didn’t either. Still, Zack made it through the tough Pennsylvania crowd, figuring he had to keep at it in order to be better.
Zack’s got a list of comedians who’ve influenced him to keep trying ranging from George Carlin to Richard Pryor to Patton Oswalt and Doug Stanhope, who Zack opened for in Scranton earlier this year. There are writers he encountered in his English major days that move him, too—Hemingway, Joyce, Milton, and the more contemporary David Foster Wallace, who Zack really seems to admire. He likes that the author is “clever and smart” and adds that the asides in his writing translate to comedy easily. With society heading down a sad path of stupidity, Zack is grateful for his English background that got him not only reading, but writing, too. In the recent Creative Writing Conference hosted by King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Zack shared with students that his career in writing isn’t just about jokes and being funny, but that the literary techniques of foreshadowing, plot and structure are crucial to not just setting up a good joke, but being able to carry them through a successful comedic act as a vehicle as well. You’ve got to have these to keep audiences interested, and more importantly, laughing. “Comedy has limits, unless it’s good,” he shares. Structure and mechanics of writing are clearly what helps make the comedy last.
I asked Zack about inspiration for new material. He says there isn’t anything like that. He just takes things he notices (that often annoy him) and he tries to comment on them in a way that will be funny. He adds some advice from Carlin—the idea that you have to divorce yourself from society. Zack echoes the truth in this concept. Good comedians need to put anything and everything on the table as potential material—even themselves. He writing isn’t only about the mechanics of it, but working on the analysis of material, too, including self-awareness.
Zack’s tried other creative writing with screenwriting, skits and sketches, but isn’t a big fan of writing these out, as visualizations of an idea are sometimes easier to just explain. He isn’t interested in writing comedy for others to perform either as it can be frustrating for his vision to take the form he wants through the actions of others who might interpret things in unintended ways or just disregard his direction all together. Plus, long-form comedic writing is a big commitment, and shorter forms are more Zack’s style. He believes it’s more exciting when it’s you performing and you get to see firsthand how successful the comedy has been received.
But writing comedy is challenging, to be sure. Zack shares that it’s not like performing music where you can hear it when you practice it to make adjustments or corrections. “With comedy, you don’t know it’s funny until someone laughs at it,” he confides. Then, editing can take place to see if a bit is too wordy or if there’s a better way to get an idea across. He adds, “You have no idea how much gas [a bit] has until you test it out.” You have to learn how to proofread onstage to fix it offstage for the next show.
Some Sage Advice
I questioned Zack about what advice he had for aspiring comedians who want to get on stage. He said simply, “Don’t.” I’m fairly sure he was joking, But it leads to the advice he has to give. One, be motivated—nose to the grindstone, full-out hard work will be what gets you the big payoff. Two, “Be yourself 100%.” You can’t rely only on imitation or emulation and feeding off of others. You must “bear your soul” and “suffer and such for a very long time” until –hopefully—things click into place. He adds that becoming a comedian is a “very long road of highs and very depressing lows. You question yourself all the time and have moments of doubt where you wonder why you ever thought it was a good idea. You have to be passionate and crazy to do it.”
You can find Zack Hammond (to follow him around like a groupie) on Facebook ( Zack Hammond: Comedian) or find him at the following upcoming shows, several of which he’s hosting or head lining:
December 22: Stroudsburg, PA @ The Sherman Theater at 8 p.m.
December 28: Binghamton, NY @ Peterson’s Tavern at 8:30 p.m.
December 29: Erie, PA @ The Harlequin Ballroom at 8:30 p.m.
December 30: Hershey, PA @ The Vineyard at Hershey at 8 p.m.
January 12-13: Wilkes-Barre, PA @ Wise Crackers at Mohegan Sun Casino at 9 p.m.
And hunt down his albums online: Sorrow Tree, Appalling and Utilitarian.