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‘Hacks’ Is a Different Kind of Comedy About Comedy

The new HBO Max series is a caustic and hilarious dark comedy set in the parched outskirts of Las Vegas. The creators discuss how it all came together and the relationship between their leads—two women comics across the generational divide.

HBO/Ringer illustration

There have been many, many shows about stand-up comics: stand-ups navigating single parenthood; stand-ups going through a divorce; stand-ups sharing petty gripes with their friends; stand-ups exploring gender norms in the late 1950s. What there hasn’t been is a show about a Mrs. Maisel–type comic in the jaded twilight of her career, not its scrappy beginning. Enter Hacks, the story of two difficult, defensive women who form an unlikely bond across the generational divide.

“It’s not like it’s about a bunch of 25-year-old guys in hoodies in North Hollywood trying to get stage time at the Improv,” says director and cocreator Lucia Aniello. “It’s an entirely different world.”

That world is the parched outskirts of Las Vegas, where aging comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) has built a luxurious, if stagnant, life around a casino residency. When the owner threatens to cut some of her dates, Deborah’s manager has the bright idea to kill two birds with one stone: Why not set her up with his other client Ava (Hannah Einbinder), an up-and-coming writer who’s now down-and-unhireable after a poorly worded tweet? It’s a match made in hell. Ava is a self-pitying narcissist who thinks her cancellation might be punishment for getting fingered at her uncle’s wake; Deborah is a hard-nosed veteran who doesn’t take kindly to professional advice from a millennial. “There is no ‘line,’” Deborah scoffs when she hears Ava’s joke that supposedly crossed one. “It’s just not funny.”

There were a number of challenges in scripting Hacks, which premiered on HBO Max on Thursday: writing stand-up for a performer we have to believe is a decorated legend; forging a bond between two cynics that’s authentic, but not saccharine; molding misanthropes who stop just shy of alienating the audience. Fortunately, it’s a story about creative collaboration hatched by three longtime collaborators.

Aniello, longtime partner Paul W. Downs, and screenwriter Jen Statsky first met through the New York comedy scene in the late aughts. Aniello and Statsky were the first to pair up through a short-lived sketch troupe. “[Jen and I] were the only two girls in the group. Then they slowly but surely stopped emailing and had us no longer be in the group,” Aniello says. “They needed to find a male collaborator who was much more interested in empowering women,” Downs adds, laughing. The trio have worked together on and off ever since—most famously on Broad City, where Downs played an over-enthused personal trainer. (He’s also Deborah and Ava’s mutual manager in Hacks.)

For a show about Vegas entertainers, Hacks has an unlikely origin story: the idea came on a road trip to a monster truck rally in Portland, Maine, where Downs was shooting his episode of Netflix’s 2016 series The Characters. (“I needed my Jen and Lucia there to help me be funny,” Downs says.) “We were talking about all the older male comedy guys who were getting prizes and lifetime achievement awards and how their female counterparts, at some point along the road, were forced to exit the industry in one way or another,” Aniello says. “We weren’t really seeing women being held up in the same way.” Which made Aniello and Statsky reflect on their own relationship to their predecessors: “These women, we all are following in their footsteps. [But] even we don’t really even appreciate them or know their stories as much as we should,” Aniello adds.

That discussion gave Hacks the basic structure of an older comedian, a younger comedian, and the dialogue between them. In the half-decade since that initial brainstorm, the creators fleshed out a backstory for Deborah that incorporates a wide range of influences. Deborah’s past includes a QVC hustle, an adult daughter, and an abortive run at a talk show; her most obvious antecedent is Joan Rivers. But there are hints of other divas scattered throughout her CV. Like Elaine May, Deborah rose to fame as part of a comedic duo, performing on the stage with her then-husband. Like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Deborah and her husband also cocreated and starred in a sitcom based on their life. And like Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, Deborah now has a codependent, contentious relationship with her child, DJ, played by The Mick’s Kaitlin Olson. Deborah thinks therapy is for “bulimics and pedophiles”; therapy has taught DJ to “radically accept that my mom is a cunt.”

To weave all these parts into a whole, Hacks needed someone who could channel all of Deborah’s many facets. “We wanted someone who was believable as a comedian and felt like they had funniness in their bones, but also someone who could play those offstage moments and be more emotional,” Downs says. They landed on Jean Smart, the actress best known for her role on Designing Women but who’s also had quite the run in the past five years: marshaling Midwestern criminals in Fargo; handling a giant blue dildo in Watchmen; most recently, keeping Kate Winslet in check on Mare of Easttown. It’s a coincidence that Mare and Hacks are airing at the same time, but the contrast makes for a perfect showcase of the range that first brought her to mind for the Deborah role.

“I always tell Jean she’s a comedian at heart,” Einbinder says. “She’s a great storyteller and she’s so funny. Everyone wants to hear what she has to say.” A stand-up herself, Einbinder found herself on her first-ever film set in the middle of a pandemic. (She’d made her network television debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in March 2020, just a few days before lockdown.) All of Hacks’ production, from the Zoom writers room to remote sound mixing, was completed under coronavirus-induced restrictions. “You learn if a joke is good if it can travel through two masks and a shield,” Statsky says.

Hacks’ first season runs 10 episodes long. By the end of the six sent to critics in advance, Deborah and Ava are only just starting to warm to each other. Neither Deborah nor Ava are especially open-minded people—Deborah because she’s been hardened by a lifetime of clawing her way into a career, Ava because she’s never had to work that hard for her early success. (She doesn’t even bother to read Deborah’s Wikipedia page, let alone watch her work, before she shows up at her mansion.) Ava feels the gig is beneath her, while Deborah doesn’t take kindly to kids-these-days pitches like “I had a nightmare I got a voicemail.” It takes time, several screaming matches, and a high-stakes antiquing trip for either woman to crack. Plus some chemical assistance. “We went, ‘Well, what if they’re on edibles?’” Statsky says, laughing.

In Deborah’s case, what lies beneath the toughened surface is a surprising well of emotion. Decades before the start of the show, Deborah’s husband—the one who helped make her famous by performing a fantasy version of their relationship—left her for her own sister. In retaliation, she burned down his house. Or at least that’s the story she’s told in joke after joke, deadening her own humiliation into a punch line. Rather than the exorcisms we’ve come to expect from comics working through their personal demons, Deborah’s routine is more like a defense mechanism. There’s just enough detail to take control of her own narrative, but never so much that she’s truly vulnerable to her audience. “Deborah’s comedic point of view is a little more traditional. There isn’t necessarily the room to be as confessional—to, truth be told, speak to your trauma,” Statsky says. Coming from a post-Nanette world, Ava is much more comfortable with the idea of turning one’s pain into art, and starts to nudge Deborah accordingly.

Hacks’s setting is the physical manifestation of Deborah’s withdrawal. Far from the prying eyes of L.A., she’s a creature of the desert. She has the local traffic reporter on speed dial to pick her up in his helicopter; rather than prowl the casino floor, she has a personal blackjack dealer (the delightful Poppy Liu) come to her. “This is a woman who has been cast aside from Hollywood and then built this castle, so to speak, out in the desert,” Statsky says. “She’s purposely separated herself from that world and built her own ecosystem.” That stability has been good for Deborah’s bottom line, but less so for her craft. The jokes she tells are written to be viable but stale, like a shrink-wrapped Twinkie left on the shelf far too long. Ava’s unceremonious entry starts to let in some oxygen.

“I think that these are two women who really need each other,” Downs says. Hacks pairs uncannily well with Peacock’s Girls5Eva, another recent comedy about what female entertainers have to deal with as they age. But rather than follow a group of peers, Hacks shows the symbiotic relationship between generations—similar to Mindy Kaling’s Late Night, but stripped of the fantasy that a woman could land a major talk show long before the 2010s. Not that Hacks is without its idealism. “It’s the most personal part of the show,” Downs says of the Deborah-Ava bond. “When you share a sense of humor or when you have a kindredness with people, it is a love language.” Hacks is caustic and frequently hilarious. It’s also a professional romance.