‘Hacks’ Offers Unique Look at Female Relationships

HBO Max's Hacks
(Image credit: HBO Max)

Comedy Hacks, which details the uneasy mentorship between a legendary Vegas comedian, played by Jean Smart, and an up and coming comedy writer, played by Hannah Einbinder, premiered on HBO Max May 13. 

Smart plays Deborah and Einbinder plays Ava. Deborah’s long-running, high-profile slot in a Vegas hotel is ending, and Ava is unemployed after an insensitive tweet she sent out. Sharing a manager, the two are paired up. They loathe each other at first, but find some comedic common ground. 

The show comes from Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky, who all worked on Broad City. Downs plays Deborah’s and Ava’s manager Jimmy. 

Smart, who has appeared in Fargo, Watchmen and Mare of Easttown, handles both comedy and drama with equal skill. (Smart also was in the cast of Designing Women some time ago.) Downs called her “a dream casting idea.” 

“We wrote a character that required both believability in terms of being a standup comic and also has a really emotional turn in the show, who has a lot of darkness,” he said. “We really wanted someone who could do both those things. To get Jean Smart to say yes was a huge dream come true for us.”

Smart took the script to another level, shared Aniello. “She makes every single line funnier than it is on the page,” she said. “Every dramatic moment, she gives it so much more gravitas than we could’ve ever imagined. To be able to watch her, somebody who truly is at the top of her game, giving her absolute all, it was an insane joy to work with her every single day.”

Einbinder, 25, is the daughter of former SNL star Laraine Newman. In her first major acting job, Downs noted Einbinder’s “natural gift” on the screen. “She really carries the weight of the show, along with Jean,” he added. 

The creators said Smart served as a mentor to Einbinder. “The bond between her and Hannah from the get-go was so spectacular to watch,” Statsky said. “What was so wonderful to see was they developed a friendship right off the bat. We would roll and Jean is so mean to Hannah on screen, then Lucia or Paul would say Cut, and it’s, oh, they’re best friends. They love each other.”

The Deborah character has bits of Phyllis Diller, Elaine May and Lucille Ball in her, said Downs, and calls to mind Joan Rivers as well. “There are a lot of showbiz veterans who grind and grind and grind and grind,” Downs said. “Their contribution to the canon of entertainment is lost in a way that doesn’t happen to men.”

The idea for the show came when the three creators were in Maine, working on Netlflix Presents: The Characters. “We talked about how so many female standups work for decades and don’t get the same opportunities as male standups,” said Aniello. “The show was a way to give a bit of a redemption story to that kind of woman.”

Broad City, which aired on Comedy Central, offered viewers a unique look at female friendship, the creators said. Mothers and daughters appear on screen frequently in TV and film, but Hacks is unique in that Deborah and Ava are the right ages for a mother and daughter, but their relationship is unique. 

“It’s a new type of dynamic between two women on screen that we haven’t seen before,” said Aniello. 

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.