'Hacks': Jean Smart Makes 'Em Laugh in Stand-Up Dramedy

In the new HBO Max comedy series Hacks, Jean Smart plays comedy legend Deborah Vance, an aging celebrity who reluctantly hires young comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) to freshen up an act that hasn’t changed much since she was telling jokes about the space shuttle Challenger exploding.

This setup is at once enticing and tricky. On the one hand, Smart — continuing a glorious TV second act that’s included Fargo, Legion, Watchmen, and Mare of Easttown — is charismatic and utterly convincing as a performer of a certain age who has survived every obstacle put in her path, only to discover that she has nothing left other than the career itself. And she and Einbinder develop quick and appealing chemistry as representatives of two different generations who have nothing in common other than their insatiable need to craft the perfect joke.

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On the other hand, Hacks runs into what I’ve come to call the Studio 60 Problem, named for Aaron Sorkin’s infamous NBC drama about a fictionalized version of Saturday Night Live, where the sketches were never remotely as funny as we were told they were. Hacks is terrific in a lot of ways, but it’s also a reminder that writing fake comedy — fake stand-up comedy in particular — is one of the hardest things to do in the world of filmed entertainment.

There are plenty of “That Thing You Do”-level song pastiches out there, but far fewer convincing comedy facsimiles. There’s something intensely personal about a good stand-up routine that’s almost impossible to recreate, even if the material isn’t meant to be personal. Comedians tend to write for themselves, especially at the beginning. They know what sounds good coming out of their own mouths, what their performance rhythms are, what feels true. And they understand how to make honesty and humor complement each other, rather than coming into conflict. It’s a different discipline from writing scripted comedy dialogue, and even if you’re great at that, the skill doesn’t necessarily translate. (Midge on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, for example, is almost always funnier off-stage than on.) Most fictional stand-up routines come from the pens of non-comics(*). They also have to serve two masters: 1) make the audience believe that this person is a successful, funny comic; and 2) reveal important details about who this person is and what makes them tick. More often than not, those goals wind up at odds. And even if the jokes are somehow grade-A stand-up material, there’s still the matter of them being delivered by actors who may be great at comedy within scenes, but not at the specific demands of standing at the mic.

(*) There are also occasions where real stand-up comedians are brought in to help improve the material of their fictional counterparts, as happened on the movie Punchline, where Tom Hanks and Sally Field played would-be comedy club stars. But that’s fraught in its own way, because if you’re a comic and you think of a great bit, are you going to give it to Tom Hanks or keep it for yourself? (The Punchline routines definitely suffer from the Studio 60 Problem.) 

So when Deborah is patrolling the floor of the Las Vegas theater where she’s had a record-setting residency, or even when she and Ava are pitching one-liners at each other, there’s something off about Hacks. This can be a problem at times, since jokes themselves are the primary things that bring our two leads together and push them apart. Deborah’s act, or even the lines Ava invents for her, call to mind Perd Hapley from Parks and Rec telling Leslie Knope that he didn’t understand the quip she just made, “but it had the cadence of a joke.”

But after a while, the show’s creators — Broad City alums Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello (who directs most of the episodes), and Jen Statsky — seem to recognize their limitations in this area. We rarely see Deborah on stage for extended periods, and one of the times we do features her scrapping her planned routine to deal with a heckler. Instead, they show us just enough of her in action — at her theater, during her regular stints on QVC, at the opening of a pizzeria that’s paying her an obscene amount of money for a ribbon-cutting ceremony — to create the plausible illusion of her forever stardom, then trade off that to drive the conflicts between her and Ava, and between her and the other people in her small social circle: love-starved daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in a clever bit of genetic casting), aloof business manager Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), and charming casino boss Marty (Christopher McDonald, in the kind of part he was born to play), whose threats to cancel Deborah’s residency inspires her and Ava’s shared agent Jimmy (Downs) to pair them in the first place.

We meet Ava at a particularly low moment in her career, and life. Once a rising star in L.A. comedy circles, she has become unemployable due to offensive social media posts. She’s recently broken up with her girlfriend (the show mines a lot of comedy from Ava over-explaining her sexuality to Deborah), and whenever we see her interacting with her showbiz peers, it becomes obvious that her talent was the main reason people indulged her brusque, nakedly careerist personality. For all the professional, generational, and socioecomonic gaps between her and her new boss, they have a similar drive, as well as a need to fill an emotional void with other people’s laughter. Some of the best moments of Hacks Season One involve one or the other woman recognizing what they share in common, even before it becomes obvious they are settling into a surrogate mother-daughter role.

There’s not an exact real-life analogue for Deborah(*), though it’s easy to look at her as a WASPy, slightly younger Joan Rivers — one episode even deepfakes Jean Smart into a late-night talk show pilot Deborah filmed in her Seventies heyday — and the series is keenly aware of what she would have gone through to both attain and hang onto the degree of fame she has when the show begins. There’s a great installment where Deborah introduces Ava to an old friend from the comedy club circuit, Francine (played by Anna Maria Horsford, who was on Amen at the same time Smart was on Designing Women). The two veterans trade war stories, and Ava is horrified to learn of the treatment they endured from their male contemporaries, and also startled by how unfazed they are by the memories. Ava has built her whole persona around what she thinks of as confrontational truth-telling — she tells a disgusted Jimmy that her professional strife is “punishment for getting fingered at my Uncle Rocco’s wake” — while she thinks of Deborah as a dinosaur who has always played it safe. But life, and the people in it, are more complicated than the narratives we build about ourselves or each other, and Hacks‘ most poignant and funniest material involves Ava and Deborah seeing each other as people and not symbols of all that’s been denied them.

(*) Art vaguely imitating life: While Einbinder wasn’t born into Hollywood royalty on the level of Deborah Vance, her mother is original SNL cast member Laraine Newman. 

Smart is, as usual, fantastic — at once larger than life and acutely human, and also able to deliver Deborah’s insults with verve, like when she says of watching Ava brainstorm jokes, “Wow, it’s like watching Picasso sing.” Einbinder, a relative newcomer, doesn’t have her co-star’s polish or control over her own instrument, but she doesn’t need it. “Deobrah Vance, comedy superstar” is in many ways a facade the real Deborah has built, and you have to pay close attention to spot the moments when she drops it and lets her own personality come out. Ava, on the other hand, is an exposed nerve, lacking subtlety or impulse control, and it’s fun watching her work herself to exhaustion to solve problems her hated boss could untangle with a small gesture or a slight change in her inflection.

Both are a treat separately, and the season does a good job of building up the ensemble around them so that the show works even when they’re both getting a breather. Jimmy has to endure an incompetent assistant (Meg Stalter) who’s the daughter of his boss, and the writers keep finding new and amusing ways for her to screw up. And Carl Clemons-Hopkins has some endearing moments as Deborah and Ava’s working relationship gives Marcus some unexpected free time to figure out what he wants out of life besides building Deborah’s empire. But Hacks really sings when it puts its two leads together to annoy, insult, and occasionally learn from each other.

Would it help if the jokes the two work on were stronger? Sure, but Hacks also talks a lot about how hard good joke-writing is. It gets everything else right, so it deserves the extra time to figure that last part out.

The first two episodes of Hacks will be released on HBO Max on May 13th, with two episodes dropping weekly through June 10th. I’ve seen all 10.

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