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HBO Max's Hacks is the rare show about the business of comedy that actually manages to be funny

  • "It's not easy to make a good TV show about comedy," says Kristen Baldwin. "(RIP: I'm Dying Up Here, Studio 60, the first few episodes of 30 Rock where they still focused on 'The Girlie Show'). There's no quicker way to drain the humor from a situation than to deconstruct all the work that goes into making said situation humorous. 'If you start a sentence with, "It's funny because…," then it's probably not,' sniffs veteran Las Vegas comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) to her surly new twentysomething writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) in Hacks. At the risk of offending Deborah, this HBO Max series is funny (and moving, and weird, and smart) because it focuses not on the arduous process of crafting jokes, but on the hilarious, gifted, and deeply flawed women who tell them." Baldwin adds: "Veteran-vs.-upstart is a fairly standard character dynamic, but for Hacks — created by Broad City alums Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky — it's just an entry point. Ava and Deborah are both funny women, but their world views and lived experiences are so divergent, they can barely understand the fundamentals of each other's existence. It's only after Ava hurls a devastating insult at Deborah during their disastrous first meeting that the legendary comedian sees something she recognizes: A brilliant, sharp-witted young woman fighting for her place in a cutthroat industry."


    • Hacks lets Jean Smart play a role befitting of the showbiz legend that she is: "Good comedies lighten life for a time," says Melanie McFarland. "Great comedies like Hacks make you wish you could live in the world they create no matter how dispiriting they can be. Or maybe it's a matter of its creators knowing the extraordinary talent they have in Jean Smart, lately the standout performer in any number of dramas  – Watchmen, Legion, Mare of Easttown come to mind the quickest. Here she has top billing in a 10-episode show pitching her as Deborah Vance, a Las Vegas legend meant to recall Joan Rivers. Smart has plenty of experience in the comedy side of the business, having become a household name starring Designing Women. Younger viewers probably recall that less readily than her operatic turn on 24. In Hacks Smart to works all sides of the emotional spectrum, utterly plausible in her stand-up scenes and even better in the transitional moments between being onstage and the curtain coming down. Deborah never deflates before our eyes; that would be typical, and Smart can never be that. Instead she switches her character into pure business mode, always moving like a shark, never exposing her vulnerability to anyone but those closest to her."
    • Jean Smart is great, but Hacks runs into the "Studio 60 Problem": "This setup is at once enticing and tricky," says Alan Sepinwall. "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. 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."
    • Hacks is especially sharp and clever on the concept of cool — what it means to observe it from afar and not to have it: "Nothing about Deborah is casual: She is a punishing employer and has an exaggerated personal aesthetic that requires constant upkeep," says Daniel D'Addario. "The attention to the specifics helps make the case for Deborah’s rigor, and the ways that rigor traps her. We see the painful, demanding recovery from plastic surgery in a midseason episode; we also see a great deal of a fussily decorated mansion, run by a full-time house manager (Carl Clemons-Hopkins, a perfectly pitched wit, joined by an always welcome Rose Abdoo as Deborah’s housekeeper), that comes to seem a bit like a prison. These dubious rewards stem from a life devoted to work, but Deborah’s ability to work is now under threat: She has turned her misfortunes into a joke, and finds as she becomes a legacy act that her labor hasn’t been enough. And, attempting to restart her own derailed career, Ava seems uncertain of what kind of comedian or even person to be. She’s only working for Deborah because her career ended over a joke she doesn’t defend. When Deborah hears the one-liner for the first time, her instinct — driven by an energy she’s stopped bringing to the stage — is to workshop it, to fight for it and polish it. It’s this relentlessness that Hacks exists to celebrate and to interrogate. Smart shows us the fervor and eagerness in Deborah’s push for the punchline."
    • Against all odds, Hacks grows in appeal with every episode: Hacks succeeds "on the expert execution and sound structure of great scripts as well as the never-in-doubt genius of Smart," says Ben Travers. "Hacks works wonderfully as a show business comedy, a comedian’s comedy, and a character-driven comedy — and yes, it’s very funny...Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Smart is on fire throughout. Anyone enamored with her magnificent prop work and prickly retorts on HBO’s Mare of Easttown will be in seventh heaven watching her run the gamut in Hacks. Her line delivery, physical comedy, and character work are all second-to-none, as she easily slides into the cadence and command of a comedian who hasn’t had a day, hour, or minute off in the last four decades. Smart is such a believable stand-up I’d give her a late-night show right now if I could, but it’s her moments off-stage that really stand out."
    • The core of the show is Smart’s performance, which brings the perfect balance of steeliness and vulnerability: "She’s one of few actors who could do justice to every facet of the (Joan) Rivers archetype—the charismatic comedian, the bitter primadonna, the tireless workhorse and the traumatized Hollywood heel who’s elevated her defense mechanisms into an art form," says Judy Berman. "We’ll have to keep watching to find out whether Deborah seizes her opportunity for a triumphant second act. Meanwhile, the pithy, insightful Hacks offers further confirmation that Smart is living through a career renaissance of her own."
    • Ultimately, Hacks is about two women struggling against similar forces even though they may not realize it: "One is a funny young comedian with a distinctive voice that she isn’t sure people in the entertainment business want to hear," says Jen Chaney. "The other is an established, famous comic who spent decades working within the confines of a sexist business and isn’t sure how to break free of those restraints. It’s obvious that they can learn a lot from each other. One of the joys of Hacks is watching how hard and how long they’ll knock heads until they realize that."
    • Smart is finally able to showcase her talents in a starring role: "Smart has enjoyed a welcome career revival in the past few years, becoming a go-to supporting player in buzzy dramas like Fargo, Watchmen, Legion and Mare of Easttown, but her starring role here allows her to finally showcase her wild versatility," says Inkoo Kang. "Along with its Vegas setting, Hacks takes place in the many fissures between Deborah and Ava, but series creators Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky are clearly more fascinated by their grande dame than their surly, street-stupid newbie. Smart repays their favor with a charmingly unpredictable performance full of sneaky barbs, naughty insouciance, aloof authority, mercurial changes in mood and sundry layers of repressed pain. You’ve seen versions of Deborah before, but Smart keeps you anticipating what she’ll bring to her character in each new scene."
    • Hacks is lightning fast on its feet: "It peppers the viewer with comedic jabs before landing laugh-out-loud blows," says Chris Vognar. "Most of these are drenched in Smart’s acidic delivery. 'Do yourself a favor,' Deborah tells her charge after DJ leaves the room. 'Take the morning off and get your tubes tied.’'
    • Hannah Einbinder received her comedy education as the daughter of SNL's Laraine Newman and comedy writer Chad Einbinder: “My parents met in A.A., so heavy concepts were introduced early,” says Einbinder, who at 23, became the youngest comedian to perform on Stephen Colbert's i last year -- days before the pandemic began. The New York Times' Jason Zinoman writes of Einbinder: "Her early comedy education involved listening to albums by Patton Oswalt and the Sklar Brothers while Newman drove her to school. Stories of the fabled years of Saturday Night Live also made an impression, but for her mother, these represented not just an era of nostalgic memories and comic innovation but also insecurity, addiction and an eating disorder. Einbinder, wearing a Phoebe Bridgers shirt, explained the role of the seminal sketch show in her youth: 'It’s a spooky legend that’s always lurked around.'"
    • Hacks has an unlikely origin story: the idea came on a road trip to a monster truck rally in Portland, Maine: Paul W. Downs was filming a Netflix series and he was accompanied by longtime partner, director Lucia Aniello, and comedy writer Jen Statsky. “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.
    • Jean Smart was drawn to Hacks because it "ticked every box": “I mean, if someone has said, ‘OK, now at this stage of the game, write down your ideal situation for a show,’ it had everything, which is the character, the writing, just everything about it,” Smart says. “I mean, I just thought it was so unique and so original and so funny and very moving and I’m home every night for dinner.”
    • Smart says she didn’t model Deborah Vance off of any one comic: But she acknowledges she may have borrowed unconsciously from Elayne Boosler, Phyllis Diller and even Sam Kinison. “I kind of go with my gut instinct,” Smart says, “and the writing is so good that that usually works out.”
    • Smart wishes she could share her Hacks success with her late husband Richard Gilliland, who died in March: Smart met Gilliland, her husband of 34 years, when he recurred on Designing Women. “I had to actually work for the week after he died,” Smart said, wiping tears from her eyes. “Which was, I guess, in some ways, a good distraction, but otherwise hard, because there was a funeral scene. But yeah, I wish I could share all this with him.” Gilliland, Smart adds, helped her prepare for Hacks by running lines with her. "He gave up a lot for me to be where I am," she says. "I mean, he really sidelined his career the last five or six years so that I could take advantage of these incredible roles that I’ve been offered. He was a tough critic, and he just thought that scripts were amazing. Just amazing.”

    TOPICS: Hacks, HBO Max, Hannah Einbinder, Jean Smart, Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, Richard Gilliland