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The Old Boys Club of Comedy Is Full of Crap on Hacks

Anyone who's still scandalized by women's candor is too soft for comedy.
  • Jean Smart in Hacks (Photo: Max)
    Jean Smart in Hacks (Photo: Max)

    There’s been much hand-wringing about what comedians can and can’t say in the last few years, led by comedians who complain about the oppressiveness of so-called “cancel culture” even as they land specials on platforms as big as Netflix. Just last week, Jerry Seinfeld went one further, despairing to the New Yorker that there are virtually no shows like Cheers (that notoriously offensive series) or All in the Family anymore as “the result of the extreme left and P.C. crap, and people worrying so much about offending other people.”

    Those complaints don’t hold up to scrutiny, of course, whether the comedy in question is stand-up, late night, or sitcoms. Jacqueline Novak has a whole hour on blow jobs, Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel regularly encourage Seth Meyers to tell jokes he really shouldn’t, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been keeping debauchery alive for 16 seasons and counting. What these multimillionaires really seem to be bellyaching about is accountability, but if you’re always punching down, you should expect someone to swing back at some point.

    Hacks wades into this debate this week, as Deborah prepares for her own roast — the surest sign yet of her latest resurgence. But the type of comedy that usually kills at a roast, which is the kind that Deborah used to rely on, isn’t really Ava’s jam, nor does she think her boss should fall back on it. Ava proposes that they drop the jokes about personal appearances (lord knows she’s had enough of the big hand cracks), especially now that Deborah’s stand-up has evolved. "What if we reinvent the roast, do like an uplifting version of it?” Ava wonders sincerely. Deborah’s response: “What rhymes with flat tits?"

    Ava’s concerns are fueled as much by keeping Deborah from backsliding as her own professional progress. She’s a co-producer on a show that runs on incisive, topical comedy; she’s no longer content to merely punch up some stale jokes. Kiki (Poppy Liu) reminds her of how far she’s come and encourages her to set boundaries, just like she did (well, as much as anyone can set a boundary with Deborah). Their whole exchange in “The Roast of Deborah Vance” is so incredibly oblivious and self-aware, it’s like something out of 30 Rock, if Jenna Maroney had been tricked (or tricked her way) into a PTA fashion show for horny late-in-life dads.

    Deborah’s shown she’s capable of changing, but she’s hardly eager to do so. She tries to control DJ’s (Kaitlin Olson, speaking of Always Sunny) contributions to the roast, especially after Ava confirms her daughter is struggling to write jokes on her own. DJ surprises her mom (and everyone else) and crushes her appearance with jokes that are both personal — “My mom is here tonight… is something that I couldn't say at my ballet recitals” — and inappropriate (“What a c*nt” shouldn’t work as a catchphrase, and yet it does).

    But “The Roast of Deborah Vance” writer Joe Mande (who also returns as Raymond in “Join the Club”) saves the best for last. DJ, having suffered the indignity of her mom doing a tight 10 at her five-year sobriety ceremony, hit Deborah with both barrels during the roast. As she rides that high, she finally grasps what her mom’s been chasing all this time.

    "I finally get it — why comedy was always the most important thing to you .… You know I spent my whole life thinking you were a narcissist, but it turns out you're an addict like me. You're addicted to getting laughs." DJ is thrilled by the revelation, not just because it’s something she understands, but because it allows her to feel something toward Deborah that she’s never felt before: pity. "I can go to group to stay sober, but you can't,” DJ practically cackles. “Your addiction is the group. You'll never get better."

    This read is delivered with the right mix of glee and sympathy, and though Deborah soon has other things on her mind — Jack Danby (Luke Cook, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Lucifer) is the heir apparent to Danny Collins (Frank Garcia-Hejl) — it clearly weighs on her. In Season 2’s “Retired,” we learned that Deborah was willing to sandbag a friend to advance her own career. In “The Roast of Deborah Vance,” she uses her daughter’s NA meeting to test her roast material, fairly preening in front of her captive audience. What won’t she do for a laugh?

    This week’s second episode, “Join the Club,” partially answers that question. Deborah’s so thrilled to get an invitation from Henry Winks (Stephen Tobolowsky), a veteran comedian she once looked up to, that she doesn’t even mind that it’s for a pre- and post-colonoscopy party. Ava’s never seen this side of her boss, effusing over members of the old boys club of comedy. When Deborah insists "They were THE guys!," Ava fires back: "Okay, but weren't you THEE girl?"

    It’s fascinating watching Deborah seesaw between clinging to outdated notions — it’s rude for women to talk about what they want — and telling septuagenarian comedians like Henry (who’s just an avatar for their ilk, rather than an analog for any particular one) that they’re out of touch. Guy Branum, who wrote “Join the Club” (and appeared in the Season 3 premiere as a purveyor of Deborah Vance contraband), keeps the discussion that Mande sparked in the previous episode going, as Deborah uses her soft skills to campaign for the late-night job in the shadows and work her way into the good graces of the boys’ club. Only, he wraps it in gastrointestinal metaphor to demonstrate just how full of crap Henry and his pals Terry Bernstein (Joel Brooks) and Cliff Calhoun (Gregg Daniel) are, and just how much Deborah’s been holding in.

    The pre-colonoscopy party is in full swing, the Uno cards flipping and “laxatinis” flowing, when Terry starts grousing about bisexuality (really, everything included in LGBTQ+). Henry and Cliff quickly join in, denying that bisexuality and a gender spectrum exist. Just a year ago, Deborah would have made jokes of her own, but Ava’s gotten into her head. After telling them that “for comedians, you’re a little out of touch,” Deborah tries to find refuge in one of Terry’s six bathrooms. When she overhears them deriding her as the “P.C. police,” she leaves — with every roll of toilet paper that was once in Terry’s house.

    Back at home, Deborah lashes out at Ava — "I finally get in good with those guys, and I can't enjoy it because of you!” — who’s too heartbroken to just retreat. “So, you're mad at me for pushing you to be better??” Ava yells, and Deborah just kind of sputters because she doesn’t really care about the falling-out. “I’ve got all eyes on me now. I’m finally respected. Respectable,” she sighs, and she’s hesitant to risk that newfound status by trying to climb another rung on the ladder. She won’t risk being a joke again, even if it means getting the thing she’s always wanted: her own late-night show.

    "Deborah, your superpower is that you're shameless," Ava reminds her. "Having shame about the thing you want most in the world isn't you." Deborah is moved, both by the laxatinis and Ava’s encouragement. Suddenly, she’s telling everyone, including Mario Lopez and anyone riding a cab, exactly what she wants. There’s a quick survey of reactions, including from The View co-hosts, who don’t seem to be real fans. And just like that, Hacks reminds us that women’s ambition is the real verboten territory, not weak jokes about misguided kids these days and their dang pronouns.

    Two new episodes of Hacks drop every Thursday on Max until May 30, when the Season 3 finale is released. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.

    TOPICS: Hacks, Max, Guy Branum, Hannah Einbinder, Jean Smart, Jerry Seinfeld, Joe Mande, Kaitlin Olson, Poppy Liu