Jean Smart’s New HBO Max Show Still Has No Title, but It’s Got Plenty of Real-Life Comedy DNA

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Steve Greene
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HBO Max probably could have just left its upcoming show named as the “Untitled Jean Smart Series” and that would be all that a bunch of viewers would need to know to want to tune in.

Still, Wednesday’s panel at the Television Critics Association virtual Winter Press Tour offered up a good idea of what powers the still-yet-unnamed series. The show centers on Smart as Deborah Vance, a comedian whose act has been a marquee Las Vegas attraction for years. Hannah Einbinder plays a fledgling comedy writer tasked with helping Deborah’s act reach a broader audience.

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If “pioneering comedian with a Vegas act” conjures a specific real-life analogue, then don’t expect Smart to be playing that particular person. She said that her performance wasn’t drawn solely from Joan Rivers or any specific idea.

“Every once in a while, there’ll be a scene or I’ll do something and I’ll think, ‘Oh, that kind of reminds me of so-and-so.’ I guess I borrow things from other comedians unconsciously, anywhere from Elayne Boosler to Phyllis Diller to Sam Kinison.” Smart said. “I go with my gut instinct, and the writing’s so good that that it usually works out.

Series executive producers Paul W. Downs (who also co-stars in the series as Deborah’s manager) and Lucia Aniello said that they weren’t necessarily drawing from personal experiences in helping write and direct the show, but that the pair’s time working on “Broad City” did give them a chance to work with comedians who they looked up to.

“Coming from ‘Broad City,’ we had a slightly different experience in that we were working with Amy Poehler and people like Susie Essman,” Downs said. “To get one of them to laugh at you was so incredible. It felt so good. Obviously, the generational divide is not the same as what’s on our show, but they’re definitely women that we looked up to.”

Einbinder, who’s an established standup in her own right, talked about how the show (which also boasts “Parks and Rec” and “The Good Place” vets Michael Schur and Jen Statsky as EPs) has found a way to include people from different performance backgrounds — including Carl Clemons-Hopkins, who plays Deborah’s COO Marcus — to help contribute to the show’s atmosphere and style.

“Everybody in this show has their own unique approach. Jean and Carl are theater actors, classically trained. Rose Abdoo is a world class improviser,” Einbinder said. “Paul, Lucia, and Jen, I do want to say, hired six stand up comedians in total to act on this show. They literally are supporting comedians, in a great way.”

Clemons-Hopkins, who plays Deborah’s COO Marcus, also talked about how their work on the show differed from their years of theater experience.

“The biggest challenge for me is not only are we doing this without an audience, but given the time we’re in, everyone’s very removed. And so you’re trying to find that comedic energy, find that ebb and flow in a natural way without that immediate kinetic response,” Clemons-Hopkins said.

And yes, the show is slated for a premiere later this spring, even though a title for the show is still in the works. Aniello said that they want to make sure that the final name represents everything that the show is juggling.

“I think the show really is trying to say so much at once. And I think to try to summarize so many different things with just one or two or three words is is an interesting exercise,” Aniello said. “It is obviously about a larger-than-life person, Deborah Vance, and it also has this two-hander-ness to it, but it also has an ensemble-ness to it as well. There’s just so much that we want to say. To boil it down into just a quickie title is an interesting process.”

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