I fell in love with Hacks, now streaming on HBO Max, in its second episode. Veteran comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) tells her self-absorbed new protégée (not quite the right word, but I’ll get to that) Ava (Hannah Einbinder) that jokes need punch lines. It may seem like advice so obvious it doesn’t need to be articulated, but in an age when anything relatable can become a viral sensation (I’m guilty of this—my most popular tweet is just a shower thought), it bears repeating: A joke is not an amusing idea, a sarcastic aside, or a good point that you agree with. A joke needs a punch line. Thankfully, Hacks is full of them, moments that articulate its themes overtly and subtly and, at times, brilliantly. Recently I spoke via Zoom with the series’ three creators, Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, and Paul Downs, to talk about what we talk about when we talk about comedy.
For starters, they aren’t trying to promote a “take.” The not-a-joke Ava pitches—“I had a nightmare that I had a voice mail”—is actually something Aniello once tweeted. There’s a place for humorous musings…it’s just not onstage. But the gulf between Ava and Deborah isn’t (just) about comedy: It’s a generation gap, and there are points to be made on both sides. Says Statsky, “Deborah comes from a time where there is a way you can make a joke about anything, if it's funny. And that really is Deborah’s POV. Ava comes from a different POV, which is: Well, why aren't you looking at the target? Why don't you always make sure you're punching up and not down?”
Rather than meet-cute, the duo are set up on purpose. Ava is a college dropout who was an up-and-coming TV writer until a Twitter snafu made her an industry pariah; Deborah’s a groundbreaking stand-up who lives the high life, playing to adoring crowds in Vegas when she’s not hawking bric-a-brac on QVC. Deborah’s act could use a youthful refresh and Ava’s got no place better to be, so their mutual manager Jimmy (Downs) throws one problem at another to create an uneasy solution: Ava will move to Vegas and write for Deborah. Or, at least, she’ll try to.
Rounding out the cast are Poppy Liu as the Virgil to Ava’s Dante through Vegas, It’s Always Sunny’s Kaitlin Olson as Deborah’s damaged daughter, and a scene-stealing Meg Stalter as Jimmy’s idiot assistant Kayla, whose dad is the owner of the management company. (Though I have to say, the nepotism hit might land a little harder were Einbinder not the daughter of O.G. SNL cast member Laraine Newman, but she’s good in her role, so I digress.)
Both Ava and Deborah have had to rebuild their lives and careers in the wake of public meltdowns, and Ava’s will be all too familiar to anyone keeping an eye on the comedy scene today: She got herself canceled. Ava’s a piece of work the likes of which we haven’t seen since You’re the Worst. She shows up to her Hail Mary interview with Deborah unprepared and casts dismissive dead-eyed glances at the unsophisticated masses she’s snottily termed “Panera people.” It’s cringe-ily hilarious to see her spin faux-woke arguments to defend her weak material and downright cathartic to watch Deborah put her in her place (“You think this is hard? You got plucked off the internet at, what, 20? You just got lucky!”). But though it’s no excuse for her behavior, there’s a subtle sexism inherent in Ava’s predicament, and in Deborah’s, even if she overcame hers decades ago.
“We didn't really want to cast judgment, and we certainly didn't want to make it a show about cancellation,” says Downs. “We wanted, instead, for it to be a show about the lack of appreciation and the fact that women are cast aside when men of equal talent are called geniuses.”
Speaking of geniuses, it would be easy to find fault with a premise that its main character is one and either doesn’t spend time with her onstage or, worse, does and she’s only pretty good. But miraculously, Deborah is great. There’s none of that soft comedy that so often spills out of the mouths of in-universe “funny” characters, like the trying-too-hard hamminess of Mrs. Maisel or the predictable monologue jokes Emma Thompson delivered in Late Night. Deborah’s act is of her generation but undeniably strong. It’s a feat all three creators chalk up to “a lot of drafts,” and an aspect of the show I’d say puts it in league with Mad Men as one of the most satisfying depictions of creatives at work.
On her better days, Ava is part of that creativity too. What forms between her and Deborah is a kind of sick symbiosis. They are neither mother and daughter nor teacher and student. More like accidental partners in a poorly thought-out crime. “They speak the same language of comedy. I think that binds them more than anything,” says Aniello. “Neither of them really have friends. They both are women who've been cast aside in one way or another, and they kind of find themselves on the fringes of society grasping at their last straws. Their last straw is each other.”
Aniello continues, “At the heart of it, it's ultimately a redemption story. While at times it might feel like it’s these two women duking it out, it's also a love story in the end. I hope people stick around and get a chance to watch the whole season, because I think it's really very satisfying and it goes places you don't you see coming.”
She’s right, and the unexpected reveals are why I won’t divulge more of the plot here…except one bit I just couldn’t get over. A few episodes in, Ava leaves Deborah a voice mail she shouldn’t have. It’s sort of a reference to the “joke” that begat my favorite interaction, except now Ava’s waking nightmare is that she left a voice mail, not that she got one. But honestly, it’s also a cliché. The mad dash to erase a message has been used in countless movies and shows, and I was disappointed to see something so, well, hack in a show that had until then been refreshing and original. But without spoiling, let me just say the payoff was more than worth the price of admission on this premise. The device Ava uses to get into Deborah’s phone is so clever, and so bizarre, and uses the setting of Las Vegas so perfectly that whoever pitched it should be awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. The setup may have been well-worn, but the punch line was sublime.
Hacks is now streaming on HBO Max.
Elizabeth Logan is a Glamour contributing writer and the owner of one black cat. You can (and should!) follow her on Twitter @lizzzzzielogan.
Originally Appeared on Glamour