Emmy nominations are right around the corner, with voting already open for Television Academy voters. Voting will take place for Limited Series, Drama Series, and Comedy Series. One such comedy that’s eligible this year is HBOMax’s Hacks, starring Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder. The series follows Smart’s Deborah Vance, an older comedian who hires a younger comedy writer, Ava (Einbinder), to help freshen up her comedy set. As the season goes on, the two women become closer and form a bond over how life has treated them and the future that has put them together.
AwardsWatch recently was able to discuss the series with the creators and writers, Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky, and Lucia Aniello. The three co-creators discussed how the first season came to be, the relationship between Deborah and Ava, bisexual representation and the challenges of making a first season of television in a pandemic.
Tyler Doster: Let me start with you today, Paul. Tell me how you guys originally met and how you guys came to be friends.
Paul W. Downs: So they used to have this thing called The Yellow Pages and so Lucia and I met in a level 1 UCB improv class, clown college, very romantic. And we started working together and shortly thereafter dating. And I have heard about this girl, Jen Statsky, because Lucia was in a sketch group and was cheating on me with this sketch group, which is how Jenna and Lucia met. And I mean, this is really their line, but slowly but surely the improv, or that sketch group, stopped emailing them. And they realized they were being forced out. But the three of us had our first professional gig together on Broad City.
Tyler: Lucia, can you tell me how this evolved from a friendship into you guys creating together and what were early conversations about the show like?
Lucia Aniello: So we kind of, in a way, used projects as excuses to hang out together. Right? (laughs) So we basically, we had like Paul said, worked on Broad City together. Jen was on set for Rough Night and we’ve also since written a feature film together. We’re just kind of always like, “What are we excited to do together?” And when we were on our way to Paul’s the Netflix Character’s Special, I think in 2015, we were on our way to Maine to shoot a section of it that was for the Monster Truck Jam rally as because Paul does a character called Jasper Cooch.
And so we were on our mini road trip and we kind of started just talking about women in the arts, or in comedy, who kind of never really got the same career opportunities as like their male counterparts and kind of like how that sucks, and why that was, and how many women we loved that kind of never, we felt, never got their due. And so that’s kind of where it was born. And then the idea of a younger writer kind of learning to respect an older comedian, especially for the past she forged, is kind of how we birthed the characters of Deborah and Ava.
Tyler: Jen, let me ask you, so we find out very early on that Ava has put out this tweet that has gotten her almost canceled, if you will, in the comedy world. And I was wondering how many different iterations of this tweet have existed for you guys? Like how many different iterations did you guys discuss to get it right for this thing that she was going to be kind of canceled for?
Jen Statsky: Yeah. We definitely put a lot of thought into it. I think what we landed on, what was important for the character, is that she was, the tweet was something she yes, maybe didn’t phrase it in the best way, but she was trying to speak truth to power. Which is kind of like a main character trait of Ava’s is that she’s outspoken, but she’s also outspoken in her mind for the greater good. So she was trying to call up the hypocrisy of someone who was homophobic, even though he himself has been caught with male escorts. So very early on, I think it was important to us that it would be a tweet that again, would illustrate her trying to speak truth to power and it wouldn’t just be something, some hurtful stereotype, that she was playing, like playing into or a slur or anything like that. That would be that – that’s not the character we were intending to depict. And so it kind of was all about, “Well, what is this saying about Ava as a person and what is she’s trying to do with her comedy?” If she maybe didn’t speak it in the best, most artful of ways.
Paul: Oh we had a bunch of drafts.
Lucia: You say seven, I made that up. It might have been 20. It might’ve been two. I don’t remember, but –
Jen: It was seven.
Paul: We were like, you know what? We have a philosophy: first thought, best thought. (laughs)
Paul: We just say it and it’s done.
Tyler: One of the things I was wondering is just how many times you guys had to think of something different just to see if it would work for the character.
Jen: We were always pitching on stuff and we have a bunch of writers and we always had, who knows how many times, it’s hard to keep count. There’s so much going on.
Paul: Because you also didn’t want to make it- we were like, “Okay, we could involve the senator’s son. And maybe it feels weird to be involving a minor in the tweet in some way.” And we just thought about a lot of different angles. But you didn’t want to make it something that was so unsavory that the audience, our audience, was also turned off by it. You wanted to make it something that was palatable. But in Deborah’s mind, she says, “It’s just not funny.” And I think that that’s an important distinction in the philosophy of our characters, which is, it is all about both for Ava, the target of the joke. But for Deborah, it’s also about the execution of that joke.
Tyler: Okay. So let me ask you this, Paul, what is something you guys wanted to understand about these two women immediately, almost from the first episode? What is something you guys wanted to make sure that it would get stuck with the audience?
Paul: I think the sort of the inciting incident for the show is when the casino owner, Marty, says to Deborah, “I’m reducing your dates. I’m threatening your career.” And she gets obviously rightfully upset. And he says, “Why do you even care? You’re on cruise control-ups there.” And she says, “I wish. I wish I was on cruise control, but I always am on defense because of assholes like you.” And for me, that line in the pilot really speaks to what the show is about. Women like Deborah Vance and other showbiz veterans who have been knocked down time and again, but keep having to get back up and do what she describes in the second episode. Which is, you have to scratch and claw and it never ends. It doesn’t get better, it just gets harder. So that was what we wanted to really kind of nail in the pilot and hopefully her reaction to that and the fact that she’s now letting this woman into her life speak to that.
Tyler: Lucia, Deborah and Ava have a pretty complicated relationship at first. Did you guys always want there to be that tension when they first meet?
Lucia: Yeah. That tension is kind of paramount to their whole relationship because what it really is, is chemistry. And while they both kind of float through the pilot and have issues with they’re not quite on the same page with their managers, or the Marty, the casino owner, or what have you, they’re really kind of lonely until they find each other. And in that scene where they’re kind of lobbing insults at one another, they’re being really mean and funny, and they’re just kind of nailing these little jabs. And even though they’re obviously not hitting it off, there is something there, that chemistry, that is a spark. And that spark is the reason that Deborah hires her is because she sees herself in a young Ava. And they’re both ballsy. They’re mirror images of each other but they also have so much in common. So for us, it was the whole, really the pilot, really hinges on the idea that in that scene that they really have that chemistry. And that’s something that when we were casting the Ava character, which is played by Hannah Einbinder, it was really important to us to make sure that that scene felt crackling. And that was always something that we felt that she hadn’t. Which is no small feat. So that seems something we talked about and rehearsed and did. So it was actually this part of the side for the Ava character. So we saw many actresses try it on, but seen as very, very important to the series.
Paul: And I might add just that I think also, even though there is an adversarial nature to their first interaction for comedians, the kind of one-upping each other and ribbing each other is a love language. It is a sign of respect and it’s something that in doing well is a turn on.
Tyler: That actually brings me to my next question. And I’ll ask it to you, Jen. Speaking of both of these women so wonderfully, let me ask you, do you think that these women are more alike or more different?
Jen: That’s a good question. I would have to say they are more alike than they are different and maybe that’s controversial. But that’s what I think. Because obviously their outlook on comedy in the world is as different as determined by their generational divide. But I think, especially in the pilot, like Paul is saying, their per cedes are kinship with this woman because this woman has also been cast aside the same way we find out, as the series progresses, Deborah was with this terrible rumor that her ex-husband spread. And so I think the reason that there is such a love language, like Paul said, between them is they are quite similar. They share a sense of humor and that’s like first and foremost, the thing that bonds them. And so I think they’re more similar than they are different.
Tyler: This one’s going to be for all of you. There are not a lot of bisexual characters on TV. There are not a lot of bisexual leads on TV, but this show definitely has Ava, it has wonderful bisexual representation. How early on did you guys discuss that being in the characters, being part of the character?
Lucia: Pretty early on. I think that for us it’s a really amazing thing that as more of the Gen Z’s of the world come of age that they’re feeling more open to be honest about their orientation or their gender orientation. And for us, it was just something that felt real also. That comfortability. And it felt like Ava would be somebody who she’s so never really internalized the male gaze the way that Deborah has. So for her, her expression of her sexuality is just pure. It’s really just based on her wants and her needs. And so for her orientation to be something that she’s very comfortable with and something she’s explored early. Like she’s only 25, and I think she’s probably been openly Bi for a while, just I think speaks to a society moving towards a world where hopefully that kind of thing is more encouraged and met with open arms. I know it certainly isn’t everywhere. But I think by having a character who’s openly Bi and very comfortable with it, hopefully, if that in any way pushes that normalcy forward, that’s great to us because we’re all about fluidity.
Paul: And all of our representation. It was really important to us to represent that. And to represent not only an openly bisexual character, but one who is a practicing bisexual character, where you see her have an intimate moment with both men and women on screen. And I think not only did that speak to as Lucia referenced, “the truth of what I think Ava’s generation is.” It also played into the generational divide, right? Because, someone like Deborah is monosexual. She might be cool with homosexuality and gay people, but she might not really get bisexuality. You know what I mean? It might be the kind of thing that was a rich area for us to explore in terms of their different points of view.
Tyler: Well, it’s wonderful. I just wanted to thank you guys for including such a positive representation for my bisexual character. You don’t get to see that as often as you would like. Especially a lead on a TV show. Especially one like this on HBO Max. So it’s wonderful to see.
Paul: Well, thank you. And thank you for seeing it.
Jen: Thank you for seeing it.
Paul: Weirdly. It’s not something we’re asked about a lot and it is important to us. It’s a big part of the show and the character. So I’m glad that you dig it.
Tyler: Let me ask you guys also, what were some of the challenges of creating the show? I know that you guys made the show and I had a lot of COVID-19 problems, but what was going on other than that?
Lucia: You know, I think any season one of a show is a challenge just because you’re kind of getting everybody on the same page of what the tone of the show is. And yes, sorry. I have to say COVID-19 did complicate that in only because you know, usually you’re in the prep office and you’re working with your department heads in person and there’s just spontaneous conversations about, “Oh yeah, we were thinking this or we were thinking that.” But when it’s all over Zoom, it’s a little bit more of a formal conversation about what is the show, instead of maybe a little bit more of organic one. And which it’s, we’re making something that isn’t totally exactly like anything else, in my opinion. It is comedy but it also has drama. And that seems like, “Oh, well, that’s just something that you’d have to talk to the actors about.” But it’s not true. You really actually have to talk to everybody from the production designers to the costume designers, to anybody, people who are running sound. I mean weirdly, everybody kind of needs to be on the same page of what the show is. And so making it first season of show is always a challenge because you’re just trying to constantly communicate what that is to people. And I’m not saying we had it better or worse than anybody else. But it’s always a challenge. And certainly the COVID of it all didn’t help. But I think it works.
Paul: And you know, this isn’t really our news to speak to her to share, but because she’s spoken about it, Jean also lost her husband toward the end of our production. And so that was something that we were glad to be able to be a family and be there for her. But obviously that was challenging as well.
Tyler: Let me ask you guys, in a comedy about comedy, does that put any extra pressure on you to be funny? Especially in the stand-up scenes. Anyone can take this one.
Jen: Yeah. I think that from the very moment we pitched the show, for us, it was always about these women’s lives off stage. And it’s not, for us, about what are the jokes they’re telling? It’s more, why are they telling these jokes? And so yes, of course, when you say, “Hey, these are comedians, people expect they should be funny.” And we think they are. But it was never, for us, going into it, “Okay, we got to make sure we write a ton of stand-up.” And make sure that that was never going to be the focus of the show. Which, I think you see reflected in the first season with the amount that we showed diverse stand-up. So there isn’t extra pressure, but I think truth be told, we just wanted it to feel like a grounded, realistic portrayal of a stand-up comedian and a comedy writer. And so, yes, they are funny, but also they are, they have pain, and they have suffering, and they have a lot of other things that they’re grieving. There’s a lot of other things they’re dealing with. So yes, they need to be funny, but we just also wanted to make them feel like real whole people. So there was a pressure for it, but I don’t think it was, it didn’t, we tried to not let it overtake all those other things be important as well.
Tyler: Well, thank you guys so much for talking to me today. I’ve really enjoyed it. I loved the first season. I just wanted to wish you good luck at the Emmys this year.
Paul: Thank you so much.
Lucia: So nice.
Paul: Thank you for watching and liking. I really appreciate it.
Tyler: Congratulations on getting your second season renewal!
Paul: Thank you.
Paul: I know we’re actually talking about it today. That’s why we’re all together in the same room. We’re thinking about it right now.
Tyler: Very exciting. I can’t wait to see it. You guys have a great day.
Lucia: Thank you, Tyler.
Jen: Thank you, Tyler.
Paul: Thank you, Tyler. It was really nice to meet you.
Season one of Hacks is currently available to stream on HBO Max. Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky, and Lucia Aniello are Emmy eligible for Outstanding Comedy Series, Lucia Aniello is also eligible for Outstanding Writing and Directing for a Comedy Series for the episode “There Is No Line” (Pilot).