HBO Max is steadily making its way up the streamer rankings with runaway successes in original programming like this year’s Hacks, which was just nominated for 15 Emmys. Powered by the incomparable Jean Smart, the show is another look at the highs and lows of stand-up comedy in the vein of I’m Dying Up Here, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Funny People. The series premiered to widespread acclaim, a reception only really shared with Maisel. But just like Maisel, it largely misrepresents the job.
The series follows the dark mentorship of Smart’s Deborah Vance, a legendary comedian with a longstanding Las Vegas residency, and Hannah Einbinder’s Ava, a young comedy writer hired to help freshen up her material. The premise is promising enough, watching the dynamic between the conflicting ideologies of two whip-smart comedians at opposite ends of their careers under different times… but that’s not really what we have here.
Hacks is essentially The Devil Wears Prada but subbing out Anna Wintour for Joan Rivers. Deborah is our Miranda Priestly, a prickly icon and veteran of the industry, and Ava is our Andy, her new employee that’s way in over her head. The similarities between the two are abundant: the interview that reveals Andy/Ava’s lack of applicable knowledge for the job, her defiant storming out/telling off that ultimately earns her the gig, the acquiring of an impossible to get trinket (Harry Potter manuscript vs. pepper shaker) for the demanding boss, the trusted and overworked gay coworker Miranda/Deborah isn’t above sacrificing if needed (Nigel vs Marcus), and their absolute refusal to cancel their day’s agenda to deal in light of personal trauma (divorce vs. death of ex husband).
In Prada, Andy offers no input on fashion (the filmmakers make it clear that she doesn’t have much to offer) which works because her job doesn’t require it. She’s a personal assistant. But Ava is supposedly here to punch up Deborah’s material, so her viewpoint is essential yet practically nonexistent. We know she doesn’t like Deborah’s brand of humor, but we are never shown what her personal standard of excellence is. We know little to nothing of her sense of humor.
What do we know about Ava the comedian? Well first off, she’s a comedy writer not a stand-up (an important distinction) so this is new territory for her. We know she is a 25 year-old bisexual woman who was plucked off Twitter and given a writing job on a “hit show” whose staff included some actual stand-up comedians. She lost her job after tweeting an offensive joke coupled by a series of replies doubling down on the matter as well as some old resurfaced problematic tweets. She’s unhirable partially because of said tweet but mostly because she’s an entitled asshole. That’s it.
We need more details. What kind of show was this “hit” she wrote on: sitcom, dramedy, sketch, variety? What’s her writing style? Her agent tells us she has no filter and a “strong female point of view,” but those are just buzzwords that could be applied to just about every female comedy writer. Even after she’s hired by Deborah, we never hear any of her jokes save for the aforementioned tweet, a bad rewrite of it, and two more lazy one-liners. As Deborah herself points out, Ava’s material lacks punchlines as evidenced by her quip about the nightmare that is receiving a voicemail. Despite writing pages and pages of jokes, the only joke we see Deborah use is a riff about how a QVC foot spa could make you “break WikiFeet.”
Besides this less-than-a-handful of jokes, it seems she only voices her opinions on comedy in overly vague and short outbursts whenever the plot demands it. Ava talks about comedy like a network executive, which is to say she doesn’t have much of a POV let alone a strong one. She wants Deborah to be more “honest” and “raw” (her sole definition of which seems to be bringing a notebook on stage). She thinks “it’s cheap to joke about people’s appearances” and that traditional joke structure is very “male” and too concerned with the ending, which I can’t decide is sincere or sarcastic. The series itself doesn’t seem to respect her comedic sensibilities. These random glimpses of her ideology don’t feel natural but rather how an older comic like Deborah thinks Gen Z talks. Matcha lattes, almond milk, climate change, monosexist, Planned Parenthood, aack!
This lack of perspective begs the question, what does Ave have to offer us or Deborah? With only one approved joke, she serves as nothing more than a shower thought, someone to aimlessly talk until they inadvertently say the thing that triggers an epiphany, like Dr. Wilson was to Dr. House on House.
It’s not just Ava’s joke writing that’s lacking. We also see very little of Deborah’s actual act and what is there is quite underwhelming. Deborah, of course, is our titular hack. Her humor is meant to be cheap and a product of another time, but it doesn’t seem to serve the plot for this new writer to not be significantly better or more modern as the show is primarily invested in showing Deborah once again take control of her career and elevate it to a new level. She’s finally going to stop playing defense and start playing offense. It’s about raising her standards, but to what?
There’s no juxtaposition between the quality of humor off stage and the safe, diluted version she’s become accustomed to onstage. We don’t see what Deborah has been holding back all these years and we certainly don’t see how Ava can help. The show’s 10 episodes are littered with tired cracks about Ava’s big hands and other half-baked jabs at each other that wouldn’t turn heads in your average green room. When Deborah finally accomplishes the unthinkable task of writing a brand new, tonally unique hour in just two weeks (two weeks?!), we never get to hear it. We’re only offered the topics of discussion (foreclosures, hysterectomies, her daughter’s overdose) and nothing on how she plans to talk about them. It feels like a copout. If you’re going to make a show about two supposedly sharp-tongued comedians, you need to write some stand-up.
That’s the thing, though: Hacks is not a show about comedy, it’s a show about fame. It’s about Vegas. It’s not indicative of the profession at large as the struggles on display are not unique but similarly felt by actors, musicians, and entertainers in general. The business is rough. It chews you up and spits you out. You either have too many opinions or not enough. If you don’t conform to the ideal image, then you’re unsellable, but if you don’t stand out enough, then you’re not special. Entertainers are constantly having to choose between their integrity and their wallet, and yes, women especially.
The one time Hacks does take a deliberate step into the world of stand-up, into territory comedians of all levels are familiar with, is in episode eight. In “1.69 million,” the duo go out to test Deborah’s new hour (an hour!?) at a run-of-the-mill comedy club. While reminiscing with another comedian, Deborah reveals that the previous club owner was a known pervert with a habit of grabbing the women’s asses, making the newbies sit on his lap in order to get their paycheck, and possibly even drugging some of them. While the two vets brush it off as part of the game, Ava can’t help but think Deborah, with all her power and fame, could have done more to stop his reign of terror considering her later power and fame. She goes as far as to imply that she’s a “ladder puller,” a notion Deborah defiantly shoots down as an unfair accusation. Here we have an example of a true generational divide in comedy: should you try to work around a broken system or against it? Younger comics tend to favor the latter approach being the beneficiaries of past efforts, while older generations saw firsthand their peers become unwitting martyrs for the cause. It’s a tricky subject.
Though Deborah previously favored the work-around approach, she takes the latter when club MC Drew introduces her as a “crazy woman” and “the OG female comedian” (never introduce a comedian as this). This comes just minutes after Deborah witnesses him make an inappropriate remark backstage about another comedian’s breasts. Deborah, officially fed up, calls him out on his sexism and the winless position he’s put her in.
“If I don’t play along, then I’m a bad sport… [if I do, I’ll be] joking about my sexuality on his terms… then my whole set becomes about the stranger I find disgusting,” she tells the audience.
Unable to test her new material, Deborah instead makes Drew a deal he can’t refuse: $1.69 million if he quits comedy forever. “Can’t get rid of them all but I can get rid of one,” she triumphantly exclaims to a rowdy room all recording the incident on their phones. The moment is supposed to be a fantasy fulfilled, but at this point in the series, it just came off as rushed and heavy-handed. It certainly didn’t help that the only dagger she had for Drew was “you remind me of a turd [George Carlin] left in a greenroom.” Since the specificities of the stand-up world are not interwoven into the fabric of the show, the few times it addresses them head-on feel too sharp of a contrast. This important discussion is brought up only to be dropped once Drew steps off stage. It felt so hollow, just paying lip service to a pervasive problem.
The moment could have had more significance with one small tweak to her proposal. Before accepting the deal, Drew quips, “can I do a podcast?” which Deborah denies. This is played as more of a jokey moment but had Deborah included this herself in her initial terms, it would have served as a more nuanced commentary on today’s comedy landscape. While guys like Drew have always existed in stand-up, today’s culprits can leverage their public transgressions into lucrative Patreon-backed podcasts backed by spite-fueled fanbases. While not completely satisfying, it would have at least demonstrated Deborah’s understanding of the industry today.
Comedy is full of lose-lose scenarios: you can push the dirtbag comedians out of the industry but only if another comedian handsomely rewards their sexism with millions of dollars; you can speak out against sexism without it hurting your career, but only if you’re untouchable; and if you don’t speak out, then the problem persists, making for a less inhabitable environment for women. Either way, the discourse always finds a way to put the onus on the victims to solve the problem, thus absolving the perpetrator and everyone else of any responsibilities. But again, the show isn’t concerned with digging into present-day comedy’s complexities. In the world of Hacks, all that’s changed in the last few decades is now there’s less (but still a lot of) sexism in the industry and that’s as nuanced as it gets.
If you want to see the wonders of Jean Smart on display, it’s there. But if you’re looking for insights on what it’s like navigating the dilemmas that sexism and capitalism impose on stand-up comedy, you won’t find it.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.