Like many great films and TV shows before it, “Hacks” started with a road trip. At least, that’s where the idea for the series itself started.
“We were on this road trip to shoot at a monster truck rally. The idea for ‘Hacks’ was born out of a monster truck rally,” co-creator Jen Statsky tells Backstage. “We started talking about female stand-ups and entertainers and women in the arts in general. We talked about how they’ve had to fight against so much and keep their heads down and pound the pavement and fight for their careers. Whereas their male counterparts are much more easily given accolades and have a more seamless career path. We realized that we were really interested in telling that woman’s story. That was our jumping-off point.”
That woman became Deborah Vance, a Joan Rivers-status comedian (played by Jean Smart) whom “Hacks” introduces just as her career begins to sundown. At the same time, an upcoming comedy writer (played by newcomer Hannah Einbinder) has just been blacklisted from Hollywood after publishing a controversial Tweet. Their shared manager (played by series co-creator Paul W. Downs) pairs them up in a Hail Mary to save both of their careers.
Among the many themes of the show, collaboration as well as the need for others to stay afloat, is threaded throughout. Appropriately, that’s how the show came into existence over the course of about five years. “We have this very long email chain with the subject line that’s something like ‘jokes,’ ” Statsky reveals. “We’d just send each other ideas for various projects, mostly ‘Hacks.’ When we finally were all creatively and professionally in a place where we felt ready to go take it out, we took it out. Luckily, HBO Max and Universal were incredible partners and got it.”
Although they were building the show around a comedian, the show became more than just a comedy. “We knew we wanted it to be really funny, but also really grounded and dramatic at moments. We knew whoever was playing this part would have to embody that tone,” Statsky remembers. This made casting particularly tricky. “When you start making a list of actors who can be both so funny, and also so dramatic, so grounded, so real, it’s not a super long list. Jean was at the top of that list.”
It’s no surprise a tried and true talent like Smart—who was simultaneously starring on “Mare of Easttown,” also on HBO, as “Hacks” aired—was their first choice. But to find an upstart to play opposite her proved to be even more of a challenge. “It’s this incredibly exciting moment but also incredibly scary because you're like, [who can you get] to play opposite Jean Smart...crap. Should we have cast someone not as good?”
“Comedy is something that’s really hard to do alone, even if you’re a stand-up. There’s a huge community of people that are doing it together. If you want to work in comedy, find the people who make you laugh, and the people that you make laugh and just lean on each other.”
COVID-19 protocols added several layers of hoop-jumping to the casting process, during which the team needed to ensure they found a leading duo whose chemistry could serve as the heart of the show. “We saw, I think, over 400 tapes of actors, many of whom were wonderful, but it came down to this balance,” Statsky recalls. “We kept looking for someone who we felt was selling both [comedy and drama] as effectively as we wanted. Hannah really impressed us from her very first audition. She improvised a few lines, which told us that she was, in her bones, a comedian.”
After a casting process done almost entirely on Zoom, the team still felt it was essential to find a way for Smart to meet with potential Avas in the flesh. “As we moved through the process of callbacks, and then testing with Jean, their chemistry was palpable, which is insane, because they were seated, I think, 15 feet apart from each other with a plastic divider in between them,” Statsky says of Smart and Eibender’s first meeting.
Though it certainly created additional obstacles, shooting a series during the COVID era contributed to the collaborative environment on “Hacks.” “TV is a truly collaborative medium, that’s why I love working in it. It takes so many people to make a great show. Every single show I’ve worked on is the product of wonderful creators taking ideas from so many different people. I tried to bring that spirit to ‘Hacks,’ ” Statsky says.
And if you’re eyeing Statsky’s career, which includes writing positions on hits like “Parks and Recreation,” “Broad City,” and “The Good Place,” as one you’d like to emulate, you’re going to have to learn to work with a team. Even just establishing your own voice and taking the first few steps in comedy come down to collaboration and community.
“Comedy is about finding the other people that make you laugh, because they make you better and you make them better,” she suggests. “What was so helpful to me early on, even though I was a terrible performer, [was that] UCB allowed me to meet really wonderful performers. Comedy is something that’s really hard to do alone, even if you’re a stand-up. There’s a huge community of people that are doing it together. If you want to work in comedy, find the people who make you laugh, and the people that you make laugh and just lean on each other.”
Once you have a support system, she adds, you can figure out where you belong in the space. “There are a lot of different paths in comedy, and what really helped me, it sounds cheesy, was following the fun of it,” Stasky remembers. “There were things that I did not have fun doing. I really didn’t like performing improv, because I’m just not a performer. I found that I loved writing stupid one-liner jokes on Twitter and I was better at it. I think I was better at it because I liked doing it. That kind of led me to my first job writing monologue jokes for late night. So pay attention to the things that you have fun doing; don’t force something because there’s a path you can pursue if you find what you like.”
While comedy is a career path that requires a lot of hard work, of course, it doesn’t always have to feel like work. As Statsky insists: “Give yourself the permission to try a bunch of stuff, but also the permission to say, ‘I have the most fun doing that.’ ”
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