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Back in 2015, Jen Statsky took a road trip with her close friends Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello to a monster truck rally in Portland, Maine. Downs was shooting a sketch for a Netflix comedy special, and Statsky and Aniello tagged along to help pitch jokes. On the ride up, they got to talking about women in comedy, particularly the ones who came up in a different time and had to work twice as hard as many of their male counterparts but never really got their due. “We just started talking about the women who were so underappreciated despite being enormous talents and working really, really hard. The ones that got knocked down a thousand times and got back up 1,001,” says Statsky. “We became really interested in kind of a character study of that woman.” Six years later, that casual road-trip conversation turned into HBO Max’s critically adored comedy Hacks, about a seasoned Las Vegas stand-up and the entitled Gen Z comedy writer tasked with punching up her jokes. Co-creator and co-showrunner Statsky, whose credits also include The Good Place and Broad City, recently spoke to THR about the women who inspired the comedy, the long journey to the screen and the challenges of making a show amid a pandemic.
You’ve said that the show was inspired by female comedians of a certain age who were underappreciated. Who were some of those women you were thinking about when you were creating the character of Deborah Vance?
Yeah, there are a lot. It’s very much an amalgamation of a bunch of different kinds of iconic female creators, comedians and artists: Phyllis Diller, Elaine May, to name a few. Deborah’s origin story is part of a two-person comedy duo with her then-husband, and that’s very similar to Elaine May being in a duo. Also, Debbie Reynolds and Joan Rivers. These were the kinds of women we were talking about.
You guys had the idea for the show a while ago, but it took years to bring it to the screen. Why is that?
We were all just doing a bunch of different things that were pulling us in different directions. But we’re friends first and collaborators second, so we see each other all the time, and we kept coming back to this idea. Once it clicked about a younger writer being the second part of the two-hand, the ideas just started coming to us really quickly. Over the years, we just had this long email chain that was just jokes, ideas and stories that we would just send back and forth to each other. In this job, you have ideas and think, “Yeah, that could be something.” This idea just never went away for us. It stuck in our brains, and that’s how we knew there was something there.
How early did you know that Jean Smart would be your Deborah?
Jean was cast pretty early on. We originally had a pilot order from HBO Max, and then once Jean signed on, it gave us this opportunity. HBO Max trusted us and basically said, “You have Jean Smart. We love this idea. Let’s go to series.” We knew that with this part and the tone of the show, we really wanted it to be very funny, but we also wanted it to have a lot of real, grounded, dramatic moments. When you start making a list of actors who are so deeply in-their-bones funny but can also really play the dramatic side and bring you to tears in an instant with a line or even a look, that list is not huge. And in our minds, Jean was at the top of it because she’s just so incredibly gifted in both areas. Getting Jean to sign on really made the whole world of the show open up to us. It was like, “OK, we can make the show we want to make because she’s capable of anything.”
How did you go about finding your Ava?
We were reading people for Ava in March 2020 when everything shut down. It was an exhaustive search. I think we counted up all of our casting sheets one day and it was over 400 actors we had seen for the part. It was a lot. When Hannah Einbinder came in, we were instantly able to see — which is crazy because she’s really never acted before — that she also has the ability Jean has. She can play real and grounded, but also she’s just incredibly funny. I mean, in real life, she’s a super talented, super funny stand-up, so that attracted us. And she also was Ava by design. We wanted her to be projecting entitlement, but it couldn’t just be a one layer. There needed to be something beneath the surface that made you interested in this character and hinted at the emotional journey she was going to go on.
The show easily could have taken place in New York or Los Angeles. What made you want to set it in Las Vegas?
There are a lot of entertainment shows that have been set in New York and Los Angeles. And many of them are some of our favorite shows. Vegas is ultimately a really important part of Deborah’s character in that she is someone who has been rejected by mainstream Hollywood. She had this whole ordeal with her husband where she was maligned in the press and blacklisted and had to work her way back up in comedy clubs, taking gig after gig after gig for years and years. And eventually, she amassed great fortune and a fan base, but it was always done outside of the Hollywood system because she went to Vegas and built up these walls. Her house is a gigantic, 60,000-square-foot property because she’s protecting herself from the world that rejected her, honestly, when she was 25 years old like Ava is.
The show occasionally pulls in modern cultural phenomenons, like when Ava talks about her old tweets or Deborah confronts a sexual harasser at the comedy club. How much were those kinds of ideas discussed in the writers room?
We really didn’t. Even though, yes, we tackle that issue with Ava tweeting something and in episode eight where we deal with predators in the comedy club scene. But we really don’t approach things from an issue-first standpoint. We don’t say, “Oh, we should do something about this.” It’s really character-first and talking about who these people are, and then, organically, what is something that they would have been through or what could happen to them? Obviously we’re making a show that’s set in the modern day and it’s about comedy, so you’re going to touch on some things that are in the zeitgeist. But it’s never our intention to go after the issue and say, “This is our take.”
What was it like to make this show during the pandemic?
It was certainly a challenge. I mean, with any first season of a show, just getting it off the ground is a challenge just in the normal system. And so adding COVID protocols on top of it was really, really difficult. It affected every aspect of the process, but luckily, I don’t think it shows onscreen. I think we were able to still make the show we wanted to make. But there were certainly many things we had to navigate. Like, it takes time in the morning to test everyone, and that adds money to the budget. And this is a show about a comedian who does stand-up shows, so there were huge crowd shots and we were very restricted on the number of people we could have [because of COVID]. So a lot of the crowd shots you see are VFX. It was a real challenge.
This is your first time co-creating and co-showrunning a series. What’s it been like to step into that role?
Even though there are more shows than ever, it is still such a privilege to have your idea be something that the world sees. First and foremost, I feel really lucky to have this opportunity, and it’s a big responsibility. It’s a funny thing becoming a showrunner. You start writing because you’re like, “I like writing. I like telling jokes.” And then if you follow down this path, eventually you become the CEO of a 250-person corporation, or whatever you want to call it, because you’re in charge of everyone.
What can you tease about the second season?
I can’t give any spoilers, but I’ll say that, yes, Ava’s going to deal with that email.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
One series has a real chance of keeping Emmy freight train Ted Lasso from barreling into its assumed victory, and that is Hacks. The slick comedy arrived on HBO Max out of nowhere and, likely to the delight of many a TV Academy member, parodied the entertainment industry in ways its logline never promised. Jean Smart should and almost certainly will win the lead actress race, but Hacks‘ surplus of other nominations are likely to produce some more love as well. — Mikey O’Connell
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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