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“This is so fun,” Paul W. Downs said as he ascended the final step to reach the top of a double-decker bus parked in front of Andaz West Hollywood. “It’s like episode three.”
The scene surely was reminiscent of “A Gig’s a Gig,” the episode of HBO Max and Universal Television’s breakout hit Hacks that finds Jean Smart’s Debra Vance do an impromptu set on a tour bus as it glides down the Las Vegas Strip. Debra capitalizes on the moment by thoroughly embarrassing Hannah Einbinder’s Ava after she feels insulted by the young writer’s take that doing a cheesy promo stop at a pizza place was degrading.
Saturday night’s event was free of such jabs and instead carried a celebratory tone, fueled by the show’s 15 Emmy nominations including outstanding comedy series. The Sunset Strip replaced its Vegas counterpart and in lieu of tourists, the double-decker bus — adorned with Hacks branding and accessorized by a deejay and refreshments — hosted the Emmy-nominated Hacks crew including co-creators Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky, nominated actor Carl Clemons-Hopkins, actress and social media phenom Meg Stalter, and consulting producer and writer Joe Mande.
Trailed by a photographer, videographer, publicists and The Hollywood Reporter, the team boarded the bus at 7:20 p.m. for a stone’s throw jaunt down the block to stop in front of the legendary Comedy Store where throngs of comedy lovers were lined up to catch an 8 p.m. show in the main room. As the deejay blasted Roisin Murphy’s “You Know Me Better,” the comedy-lovers on the sidewalk erupted with cheers and applause.
Downs, Aniello and Statsky — close friends and collaborators who dreamed up the show inside a Honda Pilot while on a road trip to Portland — handled hosting duties by kicking off the drive-by festivities. “Thank you, guys, so much for coming out,” Downs said. “We’re so appreciative of everyone who has watched the show and told a friend to watch the show.” They even deftly handled traffic noise when a group of motorcycles roared past the bus on a busy evening in the heart of the Strip. “The Hells Angels are huge Jean Smart fans,” quipped Aniello.
Downs, who also stars on the show as Jimmy, the shared agent of Ava and Debra, then did a short set, his first stand-up showing in two years due to the pandemic and the demanding schedule of writing, executive producing and acting on Hacks. “I’m really glad we’ve put stand-ups on the show like Joe and Meg so it’s nice to have an event like this where they could actually perform,” he told THR. “It was great for me to dip my toe back in. … I should just do one bit every two years.”
Stalter, fresh from her sold-out shows at Dynasty Typewriter, has him beat by a mile. She took the mic and delivered the night’s longest set with jokes about a pandemic play that secured a staging inside an airport terminal, falling into a coma after earning $120 from an unaired Sonic commercial, and a faux husband named Skyler (“He’s pre-med and he’s a lawyer so he’s constantly doing W2s.”) She even performed a brief reading from a book titled Stinky Stupid Love.
Clemons-Hopkins thanked the crowd during brief remarks before quickly turning the mic over to Mande, another vet of the stand-up stage. “It’s great that things are back to normal,” he joked. “I feel like I’m back in my element — doing stand-up outside a comedy club.”
Mande referenced Emmys season several times, saying that despite his bad-boy status in the comedy world, he’s really a “good boy” and wants all Emmy voters to know. “I should mention that if we get four applause breaks, I think we do win an Emmy.” Those rules may not apply but what the Hacks event proved is that rules for FYC season have been recalibrated during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as awards strategists attempt to reach fans and voters while keeping health and safety front and center.
“Tonight is a wonderful example of Universal coming up with this idea,” Statsky explained of the stunt, said to be the brainchild of Universal’s Curt King. “It’s such a cool way to integrate it by bringing the fans in so they could experience this. It has mirrored shooting during COVID because you have to think outside the box and think of new ways to work and be nimble. Because we can’t do things like we used to, let’s think of new ways and figure it out.”
Erin Underhill, president of Universal Television, tells THR that she loved how the event came together “as an organic extension” of the series. “It’s so gratifying to see how celebrated [Hacks] is not only by the cast, creators, and studio but also by the fans. While we always put safety first, we also aimed to create a fun and memorable experience for all. The turnout was a reminder that live events are still possible, and we’re grateful to everyone who helped make this a success.”
After the 30-minute program wrapped — and Hacks swag had been evenly distributed on the sidewalk below — the bus driver figured out a way to get the team back to the night’s headquarters at Andaz by looping down La Cienega Boulevard to Santa Monica Boulevard and back up Fairfax Avenue. There was nothing funny about the conditions with Prince blaring from the speakers, the sun setting on a picturesque L.A. night with temperatures hovering in the mid-70s and a bus filled with newly-minted Emmy nominees. “We’re on a bus,” Stalter announced, throwing her hands in the air as the vehicle passed onlookers and patios filled with al fresco diners. All the elements aligned, almost like it had been scripted for the screen, but the other way around. “It’s life imitating art,” said Downs.
Back at the hotel, Aniello summed up the ride — the one on the bus and riding the wave of a hit show. “There’s been something so magical about it. Even the relationships we’ve made; we genuinely love hanging out with the cast and our writers, and the crew is so amazing. Tonight was another example of that, like, how did that happen? It was so beautiful driving around with a perfect sunset. We’ve been so blessed to have moments like this and they keep happening. It’s like walking around in a warm hug at all times.”
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