A 25-year-old comedy writer named Ava makes an unsavory joke on Twitter, gets blacklisted from Hollywood, and must move to Las Vegas to help out an older comedian—the legendary and fictional Deborah Vance—who does not want her help at all. That’s the premise of Hacks, the new HBO Max series co-created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, who is best known for her work on Broad City, Parks and Recreation, and The Good Place.
When Statsky called from Los Angeles one afternoon before the series premiere on May 13, she explained the idea for this series was actually born out of a road trip the co-creators took to Maine five years ago. A segment of Downs’ Netflix sketch show, The Characters, required them to go to a monster truck rally, and on the way there, they started talking, broadly, about women just like the character Deborah Vance, or “standup comedians who never really got their due, while their male counterparts were far more revered and put in the spotlight,” Statsky said. “There are women who were quietly, but so importantly, doing the work of blazing a trail for other women, and they get knocked down a million times but get back up a million and one,” she added, citing Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Debbie Reynolds, and Susie Essman, to name a few.
The three of them kept going back to this idea, even when they were all working on different projects. “That’s how you know it’s something worth pursuing—if an idea doesn’t go away,” Statsky said.
And thus, Hacks was born. But why not set a show about comedy in New York or Los Angeles, or even Chicago? “We felt like there hadn’t been a ton of shows set in Vegas, and there are movies about partying in Vegas, but what does it mean to live there? That was a question we were interested in exploring,” Statsky explained. (Statsky herself has seen Britney Spears in Vegas four times, most recently with friend and Good Place star D’Arcy Carden—the musician, she said, reached down from the stage and anointed them with her touch.)
“Deborah has built a castle for herself, isolated in the desert—a carefully constructed ecosystem away from Hollywood,” she went on. “That’s a central conflict because Ava is someone who has bought into the idea of Hollywood: if Hollywood says you’re good, then you’re good.”
When Statsky, Aniello, and Downs started pitching the show, they knew it would be nothing without two leads who could anchor the series in comedy, while toeing a dramatic line, too. Deborah Vance could only be played by one person—Jean Smart, who has been experiencing something of a renaissance these past few years, with scene-stealing performances on HBO’s Watchmen and Mare of Easttown. “When you start making a list of actresses who can play both sides of that, it becomes a very short list,” she said. “And in our minds, Jean was at the very top of it.”
“She is so deeply funny, so talented as a comedian, but also an unbelievable dramatic actor, so she was the guide for what the tone of the show would be,” Statsky explained. Then, they moved on to casting Ava.
Finding a 25-year-old comedian who could go toe to toe with Smart was a bit trickier. After watching self-tapes from over 400 actresses at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hannah Einbinder was the one who stood out the most—in one surprising move, Einbinder delivered a joke, picked up her vape from off-camera, and took a hit. “It was such a funny choice, and made us realize she’s inside this character in the way we needed her to be,” Statsky said. “Once we got [Jean and Hannah] together, their chemistry was undeniable.”
Hacks was written with the rollercoaster that social media drama can cause in mind. Ava’s career begins with Twitter, which is not an uncommon story for many comedians working on some of your favorite shows right now. Statsky would know–she landed her first job, writing for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, because of a Twitter DM from the show’s head writer in 2011. Since then, she’s served as a writer and producer on shows like Lady Dynamite, and The Good Place. “I have such a complicated relationship with Twitter because now it is, largely, a hell scape,” Statsky admitted. “I like the aspect of it that feels like meritocracy—if someone writes a great joke or has a really insightful take, it can get seen and they can rise to the top—but that is very rare and there are so many industry gatekeepers that you have to deal with.”
To remedy the doldrums of Twitter’s daily main character drama, Statsky now tends to stick with the arena of social media that actually brings her some joy—basketball Twitter. “I’m a huge NBA fan, so that’s a big reason I stay on Twitter,” she said.
When it comes to working in a medium like television, though, for Statsky, it’s all about collaboration. “In the DNA of every show I’ve tried to work on, and now tried to make, it’s about that collaboration between people,” she said, listing three of the beloved projects that have found massive fandoms. “I think people responded to Broad City because it was a depiction of friendship they hadn’t really seen before. Parks and Rec was all about a team of people coming together to make their town better. The Good Place was about people coming together to make each other better.” Hacks, a series about the collaboration between two unwitting comedy partners who learn that it’s ultimately worth it to work together, will probably join those ranks, too.
“The biggest lesson is that you can’t do it alone,” Statsky said. “It will be infinitely better when you say yes to doing it with other people and allowing as many voices and people as possible to make it with you.”