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The Untold Truth Of Hacks

Without any murder mysteries, superheroes, interstellar bounty hunters, or trips to alternate dimensions in its story, the 2021 dramedy series "Hacks" fell under a lot of radars. But its long list of Emmy nominations – a total of 14, including for Outstanding Comedy Series and Lead Actress in a Comedy Series — brought some well-deserved attention to this HBO Max original.

Premiering in May 2021, "Hacks" stars Jean Smart as aging comedian Deborah Vance and newcomer Hannah Einbinder as Gen Z comedy writer Ava Daniels. Ava is, depending on how you look at it, either hired by Vance to refresh her act for a younger audience, or forced on Vance by the desperate manager they have in common. The rest of the brilliant cast includes Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Marcus, the Chief Operating Officer of Deborah's brand, Kaitlin Olson of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" fame as Deborah's daughter DJ, and Christopher McDonald as Marty, the casino owner who flirts with Deborah while simultaneously edging her out of the business.

If you're curious about how this cast came together, how the name of the show was chosen, what the actors are like when the cameras are off, or where Deborah's cruel "big hands" jokes come from — and who isn't? — keep reading. This is the untold truth of HBO Max's "Hacks."

What is Hacks?

Episode 1 of "Hacks" finds Deborah and Ava at forks in the road. Deborah discovers some of her stage dates are being cut to make way for younger, trendier acts, which she sees as a harbinger of her career's doom. After making an offensive joke on Twitter, Ava's lucrative TV writing deal falls through. She can't get a job from anyone in Los Angeles, and her mortgage won't wait for the controversy to die down. 

Making a desperate gambit, Ava's manager Jimmy sends her to Las Vegas as Deborah's new joke writer ... even though Deborah doesn't want a joke writer. When Ava arrives at Deborah's home, the storied comedian sits the newbie down to inform her that she doesn't have a job. As neither woman is accustomed to pulling punches, things get ugly pretty quickly. Deborah is impressed enough with Ava's barbs, however, that she gives the young writer a job.

Throughout the first season, Ava struggles to adapt to her new life in Las Vegas while Deborah scrapes and claws to get back her stage dates. Deborah's rough exterior clashes often with Ava's 2021 sensibilities, but in time, the women learn from each other. While Ava often proves far too judgmental of Deborah for, in her view, accepting sexist treatment, Deborah does rediscover long-buried dreams because of Ava's prodding. Likewise, Deborah tends to dismiss Ava's ideas far too quickly, but Ava does end up learning a lot about the craft of comedy.

The Smart choice was always the top choice

It's not at all rare for TV shows in development to endure long casting processes, especially for their leads. But according to the creators of "Hacks," that wasn't the case for choosing who would play Deborah Vance. In June 2021, "Hacks" co-creator Paul W. Downs — who also plays Ava and Deborah's manager Jimmy — told IndieWire that Deborah's actress needs to hit just the right notes of comedy and drama. When it came to actresses who fit the bill, "It's a very short list of women in that age bracket, and Jean [Smart] was at the top for us." Downs went on to say he feels Smart's career is somewhat "emblematic" of Vance's: Though she's never been "maligned by the industry" like her "Hacks" character, she's "under-appreciated for the range and amount of talent that she has."

From what she told Collider in May 2021, it didn't take Smart long to say yes. She said she found the concept "intriguing" as soon as her agent contacted her, and that she and the show creators "got on like a house on fire." She also admitted that she was attracted to the potential longevity of "Hacks," as much of her recent TV work has either been for miniseries like "Watchmen" or single-season commitments like "Fargo."

The long road to Hacks

The three creators of "Hacks" — Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky — were on their way to a monster truck rally in 2016 when they first conceived of what would eventually become "Hacks." The trio had been collaborating for years, starting with the sitcom "Broad City." Statsky told Backstage in June 2021 that on their way to the rally, the three comedians discussed how women trying to make a name in entertainment are forced to travel down much rougher roads than their male counterparts. From that conversation, "Hacks" was born. The trio continued discussing the concept in a long email chain until they were ready to pitch it.

One of the most difficult creative decisions the creators faced was naming the show. While the project began as "Hacks" and was produced as "Hacks," there was a lot of uncertainty between those moments. Smart told Collider that "Hacks" was the working title when she was first attached, but that legal problems arose with another network. In the meantime, Smart recalled about "150 suggestions" for titles, including "The Gig" and "Humor Me." Ultimately, according to Smart, the creators went to the network who owned the rights to "Hacks" and "just begged." Since the unnamed network wasn't developing anything with that title attached, they signaled the all-clear.

Casting Ava was a bizarre process

While the creators of "Hacks" zeroed in on who they wanted for Deborah quite quickly, casting Ava Daniels was difficult. Aniello told Collider that while they knew they wanted an actress who was actually in her 20s, they auditioned "everybody who was between 20 and 40 — essentially every living actress." Likewise, Hannah Einbinder said she was competing for the role against "every eligible young maiden in the land," but that upon getting a feel for who Ava was, she became obsessed. Furthermore, she became aware of the role as comedy clubs and other venues began to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, she began to see the series as her "only way to engage with a piece of comedy in a way that could feel real maybe, at the time."

Because of the pandemic's demands, Einbinder's final screen test was a little weird. It took place on a large sound stage that the actress described as a "dark massive empty space." Talking to Backstage, Statsky said when Smart and Einbinder role-played the first meeting between their characters, "they were seated, I think, 15 feet apart from each other with a plastic divider in between them." 

Still, their chemistry was immediately evident. Einbinder told Vanity Fair that after the first run-through, she and Smart "shared a look" — the first of many they would share "after a good moment" during production.  

Smart is much kinder than her character

At no point in "Hacks" could you accuse Deborah of using kid gloves on her new joke writer. Moments after they meet, Deborah complains about Ava's "chimney sweep boots" on her silk rug. She regularly mocks the size of Ava's hands, the way she dresses, and her bisexuality. Not to mention the fact that when Deborah criticizes Ava's writing, she's as gentle as a tank tread.

But according to Einbinder, when the cameras are off, Smart expresses anything but the cruelty her character casually wields. In fact, Einbinder gives at least some of the credit for her casting to Smart's kindness. She told Nylon that the night before her final screen test, Smart called her so that she wouldn't be star-struck. She complimented Einbinder on her stand-up, and said the screen test would be "a lot of fun." 

This may seem like a small thing, but it made a world of difference to Einbinder. "I was able to walk in and feel comfortable," Einbinder explained, "which is so vital for me to be able to be funny."

For Einbinder, the transition from stand-up to acting was difficult

Speaking to Collider about the casting process for Ava, Lucia Aniello pointed out the difficulty of finding someone who could "go toe to toe every day with Jean Smart." While Hannah Einbinder eventually proved to be the right fit, she initially felt the challenge Aniello described every day.

"In the beginning of shooting, I felt a great deal of imposter syndrome," Einbinder recalled to Vanity Fair. She was constantly harassed by thoughts of unworthiness, like, "I feel out of place, I feel wrong here, they should have gotten someone with more experience." 

But as the adage goes, the only way out is through, and Einbinder feels she came out the other side stronger for it. With constant encouragement from the show's creators and Smart herself, as well as getting the chance to incorporate her own jokes into the dialogue, the young comedian began to look at herself in a new way. Einbinder said that while she was previously "wired without self-esteem," the experience of making "Hacks" altered the way she regards herself.

Einbinder comes from a comedy legacy

Comedy runs in Hannah Einbinder's family. Her brother Spike is a stand-up comic and actor who appears on the HBO comedy series "Los Espookys." Her father Chad is also an actor who, among other, smaller roles, voiced Bettelheim the Cat in the 1998 remake of "Doctor Doolittle." But the family's biggest claim to fame before "Hacks" hit the airwaves is Hannah Einbinder's mother, Laraine Newman, who was one of the original cast members of the NBC late-night institution "Saturday Night Live." Newman was a fixture on "SNL" through the first five years of the show's production, creating two of its earliest popular characters: Weekend Update reporter Connie Conehead and ditzy Valley girl Sherrie, who famously shares a group therapy session with John Belushi as Vito Corleone of "The Godfather."

According to NPR, rather than auditioning for "SNL," Newman was discovered by producer Lorne Michaels when he went to see the Groundlings, a comedy troupe Newman helped found. Since her days on the legendary show, Newman has built an impressive voice acting career. Her voice can be heard in series like "SpongeBob SquarePants," "The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants," and "American Dad!" She's also a professional writer, contributing to the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and McSweeney's. In 2021, she released her audio memoir, "May You Live in Interesting Times." 

Hacks is a story of redemption

One thing you notice fairly early in "Hacks" is that Ava can get pretty judgmental when it comes to some of the things Deborah has done to get ahead — and what she hasn't done. As a modern woman, Ava is shocked by the kind of misogynistic abuse Deborah has endured in order to claw her way up. She believes Deborah shouldn't accept such treatment any longer, for her own sake and that of the women around her.

Aniello told Collider this tension was one of her main inspirations for "Hacks." As she sees it, younger women in the entertainment industry don't fully appreciate the doors women like Deborah opened for them — and she includes herself in that. "We really stood on the shoulders of them and didn't fully appreciate them," Aniello said, adding that Ava acts as something of a stand-in for those younger women who will hopefully gain "context and appreciation" for those who came before. 

She also said that "Hacks" will ultimately be "a redemption story for Deborah Vance." We see some of this happening already. For example, when Deborah goes to a comedy club to practice some new material in "1.69 Million" and the host ends up being a sexist jerk, she decides she doesn't have to endure such garbage anymore and comes up with a unique and very public solution. 

The big hands thing

One of the funniest recurring gags in "Hacks" is Deborah's merciless scrutiny about the size of Ava's hands. The jibes begin in Episode 2, "Primm," when Deborah compares Ava's hands to catcher's mitts and suggests "your manicurist must use a paint roller." This continues all the way through to the Season 1 finale, "I Think She Will." After the funeral service for Ava's father, Deborah finds a picture of Ava when she was a teenager, holds it up, and says her hands look "positively extraterrestrial."

Hannah Einbinder's hands are fairly normal sized, as any viewer will notice. So when TVLine interviewed Einbinder, they asked if the running gag is an inside joke. Einbinder said the jokes were in the script before anyone was cast, so they aren't meant to poke fun at her specifically. But there is an interesting coincidence about the picture Deborah mocks. Einbinder told TVLine that the picture is, in fact, a picture of Einbinder when she was "a youth."  And indeed, her hand does look disproportionately large in it. "That photo is not doctored," Einbinder assured TVLine. "That is the size of my hands relative to my body, and everyone was shocked. Truly everyone. Completely shocked."

Carl Clemons-Hopkins owes their career to a 2016 movie they weren't in

Like Hannah Einbinder, Carl Clemons-Hopkins doesn't have a long credits list. According to them, that's intentional. In June 2021, Clemons-Hopkins told Shondaland that until 2016, they were mainly interested in pursuing a career in theater. Considering they were part of the cast of a Chicago production of "Hamilton" at the time, it seems like they were doing a good job. But then they saw the acclaimed 2016 drama "Moonlight," written and directed by Barry Jenkins.

Clemons-Hopkins said when they saw "Moonlight," they were working in theater and bartending as a side gig. They were content, but "Moonlight" changed things. The film follows a boy to adulthood as he comes to grips with his sexuality and the abuse he suffers. Clemons-Hopkins said it was the first time they saw "Black, queer representation ... at that level." It "changed the trajectory" of their life.

On "Hacks," Clemons-Hopkins plays Marcus, the COO of Deborah's brand who will drop anything and anyone for the stand-up. That has some serious consequences for Marcus' personal life. Clemons-Hopkins said the most exciting thing about the role is that "Marcus [is] an out, queer, Black character with agency," and that "his adjectives [are] not the conflict of the piece." 

Hacks focuses on living in Las Vegas rather than getting a hangover there

Most of Season 1 of "Hacks" is set in Las Vegas. In June 2021, Jen Statsky told IndieWire she hoped to show a side of Sin City rarely portrayed on screen. "We've seen Vegas depicted many times, but very few things are about moving there," Statsky explained. She added, "It's a city where people live," which seems like an unnecessary thing to say, until you consider how often it's depicted as a place solely for wild weekends when "you get stuck on a roof with your friends."

The creators' vision of Vegas as a home comes into particular focus in "Primm" when Ava struggles to adjust to her new surroundings. Though Deborah lives in a spacious mansion, Ava dwells in the same hotel-casino where Deborah is fighting to keep her regular gig. Ava eats her meals in the employee commissary, has regular confrontations with a difficult front desk clerk, and finds her first Vegas friend in Kiki (Poppy Liu), a blackjack dealer who won't let Ava finish her sentence if her favorite song comes on. We also meet the city's fictional Mayor Pezzimenti (Lauren Weedman) at DJ's birthday party in "Tunnel of Love." The mayor likes her drink, constantly hits on Marty, and, according to Deborah, gives away the key to the city so often, "She probably tips with it at Starbucks." 

Einbinder couldn't help but cry during a climactic scene

After the Season 1 finale of "Hacks" aired, TVLine spoke to Hannah Einbinder about one of its most emotional moments. After Ava and Deborah finally build some mutual trust and respect, Deborah agrees to do a show with all-new material incorporating more difficult autobiographical elements. But at the last moment, Deborah decides to ditch the new stuff. Ava confronts her, only to learn that Deborah knows she interviewed for another job. The argument that follows is about as brutal as it gets, culminating in Ava calling Deborah "a f***ing hack," and Deborah slapping the writer across the face. 

Einbinder confessed to TVLine that the moment was so potent for her, she burst into tears on her first try filming the scene. "When we did our first take, the camera was on Jean, and I couldn't help but cry," Einbinder recalled.  "I just couldn't help it. It cut so deep." She clarified her tears had nothing to do with "the force of the slap" — rather, she had come to care so deeply about her character that the scene felt like watching her parents break up. She also said that, fittingly enough, her much more experienced co-star Jean Smart told her, "Sweetie, you've got to save it for when the camera's on you." Now that's a line Deborah Vance would love.