'Hacks' Is Not a Hack…It's Comedic Perfection

Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) are a delight to watch evolve, sometimes devolve, then evolve again.

teri elam
teri elam
June 15, 2022

I'm a Gemini, and we are often the funniest people in the room, at least in our minds. Nonetheless, armed with bravado, I decided to take my talents to a standup comedy class. Because indeed, that's all it takes to start a comedy career; and become a Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) in training… amirite? Nope. Nah. No ma'am.

Deborah Vance (Jean Smart)

Deborah Vance (Jean Smart)

So, You Think You Can Comedy

It took six weeks of classes, 25 plus times walking on a stage to perfect removing the mic from the stand (it's a whole thing), and hours of journaling (followed by some therapy). Then days of writing setups and punchlines, whittling them down to a bone (every word counts and is counted), followed by several rehearsals and one excruciating practice where I forgot all my lines. All for one 4-minute set.

Jeff Justice (in the purple) surrounded by my class.

Jeff Justice (in the purple) surrounded by my class.

Finally, the day arrives; my 4-minutes of fame debuts at The Punchline in Atlanta in front of 250 of my closest strangers (comedy clubs are small, these people could literally touch the stage). I also regretfully invited four really close friends realizing this may actually eclipse the most embarrassing moment in my life (yes, I keep a list). All you need to know is that it happened at a wedding when I was in college and my mother witnessed it and would hurt herself laughing each time she thought about it…even decades later.

But, I digress.

My First and Last Performance :-)

My First and Last Performance :-)

Once on stage, everything my teacher, the all-knowing Jeff Justice, taught us that didn't make sense in class absolutely did. I didn't think twice about the microphone...it really is a thing; even when I forgot a line, Jeff's voice was in my head (well, he was actually near the stage and whispered it to me). Still, I didn't throw up (I wanted to right before walking on stage) and, surprisingly, killed...meaning, I almost died from fear. But I survived!

How To Write Jokes

I learned a few things writing my 4-minute bit; jokes about HR and living with an elderly mother who needs the thermostat on "10 degrees hotter than Hell" when you’re going through "the change" gets laughs. I also studied; I watched or listened to hours of female comedians from Moms Mabley to Wanda Sykes to Tig Notaro, Erin Jackson, and Janelle James. Yes, that Janelle James. If you think she’s funny on Abbott Elementarycheck out her standup act.

But the biggest lesson I learned (other than I'm NOT a natural-born comic or a comedian period) is that comedy is complex; you must be willing to go deep and talk about real shit to find honest humor. I had to wear the same scuba gear I use when submerging in the darkness while writing poetry to get to the light and the laughter in comedy. Hence, my thesis: Hacks is not a hack, nor are Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs (Jimmy), and Jen Statsky, the show's creators. They have crafted a profoundly personal and incredulously funny TV show starring Smart and Hannah Einbinder (Ava). It's about Smart's character, Deborah, a legendary comedian and Baby Boomer who needs an updated perspective, and Ava, her oft-misguided but equally quick-witted Gen Z co-writer. To say Hacks is amazingly well written is an understatement. So, I'll shout it: HACKS IS AMAZINGLY WELL WRITTEN!

Ruth and Naomi Walk Into A Bar

Sometimes a show for me is like a spiritual experience. I don't mean Biblical, though Deborah and Ava give a little Ruth and Naomi vibe... you know, had there been a little B.C. Comedy Tour back in the day. But I mean, when watching Hacks, I laugh and cry, and the show has set up a “Las Vegas residence” in my spirit. It came during a time soul-searching laughter was needed—one year into the ever-loving (when is it really going to end) pandemic. Hacks was not my first comedy obsession, there was Last Comic Standing, where I found the mentoring and workshopping process fascinating or  The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, even if fictitious. And now, Hacks… here's why.

Hacks hits all the comedy-drama sweet spots and it's refreshing. In the first episode, Smart sets the tone by inviting us into the solitude or loneliness of Deborah after finishing her sold-out show. She arrives home, removes her hair and makeup, feeds her dogs a gourmet meal, moisturizes, then gets into a humongous, beautiful bed of quiet. I was drawn in instantly—intensely interested in this character. She became Deborah for me, and I'm a fan, having watched Smart in everything from Designing Women to Frasier, Fargo and Watchmen, etc.

Then there's Deborah's "Ruth," Ava, one part liberated feminist, one part youthful goof; both characters (Deborah and Ava) equally yoked in flaws, complexity, opinions, and motivation. They are a delight to watch evolve, sometimes devolve, then evolve again. (Note: If you're interested in hearing more about these characters, tune into HBO's Hacks podcast featuring show stans like Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, and Rosie O'Donnell. They speak with the show's creators and share tidbits about its relevance to women's experiences in comedy.)

Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart at an Emmy reception

Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart at an Emmy reception

Pride Without Prejudice

Hacks' cast is diverse and is uber-representative. Co-led by a straight Baby Boomer and a Queer Gen Z woman, the show not only features Black, Asian, and Latino characters but those spanning generations, e.g., Rose Abdoo (Josefina), Angela Gibbs (Marcus's Mom), and Luenell (Miss Loretta), etc. 

(A special shout out to the Music Supervisor; the soundtrack is its own lesson in diversity. I mean, I've not heard many shows have Anita Baker's "Sweet Love" and The Brothers Johnson's "Stomp!" back to back on their playlist).

Specific to the LGBTQIA community, there's the beautimous cast with Einbinder, Carl Clemons-Hopkins (Marcus), Poppy Liu (Kiki), Mark Indelicato (Damien), Johnny Sibilly (Wilson), and Megan Stalter (Kayla). From a diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I) lens, Hacks is at the level most corporations aspire to when inclusion is interwoven into its fabric without needing to have the obligatory "very special episode." For example, Ava's bisexuality is not stereotyped, problematic, or even explicitly discussed; it's just one aspect of her as a whole human being. 

The Cast of "Hacks"

The Cast of "Hacks"

In a hilarious episode, "The Captain's Wife," Deborah ends up on a lesbian cruise where she and Ava have a nuanced conversation about sexuality, the Kinsey scale, and if sexuality is binary. Deborah's concerned because "lesbians don't like [her] for some reason." But we find Deborah's wrong. After singing a fantastic version of Aretha Franklin's "A Natural Woman," she's subsequently smitten and is adored by the entire ship of lesbians…well, until she isn't.

Ava and Deborah smooth sailing (kinda) to next season.

Ava and Deborah smooth sailing (kinda) to next season.

I won't spoil it but suffice it to say Deborah and Ava have to take a dinghy back to shore, which interrupts Ava's big score with an extra cute couple—a Three's Company reboot in the making. Dammit, Deborah. But, alas, it's just as well because the audience really just wants Deborah and Ava alone together in every scene anyway.

And wherever they both go, we will certainly follow.

'Hacks' Is Not a Hack…It's Comedic Perfection