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Interview: Creators Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky on New HBO Max Comedy ‘Hacks’

The new HBO Max comedy Hacks follows a veteran comedienne, Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), who gets paired up by her agent, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), with a young comedy writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), struggling to rebound from a problematic tweet. This refreshingly enjoyable and creative series comes from the talented minds of Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky, whose television credits include The Other Two, Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, and The Good Place, respectively.

Awards Radar had to chance to chat with this smart and entertaining trio about the story they wanted to tell, finding the right actresses, and how much of the show’s future they already have mapped out.

Q: I had the chance to speak to your fantastic actresses and it’s great to hear a little bit more about the show now.

Jen Statsky: What did they say?

Lucia Aniello: Were they nice to you?

A: Only good things. And they were really nice to each other, which is part of what we discussed. We talked about hostile relationships on the show, and it’s good to hear that, in real life, everyone gets along a lot better.

Jen: Very much so, yes.

Q: That’s great. This show is really terrific and very funny. Where did the idea come from?

Lucia: Well, about five years ago, the three of us were actually on our way to Portland, Maine to the Monster Jam Truck Rally, obviously. We were there because Paul’s Netflix special was shooting a segment there and we were taking this road trip. And we started talking about all of these different female comedians that didn’t necessarily get the same awards or recognition or just general acclaim as so many of their male counterparts, and how, especially for Jen and I as women in this industry, you know, we really stand on the shoulders of these women and yet we don’t necessarily fully appreciate all that they’ve done for us. We were talking about that and the idea of wanting to tell a redemption story for a woman like that through the eyes of somebody younger, who maybe doesn’t fully appreciate this woman and what she’s done, the path that she’s blazed. That was really the inspiration for it. Like I said, it was five years ago, and we just kept returning to this idea and kept thinking about and talking about it. We were all working on other things, but because we are friends and were hanging out all the time, it just kept being something that we returned to. So eventually the time was right, we were able to pitch it and we are so lucky to have an incredible home at HBO Max and with Universal. So we got to make this the show that really so close to our hearts and has been for a really long time.

Q: Did you base these characters on real people? And are those people you’d rather not mention?

Paul W. Downs: At least for the Deborah Vance character, it really is an amalgamation of so many women, not just stand-ups actually, but a lot of showbiz veterans. There’s some Elaine May and Debbie Reynolds and obviously Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, and we’ve worked with Susie Essman who issuch an amazing stand-up and has been at it for some time. So, I think it’s a bunch of different women. Like Lucia said, we’ve admired and we’ve really appreciated, and I think they’re people, especially in the arts, who’ve been knocked down a million times and have gotten up a million and one. We want to tell all of their stories.

Lucia: And then Jean added so much to the character herself. The Ava character wasn’t really based on anyone in particular, but I would say that there is a little bit of all of us in her and also some of our friends, I think too.

Paul: And that has to remain nameless. They’re our friends, but you know…

Lucia: We want to keep it that way.

Q: Did you always have Jean in mind for this role? And is there a particular favorite performance of hers that you have aside from this one?

Lucia: Ooh, great question.

Paul: She was the dream. Although I just talked a bunch, so I should let someone else go.

Jen: Yeah, she was always the dream. We were such incredible fans of hers, and this part, as we developed it, we always felt, who can it be who will be believable as a comedian because they are so in their bones funny, but also can do the dramatic side of things. And when you start really looking at that list, the people who do those things at such a high level, it’s not a long list. In our minds, Jean’s at the top of it. She just is so able to do both sides of the coin in terms of comedy and drama that we just felt, when she said yes, we just, we were over the moon then and we’re still over the moon. I am a huge Designing Women fan. I’ve been watching it actually through the pandemic – I don’t know if Jean knows that, I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it to her – and I just love her in that. But also, she’s so good in Watchmen. She’s so good.

Paul: I know I’m going to say probably yours. I know what mine is.

Lucia: Say it.

Paul: Brady Bunch Movie is one of my favorite performances. She’s so funny in that. She just steals it. I’m just like, Jean Smart, so liquid funny.

Lucia: I’ve got another one, because there’s so many you can pick from. Her on Frasier was so good. Uch, her screaming. I love Jean’s screaming. She has a scream and a laugh that is unrivaled.

Paul: She has control of that instrument, and it’s good.

Q: What about Hannah?

Paul: Hannah I haven’t seen in a lot of things. [laughter]

Jen: She’s literally not been in anything else ever.

Lucia: I think this is my favorite performance of hers.

Paul: I agree, I agree. I liked her on Colbert, she did a great stand-up set. But this is my favorite. No, she is so natural. Some people just have it, and she has this natural gift that we were all, from her first audition, we were like, okay, pause, who is this? We had not seen her before. We really liked that she was an actual comedian and she was the age of the part. She just was the part. It was really wild. And to watch her go toe-to-toe with Jean and do so so elegantly and so confidently is really impressive. I hope people fall in love with her as much as we have. Platonically.

Q: Paul, of course, you’re also in the show. Was that always the plan, and will we see all three of you in the show at some point?

Paul: You know, these women really didn’t want me in it. They said, we do not want you in the show. No, it was always the plan.

Lucia: We wrote that for Paul.

Paul: I think it’s really important to have representation for representation. We’ve seen the bumbling agent, we’ve seen the bad agent. And this guy, I think is kind of good because he puts two women together who really need each other. So, in that way, I hope I do a lot of good for Hollywood agents and managers. [laughter]

Jen: Lucia is a very talented actor as well, so you may see her, who knows? If you see me, something has gone wrong. I’m not an actor and I don’t intend to be one.

Paul: Although you can see Jen on The Good Place and she does steal the scene, so I don’t know.

Lucia: Something went really wrong there, because she’s very funny.

Jen: What happened there is that Mike Schur forced me to act on that show, but yeah. Lucia is a very talented actor, but not me. Don’t hold out your hopes for me.

Q: So if we have a good portrayal of an agent here, we obviously don’t have a great assistant. Is that something you’ve experienced in real life that you wanted to bring to the screen?

Paul: Well, first of all, we wanted to bring more than anything to the screen Meg Stalter because we are such fans of hers. We really liked her from seeing her work online. We were always like, it could be Meg, it would be great for Meg. We wrote it with her in mind – we can say that – and then I did a stand-up show here in LA that she was on, and I was like, this girl is otherworldly liquid funny, so talented. When she auditioned, it was such a no-brainer. She’s just so funny. We wanted to see more of that.

Jen: I think there’s something really funny about somebody who works for you having more power over you. Because her dad owns the management company, we just think it’s a really funny situation for Paul to always be under her thumb, but he still needs her to be a good assistant. For us, that was just innately a really funny setup and situation. She’s so funny, but of course, every really funny person needs a straight man. So, the two of them together I think are really – I mean, I’d watch a spinoff. I’d write the spinoff.

Q:  You’ve all worked together before, on Broad City. With this show, did want to try to mimic any existing comedies or dramas? Or did you specifically want to go away from something that you had seen before to try to do something really different?

Jen: Well, do you feel like there’s anything that you’ve seen that’s tonally in the same world?

Q: It reminded me a little bit of the movie Late Night, which is a compliment, because I liked that a lot. I thought that was similar. Obviously Mindy Kaling doesn’t have quite as much power there as Ava does here, but do I think it’s great. I’m just curious because you’ve all worked on lots of different shows and seen a lot of things, and I think very often in the process of trying to create something unique, there are obviously influences and things you want to show that haven’t been seen.

Paul: There are obviously familial relationships, mother-daughter or grandmother-daughter stuff that you’ve seen before, but we really couldn’t pinpoint something on television that was intergenerational dark mentorship slash love story because it really is a love story, and especially as you get into the season later, the kindredness of these two characters really comes to light. But, no, we thought that, again, we want to tell the story of somebody like Deborah Vance, who was someone who didn’t have a claim and didn’t have esteem and had a Vegas residency for a long time that might be a historic thing, but cool kids of comedy didn’t really appreciate that, especially someone like Ava. We wanted to tell a story of someone like that which we really didn’t feel like had been told, and especially through the eyes of somebody much younger than her, twenty-five.

Q: Obviously the show hasn’t even premiered yet, but I would definitely watch more. Do you have multiple seasons already mapped out?

Jen: Yes!

Paul: Do you know what’s crazy? I don’t think we did pitch to HBO Max, but we know where we would like the series to end. We know the last moment of the last episode. They don’t know that we know that.

Jen: Don’t tell them. Please keep it between us and your listeners and readers and watchers.

Paul: Yeah, we have thought about it.

Jen: When you live with something for five plus years, I feel like you kind of map it. Of course, the first season is there, but we came to an understanding that this is the larger redemption story for this character, hopefully the first part.

Q: Two episodes will be dropping at a time. How do you feel about that rollout? Is that what you would have wanted?

Paul: I love it because, I think that, in the age of binging things, you want more than one, at least for me. But also, I really like the weekly event of watching something. Maybe because I’m old-school. I like having to tune back in and watch something again. I think that, weirdly, the pairings of each of our two episodes sort of work really well together and we’re excited that people get to get to watch a little more than one, but also get to have something to hopefully look forward to.

Q: I’m really looking forward to finishing the show. It’s been great so far. I really appreciate you talking with me today. I wish you lots of luck and excited for season two, three, and wherever it goes to that last final scene.

Jen: That’s up to you, Abe!

Paul: Seventeen, who knows?

Jen: We’re going to go up against Sunny, trying to get that seventeen.

Q: You have Kaitlin, so that’s helpful.

Paul: Kaitlin only does seventeen seasons of a show. It’s in her contract.

Hacks debuts on HBO Max this Thurday, May 13th, with two new episodes every Thursday.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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