‘Hacks’ Creators’ Biggest Challenge: Writing Deliberately ‘Stale’ Jokes for Jean Smart’s Aging Stand-Up

TheWrap magazine: “It could use a refresher, like she’s a little bit going through the motions,” co-creator Jen Statsky says of Deborah Vance’s material

This story about “Hacks” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Like all good stories about comedians, “Hacks,” the HBO Max series that stars Jean Smart as a fading Las Vegas comic, began on the road.

“We were actually on a road trip many years ago,” Jen Statsky, who co-created “Hacks” with Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello, said. “Paul was shooting his ‘The Characters’ special for Netflix, and Lucia and I were there to help out. And we just started talking about female comedians and women in the arts in general — women of a certain age who hadn’t really gotten their due, while their male counterparts had a seemingly much easier path and got recognition. We were talking about these iconic women who nevertheless kept pounding the pavement, got knocked down 1,000 times and got back up 1,001 times. And we just became fascinated with telling that story.”

Downs said that they based Smart’s fiery and imperious Deborah Vance on a multitude of the women they were talking about.

“She’s an amalgamation of a lot of people,” said the writer, producer and actor, who also stars in the show as the manager of Deborah and her writer-assistant Ava (Hannah Einbinder). “She started as a stage act with her then-partner, kind of like a Nichols and May. So there’s Elaine May in there. She had a famous sitcom and then a very public divorce, not unlike Lucille Ball. We also threw in Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers and Elayne Boosler and Rita Rudner and Paula Poundstone. And obviously Jean also brought a lot of herself to the role, so it really became something very distinct.”

The hardest part of the show, Statsky added, was to write Vance’s stand-up material. “We really wanted to get it right and make it feel real and authentic, which is a challenge,” she said. “She’s a very successful comedian who’s had a longtime residency. She’s obviously good and knows how to tell a joke, but the material is getting stale — it could use a refresher, like she’s a little bit going through the motions. So it was a very small target for us to hit.”

Read more from the Down to the Wire issue here.

The cast of 'Ted Lasso' on the cover of TheWrap's Emmy magazine
The cast of ‘Ted Lasso’ on the cover of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine


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