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The Jokes of ‘Hacks’: How the Creators Wrote ‘Character-First’ Comedy for Their Two Comedians

"Hacks" creators Jen Statsky, Paul W. Downs, and Lucia Aniello discuss the teamwork involved in building a hit comedy in a pandemic.

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The video above was produced by IndieWire’s Creative Producer Leonardo Adrian Garcia.

On paper, “Hacks” must have seemed like a slam dunk. Take three funny people, add one under-appreciated TV legend, mix vigorously, and apply as needed. But anyone familiar with the turbulent whims of the entertainment industry knows there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

And yet, under the careful watch of creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky — and featuring the talents of the unimpeachable Jean Smart (as Deborah Vance), plus a talented slate of comedic upstarts (including Emmy-nominated co-lead Hannah Einbinder, as Ava Daniels) — HBO Max’s breakout hit proved to be a singular delight, its May premiere date making it a late-breaking gem in a pandemic-stricken year of TV.

“Broad City” alumni all, Aniello, Downs, and Statsky discovered the germ of the idea that would become “Hacks” while road-tripping to a monster truck rally in Portland, Maine, and if you hope to have a better TV show origin story, you’re out of luck. Statsky and Aniello accompanied Downs to the event, where he was filming a sketch for the comedy showcase series “The Characters,” and while en route the trio discussed the unsung women who paved the way in comedy.

While the sketch features a bewigged Downs leading monster truck fans in a chant of “big trucks!” it turns out that’s not, actually, the strangest thing he’s done in the name of comedy.

“I had a bit where I was a blind person on a Segway,” Downs said during a recent interview with IndieWire’s TV podcast “Millions of Screens,” alongside Aniello and Statsky. “And so I used to have to go back and forth from the theater to the apartment of a person who I rented the Segway from and it was always a strange experience. I was asked to do pornography by that person at one point.”

Downs declined the offer, opting instead to stay the course in comedy, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But “Hacks” doesn’t go in for monster truck rallies or porn. Instead, the series excavates the comedy of, well, comedy, putting itself in the unenviable position of having to workshop jokes about workshopping jokes. It’s one thing to attempt to accurately depict the entertainment industry, but the show goes one step further with its focus on stand-up comedy, translating a world where experts are more than willing to heckle.

Hacks HBO Max Jean Smart comedy

Jean Smart in “Hacks”

Jake Giles Netter / HBO Max

“I think we feel good about the way it’s been received by friends of ours and colleagues who are comedy writers who feel like it’s an accurate portrayal,” Statsky said of the reception the show has received amongst peers. “It’s an interesting thing, because it seems like there’s maybe preconceived notions from people about how comedians talk or [conduct] the workshopping.”

“We try to be really selective about showing it because, honestly, if you put a camera on the three of us working, I think it would be fun, but it’s not that fun,” she said. “There is maybe a perception that [Deborah and Ava] should be so funny all the time because they’re comedians so every single thing as their workshopping should be hilarious. I can tell you from experience, that’s not how it works.”

“Jen says, ‘You know, I can tell you from experience there’s a lot of tears,'” Downs said.

Those scenes spent workshopping jokes — most notably in the pilot episode when Deborah chases down Ava to pitch alternative punchlines — are no easy nut to crack, with the (Zoom) writers room pitching lines and often the climax of the workshopped joke popping up somewhere in the middle of the process.

“You’re like, actually, that’s the best one. Let’s save that ’til last and let’s work backwards to kind of give it the iterative steps it needs to get to that place,” Downs said.  “But it is a real Rubik’s cube of figuring out the progression of a joke. It’s complicated.”

That’s also not where the joke-writing complications end for the “Hacks” scribes.

“We’re not necessarily always saying this is the best joke ever. We’re often saying, ‘This is the kind of joke this person would make based on where they’re at in their lives or in their path with comedy or whatever,” Aniello said. “It’s not like we’re necessarily saying like, ‘Oh, my God, the asides Ava does are just the funniest things in the world.’ We’re like, ‘Well, they are funny, because that’s how she would do her jokes.'”

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Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart in “Hacks”

Anne Marie Fox / HBO Max

“We’re not saying that is the apex of comedy. That’s her point of view. That’s how she would talk,” Aniello said. “To us, it’s more important sometimes for the jokes to be more accurate to character than necessarily saying to the world, ‘Move over Seinfeld!’ The jokes are a reflection of these people. And to us, it’s character first.”

All the workshopping, all the character-building, all the tears seem to have paid off in a big way for the trio who received the ultimate stamp of industry approval on Emmy nomination morning when “Hacks” nabbed 15 overall nominations, celebrating the series across the board.

“It’s really hard to even wrap your brain around it, honestly, because there’s so many people that were recognized for their hard work and we saw up close how talented everyone is and how hard they work, especially during COVID,” Aniello, who was Emmy-nominated for her pilot direction in addition to nominations alongside Statsky and Downs for Comedy Series and Writing, said. “We all pushed ourselves and each other to try to make this feel like something that you would have no idea was done during a pandemic.

“It’s easier for me to wrap my head around [individual nominations], like for Kathleen Felix-Hager who did our costume design, for example,” she said. “It’s easier to wrap your head around how you feel about it for other people than for ourselves.”

“Hacks” Season 1 is available to stream on HBO Max. Season 2 has already been ordered.

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