When a larger-than-life comedy diva finds her career in jeopardy, she’s forced to partner with an entitled 20-something writer. Their bond becomes a dark and complex mentorship, navigating generations and class.
Hacks stars Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder.
It's no surprise that this freshman comedy series has received 15 Emmy nominations. Creators Jen Statsky, Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello have crafted a well-rounded, nuanced, and character-driven series that doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of show business for female comics.
I had the distinct pleasure of speaking one-on-one with Hacks creator and showrunner Jen Statsky about the exploration of the characters of the show, her traditional and non-traditional journey to becoming a TV writer, and what she hopes for the future of television content.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Watching this first season was like peeling a raw onion layered with emotions and character development and the way your writing team handled sensitive subject matters about society, cancel culture and social media, women's rights, etcetera, was so well done. It was like a warm embrace with a wink at the audience and more so at us creatives, ‘we know what you're going through.’ Going off that notion, getting together with Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello to create the show, what was the spark? Was it navigating a legendary comics career that's fading or how easily Hollywood casts aside female comics or all the above?
Jen Statsky: It was kind of a little combo of the first couple. I mean, truthfully, it came from us talking about just women of a certain generation, women like Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Elaine May, Debbie Reynolds, and really talking about how women like that and just the arts in general, were not a welcoming place for them. They had such a difficult path. Especially for Lucia and I, as women, we do appreciate it, but you don't necessarily even know the full scope of what these women had to go through to blaze this path that allows us to do what we do today. And so, it was really a desire to explore that story, and a character study of that type of woman and just kind of dive into that.
Then also as you see with the Ava character, bringing in a generational perspective that has a viewpoint that is like a descendant of what this woman did for her. She’s only able to have this viewpoint and the career she has because of what women like the woman she's working for did. But also, she doesn't fully appreciate it because as you see with Deborah's story with burning down her husband's house and it becoming this joke and it not even being true, like we were really interested in all these stories that society got wrong about the woman that kind were of, like you said, cast aside and we just write them off as like, “Oh, that's a joke.” Britney Spears, we make fun of her and Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston and Paris Hilton. And all these women, if they're not exactly fitting in this perfect box, then they're a joke. Or they're crazy. And that's how we dispose of them. If you put them all in a blender, that's the origin of the idea.
Sadie: You have this wonderful parallel between Deborah and Ava and that tenderness between them, where they’re teaching each other from very different perspectives. What was the casting process was, like, especially filling Ava's role?
Jen: It was really a challenging role to cast because you know, we got Jean Smart to sign on which was this like, incredible, it opens up the world of the show so much. She's so incredibly gifted both comedically and dramatically. And then you're like, “Oh, OK, who's the 25-year-old who’s going to play opposite that?” [laughs] We'd seen over 400 tapes of women auditioning. And we were really lucky, we got some incredible people to come in and read. But we kept feeling like there was just something we wanted, someone who felt in their bones funny. Like, someone who was a comedian at heart, but also could like Jean, play the more emotionally grounded dramatic moments. And we just kept feeling like, it wasn't quite there. And then with Hannah, I invited her to audition. There was something immediately special about her. You could tell she was so funny, but she also was just like projecting 25-year-old confidence, but so clearly right underneath that was like vulnerability and insecurity, “Oh, no, I'm scared of the world. And this is an act I'm projecting.” And so we were just so taken by that the second we saw her and then once you do a chemistry read, which in our case was you know, during this time we're living in, was them 15-feet apart with masks and Plexiglas between them, but that being said, once Jean and Hannah started reading with each other, we were like, “OK, this is it.” We always said the show lives or dies by the chemistry between these two characters, and so it had to be there and luckily, it was.
Sadie: Great casting through and through. I'm also curious, how did you guys keep yourself from writing early on in an episode with Deborah giving a nice firm backhand to Ava?
Jen: [laughs] It's so funny, the reaction has been interesting because we always wanted her to have a place to go. We wanted to start her at a place where she has quite a bit to learn about herself and about Deborah. And she needs to start letting in the perspective of thinking of other people in a certain way. And so, it's funny because I think a lot of people get frustrated with Ava as they start this series, but it's intentional.
Sadie: She definitely grows on you. When you were setting up the writer's room for this show, what were you looking for in a writer to bring to the table?
Jen: We were certainly looking for very diverse voices with perspectives different from our own. The three of us are lucky in that we've been making comedy together in some form or another and working together and being friends for almost 10-11 years now. Even though we have different backgrounds, we have a similar way of thinking and comedic voice. And so, we really wanted, especially having a cast that's so diverse, we wanted to bring in different perspectives and different people that way. And it really didn't matter – we read across the gamut of script samples - it didn't matter. We read some that were super hard comedies and some that were more dramatic. We didn't say like, “Oh, the script has to feel like our show,” we just were looking for writing that excited us and made us take notice and I want to meet the person who wrote the script, even though it's more drama. Across the board, there wasn't one thing we were looking for.
Sadie: Yeah, having a voice that stands out. Were you doing a hybrid writers room?
Jen: We were doing a hybrid in the sense that the three of us were together through the depths of the pandemic, just the three of us and then my husband, who doesn't work on the show, but is dragged in against his will. [laughs] And so we were always together, but our room was on Zoom, which was in a lot of ways cool. It allowed us to have writers in New York or Ojai, places that they probably would have had to pick up their whole lives and move across the country, which happens all the time in the before times, and people are happy to do it. But I'm sure it was nice for those writers to be like, ‘Oh, I don't have to leave my home and go live in some weird Airbnb for four months.’ But it was challenging. I long to get back to the days of just in-person writer's rooms.
Sadie: Do you think that the pandemic has set the tone for these hybrid rooms? Do you think that's going to be the future going forward to get more voices from all over?
Jen: Yeah, I do think that's a huge advantage. You get voices from all over, especially even from casting. I think for Zoom rooms, I think everyone feels differently about it. I've talked to some writers who absolutely despise it. [laughs] And then I talk to some showrunners who kind of like it. And so, I think maybe going forward, there'll be more of an option if you want to do it that way. But I think across the board, there's a thing that happens when people are in person and there's a certain chemistry of a writers room that I do think is altered by not having to be in person, so I hope going forward we can go back to it just being like it used to be for many reasons. I think it makes for better writing and also, that will mean the world is in a better place.
Sadie: Taking a step back I'm curious about just your writing journey to now showrunning your own show.
Jen: It's been both hard and I've been incredibly lucky. And I'm very aware of that. In my senior year of college, I interned at a bunch of places. I interned on Saturday Night Live and Conan. And then I interned at the Onion when they were doing web videos. And then shortly after they were doing web videos, they got offers to make some TV shows, one for Comedy Central one for IFC. And then I was asked to be the personal assistant to the EPs on that, from my time interning. And then really nicely, my boss knew I wanted to be a writer, and so when the second show started, she was like, “Do you want to go be the writer’s assistant for that?” Which was very cool of her.
I had kind of both a traditional path and a non-traditional path. Traditional in the sense that I was an assistant. And so that route of intern to assistant to getting the job. But I also had a non-traditional path in that at the same time, part of how I got noticed was that Twitter was more of a place where people were just writing jokes, and it didn't feel as scary as it does today. [laughs] And so, the head writer at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon started following me and he liked the jokes I was writing there. And he messaged me and said, “Do you want to submit a packet?” Unbeknownst to him, I had already submitted many a packet. But I didn't get hired off of for that show. [laughs] But now that I sort of was in his sight because of that. The things I learned as an assistant and being a writer’s assistant is like the hardest job in Hollywood. And you learn a lot that way. And you build a tough skin.
Sadie: Was showrunning something that you knew you wanted to do?
Jen: I was never like, “Oh, I need to have my own show. That's the goal.” Because I think one of the scariest things in the world is to have your own show that you don't love or want to be making because that's a really difficult, challenging job. And so, if there's no joy with the idea, I would feel in trouble. And so yeah, I never was like, I want to write my own shows, I just want to write on things that I love. That was kind of my North Star. I was really, really lucky, in that I got hired on Parks and Rec, which was my favorite half-hour at the time. And then as I wrote in that room and became very close friends with the people there, I was like, “Oh, right, I want to work on things I love with people I love.” And so, Broad City was the same thing. It was just like getting to write and work on a show that I love with people who are my best friends. And it was so lovely. And so, the showrunning aspect, I think it's almost saying like, I want to get married, but who are you marrying? It's not about just the concept of getting married, it's about the person. And for me, showrunning, it's about the idea. And secondary, it's about who you're doing it with. This idea for Hacks was just something that we all loved. And it stayed in our brains for years and years. And we kept coming back to it. And I get to do it with, Paul and Lucia, two of my best friends and my favorite collaborators. It was the idea and the people are the things that have to draw you to it. I don't think you can want the job just to want the job. Maybe some people do and that's also completely fine. It's just not how I think of it.
Sadie: I think it definitely shows on screen if someone's excited by what they're doing. Last question for you, what do you hope the future of television looks like? Mainly, in a writers room and conversely, the kind of roles available for female comics, them leading the writer's room or being the star of the show?
Jen: I hope the future of TV both what's on-screen and off-screen, is just more and more places for people whose stories and voices haven't been heard for a long, long time on television. For a really long time, there were just three networks, and there are three comedies on every network. And if you don't have one of those, you don't have a TV show. And so now that we have so many places for shows to exist and so many limitless numbers of shows that can be on those places, I think it allows all these voices and ways to represent people who haven't been represented before to be on screen and I hope that continues because that's such a positive trend and what we need more of.
Sadie: Absolutely! Well, Jen, thanks so much for your time. Love the show. I hope whatever do next at Universal, it's something that you're happy and excited about.
Jen: [laughs] Thanks!
Sadie: And looking forward to many more seasons of Hacks!
Jen: Thanks so much.
Season one of Hacks is now available to stream on HBO Max.