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‘Hacks’ co-creators on their Emmy-winning comedy show

Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello discuss their Max series about stand-up starring Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder

Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart
Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart from a scene in season 3 of Max’s comedy series, “Hacks” Photograph by Jake Giles Netter/Max

While Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky were on a car ride from Boston to Portland, Maine, to shoot a segment for Downs’ Netflix special, they began talking about the legacy of female comedians, or the lack thereof.

“We started talking about female comedians that we loved and how they didn’t have the same respect their male counterparts had, and also about how people in our generation sometimes didn’t even understand the role they played in comedy history,” Downs told WPR’s “BETA.” “And we thought that might be an interesting show.”

That was the spark that led to the Emmy Award-winning Max original comedy series, “Hacks,” created by the three of them.

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“Hacks” stars Jean Smart as the glamourous, seasoned Vegas comedy icon, Deborah Vance, and Hannah Einbinder as a perky upstart comedy writer, Ava Daniels. When both of them hit bumps in their respective career roads, their mutual manager, Jimmy (played by Downs), recommends they team up.

“(The show is) about the ways that these two women from very different generations are so different, yet they’re so similar, and what that kind of relationship does to them — how it changes them for the better, for the worse,” Aniello says.

That generational and sometimes sexual and political dichotomy (plus the amazing chemistry between Smart and Einbinder) is the not-so-secret sauce of “Hacks.” The show leans into it as often as it can, wasting no time reuniting the stars (who had parted ways at the end of Season 2) at the beginning of Season 3.

“We talked about it because we wanted their separation to feel like it was something we actually experienced and to see their lives separately,” Downs said. “But also, you know, the DNA of the show is about the grist and the creative love affair that they have. So, we did decide it was best to get them back together sooner than later.”

When asked who they enjoy writing for more, Downs and Aniello — who are married — share a laugh and say it depends on the scene.

“I think when it comes to the fabulousness of Deborah, that’s so fun to write,” Aniello said. “To imagine what somebody with all that money would do on a daily basis. But I think when it comes to a lot of social issues, I do think we both, and Jen (Statsky) as well, we all tend to be more Ava’s.”

To us, both the funniest things in life and also the saddest things are the truest things.

Paul W. Downs

While there’s episodic fun to be had with the clashing of cultures between Ava and Deborah, the team behind “Hacks” creates some touching and dramatic season arcs. The two women bond over the shared pressures and frustrations of misogyny in the stand-up scene and find empathetic and emotional connection in their respective family/personal dramas.

“So, while we try and be funny first, we are also always talking about the tone. We never want it to feel too dramatic or melodramatic, and we never want it to feel too broad in terms of its comedy,” Downs said. “We really want it to feel true to life, because to us, both the funniest things in life and also the saddest things are the truest things.”

“And that gets worked on from the initial conversations to the script, to the shooting, to the edit. Like, it’s constantly, constantly chiseled like a statue,” Aniello said.

Aniello is pulling double duty as a director for the bulk of the series. Based primarily in Las Vegas, Aniello admits she and the show take inspiration from the way other directors like Steven Soderbergh have captured Sin City.

“I think (Soderbergh’s) ability to change his visual language based on the story is my ultimate inspiration,” Aniello said. “’Ocean’s Eleven’ with all the Vegas-ness of it and the fantastic beauty of Vegas was a big inspiration.”

“Along with our cinematographer, Adam Bricker, we watched ‘Carol.’ You know, ‘Carol’ had some color palettes in particular that we use as inspiration and reference as we shoot. I love Sofia Coppola’s work,” she continued. “So, there’s a lot of inspiration in general — whether it’s cinematography or music or lighting or costumes — that we pull from a lot of different places.”

Downs too is wearing multiple hats on the production. He stars as the loyal manager, Jimmy LuSaque Jr., to Ava and Deborah. His relationship with his trust-fund receptionist, Kayla, played by fellow comedian Meg Stalter, leads to some of the series’ best laughs.

“We wrote the part sort of with (Stalter) in mind, and she did have to audition for it and was absolutely it. So, I think it really flourished once we got on set and it just sort of worked,” Downs said. “We just have a natural, classic ‘Odd Couple’ dynamic. She does something that makes Jimmy absolutely exasperated and yet they do have an underlying care for each other.”

“They’re linked in the in a similar way that Deborah and Ava are linked — that there is this tension that is for us very comedic,” Downs added.

As the critically acclaimed and award-winning show enters its third season, the cameo guest list is growing. With stars like Helen Hunt, Christina Hendricks and Christopher Lloyd lined up to star, Downs and Aniello talk about how much they love writing for people they admire.

“What it comes down to is, honestly, we love making actors look good. We think you’re so funny. Just go and do your thing and we write towards it,” Aniello said. “We like to think of it as a playground for actors to just kind of go wild and show why they’re so good. And I think that more than anything is maybe the thing that’s most appealing.”

“(Aniello) and I both come from performing,” added Downs. “We met doing improv and sketch comedy. And so, I think we like to write scenes that actors will want to play, and we like to write for the voices of performers. We love actors. Getting to feature people in ways maybe they haven’t been in the past is really exciting for us. It’s one of the most gratifying parts.”

“We got to have Christopher Lloyd in the show and we did also write the part for Christopher Lloyd. And he said yes, which was like, for us, is such a huge dream come true,” Downs said. “He is iconic and he was bringing that energy to set.”

“Really, this season is chock full of goodness,” Aniello said.

Season 3 of “Hacks” is streaming now on Max.

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