Did you hear the one about the fading stand-up legend who needed a snarky twenty-something to boost her career?
As Sin City’s bawdy Deborah Vance, Jean Smart is en route to a painful punchline. “She has gotten complacent,” Smart says. “Maybe her material is a little dusty.” So when the owner (Christopher McDonald) of the casino where Deborah performs in residence threatens to cut her dates, the star’s manager (Paul W. Downs, also a co-creator) introduces her to desperate-for-work comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who’s been blackballed from the industry after tweeting a racy joke about a closeted U.S. senator.
A collaboration may benefit them both, but the women resent each other from the outset. “Ava is an uncompromising person who has recently been forced to compromise [by taking this job],” Einbinder says. And prideful Deborah bristles at working on her act with someone else. After all, she’s been writing her own material for four decades!
Cue what Einbinder calls the “Friars Club zingers” between the two. On Ava’s way out of Deborah’s opulent home after their first meeting goes south, Ava quips, “So cool that they let you move into a Cheesecake Factory.” Deborah fires back: “Oh, is that where you wait tables? Seems like a better fit.” Their ensuing salvo contains words we can’t print, but those insults — some of them ad-libbed — are “the most fun part of the show!” says Smart. “I might feel bad if Hannah and I didn’t get along so well.”
Despite the hostility, Smart says, a “strange friendship” develops as the two navigate the industry, their worlds intertwined (Ava even accompanies Deborah to a plastic surgeon). But the veteran remains the alpha dog, reminding Ava, “We don’t work together. You work for me.”
The role is a childhood dream realized for Smart, a Phyllis Diller fan who once dressed as the icon for a costume party. “I was the family ham,” recalls Smart, who is also starring on the HBO drama Mare of Easttown. “You look at pictures of our childhood, who’s making a goofy face? That was me!” So when the actress stepped onstage to perform Deborah’s set, she felt a rush. “One of the most satisfying things about doing comedy is you make people laugh,” says Smart. Come May 13, when Hacks debuts, she can expect roars from living rooms everywhere.
Hacks, Series Premiere, Thursday, May 13, HBO Max