By Madeline Lane-McKinley
Days into her new job punching up stand-up material for legendary comedienne Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), 25 year-old comedy writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) feels taken for granted, if not hazed by her new employer. “You think this is hard?” Deborah asks her, “You don’t know what hard is.” They’re stranded in the desert, just outside Las Vegas, where Deborah has held a permanent residency with the Palmetto Casino for decades. In so many ways, this argument establishes the central conflict of HBO’s Hacks—a satirical, often incredibly poignant exploration of this ‘dark mentorship.’
“You have to be so much more than good,” Deborah tells Ava, “and even if you’re great and lucky, you still have to work really fucking hard! And even that is not enough. You have to scratch and claw, and it never fucking ends. And it doesn’t get better. It just gets harder.” While enacted by these characters and the transformations in their relationship, their conflict is never really between them—despite that being, perhaps too often, the premise of the show. Instead the conflict is always, more fundamentally, between the idea of comedy and the problem of work.
In Hacks, comedy and work are perpetually at odds, yet indistinguishable. Comedy is the work of not seeming to work—it promises escape from the working world which it also exemplifies. While her mother worries about her career prospects, and she spends her days messing around and getting high, Ava is also obsessed with comedy, and she soon becomes obsessed with Deborah. At one point, she’s asked what she does for a living. “I’m a writer,” she answers. Then she’s asked what she does for fun. She replies hesitantly: “Ummm… writing?”
When they meet, Deborah and Ava are both in crisis. Deborah has just been demoted to weekday shows at the Palmetto, and learned from the casino’s CEO Marty (Christopher McDonald)—who “keeps finding old souls in 26 year-old bodies”—that they’re looking for new acts to attract more families and college students. Ava recently tweeted what she perceives as a career-ending joke. “All I know is, you need to lay low for a while,” her manager Jimmy (Paul Downs) coaches her, just as a call from one of his highest-earning clients, Deborah, interrupts their meeting. While Deborah panics about Marty—the “dickless snake”—cutting her dates at the casino, Jimmy spins the conversation and suggests that Ava could help Deborah appeal to a younger audience. Both women are immediately hostile towards this pitch. “I write my own material. I do not need a writer, I need a man-a-ger,” Deborah protests. “No fucking way,” Ava tells him, “I’m not gonna go write knock-knock jokes about how men don’t put the toilet seat down, I’m not that desperate.” “Respectfully, as your manager,” he replies, “you are that desperate.”
Despite their generation gap, competing philosophies of humor, and conflicting politics, Deborah quickly recognizes that Ava, like her, exists for comedy. For both characters, if comedy is work, then it exceeds the logic of work—or at least it would seem. “You could never retire,” Ava later tells Deborah. “You’re gonna be up on that stage at 109. And I’m the same way, I can’t turn it off either. And nothing matters more, even if it should.” Living in this confusion is what’s most fascinating about Hacks. The dream to experience comedy as not-work, and even as a life against work, pervades throughout.
It takes work to make people believe, if only momentarily, that they are not always working. However consciously, comedy reflects desires for a world without work, in which the totality of human activities cannot be known without coercion under capitalism; but it also symptomatizes a shared sense of impossibility about such a world. Perhaps, as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously quipped, “there is laughter because there is nothing to laugh about”—or perhaps in the very hilarity of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique, there are echoes of what Anca Parvulescu discerns as a “laughter that can turn the laughter of the culture industry back on itself.” Hacks vacillates wildly between these possibilities, at times glorifying Deborah’s work ethic, or revealing the work ethic obscured by Ava’s ostensible laziness, and at others points scratching and clawing at the anti-work longings embedded in comedy. What does it mean to want to laugh at this world? Hacks sustains this as an open question.
Holding the Vegas record of 2,500 shows, and having written well over 30,000 jokes, Deborah epitomizes the comedienne, who is hardly imaginable outside her fierce work ethic. It is for this very reason that Hillary Clinton found powerful endorsements from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who chanted “Bitches Get Stuff Done!” on Saturday Night Live during her first presidential campaign in 2008; and that Sheryl Sandberg teamed up with legendary comedy writer Nell Scovell, the often overlooked co-author of the 2013 Bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Whether in the whimsical pseudo-history of The Talented Mrs. Maisel, the competing biopics and documentary series on Lucille Ball, or Fey and Poehler’s post-SNL workplace sit-coms 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, the comedienne is everywhere defined by her drive to go above and beyond, just to get a seat at the table (to borrow one of Sandberg and Scovell’s favorite metaphors), and break into the boys club.
In the history of the comedienne, this hard work is necessarily degraded. The comedienne must mask herself as lazy, crazy, ugly, stupid, or all of the above. For Moms Mabley, a master caricaturist and arguably the first Black comedienne, the demand for self-deprecation was far greater than for any of the white women often celebrated for breaking into stand-up comedy, namely Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. Much like Lucille Ball, Diller cultivated the schtick of a lazy housewife—fat and ugly (as she put it) to boot—but she also gained a reputation for rapid-fire, eventually putting her in The Guinness Book of World Records for the delivery of 12 punchlines a minute. No matter how many times she doled out zingers like “housework can’t kill you, but why take a chance?” her real persona, as a comedy work horse, was never disputable. Deborah’s closer analogue is certainly Rivers, who wasn’t a lazy housewife but a comedienne-diva, bustling and industrious, with plastic surgeries and luxury brands. However much Rivers’s status as a diva and fashion icon diverged from the comedienne template of her predecessors, her comedy was bound to the same, seemingly obligatory misogynist tropes and self-mockery. Rivers was an insult comic akin to Don Rickles, except she also (and most harshly) had to insult herself. For Deborah, who insists her insults are “observational humor,” making herself the butt of the joke is automatic—until Ava urges her to try a different approach.
With Ava’s influence, Deborah begins to experiment with her comedy towards the end of the first season, taking up Ava’s challenge to do more honest, self-reflective material. As their relationship develops, and complicates, Ava becomes fascinated with Deborah’s past experiences in the stand-up industry—the sexual harassment, double standards, and absurd chauvinism that is still very much alive in certain sectors, though there are now more comedy niches to inhabit than when Deborah began her career. And just as Ava gains a greater appreciation for what women have always endured in the world of comedy, Deborah starts to question her comedy work ethic.
A pivotal moment in the series comes during a trip to Sacramento, after Deborah tells Ava about the local club’s former manager, Ira, who’d grab the ass of any women who performed there. Ava becomes distraught. Deborah shirks, “Eh, what are you gonna do?” But then when she sees the club’s current MC, Drew, harassing a young woman coming off the stage, she thinks about it a little more. “A lot of people say she’s a ‘crazy woman,’ but I’d never say that, ‘cause I think the term crazy woman is redundant,” Drew tells the crowd, before welcoming Deborah to the stage as the “OG Female Comedian.” “I’m getting déjà vu,” she tells the crowd, before she decides to roast him. “Ooh, I think she’s got a crush on me,” he projects nervously from the back. “Oh, there aren’t enough roofies in the world,” she punches back, and then turns to the audience:
Let me tell you all what’s going on here. He’s pretending to flirt with me. So I have two options. I can, you know, shoot him down and not play along, but then I’m a bad sport, not funny and a cold bitch, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And if I do that, then it’s awkward, because it’ll be hard to win you back, right? Or I do play along, which, let’s face it, is easier, and I’m sexualizing myself on his terms—that guy wearing the pleather hoodie. So then my whole set becomes entirely about a stranger, who I find disgusting. You know how long you’re away, you come back and there’s always a Drew who’s gonna talk about your tits when you come out on stage.
She takes a beat. “I was going to try out some new stuff tonight. I didn’t want to be the butt of the joke. Because, quite frankly, I’m exhausted from beating everyone else to the punch.” But as she indeed makes her whole set about this disgusting stranger, she unravels a new kind of comedy in the process. “Who gives a fuck about the new material,” Ava says afterward, “You told the truth, it was amazing.”
In the second season of Hacks, Deborah and Ava go on the road, looking for a fresh start. There are points when they seem to find a better kind of comedy, together—and there are other points when they’re utterly stuck. Fueling this back and forth is the conflict between comedy and work which, if anything, gets murkier as the narrative unfolds. This is precisely the ambiguity of hacking. To hack describes, on the one hand, the comedienne work ethic they can’t seem to escape, and on the other hand, what it might take to destroy that work ethic, revealing it for the joke that it has always been. After weeks of performing what she calls “woe-is-me shit,” Deborah veers away from Ava’s suggestions for “raw and honest” storytelling, and goes off book about how her failed marriage didn’t mean anything in comparison to losing a chance at her dream of hosting a late-night talk show. “I need to balance it, I need to make more fun of myself,” she explains. “You shouldn’t be the punching bag,” Ava tells her, disapprovingly. But Deborah sees a different way forward: “I have to hold myself accountable. I need to take myself down… in a real way.” In the same way that comedy blurs into work, it also morphs into a practice of healing from work, and even imagining against it. But these tensions go unresolved—instead they linger, and change shape.
More than ever trying to delineate them, Hacks confuses boundaries between work and life, work and comedy, comedy and life. Deborah and Ava slip between different roles in each other’s lives; their most loving moments emerge from insults. While on tour, Deborah and Ava brainstorm a punchline, sitting at a hotel pool. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this,” Deborah blurts out. “Get your bathing suit,” she tells Ava, who doesn’t know how to swim. “You need to learn to float.” As Ava steps into the pool, it’s uncertain why she’s doing this—whether Deborah told her to get her swimsuit as a friend, boss, or mentor. But she does it all the same. “I don’t like it,” Ava groans as she walks toward Deborah, about 3 ½ feet deep in the pool. “Oh for Pete’s sake, come here, I’m gonna hold you up,” Deborah says, sort of gently. As Ava leans back, with Deborah supporting her body beneath the water, the fear on her face melts into a smile, followed by a laugh of relief. They stay there, still, for just a moment. Then Ava comes up with a new punchline. They laugh. They refine it, and it lands well. But as Deborah walks away to jot it down, Ava doesn’t want her to leave. “You got this,” Deborah tells her, as Ava realizes she’s floating on her own.
In the pool, comedy, work, and the possibilities of a comedy against work blend together, darkly and sweetly. “Rules on land don’t apply, you know?” as a woman explains to Ava, while they’re doing a gig on a lesbian cruise. “Right. That makes so much sense,” Ava says, “Water is different from land!” This kind of differentiation can’t be made between comedy and work, or between hacking and living; rather, we’re left immersed in the confusion, listening for what we can’t quite hear, but which we know we want anyway.
It’s not clear what the show is building towards—but most likely, it’s career success. In the meantime, at least, there’s hacking, and floating.
See: Theodore W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Dialectic of Enlightenment Philosophical Fragments,” ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr Jephcott, Edmund, 2002, 112; Anca Parvulescu, Laughter: Notes on a Passion, Short Circuits (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2010), 151.