‘Hacks’: Jean Smart Makes ’Em Laugh in Stand-Up Dramedy - Rolling Stone
May 12, 2021 3 mins, 4 secs
Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart in 'Hacks.'.

In the new HBO Max comedy series Hacks, Jean Smart plays comedy legend Deborah Vance, an aging celebrity who reluctantly hires young comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) to freshen up an act that hasn’t changed much since she was telling jokes about the space shuttle Challenger exploding.

On the one hand, Smart — continuing a glorious TV second act that’s included Fargo, Legion, Watchmen, and Mare of Easttown — is charismatic and utterly convincing as a performer of a certain age who has survived every obstacle put in her path, only to discover that she has nothing left other than the career itself.

Hacks is terrific in a lot of ways, but it’s also a reminder that writing fake comedy — fake stand-up comedy in particular — is one of the hardest things to do in the world of filmed entertainment.

(*) There are also occasions where real stand-up comedians are brought in to help improve the material of their fictional counterparts, as happened on the movie Punchline, where Tom Hanks and Sally Field played would-be comedy club stars.

Instead, they show us just enough of her in action — at her theater, during her regular stints on QVC, at the opening of a pizzeria that’s paying her an obscene amount of money for a ribbon-cutting ceremony — to create the plausible illusion of her forever stardom, then trade off that to drive the conflicts between her and Ava, and between her and the other people in her small social circle: love-starved daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in a clever bit of genetic casting), aloof business manager Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), and charming casino boss Marty (Christopher McDonald, in the kind of part he was born to play), whose threats to cancel Deborah’s residency inspires her and Ava’s shared agent Jimmy (Downs) to pair them in the first place.

There’s not an exact real-life analogue for Deborah(*), though it’s easy to look at her as a WASPy, slightly younger Joan Rivers — one episode even deepfakes Jean Smart into a late-night talk show pilot Deborah filmed in her Seventies heyday — and the series is keenly aware of what she would have gone through to both attain and hang onto the degree of fame she has when the show begins.

There’s a great installment where Deborah introduces Ava to an old friend from the comedy club circuit, Francine (played by Anna Maria Horsford, who was on Amen at the same time Smart was on Designing Women).

Ava has built her whole persona around what she thinks of as confrontational truth-telling — she tells a disgusted Jimmy that her professional strife is “punishment for getting fingered at my Uncle Rocco’s wake” — while she thinks of Deborah as a dinosaur who has always played it safe?

(*) Art vaguely imitating life: While Einbinder wasn’t born into Hollywood royalty on the level of Deborah Vance, her mother is original SNL cast member Laraine Newman. .

Smart is, as usual, fantastic — at once larger than life and acutely human, and also able to deliver Deborah’s insults with verve, like when she says of watching Ava brainstorm jokes, “Wow, it’s like watching Picasso sing.” Einbinder, a relative newcomer, doesn’t have her co-star’s polish or control over her own instrument, but she doesn’t need it.

“Deobrah Vance, comedy superstar” is in many ways a facade the real Deborah has built, and you have to pay close attention to spot the moments when she drops it and lets her own personality come out.

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