The showrunners of Hacks find a tone all their own

June 20, 2022 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this free excerpt from our article interviewing showrunner Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs & Jen Statsky about Hacks from Backstory Magazine’s issue 47 – now available to read! This is not the full article – so, if you enjoy what you’ve read in this free excerpt – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by by subscribing to Backstory Magazine so you can read the rest of the piece and so much more!


Emmy Contenders

Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky on Hacks‘ sophomore season that somehow outdoes its Emmy-winning predecessor.

By Danny Munso

A series having three showrunners may seem unconventional on the surface, but once you understand the tight dynamic between the trio of minds behind Hacks — Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky — it makes perfect sense. They conceived the show over seven years ago, though their relationship goes back twice that. Aniello and Statsky met in 2007 as part of a sketch group, and Aniello and Downs started working together around the same time. They have since all worked together on Comedy Central’s Broad City, Downs’ 2016 Netflix sketch special and Aniello’s feature directorial debut, 2017’s Rough Night. Then there’s the matter of Aniello and Downs being married, an event the former announced to the world as she accepted one of Hacks’ three Emmys in 2021. And Statsky even officiated the ceremony. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the three preside over one of the best series on television.

The HBO Max series — which follows the friendship between aging stand-up legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), the young comedy writer she is forced to hire — is both bitingly funny and unafraid to boldly wear its heart on its sleeve. It’s this unique tone that separates the brilliant writing on Hacks from its contemporaries. It’s at one time a comedy that explores deeply dramatic moments and a drama that doesn’t shy away from funny, something like a classic James L. Brooks film told in 30-minute increments. And finding that singular tone is ever present on the writers’ minds. “We think about it constantly,” Downs says. “We really always try and make sure it’s consistent. In setting out to make a show that’s about two comedians, we knew we were able to do really hard, funny jokes. These people tell jokes for a living and do it constantly to each other, but we also have these amazing actors who can play the really grounded, emotional moments. For us, the things we like to watch are moving. I think comedy is moving. It’s such a unique human experience to laugh, and I feel the same way when your heartstrings are pulled or you get teary about something. We are always making sure it’s never too broad in terms of it being funny and never too sad or overemotional. We want it to feel like real life. We try and keep the target small and make sure we’re hitting it.”

The showrunners are also frank that their tone comes from more than the just the writing. “It does have a lot to do with the execution,” Downs says. “Sometimes when I watch other shows, I’ll think that’s a really funny thing that seems kooky but it could have also been handled in a way that feels really grounded. So I do think part of our tone has to do with execution of some things more so than the writing.” A lot of this comes from the fact that all three writers are always present on set and that Aniello and Downs split the directing duties on every episode this season with the exception of the finale. (That episode was helmed by TV vet Trent O’Donnell, only because it fell during Aniello’s due date.) Because of this, they can calibrate everything exactly to the desired tone. “There are things I could point to where I was worried before we got to set, but it is very much in the execution of the way Paul and Lucia are directing it and the way Jean, Hannah and our entire cast are playing it,” Statsky says. “I think it allows us to take these bigger swings and know it’s still going to feel like Hacks because it’s executed by people who are all honed on this small target.” That extends beyond the set as well. “I know we’re talking about the writing process here, but the edit really is a draft of the show in and of itself,” Downs says. “All three of us are not only there through the writing process and then on set together. We’re all in the edit together, and we watch every single take — in particular, if a delivery is too sad or too funny. We are really exacting about the takes we choose, and luckily we have really, really good actors.”

It’s difficult to describe how the Hacks writing process goes at the beginning of a season because in truth it never really ends. The co-creators are always sharing ideas with one another via long email threads. “It can be a line or a scene or even a piece of clothing we think should be included,” Aniello says. “We have this backlog of stuff that we bring into every season, so we’re not really starting from a blank slate.” At the conclusion of the season, the trio invites a small group of writers and consultants to a two-week “blue sky” session to talk about what comes next. “We do it right after the show airs, just because it’s really fresh in our minds,” Downs notes. “We’ll talk about big-picture ideas on where the series could go. Then we go away for a while and let those seeds germinate.” The three creators then usually begin writing scripts on their own even before convening the season’s official writers’ room. When season two’s room opened, they had already completed the first three scripts of the eight-episode season. “We try and move pretty quick when making the show because there’s something about the momentum of every year,” Aniello says. “Between all of us, we write a lot of them and direct most of them between Paul and I, so it’s helpful to get scripts and productions going so everything can be ready. We like to have everything moving at once.” That proactivity came in handy for season two, which features a number of big locations. While the show’s first season mostly took place in Las Vegas, the adopted hometown of Smart’s Deborah Vance during her longtime comedy residency, season two has her and Ava taking a possible stand-up special on the road to test it out. They end up at places like the Grand Canyon and—most ambitiously — a massive cruise ship in the middle of the ocean. “Getting ahead allows us to write things that are way more ambitious,” Statsky says. “Like us trying to shoot on a cruise ship during COVID, which proved to be an incredible production challenge. So knowing all those things ahead of time helps on the production side of things.”

The remarkable balance in Hacks is best showcased in the closing scene from season two’s second episode, “Quid Pro Quo.” As viewers know, the first season ended with the revelation that Ava sent a drunken email to some producers, venting about how horrible a boss Deborah is and listing all her flaws. The email comes to light in this episode, and rather than Deborah read it herself, she forces Ava to read it aloud over dinner in a restaurant. It’s a devastating scene that still manages to convey some humor as Ava reads off the points in her angry assessment, such as Deborah getting mad at her over an asthma attack. “That scene is unique because in some of those funnier ones, we actually had way more,” Aniello recalls. “We gave her maybe eight or so to read, and then we were able to feel it, [like] how many of those funnier complaints do you want to sit through before you get into the meat and potatoes of the scene? So we cut those down in the edit. They were all very funny as delivered, but it’s always about how we can balance the tone. I think if it went on for so long, it would feel like a tonnage of comedy and then maybe that pivot to the more dramatic is harder to make.” Downs is quick to credit the two leads for the execution of that scene as well. “Jean and Hannah are so great,” he says. “I thought Hannah did a really smart thing with the scene. She said, ‘I wrote this when I was drunk and took some Xanax and almost didn’t remember sending it. So I’m going to try and read it off my phone like it’s the first time.’ I think that’s why it feels like she really is reading this email because she partly is. And then Jean does so much with so little dialogue. She’s really captivating in that scene.”

L-R: Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs

Though the email served as a major cliffhanger for the first season, the writers debated when its contents should be revealed, eventually deciding that getting it out of the way early would best serve the characters. “We did talk about it a lot because we do want it to have real impact and not just be like, It’s done,” Downs says. Statsky notes that if they chose to reveal it later in the season, it wouldn’t be possible for the characters’ relationship to evolve in the beautiful way it did over the course of the remaining six episodes. “The show is about their relationship and we wanted that to go through the ups and downs because of that moment,” she says. “So it just allows us to have another inflection point in their relationship and keep it progressing and deepen and change. I think the longer you held that tension, you’d be in a state of not allowing their relationship to grow, and that’s not what we’re trying to do with the show.” The writers also wisely use that email in multiple ways throughout the season. First, Deborah sues Ava for breaching her NDA, mostly as a bit and to teach her a lesson. Its contents also come back in a more crucial moment in the season’s sixth episode, “The Click,” when Deborah finally hones in on her new act and finds a way to bring it all together. Ava’s words in that email help her realize she can actually be a bully and she needs to take ownership of that fact and mine it for comedy in her act. “We thought it could reverberate through the season,” Downs adds. “We wanted it to have real impact and payoff throughout the season and not just be done by episode two.”

Though Deborah and Ava form the core of the show, Hacks has amassed a deep bench of supporting players, all of whom are given more screentime and chances to shine in season two, especially Deborah’s CEO, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), who is struggling in the wake of a breakup, and the fan-favorite duo of Deborah and Ava’s manager, Jimmy (played by Downs himself), and his hapless assistant, Kayla (Megan Stalter). Truthfully, Jimmy and Kayla are worthy of a spinoff, with their scenes often being the comedic antidote to some of the show’s heavier moments. When you have a plethora of vital characters in a series, it can be challenging to give them screentime, especially when their own stories could possibly take away from the two leads. But in season two, the writers give these characters stories that directly tie into Deborah’s own, making them feel seamless in the fabric of the show. Jimmy himself goes on a journey this season, where he ends up quitting his agency because they aren’t taking Deborah’s needs seriously enough. The deliciously inappropriate Kayla goes with him in the hope of becoming a manager herself. “It’s something we’re working on constantly because we do have to make sure those scenes have relevance to Deborah and Ava’s story,” Aniello says. “Jimmy’s experience has a full-on collision with the storyline of Deborah’s special. But then we have those scenes in episode five when Jimmy and Kayla have a Saturday workday by themselves. I don’t think the two of them striking out on their own would have worked if we hadn’t had that realer moment between them. For us, we’re trying to do things that may seem disparate but in the end make everything work fluidly.”

When the showrunners pitched Hacks to various networks, they did so knowing their preferred end for the series—and season two’s bittersweet wrap was not it. Though Deborah’s special becomes a hit, she also fires Ava, believing she is doing it for Ava’s own good. Rather than be stuck in Deborah’s shadow, Ava is now free to pursue her own writing and put her own career first. However, there was a brief period when it seemed, despite the writers’ plans, that the episode would indeed be Hacks’ final one. Thankfully just a day after the writers spoke to Backstory, the show was officially renewed for a third season, ensuring that Deborah and Ava’s story will continue, as will some of the most profound and heartfelt writing on television.

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