Is This Season of ‘Hacks’ Trolling Jerry Seinfeld?


So many movies and television series have shown us the misery of a stand-up comic bombing and the joy of a comedian killing. But skirting cliché, the entertaining third season of “Hacks,” which just concluded, dramatizes a more novel and pointed onstage moment: the crisis of success.

Coming off a triumphant special, the comic Deborah Vance (played with charm and compassion by Jean Smart) is trying out new jokes and is rattled to find her audience laughing at everything, no matter how funny.

Like most comics, she spent her career developing material by gauging the response of the crowd but must confront a problem familiar to superstar stand-ups. Her new fan base has disrupted that artistic process. Smart plays this realization with nuance, never dropping her performative charisma, but gradually showing surprise, and then panic at the idea that she can no longer trust her audience. This reveals the character’s sensitivity while making a contrarian case against the idea that laughter is a purely honest response.

No comic has expressed faith in the crowd as often or with as much conviction as Jerry Seinfeld. He has said that his fame might buy him a few minutes of good will from an audience, but that after that, he must be funny to get a laugh. After seeing him perform many times on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this always struck me as hard to believe. Maybe if he went onstage and read “The Great Gatsby,” as Andy Kaufman used to do, he might bomb at the Beacon Theater, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Besides being one of the most successful stand-ups alive, Seinfeld is also one of its most prolific talking heads, weighing in on the art in interviews and documentaries. Comedy, to him, is the ultimate meritocracy, perhaps second to (as he has said) the N.F.L.

“Hacks” (on Max) is as obsessed as Seinfeld is with the craft and politics of comedy, and it was especially obvious this past season when its episodes coincided with his epic and relentlessly news-making promotional tour for the Netflix movie “Unfrosted.” At times, the series and the star’s media appearances felt as if they were in conversation with each other, with Seinfeld philosophizing about comedy and “Hacks” providing dissents.

At 72, Deborah Vance is only two years older than Jerry Seinfeld and they share a prickly personality, an inexhaustible work ethic, a love of craft and a generally apolitical perspective. But these aging legends are also a study in contrasts, starting with the fact that one is fictional, and the other a real person who happens to have made a tremendously popular fictional version of himself. Whereas Seinfeld is a model of stubborn veteran consistency, Vance listens and learns from younger critics and repeatedly evolves. Consequently, for a certain class of comedy nerds, “Hacks” can come off as a young person’s fantasy of an aging comic.

In a recent interview with Bari Weiss in which Seinfeld raised eyebrows for his nostalgia for an era of “dominant masculinity,” he described the rules of comedy as mercifully “immutable.” “Hacks” is built around the idea that comedy, like the world it reflects, is in flux. Its central relationship embodies this, focusing on the differences between the old-school showbiz of a Vegas entertainer like Vance and her more progressive young writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder).

Last season, Ava inspired Vance to take her work in a vulnerable direction, and this year Vance appears more open to social and political change. Seinfeld famously said he no longer played colleges but had been told by other comedians that students were too sensitive, and recently in an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker, he oddly blamed “the extreme left and P.C. crap” for the decrease in hit network sitcoms like “Cheers” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Vance is equally irritated with the so-called woke younger generation, and there are moments when the show satirizes them. But mostly her arc is one of being challenged by and growing from new ideas.

Vance walks out on a card game of older comics whose respect she has long wanted, calling them “out of touch” after they make retrograde jokes about gender. The next day, she yells at Ava for getting in her head and making her care about more than money and the approval of her peers.

This clash sets up another one in Season 3’s penultimate episode when a video of Vance’s cheap, stereotype-driven older jokes goes viral right before she is to be honored at U.C. Berkeley. Ava encourages her to apologize, arguing that no one really gets canceled. This gives voice to an increasingly popular (and occasionally overstated) perspective that there is no such thing as cancel culture, that comics called out never suffer real repercussions and, if anything, that their careers benefit.

To be fair, Seinfeld himself has expressed skepticism about fearmongering over cancel culture. When Weiss asked him about a new censoriousness, he shook his head, adding that it’s “not a real thing.” And like Vance, he has adjusted his material to suit the time, although his observational humor rarely required dramatic change. When he repeated a set from 1982 on one of David Letterman’s last late-night shows in 2015, he trimmed a fat joke, telling the host that the topic was more taboo now.

But it’s hard to imagine Seinfeld doing what Vance did. Not only does she appear on a college campus to answer for the offensive jokes, but she also apologizes and invites feedback. Would a comic her age really listen and take her lumps at a public forum? The comedian apology is a much mocked form, one that tends to get picked apart and invite much criticism. This is sort of the fairy tale version where not only does she not center herself, but her actions result in a New Yorker profile that celebrates her. And then this dust-up leads a television network to give her a talk-show host job. I imagine Hasan Minhaj got a grim laugh from this plotline.

The typical cancel culture narrative involves hysterical outrage and an artist in anger and despair. But this one is a model of measured criticism and reasonable accountability. If it strains credibility, it goes down easier because of the complexity of the performance from Smart, who always refuses to make the sentimental choice. What she makes clear is that while Vance evolves, it’s usually when it also benefits her professionally. She might be apologizing because she feels regret, or because she badly wants to get the late-night job. Smart’s portrait allows for both motivations at once.

In the superb season finale, we are reminded that what hasn’t changed is that Vance’s first priority is her career. She has the kind of dogged ruthlessness that a woman emerging in the sexist comedy scene of the 1970s and ’80s would need.

The challenge for aging comedians is how to give their fans what they want while changing with the times. That’s harder than it looks. And in some of the best scenes of the season, when Deborah and Ava get stuck in the woods, she explains that one reason to get plastic surgery is to make her body match how she thinks of herself. “I don’t feel my age,” she says. “Then I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself.”

There’s a poignancy in this confession, but also a hardheaded aspect. A performer must change but not too much. Or as Vance puts it when Ava says she redoes her face a lot: “I don’t redo. I refresh.”



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