Joking Aside, the ‘Hacks’ Showrunners Explain That Final Twist

This interview includes spoilers for the season finale of “Hacks.”

“Hacks,” the Max comedy about a famous (and somewhat infamous) Boomer comedian and her nervy Gen Z writer, has always stayed on the sunny side of realism. But in the penultimate episode of Season 3, the show moved into pure fantasy: A major network gave its late-night show to a woman, Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance.

If that was the culminating event of the season, the finale, titled “Bulletproof,” landed a few more punchlines. After offering Hannah Einbinder’s Ava the head writer slot, Deborah, acting out of fear, walked that offer back. “I cannot give them any excuse,” she said of her network bosses. “This show has to be bulletproof. It has to work. I’ve lost way too much for it not to.”

“And you’re OK with losing me, too?” Ava asks.

Ava doesn’t stay lost for long. She wriggles back into the writers’ room by blackmailing Deborah over her brief liaison with Tony Goldwyn’s head of network. Which should make for great comedy in the show’s fourth season, announced earlier this week. Because in the world of “Hacks,” hurt people hurt people, and then they write a killer routine about it. “Hacks” insists you can only crack jokes if the world has cracked you first.

So can a person with decent values and good boundaries still be funny?

“We do our best,” Lucia Aniello, one of the showrunners said during a recent video call.

Aniello was joined in the Zoom window by Paul W. Downs, her husband and a fellow showrunner. (They announced their marriage while collecting an Emmy in 2021 for best directing in a comedy series.) Downs also stars as Jimmy, Ava and Deborah’s put-upon manager. In another window was Jen Statsky, the third showrunner. Aniello and Statsky met in a sketch comedy group in 2009; Downs and Aniello met at an improv class that same year. Which is to say that their passion for comedy, with or without trauma, runs long and deep.

In an hourlong conversation, they discussed ambition, addiction and whether the anything-for-a-laugh ethos is worth it. (Short answer: Yes.) These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Season 2 left Deborah and Ava in a good place. Deborah had shot a successful special; Ava was making her own way. But now, at the end Season 3, their relationship is a disaster once again. You couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?

LUCIA ANIELLO Where’s the fun in that? We like to have the audience feel the rug is pulled out from under them. That also forces us to push the characters and their relationship further.

But why wasn’t that enough for them? Why can’t they enjoy their success?

PAUL W. DOWNS For Deborah, it’s really lonely and unsettling when you have that level of success and you don’t have your closest collaborator to share it with. And as much as Ava is finally doing what she says she wants to do, there is something to the meaning she found in collaborating with Deborah and the chemistry. She misses that creative collaboration.

JEN STATSKY It speaks to the truth of this industry, which is that when you start out, you’re like, oh, if I could just get this job, that’s the dream. That would be the pinnacle. But as you work, you start to realize that these career benchmarks, they’re amazing and they’re important, but they do feel hollow without people to share them. Ava is realizing that once you start to succeed, those things don’t satisfy you wholly. You need more. You need to share it with someone else.

But Ava has someone else. When the season begins, she’s in a relationship with a hot actress, every writer’s dream.

DOWNS Her hot actress girlfriend is incredibly charming and incredibly attractive and an incredibly good partner, but she’s not necessarily funny. A lot of people do comedy because they feel a sense of purpose behind it. Having that purpose and sharing it with someone like Deborah makes that relationship unique.

Earlier in the season, Deborah’s daughter, DJ, compares comedy to addiction. Is getting laughs addictive?

ANIELLO Definitely. For some people, it is the most important thing. They don’t care whether they’re getting laughs at an arena or at an open mic in the middle of the day at a coffee shop.

If comedy is addictive, is there rehab?

STATSKY You have that forever. I don’t think it goes away. I think it’s something innate in you. With Deborah, no matter what crazy levels of fame and success she gets, it still bothers her if someone doesn’t laugh at her joke.

DOWNS For them, comedy is an art form. And like most artists, that’s the thing that lights them up. They’re choosing what is their passion.

Much of the season revolves around Deborah’s quest to land a late show. Why is it so important to her?

STATSKY When she was a kid, her family used to sit around and watch Carson and laugh together. That was a brief respite from a difficult home life. Comedy can be a survival method; I know it was for me. Deborah has this memory of it being the one thing that bonded her family. She wants to be the Carson for our time, and she goes after it more than she’s ever gone after anything in her life.

And she gets it! A woman becomes the host of a major network’s flagship late-night talk show, which has never happened in the real world. Did you worry that no one would believe that twist?

DOWNS There is wish fulfillment in that for sure.

ANIELLO We spent so much of the season jumping through all the different hoops of how hard it is. So we’re not separating it too much from the real world. We also show the way that somebody like Deborah would scratch, claw, beg, borrow, steal to get the job. We hope that we earned it.

Does late night still matter? Do they only give it to a woman once it is irrelevant?

ANIELLO We are going to explore that.

STATSKY We have been talking about the glass cliff and women being given an opportunity only when that opportunity is set up for failure.

Why can’t Deborah give the head writer job to Ava?

ANIELLO There was internal struggle with her heart and her head. She does want Ava to be her head writer because she knows that they make the best work together. But her head says, I’ve done this before and if there’s any excuse, they’re just going to look to the fact that I have a woman as my head writer and say, this is a bridge too far.

STATSKY Deborah is someone who is a product of 50 years in a business that was really brutal to her. It’s impossible to forget those lessons she’s learned.

What does Ava sacrifice when she blackmails her way into the job?

DOWNS She sacrifices her moral compass.

STATSKY She’s doing it to make the show better. And she knows for Deborah to really listen to her, she has to speak Deborah’s language and go toe to toe with her. She has to be a formidable opponent.

I’ve seen all three seasons. Ava and Deborah keep breaking up and making up. How many times can you rinse, repeat?

DOWNS Five? I don’t know if there’s a number. You can’t continue to do it in the same way. You try and shift the dynamics to keep it fun for the actors, keep it fun for all of us. But we’re constantly trying to one-up ourselves and make it better and more surprising. What that means for the next step? I don’t know, or maybe I do, but I can’t say.

ANIELLO We did originally pitch the show with the ending in mind. So we have an idea of how many times you can flip that card.

So it’s meant to be five seasons?

DOWNS That’s what we hope.

Are Deborah and Ava good for each other?

DOWNS Yes, they are.

Says their manager.

DOWNS But I really think that they are. They really crack each other open.

STATSKY There are people in your life that make your life harder but better. Without each other, their lives would be perhaps easier, but not as rich and not as good. Sometimes it’s really hard, but it’s ultimately better.

Is comedy good for them?

ANIELLO It’s all they are, really. It’s what they want the most.

STATSKY It’s healing to both of them. With all their past difficulties and trauma that they’ve been through, laughing with each other is ultimately a very healing experience.

How much pressure do you feel to make Deborah’s jokes good?

ANIELLO We put a lot of pressure on ourselves.

DOWNS It was crazy to pitch a show where we’re going to do this character study, but also we’re going to write a lot of good standup jokes. It was a tall task.

STATSKY We all love comedy. We feel really lucky to make a comedy. It’s grounded. It’s real. But first and foremost, we’re trying to make people laugh.

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