One of legendary comedian Deborah Vance’s most famous jokes is about how she burned down her ex-husband Frank’s house after he cheated on her with her younger sister.
Except the premise of the joke never happened, as Jean Smart’s character eventually reveals to her writing assistant Ava (Hannah Einbinder) in Episode 6 of HBO Max’s “Hacks.” As Deborah explains: “It was a fucking dryer fire.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Ava asks.
“Well, I did say something to everyone back then. But Frank blamed me, and they all believed him, you know?” Deborah says. “He was jealous. He hated that I was gonna have a late night show, so he just blew everything up. He made me the crazy woman who burned down the house.”
After they divorced, Deborah had to completely start over, performing in small comedy clubs to save enough money to take care of her young daughter. So, one night, she tried the joke about burning down her ex-husband’s house.
“It killed. I’d hit a vein,” she says. Besides, at least she got to make money off of the whole ordeal.
But she also did it because of something far simpler — and sadder.
“I realized that people would rather laugh at me than believe me.”
“Hacks,” which wraps up its brilliant first season on Thursday, contains many smart and sharp barbs at sexism and ageism in show business, and the absurdity of celebrity culture. But it’s this scene that shifts the show from a great comedy to something even more profound. It’s the perfect companion to our larger cultural moment as we start to reckon with how much our culture has mistreated and misunderstood famous women.
Deborah’s character shares a lot of similarities with the late Joan Rivers, but brings to mind other women who have been wronged, disbelieved and subjected to sexist media coverage. The last few years have brought public reevaluations — in writing, documentaries, TV shows and podcasts — of the ways our culture unfairly maligned everyone from Monica Lewinsky and Britney Spears, to Janet Jackson and Princess Diana, among countless other famous women.
It’s this mirror to real life that makes “Hacks” surprisingly cathartic.
Deborah and Ava’s relationship is initially prickly, marred by their generational differences and mutual skepticism. Deborah performs a nightly stage show for tourists in Las Vegas, capitalizing on their desire for simple nostalgia. Ava is an up-and-coming comedy writer who was fired from her job on a TV show after an edgy tweet. The two share an agent who gives Ava the new gig helping Deborah freshen up her show.
Understandably, the two women are wary of one another. Ava sees the job of ghost-writing for a washed-up comedian as beneath her. She wonders why Deborah continues to tell the same jokes night after night, many of which haven’t aged well and reflect some level of internalized misogyny. Deborah gives Ava ridiculous tasks, like tending to her antique collection, and at one point, strands her in the desert when their car breaks down. Deeply jaded from enduring decades of sexism and ageism in the entertainment industry, Deborah resents that a young person who doesn’t appreciate her work has been assigned to help her.
When Deborah tasks Ava with digitizing all of her old material, Ava starts to learn how much of a pioneer her new boss was. Deborah and Frank collaborated on comedy specials and starred together in a popular sitcom. She filmed a pilot for what would have been the first late night talk show with a woman host — still a rarity even today. Through watching hours of old clips, Ava discovers that Deborah was quite progressive for her time. But her most trenchant jokes didn’t land because they weren’t what audiences wanted to hear. And since her career was tied to Frank’s, his toxicity brought it all crashing down. So, she went with humor for the lowest common denominator in order to survive and rebuild.
Deborah’s rare moment of candor leaves Ava equal parts awestruck and outraged.
“You have to talk about this in your act — all of it,” she tells Deborah in Episode 6. “People don’t know half the shit that you’ve done.”
That’s another way Deborah is like some of the many real-life maligned women: She begins to take control of her own narrative.
Today, Britney Spears is trying to rid herself of her father’s conservatorship. Monica Lewinsky has channeled her experience into writing and advocacy work, and even manages to find some humor in it. And, after being disbelieved and humiliated by men who made her the object of sexist jokes, Anita Hill has become one of the foremost scholars on workplace sexual harassment.
For Deborah, once she reveals the truth about that famous joke to Ava, she warms to the idea of telling the truth more. In subsequent episodes of “Hacks,” she and Ava start developing an entirely new routine based on this “unfunny confessional stuff,” as she describes it. In a cathartic scene in Episode 8, Deborah calls out a sexist comedy club emcee and offers him $1.69 million to shut up and never set foot on a comedy stage again. Earlier in the episode, she had told Ava about another comedy club owner from her past who was a serial sexual abuser.
But at first, Deborah dismisses Ava’s idea about telling the truth because after decades of being dismissed, why would people want to hear it now? Why would they even care?
“No one wants to hear me complain about the past. Also, I told you, nobody believed me,” she says. “Sad. It’s all just sad. Is that why you want me to talk about it, because people think it’s highbrow now to tell sad stories?”
But Ava gives her a reason that’s far simpler — and more hopeful than just appealing to new audiences.
“I think you should say it because it’s the truth,” Ava says. “And it might just be nice to finally fucking say it out loud.”