Going on a road trip with a legendary comedian who usually lives in a gaudy, palatial mansion in Las Vegas is exactly as ridiculous as one would expect. Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) has a custom-built tour bus with her own suite, big enough to comfortably fit a king-sized bed. Meanwhile, her writing assistant and mentee, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), gets a cramped bunk bed, competing for space with Deborah’s LED tanning bed. At a rest stop, Deborah spends $12.95 on a reusable cup because “it offsets my private jet.” She takes many detours, like a pit stop to check out a yard sale, because of course she can’t resist buying more kitsch.
Those antics provide some of the many belly laughs in the new season of HBO Max’s “Hacks,” which once again pulls off the trick of leaving you in stitches one minute and being devastating and poignant the next. The Emmy-winning first season, which premiered last spring, brilliantly skewered the idiosyncrasies of show business and made trenchant observations about sexism and ageism in entertainment.
At the outset of “Hacks,” Deborah has a comfortable gig on the Vegas strip, telling the same tired jokes to tourists, night after night, decade after decade. Her act often involves making herself the punchline, a product of internalized misogyny from decades of being a woman trying to make it in a boys’ club. Ava, an up-and-coming comedy writer who was fired from a TV show after sending a spicy tweet, is tasked with freshening up Deborah’s show. The two initially view each other with skepticism, but eventually a mutual respect forms. Ava encourages Deborah to be her real self, and to talk candidly about how she weathered decades of discrimination and sexual harassment. In Deborah (and in casting the legendary Smart), “Hacks” evokes the countless women in the public eye who’ve been underappreciated, misunderstood and unfairly made the butt of the joke.
Season Two continues those themes and picks up with Deborah and Ava going on tour to workshop Deborah’s new, more honest material. Taking the show’s characters on the road presented a lot of fun scenarios, as co-creators and showrunners Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs and Jen Statsky explained in an interview ahead of the season premiere Thursday.
“Season One, Deborah’s kind of in her castle in Vegas. She’s in this very insulated palace she’s built. So then the fun as we were writing and coming up with all this stuff for Season Two, it’s like, ‘Oh, we get to get Deborah Vance out of her comfort zone.’ This very wealthy, comfortable person has to go to a state fair, on a cruise. She’s going to a mall, going to Lord & Taylor. The ‘fish out of water’ aspect was very fun,” Statsky said. “I think it’s just fun to see Deborah Vance in all of these ‘normal’ places that you or I spend our time in. You’re like, ‘Deborah Vance at the mall?! This is bizarre.’”
Another difference from the first season is that the writing can now be tailored to the show’s wonderful ensemble, most of whom hadn’t been cast when the trio wrote Season One. That’s according to Downs, who plays Deborah and Ava’s long-suffering manager Jimmy (who continues to find himself in various comically terrible situations in Season Two).
The new season features expanded storylines for the show’s secondary characters, like Deborah’s CEO Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and assistant Damien (Mark Indelicato), and Jimmy’s inept and inappropriate assistant Kayla (Meg Stalter). It also spotlights a killer lineup of guest stars, including Laurie Metcalf as Deborah’s extremely punctual tour manager, Ming-Na Wen as Jimmy’s rival, Martha Kelly as Jimmy’s HR rep, and comedy legend Margaret Cho as herself.
Still, the core of “Hacks” remains the creative partnership between Deborah and Ava, which deepens as they hone Deborah’s new material.
“What Deborah needs to do, to get the show to a place that it needs to be, is to do a lot of soul-searching, and become a bit more self-aware, and that’s something that Ava really pushes her to do. The only way out is through, I think, this season, and that’s really hard for Deborah and her ego,” Aniello said. “She’s so used to being in Vegas, where her walls are up, and she gets to enjoy her comforts. Now she has to go back on the road and set that ego aside.”
One of the many elements that puts “Hacks” in a class of its own is the show’s density of jokes. Even as you’re laughing at a witty line, you might blink and miss something else funny in the scene, like a bit of physical comedy or a visual gag. As Aniello explained, throughout each step of building the show, she, Statsky and Downs are always looking for more layers of comedy they can add.
“Sometimes it’s in the initial pitch. Sometimes, as somebody’s writing a draft, there’s another layer to it. And then when it gets to the table read, there’s another added thing that somebody throws in and gets put into the script,” Aniello said. “And then we’re on set, [and] there’s another little moment that happens.”
For example, Metcalf’s character, known for some reason as Weed (“I know what you’re thinking, but I don’t touch the stuff,” she says), buys a bowling ball for 50 cents at a yard sale in the season’s third episode. “As she swings that bowling ball around, she’s like, ‘Huh, huh.’ She’s loving it. We were like, ‘That’s so funny,’” Aniello remembers. “We hadn’t shot the next scene yet — which, thank God. We actually wrote that bowling ball into the rest of the episode.”
“We said, ‘Laurie, just go and do some business,’” Downs said. “She found an object, and created a moment, and had a story.”
The show’s attention to detail helps give the showrunners more ways to squeeze the maximum amount of comedy out of any given scene.
“We’re just always trying to, whether it’s even in production design or costumes or a prop, any time we can add another layer to it, we always do,” Aniello said. “That’s part of why we are very exacting in the prep part of it, because you never know when you’re going to get one more layer of comedy, or, honestly, a moment that says something about a character, from their hat, or their purse, or the prop they pick up, or the kind of car they drive. All of these things add up to a person. For us, we’re always looking to try to say something with any little moment we can on screen.”
There’s a lot of brilliance in the show’s comic juxtapositions. For example, in an episode later in the season, Ava starts choking on the tour bus. But Deborah ignores Ava’s emergency, because she’s experiencing her own crisis of discovering her favorite perfume has been discontinued. In Thursday’s season premiere, Ava has two very serious phone conversations... while bumping into objects in Deborah’s Christmas room, which contains a wall-to-wall collection of Christmas tchotchkes (inspired by Downs’ grandmother’s decorations).
“We’re eventually, one day, going to have to do Deborah’s Christmas party, because you know it’s all out,” Downs joked.
Throughout our interview, the trio riffed on new ideas, like when Downs mentioned they wished they’d been able to put Deborah in a grocery store — since she surely hasn’t done her own shopping in decades, and she’d have no idea how much anything costs. Statsky and Aniello then joked that Season Three could be “the grocery store season,” which they quickly escalated into an even better idea: Deborah Vance on “Supermarket Sweep.”
Later, I point out they already have two potential ideas for Season Three: a Christmas party episode and the “Supermarket Sweep” outing.
“I would watch both of those,” Statsky said. “Two episodes are done.”
Season Two of “Hacks” premieres Thursday on HBO Max, with two new episodes airing each week.