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HBO's 'Hacks' Unites Two Struggling Comedians

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Hacks," which is about to premiere on HBO Max, is a series about two great talents thrown together out of bad luck. Deborah Vance is a comedy legend who's headlined 2,500 shows on the Las Vegas Strip, but she comes home to an empty mansion and makes dinner for her corgis. The casino owner wants to cut back her nights so he can book Pentatonix. Ava Daniels is a 25-year-old comedy writer who keeps losing jobs, the latest over a tweet. And her agent grabs at the last possible thin straw. Maybe she can write jokes for Deborah Vance. When the women meet...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")

HANNAH EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) Yeah, my life is pretty much ruined.

JEAN SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Oh, your life is ruined. Please. That sounds like a Tuesday for me. Besides, you're just a writer. No one cares.

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) Well, actually, people really do care.

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) So what was it, this joke that supposedly ruined your life? I've got to hear it.

SIMON: Jean Smart is the comic of a certain age. Hannah Einbinder is the young comedy writer. Jen Statsky is one of the creators of the series, best known for her work on "Parks And Recreation," "Broad City" and "The Good Place." Thank you so much for being with us.

JEN STATSKY: Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: What's the challenge of writing lines for two distinct comic voices and not getting them confused?

STATSKY: Yeah, it's interesting. When you're writing characters who are comedians or comedy writers, you inherently have raised the bar for yourself in a challenging way because these are characters who are expected to be funny. They come from different places, and they have very different perspectives on the world. And so that kind of informed, always, the joke-writing for each of these characters.

SIMON: I found Ava's dismissal does raise a question we look at these days because many comedians and culture commentators, for that matter, will tell us, oh, comedy has got to be dangerous. Comedy has to be daring. There's no safe space; it's comedy. But people, in fact, have lost gigs and contracts over tweets and even old tweets. Is that...

STATSKY: Yeah.

SIMON: Is that true anymore?

STATSKY: It's a really interesting debate. I think - our show was never setting out to make any kind of statement about, quote, unquote, "cancel culture." But I think a lot of the times when you look at that type of thing, you really need to look at, well, who were these jokes targeting? And so often, the things that have gotten people in trouble are jokes or comments that are targeting groups that have been traditionally marginalized. And so people - I think they rush to hide behind this idea of, oh, comedy, you should be allowed to say anything. But I don't know. I think as a human being, I don't know that you should be allowed to say anything when it's a hurtful or hateful statement towards a certain group.

SIMON: Got to tell you, both the actors are terrific. Jean Smart is amazing.

STATSKY: Jean is - I mean, we truly are still pinching ourselves. I still feel as shocked as I did the day she signed on. What I love so much about the show and her performance in the show is that we're showing just how gifted she is comedically and dramatically, which is what makes her so incredibly special.

SIMON: Let's chance to have another clip, where I think we see both the comic and dramatic art of Jean Smart.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) You barely give me the time of day. I never know where you want me to be or when. You don't give me any feedback. You're making it really hard.

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Hard? You don't know what hard is. You got plucked off the internet at - what? - 20? You just got lucky.

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) I may have been lucky, but I'm also good.

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Well, I should hope so. Good is the minimum. It's the baseline. And even if you're great and lucky, you still have to work really [expletive] hard. And even that is not enough. You have to scratch and claw, and it never [expletive] ends.

STATSKY: Powerhouse (laughter).

SIMON: And it stops you cold. And it makes you realize it's one thing to be daring when you're 25. It's another when you're 70.

STATSKY: Yeah. I mean, it's been such a privilege to write for a character that's a woman of this age. I think there's this great societal lie that women get less interesting as they age, and that's wrong. In fact, I think women get so much more interesting as they get older. And so it's just been really a career highlight for me.

SIMON: Is humor sometimes getting divided up into demographic silos these days, like so much of popular culture? And is this show trying to be something else?

STATSKY: I mean, I think we're finding just in general with, like, this boom in streaming TV and podcasts and everything is - I don't know if it's siloed. It's just that there's kind of something for everyone. It used to be that if you had a TV comedy on the air, you had one of six comedies on the air, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

STATSKY: There were six to 10, and that was it. And that's an incredibly small sample size of what people's taste and interests in the comedy world are. And so I think what's really wonderful now is, you know, you can have such a wide variety of comedy styles and stories. And so I don't know if it's siloed. I think we're just in a very lucky time where there's kind of this wonderful buffet.

SIMON: Can I share with you, because I respect your talents and achievements so much, the one concern I have about that?

STATSKY: Sure. Of course.

SIMON: I think sometimes we lose common points of reference.

STATSKY: Yes. Something that's so wonderful about TV and the thing that drew me to TV as, like, a lonely kid outside of Boston was it helped me feel connected to people because I felt I was taking in something that other people were taking in. And so you are right that we are sacrificing a bit - a collective viewing experience by having so many options and therefore it being impossible for people to all take in the same thing. But that being said, I do think things break through, right? I think there's still shows that people find their way to, and then you're like, oh, wow, millions of people are watching this.

SIMON: Jen Statsky is one of the co-creators of "Hacks," just about to begin a run on HBO Max. Thank you so much for being with us.

STATSKY: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.