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How HBO Max's 'Hacks' makes those hilariously relatable TV moments

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The show "Hacks" is an intergenerational comedy about two comedians. Deborah Vance, played by Jean Smart, is a trailblazer in a rut. Ava Daniels, played by Hannah Einbinder, is hired to help the older woman freshen up her jokes. The first season of "Hacks" won three Emmys, and Season 2 finds the women on a tour bus, workshopping a new standup set all over the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")

HANNAH EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) Could I maybe take out one of your creams from the fridge just to store something temporarily?

JEAN SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Absolutely not.

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) OK. Sorry. I was just looking for a spot for my kombucha.

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Kombucha doesn't need to be refrigerated. It's made in a bathtub.

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) Well, actually, if it's not kept cold, it'll keep fermenting in the bottle, and it can explode.

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Oh, God, fine. Here. Give it to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS SHATTERING)

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Oh. You're right. It did explode.

SHAPIRO: One of the creators of "Hacks," Jen Statsky, told me the writing team had a term for the dynamic between Deborah and Ava - dark mentorship.

JEN STATSKY: So it isn't as pure as just one person or the other person always inspiring the other. There - it gets - they hurt each other in many ways. It wouldn't be realistic if they were just two perfect people, you know? And so that was very much in the DNA of the show as well.

SHAPIRO: Deborah clearly believes that women of her generation could never have made it in the entertainment industry dominated by men unless they were as tough as she is. Do you think that's actually true in real life?

STATSKY: As far as Deborah and women who came up during Deborah's time, yeah, I do think she needed to be, you know, twice as tough and twice as undeniable to get half as far. I just think that the rules were very, very different for women like her. And they're - you weren't allowed, you know, to show vulnerability the way other comedians were, which is, in fact - means that Deborah and women like her were doing comedy with such a handicap because vulnerability is such an important part of being a comedian.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) I wasn't a great mother. I missed my daughter's first steps. But I made it up to her. I was the reason she did 12 more.

STATSKY: And what makes comedians interesting, I think - you know, in the show, we see that Deborah's material really starts to click the more vulnerable and honest she is.

SHAPIRO: So this season puts Deborah on tour, and she's trying to perfect a new standup set after having played the same old jokes in Vegas for decades. And there is this scene where she and Ava are sitting at a bar, and they have a conversation where Ava tells Deborah to trust the process.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) That's a good philosophy, you know? Like, every game, win or lose - it's just part of it. You're on the path to something bigger, so the individual setbacks don't get you down.

SHAPIRO: And I think that every commencement speech includes a version of this advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) Trust the process.

SHAPIRO: But when you've got something to lose, it's a whole lot scarier.

STATSKY: Yeah, for sure. I mean, Deborah, in that moment, is particularly scared exactly because of what you're saying - is that she hasn't really had something this high-stakes in a long, long time. She's reached a level of success that a lot of comedians reach where she could kind of just coast. She could just find a way to do the same old material and do these, you know, big shows that bring in a lot of money. But she wouldn't be leveling up to a new creative stratosphere for her. But in doing - in trying to do that, it's really scary. It's really hard.

And I do think that, you know, one of the things we set out to do in Season 2 was kind of do as faithful as we could a depiction of what the creative process is like and how difficult it is. And, you know, a lot of it is sitting in a room with people, just going, what about this? And you follow down a path for hours and hours. And then you're like, well, that was absolutely nothing. OK.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. In so many ways, this show feels like a love letter to a generation of women comedians who maybe weren't celebrated in their heyday as much as they should have been. And some of those women are no longer with us, but others are. Have you heard from them? Have they talked to you about this show?

STATSKY: Yeah. One of the greatest things about the show is that we have heard from these female comedians and artists who are, you know, massive, massive influences to us - you know, people like Rosie O'Donnell or Wanda Sykes or, you know, Susie Essman. We wanted to make the show for women like that. We wanted to honor women who have been doing what they do so well for so long and maybe haven't been celebrated or certainly haven't been celebrated as much as they should. And then we were very touched by the idea of how many women coming up in comedy or the arts, because it was such an unwelcoming place for them, didn't get to tell their story, didn't keep going because the path was so difficult and made so much harder for them. So...

SHAPIRO: Which is also part of the story that you tell in this season as well when Deborah Vance runs into somebody who was coming up the same time as her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Wait. Wait. Why would you retire after that?

HARRIET SANSOM HARRIS: (As Susan Essig) Well, I just found out that I was pregnant, and I saw the sacrifices you were making to have your daughter on the road. And I just had this vision of the kind of person I have to be in order to make it.

STATSKY: We very much so wanted to highlight that - women who had to make a difficult choice, whose stories we didn't get to hear.

SHAPIRO: Out Magazine put six LGBTQ members of your cast on the cover and called "Hacks" one of the queerest shows on television. The foundation of the story does not hinge on a premise that is necessarily queer. So was the show's queerness part of your original concept? How did that become so integral to the story that you're telling?

STATSKY: It wasn't something we set out to say, oh, and this will be a queer show. It wasn't designed like that. What it really was was wanting to depict this character, Deborah Vance, and her ecosystem very honestly. And I think for someone like Deborah in history, women like that have become such important figures in the queer community. And we just felt that she would naturally be surrounded by characters who happened to be queer. For our show, you know, the idea was just to always depict the world as we see it and as we wanted to be, and our world is full of wonderful queer people who are living their lives. And so that was kind of just the intention behind that.

SHAPIRO: I know creating the show is a team effort, and it has many people's fingerprints on it. Is there a moment this season that you particularly are especially proud of, something that is your baby, that you point to and you just feel joy?

STATSKY: You know, it really is such a collaborative process.

SHAPIRO: I know. I know. I know.

STATSKY: (Laughter) There's a - Laurie Metcalf has a line in Episode 3 about...

SHAPIRO: She's so great. She plays the the tour manager who goes by the name Weed.

STATSKY: Weed, yeah. Weed - exactly. She's incredible. But she talks about going to Burger King for the burgers, McDonald's for the fries and Wendy's for the Frosty.

SHAPIRO: For the shake. Yeah.

STATSKY: Yeah, as one complete meal. And I do feel like that is, like, the perfect fast food meal - that combination.

SHAPIRO: That's you. That is your gift to this season.

STATSKY: Yeah, that's my gift. That's my high-art gift to "Hacks" Season 2.

SHAPIRO: Well, we are grateful for your contributions to comedy and to fast food. Jen Statsky, Emmy-winning creator of "Hacks," thank you so much.

STATSKY: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Season 2 is out now on HBO Max.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE STRANGE BOYS SONG, "BE BRAVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.