How HBO Max’s hot new comedy took down the toxic man in ‘every single stand-up club’
The following contains spoilers from Episode 8 of “Hacks” on HBO Max.
#MeToo has rid Hollywood of many sexual predators and empowered women in the entertainment industry to speak out against assault and harassment of all kinds. But what about the women of earlier eras who managed to persist — and perhaps even thrive — in a toxic environment? Were they resilient survivors, complicit enablers or a little bit of both?
That’s the question at the core of “1.69 Million,” the eighth episode of the HBO Max series “Hacks.” The comedy, created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky, explores the generational divide between two female comedians who have much to learn from each other: Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a Las Vegas legend whose shtick has grown stale, and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a down-on-her-luck 25-year-old comedy writer hired to help freshen the act.
They don’t just have contrasting opinions about what’s funny. As becomes clear in “1.69 Million,” they also seem to disagree about the abuse and disrespect women in their industry have been forced to tolerate.
In the episode, the pair head to Sacramento so Deborah can try out new material at a comedy club, where they run into Francine (Anna Maria Horsford), a friend from Deborah’s early stand-up days. They share war stories about Ira, the club’s recently deceased owner and an infamous sexual predator. (“I am convinced he and Cosby had the same pharmacist,” says Deborah.)
The veteran actress stretches in opposite extremes for two HBO projects, the comedy ‘Hacks’ and the dramatic murder mystery ‘Mare of Easttown.’
Ava later pushes Deborah on the subject, suggesting that Deborah could have fought back against Ira once she’d become rich and famous. Angry at the accusation she was “a ladder-puller,” Deborah lets loose: “Just by getting up on that stage, I gave other women more than I ever had. Forget the ladder, I built a marble f—cking staircase. It’s not my job to carry other people up it.”
But the exchange clearly gets under Deborah’s skin, as does a degrading interaction she witnesses between a young female comedian and Drew Higgins (Adam Ray), the Joe Rogan wannabe who is hosting the night and clearly resents Deborah for being more famous than he is.
So when Deborah finally takes the stage — after Drew cracks a lame joke about her breasts and says he won’t call her a crazy woman because “the term is redundant” — she confronts Drew, offering him $1.69 million never to perform comedy again. (No podcasts, either.) They shake hands on the deal as audience members record the destined-to-go-viral moment on their phones.
The episode, written by Pat Regan and directed by Downs, represents the culmination of many themes that have been percolating all season long. The Times talked to the show’s creators about “1.69 Million,” the ideas they hoped to explore in the episode and the real-life incidents that inspired it. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
This episode really dives into the generational gap between Ava and Deborah — and ultimately brings them closer through this showdown with Drew. What inspired it?
Downs: I think we always knew that we wanted to incorporate what ends up being that staircase monologue in the green room. We always wanted to make this show about trailblazers, especially women in comedy and the work they did just by being brave enough to exist in a boys’ club.
Aniello: So much of what the show is really about is the people who are making those jokes and why are they telling these jokes. Ava’s pushing Deborah to be more raw and honest with her material. And even though Deborah ends up getting diverted when she gets up there on stage, it is still an extension of what Ava has been pushing her to do.
It’s a moment where you start seeing the result of their heads bashing together and cracking each other open a little bit. What Deborah ends up doing on stage is the heart of what Ava’s been wanting her to do, which is to get a little bit angry and honest about what it has been like to be Deborah Vance all these years. There’s no way that Deborah would have done what she did without having Ava in her life.
Have you talked to women like Deborah about what it was like to come up in that era and what they had to endure?
Aniello: Somebody who was a consultant on our show was Janis Hirsch, who famously had an experience in a writers’ room on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” She was essentially sexually assaulted. And then she was fired the next day, even though she wasn’t the assaulter. Janis is somebody who is incredibly funny and so quick to the punch. This is somebody who had to be brutally funny because she existed in this boys’ club of comedy for so long. Getting the opportunity to spend time with somebody like Janis, I think, really did give us a bit of a peek into what it’s been like for women who had to endure horrible s— and came out the other end.
What were the conversations like as you were breaking this episode? Did you find people were taking different sides in the debate between Ava and Deborah?
Statsky: One of the things we went back and forth on was, “How much does Ava push her in that green room? How much does she challenge her?” Because you want to be truthful to the fact that Ava is a 25-year-old who is an emotionally intelligent person and understands the world and what women have dealt with. She’s not naive enough to just be like, “Why didn’t you do something?” But she is both right and wrong in that moment, which is something we talked about with the show a lot — that when Deborah and Eva are clashing, it’s because they’re both a little bit right and a little bit wrong.
The “Ellen” scandal has gripped us in part because it’s so familiar: From “Larry Sanders” to “The Morning Show,” TV sees itself as an awful place to work.
The show is very good at not taking sides.
Downs: We never wanted to, in this generational divide, make one side right, because there’s this tendency to poke fun at aging people or the tendency to call young people entitled, and we didn’t want to do that. Because we think the human experience is much more layered and nuanced. And because we wanted the show to feel grounded and real. We really wanted to make their experiences, their points of view and their arguments valid to them emotionally.
Aniello: Paul, Jen and I naturally don’t really write cynically. We love all the characters that we create. So we write both Deborah and Ava as well as all the supporting characters with love. We’re really always trying to see the best in them, even if they don’t behave perfectly.
Without naming names — unless, of course, you want to — do you find there are a lot of real-life Drew Higginses in the comedy world today?
Aniello: I think things are evolving a little bit, but I think there’s certainly there’s a Drew Higgins in every single stand-up club.
Downs: I think that what exists even more are the women who chose not to continue pursuing comedy or the women who were cast aside or the women who were discouraged.
Aniello: Women who had one bad experience at a comedy club, maybe said something about it, and the comedy club backed up the guy.
Downs: People often ask us about the person or persons that inspired Deborah Vance. There’s so many countless people that we can name that she’s an amalgamation of. But also, she’s really a tribute to all of the women we can’t name.
You’re all much closer to Ava’s age than Deborah’s. I wonder if there is anyone like Deborah you once wrote off as an artist but have come to appreciate? Or anyone of that generation you think others should appreciate more?
Aniello: I think we have always felt connected to people who have been cast aside. We’ve always [been in] the place we hope Ava is getting to. If I walk into the Brooklyn Museum and I see a Judy Chicago exhibit, am I crying with tears of happiness? Yeah. But I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily a new point of view. I know Jen grew up loving Mary Tyler Moore. We’ve always been connected to an older audience. That’s part of why we created the show, to maybe help other people see through that lens of appreciation for older people.
Downs: The first live comedy show I ever saw was Paula Poundstone. And she’s somebody who is very much in this world of people who have been harshly misjudged. She wasn’t someone that I came to appreciate. I always did.
Statsky: We talked a lot about Deborah as a woman who everybody got wrong. I loved comedy growing up, and I did seek out more female-driven comedy, like old “Mary Tyler Moore” episodes, but I also watched “SNL” and late-night TV and those are shows that were very dominated by men telling these jokes — and, oftentimes, men telling these jokes about women. Marcia Clark, Anna Nicole Smith, Monica Lewinsky — all these women were punchlines. As a young woman, I did take in those punchlines and internalize those narratives. Something really great that’s happened in the last five years is that we’re starting to listen to those women’s stories and rewrite those narratives. In general, we’re just kind of reevaluating the stories we’ve told about women.
If you were anywhere near a television in 1998, chances are you heard a joke — or a hundred — about Monica Lewinsky.
What’s interesting with Deborah is that she willfully participated in that mockery, right? She embraced the caricature of her as this crazy, house-burning woman scorned because it was profitable.
Statsky: You’re exactly right. When she’s telling Ava the truth about the story about her burning the house down and how she didn’t do it, she says, “You know, I leaned into that joke. I might as well make money off of it.” The avenues were so narrow for any woman or minority. It’s very tragic that the only way certain people were allowed to participate in this world was not on their own terms. It was someone else’s rules that they had to be playing by. And, thankfully, that is changing. But it’s a very tragic aspect of Deborah — and, I think, a lot of people in real life.
How does Deborah’s money play into all of this? She’s a woman, but she also has this money which gives her power to shut up guys like Drew Higgins.
Downs: In building the character, we always said that money and the accumulation of wealth and objects was for Deborah the, like, f— you to all of the people that knocked her down a million times. It became a kind of armor. She uses that quite literal currency to take down one of these male comedians who is a gatekeeper. It was very much a conscientious choice that we wanted her to use this thing which in some ways makes her a sellout, makes her less of the authentic comedic voice that she always has been. But in this moment, she gets to use it in a very specific and targeted and productive way.
Aniello: To weaponize her money in this way is almost her using the thing that she’s been forced to have as armor and use it as a blunt object.
Can we just take a minute just to talk about Jean Smart? Did you have her in mind when you were writing?
Downs: We wrote the character as this amalgamation of a lot of iconic showbiz veterans, so we didn’t have somebody in mind. But one thing that made Jean the only choice for us was that as much as she’s worked consistently and had such a rich career, we felt that she was someone who was underappreciated, like Deborah Vance. She was someone who never got to be number one on the call sheet and wasn’t celebrated in quite the way she deserved to be.
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