‘I was very shaky when I started playing’: Hannah Einbinder on Hacks, stand-up and gender identity | TV comedy
THere’s a scene from the second series of Hacks that Hannah Einbinder can’t stand to watch. In it, her character Ava is in the crowd as her boss – old-school comedian Deborah – performs a stand-up show aboard a lesbian cruise. Deborah arrives on the dancing dad stage to Pharrell’s Happy (“Oh no, she’s doing Ellen,” Ava sighs), before proceeding with a full bombshell, offending everyone in the audience and pissing off the captain’s wife (who she says , is not married to a woman but to a man, because of course only a man can command a ship). “God, it’s painful — it’s really cringe-worthy to watch,” Einbinder says. “So hard. I feel for her because I know how it feels.
Einbinder lives what she describes as an “incredibly meta” existence. As well as performing her own stand-up comedy (she’s touring the US as we speak, with a London stint on the horizon), the 27-year-old stars in a series that revolves around from her. Hacks focuses on the unlikely bond between Ava – a titled, unlucky millennial comedy writer – and Deborah (television veteran Jean Smart), an equally unlucky comic, Joan Rivers-esque getting closer to retirement with every hokey gag that she performs on stage in Las Vegas. Together, these oddest pairings attempt to revamp Deborah’s tired image from QVC saleswoman to comedian, while questioning the misogyny and double standards that have underpinned her career. Of course, it wouldn’t be as watchable — and critically acclaimed — as if it weren’t for several bumps in the road, from ill-advised email exchanges to accidentally dumped human ashes in the trash.
The series was recently renewed for a third season and was nominated for a glut of Emmys (17 this year alone, including a second supporting actress for Einbinder), with critics praising its complex and complicated women. And, like all the best comedies about comedy — from 30 Rock to BoJack Horseman — Hacks shows the dizzying highs and miserable lows of making others laugh. “These characters take two steps forward and one step back,” Einbinder explains. “They’re both imperfect people, which just drives the plot forward…Ava is growing rapidly as a human being and has to learn a lot of hard lessons from Deborah.”
When I talk to Einbinder, she’s standing outside her house in Los Angeles, plumbing problems having temporarily relegated her to the garden. She speaks softly and wryly, and far less nervous than anyone who’s seen the show might expect (she once joked that the only traits she shares with Ava are “cystic acne, red hair, and lack of strength in the upper body”). She pulls her Wayfarers occasionally to make eye contact, though the mid-morning sun bounces off her phone camera.
The daughter of original Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman and her former husband, actor Chad Einbinder, she had what she describes as the “incredible privilege” of being raised in Los Angeles. While humor was an important part of family life (“everyone in my family shares the various multiple insecurities that make a person need to laugh – needs to be validated by laughter,” she says) , the entertainment industry was more of a background buzz than anything else. she concentrated. Instead, inspired by news experts such as Rachel Maddow, Einbinder studied journalism at Chapman University in California. “I was on a plot of [the attention-deficit drug] Adderall. And I read the newspaper cover to cover,” she says. “I had gone to high school during the time of Barack Obama’s presidency, and it was a very exciting time here. I was hopeful. Now, unsurprisingly, it all sounds like ‘there is a life. Another planet!”
Halfway through college, Einbinder stumbled upon performing. She had stopped taking Adderall, which also made her feel inhibited and “mildly sedated”, and had started taking her gear to open-mic parties. Among the clips still available online, sketches about Osama bin Laden (is he really… attractive?) and parodies of 1930s film noir stand out, Einbinder’s polished veneer giving way to more character comedy. more outlandish. “I like to sprinkle character work into a setting where my voice is naturally low and monotonous,” she says. “It’s my way of breaking up the ‘me’ for a viewer who is like me and maybe needs a little extra stimulation.”
Naturally self-deprecating, with a self-proclaimed tendency to brush off compliments, she estimates that 90% of her gags didn’t land in those early performances. Even so, she plugged in, sometimes doing three gigs in one night at first while working as a barista by day. “I was so hungry for [performing] and I romanticized that – there are a lot of romantic ideas about pain in stand-up, especially among younger comedians. And obviously the capitalist machine favors that…” She pauses. “You could call it a work ethic, but it’s really just a survival tactic.” Drilling is, she says, “in the right place, at the right time. A lot of things have to line up.
Things did indeed start to line up in 2020. Einbinder made her TV debut as the youngest comedian to star on Stephen Colbert’s late night show and she went on to land the role in Hacks. . It was her first acting role, and one that many other professional actors had auditioned for, but it didn’t go to Einbinder’s head. “I was very shaky when I started playing,” she says. “I had no barometer to know if I was doing well or not. My barometer was whether people were laughing or not, then when you play they record the sound, so everyone has to shut up. It was a bit crazy. It went against all the instincts that are hardwired into me, but I’m finally starting to believe that I’m doing a good job.
Einbinder does more than just a good job in Hacks, as she conveys the highs and lows of Ava’s existence. She embodies the pain of becoming persona non grata in her industry (for tweeting a joke about a right-wing senator) and the joy of moving Deborah away from mundane single-seaters into something more substantial. In season one, the process of cataloging Deborah’s archives leads Ava to better understand her boss and see her as a trailblazer rather than a has-been — and a hack. Their relationship is often – at least at first – based on barbs and put-downs, but there’s also something pure about it, crossing seemingly entrenched generational divides. After all, Einbinder explains, it’s not like it’s as simple as young comics being on the right side of history compared to their older counterparts.
“I know a ton of comedians who are in their 50s or older who are still very good – their quality hasn’t diminished because of their age, because they’re smart and they understand the intent of their jokes. In some people grow old and become the old man or woman who yells at the new generation. And that absolutely happens. But I think either you’re dedicated to an interesting take – and one that doesn’t punch – or you’re not. No. I know people who are incredibly young, who are ignorant, offensive and bigoted, and who use stand-up as a vehicle for this bigotry.
Watching the show, the quasi-mother/daughter relationship between the protagonists (Smart is 70, the same age as Einbinder’s real-life mother) sparkles with the kind of chemistry that can surely only be rooted in real life. . “Our real-life relationship has only had a positive impact on our on-screen relationship, and you know…I really love him,” Einbinder says. “I don’t need to go anywhere else [to portray those emotions]. When things are heartbreaking, it’s easier to imagine because of the depth and importance of my relationship with her.
Few things, you can imagine, could be as heartbreaking as filming a funeral scene together shortly after the death of Smart’s husband, Richard Gilliland. “Jean is the toughest,” says Einbinder. “She really put the crew, the cast and the production first, and didn’t think about it at all. She pushed whatever time it took to finish filming, so she could come in and take her time. But I mean, watching her that week was,” Einbinder pauses for a long time, looking emotional. “She’s really amazing and very strong.”
Besides being funny and touching and sometimes downright silly (notably when Ava and Deborah bond over weed edibles while the latter is recovering from plastic surgery), Hacks received acclaim for its full cast of weird characters. These include the eternal business manager, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), who tries to manage his own life and that of Deborah, and Ava herself, who – like Einbinder – is bisexual, and teaches Deborah the need for nuance when it comes to sexual identity. “I think there are only a handful of shows that have even attempted to portray bisexuals as lovable humans and humans whose identities are considered valid and accepted,” Einbinder says. “It’s a dream as a queer person to be able to be a part of this representation that I would have loved to see growing up. It’s been such an affirmation for me as a queer person to see that experience reflected…I wouldn’t have could think of a better gig. When I got the audition, I thought I wouldn’t get this, but I can’t wait to watch it – I really love it.
Although she stars in a show that often shows the utter horror of stand-up, and where a bad set can really make Einbinder’s — and the audience’s — skin crawl, you get the sense that it doesn’t. only fell more in love with the live performance.
“I like an intimate crowd,” she says. “I had to play in complete darkness, when they put the lights on you and you can’t see a single face in the crowd – it’s terrible. I find that if I can’t see the whites of people’s eyes, I don’t really feel like I’m doing the thing.
While Deborah’s trip to the cruise ship ultimately turns into a back and forth of rowdy and offending, Einbinder thankfully tends to have an easier ride on stage. “Since Hacks, a lot of people have been screaming beautiful things,” she says. Despite her self-effacing tendencies, as she walks over to plumber Einbinder, she looks proud of herself – and maybe just a little relieved.
Hacks is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, HBO Max in the United States and Stan in Australia. Hannah Einbinder is at the Soho Theatre, London, from September 26 to October 8