At the start of last year, Hannah Einbinder was a rising talent in the comedy scene. She had been making a name for herself on the Los Angeles scene and was the last comic to perform a stand-up set on The Late Show (March 9th, 2020) before everything shut down. But by the end of last month, Hacks had debuted on HBO Max last month, and suddenly there’s a whole new arena that Hannah Einbinder is making a name for herself in.
Hacks follows a veteran Las Vegas comedian Deborah Vance (played by Jean Smart), who reluctantly hires a young, rebellious comedy writer Ava (played by Einbinder) to help bring some new life to her show, amidst threats to pull some of her dates. The character of Ava manages to perfectly encapsulate the culture we live in now, where one single bad taste tweet can change the course of your life, and the constant struggle to prove yourself over and over again after that happens.
It should come as no surprise that Hannah Einbinder would be able to hold her own comedically in the series, as she was surrounded by so much comedy at such a young age, being the daughter of Laraine Newman. And on Hacks, Einbinder manages to hold her own against Smart’s character, and has already received a lot of praise for doing so. And as truly stellar as the show’s writing is – coming from the team of Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky -, it’s the performances of the two leads that keeps us engaged through.
We recently interviewed Hannah Einbinder to talk about all things Hacks, what drew her to Ava, how Jean Smart calmed her before the audition, filming during a pandemic, working without laughter, why Vegas is actually a queer place, her love of all things comedy, and what it’s felt like to go back to stand-up after a year off. The interview below has been edited for clarity.
I just finished the series, and I loved it. Especially the scene in the final episode with you two in her dressing room.
It’s crazy. When we were shooting that, on the first take, we shot Jean’s coverage. In the scene itself, I just started crying. And we yelled cut. And she was like “Baby, save it for the camera. Save it for when we turn it around on you. What are you doing?” And I was like “I’m sorry! I just get so emotional about it.”
It was so great. So let’s jump into it. Tell me about what appealed to you about the script and the character itself. And being a stand-up playing a comedy writer, were you able to see any parallels when you first read it?
Um yeah. I feel like initially when I read the script, I was just so blown away by the comedy and how Ava felt like someone I really knew. And I hadn’t really come across much that felt that way. I don’t think it’s like a radical statement that there’s not a lot of… Well I guess I should just say that it’s rare that I laugh out loud when I read a piece of material. Just because I’m so desensitized to comedy because I hear it every night at clubs and things like that. So I was like “Oh wow. This is possible?” It was so inspiring off the bat. Like “This is so cool.” And of course I expect that from Paul, Jen, and Lucia. But I was just so in love with it. I felt connected to Ava initially upon reading it. So I was just really, really stoked. She feels like someone I know, for sure.
And for your first big part as an actress, it’s great that there’s a part that you connect with this much.
It’s a true blessing. A true blessing.
Tell me about shooting the series itself. Did you shoot the entire thing throughout the pandemic?
We did, yeah. It’s crazy, right?
What is that experience like? Your first time with such a big role and you’re filming with all these extra protocols.
I will that I feel like I’m someone who is really dependent on social cues and reading people’s faces. And not being able to do that kind of launched me into a place initially where it was like “Well I can’t really tell how anyone is feeling. It’s hard to read people around me.” But I feel like we all just adjusted and adapted and we all went “Alright.” Like, “Here’s a friend of mine who I really love and connect with on set. Like anyone I talk to and I think they’re great and I don’t know what the bottom half of their face looks like but that’s fine because it’s about our hearts connections.” And it just felt like a sweet way to go past any… You just had to get real really quick, I feel. And also we were collectively going through this very scary time together. So, you know, we all got close quick because we were leaning on each other. We really needed that connection.
And tell me about coming into this world of acting. Were they welcoming right off the bat?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I’m also told that that is rare. I’m told that it’s rare that everyone’s buddies and in love and best friends and vibing so hard so quick. You know, Carl, Mark, Paul, Poppy, Meg, and I have formed like a little group chat and we talk every day. And Jean and I text all the time. And to me I feel like the best thing that came from this, other than this beautiful piece of art that I really love and feel touched by and happy to be apart of, really are the friends. Like Paul, Lucia, and Jen. It’s been so sweet and everyone’s been so lovely.
That’s great. And so once you’re filming the series itself, what are some of your favorite aspects of Ava that you got to explore in the series?
I loved being someone who did not think before they spoke. (Laughs). Because I’m so in my head all the time and I’m like really caught in this like hyper-analysis loop. And so to embody someone who spoke freely even if that was like tricky at times – and even if I was like “Girl, you’re being rude right now,” even if I thought she was being a little bit of brat here and there – it was cool to just let it go and be somebody who did that. Because I don’t really.
The one scene I have to bring up is the scene where it’s the first time you meet Deborah Vance. And I understand that was your audition scene as well. So what was that like the first time you did it?
Well it would’ve been I think a lot scarier and intimidating if Jean hadn’t called me the night before. She got my number and she just called me up and said “I saw your stuff and I think you’re really funny. And I know it’s going to be weird with COVID protocols and such. And I just wanted to call and let you know that I think you’re great and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun. Just wanted to say hi.”
And I immediately felt so comfortable. And it’s funny because she didn’t know me at the time, and she was just a total stranger. But that’s exactly what I needed. And she just reached out and just felt me, even without knowing me. It was pretty freaky because now that we’ve gotten close, she knows that that’s something that changed the game for me, with that moment. And just being with her… Her presence has a real lightness to it. So being with her in a dark soundstage, where there are some industrial lamps on us and the rest of the stage is just pitch black and the EP’s are just sitting in chairs behind the lights and it was just us in that little tiny world in that moment, it just felt really special and safe and comfortable. And it gave me permission to yell at her and insult her. So that was that.
It’s great when you get permission to insult someone.
I need it. I need to get permission every time.
And moving from stand-up to acting, was there an adjustment period at all?
Oh yeah. The biggest adjustment I would say was getting used to doing comedy for silence. Not that I haven’t done that onstage before. (Laughs). But you have to be silent on set. When I bomb, I’m like “Oh. I’m bombing.” That’s a different thing. But I had to get into – and Paul, Lucia, and Jen helped me a lot with this – where we would do a take, I would be doing comedy and it would be silent because of course we’re recording sound so no one can laugh.
And I have kind of a fight or flight response to silence when I’m doing comedy. Like “Oh, I’m bombing.” Like my body is tight. I’m starting to sweat and it’s like “Oh sh*t. This is not going well.” But they would be like “Great job!” They knew that had to kind of give me that external love, just because I was like “Is this right?” Just because I was new and all that and it being a new situation.
So yeah, that was a weird adjustment. But now it’s good. And it’s helped me to have more of that sense of whether or not I’m doing well ingrained in my actual self, which has really been a gift.
I wonder if that’ll transition to you doing stand-up again. Where maybe you won’t be as in your head if you are bombing?
I’ve been doing some sets, and the fear is back, I’m here to tell you. Back and better than ever. I wish it worked that way. I really do. Actually, acting has helped my stand-up in a big way I would say.
One thing that Hacks really gets right is there seems to be a challenge to capturing the joke writing process on screen in a narrative format. Sometimes the spontaneity gets loss. And it seems like you guys were able to figure it out. So once you’re on set, is there a lot of riffing to help keep it spontaneous?
Paul, Lucia, and Jen really do allow us to riff. We’ll cover the scene and get everything we need. And then they’ll be like “Alright guys, just do whatever you’re feeling. This one’s for you. Throw in whatever. Have fun.”
But I think to your point of people being able to capture the joke writing process, a lot of the people in the writer’s room on this show were comedians. Paul, Lucia, and Jen all did stand-up. Paul still does stand-up, and Jen and Lucia did it when they started doing comedy. So I think in any arena, whenever you’re trying to depict an experience, it’s important for the person whose experience that is to be in charge of writing that experience, just across the board. And so in this case, a comedian being written by comedians made a difference.
I can imagine that’d make a difference. And I wanna talk about your stand-up debut on Colbert last year. Correct me if I’m wrong, but was that the last stand-up set to air before the pandemic?
On Colbert, yes. I’m not sure about the other ones. It was crazy. I think it aired like March 9th, 2020. And lockdown was the 13th. So frickin insane.
And no one had any idea of what was to come. So I’m sure you’re riding high off your network stand-up debut, and then everything changes.
Oh yeah. And I had a couple buddies over over and we were all tightly packed in one room watching it. Probably 30-40 people. It was unsafe looking back. We didn’t know it at the time, but man that should not have happened.
And what I love is during the set you have this joke about Vegas. And what is funny is a year later, you’re doing this whole show taking place in Vegas.
I don’t know. (Laughs). That irony was not lost on me, either. I just couldn’t believe it. I had a bisexual Vegas joke and then I was a bisexual in Vegas. I don’t know how to explain that. I must have some psychic connection. Vegas is a queer place to me, I don’t know. It’s one of those places that I feel like straight culture flicks to, but like all of the shows…
Right. And I’m sure filming something in Vegas, especially that scene where you guys are stranded in that desert…
That was actually California.
Was it really? How much was in Vegas?
Yeah. Four days. Because we felt it was irresponsible… We, as if I had anything to do with the decision making. When our great producers and our AD’s and everyone was doing the workaround planning, they just felt like it was too risky to be traveling right now. Save it for the end, get a bare bones crew, and get all the exteriors we need.
Well, I couldn’t tell, so you guys pulled it off well. And jumping around a bit more. As someone who was surrounded by comedy at such an early age, had you always found yourself drawn to doing it? Or did it only come up over time?
Yeah, I didn’t find comedy on my own until really college. I mean looking back, as a kid… Well, first of all, I don’t really have a great recollection of a lot of my youth. It just feels a little blurry. But no, I didn’t have any comedic aspirations. I was really living in the moment. A.K.A. doing drugs. (Laughs). But once I started doing it, I just replaced the drugs with the comedy.
Which seems like a healthier replacement.
You would think, but not at times. (Laughs).
And unlike Ava who initially writes off Deborah as the “QVC moo moo lady,” how much knowledge of comedy of the past did you seek out when you first started getting into comedy?
A lot. I really love it all. I really love every era. I love every style. I love the craziest alternative clown, burlesque, performance art act, and the most clubby, clubby, club comic. Everything in between is for me. But yeah, I would go to Amoeba Records in L.A. and go to the comedy section and then find all the compilations from like Ed Sullivan and then Joan Rivers, who feels like an inspo from time to time in this show. I found a lot of her old stuff, like her really iconic Tonight Show appearances and things like that. Bob Newhart was a big influence, although I haven’t found a way to write a joke in that style. Actually, no, I do have one.
I love the classics, and I think there’s always something to learn from there. Yeah, there’s just such a wide world of influences. And I love history.
So the history of comedy ties into that. And by the way, going off of that, there’s one moment I can really relate to, which is when you’re going through all of Deborah’s VHS’s and all the archive stuff. That spoke to me in a weird way because for the last five years, I’ve been the archivist/historian for Andy Kaufman. So I’ve been going through all of Andy’s stuff and I can relate to that feeling of having your eyes open.
Oh my God!! What are you doing with that? Are you putting it together for like the comedy museum? Isn’t there one?
There is. And funny enough, I actually have a photo with Andy’s brother and sister and your mom.
Oh my God. That’s crazy! I loved him. He’s crazy.
He was fantastic. So anyway, as I watched it, it felt like a moment for one percent of people, and that was for me.
I’m writing this bit right now about trees, and it’s getting into this heavily factual… I’m trying to break it up with jokes, and I have to polish it and figure it out. But the other day I was reading the joke and I was like “I feel like I’m just going up there and f*cking reading Great Gatsby.” You know that old Kaufman story of him at the Improv. Because I did it at the Improv. Anyway, I had that little connection.
I love that. And especially now, I feel like everyone has been off for a year, so it’s like “Let’s see what sticks.” So how is it being back in the club? When you were going back for the first time?
I was so nervous. I was so scared because I always am scared when I go to a comedy club, because I feel like it’s a risk. Just as an environment. And I try not to be that judgmental about it. But you know, I’ve had experiences where people are looking at me like “Huh? What are you doing? Why is there music on,” or whatever the f*ck I’m doing. So I always get nerves in that environment, even before the pandemic. So now it’s like “F*ck. I’m rusty, my memory’s not great, I’m forgetting jokes in the middle. What if I do this? What if I do that?”
But honestly, I think the nervous energy pushed me to get through it, and it was so much fun. It was so much fun and I was so surprised that I still could do it. It was really nice and I missed it. And I realized that the crowd looks scarier when you’re sitting in the back of the club than it does from the stage, which is so weird. So yeah, it’s scarier to be watching someone do it than to just be doing it, I guess. And so when I’m in the club and I’m watching someone onstage, I’m like “F*ck!” It was really, really terrifying. But it ended up being really nice.
I totally can imagine that. And I just went to a club for the first time since the pandemic as well. And it used to be maybe there was one or two people who were dragged there unwillingly, but now it seems like everyone genuinely wants to be there.
For sure. Yeah. Audiences feel way more willing. They need comedy as much as comedians always have. So it feels more like an even fight. It’s the the wrong word, but you know what I mean.
All episodes of season one of Hacks are streaming on HBO Max now.