Anne Marie Fox/HBO Max

Culture

‘Hacks’ Star Hannah Einbinder Would Die For Comedy

The 26-year-old stand-up comic, who stars in HBO Max’s Hacks, a TV show about stand-up comedy, spends pretty much all her time thinking about stand-up comedy.

Most comedians love comedy. Some might say it has saved them. Few can say it brought them back from a six-year-long weed and Adderall-induced fugue state thanks to which they don’t remember high school. Stand-up comic and actress Hannah Einbinder says just this, brightly, to me, over Zoom, a few days after turning 26 and a few weeks after the premiere of HBO Max’s Hacks, in which she stars as Ava, a highly online, brooding millennial writer-comic. “I was a funny, bouncing off-the-walls kid,” she says. “But so much they were like ‘Lock it down, medicate this little bitch.”

Because of her medicated teen years, and despite being the child of former Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman and actor Chad Einbinder (her brother Spike is also a comic), she had little interest in comedy until her 20s. Instead of seeing it as a birthright, Einbinder found comedy in the banal way many do. In college, a friend suggested she try out for the improv team and maybe skip her Adderall the day of her callback. She never took the amphetamine again, and soon after, performed her first stand-up set, opening for a Nicole Byers campus gig.

Unfortunately for critics of art dynasties, Einbinder is a veritable prodigy. Once she found comedy, she didn’t waste another second, devoting herself to the form with academic rigor. She spent her early 20s in Amoeba Records listening to old SNL, Ed Sullivan and Tonight Show sets and embedding herself in the east Los Angeles alt-comedy scene. She emerged with a confident, bone-dry style that reflects her encyclopedic knowledge of comedy tropes, as well as a militant refusal to repeat what’s been done before. At 23, she became the youngest comedian to ever appear on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. When she booked the lead role on Hacks, it was the first callback she ever got.

Einbinder speaks about comedy in a slow, deliberately measured tone that betrays worship. “It’s truly my favorite thing in the whole world. It’s a gift,” she says. “When I do stand-up, there’s always a chance I can feel good. I’ve come a long way in terms of self-worth, but I was so desperate for that when I started.”

Watching Hacks, it’s obvious why its creators, Broad City alums Paul Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky, plucked Einbinder out of obscurity to become Ava. She brings an utterly believable mix of arrogance and insecurity to Ava, who finds, after being cancelled for a tweet, that the only job she can get is writing for Deborah Vance, a legendary but washed-up septuagenarian stand-up, portrayed by Jean Smart. Einbinder and Smart charmingly insult each other with effortless chemistry, debating joke structure and feminism. The show is essentially one long conversation about comedy which is to say, it’s Einbinder’s dream come true.

Hacks is available to stream on HBO Max.

Anne Marie Fox/Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

You turned 26 as your debut TV show dropped. Have you wrapped your head around that?

Really, I'm just glad that Paul, Lucia and Jen feel I did it justice. I have narrowed my feedback loop to only people who I respect deeply... as a way to avoid being hurt [laughs].

What were you like in high school? I read that you were a cheerleader, which I assume explains the impressive scene where you do a split.

Thank you, I do wish I had stretched. It was a heat of the moment thing. We were shooting and I turned to Lucia, "Can I have one more?" I truly have no regard for my personal wellbeing when it comes to comedy. I will throw myself on the floor, fall off of a chair, eat shit on concrete. If it's funny, we're doing it. But yes, I was a cheerleader. I was also a zombie. I was on a high prescription of Adderall for many years, then also constantly smoking weed to cut the effects. I was just pretty much high for many years. I have an unscientific theory that the years of Adderall and weed carved out my neural pathways, working together to create the hyper-analytical, critical mind that you need to do comedy. I've always been a goof, but I think the effects of those drugs served me in a weird way. I think with comedy I found a way to potentially harness that damage for good.

Once you found comedy, how did you figure out your voice?

From the beginning, there were a lot of areas I refused to go comedically. I still have a fairly rigid set of rules about what I will and won’t talk about. The exception is if it’s an interesting take I've never heard. I won't talk about dating, I won't do "men and women are like this.” I just won't touch it. Not because I think it’s bad, but just because there are so many comedians who are better at it. I don’t have anything to add. It does make for a difficult creative process. I don't pump out material. I write every day but most of it isn't usable because it doesn't meet my standards.

Your comedy is so aware of comedy, with the old-timey voices and fake sitcom-y zingers. Are those nods parody or homage?

I’m not parodying old-school comedy so much as I find those old styles really funny and want to engage with them in a modern way. Steve Martin, I listened to him every single day when I got into stand-up. He was the biggest in the world, playing arenas, but what he was doing is something you'd find today in Silver Lake. He was destroying the format. He leads to Bo Burnham and that school. There was this corny era of the ‘80s, like, “Hey, so the deal with stuff.” But before that, there was an amazing experimental period. I just don't feel equipped to do classic comedy in any interesting way. There are comedians that are excellent, friends of mine, people I look up to who do it perfectly. I think Taylor Tomlinson is one of the best comedians of my generation. She is as classic in her format as it comes but her ideas are refreshing. It’s like, "When Taylor exists, I gotta do something else."

It really feels like we’re in a new golden age of alt-comedy, with people like Patti Harrison, Julio Torres, Cat Cohen, John Early. You talked a lot about ‘90s alt-comedy and people like Patton Oswalt, Dana Gould, Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo and Maria Bamford as your inspirations. Do you think they’re the blueprint for the revival we’re seeing today?

The comedy of the 90s made way for us to even do our own thing. It broke out of: you have to have five minutes, you have to wear a tie, don't try new shit. In the alt-scene, it’s like, you have to have your notebook on stage, you have to be trying new material, it doesn't need a set-up and punchline. At least in the east LA fringe scene, there is so much experimentation. I mean, the presence of clowning here is incredible, Courtney Pauroso and Natalie Palamides being two examples. But also, a lot of what gets called alt-comedy isn’t so much alternative as it is alternative viewpoints. A lot of people are talking about sex or dating, these very traditional comedy topics, but from a queer perspective. What's alternative is the person on the mic. Which is exciting to me.

I think a lot of young people have only started plugging into comedy in the last few years, as internet comedy has gotten big. Does it bug you that most people don’t know who any of those comics are?

[Laughs] No, I know I’m a freak. People come to comedy because they need to heal and I want that for them. If you wanna laugh, I want you to have that. Comedy became important because we needed it. I am a comedy snob but in a loving way. I never would be like, "You kids today don't know about Red Skelton!" Like who you like.

As such a comedy nerd, was it exciting to be not just on a show about comedy, but one that goes so deeply into craft and process and the history of stand-up?

It was not only thrilling to be involved in something that explored comedy, but to be in something that explored it successfully, which very little pop culture does. When it comes to TV about comedy, they almost exclusively fail. But I love it so much. Like, if Deborah Vance were a real person, I would have loved her old stuff and been destroyed by who she was today, that a pioneer had lost their edge.

How did you end up getting cast on Hacks?

I just auditioned. I went into this casting office, sat in a room with a lot of gorgeous actresses. I was like, "Well, this chick next to me will get it but I'll just do my thing." I forgot a line so I made up a joke. I believe that that's why they brought me back. Paul and Lucia told me, "Yeah, we felt that you had already started writing for Ava.” I’d never felt the way I felt reading the script. I was very content with my stand-up work. This was the first time with TV that I felt anything close to what I feel with stand-up.

Were you fans of Lucia and Paul before?

For sure, from Broad City. I had seen Paul do stand-up before as well and was so blown away. He’s also someone who exists in a way more alternative space as a performer.

But who made a mainstream hit. Did it appeal to you that he’s done both?

Mainstream isn't a dirty word. I mean Veep was mainstream, but it's amazing. I guess mainstream just means people like it.

I feel like a lot of young people are probably more familiar with Megan Stalter than Jean Smart. But both are icons. Tell me about working with each of them.

Meg… There were days where I would go to set early just to watch Meg with Paul, Lucia and Jen. Because Meg is incredible and so unpredictable and special. I also loved watching Paul, Lucia and Jen sit there and die laughing but have to stifle their massive reactions to Meg. I love her, she is as sweet as she is funny. And she's very funny.

Anne Marie Fox/Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

What about Jean?

She’s an icon but there’s nothing diva about her. She’s warm and loving and welcoming and cool with everyone, interacting with the crew and making jokes. She didn't allow me to be star struck, because she called me before my screen test to be like, "Hey, I've watched your stand-up, I think you're really great and this is going to be a lot of fun." She's a mensch in every way. I was able to walk in and feel comfortable, which is so vital for me to be able to be funny.

Ava and Deborah are these avatars for their two generations of women comedians. Are those conversations over style and politics ones you’ve seen play out in real life?

Every day. Every day. Comedians talk about comedy constantly. What it is and what it should be. Another reason the show was so exciting was that I was like, "This is actually what these conversations are like." We workshop jokes like that, I fix the problems in your jokes, you fix the problems in my joke. Constantly. Literally I'll get a call unannounced, where someone's like, "So I have this thought about your joke." When that happens we are exchanging our philosophies about comedy.

The thing Ava is most horrified by that Deborah does isn’t her dated, problematic jokes, but the way she lets herself be the butt of the joke. We're not so far removed from a time when non-white, cis, male comedians were incentivized make jokes at their own expense, to play up stereotypes. I feel like stand-up has come so far from that but Hollywood is really behind. Like, a stand-up can be pretty radical on stage but still have to audition for Carson the gay assistant.

Yes, absolutely. The difference is that stand-ups are 100% in charge of their own narrative, so they can present themselves exactly the way they wish to be presented. Whereas, when you’re not in charge of the story, you do not have that power. Its about giving queer people, people of color the power of their own narrative. They just need to be writing it.

You don’t have Twitter or participate in “internet comedy.” Why?

I have the same philosophy about it as I do straight stand-up. I don't have anything to add. I don't have anything special to offer so I lovingly watch. I’m also not on Twitter because some Nazi trolls found me. Also, while there are many hilarious people on Twitter, there’s also really toxic shit that I felt was the antithesis of good communication. It just made me so fucking depressed about the state of discourse.

Also, every week there was this new joke formula that everyone was pitching on and doing their version of. But I couldn’t turn off my Twitter brain and turn on my stand-up brain, so I wasn't thinking of jokes for my act, it was just like, "How can I do this for Twitter?" I was giving away my best jokes for free, just wasting material that I could be exploring and expanding on it and deepening it and putting it in my act. But instead I'm just doing a first draft and leaving it there. That said, it’s privilege to be able to delete my Twitter. I deleted Twitter, because I was like "I have a job, which is Hacks.”

What do you want to do next?

I want to do any comedy that feels authentic and good and meaningful. I have totally readjusted my view of what TV and film can be as a comedy medium. I will always be doing stand-up. Until I reach an age where I'm just complaining at which point I will remove myself, as we all should.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.