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Life as a headliner: Jean Smart delves into the world of standup with 'Hacks'
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Life as a headliner: Jean Smart delves into the world of standup with 'Hacks'

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Growing up, Hannah Einbinder’s mother — “Saturday Night Live” star Laraine Newman — played comedy routines in the car.

“I listened to stand-up from like fifth grade on,” Einbinder says. “Probably not the best idea.”

The subliminal messaging prompted her to go into the business and now Einbinder finds herself on “Hacks,” an HBO Max comedy about a young writer who’s brought in to punch up the work of an aging comedian, played by Jean Smart.

Because they’re from two different generations, the women’s comic sensibilities clash. They battle about what’s funny and, in time, find common ground even if it’s not based on material.

For Einbinder, “Hacks” is like a master class. “I’m learning every single day," she says.  Smart and co-star Carl Clemons-Hopkins “are my heroes and (Executive Producer Lucia Aniello), as a director, is also an acting coach. She’s really teaching me so much.”

Although Smart has starred on a number of hit sitcoms, she hasn’t done standup. But she does see parallels. “To be a good standup, you really kind of have to be a good actor,” she says. “That’s how you sell your material.”

In the opening episodes, Smart’s Deborah Vance has been a headliner in Las Vegas for years. She appears on a home shopping channel, too, and once was poised to be the first female in late-night television.

Is she channeling Joan Rivers?

No, Smart says. “I’m certainly a fan of a lot of female comics. Every once in a while, there will be a scene or I’ll do something and I’ll think, ‘Oh, that kind of reminds me of so-and-so.’ I guess I borrow things from other comedians unconsciously – anywhere from Elayne Boosler or Phyllis Diller to Sam Kinison. I kind of go with my gut instinct and the writing is so good that that usually works out.”

Einbinder’s character, Ava, is a Hollywood writer who’s shunned by others following a pointed social media post. She can’t get work, so she agrees to meet with Vance, who needs a fresher approach to situations. Vance, however, doesn’t want a “helper.” The two don’t mesh and, soon, it looks like any deal is off.

Circumstances, however, force Vance to take a second look. She hires Ava and assigns her to digitize a lifetime of work.

Although Vance is entering the waning days of her career, the Emmy-winning Smart has never been more popular. Last year, she got an Emmy nomination for “Watchmen.” This year, she’s also in “Mare of Easttown.”

“I’ve had some of the most incredible opportunities in my career in the last several years and I don’t take any of it for granted,” she says. “But at the same time, I wouldn’t encourage my daughter to be an actress. If you have kids, there’s always the feeling that you’re shortchanging either your job or your family. That’s the hardest part to me – feeling like you’re not giving your all to one or the other.

“There are fewer jobs for women but, unfortunately, our business is a very subjective business. You can’t really put some of the same rules and expectations on it as other parts of society where I think fairness in the workplace to women has come a long way.”

“Hacks” creators learned the hard way how brutal comedy can be.

As a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” Executive Producer Michael Schur was told, “it doesn’t go on because it’s ready. It goes on because it’s 11:30.”

“It sort of trained you to not be precious with your material and to just run up to people who were very famous and say, ‘I’m cutting all your jokes’ or ‘I have another joke for you to read and you have to do it in the next eight minutes,’” Schur says. “You get over your hesitancy.”

Because Vance has always written her own material, she resents the idea she needs a young person to punch up her act. “Neither one is right and neither one is wrong,” Smart says of the two characters. “Ava’s point is if the masses think something is funny, then it’s not.”

Through Vance, Ava gets to see what it took to get to superstar status and what it cost her.

As a working standup, Einbinder gets to experience a world where results aren’t always guaranteed.

Comedy, she says, “is an unmasterable craft. You can never be a perfect stand-up comedian. I think it depends on the room you’re in.”

Acting, however, walks a different walk, Smart says. “If you’re doing a play or if you’re a standup and you have an audience, they’re part of your performance. But if you’re doing a film or TV show you don’t get that immediate feedback. You just hope the people at home or in the theater are laughing.”

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