How Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers Begat “Hacks”


L.A. Postcard

I never knew that one of the characters on “Hacks” was actually a co-creator of the show. Did you? This show speaks to me in so many ways: age, career, likes, dislikes, relating to others, tolerance, or lack of toleranceLWH.

By the way Hannah Einbinder, Jean Smart’s, assistant comedy writer in the show, is the daughter of actress Laraine Newman—LWH

Paul W. Downs, one of the series’ creators, on what went into figuring out Jean Smart’s Deborah, the show’s hard-as-nails standup legend.

By 

May 23, 2022

Portrait of Paul W. Downs.

Paul W. Downs, the writer, director, and actor, just had his first baby. “I have seven thousand pictures of him on my phone,” he said the other day, mid-browse, at T. L. Gurley Antiques, a shop in Pasadena. Scrolling fondly through shots of a round-cheeked infant, he said, “We’re really excited for when his eyes are open more, and he’s not either nursing or milk-drunk.”

Downs, at thirty-nine years old, is slight and dark-haired, with a face whose chiselled handsomeness recalls that of a nineteen-eighties soap star. He was wearing an open denim shirt over a white T-shirt. He and his wife, Lucia Aniello, are new partners in parenthood, but as writers they’ve been working together—Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” the Scarlett Johansson movie “Rough Night”—for a decade and a half. With the writer Jen Statsky, a friend, they co-created “Hacks,” which premièred last year and is now in its second season, streaming on HBO Max.

The series is a darkly comic exploration of the tumultuous relationship between Deborah (Jean Smart, in a star turn), a hard-as-nails standup legend, and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a bratty young comedy writer. Downs plays Jimmy, a craven talent manager who brokers the collaboration between the two women. “Making a show is kind of like having a kid with someone,” Downs said. “This is going to sound bad, but it’s like the baby is our second child. When parents have a second kid, they’re almost . . . chiller?” He looked hopeful.

T. L. Gurley was crowded with curiosities, and Downs considered the wares: a large wooden squirrel, a sculpture of a Buddha strung with turquoise beads. The store had gained some attention after it was featured on “Hacks,” in a scene in which Ava goes on a wild-goose chase to find an ornate pepper shaker for Deborah, to match a saltshaker she already owns. “We knew we wanted Deborah to be a person who is a collector, who uses objects to tell herself, ‘I’m O.K.,’ ” Downs said. “Finding a pair for the shaker was symbolic, too, of her finding a creative love affair with this girl, which she hadn’t had in a long time.” He turned toward a suite of Staffordshire porcelain dogs. “This is a good face,” he said, of one brown-eared specimen. He and Aniello are regulars at the store. “We got a pair of consoles that were in Bud Abbott from Abbott and Costello’s house.”

Downs grew up in rural New Jersey. “My grandmother, even though she’s Italian, became a little obsessed with Americana, and ended up buying and selling antiques,” he said. “Then my parents had a stall in an antique mall.” His love of the past extended to comedy: “Even as a very young kid, I never watched cartoons. Instead, I watched Nick at Nite—Mary Tyler Moore, ‘I Love Lucy.’ ” After college, at Duke, he moved to New York, where he dabbled in standup, did improv, and began making comedy videos with Aniello. “We were friends for the first couple of years we knew each other,” he said. “And then love bloomed.”

In the years that followed, he, Aniello, and Statsky all worked on successful TV shows, but they wanted to make their own series. On a trip to Maine in 2016, they began kicking around an idea for a show focussed on an older female comedian. “We were talking about Phyllis Diller and, of course, Joan Rivers and Paula Poundstone, and how people our age often don’t appreciate their contributions to comedy—comedy is a thing that evolves, and someone can seem hacky even though earlier they were wildly influential.” He went on, “After that trip, I sent an e-mail to myself and Jen and Lucia with the subject ‘Show idea: young writer has a nightmare boss in older comedian but slowly gains respect for that person.’ ”

Tim Gurley, the shop’s gregarious owner, approached. “It was so Warholian,” he told Downs, of having his store in the show. “Five minutes of fame, fifteen . . . People I haven’t seen in years, especially from New York, reaching out.” He held up a brutalist bronze wind chime. “Isn’t it cool? It was designed by this guy Paolo Soleri, an architect, in the seventies. He studied with Frank Lloyd Wright!”

“You sold the landscape that was there,” Downs said, pointing at a wall.

“Yes. It was expensive,” Gurley said. “I’ll show you some stuff when you really get successful.” He lowered his voice in a conspiratorial, Hollywood-adjacent manner. “You signed for a three-show deal?”

“We’re concentrating on Season 2 of ‘Hacks,’ ” Downs said. He looked around. “If I had a store like this, I’d be, like, ‘I want to keep that.’ ”

“You have to know how to edit,” Gurley said.

“I have a good editor in Lucia,” Downs said. “She’s always, like, ‘Where will this go?’ ” He pointed at some Moroccan bowls. “How much are these?” ♦

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2 thoughts on “How Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers Begat “Hacks”

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