If laughter is a cure for loneliness, then comedians are the loneliest people in the world. Making other people laugh usually means you can make yourself laugh. If you can do that, you can create the brittle delusion that you don’t need anyone else’s company. In HBO’s Hacks, veteran comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) explains how she supposedly got over her divorce, when her husband left her for her sister. “I didn’t need them,” she says. “I had comedy.” Laughter is one of those free things you can do on your own and it always makes you feel better. Except when it doesn’t make you feel better, because it’s a hollow, temporary distraction. And when it isn’t free, because your livelihood depends on it.
Hacks (the second series is available now on Amazon Prime) is a show about two comedy writers who are forced to work together. Young millennial Ava (Hannah Einbender) has recently been “cancelled” for a tweet. Because she is struggling to get back on the career ladder, she accepts a commission writing jokes for Deborah Vance, a comedy juggernaut whose heyday was in the 1970s. Deborah now does infomercials for leggings, openings for pizza restaurants and has a residency in Vegas. She trades off cheap one-liners at her own expense, or punches down. The premise is clear: the two women will learn from each other to improve their careers and, in doing so, improve themselves.
Like Succession, Hacks has been a commercial sleeper hit. It received critical acclaim and an Emmy for its first season, but it’s taken the second season to attract a proper fandom. This is partly because the premise doesn’t do it justice. Following the surfeit of cynical post-#MeToo cash generators like Bombshell, which—shocker—was directed by a man, it is hard to feel enthusiasm about an intergenerational feminist set-up. (Girlboss it to the top, queens! Roe v Wade keels over in the distance.) But Hacks is anything but patronising. In fact, its comedic tone seems perfectly pitched for the current climate, with a slew of one-liners that don’t wait for applause. The result is a show which feels fresh, self-aware and strangely uplifting.
I’ve written before about how failure is at the root of TV comedy. Peep Show is about two losers failing to live an adult life. Alan Partridge is about a loser failing to live any kind of life. The Office is about a failure failing to run a failing company. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm—about a rich, successful, famous guy—is about his daily failures of communication. If you’re stuck in a pattern of failure, nothing much can happen, story-wise. There can’t be a progression or breakthrough which isn’t undercut the following episode. Sitcoms run on a broken engine. It’s not about getting what you want. It’s about finding pleasure in the struggle.
All of those sitcoms I just cited centre men. In Hacks, the “failure” narrative is placed within an explicitly feminist framework. It’s about how money, relationships and the struggle for relevance operate under different models of femininity. Does it touch on what it means to be a hashtag-modern-career-woman? Yes. But it’s mainly about comedy: how to have fun and how to write jokes. During a writing session, when they are failing to find common material, Deborah asks Ava with exasperation: “Where’s the punchline?” Ava frowns at the suggestion she needs one: “I find traditional joke structures very male.” This is intended as a spoof of boomer-millennial pedantry. But Ava’s complaint is reflected in how the show functions. What she means is: traditional comedy shoots straight for the punchline.
A brief theoretical departure here. Punchline theory—the traditional joke structure—dates back to the Vaudeville era. It posits that a joke consists of three parts: set up, premise, punchline. Set up: “knock knock,” “who’s there?” Premise: “Lettuce” “Lettuce who?” Punchline: “Lettuce in.” This is a variation on the traditional story structure: desire, obstacle, attainment/failure to attain the desire. I mention this because the point of both approaches is that they spin on one thing: the desire for conclusion. Once that is achieved, the story or joke is over. As playwright David Mamet says, “a story has a hero who wants one thing.” That male noun “hero” is no coincidence, and that striving toward one end point, after which the pleasure is over, isn’t a coincidence either. In biological terms (stay with me), these approaches can be read as male interpretations of generating pleasure.
That is a problem, because it obscures what actually makes good entertainment. “Desire—obstacle—goal” may be a good way to get your English Language GCSE, but it’s an unimaginative way of thinking about narrative. The thing that keeps people reading or watching a really good story is not just “this is what Dave wants,” but the emotional undercurrents flip-flopping that desire, the small iterations of feeling which stitch the different motivations together. In short, it’s not all about the gratification of getting what you want. Like hearing punchline after punchline, that kind of entertainment feels hollow. A more complex and, if you will, feminine kind of pleasure lends itself to a circular structure. It’s embedded deep into the texture of the material, and it goes on and on. And on and on.
One reason why comedy is often seen as a “masculine” domain is that it’s more acceptable to laugh than it is to cry. Men are generally discouraged from dealing directly with their emotions: instead, they’re told to channel them into anger, or to repackage them as jokes. This constitutes another form of weaponry: self-defence. (I’m looking forward to seeing both anger and self-defence in the responses to this article.) Deborah Vance has adopted the self-defence model in order to rise to the top. She’s built a career making flippant cracks about her trauma to make it seem like she’s over it, when in reality she is so scarred that she still won’t speak to her sister. This has cemented her mask of invulnerabilty, and therefore boosted her currency in a man’s world—but ultimately it has left her empty and unhappy.
Ava, meanwhile, leans too far in the opposite direction: she is a chronic oversharer. In her first meeting with her new boss, she says that, although she prefers dating women as a bisexual, she “sometimes still need[s] penetrative sex with a dick to come, maybe because I was conditioned by the porn that was fed to me by the algorithm.” She sends unsolicited nudes to her ex. Even the tweet she was cancelled for is a symptom of her inability to keep her mouth shut.
Clearly some middle ground is required, and Deborah and Ava’s collaboration shows their need for different emotional boundaries. It’s also a comment on the boundaries of a changing comedy landscape. In a climate of commercialised empathy, there is now less interest in zingers and put-downs. Hannah Gadsby, Bo Burnham and the spate of existential comedies like Fleabag and Russian Doll give some indication of how things are shifting. Everywhere you look, there’s an attempt to peel back the mask of performance. (The goal of comedy is less about wise-cracking and one-upmanship, more about revealing vulnerability and hitting a nerve.) But this still requires parameters to be effective. It’s gratifying that Deborah fails to master it even in the second series. Instead, she experiences glimmers of satisfaction in things that aren’t career related. Often these involve being able to express herself without the need for public validation. “I bombed, and I loved it,” she says, after her set fails. “But the pieces are there. I just have to figure out how to put it together.” There it is: pleasure in the struggle.
Series two ends with a brutal twist, casting a cloud over Deborah and Ava’s evolving relationship. The subtext is bleak: you’re born alone, you’ll die alone, and all good things come to an end. And yet because of the nature of Hacks—and because it focuses on two characters rather than one—there’s an intrinsic thread of hope in it. Comedians may be the loneliest people in the world. But laughter is a cure for loneliness.
The post HBO’s <i>Hacks</i> shows the move away from traditional comedy appeared first on Prospect Magazine.