There’s a big reason why the HBO Max series Hacks swept up a number of Emmys and Golden Globes for best comedy of 2021. Sure, Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder and the rest of the cast are brilliant. But the balance between jokes and empathy for its characters is why the show has been such a success so quickly. Hacks is hilarious, but co-creators, Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs understand that in order to stand out in a crowded field, the show has to do a lot for the viewer besides just make them laugh.
Downs sees all sides off the series, from behind the camera and in front of it: he’s a co-creator, a writer, director and showrunner, while also appearing as Jimmy, the calculating manager who puts Smart’s veteran comedian Deborah Vance together with the brilliant but unruly millennial writer Ava (Einbinder). With Jimmy, Downs has created a lynchpin and a team player who offers a steady counter-balance to Smart and Einbinder’s self-obsessed clients. (Plus, his pairing with Megan Stalter as Jimmy’s flakey assistant Kayla shows that he can also play the part of a straight-man in a comedy duo.) Downs could be the star of his own show, but he’s just fine being a comedy Swiss Army Knife who is perfectly fine sharing all the glory with his cast as well as his best friend (Statsky) and spouse (Aniello). He spoke to GQ about creating the show with his wife, the brilliance of Megan Stalter, and the lesser known pleasures of Las Vegas.,
It’s now about nine months since you won the Emmys and told everyone you and Lucia got married the week before. Have you had a honeymoon yet?
I think the Emmys were our honeymoon [laughs]. To be honest, we got married in Italy—my wife was born there—so we did like a week and a half there and called that our honeymoon. So yes, but we truly flew home from the wedding, got tested for COVID and went to the Emmys like that same week. It was really a whirlwind.
I feel like people do that. Not necessarily win an Emmy, but fit really massive things in right around when they’re getting married.
There was a lot of life change going on real fast. But you know, we actually started the writer’s room for season two the Monday morning after the Emmys. We did push it by an hour, so we showed up at 11am instead. But we started writing season two and shooting season two. So it’s really been weird. We’ve been nose to the grindstone, as they say, because season two premiered less than a year after season one. it’s really been a … we do need a honeymoon now. We do need a little bit of a break, you know?
I would say you’ve earned it. I’d suggest Vegas, but I assume you’ve spent a lot of time there for the show already.
We did a lot of research in Vegas and a lot of sitting in Vegas. So we went to Vegas and you know, it was during the height of COVID. So we actually always drove. Now I know Vegas. I know where every single casino is. Before that, I had gone like three times for a weekend, and you’re usually in one casino and you don’t leave it or whatever. Now I’m pretty well-versed with even the best food trucks that are way off the strip.
I don’t think people know Vegas has amazing food trucks.
There’s an amazing Mexican-Italian fusion food truck. They have an eggplant parmesan fajita thing. It’s really worth driving out and doing that.
When you’re writing, what’s your litmus test for what you think is funny enough to end up in the show?
I think the balance of the hard comedy with the more emotional stuff is something we’re thinking about constantly, because we never wanted to veer into melodrama and we never want to be too broad and sketchy. A lot of shows, when I’m watching, it takes me out if something’s way too out of the tone. One of the reasons why we really wanted to make this particular show is because having two comedians at the helm meant we could do hard, funny jokes while also doing those really grounded and real moments. What makes it in is if it really makes us laugh or if it moves us. Whether that’s an idiosyncratic piece of dialogue for a character or a scenario, or a bigger set piece. Those are always the things that I think end up on the screen.
And then it always has to work in the practice, too. Something can make you feel moved when you’re writing it, and then when you’re in the scene it’s even more. There’s an example of that this season: I didn’t know that it was gonna really strike a nerve when Deborah says in the premiere, “There Will be Blood.”
I really like Jimmy’s evolution this season. He has sort of his Jerry Maguire turn. And it got me thinking about how you’re in this really interesting position where you’re the co-creator, co-writer and showrunner, but you also play this sort of lynchpin character. It’s a great vantage point, I imagine. How does being part of the cast help you with your other duties?
Being on both sides gives me court vision a little bit. I get to see what’s going on, but also then I get to inhabit a character. So it’s very easy, obviously, for me to pitch certain things that he might do because I’m doing it. I will say, actors often do that–being on the other side of the camera, every actor is coming at it from the actor’s point of view. And sometimes they’re overthinking it and they’re in their character and they’ll say something like, oh, I think I would be holding this or I would be drinking this.
When we write dialogue, we’re trying to be the character. I think that’s why Jen [Statsky co-creator], Lucia and I all feel like dialogue is one of our strongest suits, because we come from doing sketch and improv and stand up. And so it’s almost like you do an impression of the character when you’re pitching. And then when you’re writing, you’re talking in their voice, but it’s another thing to inhabit the character and to say all the lines and to memorize all the lines and to live in it.
Do you go in with ideas for Jimmy?
I actually try not to pitch for my character because I don’t want it to seem like I’m just inflating the role. But this season the Jimmy storyline just made so much sense. In the finale, he’s honestly on the chopping block, there’s a chance that Deborah is going to replace him and find somebody else. So it just sort of naturally came that he needs to prove himself. And it’s how we thought of that kind of big turn in the final show.
At first you think Jimmy is a little jerk, but then you start to see the vulnerability—he’s just a guy who has to deal with B.S. like the rest of us. When you started creating the character, was that arc in mind or did it just happen naturally?
It just came more organically. The one thing we try to do with all of the characters in the ensemble is treat them in the same way we treat Deborah and Ava, which is give them funny moments and then also give them real and emotional moments. I think Carl Clemens Hopkins, who plays Marcus, is a great example. That character has really funny scenes with his mom [played by Angela Elayne Gibbs] and Miss Loretta [played by Luenell], and then there’s also more grounded, emotional stuff for Marcus when he goes through his breakup or he’s destabilized by Deborah leaving and he’s considering his worth.
By the way, I love Marcus’s mom and Miss Loretta. Can you get them their own show? I think there could be multiple spin-offs.
Like the Hacks Marvel cinematic universe.
Speaking of other characters, I wanted to talk about Kayla. Megan Stalter just kills me whenever she’s on the screen, and the two of you have this incredible comedic chemistry. It made me think of you and Abbi (Jacobson) on Broad City, with whom you similarly had just this incredible way with each other. You and Abbi knew each other from your UCB days, but this is Megan’s first real role, and comedic chemistry can’t be faked. How do you know when you’re going to have that sort of connection with somebody?
That’s the thing you don’t really know beforehand. We did an audition and Meg and I had been fans of each other and we connected online. Then we did a standup show together. A lot of times with comics you’ll watch other people perform, but you kind of can’t get in the room, and this was a a little bar,it was just too crowded for people to see anything. I later found out that we [Statler and Downs] had snuck in and like smushed our heads in to watch the other person. So we already had an affinity for each other. But you don’t know if it’s gonna translate to the screen. And I think that’s one of the reasons why organically this season, the whole writer’s room ended up pitching more for Jimmy and Kayla because there was that chemistry.
I do think Jimmy, as a straight man, needs his character to bounce off of, and similarly Kayla needs a straight man to be set up against. So we’re lucky that it did work so well and that we do tickle each other. We’re always on the verge of laughing in a scene. I think there’s this secret, you see it sometimes with somebody like Maya Rudolph, and you’re like, I think she’s about to laugh. But she’s not gonna laugh because she’s so disciplined, but you can see the twinkle in somebody’s eye when they’re having fun and you can feel it. And I do feel like that’s something that translates for the two of us, because we are enjoying each other and the dynamic just feels good.
There’s a common perception that comedy people love attention or to be the center of things, but you love to collaborate. Why?
You know, I just watched the George Carlin documentary where Seinfeld talks about would he ever wanna do Broadway. And he’s like, I have to wait for someone else to talk? No thanks. The reason that I pivoted and started doing sketch and improv at the UCB was because I found standup to be lonely. It’s just you, and you don’t have that as an actor. I always wanted to be a comedic actor. I always wanted to be Robin Williams. I think the reason I wanted to be an actor is that you’re only as good an actor as you are a listener and a scene partner. It’s really about you focusing on somebody else. I think that was the reason I found stand-up to be so challenging; because it is just you. And so when I started doing improv and I started learning the techniques of improv about listening and reacting and saying “yes, and…” and all of that stuff, it was so much more fun because you’re tickling somebody else in the scene and you’re still getting to do live performance.
With collaborating, you’re seeing partners and the people you’re collaborating with laugh. And so ultimately I just preferred collaborating. It was just so much more fulfilling. And it’s the same with writing. You know, some people say like, wow, [Hacks has] three showrunners. That must be complicated. And no, it’s not, because we have such a great audience in the other people that we’re working with. And it’s so helpful to have our target be, did I make Jen laugh? Did I make Lucia laugh? Did I surprise them? I get to be like, how can I make—honestly—the two funniest, smartest people I know laugh? It makes me raise the bar on my game all the time.
When you’re married to the person you work with on a show, I’m assuming you probably crack each other up all the time, but is there a time out from work stuff? Is there a “No Hacks” time or is it like a Nora Ephron “everything is copy” sort of thing?
It is very Nora Ephron “everything is copy.” Everything is material and in some ways it’s great because you go out to eat and you meet a funny character, or there’s something that happens that you hear and you pick up and you turn into your work. A lot of our best material comes from us just hanging out. And because Lucia is my romantic partner and because Jen is our best friend, when we’re hanging out and we’re not working, that’s when the best things for work come up.
Comedy is often accused of being very bro-y, a sort of boys club. But you seem to be the lone guy among a lot of brilliant, hilarious women on your projects. What draws you to work with mostly women?
I’ve always found women more funny. And I actually had a revelation recently—when I was really young, my dad showed me Young Frankenstein and I watched it over and over until the tape was hot. Gene Wilder is brilliant. He’s an idol of mine. But the funniest people in that movie are Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn and Teri Garr. There are these brilliantly funny women who, to me, steal the movie.
But I also really consider myself like alt-male, for lack of a better word. There’s a lot of bro-types in the comedy world that I’ve never related to. And I’m one of those people that has more female friends than male friends. In some ways I feel like a traitor to my gender. I think we’re seeing more and more alt males, guys who are out-loud feminists and not just like, I love my mom and my sister, but who think women’s rights are a serious thing that we need to all be talking about more. So I’m not alone in that.
You already have this hilarious cast, and then you start adding brilliantly funny people like Susie Essman, Martha Kelly and Margaret Cho as guests to this season.Let’s say you have the hiccups and the only cure is to laugh, who from the cast do you get?
Laurie Metcalf. Laurie is the person I’m like fuck, she is such a genius. And so funny. She’s iconic in Roseanne and she does like multicam stuff and she’s so good. That’s a really hard skill, to deliver a joke in a multicam scenario with a live studio audience and always crush. But then she’s on Getting On, and that was exactly my sensibility because it’s so funny, but then you have really grounded characters. Laurie does so many broad things and then seeing her be so idiosyncratic and nuanced and still so funny, but she does it in a way that is so grounded and you absolutely buy it because truth is always stranger than fiction. And these characters exist in the world and you’re just like, yep that’s a person that exists.