‘Hacks’ Showrunners on How Show’s 17 Emmy Nominations Upped the Ante for Season 2

When Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky were working together on Broad City, awards were outside their grasp. “It was so not in our world,” says Downs, who would come to expect the same until their latest collaboration, HBO Max’s Hacks, scored 15 Emmy nominations (and three wins) for its first season. “It was shocking,” recounts Aniello, who’s married to Downs. When the comedy series, starring Jean Smart as aging comic Deborah Vance and Hannah Einbinder as her millennial writer Ava, returned for a second season this spring, the writing trio felt pressure to deliver something that was at least as good as season one. “But none of us ever expected to get more nominations [17 in total], and so weirdly it was able to shock us again,” adds Downs, who also plays Smart’s agent in the series. As Downs and Aniello’s baby coos in the background, the threesome weighs in on plot points, expectations and Smart’s obsession with Christmas.

You pitched this show with a blueprint of what multiple seasons would look like, including the series finale. How closely did season two stick to that vision? 

PAUL W. DOWNS We knew that they were going to be on the road and that that was a big part of the season. We obviously knew we had to deal with the email [that Ava had sent maligning her boss], and we felt like it was character-revealing and character growth for Ava to just own up to it and to be forthright. I think it was in the beginning of the blue sky [brainstorming session for season two] that we said, at the end of this season, it feels right for Deborah to let Ava go. That wasn’t in our initial pitch. 

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LUCIA ANIELLO Our blue sky, which is basically when we do some big-picture [planning for the upcoming] season, is something we do right at the end of when the finale has just aired. It’s usually like two weeks, and then we take a bit of a break before we dive into the next season. We do it then because one, it’s really fresh, what we just learned, and two, it means that on our very short break that we do have, we’re able to have that stuff percolating in the back of our minds. 

You also have real-time feedback to consider. How did the response to season one inform your approach to two? 

DOWNS I think because we were doing a tone that we hadn’t seen a ton on TV — which was by having characters who were comedians — we could be hard-funny and actually do jokes but also have a lot of heart and emotion. And because that [worked in season one], we were able to [do] things that might feel broad in another show, like getting kicked off of a lesbian cruise but also lean into those heartfelt moments and do things where this woman who’s in her late 60s, early 70s is now starting from zero and reliving all of the indignities that she’d experienced on the road. We also learned things about our actors, like how fabulous Carl Clemons-Hopkins is, and so we wanted to give them really juicy stuff this year.

ANIELLO Hannah’s physical comedy is something that we didn’t know when we wrote season one because we hadn’t cast her yet. She’s a former competitive cheerleader and has such an incredible command of her body as a result, which then transforms so perfectly as a physical comedian. That’s also something we got to have even more fun writing toward, for example. 

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What did you make of the response to the season finale, which some seemed to feel would make a perfect series finale? 

JEN STATSKY It was nice in the sense that it means that people felt emotionally satisfied with the resolution to that particular story, but for us, we pitched the way the show ends when we pitched the show originally, and the scene on the balcony is not the way the show ends. We have more story to tell. 

There was a sex scene with Jean Smart and Devon Sawa’s characters this season that felt novel in ways I wish it didn’t. But having a 70-year-old actress be intimate and sexy is not something viewers often see, and I’m curious what kind of conversations existed around that choice.

DOWNS We were very aware of the fact that it’s novel for it to be an older woman and a younger man. You don’t even consider the age difference when it’s an older man and a younger woman, because that happens in the world, but one of the things that’s really gratifying for us about the show is that we get to show this older woman who is sexy and fierce and loudmouthed, and she gets to enjoy her sexuality. And also for Jean to be like, “Wow, I get to do this. Like, I don’t have to put on a wig and look older than I am, which I do in a lot of shows.” I think one of the things that’s really exciting about the show for her is that she gets to look honestly how she looks because there’s so much, like, older-lady cosplay that I feel like actors have to do if they’re that age. It’s like, “All right, gimme a cane, gimme a wild wig and let me go at it and I’ll do a dramatic monologue.” 

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I know you had folks like comedy writer Janis Hirsch consulting on season one. Who did you bring in for season two? 

ANIELLO We brought in Carol Leifer as one of our main consulting producers, and she’s also joining us for season three. What’s so great about her is that she’s a woman who has been a stand-up for a super long time and has made a name for herself but still also had to operate in the boys’ club for so long, so she has great stories. I don’t know if I can say this, but I’m just going to, Susie Essman was somebody who was a part of our blue sky room. We’ve known her for years from Broad City, and she joined us for the season three blue sky, as well. She has incredible stories and jokes, but also she’s so hyper-intelligent and psychologically minded that she’s in here pitching story and character turns as if she’s been a professional screenwriter for decades.

(L-R) Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

You’ve brought pieces of yourselves and your actors to these storylines. Any examples come to mind? 

ANIELLO A lot of things we believe we put in Ava’s mouth, especially about, like, “Billionaires shouldn’t exist.” That’s very much our POV that we just directly inject, but she feels the same.

STATSKY As we get to know our actors, there are certainly things from Jean’s life or from Hannah’s life. Like Deborah’s Christmas room, that comes from Jean Smart because she loves Christmas.

DOWNS We shot her with Santa Claus in season one. She’s sitting on his lap for a photo shoot, and she loved the giant nutcracker. She’s like, “Can I have that?” But it had been rented. So Jen, Lucia and I actually set out to buy it for her for Christmas, and then Jen found a gorgeous pair on Craigslist. 

STATSKY They were probably like 5- or 6-feet-tall nutcrackers in their little guard huts, and I was so excited to get them for Jean. Then I emailed and they say, “Sorry, someone bought them.”

DOWNS So we actually ended up going to the prop house and saying to them, “Can we please buy this? Because Jean really loved it.” They let us buy the nutcracker from the set, which was great, and we went to deliver it to Jean.

STATSKY As we pull up her driveway, I hear Paul, like, “Jen, Jen, oh my God, Jen, she bought the nutcrackers. Jean was the one!” (Laughs.)

I imagine you felt pressure to maintain the quality of this show, which broke out with critics and Emmy voters in season one. How do you each handle that pressure, and do you try to make sure you’re not all stressed at the same time?

ANIELLO It changes all the time in terms of who feels the pressure and who’s like, “Eh, let’s just have fun.” 

STATSKY Yeah, depends on the day. 

ANIELLO And on who’s gone to therapy most recently. (Laughs.)

STATSKY Though I will say, I am most likely to do this. (Puts hands on face.)

ANIELLO Obviously there is pressure, but we do our best, and it’s a challenge to not think about the external stuff. What makes us laugh has to be our north star because it’s the only way that we can do it and not be completely debilitated. So we really do try to block it out as much as we can, which also sucks because then you can’t always take in the happy parts.

DOWNS Even though that’s true, I will say the impact of 17 Emmy nominations right now for a show about an older woman and a younger queer woman at a time when women’s rights and gay rights are under attack was really hopeful. When we were about to pitch it, we were like, “Are people going to buy a show about a 70-year-old woman and her queer writer?” As much as we try not to focus on that stuff, you can’t help but be buoyed in this climate by something like that.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.