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Jean Smart: For stand-up comedy you 'have to be a good actor'

Jean Smart stars as a stand-up comic in new series, Hacks. Photo by Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max
Jean Smart stars as a stand-up comic in new series, "Hacks." Photo by Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

LOS ANGELES, May 13 (UPI) -- Emmy winner Jean Smart plays a veteran Las Vegas stand-up comic in new HBO series Hacks, and says her years of being an actress helped her in the role.

"To be a good stand-up, you really have to be a good actor," Smart said in a recent Television Critics Association Zoom. "That's how you sell your materials."

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Smart stars as Deborah Vance (Smart), who has performed 2,500 shows at the fictional Palmetto Casino.

The 69-year-old said she did not study any specific comedians to prepare for the role. Still, she said, she found that some of her favorites, such as Elayne Boosler or Phyllis Diller, influenced her, anyway.

"There's a little Sam Kinison every once in a while," Smart said. "I haven't based it on anyone, and I haven't been doing that kind of research. I go with my gut instinct."

The late Kinison was known for his raunchy routines in which he screamed his punchlines, and then screamed some more.

To attract a younger audience, the Palmetto wants to cancel Deborah's Friday and Saturday shows to clear the stage for the a capella band Pentatonix. Her agent (Paul W. Downs, also a co-creator) suggests she hire young, out-of-work writer Ava to revitalize her show.

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Ava is played by Hannah Einbinder, a stand-up comedian. Hacks is her first lead role in a series.

"As a working comic, I get the rhythm of jokes, pitching and drafts," the 25-year-old said.

Ava becomes blacklisted for a tweet she wrote. Writing for Deborah is the only job available to her, and it means moving to Las Vegas.

For Ava, writing jokes for a stand-up is different from her goal of writing for scripted television. Einbinder said she doesn't mind making the leap from stand-up to acting.

"It's comedy, baby," Einbinder said.

Downs created Hacks with Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky and the three are co-showrunners. The Good Place and Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur is also an executive producer.

Although the writers create jokes for Deborah to perform on stage, they said Hacks is funnier when Deborah is off-stage. Schur said Deborah's reaction to pitches she rejects from Ava are funnier than what makes it into her act.

"Those moments where the two of them and their comedic sensibilities clash are more important," Schur said. "It's about the two women and how those gears grind somewhat unpleasantly at times."

Smart said Deborah would resent anyone pitching her jokes because she always has written her own material. However, Deborah's jokes have gotten stale.

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"They both disagree a lot about what's funny," Smart said. "Neither one of them are right and neither one of them are wrong,"

Deborah and Ava have generational differences. Smart said she could be Einbinder's mother in real life. The characters' disagreements, however, are more philosophical than generational.

"Ava's point of view is: If the masses think something is funny, then it's not," Smart said. "It's not cool if the masses like it."

In her own stand-up, Einbinder said she often is at the mercy of the audience, and that senses of humor change from city to city.

"It always depends on the room you're in," Einbinder said. "I'm going to do differently in Silver Lake than I'm gonna do in Laramie, Wyoming."

The live component of stand-up was familiar, Smart said. Having performed in live theater, Smart said audiences can affect any performance.

"They are part of your performance," Smart said. "So it's always going to be better or worse depending on the audience reaction."

Hacks airs Thursdays on HBO Max.

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