Jean Smart is still a saucy survivor the gays can’t help rooting for

Playing a standup comedian on HBO Max’s “Hacks,” the screen icon is at the centre of a very queer universe

The name on every queer person’s lips is Jean Smart—or at least it seems that way if you’ve spent any time on Gay Twitter in the last month.

Jean Smart, the illustrious star of stage and screen, rose to fame in the 1980s playing the iconic role of naive, big-hearted Charlene Frazier Stillfield on Designing Women, and she hasn’t stopped working since. She’s appeared on shows like 24, Frasier, Samantha Who? and in a handful of movies, too (if you’re a queer ’90s kid, you’ll probably remember her cameo as the neighbour of the Bradys in The Brady Bunch Movie). She’s won three Emmy Awards and received a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner. Despite the accolades, Smart’s largely been a cult character actress. That changed with her 2015 star-making performance in season two of FX’s Fargo in which she played the matriarch of a crime family, forced to take the reins of the family business after her husband suffers a debilitating stroke. Her performance was a revelation that made Hollywood take serious notice of her in a way that it never really had before. In 2019, Smart blew everyone away again with her iconic performance in Watchmen (possibly the greatest series ever made). Now, Smart is finally taking her rightful place in the spotlight as the star of HBO’s new smash series, Hacks. (In Canada, Hacks is available on Crave.)

In Hacks, Smart plays Deborah Vance, an older, hugely successful standup comedian. The creators have said that she’s an amalgamation of many pioneering female comedians who started in the ’60s and ’70s, including the legendary Joan Rivers. Deborah is a glamorous, no-bullshit diva, living in the lap of luxury. She has a successful Vegas residency at the Palmetto casino that she’s been doing for decades, as well as her own lucrative Home Shopping Network brand. Her empire is a well-oiled machine and Deborah is coasting along until her world is turned upside down when the CEO of the Palmetto decides to end her residency in order to give the stage to younger, more relevant performers. Deborah, who’s been so comfortable for all these years, is forced to reinvent herself and her stale standup act—and who better to help her than a messy, entitled, clever 25-year-old writer named Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who recently lost her big TV development deal after being cancelled for a problematic tweet. Their combative relationship is riveting as it explores the generation gap between boomers and Gen Z and what it means to be a woman in comedy, then and now. 

 

It’s no surprise that Hacks has resonated with queer audiences. It’s so much of what we love: glamour, wigs, fights, a has-been trying to make a comeback. Elements of it recall another beloved show, The Comeback with Lisa Kudrow, though the two are tonally very different. Hacks isn’t just about a straight cisgender woman trying to save her career; it is unapologetically queer. Ava identifies as bisexual and the third lead, Deborah’s manager, Marcus, is an out gay Black man who’s struggling to have a personal life since all his time is devoted to Deborah. 

In the comedy world, queer comedians share so many of the same struggles with straight, cis female comedians. Deborah’s struggles are, in so many ways, our own—including trying to prove ourselves to a boys’ club that isn’t worthy of our time. Hacks is a love letter to all the women and queer comics who’ve dared to get up on stage in a comedy club. With heart, wit and brutal honesty, the show explores what it means to exist and survive in a toxic, deeply problematic industry: what is sacrificed, what is gained and whether or not it’s all worth it in the end. 

“‘Schitt’s Creek’ would not have won nine Emmys without our constant advocacy through the use of Moira Rose gifs.”

Thomas: When gays get behind a TV show with a strong female lead, nothing can stop us. We’re single-handedly responsible for the return of Lisa Kudrow to The Comeback for a second turn as Valerie Cherish in 2014, nine years after Season 1. Schitt’s Creek would not have won nine Emmys without our constant advocacy through the use of Moira Rose gifs. And now, we’ll carry Hacks all the way to the pop culture hall of fame. It’s exhilarating to be a part of history!

Tranna: Gay Twitter should be renamed Jean Smart Twitter. Ever since Hacks premiered a month ago, my entire Twitter feed has become devoted to Jean Smart. And I have absolutely no problem with that! She is unbelievably brilliant and it’s thrilling to witness this television veteran take centre stage. If only we could all be supported the way gay men support actresses over 50. It’s such a beautiful thing. 

Thomas: What I find beautiful about Hacks is that it’s a show about flipping the script: female and queer characters drive the story, while straight males are one-dimensional at best. It’s a buddy comedy showcasing two women, not men, who are unafraid to clash about art and work. But mostly it’s a queer show that is not only about queerness. On Hacks, the gay and bisexual characters can just exist, without having to mine their trauma (which is obviously okay, but also extremely taxing) or present a wholesome version of queerness (hello Modern Family’s Cam and Mitch). There are a lot of queer characters in Hacks, but their identities are treated in a way that’s simply matter of fact, almost inconsequential. Hannah Einbinder, who is bisexual in real life, plays Ava. She can’t get over her ex-girlfriend Ruby, the way any person might obsess over their ex. She also spends a night she’ll never forget with a man she meets at a hotel lobby, but her sexual orientation is absent from this plot twist: it’s just one facet of her world—how shocking!

Another example of Hacks treating queerness with refreshing laissez-faire is how Deborah’s manager, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins, who uses they/them pronouns), falls for the disarmingly charming municipal employee Wilson, played by Pose alum and hilarious IG hottie Johnny Sibilly. Marcus and Wilson are just two guys getting frisky, and the show is not using this arc to make a point about anything other than that serious, career-driven people are horny too. Boisterous gay comics Guy Branum and Solomon Georgio also make cameos, which made me very happy. 

And, of course, bisexual viral star Megan Stalter plays the scene-stealing Kayla, the hilarious entertainment agency assistant who delivers endless brilliant moments. Queerness is front and centre, but without many of the usual tropes associated to queer storylines (I’m looking at you, coming-out tearjerkers).

Tranna: I think Hacks is so popular with queer audiences because we love to see a strong woman triumph. A lot of people think Jean’s character, Deborah Vance, is based on the late Joan Rivers, but other than the fact that they both sell crap on Home Shopping Network and wear sequins, I don’t see many similarities. Hacks is not the Joan Rivers story fictionalized. While Deborah is quick and razor sharp, she’s a bit more subdued and less in-your-face than Joan. There’s a warmth about Deborah that Joan didn’t have, or at least rarely showed. The closest we ever got to vulnerability with Joan was the brilliant documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which is a great companion piece to Hacks. I would argue that even though A Piece of Work is a documentary, it doesn’t do quite as good a job as Hacks in painting a picture of just how awful the comedy world can be for women and, in turn, queer people. The Joan doc was made in 2010, pre-#MeToo, so maybe there was still a reluctance to fully go there—to tell the whole, ugly truth. 

Thomas: Early in the season, Ava is tasked with organizing Deborah’s archives, and she has to watch footage of her boss going all the way back to the ’70s, when Deborah was a sitcom star who became the first female host in late night. It’s a great metaphor for how we are currently re-examining entertainment history. So much of the show’s dynamic is about comparing the worldviews of Deborah the baby boomer and Ava the Gen-Zer. They have their differences, but the writing brims with heart and empathy. It’s no surprise that the core throuple of writers-producers on the show—Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky—are all Broad City alums who are deeply entrenched in the TV and comedy worlds. Now, being performers ourselves, it feels narcissistic to watch a show about comics, but it’s clearly resonating beyond our world. I mostly recommended it to you because of the series’ infamous standup club takedown….

“Even though it’s a fictional clash, watching Deborah hand this guy his own ass was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever watched.”

Tranna: I had such an emotional reaction to that episode. The eighth episode of Hacks, “1.69 Million,” is the most painfully realistic depiction of the comedy world I have ever seen. When Deborah walks into the comedy club, she’s immediately greeted by a comedian named Drew, a cocky 30-something alpha douchebag. He’s hosting the show that night, and he gives Deborah the run down and tells her: “There’s a green room in the back, you can drop your shit there. And don’t fuck it up.” This loser who has never achieved anything has the nerve to tell this comedy legend not to fuck it up—and this happens all the time to women comedians. Drew would never have said anything like that if he was talking to a legendary male comedian, like Dave Chapelle or Jerry Seinfeld. I know this is a fictional series, but my blood was boiling as I watched it, because Drew is so real. There is always at least one Drew at every comedy show. I have met so many Drews and I know you have, too. That scene was triggering as fuck. 

During the standup show, Drew brings Deborah up on stage with the most awful, insulting introduction: he says she’s known for being a “crazy woman,” then says that the phrase “crazy woman” is “redundant,” like “free gift.” When Deborah gets on stage, she gets her revenge. She eviscerates him. She is throwing so many punches at him, he can’t keep up. But he tries. At one point Deborah drops the act and makes an honest plea: “I’m sure you have nothing to say that hasn’t been said, on this stage, a million times. When will you just stop? Seriously, what will it take to make you just stop?” I honestly got teary-eyed at that moment. When will these guys just stop? It’s the fantasy of every female comedian to do that. Drew, being the unclever asshole he is, yells that he’d stop doing comedy for $69 million. Deborah offers him $1.69 million, totally seriously, to never set foot on another stage or ever host a podcast. He takes the offer because, as she points out, his comedy career is worthless. Even though it’s a fictional clash, watching Deborah hand this guy his own ass was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever watched. I wish we could get all the Drews of the world to just fucking stop. Sadly, it’s going to cost a hell of a lot more to get Joe Rogan to stop. The only thing that bothered me is that she gave Drew so much money; she should have offered him $69,000, which is still way too generous. 

Thomas: The tension when Deborah makes her offer to Drew in front of the audience had me howling! And I knew that would trigger you. It’s definitely cathartic to see a guy like Drew become the butt of the joke, and it shows how much our culture has changed in the last decade. If we could travel back to 2011 and show this episode to folks then, I don’t think they would even understand what’s happening. Women and queer people have traditionnally been the punchlines. 

“Showing this episode to comedians in 2011 would be like showing an iPhone to someone in the 16th century.”

Tranna: It’s really interesting to see women who’ve been in the industry for 20-plus years finally feel like they can speak up. One of my favourite comedians, Jen Kirkman, has been so outspoken about her experiences. She was one of several comedians who recently spoke out against Jeff Singer, one of the talent bookers at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival. After being accused of saying racist, homophobic and misogynistic things, he resigned. Things are changing, but you’re right, showing this episode to comedians in 2011 would be like showing an iPhone to someone in the 16th century. That’s how fucking backwards the comedy world has been for so long. 

Thomas: Interestingly, the episode was written by Pat Regan, a gay standup comic known for co-hosting the deliriously funny podcast Seek Treatment with NYC-darling Catherine Cohen. Regan must know a thing or two about guys like Drew, who casually use their privilege to insult and degrade other comics. What makes the writing even more impressive is that it’s his first TV episode ever. I’m sure it won’t be his last. 

Tranna: I wonder if straight male comedians have watched Hacks and if some of them recognize themselves in Drew. (They probably don’t. Assholes like Drew are not known for self-awareness.) Whether they get it or not, I’m just glad that there is a successful, popular HBO Max show that says: “Listen up, Drews. You are not funny. Your comedy is redundant, unimaginative and irrelevant. Get off the fucking stage.” 

Thomas: I mean, some can be well-meaning. 

Tranna: Please do not get “not all men” on me! 

Thomas: I was once told by a straight male comic that it was “brave” to talk about being gay on stage. The material wasn’t outré. How little courage do you need to watch a cis, white guy like me perform and talk about gay stuff today and go, “Wow, that was daring”? We all live in such echo chambers that, to this guy, a basic white gay like me was the queerest thing he had seen in a comedy club. I actually felt sorry for him; his life must be so beige.

“The only person who manages to crack the rock around Deborah’s heart is Ava.”

Tranna: There’s another important moment in the episode I want to talk about: before the show, Deborah runs into Francine, an old standup comedian friend who’s also in the lineup. They catch up over dinner, and Ava hears them talk about the misogyny and sexual harassment they had to endure at the club back in the day. Deborah and Francine are laughing over their memories, but Ava is disturbed. In the green room, Ava asks Deborah about those experiences and asks her why she didn’t do anything. It’s such an interesting moment, watching these two generations collide. Ava thinks Deborah should have done more to stand up for herself and other women in comedy; she has these very 2021 expectations for how 1975 Deborah should have acted. Deborah retaliates and basically says she did what she had to do, and that just by getting up on stage she did a lot for women and that it’s not her responsibility to lift people up. What did you think of that scene and the generational divide between Deborah and Ava?

Thomas: This is a classic “both-sides-are-right” TV scene. Arguments are made by Deborah and Ava and as a viewer, I fell smack in the middle. I don’t know if it’s useful to revisit every instance of the past with today’s frame of reference, but we also need to acknowledge how abuse has prevailed for so long. This is part of the brilliance of the show: despite the fact that Deborah is more powerful than Ava, they both have agency and independence, while also needing each other. Their perspectives are both valid. Without Deborah, Ava wouldn’t understand that other generations have made an impact in their own way. And without Ava, Deborah wouldn’t have harnessed her vulnerability to get closure on a long chapter of her life.

Tranna: Ava brings up the fact that so many women have stopped doing comedy because of the fear of having to be in the same room as these sexual abusers. I personally know women who have given up comedy because of the toxic environment. That’s why I’m so grateful for this episode of Hacks. It paints such a realistic and eye-opening picture of the comedy world, but without ever being didactic or heavy-handed. That is such a hard thing to do. In so many ways, it feels like, culturally, we’ve collectively lost our sense of humour. I can rarely tweet a joke without someone taking it literally or personally when it is very clearly not. I love that even as Hacks deals with heavy, serious things it never loses its sense of humour. The sparring and arguments between Deborah and Ava are delicious and often productive! They both learn so much from arguing with each other. We need more of that in real life, instead of everyone doing this very unfunny and uninteresting moral grandstanding. 

Thomas: I mean, I never even considered doing standup myself before I saw a gay comedian performing in front of a gay crowd. I honestly didn’t believe that standup clubs were meant for queer people, on stage or in the audience. When I was younger, standup TV tapings seemed almost alien to me, as if the straight comedians were speaking a different language. But with the shift in the comedy world over the last 10 years, I know that queer folks in comedy can go places no straight male would dare to.

“LGBTQ2S+ characters have often existed to advance the straight protagonist’s journey. But things are evolving fast.”

Tranna: It truly has been amazing and inspiring to see women and queer comics not only take up space in this world, but thrive. A lot of the best television of the last 10 years—Broad City, I May Destroy You, It’s a Sin, Shrill, Search Party, Los Espookys, Feel Good, Ziwe—have been created by women and/or queer people. I haven’t been on a comedy stage in 15 months and watching Hacks makes me feel so uneasy about returning. On the one hand, Hacks has made me really excited and inspired to write new material and get back on stage. But on the other hand, I don’t want to spend time around the Drews of the world anymore. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that life is too short to spend even five minutes in the company of a Drew. 

Thomas: Yeah, that’s why creating and running queer events was always so appealing to me. I also appreciated how all the (rare) straight male characters on Hacks are caricatures. That’s another way the script is flipped in the show. The Las Vegas mogul Marty is a money-hungry dealmaker who just cares about himself; Ava and Deborah’s agent Jimmy is only motivated by pleasing his clients; Ava’s straight hookup is so bottled up emotionally that she is genuinely shocked by the way their night ends (read: badly. Very badly). Historically, women on TV were the ones who were stereotypically defined by their femininity, not their intelligence; LGBTQ2S+ characters often existed to advance the straight protagonist’s journey and make them change their mind. But things are evolving fast.

Tranna: One of the themes running through the entire season which resonated with me is learning to embrace vulnerability in relationships. In the show, we learn that, decades ago, Deborah’s ex-husband cheated on her with her sister, something she has never forgiven either of them for. Deborah’s heart is closed. Her whole life is her career. She’s put her career ahead of her daughter, who is a hot mess and also one of the funniest characters. That scene where she’s playing the Jurassic Park theme, completely earnestly, on the grand piano at her birthday party had me on the floor laughing. The only person who manages to crack the rock around Deborah’s heart is Ava; I loved watching the way their relationship evolves, and how hard it is for Deborah to allow herself to be vulnerable. Her comedy is suffering for her lack of vulnerability, too, and Ava pushes her to write more honestly. My main criticism of Hacks is that sometimes it gets a little corny. Some moments between Deborah and Ava are a bit too sweet. 

We also see the theme of vulnerability play out with Marcus. He’s smart, gay, super well-organized—I wish he was my manager!—and, like Deborah, he has sacrificed his personal life for his job until he meets Wilson, the super cute and sweet water police guy. It really looks like Marcus is ready to open his heart, but when he gets a promotion from Deborah he slides right back into old habits. It’s so sad. 

Thomas: They need to keep some unresolved issues for Season 2! Learning that Hacks has been renewed gave me hope. The world is healing and we haven’t seen the last of Jean Smart.

Tranna: Move over Meryl and Glenn, Jean is just getting started.  

Montreal-based comedians Thomas Leblanc and Tranna Wintour’s podcast Chosen Family streams on CBC, Apple and Google; new episodes drop every other Thursday.

Thomas Leblanc is one half of the Montreal comedy duo Thomas and Tranna, hosts of the CBC podcast Chosen Family.

Tranna Wintour is one half of the Montreal comedy duo Thomas and Tranna, hosts of the CBC podcast Chosen Family.

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