“Are you a lesbian?” the comic Deborah Vance inappropriately queries of her new writing assistant Ava early on in Hacks' first season. In a classic rejoinder, Ava spells out the nuances of her sexual identity that are nobody’s business. A once-rising star of a writer who’s relegated to working with an aging comedian in Las Vegas of all places because of a single cancel-causing tweet, Ava’s clearly had it with the inquiring minds she’s encountered regarding her identity. After firing off the nuances of her emotional and sexual desires as if she were reading a shopping list, she flatly tells Deborah, “I’m bi.”
It turns out Deborah’s not much concerned with Ava’s specifics but merely wants to know why she’s “dressed like Rachel Maddow’s mechanic.” In an age where queer characters have relatively flourished on TV but there are still few bisexual lead characters, there’s power in Ava matter-of-factly claiming her identity. The scene is rendered even more meaningful because Hannah Einbinder, who plays Ava, brings her authentic bisexual self to the role. Einbinder is aware of the impact visibility can have on the culture and those who see themselves in her and the character.
“As someone who exists in a [kind of] middle in terms of sexuality and gender, I have at times, especially in my early days of attempting to accept myself, felt really out of place. I was never fully one thing, so I never fully belonged anywhere,” Einbinder tells The Advocate about what she calls the “privilege” of portraying a character who could help others feel seen. “I think if I had seen more images of bisexual characters, it would have been easier. It would have been more clear. My journey wouldn't have taken me so long to accept that I had been kind of brainwashed by the binary in a lot of ways.”
A late-spring entry on HBO Max’s growing roster of buzzworthy shows, Hacks has been critically embraced and lauded. It was announced earlier this month that it’s already been picked up for a second season. Audiences were drawn to the series initially in large part because of the legendary Jean Smart’s turn as the acerbic, trailblazing comic Deborah. But the series, which explores an intergenerational friendship between otherwise disparate women who just happen to be at turning points in their careers, is heightened by Einbinder’s comedic and dramatic chops. Her Ava meets Deborah with equal parts ennui and irritation at the sacrifices the older woman continues to make as a once-pioneering woman in the male-dominated world of comedy.
There’s a kind of kismet to Einbinder’s breakout role as a struggling writer forced to hole up in a Vegas casino when she’s not sparring with Deborah in her cavernous manse on the outskirts of the Strip. In her first appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert last year, Einbinder sets up a joke, stating she’s bisexual before drawing comparisons between dating men and heading to Vegas to let loose once in a while. Ava, like Einbinder in her set, doesn’t lead with her identity, but it’s an irrepressible part of her fabric. Hacks, which features several other queer characters, normalizes identity in merely allowing Ava to exist as the young and messy recovering solipsist who occasionally pines for the ex-girlfriend she screwed things up with back in Los Angeles.
“There are so many years that I spent so lost. Ava is not perfect, but she is very real to me,” Einbinder says. “I think we're only now around to the existence of fluidity in a widespread way. I really have only recently stopped putting pressure on myself to fall into a rigid category in terms of my sexuality and gender.”
At 26, Einbinder has been around the business throughout her life (her mother is Laraine Newman, one of Saturday Night Live’s original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and her father is the actor Chad Einbinder). Part of the journey in Hacks is Ava discovering the amount of trash Deborah waded through to rise in the comedy world. There’s a scene late in the season where Deborah drops her act and calls out the shitty men who run clubs and hold sway over so many burgeoning careers even as they sexually harass the women who walk through the doors. As a queer person in comedy, Einbinder is aware that marginalized folks are still often the punch line.
Photo Credit: Justin Bettman
“I stand in the back of comedy clubs and my jaw drops at times because I can't believe what I'm hearing,” she says. “It's very clear to me when there is love behind a little roast or a dig and when love is absent.
“I can just speak to my community of stand-up. There are still way more men than women. Most lineups that you see have one or two women on them unless the show is run by women or queer people. Most of the mainstream clubs — there is a huge inequity there. That is why you hear a lot of comedy that doesn't feel like it comes from a place of empathy and love.
“This isn't to say that no straight male comedians are loving and cool and great. I have a ton of friends who are great guys and never do this stuff. But a lot of the people who came up at a time where it was still acceptable to punch down, and it was frankly the norm, are having a bit of a come-to-Jesus moment,” she says. “Because as queer people and women and people of color who have typically been the butt of jokes are starting to be heard more, we are saying, ‘You guys got to come up with new material because we've heard it all. You know, we just have higher standards. We're not [not] laughing because we can't take a joke, we're not laughing because it ain't funny.”
Hacks delivers an insider’s glimpse into the comedy world, elevates queer identities, and examines the sacrifices women made to dare to want it all. But it is arguably a platonic love story between Ava and Deborah as they come to admire one another. Their relationship is born out of mutual disdain based primarily on their generational worldviews — Deborah played the game with men in the business to carve a path, which is anathema to Ava, while Deborah pegs Ava as a whiny Gen-Zer who’s had everything handed to her. But they eventually come to care for and understand each other.
“We exist in a moment where we are applying our current standards to past experiences. Ava holds a lot of these very high standards that we only are able to have in the first place because of the work that people before us did,” Einbinder says. “I have really enjoyed highlighting that dynamic because I believe it is kind of the key to progress, and ultimately, it's just empathy, like understanding that Deborah had to fight for herself and her daughter.
“It's so easy to cast aspersions and judgment, but it stops any progress from happening. We need to hear the full story, and we need to be patient with one another. I've loved that element of this show. I really hope that if people internalize that then we can understand each other more.”