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Comic Hannah Einbinder on 'Hacks,' cheerleading and laughs as a love language

Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) is a young writer for legendary stand-up comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) in <em>Hacks</em>.
Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) is a young writer for legendary stand-up comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) in Hacks.

When Hacks star Hannah Einbinder was in college, comedian Nicole Byer came to her campus and asked the improv team if any of their members wanted to open for her. Einbinder volunteered — and the experience was life changing.

“This was at a time in my life where I didn't really feel good, and [performing] was this eight- to 10-minute relief from the very bad feeling,” Einbinder says. “And I just became obsessed and started to chase that.”

Einbinder says her experience on the competitive cheer team in middle school taught her extreme discipline and focus — which she then put toward comedy. After that first stand-up routine, she began memorizing comedy albums and driving all over the city to attend open mic nights: “I really never looked back. It just felt so good,” she says.

Einbinder grew up in a comedic family — her mother is Laraine Newman, one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live. She says being funny was “the main currency in our home.”

It was a love language for sure,” she says. “My parents are both tough laughs, so I had to do a lot to … get a big response from them.”

In the HBO Max series Hacks, now in its third season, Einbinder plays a young comedy writer in a love/hate relationship with her boss, a veteran comedian played by Jean Smart. She says working with Smart has been a true learning experience.

“She's really so gifted, naturally, and also technically, when it comes to the very meticulous blocking work and continuity,” Einbinder says of her co-star. “She's very sharp and she's very on it. And I have tried to absorb as much as I can.”

In her new Max comedy special, Everything Must Go, Einbinder talks about turning points in her life, including being diagnosed with ADHD, her experiences as a competitive cheerleader and coming out as bisexual.

Interview highlights

On landing her role on Hacks

I added jokes in my audition every step of the way. ... [The script] was so funny. And when something is such a quality piece of work, for me, it's so easy to kind of spitball off of that. So I just loved the material and I had ideas for it, and so I just added jokes along the way. I did about three auditions. My first one was several days before the initial COVID lockdown, and then months went by and I did my callback on Zoom. And, again, in that callback I added several jokes and I also added that Ava would vape after a punchline. I bought a vape and I hit it. I smoked it in the callback.

On "cancel culture" in comedy, and how Jean Smart's character on Hacks is called out for telling racist jokes earlier in her career

I think it is about the way that the comedian responds now. I think if you double down and … refuse to apologize, then you're standing by the remarks you made. And if they are racist or problematic or whatever they may be, in whatever case it is, then that is a problem. And people have the absolute right to not want to consume your art anymore. And I think a lot of comedians are headstrong personalities who don't want to compromise and whose job is to have an opinion and to stick by it and their entire work is their own perspective. And so wavering on that and being malleable in that way is not something that comedians are typically willing to do. ...

There's this famous George Carlin quote that it is the comedian's job is to find the line and deliberately cross it. And I think that is valuable, but I choose to cross the line in different ways. For me, I choose to cross the line in terms of form and the exploration of the material and the way that the material is presented in terms of format and style. I don't necessarily see — in the case of a lot of these male comedians today — clowning on trans people as speaking truth to power.

On competing in competitive cheer in junior high school

I really do attribute my desperate pursuit of perfection and my high personal standard to cheerleading, for better or for worse, because my coaches were really, really intense and they did not accept anything other than perfection. And we won every competition we entered. I compare cheerleading to being a part of the United States military in the [Max comedy] special. And I stand by it. I'm joking, of course, but it's very intense. And if you think of a Russian gymnastics coach, it's kind of that with American nationalism imbued into it. So scary, but I don't know that I regret it.

I certainly don't feel good. My neck hurts right now. My knees — I'll probably have to have a replacement very young. They crack. … I almost have to reset my kneecap when I'm walking sometimes. I mean, I'm really withering, but there was a lot of good that came out of it and there was no stopping me.

On bisexuality

I think that people in general are fearful of identities that are not binary. I think we, as people, really like for red to mean stop and green to mean go. And it challenges certain individuals’ worldview and understanding of themselves and others when they are confronted with someone who is secure in the middle, secure with gray in a world that tries very desperately to be black and white. …

I definitely think I am different in relationships with men versus women. And I think when I'm with a man, I am actually so violently resisting those traditional gender roles. But I typically tend to date men who are, I guess you could call them "feminine." I definitely feel like when I date men, I wear the pants. So I guess that I'm Mommy's girl. ... My mom was 12 years my father's senior. And, in many ways, my dad is a highly emotional guy, which is a wonderful thing. … I think my ideas of gender roles have been totally flipped. ... My view on what it means to be a woman is sort of contrary to the popular notion.

On how growing up in Reform Judaism has influenced her outlook on life

I went to Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. It's a very liberal, cool, inclusive temple. ... The head of the temple, was a woman, a Latino woman. And my view of Judaism is a very colorful, vivid, diverse, excepting rendition, if you will. It was always a really positive place for me, Judaism. I love the way that I have gotten to experience it, and I had a really, really wonderful experience of it. … Because we do not have heaven and hell in Judaism, the main takeaway from that for me is that heaven is Earth. We are here for one short of time and tikkun olam, we have to heal the Earth. ... It's like all of these really beautiful values that are Jewish do affect my life and how I live it and what I am grateful for and what I place importance upon.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

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