Achoo!” Hacks star Hannah Einbinder has allergies. “Feathers, dust, pollen, gluten, dairy, all animals with fur, grass, stone fruits,” she says. She sounds somewhere between bored and amused as she runs through the list. “A lot of allergies. I’m missing a couple pieces.” One day, while filming the ferocious, whip-smart comedy she stars in opposite Jean Smart, Einbinder’s sensitivity to her surroundings almost caused her to faint. “We were shooting in a lush, ecological landscape at a house built in the 1920s. It was very dusty, and they had a dog,” she says, laughing through a sniffle. “I almost passed out. It’s kind of annoying, but I’m used to it. I’m just hobbling through the world. But Jean is a fierce mama bear. She will stop everything to be like, ‘Honey, are you OK?’ Such a sweetie.”
“Honey” is not a term of endearment Einbinder’s Hacks character Ava Daniels is likely to hear from Smart’s Deborah Vance in the show. Not unless she’s being patronised. Deborah Vance isn’t the cuddly type. She is a Joan Rivers-esque stand-up legend, whose jokes are going stale and whose residency in Las Vegas is under threat. Ava is the reluctant twentysomething TV writer sent in to breathe some life into her set. At first, they detest each other. Deborah finds Ava to be an irritant; an entitled naïf with strangely large hands. For a while, she has Ava doing everything but writing jokes for her – having heart-to-hearts with her daughter, digitising her mountain of archives, shopping for an antique pepper shaker worth $10,000. In one hilarious scene, Ava riles Deborah so much that the veteran comic begins to throw amethysts and other, er, spiritual crystals, at her new employee. Ava, meanwhile, would rather be anywhere else than working for this maniac. Einbinder’s performance is an emotional whirlwind, vacillating between deadpan, dejected and defiant as she tells Deborah: “I’d rather sling Bang-Bang Chicken and Shrimp all day than work here!”
As the culture-clash series unfolds – the second season has just aired, after the first picked up 15 Emmy nominations and took home three trophies – Deborah and Ava’s relationship grows into something more caring, if not quite loving. An imperfect mother-daughter dynamic begins to emerge. “We don’t have any of the toughness, in our actual relationship, that those two characters have,” Einbinder tells me over video call from New York. “Jean and I are really overtly nurturing and intimate and close.”
Einbinder assures me that while she has more friends than Ava – “not hard to do” – she can relate to her isolation. “I do feel kind of alone sometimes in my career,” she says, having worked as a stand-up for years, with Hacks being her first acting role. “Ava was a very successful writer, very young, and that isolated her a bit. I feel like I’ve had a very rare career trajectory and that’s also a little isolating.”
Einbinder is defensive of Ava. It’s understandable – I’d love to be her friend. She’s thoughtful and funny and drinks lots of beer. But she’s also narcissistic and pretentious and intense. The show has been praised for being led by women who don’t prescribe to the gendered expectations of “likeability”.
“I don’t even think the likeability conversation exists around men,” says Einbinder. “I have experienced the wrath of the people who don’t love Ava and who find her unlikeable. Whether that’s online, or just someone coming up to me and being like, ‘Oh my God, are you in that show? Do you play that really annoying girl?’” She laughs. Sneezes. “That’s when it’s very obvious to me that we live in a patriarchal society with internalised misogyny… It upsets me because I’m not someone who ever wakes up in the morning and is like, ‘I’m a woman brushing my teeth, I’m a woman getting dressed.’ I don’t think about my womanhood constantly. So when people are constantly reminding me, via Ava, that there is this big difference and women are held to different standards, it upsets me.”
Like Ava, Einbinder is not on Twitter. In the show, Ava took a step back after tweeting an off-colour joke about a right-wing politician and his gay son. The outrage that ensued is why she resorts to working for Deborah, after becoming a pariah in the LA comedy scene. But why doesn’t Einbinder have it? “It was draining my will to live,” she says. “My feed was truly hell. It’s just a horrific place. I’m about as lefty as they come politically but I find the discourse online to be completely devoid of any sort of nuance that reflects how things actually are. It’s so infuriating to watch a group of white people feign moral purity as a means of deflecting any responsibility for their role in this society. It’s so disgusting to me. Especially as a Jew: I have white supremacists who’ve found me. Whenever you tweet about something Jewish or a synagogue gets shot up, Nazis will find you. Nazi is a strong word – they wish they were Nazis – but alt-right people troll you. I was just like, I hate this, I don’t want to be here.”
Einbinder grew up in a very progressive, liberal, Jewish, queer family. She is bisexual, two of her siblings are trans and her grandmother was an out lesbian in the Sixties. Her mother is Saturday Night Live star Laraine Newman; her father is former comedy writer Chad Einbinder. “Comedy was always on in my household,” she says, name-checking everything from The Mighty Boosh and Flight of the Conchords to Steve Martin and Maria Bamford. “There was a lot of subliminal indoctrination.” She describes herself as a “classic neurodivergent, ADHD kid, where I was all over the place… every month there would be a new thing and it would fizzle out”. She was a stoner in high school and when she started at Chapman University in California, she lacked direction. She’d been on “a very high dose” of ADHD drug Adderall for years, but she “cold turkey got off that” after trying improv at university. She found she had never felt freer.
At first, she hadn’t taken naturally to improv. “I have a theory I was so heavily medicated for most of my adolescence that my neural pathways were carved in a way that made me very in my head,” she says. “The Adderall pushed me inwards and the weed made me neurotic and overthinky and obsessive over everything I said or did. I’d constantly be thinking, ‘Was that wrong? Was that bad?’ So I found improv very hard because you have to be very free and say the first thing on your mind.” A couple of years into university, US comic Nicole Byer visited her improv team, looking for someone to open for her stand-up show. Einbinder went for it and “never looked back”. After she graduated, she hit open mics every night and built her own career as a stand-up. This autumn, she’s performing at London’s Soho Theatre. “I don’t know why, but I care more that British audiences like me,” she says, laughing. “Maybe it’s just because I generally think they’re smarter.”
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Einbinder’s comedy has drawn acclaim in the US. The New York Times called her set “precocious and poised” when she became the youngest comedian, at 23, to perform on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Vulture said she had a “refreshingly absurdist charm”. But like any comedian, she is no stranger to heckling. “I’ve had really gross things yelled at me on stage so I created a sort of a tool kit for any possible scenario that could arise,” she says. “I dusted myself off and went, ‘OK, how am I going to make sure this never happens again?’ And now I’m ready. I have a couple of stock responses if I’m being yelled at for being a Jew, or being queer, or for being a woman… I have several things that would destroy someone.” She laughs. “Those are on lock. I’ve created a thicker skin but I’m also still very sensitive. The core of every performer is incredibly soft.”
One Hacks episode focuses on the sexual harassment that goes on in comedy clubs. “I’ve heard more from friends than I’ve seen in person, because I came up in comedy in a post-MeToo world,” says Einbinder. “In LA, the MeToo movement really did strike fear into the hearts and minds of men, which I absolutely adore.”
What impact does she think “cancel culture” could have on comedy? “I don’t think ‘cancel culture’ is what people think it is,” she says. “Anyone who has been ‘cancelled’ is pretty much back to work, especially men. Even Bill Cosby is free. I also think the internet does not help when we’re talking about anything that requires nuance. People are being held accountable for the first time in history and I think that’s ultimately a good thing, but not all offences are created equal and we are treating them as such, which is wrong.”
She also has no time for comedians who punch down at minorities with their jokes. “There are a lot of bullies who grew up to be comedians and they are just continuing to bully people. They have no desire to be thoughtful or make light of things, only to cause chaos or be what they believe is ‘edgy’ but is actually, in reality, hack. They will always exist and if you don’t like them, don’t support them. Don’t buy their tickets.”
Having grown up around comedians, Einbinder was never that fussed about becoming an actor, but was encouraged by her management to start auditioning. Then Hacks came along. “I really cannot stress enough how much dreck there is out there,” she says. “It wasn’t until Hacks that I saw the possibilities that exist in TV.”
Her parents are her harshest critics. The currency in her family has always been whether or not you could make someone laugh. “It is our value system, it is our religion, it is really everything,” she says, adding that her parents used to call her the milkmaid because if she got a laugh, she would milk it for all it was worth until it wasn’t funny any more.
So, do they like Hacks? “They love it. They really love it,” she says. “And I promise I would hear it from them if they didn’t. They have told me when they don’t like a joke. But they’re not those parents who are like, ‘I don’t like when you objectify yourself, honey.’ It’s more like, ‘Notes on why the joke is bad or unoriginal.’”
She sneezes. “It hurts, but maybe it’s made be better.”
Both seasons of ‘Hacks’ are out in full on Amazon Prime Video. Hannah Einbinder is performing at Soho Theatre from Monday 26 September to Saturday 8 October