If you haven’t seen the HBO Emmy-award-winning show Hacks yet, go watch it. (You’re welcome.) The show can teach us a few things about writing (and life). Hacks explores the relationship between Ava, a Gen Z writer who ruined her reputation before she really made a name for herself, and Debra Vance, a comedian (and legend) who’s in the later stages of her career working to improve her Las Vegas stand-up act.
While Debra sends Ava packing at first, they end up working together after Ava reveals the joke that got her blacklisted on the way out of Debra’s sprawling estate. Debra practically chases Ava down to not only tell her she’s got the job, but to give her a better version of the joke that got her blacklisted. So, what can it teach us about writing (and life in general)? Let’s take a look.
1. No Matter How Old You Get, You Can Always Improve Your Writing
When we first meet Debra Vance, her Vegas stand-up routine could use some work because parts of it are outdated. While it’s not entirely horrible, it could be spruced up a little. This is exactly why her agent, Jimmy, sends Ava her way.
Ava is a fresh, young writer who’s recently ruined her writing reputation by posting an insensitive joke on Twitter. And as a result, she struggles to find more work as a writer. Debra doesn’t want to admit that an inexperienced child could ever help her make her comedy routine the best it can be, but she does know it needs some TLC. Debra could’ve just swallowed her pride and taken the help, but that wouldn’t make for very interesting TV, would it?
2. Don’t Burn Your Bridges
It’s clear that Ava is incredibly talented as a comedy writer and she can come up with good jokes seemingly on the spot. But what she struggles with is playing well with others. It’s revealed a few episodes into the first season that Ava was previously pretty horrible to the people she worked with in the past, which is why they pretty much flat-out tell her that she was kind of a bitch.
And it also explains why when she sees an old co-worker, Taylor, who’s had sort of a comeuppance in the industry (she’s managing a TV show), the woman wants nothing to do with her. Not to mention, Ava interrupts a lunch Taylor’s having with her mother just to ask for a favor (cringe) and can’t even remember her husband’s name. Then, to top it all off, she makes things super awkward when Taylor tells her they can talk next week, and Ava blatantly tells her she hasn’t been answering her texts or emails. Double cringe. That’s why you don’t burn your bridges, Ava. Hopefully she learned her lesson.
3. Sometimes People Don’t Really Care About The Truth
Before she got started in stand-up comedy, Debra was accused of burning down her ex-husband’s house. It’s revealed that she wasn’t even there when it happened, but the news media ran with it. And instead of going crazy trying to clear her name and save her reputation, Debra leaned into it and started making jokes about it, adding it to her comedy routine when she first gets started. She says she realized people don’t care about the truth. So, she made the best of a difficult situation and made a career out of making light of it. Basically, If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Smart lady.
4. Sometimes You Have To Swallow Your Pride
When Ava’s desperate to find work in the first episode of Season 1, she doesn’t really want to work with Debra, because, as she puts it, she doesn’t want to work for an “old hack.” And she especially doesn’t want to move to Vegas. But in the end, she needs the job. She recently bought a townhouse and needs the income, so she swallows her pride and takes the job. She hates it when she first gets there and desperately wants to move back to L.A., but she sucks it up and does what she has to do. And in life, sometimes we have to learn how to do that (as hard as it might be).
5. You Never Know Where An Opportunity Might Lead You
It’s clear that neither Ava nor Debra want to work with each other. Debra thinks she’s too experienced and doesn’t need a writer. And Ava doesn’t want to “write about how men don’t put the toilet seat down,” jabbing at the woman’s jokes and age all in one foul swoop. But once the two come together, they realize what they can create together and begin to bond. That just goes to show you that you should be open to things in life because you never know where it could lead you. It could end up being the best thing you’ve ever done or experienced.
6. Being Completely Honest Can Make For Really Great Writing (But Know Where To Draw the Line)
Ava is blunt, to say the least. She says exactly what’s on her mind at any given moment. It’s funny, it’s outrageous, and it’s unexpected. And we love her for it. And so did her fans…when she had them. But before she went and put her proverbial foot in her mouth, Ava was clearly an exceptional writer.
One reason she’s such a great writer is because of her complete and total honesty about everything. Sometimes she’s a little too honest. Like when she reveals to her agent, Jimmy, that she just slept with her Post Mate’s delivery driver as the reason she didn’t answer her phone the previous night. So while honest writing can make for really great writing, you also have to know where to draw the line.
7. There’s Usually A Storm Before The Sun Shines Again
While we know the sun will eventually come out tomorrow, we also know from the show that there’s usually a storm before that happens. Ava has to go through hell with Debra. She’s forced to live in Vegas (which she hates, and which makes her miss L.A., which she LOVES). In fact, the overpriced lattes are seemingly a plus for her. L.A. is home to her (at least, it has been for the last few years).
It almost feels like the end of the world for her. And it seems like there’s no way out. But despite not being able to see the silver lining, Ava keeps pushing through. But when things feel like you’re going through the wringer in life, that’s usually when something great is about to happen. It sucks that you have to endure the rain at times, but we always come out on the other side stronger and wiser for having gone through hell.
8. Even When You’re A Successful Writer, You’ll Always Have Doubts
Even though Debra’s had an amazing career writing comedy, she still struggles with her confidence as a writer. And despite her years of success and her mountains of money (not to mention the mansion with the cool fountain soda machine she has installed in her kitchen), Debra still doubts herself from time to time, though she’d never admit that to anyone (especially Ava).
You can see it, though, if you’re paying attention. You can tell that after a while, she actually starts to feel like a hack. She wonders if she’s still got it in her to keep a crowd’s attention. But she eventually gets through that rough period and is able to keep writing and performing. Pushing through the doubts is essential because no matter what stage you’re at in your career, they’re bound to come creeping up at some point.
9. Write What You Don’t Love So That You Can Write What You Do Love
Every writer would probably love the idea of just getting up, writing whatever they wanted, and getting paid for it (no matter what they write). Even if you don’t end up in the same situation as Ava (blacklisted from your preferred writing arena), you’ll likely have to do some form of writing in the beginning of your career that you don’t want to do. At least for a while until you get to a place where you can write whatever you want.
Ava is essentially starting from scratch when she’s forced to work for Debra because she literally has no other options, which is why she rolls up her sleeves, swallows her pride, and does the job she was hired to do. She moves to Vegas to write for Debra even though she’d rather be writing for a TV show somewhere back in L.A. Do what you have to do to get where you wanna be. And don’t think others didn’t have to do the same.
10. Write For Your Audience
In season one, Debra’s reading over another round of jokes that Ava’s just written for her. Debra asks about a particular joke: “I had a nightmare that I got a voicemail.” Which is hilarious… if you’re in the right generation. For Debra’s generation (Baby Boomers, I’m guessing), that joke doesn’t land because they used voicemail the majority of their lives (and still use it). Therefore, the joke didn’t land with Debra.
That just goes to show you’ve got to write for your audience. If Debra’s targeting people her age, Ava’s jokes should reflect that—or at least a more general audience. That joke might’ve done well with Gen Z and Millennials, and maybe even Gen X, but not Baby Boomers who likely still use voicemail today instead of sending a quick text.