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HBO Max comedy ‘Hacks’ takes dark look at Las Vegas legend

It began, as prestige television projects often do, on the way to a monster truck rally.

Six years ago, Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky, friends and writers on Comedy Central’s acclaimed “Broad City,” were on a road trip to Maine to take in some car-crushing mayhem. The conversation turned to comedy, the women who work in it, and, Statsky says, “how, often, the women are pounding the pavement and working so hard and putting in years and years of work, but they never quite get the same recognition as maybe their male counterparts do.”

The fruits of that discussion are on display in “Hacks” (Thursdays, HBO Max), the trio’s dark, Las Vegas-based comedy about the tense relationship between an aging icon and a young upstart.

Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), beloved comedian and “Queen of Las Vegas,” is celebrating her 2,500th show at the Palmetto casino, a feat for which the city is renaming a street in her honor. “It’ll probably be a dead end with an abortion clinic on it,” she cracks. That achievement, though, isn’t enough to stop the Palmetto’s owner from planning to take away her Friday and Saturday shows to cater to a younger crowd. Maybe it’s that Anna Nicole Smith joke that still stubbornly clings to her act.

Enter Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), a young, L.A.-based comedy writer who’s being drummed out of the business after tweeting a controversial joke. Their shared manager (“Hacks” co-creator Downs) hooks them up to save each other’s careers, even though they go together like Carhartt and Cartier.

Deborah is mystified by Ava’s ideas about humor. “Jokes need a punch line,” she screams. “Well, in my opinion,” Ava counters, “traditional joke structure is very male. It’s so focused on the ending. It’s all about the climax.”

Smart, the TV icon who rose to prominence 35 years ago on “Designing Women,” has been on a tear in recent years, with Emmy-nominated turns in “Fargo” and “Watchmen” and juicy roles in “Legion” and the current “Mare of Easttown.” Deborah is yet another showcase for her immense talents.

Following a show at the Palmetto — Palazzo doubles for the resort’s exteriors, but the interiors were filmed in downtown L.A.’s Millennium Biltmore Hotel — Deborah heads offstage, jets off to hawk her branded bath caddies on QVC, then flies back to her sprawling Las Vegas estate to be alone with her thoughts.

She fights with the water authority over her fully stocked fish pond, occasionally commandeers a sightseeing bus on the Strip for its captive audience and reminisces about lewd acts Liberace engaged in on one of her sofas.

When the Palmetto’s owner bemoans the fact that his contractor accidentally doubled the orders for a remodel, leaving him with two tons of fertilizer and nothing to do with it, Deborah’s quick to offer a suggestion: “Dump it on Steve Wynn’s doorstep.”

Much of the media reaction to the series likens Deborah to Joan Rivers. It’s an easy connection to make, considering their home-shopping appearances. In a later episode, it’s revealed that Deborah came painfully close to being the first woman to host a late-night talk show, something Rivers achieved in 1986.

But the character comes across more as a Debbie Reynolds-type, a diva in the absolute best sense of the word. It’s a comparison the writers are delighted to hear.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it’s this person or it’s that person,’ ” Downs says. “We always say, because it’s true, that it’s an amalgamation of people like Phyllis Diller and Elaine May, and we always name Debbie Reynolds.”

The trio already knew they wanted to draw on Reynolds’ decades in Las Vegas. Then an HBO Max executive sent them a copy of the late showbiz legend’s memoirs, and they knew they had more to draw on for Deborah’s history.

“She is yet another one of these veteran entertainers who was knocked down a hundred times,” Downs says of Reynolds. “She was exactly the kind of survivor that we wanted to portray.”

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Sheldon Adelson, the late chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp., which operates Palazzo.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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