Intergenerational conflict is one of the oldest themes in comedy.
Name just about any sitcom that includes parents and children, from “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” in the late 1950s to “Family Ties” in the ’80s to “black-ish” of today, and conflict among age groups is sure to be a major source of the series’ laughs.
A fresh take on this intergenerational lack of understanding informs many of the hilarious, and sometimes uncomfortable, moments in the smart, funny streaming series “Hacks,” which just wrapped up its first season on HBO Max last month.
The always-brilliant Jean Smart shines yet again as Deborah Vance, a hardworking stand-up comic of a certain age who has a long-running gig at the fictional Palmetto resort in Las Vegas.
When the resort’s owner tells Deborah he wants to reassign her weekend show slots to an act that can reach a younger audience, she fights for herself, and for an aging fan base that has loved her dependable jokes for decades.
Enter Ava, skillfully played by Hannah Einbinder. Ava’s an edgy millennial comedy writer who is in hot water with the TV industry for tweeting a controversial joke. She’s been borderline “canceled,” if you will.
One thing these two funny ladies have in common — besides precarious careers, train-wreck personal lives and difficult relationships with family members — is their mutual agent, Jimmy. He figures he can solve two problems at once by suggesting Deborah hire Ava to write for her, to help her comedy act evolve for a changing audience.
They are, at first, oil and water.
The prickly, profound conversations between these two women as they move from being on opposite wavelengths to developing a grudging respect for each other’s comedic voices make this show feel like something original, though the theme may be as old as the hills.
To hear Ava go from feeling she’s too good to write for Deborah, whom she initially calls “the QVC muumuu lady,” to gaining an appreciation of the older woman’s place in the comedy canon, is heartwarming. And to hear Deborah validate Ava’s comedic voice — even when she doesn’t quite understand it — is, too.
The character of Deborah is clearly an homage to the late Joan Rivers: A hardworking, barrier-breaking female comic of a certain age, who rarely met a showbiz gig she wouldn’t take and who becomes nearly as well-known for the products she sells on a home shopping network as for her comedy.
As a fan of 1960s and ’70s daytime and nighttime talk and variety shows — with frequent appearances from the likes of Rivers, Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller — I grew up on the kind of comedy, and the type of old-school showbiz, that Deborah represents.
Over the decades I’ve embraced edgier women comics like Kathy Griffin and Margaret Cho. I spent a bit of time grappling with the appeal of Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer, before becoming a fan of all three.
(I need a little more time to let Ava’s comedic point of view marinate in my consciousness.)
How the intergenerational conflict is handled in “Hacks” resonates with me in that, while my wonderful, Depression-era parents never tried to accept the staying power of rock ’n’ roll or hide their frequent disdain for my beloved “Saturday Night Live’s” brand of humor, I have tried to choose a different path.
I’ve never been the hippest person in the room, but I do try to stay au courant with popular culture. I seem to spend a few minutes online each week with the Urban Dictionary, trying to decipher the idiom of the current zeitgeist: Does “sick” mean something good or bad this week? If something or someone’s being mentioned frequently on cultural news sites and I’ve never heard of them, I want to get to know them and have an open mind about their work.
I may not embrace a lot of what the young folks are into, or share every aspect of their value system, but I’m always willing to make an effort to try to understand evolving attitudes on societal issues rather than merely saying, sorry, I’m too old to adapt now.
Though I’m truly determined to evolve with the times, I confess that sometimes it feels exhausting to understand and internalize the cultural and societal changes that continue to barrel at those of us who are slouching toward Social Security.
I recognize that exhaustion sometimes on Deborah Vance’s face in “Hacks.”
When, in the first episode, Deborah watches a video by Pentatonix — the group the resort owner wants to replace her with and with whom she is unfamiliar — and then spontaneously tosses her computer tablet into her swimming pool, I laugh out loud in recognition.
Watching Deborah use her decades of star power to deal with a misogynistic male comic, and seeing her be willing to work with Ava to craft a personally terrifying but potentially game-changing stand-up set that’s outside her long-established comfort zone, is so satisfying to the viewer.
I’m thrilled that “Hacks” has been renewed for a second season, and I look forward to seeing how Deborah and Ava’s relationship — and the comedy they create together — evolves.
“Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.