For Jewish ‘Hacks’ star Hannah Einbinder, Judaism is her secret comedy weapon

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JAKE GILES NETTER

DAN BUFFA, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

If you haven’t seen “Hacks” on HBO Max yet, stop what you’re doing and press play.

While Jean Smart makes a role like an aging entertainer/comedian staring at a crossroads in her career sing like few other actresses could, the show’s sizzle generates from the interactions between her Deborah Vance and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), the young comic hired to modernize — or update — Deborah’s tired and expired comedy dialect.

The women, polar opposites in age and wealth, fire zingers at each other relentlessly, with Deborah picking on Ava’s skin color and the younger soul ripping the declining legend for not taking chances on new material.

Great comedy shows thrive on wickedly funny and brutally honest dialogue, and the actors have to make that stick and sing at the same time. Smart’s brilliance has been established over decades in a career that fails to slow down or lose steam. Unlike her “Hacks” persona, Smart does take a lot of chances in her roles, such as moving from the neurotic mother of Kate Winslet on “Mare of Easttown” to Deborah inside a week on sister networks. Two different ladies with vastly different pasts and makeup. If Smart is in it, the writing gains intelligence.

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But if you ask me, the secret weapon of “Hacks” is Einbinder, a relatively new actress (her only film credit is a small part in this year’s “North Hollywood”) who steals scenes when she’s not holding her own with Smart. She was nominated for an Emmy this year for her work on the show, a coronation that the restless Einbinder is still trying to keep a grip on.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, the Jewish actress talked about how the newfound success in Hollywood hasn’t curbed her anxiety, something she attributes to being Jewish.

“I think there is something to the idea that everything can be taken from you, just like that, which feeds into the idea that in a self-loathing area of consciousness, everything should be taken away from you,” Einbinder told the newspaper.

Having your dignity stripped is a trait that affects her character in the show. Ava is the opposite of Deborah: an unproven joke writer who is already infamous for an incident earlier in her career, something that got her “canceled.” When the job to steer Deborah’s career away from the gutter comes along, Einbinder’s character takes criticism from her fellow young comics as well as the wrath from her new, unwanted mentor. But it’s the pressure and negativity that Ava places on herself that is the worst, something Einbinder could tap into easily due to her real-life self-doubt.

It’s not like her real-life didn’t give her plenty of ammunition for comedy, especially an infamous bat mitzvah. Einbinder designed the celebration as an awards show-type event where she would give plastic trophies to her best friends. They would walk down a runway with paparazzi (her dad’s friends actually) snapping pictures. Hyperactive as a child, Einbinder took chanting the Torah very seriously, to the point where her parents had the rabbi give her a shorter portion to read.

As a kid, she grew up in Los Angeles, where her parents attended Temple Isaiah, a synagogue that fuses the past with the future when it comes to innovation and practice. Einbinder saw it as a super hippie temple that was inclusive and diverse. Many don’t embrace the religion, but Einbinder sure did. She refers to Hashem as “the big H,” defends Judaism with an iron fist, and did Shabbat as a child with challah and grape juice. Her devotion to religion didn’t mirror her family’s relationship to it, but they found a common ground with comedy.

Einbinder’s mother, Laraine Newman, was an original cast member on “Saturday Night Live” and her father, Chad Einbinder, was a writer for the show.  As a kid, her biggest goal was getting a laugh out of her parents, something that ranked higher than athletics or grades in her eyes. And while the jokes come hard and fast in her house, stand-up comic work didn’t find her until well into college at Chapman University in Orange County, when someone told her she was funny. Ever since then, Einbinder has lived and breathed it– leading her to this big moment on a big show.

It’s that same need to please that fuels Ava on “Hacks,” a show that brings out many of Einbinder’s comedic talents as well as channeling her real-life vulnerabilities. All she wants to do is gain the respect of Smart’s Vance throughout the 10-episode series, which is currently available on HBO Max. Their interactions power the show, which paints a ruthless if endearing outlook of the comedian profession at the moment.

But even if Deborah Vance is slow to give Ava the proper respect and attention, Hollywood and award circuits are already confirming Einbinder’s brilliance. “Hacks” has been renewed for a second season, which should give the young actress more opportunities to steal scenes from the veteran performer.

This much is true. Hannah Einbinder only has four credits to her name in the big show so far, but she’s already making a dent–and Judaism is her secret weapon.