Published: Thursday, 11 February 2021 | Written by SciFi Vision
TThe new comedy series starring Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder, which is yet to be titled, is coming soon to HBO Max. The Untitled Jean Smart Series follows Smart as Deborah Vance, a legendary comedian who is told she needs to improve her act to reach a broader audience. Hannah Einbinder stars as the young entitled comedy writer Ava, who’s chosen to write jokes for Vance. The series also stars Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Marcus.
Executive producers Paul W. Downs (who also stars as Jimmy), Lucia Aniello, Jen Statsky, and Michael Schur, along with stars Smart, Einbinder, and Clemons-Hopkins, recently talked to journalists in the TCA panel for HBO Max which SciFi Vision attended.
During the panel, Smart talked about shouldering the responsibility of being the lead of the series and also working with Einbinder. “…Certainly I feel a big responsibility, but it's been so much fun that I haven't really worried about it. We have an enormous amount of freedom, thanks to our amazing writer/producers and they let us improvise.
“And Hannah and I especially get a lot of time to work things through, work things out. She's hilarious, and she's a comedienne, and so I was first sort of nervous to do stuff in front of her, because she has done a lot of standup, so a little pressure…but, it's just been a total pleasure.”
The executive producers talked about some of the challenges of writing a series with good stand-up comedy.
According to Statsky, “It is definitely a challenge, and we always want it to feel authentic, but so much of this show is about the lives of these women and these characters off stage. So, while the stand-up is of course incredibly important and sets up who Deborah Vance is, what she does, and what she's so good at, it's a lot more about what happens off stage. So, I think it has been a challenge, but it’s actually been less of a challenge than you might think personally.”
Aniello added, “…It's so uniquely from Deborah Vance's point of view…So, in that way, it's kind of refreshing to be able to write through somebody else's voice.”
Schur also said, “The real fun of it is the generational divide between the two comedians is so fun…Those moments where the two of them and their comedic sensibilities clash are more important, I think, and funnier than Deborah Vance's act when she's on stage, because that's just not what the show's about at all. It's about the two women and how those gears grind somewhat unpleasantly at times.”
The actors had nothing but good things to say about each other.
Smart said about her costar, “Hannah's so good. She's such a good actress…To be a good stand-up, you really kind of have to be a good actor. It's like, also some of the great singers, you have to be a really good actor, that's how you sell your materials.”
Einbinder added, “… I was handed a master class on my first day from all of these people. I'm learning every single day. It's crazy, Jean and Carl are just my heroes.”
The actors also talked about some of the difficulties of filming comedy without an audience.
According to Smart, “…It’s so different from doing, say, a film or a TV show where you don’t have an audience, because if you’re doing a play, or you’re a stand-up and you have an audience, they are part of your performance. So, it’s always going to be better or worse depending on the audience reaction.”
Clemons-Hopkins agreed. “The biggest challenge for me is not only doing this without an audience, but given the time we’re in, everyone’s very removed. So, you’re trying to find that comedic energy, find that ebb and flow in a natural way, without that immediate kinetic response.”
For more, be sure to check out the Untitled Jean Smart Series when it premieres on HBO Max. You can also read the edited transcript of the panel below.
HBO and HBO Max TCA Winter Press Tour
Untitled Jean Smart Series (HBO Max)
Paul W. Downs (EP/Stars as Jimmy) Lucia Aniello (EP) Jen Statsky (EP) Michael Schur (EP) Jean Smart (Stars as Deborah) Hannah Einbinder (Stars as Ava) Carl Clemons-Hopkins (Stars as Marcus)
Los Angeles, CA February 10, 2021
QUESTION: Ms. Smart, you have had the experience of being a series lead but also being part of some of the great ensemble casts on television. As you come back to being a lead, what is the feeling for you in terms of having so much on your shoulders? And also, how much do you love being able to be this free with the language in a series situation?
JEAN SMART: You're making me nervous, because I hadn't really thought about all that on my shoulders until right now, thanks a lot. [laughs]
No, but, I mean, certainly I feel a big responsibility, but it's been so much fun that I haven't really worried about it. We have an enormous amount of freedom, thanks to our amazing writer/producers and they let us improvise.
And Hannah and I especially get a lot of time to work things through, work things out. She's hilarious, and she's a comedienne, and so I was first sort of nervous to do stuff in front of her, because she has done a lot of standup, so a little pressure…but it's just been a total pleasure.
QUESTION: Ms. Smart, in some of those clips [played], it kind of had shades of the late Joan Rivers and a few others that I've seen throughout the years. Have you looked to them, or did you look at their skits and their histories to base your character on?
JEAN SMART: No, actually, I didn't. I mean, I'm certainly a fan of a lot of female comics. In fact, I just recently bought a book called We Killed It, and it has interviews with about 30 or 40 female comediennes, but I haven't even opened it yet. Every once in a while there will be a scene or I'll do something and I'll think, “Oh, that kind of reminds me of so-and-so.” But, I don't know, I mean, I guess I borrow things from other comediennes unconsciously and certainly anywhere from Elayne Boosler or Phyllis Diller to Sam Kinison. There's a little Sam Kinison every once in a while. So, no, I mean, I haven't based it on anyone, and I haven't been doing that kind of research. I kind of go with my gut instinct, and the writing is so good that that usually works out.
QUESTION: Jean, I thought that scene of you two in the desert was absolutely true. I think it does get harder and harder, especially for women in Hollywood. Could you talk a little bit about that struggle? It doesn't ever seem to end.
JEAN SMART: I think that is true, certainly, but to a much lesser extent than it was in the past. I mean, for me personally, I've had some of the most incredible opportunities in my career in the last several years, and I don't take any of it for granted whatsoever. I'm very appreciative of the opportunities that have been offered to me. But at the same time, I wouldn't encourage probably my daughter to be an actress. I don't know. Because the thing is, if you're a mom, too, if you have kids, there's always the feeling that you're shortchanging either your job or your family kind of. That's the hardest part to me, is feeling like you're not giving your all to one or the other. But certainly, yes, there are fewer jobs for women. That's true; that always has been true - than for men. But unfortunately, our business is a very subjective business, so you can't really put some of the same rules and expectations on it as other parts of society where I think fairness in the workplace to women has come a long way and has still got some ways to go. It's very hard to put those same expectations on a business that is, as I said, so completely subjective. I don't know if I answered your question.
QUESTION: For Mike Schur or for any of the other producers, what's the closest you recall from early in your career like this where you had to pitch jokes or ideas to a really intimidating person?
MICHAEL SCHUR: For me, it was Saturday Night Live, which is where I started, which is very collaborative, and actors are writers and writers are actors. There's sort of a real - the show, as Lorne Michaels is fond of saying, doesn't go on because it's ready. It goes on because it's 11:30. So, it sort of trained you to not be precious with your material and to just run up to people who were very famous and say, "I'm cutting all of your jokes," or "I have a new joke for you to read, and you have to do it in the next eight minutes."
I wrote a sketch once at SNL for Bill Murray and my friend Scott Wainio, and he really liked it. We rehearsed it on Thursday, and he came backstage and was like, "Who wrote this?" We sort of went like this [raises hand], and he was like, "You ruined it. You ruined it. What did you do to it? You ruined it. You ruined the sketch." It's literally my worst nightmare. I think about it once a month for the last 20 years. [laughs]
SNL is sort of like that. It's just a very intense experience of pitching jokes to people who some of them are your friends and some of them are very famous actors who are there for one week, and you just sort of get over your hesitancy.
JEN STATSKY: My first full-time writing job was for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. So, it was him, and famously he laughs at everything, so I was like if he doesn't laugh, that's really bad. That's going to be a really bad sign.
So, that was the same deal as 30 Rock. It kind of gets like, his world you get stringed into. You pitch a million jokes, and you just have to kind of get okay with a lot of them being like, "No, those are bad. You ruined it."
PAUL W. DOWNS: For Lucia and I coming from Broad City, we had a slightly different experience in that we were working with Amy Poehler and people like Susie Essman. It was an interesting thing, because to get one of them to laugh at you was so incredible. It felt so good. Obviously, the generational divide is not the same as what's on our show, but they're definitely women that we looked up to, and it was a really crazy experience. When you get Amy to laugh at something, it feels really good.
LUCIA ANIELLO: And we never really cared if they used the jokes. We just wanted to see if we could get them to laugh. [laughs]
QUESTION: The hardest part about writing a TV show that's supposed to have good standup comedy, is writing good standup comedy jokes and sustaining that through a season, and they can't be too topical because of production time. Then, the writers of those jokes, if they're good standup comedy jokes, can't use them on stage, because it's now in a show. I was hoping the comics here could talk about that frustration and challenge and how they've applied it to the show a little bit.
PAUL W. DOWNS: We're very generous, you know, we're very generous writers, and happy to give away some of the best zingers you ever heard. [laughs] That's my stance, I don't know.
JEN STATSKY: Yeah, it is definitely a challenge, and we always want it to feel authentic, but so much of this show is about the lives of these women and these characters off stage. So, while the stand-up is of course incredibly important and sets up who Deborah Vance is, what she does, and what she's so good at, it's a lot more about what happens off stage. So, I think it has been a challenge, but it’s actually been less of a challenge than you might think personally. Do you guys agree?
LUCIA ANIELLO: Totally agree, and also it's so uniquely from Deborah Vance's point of view that that's not necessarily stuff that we're like, “Well, I'm gonna be saying that joke on stage, 'cause it's uniquely her point of view.” So, in that way, it's kind of refreshing to be able to write through somebody else's voice.
MICHAEL SCHUR: The real fun of it is the generational divide between the two comedians is so fun. So, in that trailer, for example, the moment where Deborah is reading the jokes that Ava, Hannah's character has written for her, and one of the jokes is just, “I had a horrible nightmare that I had a voicemail,” what you don't see in that trailer is that there's then like a seven-and-a-half second pause as Jean just slowly looks up at Hannah and then just goes, “What?” And those moments where the two of them and their comedic sensibilities clash are more important, I think, and funnier than Deborah Vance's act when she's on stage, because that's just not what the show's about at all. It's about the two women and how those gears grind somewhat unpleasantly at times.
JEAN SMART: Also too, Deborah's sort of on automatic pilot a bit when we first meet her, which is why Paul, who plays my manager, has insisted that I meet with this young person to punch up my act a little bit, which of course I resent, because I've always done my own writing. Deborah's always done her own writing. So, neither one of them are right, and neither one of them are wrong, but I mean they both disagree a lot about what's funny. Ava's point of view is if the masses think something is funny, then it's not; it's not cool if the masses like it. If the people from Florida who eat at Panera like it, then it's not funny.
JEN STATSKY: If the masses like this show, they're right. [laughs]
QUESTION: Hannah, your mom is kind of comedy royalty. As a working standup comedian, how have your experiences informed your character in this project?
HANNAH EINBINDER: Well, I think as a working comic, I get the rhythm of jokes, and pitching and drafts and feeling like you're bombing and the disappointment that I think my character feels when we do sort of clash in that way initially, when our senses of humor aren't necessarily matching up. I mean, I think being a comic helps in this just in terms of like acting. I guess I'm used to doing comedy for a group of people, and it feels like that's what this is, if you just boil it down. Sorry, what is the first part? My mom, I mean, she played comedy for me in the car growing up; I listened to stand-up from like fifth grade on; probably not the best idea, okay. [laughs]
JEN STATSKY: You actually can't do math. She knows no math; she only knows like early -
HANNAH EINBINDER: No math. No math, but if you give me the Bill Burr approach, I can make an audacious claim and then sort of work back and prove why it's -
JEN STATSKY: She's paying to be on the show, which has helped us.
PAUL W. DOWNS: She's shadowing, yeah.
HANNAH EINBINDER: But, I mean, it's comedy; it's comedy, baby, and I feel like it's a really fluid thing from this type of comedic acting versus stand up. Everybody in this show has their own unique approach. Jean and Carl are trained theater actors, classically trained. Rose Abdoo is a world class improviser. Paul, Lucia, and Jen, I do wanna say, hired six standup comedians in total to act on this show at a time where our industry is some would say on its last legs. I would say maybe less of a leg, more of a seated position, maybe reclining sort of in a bed. But yeah, they really are supporting comedians in a great way, and I just wanna put that out there, babe, because it's real. I don't know if I answered the question at all.
PAUL W. DOWNS: We should also mention maybe that while Hannah is a brilliant stand-up comedienne herself, and I think that colors a lot of the work that she does, she is playing someone who comes from the world of writing for television and isn't a stand up, which is, I think, part of an interesting dynamic clash that she and the Deborah Vance character have. Because she's someone who wrote on a show and had her own show and then now is doing this thing, and so it makes her even more of a fish out of water. Just a hint at what's going on.
JEAN SMART: Also too, I mean Hannah's so good. She's such a good actress, but you can say, “Well if she's so good, she hasn't done that much before this,” but the thing is, we were talking about this the other day. To be a good stand-up, you really kind of have to be a good actor. It's like, also some of the great singers, you have to be a really good actor, that's how you sell your materials.
HANNAH EINBINDER: Well also, I was handed a master class on my first day from all of these people. I'm learning every single day. It's crazy, Jean and Carl are just my heroes. And you guys - I mean, Lucia, as a director, is also an acting coach I've found. She's really teaching me so much, and so I owe it to you guys.
QUESTION: I basically want to ask about the fact that, I imagine when the show premieres in May it will not be called “Untitled Jean Smart”?
JEAN SMART: No? [laughs]
PAUL W. DOWNS: You never know.
QUESTION: I know picking a title can be the hardest part of the process, and I wanted to ask, [can you] talk a little bit about what you guys are going through right now, figuring out what you want that title to be?
MICHAEL SCHUR: Oh brother.
LUCIA ANIELLO: It’s so fun.
MICHAEL SCHUR: You've done it now.
LUCIA ANIELLO: I will say part of what the challenge has been for a title is I think the show really is trying to say so much at once, and I think to try to summarize so many different things with just one or two or three words is an interesting exercise, and I think we're in the middle of that exercise right now. But the show is obviously about a larger-than-life person, Deborah Vance, and it also has a two-handerness to it, but it also has an ensembleness to it as well. There's just so much that we wanna say, and so to kind of boil it down into just a quippy kind of a title is an interesting process, and I think we really are just trying to find something that feels like it represents what the show is.
PAUL W. DOWNS: When it's hard to be "Untitled Jean Smart."
LUCIA ANIELLO: It's hard.
JEAN SMART: Too many syllables. We’ll take suggestions.
QUESTION: Hannah, one of the big stumbling blocks for a comedian is to find their own voice, to find a unique voice. The other thing is to actually feel that you belong on the stage that you’re on. When was the moment that you felt that you actually deserved to be on that stage?
HANNAH EINBINDER: Waiting for that to come. [laughs] I’ll let you know. I’ll let you know. I take a swing at it up there. I try my best. I bomb, and I do well sometimes, and it’s really an unmasterable craft. You can never be a perfect stand-up comedian. I think it always depends on the room you’re in. I’m going to do differently in Silver Lake than I’m gonna do in Laramie, Wyoming. You’re thinking, “Why did you bring up Laramie, Wyoming?” It’s because I went, and it didn’t go well. Okay? [laughs]
No, they were very nice. They were very nice. I don’t feel particularly worthy, really. I think I put comedians on such a pedestal, which maybe I shouldn’t do that, because all my heroes are monsters, it turns out. [laughs] Oh! Who could’ve seen that coming but all of us?
So, I just try my best, and I love the work. I love the work; I love the craft; I love comedy, so I just try my best.
JEAN SMART: That’s why it’s so different from doing, say, a film or a TV show where you don’t have an audience, because if you’re doing a play, or you’re a stand-up and you have an audience, they are part of your performance. So, it’s always going to be better or worse depending on the audience reaction.
HANNAH EINBINDER: Yeah, and I’m sure Carl can speak to that as well coming from the theater, just the difference between live and -
CARL CLEMONS-HOPKINS: Yeah. I feel that, one, you feel that you deserve to be there when you feel you deserve to be there, and it’s gonna come, and it’s gonna go. The biggest challenge for me is not only doing this without an audience, but given the time we’re in, everyone’s very removed. So, you’re trying to find that comedic energy, find that ebb and flow in a natural way, without that immediate kinetic response. Oh, I’m supposed to look here when I talk. [laughs]
I think no matter what you’re doing, if you’re putting yourself out there, it’s going to be a journey of whether you feel deserving or worthy, and that journey is entirely up to you.
LUCIA ANIELLO: And your therapist. [laughs]
CARL CLEMONS-HOPKINS: And your therapist.
JEAN SMART: I was doing a TV show -
CARL CLEMONS-HOPKINS: Or a good barkeep.
JEAN SMART: Sorry.
CARL CLEMONS-HOPKINS: No, you’re fine. Please.
HANNAH EINBINDER:[laughs] A good barkeep.
JEAN SMART: …I was just gonna say, that one time I was doing a TV show, and the director asked me to pick up a cue. I said, “Well, I was holding for the laugh,” and she looked at me like, “What?” because we didn’t have an audience.
And I was sort of kidding, but not really, because that is a problem when you don’t have an audience and you don’t have that immediate feedback, is that – because, obviously, you’re hoping the people at home or the theater are laughing, and you do see that sometimes in movies and TV shows where you’re laughing through the next couple of lines, and you miss a lot, because you can’t really hold for laughs very well, very much, of an audience. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: So, my question was for Jean and Hannah. The show’s premise, that relationship between the two lead characters, you could imagine that also being reflected a little bit behind the scenes. I’m wondering what conversations you’ve had about that, and are there instances in which the different generational perspectives have come up in real life as you’ve made the show?
JEAN SMART: Oh, gosh. You know, I mean, I could be Hannah’s mom, easily, and so I feel very maternal towards her sometimes, but I mostly feel like we’re just people/partners in this thing and having fun. I mean, we just laugh all the time.
HANNAH EINBINDER: All the time.
JEAN SMART: We just laugh all the time, but I just -
HANNAH EINBINDER: We just laugh and laugh.
JEAN SMART: She’s a fabulous person. In fact, we spoke on the phone last night, because I wanted to talk to her about something personal that was totally unrelated to the show, and she was a great listener and gave me some good advice.
HANNAH EINBINDER: I love you, Jean.
JEAN SMART: She’s very cool.
HANNAH EINBINDER: I think I’m kind of an old soul, and I think Jean is a really young spirit.
HANNAH EINBINDER: Oh my god, when I said that, one of the lights in this trailer just turned off.
JEAN SMART: My power.
CARL CLEMONS-HOPKINS: Trying to be ahead.
PAUL W. DOWNS: Good omen.
HANNAH EINBINDER: Okay. But I just, I mean, I adore Jean. It’s so funny, because in the beginning of the pilot, obviously, we’re butting heads as you saw in the trailer. “Cut” is yelled, and we just, “Ahh!” You know, like we just…could embrace and it’s so -
JEAN SMART: Not really. We can’t even hug.
HANNAH EINBINDER: I know. And I proposed several times. She keeps saying, “I’m married.” [laughs] I’m like, “Playing hard to get, okay.”
No, she’s - I love her. I love everyone. We’re all really good friends and, god, it’s so much fun.
JEAN SMART: And no, it was true. I can’t wait until we’re all vaccinated or whatever is gonna happen, and we can hang out because -