Hannah Einbinder Lets Down Her Armor

Before she could become an Emmy-nominated star on HBO Max’s Hacks, the comedian had to battle her own brain.

by Nolan Feeney

Watching Hannah Einbinder do stand-up comedy is like watching your high school’s resident stoner tour you through Wikipedia’s most fascinating rabbit holes. Twice on a recent Saturday night, she took the stage at San Francisco’s The Independent — like Christian Grey’s Red Room, if it were also a rock club — to riff on brain chemistry and the environment and Judaism and the end of the world. She twisted her voice into cartoonish characters and affects as she delivered jokes about seeking relief, from either the petty indignities of societal collapse or one’s own faulty wiring. (She has both ADD and ADHD, and at one point interrupted her own bit on the matter to try to catch a fly.) Some of her stories seem to have no traditional punchlines at all, hinging entirely on her delivery of a single word or a stone-faced glance to get the audience roaring.

Over a café breakfast of croissants and decafs the next morning, Einbinder — dressed in a plain white tank top, her penny-colored bob tucked behind her ears — admits she is an anxious performer. “It’s 23 hours of anguish and one hour of euphoria,” she says. Yet her summer shows have been a kind of a victory lap for Einbinder, 27, who has become one of Hollywood’s most exciting new voices thanks to her gloriously offbeat stand-up — in 2020, she became the youngest comedian to perform on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert — as well as her starring role on Hacks, the critically acclaimed comedy about the business of comedy. In it, she plays Ava Daniels, a “canceled” Gen-Z television writer whose only remaining work opportunity is under Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a legendary comedian with a flailing Vegas residency and little interest in anyone punching up her jokes. Underneath the acerbic barbs and self-destructive stubbornness, Einbinder unlocked the character’s tender core, and her performance — her first real acting job — has already earned her two Emmy nominations.

“It was shocking to me, honestly, that she hadn’t done it before,” says Jen Statsky, who co-created Hacks with Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs and previously worked on The Good Place and Broad City. “She is truly performing at a level of people who’ve been working for years and years. There’s an innate talent and spark there. You can’t train it. You can’t teach it. It’s just there, and she has it.”

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The success of Hacks has changed the vibe of Einbinder’s stand-up gigs. Starring in a show about women and queer people in comedy — Einbinder, like her character, is bisexual — tends to attract eager, like-minded crowds. “Gaining trust was always something I had to work for, onstage in the moment, and now I feel like the people coming to the shows already have a level of security in the idea that I can make them laugh,” she says. Einbinder speaks dryly and deliberately, with the slightest hint of vocal fry and a feathery laugh, but she lights up when finding common ground with strangers. Her colleagues praise her openness and curiosity — Conan O’Brien, a fan, describes her as the kind of person “I wish would come to my Christmas party” — and she will ask you follow-up questions about even your most mundane errands. At one point in the conversation, Einbinder’s eyes widen as she recalls a chemist she met the night before during some crowd work: “I almost derailed the show to ask him questions! It’s so interesting and cool! I’ve never met a f***ing chemist!”

Einbinder used to be afraid of opening herself up to the room, but now crowd work is one of her favorite parts of the show — even when it goes terribly wrong. During the later of her two San Francisco shows, Einbinder struck up a conversation with a guy who said he was a psychotherapist. Instant laughs: She had just done a joke about being in therapy, and the coincidence was perfect. But later, after a joke about doctors prescribing animal tranquilizers, she looked to him and asked what he thought. “He flipped me off and said ‘F*** you!’” she says, setting her elbows on the table, her middle fingers popping up like a carnival game.

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Wait, what? He shouted at her that it wasn’t funny. She pointed out that everyone was laughing, which made everyone laugh more, which made him angrier: “He was like, ‘You’re turning them into bullies! You think it’s funny to f***ing laugh at me?’” Venue staff escorted him out, but not before she snuck in a joke about how he could probably use some ketamine, too.

A security guard told Einbinder it was something he’s seen plenty of times: the guy who can’t handle it when he thinks a woman is laughing at him. This, frankly, had never occurred to her. Einbinder’s mother, original Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman, is 12 years older than her father, actor-writer-director Chad Einbinder, and Einbinder says traditional gender roles were not a fixture of her Los Angeles upbringing. “I really feel like I’m from the Wonder Woman planet,” Einbinder says, before stiffening her voice, robot-like: “‘What is this foreign misogynist? Does not compute!’”

I am, at my core, a really mushy, sensitive, fragile person, and I’ve always been that way.

Einbinder recalls this whole story slowly, as if she is still processing what happened, but she wasn’t rattled. If anything, the adrenaline rush was thrilling. “You just handle it,” she says. “When somebody’s giving you s**t, you just tie it into whatever has previously happened and make a joke at their expense. When a guy flips me off and yells, ‘F*** you,’ it’s over. I’m going to destroy you.” A grin spreads across her face. “I’m going to do it lovingly, but I’m going to destroy you. I have all the tools. I use my tools for good — and I could easily use my tools for evil.” This is the story of how Hannah Einbinder got the tools.

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Einbinder cannot recall much of her childhood. This is not unusual for people with ADHD, she says — it’s hard to retain memories when your brain is rarely fully present. Much of what she knows about her younger self she’s constructed through what her parents and other people have told her. But she does remember being the odd one out in elementary school, bullied for no other reason than she looked like an easy target. “Little girls can smell fear and weakness, and they don’t like it,” she says. “I am, at my core, a really mushy, sensitive, fragile person, and I’ve always been that way.”

High school was not any easier. Einbinder was a competitive cheerleader — “You know that show Cheer? I did exactly that for a few years” — but struggled when she joined her high school squad, whose members seemed to prioritize proximity to football players over skillful athleticism. “I see this on the show Intervention a lot: People whose identities are rooted in athletic abilities, and then [when] they get hurt or have to stop, it causes a real crisis of character,” she says. “I lost the big thing that was a huge part of my identity because I was on a team that was essentially glorified dancers with pompoms.” She pauses. “They were a little better than that. I’ll give them a little credit. Sorry, girls!”

The trick in comedy is not to discover a personality, it's to figure out who you always were. Hannah seems to have cracked that at a very young age.

Einbinder became a “tough b***h” who dated bad boys, floated between cliques, and was always told by her coaches to smile. Anger was a common emotion, when there were any feelings at all — the high dose of Adderall she started at 14 flattened her. “I don’t think I was funny in high school,” she says in a half-whisper, as if she is confessing a secret. “Different drugs work differently for different people, and everyone should do what they need to do, but Adderall sucked the life out of me. Every element of the hyperactive, silly, Jim Carrey-inspired comic sensibility as a little goober child was completely blown out. I don’t even recognize the person I was.”

She went to Chapman University in Orange County to study broadcast journalism — she loved reading the news and thought she wanted to be Rachel Maddow — but it didn’t feel like the calling it was for so many of her classmates. So she switched over to a television writing and production major, mostly because the credits transferred seamlessly. One day during her sophomore year, while working on a film set, she met the president of the school’s improv team, who encouraged her to try out.

Einbinder was, by her own account, not good at improv. “I had trouble with the on-the-spot nature because the way that my brain was at the time, I was so internal,” she says. “I was smoking weed constantly, and I was taking Adderall every day, which is just like trapping you inside your mind and throwing away the key.” She cried after her first improv audition, terrified of how exposed she felt, but also had an awakening. First, she decided Adderall no longer served her. Later, when comedian Nicole Byer performed at Chapman during her senior year and asked if anybody from the improv team wanted to open for her, Einbinder volunteered. This was the medium for her: Unlike improv, Einbinder could script every word, and take as much time doing so as she wanted. The performance “was one of the only a-ha moments of my life, like, OK, this is what I will do,” Einbinder says. “It was instant. It was like my life changed.”

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The control Einbinder thought stand-up offered later turned out to be an illusion. Whether it’s a heckler or a commotion on the street, something will come up that you have to remark on, or you’ll lose the room. Making peace with that loosened her up, as did realizing she’d been preparing for this her whole life, thanks to her parents.

“From a very young age it was always, ‘How can I get in front of them and make them laugh?’” Einbinder says. “They loved me and were charmed by me as their baby, but they don’t give it up. I’ve been trying to get laughs from a crowd of two people my whole life. So when I go to an open mic and there’s four people and also other comedians, I’m like, ‘Oh, I can make comedians laugh — that’s what I’ve been doing.’” (Comedy is still all around Einbinder: Her older sibling, Spike Einbinder, acts on HBO’s Los Espookys, and her boyfriend is fellow comedian Alex Edelman.)

It really hit me: I may be an artist, but I am a workhorse and I’m killing myself. I’ve had writer’s block because all I’m doing is working.

Comedians often describe humor as a kind of armor, and Einbinder felt the same way. She describes her early stand-up as “100%” deflection. But one day, she challenged herself to answer the writing prompt “get personal” and came up with the monologue she later did on Colbert: a spoken-word piece about her childhood set to soft jazz music and delivered in the sultry voice of a film-noir star. The set made a fan out of Conan O’Brien, who was impressed by her steely confidence.

“She’s not going to spoon-feed you, and she’s not going to make sure that you’re following her every second of the way,” he says. “She’s not trying to be anybody else, which is unusual when someone’s so young because for a lot of us in comedy, it takes us a while to figure out what our voice is. The trick in comedy is not to discover a personality, it’s to figure out who you always were and do that [onstage]. Hannah seems to have cracked that at a very young age.”

Einbinder credits the unusual cadences of her stand-up to the comedy compilations her mom used to play in the car — introducing her to icons like Bob Newhart, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, and Carl Reiner, as well as LA’s early alternative comedy scene — and their love of Old Hollywood movies. Newman had Einbinder in her early forties, and Einbinder says the older pop-culture influences she passed down offered “the best comedic education I could have.” (She squeals when I mention my mom also had me in her early forties: “You have old-mom energy — that is the highest praise. Whenever I meet old-mom people, I’m just like, ‘You’re chiller, you’re more mature, a little bit of that wisdom feels like it’s seeped in.’”) Still, Einbinder kept her comedy lineage under wraps. “It wasn’t until I got Hacks that people knew that,” she says. “No one in the scene said anything about it. I didn’t tell anyone.”

After college, Einbinder worked at a coffee shop by day and spent her evenings performing anywhere she could or watching other comedy shows. Some of the gigs were unglamorous — she describes a 5 p.m. lottery open-mic at famed venue The Comedy Store as “literally a Squid Game challenge.” But as she started getting on lineups, she caught the attention of veteran comics like Kurt Braunohler and Dana Gould, who asked her to open for them. Her material eventually made its way to Chelsea Handler, who was looking for an opening act.

“What she’s talking about in her stand-up, it’s like a galaxy far, far away, and that’s why it’s so unique,” says Handler, who’s taken Einbinder on the road for multiple stints since 2019. “She’s of this generation that is able to elegantly talk about their personal mental health and relationships. It is the here and now of how people speak these days. She’s very representative of that — of being really truthful about who she is. She is awkward and offbeat, and she plays that up. She takes really long, uncomfortable pauses within her set, which is so bad*ss for anyone to do, especially someone that new to stand-up. She sets herself apart. She’s very clearly a grounded hot mess.” Also: “You can write that her hair smells nice.”

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It took a while for Einbinder to book Hacks. She auditioned a few days before COVID-19 shut the country down. A Zoom callback and a chemistry test with Smart — across a transparent barrier to keep anyone from infecting each other — came much later. Smart told the showrunners afterward that Einbinder was her favorite. “There’s just something about her that was so natural and quirky, I believed that she was a [TV] writer,” Smart says. “She is not vain, and she is good at using her whole physicality. A lot of that I’m sure comes from doing stand-up. There are a lot of people who act from the neck up and don’t know what to do with their bodies.”

When she finally got the call, Einbinder cried. “I was so happy, like, ‘I’m going to have health care! I have a job! The show is sick!’” she says. “And then immediately I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m going to get fired, they’re going to have me on set for three days, they’re going to replace me with a hot actress.’”

It mattered little that her co-workers were impressed and encouraging. (“Paul, Lucia, and I have a fun saying, because she’s so good: ‘At the end of this, Hannah deserves a Ferrari. We’ve got to give her a Ferrari,’” Statsky says.) Einbinder would still go back to her trailer to cry and beat herself up over her performance. That feeling did not let up throughout production, or, really, even Season 2: Smart says Einbinder worried she was getting written out of the show after reading the finale script, which seemed to resolve many of Ava and Deborah’s conflicts. “I was letting down the last piece of the armor,” Einbinder says. “That’s the problem sometimes when comedians have trouble acting: Most comedians spend their whole lives building the armor that later turns into what they do as comedians.”

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Hacks, at its core, is a show about how work can save you. There is no problem its characters can’t solve by putting in the hours. Fulfillment might look different than they imagined, but they’ll still find it. “I think it’s incredibly aspirational for that reason,” Einbinder says. The structural inequities of Hollywood loom nearby, but “the setbacks within the show are due to these individual characters’ personal hang-ups and flaws,” Einbinder says. If their personal lives suffer, they don’t necessarily regret it. And when Deborah fires Ava at the end of the second season, it’s only because Ava’s started to neglect her own ambition in service of Deborah’s.

In real life, Einbinder has learned the limits of these interpretations of the show. She gave up smoking weed in college and in her early stand-up days, thinking, “every moment could be used to be at a show or create or write.” Some of this work ethic was her millennial upbringing — “I was always a really overscheduled kid, I was in the extracurriculars” — and some of it was stand-up’s toxic conventional wisdom: Never say no to a gig. You have to suck for seven years. (A male comedian recently told her that one — at her own headlining show.) So she missed birthdays and weddings and a couple funerals chasing gigs. “I cannot stress how bad of a friend I was, how bad of a kid I was,” she says.

I would die before I would use the word ‘celebrity’ to describe myself.

The start of the pandemic, and the sudden loss of work, was at first terrifying — then liberating. “Literally, literally, I got the stay-at-home order, I picked up a couple gallons of oat milk, got my night cream, got an eighth of weed,” Einbinder says. “Like, I’m f***in’ living!” She had been struggling with writer’s block for almost nine months, but now the material was flowing. Many of the jokes she wrote during the first two weeks are still in her set.

“I [was finally] having the moment we’re all collectively having: Work does not define my life. What is my place in the capitalist machine? How have I been brainwashed by this society?” she says. “It really hit me: I’m such a cog. I may be an artist, but I am a workhorse and I’m f***ing killing myself. And I’ve had writer’s block because all I’m doing is working. I haven’t stopped. I haven’t looked inside or lived or done any sort of mind-expanding at all.”

As the world has opened back up, Einbinder has held onto that breakthrough. She loves spending time in nature, going on walks and identifying all the flowers in her neighborhood. She’s really into mycology and listens to podcasts about mushrooms, which she calls “the f***ing most insane organisms on the planet Earth.” She started exercising for the first time since her cheerleading days and, perhaps most importantly, started saying no to shows. “I’m an open wound for the world, and it takes a lot to keep me running,” she says. “S**t affects me so insanely and derails me. Taking care of myself has been another thing I just never did.”

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Einbinder learned about the HBO Max implosion from Instagram. Last month, she tuned into a live broadcast from Las Culturistas hosts Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers, who happened to be dissecting the news of the week: As a result of this year’s Discovery and WarnerMedia merger, the company was shelving near-finished original films like Batgirl and quietly removing other titles from the service, reportedly to find $3 billion worth of savings.

“I called my agent like, ‘Yoooo, no pressure, no worries, just call me back whenever you get a chance, wondering what’s going on with the merger!’” Einbinder says, putting on a voice of faux-panic. But with 32 Emmy nominations and five wins for the show so far, she thought it would be “bad business” to not go ahead with its June renewal. “I mean, we are in production, we are moving forward, we have Season 3,” she says. “It’s happening for sure. I don’t know what’s happening with other shows.”

The high bar Hacks sets adds some career pressure — “It’s created a [feeling of], ‘Whatever I do has to be of a certain quality” — but Einbinder mostly refuses to think about the growing spotlight on her life. “I would die before I would use the word ‘celebrity’ to describe myself,” she says (though she peppers our conversation with enough disclaimers and prefaces to suggest she’s at least wary of accidentally sparking a Twitter dragging). She’s never been paparazzi’d, and she only recently learned what DeuxMoi was. Because her life and career changed during the pandemic, fame has been a soft launch: “A lot of the events surrounding Hacks or big moments have been on Zoom, you know?”

The nerves around comedy, she knows, will never go away. Before any show, she’ll be in the green room, giving herself a pep talk and wondering why she does this to herself. I ask Einbinder what she gets out of risking failure to be vulnerable. She goes silent for a long time before speaking. She saw a lot of characters coming up in the open-mic scene: the weirdos who wander in off the street, the angry old racists. What a relief to know she’s not that guy in the room, that her brain hasn’t changed how she sees the world. As soon as she gets her first laughs, it all melts away. “I’m just so grateful that I’m not delusional,” she says. “The confirmation — no, you’re not delusional, this is real — is the biggest reward of all.”

Top Image Credits: Alexandre Vauthier suit, Agent Provocateur corset, Third Crown earrings

Photographer: Lauren Dukoff

Stylist: Jan-Michael Quammie

Set Designer: Enoch Choi

Hair: Florido Basallo

Makeup: Molly Greenwald

Manicure: Emi Kudo

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Video: James Ollard