Fact Checking the Parallels Between Joan Rivers and Jean Smart in Hacks

The Emmy-nominated HBO series features Jean Smart as comedienne Deborah Vance, whose career is similar to the late and beloved figure Joan Rivers.

By Cydney Contreras Jul 12, 2022 4:33 PMTags
Watch: How Melissa Rivers Is Remembering the Late Joan Rivers

Jean Smart's Emmy-nominated performance as Deborah Vance in Hacks brings to mind numerous comediennes.

Deborah's humble beginnings as a husband and wife duo was inspired by Elaine May and Mike Nichols, according to The Wrap. And Deborah's subsequent divorce was very loosely based on the breakup of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who, unlike Deborah, maintained a cordial friendship after their split. 

However, the most obvious source of inspiration for the HBO Max character was E!'s own Joan Rivers, a blunt blonde who loved to look good, work hard and make people laugh. 

The comedienne, who died in Sept. 2014 from surgery complications, shared a similarly crude sense of humor, often poking fun at traditional gender roles. It was this devil-may-care attitude that Jean, who won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series at the 2021 Emmys, loved about the personality, telling The Cut in May, "I wasn't trying to do her, because my sensibilities are different than what she did, but she was just genius when she was younger."

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"There's a whole generation of people who only think of her as being catty on the red carpet, and her early stuff was amazing," Jean reflected. "She had that machine-gun humor. Talk about not holding for a laugh. You were ten jokes behind and still laughing. She was a pioneer, and she had lost her husband and had a daughter [like Deborah], so you can certainly draw comparisons.

Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max; Steve Granitz/WireImage

However, Joan maintained a better relationship with her daughter, Melissa Rivers, than Deborah does with DJ, who is played by It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Kailtin Olson. Joan and Melissa were always a team professionally and personally, whereas Deborah and DJ often seem like rivals rather than mother and daughter. 

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Melissa's upbringing also vastly differed from that of DJ in that she wasn't touring the country with Joan. She previously told the Divorced Not Dead podcast, "People are always shocked to find that I had a very traditional childhood where it was always very clear that what [my parents] did for a living was completely separate."

And while DJ is more than willing to trash her mother to Ava (Hannah Einbinder), Melissa has nothing but praise for her mother. "My mother's greatest legacy—that's sort of the big question everybody keeps asking me," Melissa said during a July 2015 interview with AARP. "They say, 'Oh, their children are their great legacy or their grandchildren are their great legacy.' But honestly, I think my mother's legacy is laughter. You think of her and you laugh."

Then, there's the fact that Deborah is attentive to her physical appearance. She wakes up in the morning to put a full face of makeup on and always has a nicely coiffed wig on hand. It's a rather fitting ode to Joan, who was often made fun of for undergoing plastic surgery.

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Jean confirmed that her beauty regimen, in addition to her clothing line and work ethic, was likely taken from Joan in an interview with The New York Post. As the Mare of Easttown actress put it, "There aren't many women with that kind of [industry] history, and she was certainly one of the inspirations for Deborah, who also has that somewhat self-deprecating humor."

And one of the most heartbreaking parallels is that Joan's success as one of the first late-night talk show hosts, also spelled the end of her friendship with Johnny Carson. Deborah experienced a similar heartbreak when her husband left her, seemingly envious of his wife's similar achievement. 

But to say that Deborah is solely based on Joan would diminish the influence of other groundbreaking comedians, including Ball, Phyllis DillerElayne BooslerRita Rudner and Paula Poundstone, who Hacks writers Paul W. DownsLucia Aniello and Jen Statsky credited as inspirations. 


Downs, Aniello and Statsky's efforts to honor female comedians and create a complicated, yet fascinating, character paid off, as the show is up for 17 nominations at the upcoming 2022 Emmys. Read the complete list of nominations here!

(E! and NBC are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)

This story was originally published on Sept. 17, 2021 at 9:00 p.m. PST.

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