Paul Downs and Meg Stalter ‘Hacks’ Interview on How They Met, Season 2, and Their Funniest Scene

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Paul Downs and Meg Stalter ‘Hacks’ Interview on How They Met, Season 2, and Their Funniest Scene

When Paul W. Downs met Meg Stalter, it was comedy chemistry at first sight. Their fateful first encounter occurred at a stand-up show in February 2020, less than a month away from when the live comedy scene as we knew it would grind to a life-altering halt. Performers and audience members alike were packed into Los Angeles’ overheated, overcrowded Little Joy, where Downs and Stalter were part of the evening’s six comedian showcase. When Stalter brought down the house with her performance, Downs recognized a kindred comedic spirit—and knew he had to audition her for Hacks, his upcoming HBOMax vehicle about women in comedy.

“It was so dynamic and original and absolutely wild and off the wall,” Downs raved of Stalter’s set, Zooming from the Hacks writers room. “We knew Meg was a really special person, and we wanted to write the role toward her strengths.”

Downs and Stalter as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad.

Robyn Von Swank

The role was Kayla, a buoyantly inept assistant at a Hollywood talent management firm. What Kayla lacks in professionalism, she more than makes up for in flamboyant enthusiasm, making well-meaning but inappropriate outbursts to clients like, “Bitch, you got this, bitch!” Kayla vacillates between overconfident and nervously eager to please, knowing all the while that her employment is bulletproof, as her father owns the firm. Co-created by Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky, Hacks is the story of Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a legendary grand dame of stand-up comedy whose long-running Las Vegas residency is threatened by a new vanguard of live performers, and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a twenty-something television writer whose only hope of surviving cancellation is a gig modernizing Deborah’s material. Theirs is a fraught but kinetic partnership masterminded by Jimmy (Downs), their beleaguered shared manager, who encourages their collaboration via Bluetooth headset while suffering Kayla’s daily litany of botched coffee orders and dropped calls.

Stalter was starstruck by Downs on that fateful night at Little Joy, having long admired his Broad City performance as the relentlessly enthusiastic trainer Trey Pucker. “I thought, ‘I have got to get this. I’ll do anything for this part,’” Stalter said, Zooming from her living room. “A lot of times, you’ll audition for something, and even if it’s funny, you can’t always see yourself in it. This was one of the first times I auditioned for a part and thought, ‘I can see myself in this, and I have to get it.’”

Stalter auditioned with an unforgettable scene from the season finale: an uproarious will-they-or-won’t-they sequence between Jimmy and Kayla set in a Las Vegas honeymoon suite, where both boss and subordinate whiplash between being uncertain of and appalled by each other’s motives. Despite auditioning from a dark room in her Ohio home, with just one lamp to light the scene (“It was very The Ring,” Downs joked), Stalter nailed it.

“When Meg came in, we thought, ‘Why are we even having an audition?’” Downs said.

paul downs and meg stalter for editorial, esquire"hacks" on hbophotographer retains copyright

Downs and Stalter as Pam and Jim from The Office.

Robyn Von Swank

So began a fast friendship and a dynamite comedy partnership. Owing perhaps to a shared knack for improvising and a mutual coming-of-age in the Chicago improv scene, Downs and Stalter have a crackling and playful on-screen chemistry. Behind the scenes, they can scarcely get through filming without making one another laugh, or without Aniello admonishing them from the director’s chair, “Okay guys, let’s do it again, but without you laughing.”

“When we met, we gravitated toward each other instantly,” Downs said. “Because there’s overlap in our comedic sensibilities, we make each other laugh and laugh so much on set. When you write towards somebody that you admire and find really funny, it pays off as a writer, because then when the person gets to set, it’s so fun. The chemistry is already there. But the way Meg has elevated the character and made it even more fun is beyond our wildest dreams.”

In Stalter’s capable hands, Kayla has become a scene-stealing fan favorite, with Hacks viewers on Twitter crying out for Kayla to get her own spin-off. The day after the series premiere, director Judd Apatow led the charge by tweeting, “I hope there is a five episode arc deeply exploring this character.” Kayla’s ascendence to cult status is the result of both thespian magic and careful calculation. Stalter and the Hacks wardrobe department have calibrated Kayla down to the very last neon scrunchie, attiring her in signature animal prints, one-shoulder tops, and baby blue eyeshadow. Stalter even did her own eyeliner so that Kayla’s look wouldn’t be too perfect.

paul downs and meg stalter for editorial, esquire"hacks" on hbophotographer retains copyright

Downs and Stalter as Buffy and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Robyn Von Swank

“Kayla is just very much herself,” Stalter said. “She’ll come into work with dirty hair or just throw it up in a scrunchie. She’s not afraid to be herself, even if being herself is being bad at her job.”

Bad assistants are a familiar trope in film and television, but Kayla breaks the mold, bringing a unique cluelessness to her ineptitude: Kayla is at once hilariously bad at her job and hilariously unaware of it. It’s the uber-specificity of the character that allows Kayla to transcend stereotypes, making for someone truly sharp, strange, and sublime. The same goes for Jimmy, who’s far from the unscrupulous Hollywood manager we’ve seen in countless stories. Downs imbues Jimmy with a fundamental goodness, as well as a sincere desire to do right by his clients.

“We try to be conscientious about tropes,” Downs said. “We want to do something that feels different and push the conversation forward. You often see a manager who’s slimy or downright toxic. In Broad City, Trey could be a bit of a jerk, but inadvertently so. Deep down, he was what our writers’ room calls a boyo: a really sweet, non-toxic guy. We wanted Jimmy to be a boyo to subvert the expectation of what a manager is. I joke that representation for representation is important. We really wanted to show managers who aren’t evil or insidious or have bad intentions.”

paul downs and meg stalter for editorial, esquire"hacks" on hbophotographer retains copyright

Downs and Stalter as Don and Peggy from Mad Men.

Robyn Von Swank

In a show about a cross-generational partnership between two female comedians, it’s only logical that another comedy partnership would arise on set. Ava and Deborah’s partnership, along with the dynamic collaboration between Downs and Stalter, are part of a long inheritance of iconic double acts in comedy. Hacks prides itself on taking the long view of comedy history, celebrating trailblazing women like Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Lucille Ball, and Elaine May.

“A comedy duo with a straight man and a character is such a classic thing,” Downs said. “It’s truly the oldest comedic pairing in the book, from Abbott and Costello to Nichols and May, who were a big inspiration for Deborah Vance. We wanted to incorporate that huge part of American comedy history by having a comedy duo. Today, some of my favorite characters on television are Tom and Greg from Succession. When they come on, I’m like, yes! That dynamic always works. It’s almost mythological.”

Comedy history came to an unprecedented crossroads in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered comedy clubs, theaters, and auditoriums around the globe. Some comedians managed to thrive during these lean times by taking their talents to a more grassroots platform—including Stalter, who debuted dozens of kooky characters via two-hour Instagram Lives, ranging from a dog food influencer to a viral corporate spokeswoman. But many comedians were out of work and out of money, inspiring Downs, Aniello, and Statsky to employ as many stand-ups as possible, in an effort to supplement the work they lost when touring and live performance dried up.

“I felt extremely lucky to be part of Hacks,” Stalter said. “It’s hard to complain about not being able to perform live during the pandemic, because so many people had it way worse, and so many bad things have happened, but I missed live performance so much. For the first time I ever got any TV role to happen during this time, I just feel really lucky. It’s really sweet and emotional for it to be about celebrating comedy.”

paul downs and meg stalter for editorial, esquire"hacks" on hbophotographer retains copyright

Downs and Stalter as Mulder and Scully from The X-Files.

Robyn Von Swank

Hacks filmed in Los Angeles during the height of the pandemic before vaccines were readily available, forcing the cast and crew to get scrappy. The typical rehearsals and celebrations that bring cast members together went by the wayside under the extraordinary circumstances, with table reads held over Zoom and cast parties cancelled entirely. It was in this surreal and frightening fire that Downs and Stalter’s bond was forged.

“When you’re making a show in such dire times, and you’re wearing two masks and the shield, it’s scary when you have to take off your mask to get your hair and makeup done,” Downs said. “Being in a scene with somebody under those circumstances isn’t the chillest moment, but it actually drew us together. We were really in the trenches together. I hope that comes across in the show—how much we all really needed each other, and how much fun we had together.”

Stalter described an ebullient mood on set, saying, “It felt like high school theater where every day is a cast party. You don’t know when you’re going to get to see each other again. Every moment is precious, so we celebrated any time we got to be together.”

Downs and Stalter’s finest hour together comes when Hacks takes aim at a third rail of comedy: the #MeToo movement. In the much-celebrated hotel scene Stalter auditioned with, we find Kayla and Jimmy in the honeymoon suite in a luxury Las Vegas hotel, with Kayla sashaying into the room in a lace tap set and satin robe. When Jimmy balks, she crows triumphantly that she managed to score a free upgrade to the honeymoon suite by pretending that they were married. Jimmy fears that his employee is coming onto him; Kayla is appalled at the thought, but isn’t ruling it out. She then proceeds to terrorize Jimmy with a gut-busting barrage of mixed signals, leading Jimmy to cower across the room and later lament to Ava, “I’m in the middle of a #MeToo situation, and I’m the me.” For Downs, the scene’s success harkens back to the title of the pilot: “There Is No Line.”

“If done well, in a way that’s conscientious of the target of the joke, you can do a lot of things that might seem taboo,” Downs said. “First and foremost, we’re trying to be funny, but we’re also trying to move the conversation forward, and push culture, and not do something that’s harmful. In this scenario, the power dynamic has shifted. Kayla is empowered because she’s the daughter of Jimmy’s boss. The dynamic was already set up for us to be able to do a storyline like this one. It’s like the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm, but with comedy. Hopefully you can be provocative, but do no harm.”

paul downs and meg stalter for editorial, esquire"hacks" on hbophotographer retains copyright

Downs and Stalter

Robyn Von Swank

As the scene progresses, Jimmy loudly threatens to call Barbara from human resources, while Kayla wails from behind the bathroom door, “Not Barbara!” It’s a highwire pas de deux between two master performers, but also a conscientiously written scene that refuses to punch down.

“I think the reason it works and that it’s so funny is because she’s not truly coming onto him,” Stalter said. “She’s not kissing him and making him uncomfortable. There’s a balance with Kayla saying, ‘I’m not taking advantage of you—I don’t even like you.’ And then saying, ‘Wait, are you feeling a vibe?’ She’s such a confident, but nervous girl. If she’d kissed him, or if she’d come out naked, this would have been a different show. But the fact that she’s like, “I don’t like you. Wait, are you sensing something?” That’s why it works.”

Downs gushed that Stalter excels at playing two things at once, while Stalter insisted that Kayla’s hilarious dualities come naturally to her.

“Extreme confidence is my favorite thing to play,” Stalter said. “That’s how I often feel. I love myself so much, then I get shy and stutter. I think that’s why I like to play that—it’s part of who I am. In high school, I was this loud theater girl. Then in class, I was very shy and nervous, not talking to anyone. It’s all very Kayla.”

Hacks has now cruised to a whopping fifteen Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. But there’s been little time for Team Hacks to savor the fruits of their labor—Downs, Aniello, and Statsky are already hard at work writing season two. Downs is largely sworn to secrecy about what fans can expect, but he promised that we haven’t seen the last of Jimmy and Kayla’s honeymoon suite caper.

“There is absolutely going to be fallout,” Downs teased. “We’re going to deal with Barbara from HR.”

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As for that five episode arc about Kayla? Stalter has big ideas to pitch Downs and company. She thinks Kayla’s second act is starting a bracelet company, buying a luxurious mansion, visiting Disney World, and dating male models.

“I think she should wear a bikini to work,” Stalter said. “She never brings it up. Just a bikini top and leather pants.”

So began a back and forth improv session over Zoom—the kind that Downs and Stalter describe as forever getting them in stitches (and in trouble) on set. Mere minutes of rapid fire riffing later, Downs and Stalter have effectively workshopped a scene in real time: one where Kayla wears a bikini to the office with the intention of taking off for the beach at 3:00 PM.

Kayla: It’s Summer Fridays.

Jimmy: Kayla, it’s Tuesday!

Kayla: Well, it’s a good day for the beach, so I’m taking my Summer Friday today.

Jimmy: Okay, so you’re going to stay here all day Friday?

Kayla: Well, no, because that’s Friday.

When two comedians fit together like puzzle pieces, the jokes practically write themselves. It’s clear as crystal that Downs and Stalter could do this all day. Soon enough, when they’re back to making magic together on set, they will.

Photographer: Robyn Von Swank. Set Designer: Steven Valdez. Producer: Aaron Zumback. Paul W. Downs: Groomer: Jamie Taylor. Meg Stalter: Makeup: Melissa Hernandez. Hair: Clayton Hawkins. Downs & Stalter: Styling: Christina Bushner. Styling Assistant: Elena Miller.

Assistant Editor
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.

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