Hannah Einbinder: Portrait of a Young Comic on the Cusp

Right before the shutdown last year, the comic Hannah Einbinder became, at 23, the youngest (and as of now last) stand-up to perform a s...


Right before the shutdown last year, the comic Hannah Einbinder became, at 23, the youngest (and as of now last) stand-up to perform a set on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” making a splash in her network television debut.

“Good evening,” she said, followed by a grave-faced beat of silence odd enough to get a laugh. Then introducing herself, she adopted the persona of a beat poet, pantomiming flicking a cigarette as the lights dimmed and jazz played. “My mother had me when she was 42, because before that she was” — Einbinder paused to swivel her head — “busy.”

It was clear from this unorthodox opening that this was a precocious and poised comic more interested in originality than convention. Less understood was that her mother is Laraine Newman, a founding member of the pioneering company the Groundlings and part of the original “Saturday Night Live” cast. Einbinder, whose father is the comedy writer Chad Einbinder, described herself in an interview as a classic Los Angeles kid who grew up fast. “My parents met in A.A., so heavy concepts were introduced early,” she said in a video call from her home in the Silver Lake neighborhood.

Her early comedy education involved listening to albums by Patton Oswalt and the Sklar Brothers while Newman drove her to school. Stories of the fabled years of “Saturday Night Live” also made an impression, but for her mother, these represented not just an era of nostalgic memories and comic innovation but also insecurity, addiction and an eating disorder. Einbinder, wearing a Phoebe Bridgers shirt, explained the role of the seminal sketch show in her youth: “It’s a spooky legend that’s always lurked around.”

While the pandemic slowed momentum she might have built from her “Late Show” appearance, a new HBO Max series, “Hacks” (premiering Thursday), may just speed it up. In her first major acting role, a juicy part that lets her demonstrate both deadpan comic and subtle dramatic skills, Einbinder, now 25, plays a troubled young humor writer named Ava who is blindsided by a scandal from a bad tweet that craters her career. She must take work coming up with jokes for an older Las Vegas stand-up played by Jean Smart, setting up a culture clash of two generations of female comics, one of whom shares similarities with Einbinder.

“She is a 25-year-old bisexual comedy person living in Los Angeles who has just recently had a life-altering thing happen, so on the surface, those things line up,” Einbinder said of the character, adding that while she did not get canceled for a tweet, the lockdown did eliminate her work as a comic right after she quit her day job.

Yet Einbinder said Ava was actually more like an earlier iteration of herself, from a time she sees as somewhat lost. One of the first things Einbinder told me over conversations spanning several weeks is that there are five or six years of her life she barely remembers. “There are explanations, of course,” she said elusively. Newman isn’t the only one in the family with a spooky legend.

Einbinder was always funny, her mother said by phone: “I’ll never forget at age 7 she was at a Mexican restaurant. She raised a cheese and bean burrito, looked at her butt and said, ‘Get ready.’ I thought, That’s good.”

Einbinder had a particular gift for voices, coming home imitating the parents of her friends with precision. After Einbinder started performing stand-up, Newman, herself known for comic characters like a prototypical valley girl, encouraged her to do more. “Her ear for dialects is better than mine, but she wouldn’t use them,” she said.

When told of her mother’s comment, Einbinder responded with exasperation: “This woman thinks that if my whole act isn’t a Groundlings submission tape, I’m not doing voices.”

This was familiar ground. “It’s our version of ‘You should marry a doctor,’” Einbinder said, breaking into a guilt-tripping Jewish mother character. “You should do voices in the act. You really should. You’re breaking my heart if you don’t do voices in the act.”

The day before, Newman segued into the exact same Jewish voice as she discussed how, unlike her son, Spike Einbinder — who began stand-up at 15 and is now a comic who appeared in the series “Los Espookys” — her daughter was not interested in comedy early on, but in cheerleading. “A Jewish cheerleader?” Newman asked with a jaunty, hilarious cadence. Newman took her off the team because she was struggling in school. “It was the dance of death to get her to do her homework,” Newman said.

The teenage years were difficult. Newman recalled them with dark amusement. “You’re the greatest until puberty and then she’s like, ‘You don’t get it,’” Newman said, before asking with emphasis: “I don’t get it?”

By her sophomore year in high school, Einbinder was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and prescribed Adderall. Einbinder cited this as a key shift. “I was existing in this altered state for years that wasn’t creative. I was closed off,” she said. She took Adderall and smoked weed every day, she said. “That’s a good deal of time that is kind of lost.”

After auditioning for an improv team at Chapman University, she kept second-guessing her choices, so when she was called back, she tried to do it without taking Adderall. She got the part and never took it again. Not long after, the comic Nicole Byer played at her school and asked for someone in the improv group to open for her. After that stand-up spot, Einbinder’s life came into focus. “I came out of this fog and latched onto comedy the way some people do with sobriety,” Einbinder said, her eyes welling up with tears. “It did give me purpose. I don’t know what my life would have been like without it.”

While her onstage persona is preternaturally confident, exuding laid-back charisma, Einbinder is relentlessly self-critical, following deeply felt statements with second thoughts and then self-mockery. So it was not a surprise when the week after we spoke about her start, she wrote me a direct message on Instagram saying that she had been thinking about this emotional moment every day. “I feel that there are two forces at odds inside of me,” she said, “a very sincere little puddle with a hat on and then a shoe kicking and splashing the puddle.”

Newman said putting her daughter on medication was a difficult but considered decision. “As a parent, you do your best,” she said, adding that she is also self-critical. Her recent Audible memoir, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” describes young success in deeply ambivalent terms. “I’m seeing her go down my path,” Newman told me, adding that it did give her pause, before saying, “But she’s not me. Her support system is different. Her experiences are different.”

Newman said she had learned to not offer feedback unless asked. She brushes off the suggestion that her daughter’s comedy shares similarities with her own as flattering to her, adding that she didn’t even know if she had seen much of her work.

Einbinder only really knew her mother’s most famous “S.N.L.” sketches (like the Coneheads) until around 2015 when box sets were sent to their house commemorating the show’s 40th anniversary. Then she sat down and watched her mom’s work at greater length. “It was interesting,” she said. “I felt like I had this oral history of how she sees that time that clouds my judgment. I’m also going, This is so funny and so her and so familiar to me. My mom is a classic character actor in that she’s always doing a voice.”

The last time I checked in with her was a week before the “Hacks” premiere, and she had just gone through what she wryly called a “rite of passage”: a journalist had asked that annoying question for the first time, What it’s like to be a woman in comedy?

Asked if going through the publicity process helped her understand her mother more, she said only the nice parts. She said she already understood her. “As long as I’ve been trying to take a hard look in the mirror,” Einbinder said, “I have seen her.”

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