'Hacks': A Joan River Biography or a Pure Work of Fiction?

Everybody is wondering if HBO Max’s hit comedy is more fact than fiction

Rosemary Rossi

HBO Max/Bravo

Is HBO Max’s “Hacks” really based on the life of comedy legend Joan Rivers, or was she just an “inspiration” for Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance?

The HBO Max dramedy series stars Smart and Hannah Einbinder as comedians on opposing sides of a generational gap, with the former playing a fading showbiz legend very much in the vein of Rivers. And one thing the two have very much in common is their love of being on stage. “This is where I belong,” Rivers, who died in 2014, once said. “Only time I’m truly, truly happy is when I’m on a stage. I am a performer. That’s my life. That is what I am. That’s it.”

The similarities don’t stop there. We’ve taken a very close look at Smart’s snarky but hilarious “Hacks” character and compared it to Rivers’ own words from the 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” The result… well, you decide.

Late-night pioneer for female comedians

Deborah: In reviewing old videos of Deborah’s work, Ava finds an old pilot for a late-night show that never aired. “Do not adjust your TV set,” Deborah says in the video. “This IS late-night. Yes, I AM a woman. I know it’s very confusing.”

Joan: It was a big deal when Rivers became the permanent guest host on “The Tonight Show” after Johnny Carson needed time off. But while Carson was later preparing to retire, Rivers learned she was not on the list to fill his shoes full-time. After Fox Television Network offered Rivers her own late-night show, she accepted — and Carson never spoke to her again.


Deborah: From fuzzy slippers to rose marble bath caddies, Deborah hocked it on QVC.

Joan: In the early ’90s, Rivers started designing jewelry, clothing and beauty products for the shopping channel. “In those days, only dead celebrities went on [QVC]. My career was over. I had bills to pay,” she later said. But she got the last laugh — by 2014, Rivers’ products exceeded $1 billion.

Cataloguing jokes

Deborah: In one episode, Ava is escorted down to Deborah’s basement filled with boxes of videos of old performances, press clippings and every one of the 30,000 jokes she had written in her long career.

Joan: Rivers was more organized than Deborah — much more. In “A Piece of Work,” she shows off her alphabetized index card system of jokes. When a certain topic was needed for a gig, she would go to the file and pull one out.

Plastic surgery

Deborah: “I didn’t change my face — I refreshed it,” Deborah says in the series, referring to her latest “eye maintenance.”

Joan: There are few celebrities as synonymous with plastic surgery than Rivers. “People want to look at pretty women. Nobody wants an old woman, so I started with the plastic surgery with little bits and tweaks,” she once said. “I really became a big advocate of it. And then I became the poster girl for it. And then I became the joke of it.”

Off-stage persona

Deborah: It is abundantly clear that Deborah is, shall we say, difficult with her inner circle. Even, yes, bitchy.

Joan: Although part of Rivers’ stand-up act was joking that she hated everything and everybody, those who knew her or worked with her loved her to pieces. And her kindness and generosity continued even after her death. “Melissa [Rivers, Joan’s daughter] is still paying everyone; she’s still taking care of everyone, because that’s what Joan asked her to do,” a family friend told The Daily News. “She’s being a guardian angel.”

Las Vegas

Deborah: As a resident comic at the Palmetto Hotel in Las Vegas for 30 years, Deborah said she performed in more than 2,500 shows: a Vegas record. She was such a huge part of Sin City that they wanted to name a street after her. “Probably a dead end with an abortion clinic on it,” she joked.

Joan: Although never a resident in town (she had a home in Bel Air, Calif., and an apartment in Manhattan), Rivers did appear in Vegas numerous times as an opening act for singers like Helen Reddy, Robert Goulet and Paul Anka in the ’70s. A couple decades later, she opened for Don Rickles because that meant she “could go home early.”

Relationship with her daughter

Deborah: Deborah’s relationship with her daughter (and only child), DJ, is combative at best. At worst, it’s outright tragic. DJ pays a paparazzi to follow her mother around and snap pictures of her looking her worst, and then sells the photos. The tragic part: Deborah knows about it and lets her do it to make her feel “self-sufficient.”

Joan: Rivers’ relationship with her daughter and only child, Melissa, was loving until the very end. They worked together for many years, starting in 1994, when they teamed up to work the red carpet for E!‘s Golden Globe Awards and followed up the next day with a recap of what the stars were wearing on “Fashion Police.” They were both contestants on Season 8 of “Celebrity Apprentice” (which Joan won), and in 2011, they starred in the reality show “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?”

Makeup, makeup and more makeup

Deborah: Deborah would wake up in the morning and have someone in-house to do her hair and makeup, even if she wasn’t leaving the house for the day.

Joan: “It’s scary when you see yourself totally without makeup. It gives me the willies,” Rivers once said. “So I get up in the morning and the first thing I do is get into makeup.”

Opulent apartment

Deborah: Deborah loves her collectibles, whether it’s a sofa that Liberace sat on in the ’70s, a Verdure tapestry or an antique pepper shaker.

Joan: “This is my apartment and it’s very grand,” Rivers said in the documentary. “It’s how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had had money.”

Fan adoration

Deborah: Wherever Deborah’s fan gathered, you’d find the diva right there, signing autographs and blowing kisses. “They love me!” is something Deborah has said more than once on the show.

Joan: Rivers’ fans were loyal to the bone… and she was loyal right back. “The longevity of my career is astonishing,” she told the Baltimore Sun in 2012. “It’s wonderful that I’m still around. I am the luckiest woman in the world.”

The need to keep busy

Deborah: When Deborah’s assistant Marcus tells her she’s got the rest of the day off, she says, “uh huh,” her arms folding tightly across her chest and her eyes looking away — clearly not at all comfortable with the idea of not having anything to do.

Joan: “I’ll show you fear — that’s fear,” Rivers says in “A Piece of Work” as she flashes a calendar with no entries on it. “If my book ever looked like this, it means nobody wants me, that everything I tried to do in my life didn’t work.”

Beloved pooches

Deborah: With Deborah, it’s a pair of corgis that were the light of her life. She’d prepare steak dinners for them while also preparing one for herself.

Joan: Rivers’ little terrier Spike used to go everywhere with her. He appeared with her on numerous television appearance and even on the cover of People. “She was the energy in the house,” she said years after Spike’s death in 2001 at the age of 17. “She always had a smile on her face.”

Will take any job out there

Deborah: “A gig is a gig,” Deborah said. And she meant it, even showing up at a pizza parlor opening because the money was good and “press is going to be there.”

Joan: When Rivers’ husband Edgar died from suicide in 1987, she was left $37 million in debt. She worked non-stop to wipe the slate clean.

Manager woes

Deborah: Deborah’s not very enthusiastic that her manager, Jimmy, isn’t the best captain steering her career — but she has stuck by him because Jimmy’s father was her manager before him.

Joan: Rivers had a number of managers in her career, but one she felt particularly close with was Billy Sammeth, who she knew for 30-plus years. “[Billy is] a huge part of my life,” she said. But when he continued to go AWOL for weeks at a time, she knew she had to let him go, a decision that brought her to tears.

Two new episodes of “Hacks” drop Thursday nights on HBO Max.

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