Paul W. Downs '04 walked off the job as a waiter at New York’s iconic Tavern on the Green restaurant, striding midshift into Central Park in his lime green tux jacket. It wasn’t the fashion violation of his de rigueur uniform that led him out the door.
“They had this training program where I had to shadow a career waiter,” Downs says of his abrupt resignation in the mid-2000s.
But he had his own career plans. In the future that he was pursuing, that tragic tux jacket would become a streamlined one-button job with satin collars, worn while toting some hefty Hollywood award hardware.
Downs was at the time on his way to becoming himself — an esteemed member of Hollywood’s creative class, a segment of the Los Angeles population that lives in the Hollywood Hills and writes compelling, award-winning television.
Downs, with his wife, Lucia Aniello, has earned show biz acclaim for writing, directing, producing and acting in Hacks, a celebrated HBO Max comedy series that features an aging comedy star, a Zoomer writing aspirant and the byzantine world of entertainment.
Born in rural northwestern New Jersey, Downs, 39, was quickly into laughter, preferably inducing it.
“I always wanted to make the adults laugh at Thanksgiving,” he says. “I was a weird kid and it helped me fit in.”
He was a teenager in the Robin Williams era, and Downs was reciting lines from Mrs. Doubtfire while other kids were spouting the wisdom of Eminem.
When it was time to go to college, Downs was as intellectually curious as he was driven to succeed.
“I was a type A, overachieving dork,” he says.
There were other academic opportunities, but his visit to Duke sold him.
“When I visited Duke, I was struck by how much people loved being at the school,” Downs says. “Then I saw the Duke improv group do a show and it was like, ‘oh I can do comedy here.’ It was not this niche thing, it was embraced.”
His passion for work pushed him once he got started.
“At Duke, I overloaded classes every semester, was in improv and a sketch group all at the same time,” Downs says.
Downs created his own public policy major, which “allowed me to seek out the best professors, and I took art history, English, creative writing, journalism.”
After graduating, Downs headed to New York and joined the esteemed improv group Upright Citizens Brigade, where he met Aniello.
“I was overloaded all the time, taking as many shots on goal as I could,” Downs says. “The work mode was turned on all the time. It still is.”
He landed a co-star spot as a fit and fastidious trainer on the Comedy Central show Broad City, a brassy sitcom with a thin comedic rule book. The show ran for five seasons and put real money in his pocket. His first fiscal flamboyance with the new cash?
“It was, ‘now I don’t have to take mass transit to the airport anymore — I can take a cab,’ ” he says. “It saved me time, and that was well worth it.”
Downs headed to Los Angeles when Broad City ended in 2019, and Hacks debuted in May 2021. Emmy and Golden Globe awards followed.
Downs and Aniello work obsessively on Hacks, usually in a writing room on the Universal Studios lot. Always writing, always thinking about the show and what would work, Downs says.
The couple had their first child, a boy, this year. He will have to share.
“This show is our baby,” he says. “And when you have a baby, you are constantly thinking about it.”