How Two Comedy Mavericks Got Their Own TV Show And Remained True To Themselves In The Process

Abbi Jacobson, left, Ilana Glazer, right / Via Lane Savage / Comedy Central

One bitter-cold Wednesday night in January on a quiet block of New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater was packed and buzzing with energy as a crowd of twentysomethings rushed to find seats for “Broad City Live,” a monthly variety show hosted by 26-year-old Ilana Glazer and 29-year-old Abbi Jacobson.

Those who arrived early headed to the makeshift bar for drinks, while the stragglers scoped out the standing room in the back of the black-box theater. After the lights dimmed and applause broke out, Glazer and Jacobson claimed the stage as Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” blasted throughout the sold-out 150-seat theater. They riled up the crowd, dancing around the entire room with their respective moves: Jacobson whipped her hair in audience members’ faces, while Glazer stood on a chair to shake her hips. It was funny, weird, and sometimes uncomfortable, but the women never backed down. And eventually, the crowd was on board too.

“I can’t believe so many people are here! It’s fucking freezing outside!” Glazer shouted when the song ended, tying a sweatshirt around her waist to cover the midriff her cropped T-shirt left exposed.

The two were on the verge of bringing their act to a far bigger stage with a TV show of the same name (sans the “live”) on Comedy Central. But, on this night, they’re just two friends performing at the improv theater and school that Amy Poehler built before she made her way to Saturday Night Live.

“So…um, we have a TV show,” Glazer finally spouted out a little nervously before asking the audience to watch Broad City on Jan. 22. If they didn’t have other plans, of course. Then, the pair played an exclusive clip for the crowd that was met with outbursts of laughter.

“Wow, we hadn’t heard anybody watch it before,” Jacobson replied. “That was emotional.”

Broad City is an experimental, ludicrous show in both its live and televised forms, and its outlandish, tomboy characters could change the game for women in comedy. But all Glazer and Jacobson can do now is keep working, and wait.

The Comedy Central series Broad City follows caricatures of Glazer and Jacobson through the daily absurdities and annoyances of being young and broke in New York City.

Jacobson’s on-screen Abbi is the straight-edged older sister type to Glazer’s on-screen Ilana, the younger, crazier one, always pushing to get her way or teasing Abbi over her uptight, routine life.

In the opening scene of the pilot, which aired Wednesday night, Ilana jokes that Abbi is so anal-retentive, she probably even schedules when she masturbates. “Schedule when I jack off?” Abbi replies with a laugh, before discreetly removing a Post-it note from her vibrator that reads “Tuesday, 7 a.m.”

In Broad City’s upcoming third episode, a split-scene cold open takes the viewer through a full day in the life of each character: Abbi scrubs a toilet, while Ilana smokes weed and passes out on one; and, later in the day, Abbi goes to sleep early, while Ilana goes out dancing.

But the TV show’s characterization of Abbi and Ilana as hot messes are hardly the women who arrived promptly for breakfast at a Midtown hotel restaurant a week after their UCB show. “Our characters are extremely exaggerated versions of ourselves,” Jacobson noted. “Ilana is a little wilder than Abbi, which was based in reality at some point.”

The series’ characters are really more representative of who Glazer and Jacobson were when they first developed the idea for a web series six years ago while studying at the famed UCB theater.

A few years later, they’d grown frustrated with the hierarchal nature of the New York City comedy scene. Glazer performed stand-up wherever she could, and Jacobson had a one-woman show, but they were auditioning for spots on competitive in-house improv teams at UCB and not getting placed. Though they formed their own improv group with some friends, they didn’t have much to show for all their effort.

So, they decided to create something of their own.

Glazer and Jacobson wrote and filmed a two-minute video about asking a homeless man for change, which launched an 18-episode season of the Broad City web series. It was extremely low-budget, and all their collaborators were friends from UCB. They had no release schedule, so episodes came out sporadically over the course of a few months. Despite the scrappy production, the videos were making waves online. Soon, people Glazer and Jacobson didn’t know were watching the show.

They were onto something, and they knew it.

The pair approached the second season of the Broad City web series more professionally and decided to make what Glazer called “a TV show for the web.” The women met in advance to write all eight episodes, form a tight production schedule, and pen a TV pilot on top of it all.

Glazer and Jacobson had strategized the second season so meticulously that when it came to film the finale, it dawned on them to think bigger. And a friend of Abbi’s suggested approaching Amy Poehler.

Although they’d never met the now-Golden Globe-winning actress before, they approached Will Hines, a teacher and performer at UCB who knew Poehler from the theater, to ask if she’d be interested in starring in an episode. He asked Poehler. And she said yes.

That was the real moment everything changed.

Abbi Jacobsen, left, Ilana Glazer, and Hannibal Buress

Poehler had only one day available to film, so Glazer and Jacobson took a day off from work (they were employed by Lifebooker, an online beauty and health appointment booking service) to accommodate her schedule. Apparently impressed by the work ethic and energy she observed while on set, Poehler asked the duo if they’d thought about writing a TV show. They showed her the pilot they’d already written (which is not the one Comedy Central wound up buying) and asked her if she would be interested in executive producing it. They were stunned when she quickly agreed, but, as Glazer noted, the women did have a lot in common.

“We’re all the same height. We’re all sort of tomboys. We all have this ‘girl in the improv group’ feel,” she explained. “Something really clicked when we met.”

Before Poehler agreed to executive produce Broad City in its on-air form, she took Glazer and Jacobson out to breakfast. “Ilana and I met before for like 20 minutes to be like, ‘Just be cool, be cool,’” Jacobson recalled, laughing to Glazer. The two still light up when they talk about Poehler.

“It’s like saying, ‘I want to play the guitar professionally’ and having Eric Clapton teach you,” Jacobson gushed. Poehler had watched every episode of the web series the night before their breakfast and came armed with notes. “She was able to present the big picture of what Broad City might be on television,” Jacobson remembered.

“At each stage of the television production, Amy’s been there. She’s always on every notes call. She directed the TV season finale and is in it,” Glazer added. “We just watched the director’s cut and it is so good. It’s so grand. You’re going to love it.”

While Poehler was instrumental in selling the show to Comedy Central (she originally pitched it to FX, but they passed) and getting top-notch guest stars like Fred Armisen, Rachel Dratch, and Janeane Garofalo, all of whom are fellow Saturday Night Live alumni, she also let the duo maintain creative control as co-executive producers. The fact that Glazer and Jacobson had already produced two seasons of a successful web show proved to Poehler, as well as Comedy Central executives, that they could trust their vision.

“Voice and tone and chemistry are elusive things that you either have or you don’t,” Poehler told the LA Times of Glazer and Jacobson. “They’re hard to manufacture, and I thought Abbi and Ilana had them. They have a real friendship that shows on-screen.”

“It gives us so much confidence because, while it’s so helpful to hear her ideas, she also steps down and lets us do our own thing. It’s like, Damn, this bitch really trusts us!” joked Glazer, whose frequent use of “bitch” is perhaps only rivaled by Jesse Pinkman.

The Broad City television show feels like an appropriate departure from the web version, but it’s unassailably connected. The television incarnation pushed Glazer and Jacobson to define their voices as individuals and as a duo, but the series’ original online format is still clearly used for inspiration.

For example, the cold open for the TV show’s third episode echoes “The Commute,” an episode from Season 2 of the web series (above) that depicts the differences between their morning routines.

In the six years since the web series debuted, Glazer and Jacobson have experimented and pushed the boundaries of their characters, but they always return to the initial on-screen dynamic that catapulted the web series to success and piqued Poehler’s interest.

Ilana might be an unlikable character if she wasn’t such a goofball, and she therefore manages to play as a new sort of female role — a feminist Seth Rogen, of sorts. She smokes weed at work, dresses inappropriately, ditches her day job for temp dog-walking gigs, and even steals from her boss. She bullies Abbi to get her way throughout, but remains supportive and self-aware enough that, with a few exceptions, the audience is still on her side.

Even when their differences are heightened by plotlines that reach levels of extreme or unrealistic absurdity — in one scene on the TV series, they clean a man’s apartment in their underwear for $200, and, in another, they video chat while Ilana is having sex with her love interest (played by comedian Hannibal Buress) — the show avoids traditional gender dichotomies. Their differences fuel the show, but there is no “good girl” or “bad girl,” no “prude” or “slut.” Abbi might be the responsible one, but she’s still a person with flaws, desires, and eccentricities. When she develops a crush on her neighbor, she eagerly buys condoms and she later punts a rotisserie chicken to piss off her lazy roommate.

What their characters do have in common is a tendency to fail, and fail well, like so many men in television have done before them.

It’s long been lamented that women in comedy are often portrayed as male projections of the role they see women filling in their lives: the nagging wife or girlfriend (Claire on Modern Family), a hot unattainable woman (Penny on Big Bang Theory), the revered manic pixie dream girl (Jess on New Girl). But Broad City defies these characterizations; it’s a show that normalizes female failure, confusion, and sexuality as real. They make themselves look weird, ugly, stupid, sexy, wild, or boring, sometimes all within one episode.

While the comparison to Girls is inevitable (there are only so many 26-year-old women writing, producing, and starring in their own projects), the shows are drastically different in tone. Abbi and Ilana are excited about their lives. They don’t fear aging; they embrace it with a fierce sense of self and fully realized flaws. They reject the notion that women in their twenties are insecure or catty beings, and are confident, if not self-satisfied, characters.

As Ilana tells Abbi in the pilot episode, “I believe in us.”

But Broad City wasn’t written to be a feminist show; it just turned out that way.

“The feminist thing is a fucking incredible by-product that is also a result of the time we’re coming into the scene, and stuff we can’t control,” said Glazer. “I’d say 80% of the show is based on some little thing that’s happened to us, or to somebody we know.”

“We pull from our own experiences and from our friends’ experiences and our writers do the same,” she added, noting that when staffing the television show, the pair hired their best friends in the comedy world who were familiar with their voices.

If a good show makes you like its characters despite their flaws, a great show makes you want to be a part of that world. Abbi and Ilana’s failures and successes feel familiar. They are your pothead friends, the girls you want to date, or the co-workers you don’t like, depending on when you catch them. As preposterously inane as Broad City can be, you already sort of feel that you are a part of their world.

Broad City web-series, Season 2 finale feat. Amy Poehler / Via

For a generation of digital natives who watch much of their television online, it seems almost counterintuitive for Broad City to move off of the web and on to television. But by bringing their fluency in the internet to a more traditional space, Glazer and Jacobson can also be part of the changing landscape for cable.

“Comedy Central has been so down to do what we want,” said Glazer. “We wanted to upload extra web content in between episodes, and they were like, ‘How can we make it happen?’”

Comedy Central also released the Broad City pilot on their website weeks ago, which has so far garnered about 110,000 views. Another 914,000 tuned in to watch the pilot on TV on Wednesday night. Compared to its lead in Workaholics, with 1.5 million watching, this is on the low side, but Comedy Central told BuzzFeed that Broad City was No. 3 in the 10 p.m. time slot among men 18–34, their key demographic, only behind the NBA on ESPN and Duck Dynasty on A&E.

“We have ideas for other projects, and I’d love to have a show on Netflix,” Glazer said. “It’s all a big experiment right now.”

Linda Kallerus

Whether or not the show succeeds isn’t consuming them right now. They still have installments to finish, press events to attend, and shows to host at UCB.

“We have three episodes left to edit, and I’m so glad we’re busy with that,” Jacobson said a few days before the Broad City’s on-air premiere. “I wouldn’t want to be at home doing nothing right now, or I’d be going crazy.”

In Glazer and Jacobson’s eyes, they’ve already achieved their initial goal. “At this point, it is an emotional adjustment,” Glazer said of bringing Broad City to television. She lifted her knees to her seat and hugged her legs, then added, “Everything is going to change.”

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