‘Broad City’ brings female misadventures to male-oriented Comedy Central
NEW YORK — Late one evening in June, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are outlining an episode for their Comedy Central series, “Broad City,” when their conversation turns to Superman — specifically, which incarnation of the Man of Steel is the hottest.
“To me, he’s like the porn-star version of Superman,” says Glazer, 26, pointing to Dean Cain’s picture on the cover of an Entertainment Weekly issue commemorating the character’s 75th anniversary. Jacobson, 29, agrees. “He’s like a trashy Superman.”
Christopher Reeve is cute but too “bird-like,” says Glazer, while “Smallville” star Tom Welling is, according to Jacobson, “too young-looking. I think Ben Affleck would actually be a really good Superman. He’s really hot and just seems like a really good guy.”
There are a few other digressions throughout their brainstorming session, including an anecdote about having breakfast at the same restaurants as “Law & Order SVU” star Christopher Meloni two days in a row in L.A. (“We were, like, ‘This is a sign,’” Jacobson recalls.)
Mostly, though, they stay focused on the task of writing their series, in which they also star as heightened versions of themselves: Glazer, the uncensored wild child, and Jacobson, the sweet, slightly uptight one — women in their 20s navigating the challenges of being young, broke and not-particularly fabulous in New York City.
Premiering Wednesday and adapted from their popular Web series of the same name, “Broad City” is generating special interest, thanks in part to the involvement of executive producer Amy Poehler. The “Parks and Recreation” star also directs the season finale and is one of many big comedy names to make a guest appearance. They include Fred Armisen, Rachel Dratch, Jason Mantzoukas and Amy Sedaris.
Poehler was impressed by Glazer and Jacobson’s energy and work ethic but most of all by their dynamic.
“Voice and tone and chemistry are elusive things that you either have or you don’t,” she says. “They’re hard to manufacture, and I thought Abbi and Ilana had them. They have a real friendship that shows on-screen.”
At least on paper, “Broad City” is not an obvious fit for Comedy Central, which skews about 60% male and is one of the top channels for the elusive demographic of men 18 to 34. But the network has been undergoing significant changes, and this is yet one more sign.
For Glazer and Jacobson, suburban transplants who first met in 2007 while studying improv at the comedy breeding ground the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, there’s a rather indistinct line between work and simply hanging out.
After all, lurking in nearly every tangent is a potential comedic fodder. Case in point: On the wall behind Jacobson are dozens of index cards scrawled with ideas for the show, many gleaned from real-life experiences and observations (“Big dogs are a bummer”; “Ilana wants Frida Kahlo eyebrows”; “Cashier: ‘You want a large?’”)
The banter between the two women will be familiar to fans of the Web series the duo began to write, produce and star in in 2009. At the time, Glazer, an NYU grad, and Jacobson, who studied art in Maryland before briefly enrolling at the Atlantic Acting Conservatory, were working thankless day jobs and performing at night at the UCB. They were hungry to create something more tangible — mostly as a way of reassuring their parents of their employment potential.
“Broad City” began as a pleasantly low-concept affair, one that yielded sharp comedy out of the familiar terrain of urban living — smug yoga instructors, awkward subway run-ins, dating mishaps. Some of the episodes were structured as video chats, something Glazer and Jacobson often did in real-life because they lived in separate boroughs and seeing each other in person meant an arduous subway ride.
The friends eventually figured out a way to be in the same place as much as possible by scoring jobs at Lifebooker, a website that sells discount spa treatments. There, they plotted the series in between the occasional call to a salon to solicit cut-rate keratin treatments.
The show gradually became more ambitious, at least by the DIY standards of the Internet: In one episode, Abbi has an elaborate, surreal dream about Ilana, and another is a spot-on spoof of “Do the Right Thing.” The series also generated a following in New York’s downtown comedy scene, with fellow up-and-comers Hannibal Buress and Sasheer Zamata making appearances.
Through an instructor at UCB, they asked Poehler if she’d guest star in the second season finale. To their surprise, she not only said yes but also agreed to come on board as executive producer of a television adaptation. The actress has comedy cred as well as experience nurturing female-driven content: She co-created and produced the animated series “The Mighty B!,” about a determined girl scout, and the online show “Smart Girls at the Party,” in which she interviews ambitious preteen girls.
“She presented a vision of this project that we didn’t have,” Glazer says. “She could see the big picture, what the image and branding of what ‘Broad City’ would be.”
The project was initially developed at FX but landed at Comedy Central after Poehler brought it to Brooke Posch, vice president of original programming and development.
Known mostly for its male satirists, Comedy Central found success with “Inside Amy Schumer,” its top-rated new series of 2013. Written from a distinctly female perspective, the show also features a tough-girl lead more than capable of hanging with the guys. Similarly, Jacobson and Glazer infuse their girly misadventures with a tomboyish, stoner sensibility unlikely to scare off fans of “Workaholics,” its hit series about a trio of slacker friends working at a telemarketing company.
It’s also the latest Web series successfully adapted by the network following “Workaholics,” which averages an impressive 2 million viewers a week, and “Drunk History,” which features reenactments of historical events as recounted by inebriated comedians. Comedy Central is
coming off a strong year creatively and commercially, following the successful launch of Chris Hardwick’s late-night panel show "@midnight” and critical praise for its distinctive sketch-comedy series “Key & Peele” and “Kroll Show.”
Adapting an existing Web series can help eliminate some of the uncertainty of the development process, particularly the casting, says Posch.
“When you take a pitch in a room and you actually see versions of the characters sitting in front of you, and they share camaraderie and chemistry, it’s amazing,” she says.
Friends and writers
Bacon-wrapped dates or truffled macaroni and cheese balls?
On another visit to the writers’ room, the topic under discussion is what hors d’oeuvres would be served at the kind of beautiful-people party where there are loads of free food but no one actually eats anything.
“You need to be at an event with Ilana, because it’s like she’s never eaten before,” says Jacobson, prompting knowing laughter from the room.
For Glazer and Jacobson, a writers’ room staffed with friends who understood their sensibility and shared their life experiences was a priority. They enlisted pal Chris Kelly, a young writer on “Saturday Night Live,” and the Web-video writing-directing team of Paul Downs and Lucia Aniello, who also trained at UCB. Eric Slovin, a former “Saturday Night Live” staff writer, was brought in as showrunner.
One of the primary goals in making the transition to series television was to expand the “Broad City” universe — to “flesh it out into more of a sitcom world,” Posch says — so that it could sustain a 22-minute episode. Abbi, now an aspiring trainer, has a dispiriting job at a high-end gym called Soulstice and a nemesis in the form of Bevers (John Gemberling), her roommate’s freeloading slob of a boyfriend. Meanwhile, Ilana clashes with her boss (Chris Gethard) at the Groupon-esque website where she works and is involved in a happily noncommitted relationship with a dentist named Lincoln (Hannibal Buress, in a beefed-up version of a role from the Web series).
Somewhat inevitably, “Broad City” has invited early comparisons to “Girls,” another buzzy comedy full of fumbling sexual encounters about young women making their way in New York. But “Broad City” is more broadly funny; as Posch puts it, “There are a lot of hard-hitting jokes, and there is not a lot of hugging and learning.”
It also deals with the day-to-day challenges of urban living in a way that Lena Dunham’s endlessly dissected series does much more fleetingly. For instance, one early episode revolves around Abbi’s attempts to retrieve a package on behalf of her cute neighbor. The show mixes this accessibility with a dose of “Louie"-style absurdism and a “Seinfeld"-ian ability to build a half-hour out of slightly more than nothing.
To retrieve the package, Abbi has to journey to North Brother Island, an uninhabited piece of land in the East River that once housed a smallpox hospital. It’s an elaborate joke that underscores a painful truth known all too well by New Yorkers: The city can turn the most basic services into an insane adventure.
On the set
A few months later, the beautiful-people party has come to life in a nondescript office building in Gramercy Park. In this episode, Jacobson’s character is blowing off steam after a particularly rough day at Soulstice. Slightly belligerent after a few drinks and clad in an uncharacteristically skin-tight bandage dress and towering pair of wedges, Abbi barges into the men’s bathroom where she finds a waifish young male model, dubbed “Heroin-Chic Boy” in the script, snorting cocaine.
Throwing caution to the wind, she decides to join in. Hopped up on the drug, she becomes even more aggressive. Heroin-Chic Boy taunts her for her inexperience with cocaine, and she fires back venomously at “the punk.”
With each take, Jacobson improvises coke-fueled chatter — about the time she kissed her third cousin and the Phish show she once went to at Jones Beach (or maybe it was in Philly).
Glazer, in costume in an enormous fake braid and a clingy crop top and miniskirt, erupts into admiring laughter as she watches on the monitor.
A little later, cast and crew head up to the rooftop terrace to film another scene. A crowd of 75 or so beautiful multiethnic extras mills about while Jason Mantzoukas and Matt Jones (better known as Badger from “Breaking Bad”), who are guest-starring as DJs, wait inside.
Abbi and Ilana confidently stride into the party and elbow their way to the bar. A chiseled waiter offers them a truffled macaroni and cheese ball — the bacon-wrapped dates lost out.
In a classic blooper-reel moment, the appetizers are so big — the size of a child’s fist — that they are still chewing them when it’s time to deliver the next line of dialogue.
On the second take, a crew member helpfully brings them a spit bucket — sort of like a wine tasting, but not quite. The friends each take a bite, make use of the bucket and laugh. Then it’s back to work.
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