"Broad City" co-creators on feminism, New York and Amy Poehler

Co-creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer talk to Salon about their move to TV, and the desire to write ethically

Published February 5, 2014 11:59PM (EST)

Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer of "Broad City"              (Comedy Central/Lane Savage)
Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer of "Broad City" (Comedy Central/Lane Savage)

During tonight's episode of "Broad City," Abbi and Ilana slog to their menial jobs, take pot breaks, wrestle with corporate bureaucracy as well as New York City's transient population and fantasize about better futures for themselves both financial and romantic. Just four years ago, comedians and Upright Citizens Brigade alums Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer were broadcasting bite-size fictionalized accounts of their everyday, urban travails via YouTube. As the popularity of their Web series grew, the duo attained the support and imprimatur of one Amy Poehler ("Saturday Night Live," "Parks and Recreation") and were soon given an opportunity to develop a sitcom-length version of the show for Comedy Central. The new "Broad City" is funny, somewhat frenetic, and barebones honest -- all qualities shared by its two creators.

It's one thing to have a rapport or banter with another comedian, but it's another thing to choose to create "product" together. Can you talk about the decision to work professionally as a team?

Ilana Glazer: I love the specific thing you’re pointing out in this question. We get along with our friends. But what makes somebody move forward and produce [together]? We’re lucky because the stars just aligned with this project and one of the things that makes me say that is that we did improve for two years before coming to the place, individually, where we each wanted to create material for ourselves — scripted material — and that was just a blessing that we came to that point and we knew each other, and all the ducks were in a row for that to happen. But the first two years I think it was really important that we played for so long without an agenda and naturally discovered our dynamic over and over again and it made us laugh and it felt like something tangible.

Separate from that, Abbi had written a live show and had been doing characters onstage and I had been doing stand-up and producing shows with my brother Elliot. But we both came to this point where we were like, “I want to be filming myself and writing what I’m saying.” We happened to come to that place at the same time and happened to have a similar work ethic that worked well together and we are good at being each other’s checks and balances. So a lot of it is about having it fall into place; all these little nuanced things that needed to be ready for the opportunity were in place. But to me those first two years of not having an agenda and just playing is equally [as] important as work ethics and attitude about creating material for ourselves. It's not a succinct answer, but the play was just as important as the work that came from it. It still is that way. Just like when we were writing the series we would stop and clear our minds to get to writing and that playful venting always seems to make its way back into the work. Like they both need each other.

Was there a clear decision to differentiate your on-screen personas from your actual personalities or is it a matter of just distilling them? 

Abbi Jacobson: I would say they are definitely heightened versions of ourselves. Almost every story line is derived from some sort of scene that has actually happened to us or one of our friends or one of our writers or one of their friends. We try to start from a place of truth and our characters are obviously based so much on who we are — like, they’re from where we’re from, they went to college where we went — and that’s just because those specifics are not only fun to get to use, but also we know them.

When it comes to the actual characters I think it’s really fun for us to play the very specific heightened characteristics that we play of ourselves. So “Abbi” on the show, I think, is a little bit more conservative and tends to be a little more insecure than I am probably in my day-to-day life. We talk about how “Broad City” is sort of Abbi and Ilana before we made “Broad City.” I think I can speak for myself, but I think that this version of Abbi is a lot more like me in my early 20s when I moved to New York and I was very much unsure of what I was going to do and very unsure of probably who I was and I was just trying to figure out all these things. It’s just fun. I love playing that insecure side of myself and I think, Ilana, you were talking the other day about how we play up — like Ilana and I are probably more similar in real life than Abbi and Ilana on the show. Ilana is much wilder than Abbi on the show and she always sort of pulls Abbi in that direction. That’s based on Ilana being that way in reality but we exaggerate it.

Glazer: It’s like we take a small yet-to-be-defined percentage [of ourselves] that we are focusing the characters on and blow it up to the full 100 percent.

You mentioned you two are more alike in real life than on the show and you accentuate your differences. I felt those differentiations were even clearer on TV than on the Web series. 

Glazer: When we pitched it, Abbi came up with this analogy that you are expanding a window on the computer screen and everything that is on that page — everything that is in the "Broad City" world — was already there; we are just uncovering it with the TV show. But I think your point, Neil, it’s like sharpening the focus of the world — the color, the flavor. The line between real and absurd is becoming sharper. The differences are becoming sharper.

Jacobson: I think I agree with you because you need to watch our full Web series to get probably as much information about the characters as if you were to watch one episode of the TV version. They’re of the same world. It’s just an extension of the Web series in my mind. But I think that we got the opportunity to show 21 minutes, you know, every episode is a day in the life that we got the opportunity to show instead of a more stylistic Web episode of us sort of doing our version of “Do the Right Thing.” We get to show a full-day adventure every week and we really see these characters in a more — I would say — normal, yet also very heightening state day-to-day.

The “Do the Right Thing” episode of the Web series is the first "Broad City" I ever saw. I thought it was brilliant in that it’s analogous to the movie -- it's an homage -- but it’s different than the movie.

Jacobson: Yeah, it’s not just trying to redo; it’s our version and trying to honor Spike Lee. Not just like, “I loved your work!” and trying to re-create. It’s like, "What did we take from watching that movie?" I will say the director of that one, Tim Bierbaum, really stepped that up. He made that … that was a huge team effort on that one.

Glazer: That was our best episode to date. It was huge for us. He went through the opening sequence of “Do the Right Thing,” like, shot-for-shot around his neighborhood. He did an incredible job.

Jacobson: Thanks for saying that. That means a lot to us. We, like, still really love the Web series and value its viewers.

I was going to ask if you have any nostalgia for the Web series.

Glazer: Oh my God!

Jacobson: Oh my God! We were really nervous when there was talk of taking the Web series down for the premiere of the TV show. It made me so upset because, one, I love the fact that viewers can see that we’ve been doing it and that these characters have existed for four years. None of the TV show’s episodes are the same as the Web series. They are just their own adventures. So I’m really happy that [the webisodes] are still up and I’m happy that people, in the meantime between episodes, can check those out. Yeah, I miss them. They are old friends of mine.

Glazer: Yeah, I feel like they are our little babies and the TV episodes are preteens or something.

I think it’s great to have them up there. People love the idea of back catalog.

Jacobson: Exactly.

Glazer: And at this point you can’t binge-watch “Broad City” TV, but you can with the Web series. That’s a huge thing these days to section off a weekend for “The Sopranos” that I never watched. You know what I mean? I’m so glad that it’s not locked up and people can watch that. And also, Neil, the thing we didn’t get into, responding to your question about expanding to the TV version, there were also many brilliant, inspiring people involved in the TV version -- and in the Web version. But each step of the way included discussion with more people and we were lucky enough to be able to hire our friends and we really loved working — and presently, love working — with Comedy Central. Their executives are real people and it’s just been a great experience — a great business experience. But it has taken more communication and defining — us having to articulate to ourselves — what the voice is or overarticulating in a way that we wouldn’t overarticulate in the script, but we had to in the process.

Were you the sole writers on the Web series?

Jacobson: For the most part we were. I think in the first couple of [Web episodes] we had one of our main collaborators, this dude, Rob Michael Hugel, wrote a couple in the first season with us.

And with the TV series you’ve expanded to roughly how many writers?

Jacobson: There are four other people in the writers room with us. Two of them were part of a team.

Glazer: And we had a writer's assistant and that was a whole different setup than we’re used to.

Can you tell me about Amy Poehler’s role and what sort of validation that was for you? 

Glazer: That is the right word.

Jacobson: We just asked her after we showed her the episode that she was in -- the second season finale of the Web series. We sent her that and asked her if she would ever consider being an executive producer on the project and she said yes. And just her saying yes totally and completely validated us. At the time we were completely confident in the project just by looking at people’s reactions in the community. But that was a new level. Like, "Oh! If she [Poehler] not only likes this project but wants to be involved and make it with us" -- it was another level. I think that really gave us confidence to go and pitch it [to TV].

Glazer: That was an insane moment — Amy emailing back about the role of EP — but also her wanting to be in the Web series. You know, small picture big picture, mind explosion! I think that’s what it was and thank God it happened in the order it did — that it had to have — because in my mind I don’t think I could have handled it.

I just read a headline that said “‘Broad City’ knows what real, everyday feminism looks like.” (I’ve also heard in conversation comparisons to “Girls.") Do you think about your relationship to feminism and what you represent to women when you’re writing the show or is it just a dedication to good comedy? Chris Rock’s jokes are, in my mind, often political but, from what I can remember, he says it’s just comedy. I don’t necessarily feel like he believes that but he draws that line.

Glazer: I feel like, as his platform has grown and he has become more and more important, his answer has probably had to be more … he probably has wanted to simplify it more and more for himself. We have ethics when we’re writing -- this line that we’re trying to draw -- like “is the character just unsafe sexually?” for example. We have certain ethics within the “Broad City” world. But I don’t think we write hoping to get some sort of review or response back because that’s out of our hands — what people are going to think of it.

We definitely hope to make people laugh and bring joy or something to people’s lives, but it would be too prohibitive to write — to aim — for some goal other than the big thing of we just want to make the best episode possible, the best “Broad City” show possible. But at this point we’re just starting out. We are just aiming at comedy and being comedians and writing on TV. We’re still finding our footing just being comedians and it’s too restrictive to think about the other noise that’s going on.

I’m a native New Yorker. How much of a conscious decision was it to make it feel like the city of New York was a part of the show?

Jacobson: That actually is something that we sit down and talk about. That is a completely conscious choice. I think we get really bogged down by details that way that our production team is a little bit like, “It’s OK that it’s not exactly on the street that you would go to get to that store,” but I think [we try to be] as true to New York as we can be when it comes to subways and how you would get places and just the schlepping. Like "Abbi" lives in Astoria; "Ilana" lives in South Slope. That’s where we used to live. And everyone doesn’t live in the West Village and everyone doesn’t live in Williamsburg. These two characters live far away from each other and we used to video chat while we were writing “Broad City” and that’s where that device came from. It does take me an hour to get to work every day on the train. Those are things that we think about and I think that’s where a lot of the stories come from and I hope that people watch it and feel that this show can’t take place anywhere else because New York is such a big part of it.

Glazer: And like Abbi was saying before about how we tried to start from a real place with the stories and how I was saying we really vent up top to get our minds clear. Those stories are usually crazy shit stories that could only happen in New York. A lot of our stories start with New York as this anthropomorphized being that is either helping out or hurting us. Living here is really inspiring and, like I’ve said, it consciously inspires us and stories.

There is a scene in one of the new episodes wherein one of you says, “I feel like all we ever do is talk about black people.” For some reason I found that to be really funny because I feel like all I do is talk about black people -- but I'm black. 

Jacobson: I think it’s just always a funny thing where people are always talking about other point of views …

Glazer: … especially in New York. I also feel that this is a time of interfacing where every kind of group you could ever think of is interfacing and people have opinions and want to talk about shit, but don’t want to offend but we’re “post-p.c.," supposedly.

Jacobson: We play a lot with Ilana's characters feeling that she belongs to every race …

Glazer: We can certainly speak for what these two Jewish girls think of other groups. I can’t say we’re spokespersons for other …

Jacobson: We’re not talking for other groups; we’re talking almost our naiveté in talking about other groups.

Glazer: Exactly, and we’re not even talking for other Jewish girls, were talking about …

Jacobson: … we’re just talking about these two.

Glazer: Yeah. It’s these two, at the very least.

By Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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