TV & Radio
It's tough work, being a total loser. For Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, it has taken years of rejection, persistence, and the involvement of a comedy-megastar to reach the point where they can make a living as complete failures.
Now, playing characters of the same name, they happily fill their days cleaning a fetishist's apartment in their knickers, buying weed from a child, and gobbling shellfish despite being violently allergic.
Jacobson and Glazer are the creators, writers and stars of Broad City, one of television's most popular and irreverent new comedies. The on-screen Abbi and Ilana are two shambolic, 20-something, pot-smoking best friends living in New York. "We're Just 2 Jewesses Tryin' To Make A Buck," Ilana types in the season premiere.
The show follows the women as they work mindless jobs to fund their debauchery, while dealing with the banalities of life as aimless, responsibility-free millennials.
Fictional Ilana is the joker of the pair; confident, sexually frank, sassy, lazy and constantly smoking marijuana. She spends more time sleeping on the job than working, and has casual sex with Lincoln, a dentist desperate for a relationship.
Fictional Abbi is goofy, self-conscious and bumbling. She works at a gym, cleaning up vomit and pubic hair while dreaming of being a trainer, and is hopelessly in love with her neighbour.
She's more reserved than Ilana; in the show's opening scene, Ilana tries to convince her to attend a Lil Wayne concert. "I wish that I could, but I'm so close to finishing season one of Damages, and I made this, like, amazing cashew stir-fry for the week, so I'm actually pretty booked," Abbi replies in earnest.
It may sound like yet another series about self-absorbed young people trying to make it in a big city, but television critics have heaped praise on the show, saying the portrayal of friendship between the lead characters is original, authentic and unpretentious.
And Broad City is part of a growing screen trend: female buddy-comedies that focus primarily on the women's friendships rather than romance and men (think Girls, 2 Broke Girls, and Bridesmaids).
Not that sex is absent. Reviewers are also taken by the raunchiness of the lead characters. Usually, it's guys on screen who get high, or exhibit casual attitudes towards sex - but the women of Broad City show there's nothing inherently masculine about being a slacker.
"Men have managed to get away with prolonged adolescence, on the screen and in life, in a way that women haven't," wrote New Yorker journalist Nick Paumgarten.
"Abbi and Ilana do all this, but with an ease that absolves them of the lingering accusation, levelled elsewhere, that women comedians who work unclean are merely using shock to get attention - just trying to out-dude the dudes."
Speaking from New York, where the pair has just finished a 12-hour day filming the second season of the television series, Jacobson says they're not as wild as their onscreen counterparts, but their characters aren't total fabrications, either.
"They're similar to [how we were] before Broad City," says the 30-year-old. "They're definitely like younger versions of us. Now, we probably spend as much time as the characters on the show do together, just in a very different capacity. I think our relationship is the same at its core, but the characters are not, like, business partners."
Jacobson and Glazer, 27, first met in New York in 2006. They were both studying improv and sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the school co-founded by comedy heavyweight Amy Poehler. However, the two never had a class together, meeting instead in an improv practice team they attended in their spare time.
"At the first practice, when Ilana and her brother Eliot joined the team, I thought that she was the actress who played the character Maeby on Arrested Development," says Jacobson, who confused Glazer with actress Alia Shawkat.
After practice, the pair headed to a bar for a drink, and found they had an immediate rapport.
"I just remember feeling good and solid with Abbi and thinking it felt, like, badass," says Glazer of their first encounter. "It definitely felt like we were part of the same tribe."
Broad City is one of a growing number of TV shows that started as a web series, gaining traction online before transitioning to the small screen. For fledgling actors, uploading a video to YouTube or Vimeo is a cheap, convenient way of sharing their work with a prospective audience.
"Web series were just starting to be a vehicle at the time," says Glazer. "It's non-complex, it's really democratic, there's immediate gratification and analytics. It has ended up being something I love so much now, but at the time it was just what was available to us."
In 2009, the pair were unsuccessfully auditioning for roles on the Upright Citizens Brigade's house improv teams.
The theatre is internationally renowned as a comedy talent mill, with past students including Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza and Donald Glover. It's one of the top training grounds for budding comics, and a spot on one of the house teams is regarded as a foot in the comedy-industry door.
"We were trying to do other shows and trying to find our own voices, and just sort of treading water," says Jacobson.
"We sort of realised we needed to create material for ourselves if we were ever going to get anywhere. And doing the web series allowed us to take control, totally, of our quote-unquote careers at the time, and put it in our hands. It was like, however much work we put into it was what we were going to get out of it."
Between their day jobs, the duo would meet up to brainstorm plots and write scripts, mixing events from their lives, stories from their friends, and imagined scenes to create the short vignettes. The show's title came during such a session, in a Barnes & Noble book store one night, says Jacobson. "I think we had just decided we were going to make a web series. It was going to be heightened versions of us, in New York City, and I think I was listing names and I said 'Broad City' and kept going, and Ilana stopped me and said, 'That's it.' It just felt right."
From late 2009 to 2011, they created 33 webisodes, split into two seasons. Each webisode runs between two to four minutes, and they have a low-budget, hand-held camera aesthetic. The storylines are funny, with plenty of humiliation and self-deprecation, but it's the chemistry between the actresses that makes the show fresh and intriguing.
By the end of the second season, Broad City had a small-but-strong fan base, and for the finale, the women wanted to get someone seriously famous onboard, says Glazer. "We had two seasons of this mini-TV show, and we were like, 'For the finale, let's get someone big. Someone really shiny and flashy.'"
Top of their list was a cameo from Amy Poehler, who, at the time, was working on TV series Parks and Recreation and about to be named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of the year.
"One of our teachers [at Upright Citizens Brigade] had been one of Amy's students. We asked him if he thought she would ever be interested, and he said 'I do - I'm going to write to her.' So he did, and she had seen the web series already and really liked it and wanted to be in the finale," says Glazer.
In the episode, Poehler joins the pair as they're sprinting across New York on a mysterious and urgent mission. "I woke up this morning with a great feeling in my gut. This is going to be an awesome day," Poehler says, before the three actresses spend the next 24 seconds hi-fiving each other. On set, the trio just clicked, says Glazer.
"There was something similar about us. We've said before, we see eye-to-eye because we're all the same height. It just went really well."
Somewhere between the first and second seasons of the web series, the idea of turning Broad City into a television show surfaced.
Jacobson and Glazer began to treat the vignettes as though they were made-for-TV, releasing one a week at a scheduled time and spreading the word through social media.
"When it came time to pitch it [to television networks], it was like the perfect tool because it really showed them that we knew what our voice was, who the characters were, how to put them in different situations, and we knew who we wanted in the cast," says Jacobson.
Armed with a popular web series and a script for a television pilot, the women were prepared to approach studios. But, before they did, they had one more favour to ask of Poehler.
"We emailed Amy and were like, 'This is crazy, you're so busy, you're like a literal comedy-acting rock star, but if you were ever interested, we wrote a pilot, we have all these episodes and we're planning to take the show out in August' - it was May - 'If you were ever interested in producing a show and wanted to be an EP [executive producer] on this show, we'd love to have you. Please,'" says Glazer.
"She wrote back and said yes. It was so nuts."
"I mean, it was like the biggest thing," adds Jacobson. "Even just agreeing to be in the web series completely legitimised all that we were doing. She doesn't do people's web series. That was such a big thing in itself, let alone her agreeing to come out and come and pitch our show with us, and work with us on it.
"Ilana and I had been doing comedy for three or four years at the time and it just made us both think: if she thinks we can do this, we can. There's literally no else in the world that we would rather have doing it with us."
In an early, pre-Poehler review of Broad City, The Wall Street Journal called the show "sneak-attack feminism", noting its satirical take on sexism and gender.
"That was a hot-ass thing to say," says Glazer. "We don't write with messaging in mind, but we do have ethics; artistic ethics, an ethical code we abide by and are constantly figuring out while figuring out our voice."
While the (overwhelmingly positive) reviews are great, and the first season of the TV show attracted close to one million viewers per episode in the US alone, some of the discussion around the show troubles the women.
"We went to a festival recently where people kept calling us 'female comics'," Glazer recalls, "and it was like, what are you talking about? Why are we some 'other'?"
Critics and commentators regularly describe Jacobson and Glazer as 'women who do comedy' - rather than simply comedians - and their work is consistently hallmarked by their gender, she says.
Jacobson agrees, adding that the pair often face gender-centric questions when discussing the show. "I don't really know why it's such an issue for people, but I guess it is. It's something we're asked about a lot."
They're not wrong. To wit: "There is nothing 'ladylike' about the humour, which roots around in sex and drugs and sundry icky things, but it is, by definition, female" (The LA Times).
"They're female stoners, and they're hilarious" (LA Review of Books).
"It's interesting to find a show where ordinary-looking women get to act like the guys on Workaholics and embarrass themselves without losing our affection" (Boston Globe).
Mostly, though, Jacobson and Glazer are astonished they have managed to turn their dream into full-time jobs. Now well into the second season, they get to live in Broad City every day.
"It's been an incredible platform so far and we're looking to make the best version of this, however long that is, however many episodes that is," Glazer says.
In the first minutes of the season premiere, Ilana Skypes Abbi with an important announcement:
"Today is the day we become Abbi and Ilana, the boss b****es we are in our minds."
It doesn't turn out to be true for the characters, but for Jacobson and Glazer, the prediction was pretty spot on.
Broad City screens Tuesdays at 9.25pm on Sky TV's Comedy Central. Find the pre-TV web series on YouTube.
- Sunday Magazine