Bright Lights, Broad City

7 minute read

Abbi Jacobson has Pineapple fingernails. That’s not a flowery description of her shade of yellow–each nail is actually decorated with a drawing of a pineapple the size of a housefly. We’re in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on the set of Broad City’s upcoming second season, premiering Jan. 14 on Comedy Central, and Jacobson is explaining how she picks a different nail design for each episode. “I wanted something cool, so I thought–pineapples! That’s cool.”

Her co-creator, co-star and partner in crime, Ilana Glazer, joins us with an invitation: “I gotta pee. Who’s gotta pee?”

That attitude–Pineapples! Let’s go with it. Peeing! Who’s in?–is what’s turned their effervescent buddy comedy into a bona fide cult hit. On paper, it’s about girls hanging out in New York City. (Sound familiar?) But onscreen, improv alums Jacobson and Glazer deliver what many comedies promise but few provide: genuine exuberance that’s laugh-out-loud funny.

It’s a twist away from the cringe-comedy of HBO’s Girls or the neurotic musings of FX’s Louie, two shows to which Broad City is frequently compared. In place of angst, Jacobson and Glazer traffic in lightness and whimsy. They play characters named after themselves: both young, broke millennials who smoke pot, work dead-end jobs and live with pathetic roommates. But they hyperbolize the normal humiliations of living in New York City in your 20s, vaulting tiny inconveniences to imaginative extremes. Retrieving a missed package requires a journey to an otherworldly hinterland; a search for a misplaced cable remote leads to a stalker ex-flame’s basement; the price of a coveted concert ticket is worth stripping down to clean a diaper-wearing stranger’s apartment.

“They perfectly nail so many horrific early-20s experiences,” says Girls creator Lena Dunham, a professed fan of Jacobson and Glazer’s. “They take the joke far, and then a step farther, and refuse to give up until you’re laughing in a puddle of your own tears.”

Abbi and Ilana are less self-conscious than many women on TV, unbothered by pressure to achieve professional success or true love. But they’re much more fleshed out than the male characters on the show, who often become hilarious caricatures. The revolting roommate, the hot neighbor dude, the lecherous locksmith: in Broad City, it’s men who are reduced to one-dimensional exaggerations of themselves, not women. (Hannibal Buress’s character, Lincoln, is an exception.) Each episode is a small New York adventure, and Abbi and Ilana are the pioneers while the men are generally the obstacles they must overcome. That role reversal for men–from protagonist to prop–is a win for women.

But what really sets Broad City apart is the way the girls’ friendship trumps their relationships with men. Both Jacobson and Glazer actively reject the idea that women are competitive with one another; Glazer calls it “fake and societal.” Saturday Night Live alumna Amy Poehler, who helped give them their big break, says she liked that “their story lines weren’t about ‘Does he like me?’ or ‘Why is she being such a bitch?'” Their rapport, onscreen and off, is all about good cheer. “We love it being a fun ride,” Glazer says. To viewers, that feels nothing short of revolutionary.

Friends in High Places

It’s no wonder Broad City has such a friendly vibe, since it originated as a platonic love affair. Jacobson, 30, and Glazer, 27, met in 2007 in New York City while taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) improv theater and–as the only two women in their independent practice group–quickly bonded. Jacobson, who was raised in a family of artists near Philadelphia, was fresh out of art school at the time. (Her character is an aspiring artist.) Glazer was still an undergrad at NYU but had a long background in comedy; she had been staging skits with her brother in Long Island since they were children. Both sets of parents supported their comedy endeavors but worried about cash flow. “They’re like, ‘Do you get paid?’ and I’m like, ‘No, actually you pay to do the improv,'” Jacobson said.

In 2009 they began making short web videos about life in New York, which soon developed a following because of the characters’ compelling camaraderie. And though complicated friendships between women are in vogue on shows like Girls, Orange Is the New Black and Transparent, Jacobson and Glazer have no patience for cattiness or fighting, which Glazer calls “so not fun.”

“Their show has a nice emotional side,” says comedian Seth Rogen, who appears in the second season. “As crazy as the episodes are, it really is about friendship.”

Despite the growing web following, Broad City the web show was never lucrative–even after the TV show, many of the webisodes have fewer than 100,000 views. While they made the web series, Glazer worked in social media at a “cosmeceutical company,” which sold what she describes as “fake medicine a doctor put his name on.” Jacobson worked at the retailer Anthropologie and handed out flyers for Equinox, an upscale gym, in exchange for a membership. It served as the inspiration for the gym in the show, Soulstice.

“There were a lot of years when I was like, ‘This sucks. I hate my job. I hate everything I’m doing,'” Jacobson says. “But that’s where all my material comes from. All the floundering on the show is from actually floundering.”

Their luck changed when the web videos caught the attention of Parks & Recreation star Poehler, a co-founder of their improv school. Jacobson and Glazer approached her through a UCB teacher to see if she would appear in a webisode. “I joke that the reason I said yes is that the shoot was right around the corner from my house,” Poehler says, noting that she was already a fan because of the pair’s “authentic” dynamic: “You can’t fake it, you can’t cast it, and you can’t make it happen.” Jacobson says Poehler’s appearance was “the biggest moment ever” and sparked momentum. Glazer quit her job.

After Poehler appeared in the webisode, Jacobson and Glazer asked her to executive-produce their pilot. Poehler agreed. “We had chemistry right away,” Poehler says. “It was a good first date. And then I decided we should get married.”

Rising Stars

In January 2014, before Broad City debuted on Comedy Central, UCB Los Angeles hosted a special preview screening of the show. Ten people showed up. In December, UCB hosted a “secret” 1 a.m. Broad City Live show. Fans waited up all night to get in. Likewise, every date on Jacobson and Glazer’s national stand-up comedy tour sold out, and their panel appearance in a 500-seat conference room at New York Comic-Con was packed to the gills. Officials said it was the most popular non-animated comedy draw at the annual pop-culture convention.

After its debut, Broad City earned rapt critical acclaim; since then, it’s landed on multiple best-of lists and earned two Critics Choice Awards nominations, for Best Comedy and Best Actress in a Comedy for Glazer. The show is tied with Louie in HitFix’s Television Critics Poll for the Top 10 TV shows of 2014, but Broad City has an average of 1.3 million viewers per episode, while Season 4 of Louie averaged just over 1 million–and Louie stars a veteran comic with a two-season head start.

Jacobson and Glazer are using their newfound fame to pay it forward. At one Broad City Live show at UCB in October, they let their friend Celeste Ballard screen her new web series Seriously Distracted for their audience. “They know they’re able to help people out,” Ballard says. “Maybe people are like, ‘Hey, check out this cool thing that the Broad City girls recommended.'”

To them, the best thing about their success is that they’re in it together. Jacobson is running late to our brunch, and Glazer keeps looking over her shoulder like she’s lost her anchor. “This whole experience–I wouldn’t want it if it weren’t with Abbi right now,” she says. “I would not want to do this alone.”

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