The (Totally Endearing) Story of Broad City's Beginning
June 3 2016 · Mark Mann
For artists and performers who want to find success, the idea of “making it” isn’t always helpful. Too much yearning for the next stage of your career can make it harder to give your best now, because you’ll always feel impatient for something better.
But looking back from the vantage of a successful career, you can often find those key moments when everything changed. Sometimes those moments come early. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer didn’t realize it at the time, but the creators of Broad City had made it as comedians from the moment they first met each other.
More than anything else, the story of Broad City’s success is the story of their amazing chemistry. The affection and intimacy Jacobson and Glazer share with each other is the defining feature of the show, and it’s what keeps viewers coming back for more. “They have an organic, very innate, primal dynamic, and it’s obvious to anyone,” says Kent Alterman, one of the executives who signed the show to Comedy Central.
Get the best business long reads in your inbox every Saturday morning.
Before it became a hit show on cable television, Broad City started as a DIY web series about two haplessly charming women trying to make their way in New York. Although the show draws some of its narrative energy from both the struggle and fun of navigating the big city, mostly it’san ode to their friendship.
Even though they formed an instant bond, Jacobson and Glazer had been friends for two years before they started posting videos to YouTube in 2009. By the time they first met, they’d both studied improv at Upright Citizen’s Brigade-though neither had ever taken a class together-and they shared the same ambition: to get into one of UCB’s house teams.
New York’s improv scene has become the new proving ground for careers in comedy, and so it is full of all kinds of aspiring stars and hardworking comics. But beyond the promise of fame and fortune, improv is often viewed as a strategy for self-actualization, and so it draws people from all kinds of professions. It’s practically a grassroots social movement: there are hundreds of teams and many thousands of performers, all of them constantly striving to improve their confidence and hone their skills. At the heart of all this energy and ambition is UCB.
UCB opened its first theatre in an old strip club in 1999, and since then it has produced dozens of big stars, like Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler. Today, classes at UCB sell out in minutes, and making it onto one of the company’s house teams is extremely competitive. In order to keep
developing their improv chops, Jacobson and Glazer both happened to join the same practice team, called Secret Promise Circle. “We were immediate friends,”Jacobson says.
In fact, the first time Jacobson saw Glazer, she mistook her for Alia Shawkat, who played Maybe on
Arrested Development. “She’s my ticket,” Jacobson thought to herself. She was right, but not for the reasons she thought.
The two comedians now admit that their chances of becoming improv stars weren’t that good. “I feel I was really bad at improv,”says Glazer. A big part of finding success is knowing when something isn’t working and being flexible enough to change your approach. Jacobson and Glazer were completely focused on making it onto one of those UCB house teams-they hired a coach, paid for weekly rehearsal space, and promoted their live shows with free liquor shots-and the frustration of continued rejection was intense.
But despite the disappointments, they knew they were funny, so they decided to make something themselves and put it online. They were at a pizza parlour across the street from the UCB offices when they had their first eureka moment: “Why can’t it just be us?” Jacobson asked.
From that point on, the show was about their quirky and endearing relationship. They banished outright negativity, and instead focused on the hilarious stuff. The characters of Abbi and Ilana are 15% exaggerations of their real lives, they like to say, with an emphasis on the aimless and insecure parts of their personalities (not to mention the “”blank" rel=“nofollow” href=“https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPr7Y7PqxEo”>slutty and blank" rel=“nofollow” href=“https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKnaTistUmQ”>weed-smoking" parts.)
They started meeting in cafes every day to write. Around the same time, they both got a job together at a group-on company called Lifebooker, which is the inspiration for Deals Deals Deals, Ilana’s job in the show. They sat side-by-side and would discuss the show between phone calls and emails. Many of the production costs for the web series were funded by their work at Lifebooker.
The duo like to say that that the first season of the web series was made “one foot in front of the other.” They’d write an episode and shoot it, and then move on to the next one. For the second season, they decided to take a more professional approach and treat it like a TV show, which meant writing all the episodes in advance, filming in batches, and releasing all the episodes on a fixed weekly schedule. They also started paying their directors and editors, buying food for the shoot, and doing a lot of photo shoots and PR to promote the show.
Jacobson and Glazer were developing their business savvy as they went through the second season of the web series. They started creating supplementaryHack into Broad City v-chat episodes, as well as headline-grabbing merch like their “Broad Fucking City” t-shirt, which famously got a college studentkicked off an Southwest Airlines flight. It was also during the second season that they found a manager, who advised them to start writing a pilot for TV.
The Broad City web series wasn’t a viral hit-it garnered viewers by the thousands, not the millions-but it was immediately popular inthe New York improv community, which proved to be one of their greatest assets.
“We just started to get a response from our community-the comedy community in New York-and that was enough to make us feel like it was something good and relatable and that we should keep making them,” Glazerhas said.
For one thing, the community was more than happy to share the videos on social media, which helped the duo reach a wider audience.
The strength of their community was also one of the key reasons why Amy Poehler agreed to be the show’s executive producer, which was certainly a key factor in getting it picked up by Comedy Central. (Poehler had already guest-starred inthe finale of season two, purely out of love for the show.) Poehler was drawn to the fact that Jacobson and Glazer were surrounded by a supportive group of people “who were fresh and had a lot to say and hadn’t really been given an opportunity on a bigger platform,” she has said.
Apart from their natural dynamic, sympathetic friends, and powerful supporters, Jacobson and Glazer have other habits that have helped them find success.They are very goal-oriented and use to-do lists constantly, as well as having regular goal-setting sessions with their manager. “No matter what it is that you do, aim for a goal,” says Glazer. “Give yourself a direction.”
At the same time, the opposite principle also holds true. For most of the time that they were making the web series, Jacobson and Glazer weren’t
impatiently looking past it for something better. They didn’t consider the web series a step to something else, but an end in itself, and so they were able to focus all their energy and creativity on what they were doing.
Jacobson and Glazer know what they’ve got
, and they don’t take it for granted. “We both really lucked out in having found each other and just gone with it,” Jacobson has said.
The pair like to talk about their relationship as a marriage: it’s a formal arrangement between two people who want to build something that is full of
love. “I’m not like a conventionally romantic person,” Glazer has saidin an interview, “but I think our experience is the most romantic I could ever be, where it’s like…” And then Jacobson jumped in: “…love at first sight.”