Before I had seen “Broad City,” I read reviews that praised the new Comedy Central show for two seemingly contradictory qualities: It was realistic, and it was not realistic. “Ilana and Abbi are our people,” writes Ann Friedman on The Guardian’s TV and radio blog. The show’s main characters, two slacker friends played by Upright Citizens Brigade alumnae Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, remind the critic of her own circle. “They are truly casual about sex, not simply feigning detachment in the name of empowerment. They are feminists who call each other ‘dude.’ They have so many inside jokes that listening to them can be like trying to decipher a code. They wear a combination of ‘flea market vintage, American Apparel, H&M.’ They smoke so much weed.” On the other hand, the show is “appealingly detached from the boring constraints of realism,” writes Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, thus its “deranged” charm.
You don’t have to watch for long to see how both of these claims might be true. “Broad City” burlesques the material that other cable and network shows like “Girls,” “New Girl,” and “2 Broke Girls” have been working with—namely, young women mating and underachieving in New York. Watching “Broad City” for the first time, you might have the feeling that Abbi and Ilana have ruined you for any sincere treatment of the subject matter. They give new life to typical stoner hijinks and, at the same time, reduce post-college existential concerns to what feels like their rightful scale: tiny. In one episode, the friends set modest goals for self-improvement. Abbi is going to buy her own pot instead of bumming Ilana’s. Ilana is going to do her own taxes instead of getting help from her parents. After a few false starts, Abbi strikes gold. The girls get high. Ilana breaks her tooth on a jawbreaker. Between the marijuana, the dentist’s nitrous oxide, and her own native qualities, she seems increasingly unlikely to succeed in the goal of doing her taxes. She ends up stuffing her crumpled forms and receipts into an envelope to send to her parents. “I’m not gonna be a tax expert overnight,” she reasons. “You know, it’s a process.” And last year, her parents “got me six hundred-dollars back.” To which Abbi replies, “I think they might just be sending you money.”
Though the action is madcap, the tone giddy, Jacobson and Glazer project emotional depth and intelligence that strain thrillingly against the show’s farcical constraints. And by sitcom standards, there is a kind of naturalism and intimacy in Abbi and Ilana’s onscreen presence that makes them more real-seeming than other comedy characters representing the same demographic: minimal make-up, muttered lines, wardrobes and settings that are plausible for young women with cash-flow problems, and a sense of humor in their riffs that is both down-to-Earth and earthy. They make regular, convincingly motivated references to bodily fluids, cavities, and excretions. In one episode, most of the show’s major characters bunker at Abbi’s apartment to wait out a major storm. The episode turns into a kind of whodunit involving a pile of shit in a shoe. Its resolution hangs on the question of just how many separate acts of defecation have taken place that night.
Is it important that women demonstrate excellence in this particular kind of humor? The question was thick in the air a few years ago when Bridesmaids came out. At the time, my answer was a mild yes: Why should men have a lock on projectile fake vomit? Yet personally I thought I could only get so excited about the comedy of bodily fluids. “Broad City” has changed my mind. The show is consistently excellent at many different elements of comedy: tight plotting with an ironic Seinfeldian turn of the screw, fast talk that’s dense with brilliant throwaway lines, classic physical gags, and ingeniously conceived minor characters who are urban-gothic gargoyles. In this context of technical assurance and inspired lunacy, I better appreciate the liberating potential of shit jokes. Bodily fluids are comedy. Other kinds of physical comedy—the comedy of being clumsy or awkward or saying the wrong thing—implicitly refer back to the original, messier embarrassments of the body. Women of course have a great tradition in screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s. But in the explicit, graphic era of film and TV comedy that began in the 1970s, dirty jokes were, for a long time, mostly a man’s work. To have grown up—in, say, the dark years of the 1980s—seeing women limited to the cleaner end of comedy while men ran the full spectrum was to feel that women are somehow cut off from comedy’s source.
Shit is risky material, and some of “Broad City” ’s dirty jokes are funnier than others, but in general “Broad City” pulls it off precisely by being nonchalant about both scatology and sex. The first episode of the show starts in medias res, with a video-chat between Abbi and Ilana; the viewer has to marshal his wits to figure out who they are and what they’re talking about. Their sex lives are introduced in medias res, too. The first episode opens with a shot of a vibrator with a Post-it note attached reading, “Tuesday 7 AM.” It eventually becomes clear that Abbi had scheduled a time to masturbate, but before she could begin, she was interrupted by the video-chat call from Ilana. It also becomes clear that Ilana has placed this call while she is right in the middle of having sex with her sort-of boyfriend, Lincoln. Why? As we’ll discover, it’s partly that she is sexually obsessed with Abbi and wants to have a threesome, but probably also just because she’s a little ADD. That first scene sets the tone as far as sex is concerned: a comedy of lust that happens to be interpreted by female comedians.
“Broad City” makes an interesting contrast with “Inside Amy Schumer,” another very funny (and sexually explicit) Comedy Central show that’s a mix of Schumer’s stand-up, skits, and on-the-street interviews. Schumer’s show is pricelessly funny in sending up what we think of as typical male and female behaviors, and also in skewering sexism. She gives both kinds of jokes a darkly perverse sexual spin. The skit “Operation Enduring Mouth” has Schumer as a covert-operations agent. While her male colleague is assigned to rappel down a building and capture their target, Schumer is assigned to distract the target by cooking him dinner and giving him a blow job. Her government-issued equipment: a scrunchie to hold back her hair.
“Broad City” is something different. The show doesn’t dwell on either male/female behavior or sexism. It poses no big questions about female desire or sexual conduct. Abbi and Ilana do not spend any time bantering about how-men-are. They go for long stretches of time without seeming particularly conscious of being female, even when they’re pursuing—or running from, or objectifying—men. Meanwhile, their being female often has no particular bearing on the action. I don’t think I’ve ever seen female characters making such a confident, easy claim for their experience—including their sexual experience—as universal. This underplaying of gendered self-consciousness is, I suspect, a crucial part of what creates a powerful, improbable effect of realism in an obviously non-realistic comedy. The women demonstrate a way of being that seems true and familiar but seldom depicted on television or in film. Jacobson and Glazer have created a little corner of the comedic universe where women are assumed to be hilarious fuck-ups in roughly the same ways, and based on roughly the same principles, that men have been. They want love (or sex, or a promotion, or a ticket to see Lil Wayne in concert), but they can’t quite manage to get it. Let’s hope that they never will.
Elaine Blair is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.