Broad City offers a welcome step back from comedy focused on self-improvement.By Helen Razer.
Broad City set to become this decade’s Seinfeld
Aspiration may be the servant to most kinds of success, but it is the enemy of successful comedy. Nothing is more fatal to a joke than hope and there is little that can kill a comic faster than evidence of their urge to really grow as a person. This is not to say comedy is entirely dismal – even the darkest suicide joke needs a kernel of joy to survive. Self-improvement, however, to state the obvious, isn’t very funny.
But it is, in our time, very contagious. Even truly great comics can be infected by our era’s need to emotionally succeed. In last year’s HBO special We Are Miracles, Sarah Silverman spoke of the importance of raising optimistic children. It was, of course, positive and heartwarming. And, coming from such a marvellously sociopathic persona, the most depressing thing I’ve seen on television since they first turned a camera on Kochie.
Lena Dunham, whose Girls just a few seasons ago could lay claim to being the Anglophone world’s best sitcom, has also suffered a bad case of moral ambition. Her first mistake was to offer audiences a message and her second was to make that message “Be true to yourself and you will succeed and grow in small but rewarding ways”; a sentiment echoed in Australian Josh Thomas’s very good but not very funny second season of Please Like Me. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have both recently released peppy self-help books with “love yourself” as a central message, and even Louis C. K. is showing signs of self-awareness in the fifth and newest season of Louie.
It’s a jungle of personal progress out there and if you want a good, old-fashioned refusal to grow, Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee may have been your only recourse. I was starting to suspect that obstinate failure may have died with the ’90s. Then, idle millennials Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson secured our freedom from hope with Broad City.
It was in 2009 that Glazer and Jacobson, then broke New York City improv students, gave their curious talent to YouTube. The Broad City webisodes did not claim page-views to rival Grumpy Cat but did find a loyal audience of champions who loved the writer-performers’ lack of ambition. One of the people drawn to their cheery lack of purpose was Amy Poehler. Proving she was not entirely lost to the virus of healthy self-esteem, Poehler agreed to appear in the web finale and signed on as executive producer and helped bring this new show-about-nothing to series TV.
The rest is not yet what we could call comedy history but, after two compelling seasons, Ilana and Abbi, who write and play hyper versions of themselves, show signs of becoming this decade’s Jerry and George.
Seinfeld, of course, belongs to its time and the spite, ethnic uniformity and relative wealth of its protagonists would not play to the present day’s more mindful and more global audience. Certainly some of Broad City’s darker intersections would not have been safe for ’90s TV. In season one, Abbi visits the bathroom at an upscale restaurant to find that a prophylactic is lodged inside her, ahem, person. What follows is several minutes of condom detective work and some of the funniest and least prurient dialogue on promiscuity, male or female, that has yet been written.
Jerry would never have worked that blue. But he did something even more fundamentally obscene than obscenity and that was to depict, as Broad City does, people content to live without progress.
To depict a life lived without hope for any moral or much material advancement was the great risk of Seinfeld and it may turn out to be the great reward of this new show. The faculty for self-improvement is a myth on which our liberal-era identities are based and to suggest that we can be happy without it, like George and Jerry chatting aimlessly at the coffee shop, or Ilana and Abbi doing the same on Facetime, is a marvellous threat.
Ilana and Abbi are quite a bit nicer than Costanza and Seinfeld. They are not, like the uneasy allies of the Upper West Side, brought together by laziness but by real fondness for each other. Ilana, in fact, is quite taken with her friend, and her frequent propositions and observations that Abbi “looks like a supermodel” and has “the rear end of an angel” would bring the work into predictable will-they-or-won’t-they territory if it wasn’t the kind of show, like Seinfeld, where you know nothing ever really happens. There can be no humdrum sexual tension in a show that refuses to experience sex, or anything else generally thought of as important, as tense.
The only tensions in the Broad City, like those in the Seinfeld-verse, arise from trifles. Jerry can’t buy the chocolate babka from Schnitzer’s Bakery and Ilana can’t find any pot. Elaine is barred from ordering chowder at the Soup Nazi’s kitchen and Abbi leaves her smartphone at home. The drama is always petty and its consequences can never be great. But it is the narrowness of this world that permits it not only to more precisely reflect our own experience – consistently more engaged with a lack of cakes and doobies than a lack of love or world peace – but to meaningfully question our false public discourse about the need for personal progress.
We tell ourselves that we want to be better and suppose this is a natural urge that, if fulfilled, will end in our own satisfaction. Most television comedy, including Poehler’s own Parks and Recreation, rewards its citizens for believing that hard work makes them better people. Seinfeld, however, was half-aware that this self-improvement was created to scratch the back of production. Seinfeld celebrated George secretly falling asleep at work or Elaine tossing off awful advertising copy for far more pay than she deserved. Broad City takes a more unflinching look at the deluded love of labour and we find Abbi mopping up vomit in a gym and Ilana unapologetically falling asleep at coupon business Deals! Deals! Deals! while in the background managers read from the capitalist Book of Common Prayer and urge the girls to become “positive team members”.
One of the real delights of this program is that its stars will never join a team whose membership rules they have not themselves written and will reserve all their positivity for the pursuit of their own pleasure. References to Oprah in the series are copious and Abbi has a poster of the great motivational hostess over her bed. But hers is a wilful misunderstanding of Oprah, who wants us to succeed in the “real” world of family and work and not in the more delightful one of pot-smoke, porn and Pinterest.
The thing about this light comedy that makes it unusual is that its central characters are happy, unenviable and certainly not posited as “role models”. They are not objects of pity. They’re just kind of adorable and extramoral.
Broad City is the first successful post-cynical comic TV portrayal of Western life I’ve seen since Seinfeld. There’s not a trace of the detached hipster whimsy we might see in Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl. These women are certainly aware of hipster fashions in morality and style but largely unconcerned with conforming to these or any other guidelines that do not have their direct personal pleasure as an outcome. Whereas New Girl holds out the things that it loves with a pair of tongs and shrieks “Look at me loving this thing with such passionate unaffected intensity!”, Broad City actually just loves things – pot, sex and knockoff handbags – and goes about engaging with them directly.
This show is somehow and miraculously located beyond the selfie stick. That someone might be watching and enjoying them enjoying themselves is an outcome, not the origin, of these meticulously written characters. It’s taken a lot of hard work to erase the evidence of the deluded love of hard work.
There are no moral lessons to be learned from Broad City and thank goodness for that. What you will find instead when you watch it is pure joy. And some pretty funny gags about pot and lost condoms.
VISUAL ART Jacques Charous Over Half a Century
Wollongong Art Gallery, Wollongong, until June 21
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Brisbane Powerhouse, April 28 only
VISUAL ART Loud!
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until July 5
CINEMA Spanish Film Festival
Various venues, Sydney, until May 10; various venues, Melbourne, until May 10
VISUAL ART Art as a Verb
City Gallery, Adelaide, until April 26
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until May 9
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2015 as "Amorality play". Subscribe here.