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Parting Shots: Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson

by Mike Greenhaus on February 17, 2016

Playing a caricature of herself on the Comedy Central hit Broad City, Abbi Jacobson has never been afraid to let her improv freak-flag fly, so it’s no surprise that the 31-year-old actress/comedian spent her formative years immersed in the jamband community.

“I used to go to a lot of jam and Phish shows,” she says of her teenage years growing up outside Philadelphia. “That’s what we did on the weekends— we’d see shows. It’s just such an amazing, rare thing to put yourself in that situation where you are improvising onstage.”

Though she was “obsessed with Saturday Night Live as a kid,” Jacobson attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and originally had her eyes set on a career in the visual arts. (She recently released Color This Book: San Francisco and Color This Book: New York City, which feature her original drawings in coloring book format.)

“I thought the art world would be easier for some reason, and I didn’t really get back into acting until after college when I came to New York and realized, ‘No, I really want to do this.’”

She hooked up with her future Broad City co-creator Ilana Glazer while taking classes at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade, and after realizing their natural chemistry, beta tested Broad City as a DIY web series before signing a Comedy Central deal with the help of executive producer and UCB founding member Amy Poehler.

Still, as Broad City enters its third season in February, Jacobson looks to her formative years camping out at festivals for inspiration—and, as she proclaimed in a recent Instagram post while bopping to “Shakedown Street,” when she feels like procrastinating. “Being on an improv team is exactly like being in a band,” she says with a laugh. “The dorkier version of a band.”

You’ve described yourself as a “jamband girl.” What was your gateway into that musical community?

My older brother got me into the scene—from Dylan, Phish and Pink Floyd to every incarnation of the Dead. At my high school in the Philadelphia suburbs, there was a whole group of kids who were into this type of music. My dad was really into the Dead and classic rock, and he would always talk about the jocks, the greasers and all these different groups in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We were the jamband kids. When Phish went on hiatus, I ended up going to a lot of the other shows that took their place. It was a very social part of who I was hanging out with.

I was in high school during an unfortunate time in Phish history, when they took a hiatus from 2000-2002, during some of my best show years, but I went to their Madison Square Garden comeback after I graduated. It was a big deal when they came back, and I tried to go to a lot of their shows after that. I used to go to festivals, too, like Gathering of the Vibes—I was there the “rain year” in 2001 and the first time Phil Lesh played in 2002— and I was at the second Bonnaroo.

I weirdly stopped going to as much music when I moved to New York. I got into the comedy scene and that took over. I was so desperately trying to get into that world that I didn’t have the time or money to go to concerts. It was super weird and cool to go back to Bonnaroo [with Broad City] and drive around in a golf cart filming silly shit. Last time I was there [in 2003], The Dead, as they were calling themselves, was the big headlining show, and now it’s Kanye West.

Broad City grew directly out of the UCB Theatre, which shares an improvisational ethos with the jamband community. Did your roots in the live music scene inspire your improv work?

It is, without a doubt, inspiring. Look at Phish, for example—the teamwork that goes into the four of them, the way they can go on and improvise for so long, and just trust each other to find something and then come back. A band is like an improv team. When you’re onstage, you’re putting yourself in other people’s hands. You make a move, and you hope someone is going to go with it and enhance it. It’s awesome anytime you trust someone enough to collaborate live. It’s very bold, so I was super inspired by Phish. A show like ours, where we have a real fondness for each other, is totally different than a [TV show] where you just find a formula for success. The product feels more real.

Broad City has a very rock-and-roll philosophy, and a lot of that has to do with the rapport between the cast.

We’ve known everyone in the main cast for a long time. It’s the same with our writing team. That’s where the band really is because coming up with a season and stories is where the trust comes in. That’s the hardest part—there are just so many rounds. When you move into production, you have to trust that the script’s there. It’s the same thing that any band does: They have songs, but they have to trust that their songs are good enough to go away and come back.
You play a fictionalized, 20-something version of yourself on Broad City. Has it become more challenging to write the show as you move away from your post-college experiences?

It’s definitely harder. This season is very different in that we got a little deeper with the characters because they’re much more like characters. They are based on us and every scene is still based on something that happened to one of us or another writer, but we’re really expanding. Their lives are no longer ours, unlike when we were making the Web series a few years ago. We’re still pretty close to [the characters] and it’s based in a grounded place, but it’s also fun to go deeper into this alternate version of myself, questioning, “What if I made these choices?” Rather than: “What could we do here that would be fun?”

Whether you live in New York or not, the experience of being that age and trying to figure out what you want to do is universal— at least relative to certain upper-middle-class Americans. My life has never changed so fast and so drastically as it has in the last few years. It’s a very interesting process.

Perhaps Broad City’s signature musical moment is the season two episode when your character realizes that she is alone in her apartment for the first time, and lip-syncs a naked dance routine to Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory.” I assume that was based on a real-life moment?

[Laughs.] I always had roommates in New York, and that’s a very specific thing that you can relate to if you live with someone—even if they’re your spouse. When you have that space to yourself, it can be so freeing. It was based on that feeling of “I have this time to myself and I want to go all out.” That Lady Gaga song is a guilty pleasure. The show doesn’t have a very big budget, and I didn’t realize until I got into TV how expensive using music is. We get one big song a year, and that was our choice.

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