'Broad City': How Trump Fueled the Show’s Feminist Manifesto

Abbi Jacobson talks to THR about Wednesday's episode, titled "Witches," which took aim at President Trump's America with a storyline centered around the female orgasm.
Courtesy of Comedy Central
'Broad City'

"Trump-related pussy constipation," a sexual assault-bragging steak salesman-in-chief, vulva rage and a coven of witches. On its surface, Wednesday's episode appeared to be Broad City's feminist manifesto.

But Abbi Jacobson — the co-creator and star of the Comedy Central series along with Ilana Glazer — stopped short of bestowing that label on Wednesday's provocative Trump-themed show. "I don’t know if I would call it that, but you can," she told The Hollywood Reporter during a wide-ranging chat. Ahead of the episode, the network even launched a Trump internet filter for viewers who, like the creators of Broad City, are sick of "hearing the president's name or even reading it online" and want to blot him out of their web browsers. Jacobson, who made her directorial debut with Wednesday's show, aptly titled "Witches," presumably stopped short of calling the episode a manifesto because of its underlying message of empowerment — not anger.

Frustrations surely abound in the episode, which Jacobson describes as her and Glazer's most personally therapeutic storyline of the season. Jacobson and Glazer play versions of themselves, also named Abbi and Ilana, in the New York City-set sitcom, and the currently airing fourth season firmly places the duo in Trump's America. On Wednesday, Abbi was constantly getting unsolicited advice on how to age as a woman, while Ilana visited a sex therapist to cure her inability to have an orgasm.

Ilana traces her "dead pussy" epidemic back to patient zero: The 2016 presidential election. The 20-something screams vulgarities at the source of the problem amid an election-themed montage, complete with an orange-faced Trump and his infamous "Grab 'em by the pussy" audio playing on loop. Her therapist tells her orgasms have been down 140 percent since Trump was elected.

After several Trump-bleeped outbursts ("Electoral college! Mike Pence! Tiny, tiny hands!"), Ilana is able to climax when replacing her election rage with a ferocious female current, displayed in images of empowering women. Michelle Obama's "We go high" speech and a campaigning Hillary Clinton kick off a 15-second long montage of famous females. After Abbi and Ilana reunite for some group witchcraft in the woods — a ritual heard all the way to a shaking Trump Tower — a longer version of the montage again plays under the end credits. 

"Doing the Trump montage felt very radical, but taking about 15 seconds on television to show inspiring and powerful women is unfortunately just as radical," says Jacobson, adding that she and Glazer also slipped their own mothers into the montage. This season, for the first time, both Jacobson and Glazer will direct two episodes each. Of the creative decision, Jacobson adds, "We just decided to take the time to show powerful women on television."

Below, in a chat with THR, Jacobson goes behind the scenes of the "Witches" episode, exploring its post-election message and how it applies to the rest of the season, their "growing" series (which has already been renewed) and the current Hollywood climate as it is being flooded with sexual harassment allegations, giving rise to many female voices.

In this episode, Trump is referred to as a “sexual assault-bragging president," and in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and the floodgates opening about sexual harassment Hollywood, it couldn’t be more timely. Does it shock you that this episode actually became even more relevant?

(Long sigh.) Unfortunately, no. I guess. When you make something so far away from when it airs, you just don’t know what is going to happen. But it was very relevant when we wrote it, it was relevant when we shot and edited it and, unfortunately, it is now even more so. It’s a series of "unfortunately"s.

Ilana Glazer spoke out on social media, echoing many women who have told their stories about experiencing harassment in Hollywood. She said she fired two people and that being a showrunner gives the rare opportunity to take action. Were you involved in those instances? Have you experienced similar situations?

The firing of those people was me firing them, too. Being the boss of something allows you to actually not just speak up about what’s happening, but to actually do something about it. Broad City is the first opportunity for Ilana and I to actually take matters into our own hands and change the way that things were happening. Ilana was speaking to what has specifically, personally happened to her, but there have been other instances on the show where we have had to fire people for inappropriate behavior toward other crewmembers, which I’m sure comes as no surprise to anyone. It’s pretty constant and something I knew as a woman, but when you’re running a show we are able to say: We’re going to change the way this operates now. It’s not OK and it’s definitely not OK here. Again, it’s very disappointing. But it is refreshing to be able to change that. Even if it’s just where we work.

Do you feel more empowered with all of the women who are speaking out and now being heard, and do you feel that things will actually change?

It’s nice to find an upside to all of this, which is that people are becoming more vocal in every realm of shitty-ness. It’s comforting to know that more people are actively trying to make things different in a positive and open way, where people are more engaged in learning about other people’s experiences.

Broad City was off the air for 17 months, a longer gap than usual, and you set this season in the winter for the first time. You've also taken some big risks, including the first animated episode of Abbi and Ilana's mushroom trip through New York City. What were your goals with this season?

We were the ones who pushed to do the winter season. Usually we air almost exactly a year later, but in order to set the show in the winter, we had to push the scheduling by six months. I don’t think we realized it at the time, things got a little tricky writing-wise and we ended up having two, broken-apart writing periods. After the election, it both ignited and allowed us to take a step back from the show, on a personal level, and also ignite what we believe in as real people and what we are trying to say in our art, which right now is a TV show. We’ve never really had that opportunity. Our show, more than a lot of shows, doesn’t really operate in this formulaic way, so we're growing as a show. I’m really excited about it, and I hope our audience is too, but it does feel different than the normal sitcom in its growth.

You announced you were going to bleep Trump’s name ahead of the season. Many shows have taken Trump on and now there’s a shift in some not mentioning him at all. Was this your way of finding a compromise?

I think it’s important for content to do both. I don’t want to turn on the TV and for every show to be about Trump. I want to escape it. With Broad City, we were really trying to do both. We want you to come and laugh and get to escape reality, but the show does exist right now. These characters are living within our world, so to not talk about it felt really wrong. We asked: How could we examine what’s going on in a way that makes us laugh and allows us, even as writers and performers, to escape it? You have to find the funny in this crazy, fucked up shit.

How does "Witches" do just that?

This episode really does that with Ilana’s storyline, but also with my storyline. My story was one that was not originally going to be political at all. But what we’re learning right now is that everything is political. My story — the treatment of women and how we are perceived and how we’re told to be and feel as we get older — is something we’ve been wanting to do forever. It sort of just morphed with Ilana’s storyline and it all became very much about Trump. The way that he talks and treats women is not OK. I’m really proud of the way that we managed to merge a bunch of different frustrations within this episode. 

You’ve infused the current climate into TV Abbi and Ilana's lives, from being abortion escorts to their Planned Parenthood posters and pussyhats. Was this episode your most personal way of venting election frustrations?

It wasn’t like we were thinking, “How can we infuse this climate into the show?” We were just talking as friends about what was going on and kept getting side-tracked. We couldn’t stop talking about how upset we really were and that’s organically where it ended up. Ilana’s storyline, in particular, was this personal story of how this upsetting climate can affect someone. When we stumbled upon it, it felt right — that we were talking about it by making it personal. We never had objectives. It was organic. This episode is definitely the most heavy-handed, but there are a couple more. We also used these characters to show our own ignorance, especially our ignorance before the election and what we need to learn. I need to be way more informed than I even am now, and I know that. We try to incorporate that into the show. You have to be more aware, constantly.

When did you write the episode?

We wrote this episode in December. This is one of the episodes that we rewrote after the election. The idea of the positivity of witches was always there, but it was really almost a concrete overhaul. Our first writing period was May through July of 2016.

The amount of times Ilana talks about pleasuring herself would make the head of any anti-women’s rights viewer explode. Did you especially enjoy leaning into the comedy of her sexuality here?

I don’t think anyone was feeling super-sexy after the election, I'm just going to make that overall statement of most people. Ilana’s storyline is maybe amplifying that feeling, but I think a lot of people were feeling similar vibes. Where the mind and body are connected and not feeling right. It was really upsetting. We had fun leaning into that, but it’s also a real thing. The sex therapist character is based on the real Betty Dodson, who was this revolutionary sex therapist. That was something we were excited to expose, along with exposing how sex drive and orgasms are so directly correlated to how you’re feeling mentally. I'm no expert, but that was something exciting for us to talk about. Then to put it on top of this election? It felt so organic.

There are two montages. One of election clips and Trump when Ilana is frustrated, and then one of empowering women when she finally finds some relief. How did you go about creating those?

The election montage was edited by this guy Vic Berger, who was someone we found on Instagram. His work is incredible. He does all of these political videos and animations that just heighten the way we’re feeling right now. If you watch an actual [Trump] interview or a press conference, you often feel like, “Is this real? How can this be real?” He takes them and heightens them to a new place. We thought his work would be perfect for the show and this episode, and it really was. We worked with him on that. We’re involved in every little piece of the show.

The episode ends on an image of Manhattan's Trump Tower, but then plays off with another round of the empowering women montage. At what point did you decide you wanted to end it on those notes, which feel both fiery and empowering? 

Ending on Trump Tower was in the script, and same with the female montage. But it wasn’t until I got into the edit room that I slid something in there. Ilana and my actual mothers are in that montage. That was important to us. The political montage of Trump felt very radical for us to do. It exists within Ilana’s brain, so that’s the only way we felt we could do something like that. Both times we go into her brain and we see something different. 

In the credits, we wanted to show more women because there wasn’t enough space. There are so many more women and I’m sure people will say, “What about her and her?” I had seen the episode maybe 50 times at this point, but when I watched it on the big screen during our season premiere and the women montage came on, I felt empowered. I feel inspired seeing that. So I really hope that people watch and feel that way.

What about the decision to bring your witches theme full circle with the radical feminist display at the end?

It’s a little fantastical at the end but we just felt like, “We’re going there, so let’s go there.” That night when we shot it, that was the one real winter shoot we had. It was very cold, and it just felt so incredible. The howling at the sky. And to have those actors (including Jane Curtin and Marcella Lowery) with us doing it? It was pretty perfect and special. We were leaning into those feelings.

What was the most challenging aspect about both starring and directing, while making your directorial debut?

I think my favorite moment of directing was the full days we had where I was not in it, like the scenes with Ilana and Betty [Lowery]. I really got to focus on being the director. Usually, I have my actor and producer hat on. I’m usually swapping out these hats constantly, and I love that experience too. But when I wasn’t in the show, I really got to execute my vision completely and a little more clear-headed. There was an 11-page day where all the scenes in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were shot, and there were even a couple scenes that didn’t make it into the episode. That was the most difficult because there was 11 pages and they’re all my scenes and the coverage of all those different tables was very tricky. But I love that challenge. The thing with being a director was that I had one more team — a great team that I curated as a producer with Ilana — that I could utilize even more. I’m in charge. It’s often really exciting and really challenging. What more can I ask for as a creative person?

Have you started giving any thought to season five and the future of the series? Will you take your time again between seasons?

We start writing again in December, which is quickly approaching. Ilana and I talk all the time about it. We don’t really get into storylines until we start — we try our best to live life when we’re not doing the show so we have something to write about. I’m excited to air the rest of the episodes and be in the moment with them right now.