This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Before there was Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham or the broads from Broad City, there was 2 Broke Girls, an edgy CBS sitcom well known for its propensity for vagina jokes. The provocative half-hour, from Sex and the City‘s Michael Patrick King and stand-up comic Whitney Cummings, premiered to a staggering 19.4 million viewers in September 2011, quickly establishing it among broadcast’s rare comedy hits.
Drafting off the country’s financial woes, the Warner Bros. TV show centered on an unlikely friendship between sardonic, street-wise waitress Max Black (Kat Dennings, 29) and her newly poor co-worker, Caroline Channing (Beth Behrs, 30), whose father lost his fortune in a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. “Five years ago, the word ‘broke’ was very much a part of the dialogue,” says King. “People were worried about the recession, and it was a hot moment to actually be on television saying, ‘We can’t pay our rent.’ “
Reviews were mixed: The Boston Globe called it “the best multicam com of the season,” while the Los Angeles Times knocked its “unfortunate racial stereotyping” (a charge also leveled during a contentious press panel in early 2012). But TBS saw the value of the ratings powerhouse — by season two, the show still was luring 10.8 million viewers — and reportedly shelled out a record $1.7 million per episode for repeats in 2012. As the comedy approaches its 100th episode Jan. 13, the cast, the creators and the executives who greenlighted the multicamera hit reflect on the staying power of a deceptively humble concept ahead of its time.
Stars Behrs (second from left) and Dennings flanked by CBS’ newly elevated entertainment president Glenn Geller (left) and Warner Bros. TV’s Roth at the 100th episode celebration.
Seizing the Moment
Michael Patrick King, co-creator: I didn’t see any hardworking 20-year-olds on television, and I especially didn’t see any hardworking female characters. The 20-year-olds I knew had two and three jobs. I’m from people who didn’t have a lot of money, and it didn’t reflect the world as I knew it.
Peter Roth, Warner Bros. Television group president: After Michael pitched the idea, he said, “To really capture the essence of today’s hipster young women, I need to bring aboard a partner, a young woman preferably.” He was self-aware enough to know what he didn’t know.
Whitney Cummings, co-creator: As someone who didn’t really grow up with a traditional religion, Sex and the City became it. So I get this call from CAA saying Michael Patrick King is looking for someone to write with, and I said, “He’s my hero!”
King: I read bloggers, playwrights, everyone. Whitney’s script was an original pilot — it wasn’t the one they went on to produce [Whitney, which ran from 2011-2013 on NBC], but it was about her being a stand-up. It had what multicam needs: really hard-hitting jokes. And she happened to be a broke girl in her 20s at the time.
Cummings: I had $800 in my bank account, and I thought, “What am I going to wear to meet Michael Patrick King, the king of all things fabulous?” So I went to Nordstrom’s and I got a pair of $700 Christian Louboutin wedge peanut heels. I kept the receipt because I was planning on returning them. And I wore a black tutu over jeans with a belt. I fancied myself a dark Carrie Bradshaw. So we meet in August, it’s probably 120 degrees, and by the time I’ve walked to his bungalow I’ve already sweat through my shoes. I couldn’t return them, so meeting Michael cost me $700.
King: I instantly knew Whitney was the one. As she was going out the door, she said, “Keep me in mind, or hire somebody else and bring me in to punch it up.”
“I remember reading the 2 Broke Girls script and saying to my boyfriend, ‘Oh, this role is me, but it’s definitely going to go to a name,’” says Behrs (right, on set with Dennings and King), who was a virtual unknown when she was cast.
Selling the Series
King: We took it to all four networks. There was interest from Fox, CBS and ABC. A bidding war [ensued].
Cummings: I believe the feedback from Fox was, “Can it be two broke boys?” So that didn’t work out. We were like, “You guys don’t get it.”
Roth: From the moment that [then CBS entertainment chairman] Nina Tassler first heard the idea, she said, “I have to have this.” We were surprised because we really wanted to push the envelope.
Nina Tassler, former CBS Entertainment chairman: After I graduated from college, I moved to New York and worked at a restaurant on 81st and Columbus. I lived that life, being less than broke, waiting on tables till the crack of dawn, scraping together every penny possible to make rent — but also living every moment to the fullest.
King: I was on the phone with Nina, and the clock was ticking. She said, “Michael, I know you think I’m the president of CBS and all that, but trust me, I know these girls. I was a waitress at Ruelle’s.” I said, “Nina, wait a minute, I was waiting on tables in the restaurant next door at the same time.” And, of course, you go to CBS because it’s a multicamera and they do that really well.
Cummings: Multicam is primarily a comedian’s medium. Michael and I are addicted to audiences’ response and laughter. That’s our compass.
Roth: From a business perspective, a hit multicam comedy is nirvana.
Finding 2 Broke Girls
King: Max Black is the single highest testing character of any pilot CBS has ever done. That’s because they found her to be legit, and it’s why I went after Kat Dennings so hard because she’s an outsider.
Kat Dennings, actress: I did an episode of Sex and the City when I was 13. When I got the offer for 2 Broke Girls outright, I was like, “I wonder if he remembers me?”
Cummings: There were definitely some casting issues. CBS wanted stars. For Caroline, they were pitching famous, pretty blond pop stars, the Ashley Tisdales of the world. We had to push hard for a complete unknown.
Beth Behrs, actress: I’d been to a lot of pilot auditions that year and those roles always went to a name. I was sharing a one-bedroom apartment and was nannying and bartending at the time.
King: Beth’s résumé had two things on it, but I could tell she had an organic funny bone. TV used to be about discovering people. Now, it’s, “Oh, remember her from …”
The creators and stars at a press event promoting the show the summer before its 2011 premiere.
A Massive Launch
Roth: I remember Nina’s call: “We’re going to put it on behind Ashton Kutcher’s [debut on] Two and a Half Men.” We did a 7.7 rating that night. There are certain numbers you never forget.
Cummings: In Max’s opening monologue, she says something about her vagina drying up. That was on the first page. We were off to the races.
Dennings: If someone could count the number of times I’ve said vagina in this show over five years, it’s probably, like, a million and a half.
King: I remember we tried to do a scene where there were four girls at a table and every other word out of their mouth was vagina. And we did get noted on, “That’s too many vaginas.” I had to say, “How many is too many?” They said, “Four is fine. Eight is too much.”
Dennings: We’ve had cake batter and other phallic substances thrown at our faces. Anytime that happens, I’m like, “Oh boy. Here we go.” I’m definitely less shy than I was when I started. Certain things have been like, “I don’t love this,” and Michael has made it go away. Like there was something written where Max runs through the kitchen in a bra, and I said, “No.” Michael was like, “Really?” And I was like, “No. Maybe after a renegotiation, but right now? No.”
King: There was an interesting [Television Critics Association panel for press early on]. I would love to walk you through it but my therapist has forbid me to ever speak of it. It was the beginning of people not understanding that girls can talk like this and it’s OK. They didn’t get it and they didn’t want us to be OK with the fact that they didn’t get it.
“What I learned when I did Sex and the City is that people in their 70s still have a young sense of humor and they like to laugh at edgy, naughty things [just as much as] people in their 20s,” says King, with co-creator Cummings at the 2012 People’s Choice Awards, where the show won the favorite new TV comedy award. “So you wrap the package respectfully, [and it’s] high lowbrow humor.”
The Show’s Legacy
King: Here we are 100 episodes later, and we still like what we’re doing. I’m proud of this rare milestone and that we were allowed to have an arc on television. I’m also happy to say that the girls are still broke, because in five years, people don’t necessarily get out of debt.
Tassler: I watch the show for myself. Transitioning at this time in my life [Tassler stepped down from her role at CBS at the end of December], it still speaks to me. There are parts that are just hilarious and then there are these wonderfully sentimental, poignant moments.
Cummings: It was right before Netflix, Amazon, Hulu. If it’d been a year later, I’m sure we would have had a different trajectory, if we had one at all.
King: CBS wasn’t eager to put the word vagina on TV — they were eager to put these two female characters on TV, who happen to use that word because they’re of a different generation. They were 23 at that time. We came on right before Girls. Again, another girl who is 23 who is saying it — or showing it. Then it went Broad City, Trainwreck. When I did Sex and the City, people didn’t talk about sex with comedy. They talked about sex with porn or shame. TV pushes people to where everyone already is. If you’re too far ahead, you’ve missed it. You have to be on the wave of what the consciousness is actually thinking.