‘All comparisons between Girls and Broad City should be hereto forth banned from the internet.’ I agree with Katherine Brooks. Yet the comparisons continue, ad nauseam, mostly following one of two lines of thought. Either Broad City is just ‘Comedy Central’s version of Girls’ – because they’re both humorous depictions of young white women in NYC. Or Broad City is pitted against Girls to determine which of the two is better/funnier/more relevant/wears 90s crop tops better.
It’s not the research methodology that irks me about these contrast/compare/compete dynamics. In her considered retort to Christopher Hitchens’ bombastic sexism, Alessandra Stanley notes that women in comedy are made to compete or subvert the form in an effort to make themselves likeable or appealing. Investigating the intrinsic ties between image, female comedians and gender politics, Stanley brings attention to the tacitly accepted gap generated by traditional patriarchal social structures. Intentionally or otherwise, this is the framework within which the either/or discussions of Broad City and Girls operate.
You all know about Girls by now, the HBO show lead by ‘generational voice’ Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath. Broad City stars creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson as Ilana and Abbi. Developed for television from a web series, with the help of executive producer Amy Poehler, it premiered earlier this year. Like countless other shows, they may share a common interest in the lives of twentysomething New Yorkers, but Girls and Broad City are primarily being lumped together because they feature – and are created by – funny women who present their abject physicality and sexuality without fear and with purpose.
To compare them in such a limited dichotomous sense reinforces assumptions about women in comedy, particularly as agents in control of their own lives and bodies. These shows may be united in their interest in gender and sex politics, and their focus on female friendships and on similar (not the same) demographics – but they do not depict a singular universal experience. They undermine standard gender roles in idiosyncratic ways because, contrary to popular belief, women are capable of doing this.
It’s vitally important to acknowledge that Broad City and Girls can coexist without being cannibalising forces. Broad City is not the ‘anti-Girls’. While sharing superficial similarities, they are diverse and distinct cultural products from different television and comedy lineages and deserve to be acknowledged for their multifaceted aims and voices. Essentially, Girls is a dramedy, while Broad City is borne of the stand up and sketch comedy traditions.
It’s hard to imagine this would be a point of conjecture if these two shows were ensemble casts with male leads. Flight of the Conchords and Bored to Death shared a network, NYC setting and a dash of whimsy, but weren’t considered mutually exclusive. You don’t hear Curb Your Enthusiasm versus Entourage polls continually taking place, though they share showbiz DNA. There’s an unspoken awareness that these male driven comedies are distinct, just as there’s unspoken gender inequity in the form. After all, we have kings of gross-out or crude humour, of physical and sexual comedy but, as Stanley acknowledges, ‘[t]here are still limits to how high a female comedian can climb—the crass ceiling’.
At times, Girls mildly rises to the ‘crass ceiling’, which always leads to some kind of inflated exposure or undue controversy. Meanwhile, Broad City smashes through the ‘crass ceiling’, taking its lead from the multitude of likeminded, filthy female performers who have long existed on the cultural fringes.
Glazer and Jacobson groomed their comedic chops as part of the renowned improv and stand up group Upstanding Citizens Brigade; it’s shameful that they, and other female comedians, are still treated as second-class citizens in pop culture commentary. Many female performers have paved this trashy, abject path long before Bridesmaids hit the box office, including the likes of Roseanne Barr, Amy Sedaris (particularly in the underrated Strangers With Candy) or even Janeane Garofalo, each of whom are either mentioned or featured in a guest role in Broad City’s first season. Emphasising the show’s tenuous affiliation with Girls undermines these women’s history and the greater tradition of female performers.
Women in comedy must be acknowledged as more than an amorphous, universal culture-producing blob, or as limited antagonistic forces. Women are capable of shared and diverse voices, comedic or otherwise. There’s no neat, two-pronged scale upon which all females must compete or stand in perfectly packaged solidarity. Broad City’s filthy attitude is awesome and hilarious as its female characters fuck, fight, snort and eat bagels from the dumpster without apologising. Nor should they have to.
Stephanie Van Schilt is Deputy Editor at The Lifted Brow and a freelance writer. She tweets @steph_adele.