Broad City: Web Series Becomes a TV Show

Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer on making the transition to Comedy Central

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Linda Kallerus / Comedy Central

What’s the point of a web series?

Abbi Jacobson knows from personal experience that making one can be artistically freeing. She and Ilana Glazer are the masterminds behind Broad City, a comedic web series they started four years ago about two young women’s misadventures in New York City. Jacobson likens the process to being a painter doing her own work rather than a commission. A web series comes with the freedom to do whatever you want. For example, opting out of getting paid via YouTube’s ad program even meant Broad City used whatever music its creators wanted, without worrying about licenses.

“The fact that there’s no money in a web series means that artistic integrity can stay in place,” says Glazer. “People aren’t censored and there aren’t any restrictions or guidelines.”

But does that mean making a web show is better than making a TV show? No. Broad City has made that jump — the first TV episode premieres on Comedy Central on Jan. 22, with the backing of big-name executive producers like Amy Poehler — and its creators are, says Glazer, “freaking out.” (In a good way.) Part of that positivity comes from the amount of control Comedy Central has left in the hands of the comedians, who also star in the show, but it’s also a reminder that even as the Internet becomes a breeding ground for innovative TV-ish shows, TV  — and what can be done when there’s money behind a show — is still tops.

(MOREEd Helms’ Three Favorite Web Series)

So is the point of a web series to get a TV show? Broad City isn’t the first Comedy Central show that grew out of online video — another example is Workaholics — and there are certainly reasons a web series creator would want that to be the result of her efforts.

“It’s changed our lives. For so long I was working a day job I didn’t care about or that was not what I wanted to be doing with my life, and now I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing,” says Jacobson. “I have to remind myself that that’s the ultimate goal, to be loving what you get paid to do. Everything pretty much changed.”

Plus, says Glazer, it’s better for the broad media landscape: “I hope and imagine that Broad City will influence an equality of representation, of women being able to be three-dimensional characters and women who write and produce in addition to acting.”

Which raises a question: Is there any reason to make a web series at all, if the whole point is just to get on TV? Particularly if Kent Alterman, Comedy Central’s president of content development and original programming, says that — though Comedy Central has helped several web-series people make the jump to TV — for the most part it doesn’t really matter if a project comes pitched via web series or script or idea? And if he says that even a really good web series doesn’t always work on TV?

“[The ease of making a web series] levels the playing field a bit,” he tells TIME, “but I don’t think something is more valuable or more likely to succeed because it was a web series.”

Getting to the other small screen was a long process for Broad City. The first murmurs of a TV version came in 2011, and the Comedy Central show was announced last March. In theory, based on Alterman’s faith that talent prevails regardless of format, its creators could have started pitching the network way back then — but, Alterman says, a web series certainly doesn’t hurt. To take Jacobson’s painter analogy, the painting that’s not a commission helps the artist get a commission; Broad City helped Comedy Central get a sense of Jacobson and Glazer and provided evidence that they knew how to act on camera, despite being newcomers.

Plus, all those years working on the web version of Broad City were years during which Jacobson and Glazer figured out how to be a team, something that doesn’t necessarily happen when you’re just brainstorming. That background made the TV version easier in a way that’s harder to quantify for network executives:

“We’re so lucky that we have each other,” Glazer says. “It makes it a lot less scary. It’s easier to try new things if you know you have a partner.”

(MORE: James Poniewozik reviews Broad City)