Though their shows have gone off the air, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler continue to be part of the female comedy zeitgeist.
Fey and her 30 Rock writing partner Robert Carlock created Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for NBC, but it was sold to Netflix instead because NBC didn’t think it would fit in with its lineup (such as it is — NBC’s must-see TV comedy heyday is over). Broad City began as a web series by its creators, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, former members of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, a comedy group known for its famous alumni, including executive producer Amy Poehler. Both shows feature socially awkward 20-something women struggling to thrive in New York City. That’s where the similarities end.
Two views of New York
The premise of Kimmy Schmidt is that Kimmy was abducted 15 years ago by a deranged preacher who told his four female captives that he was saving them from the apocalypse. Forced to live in an underground bunker, they believed that the outside world had been destroyed. Once liberated, the unworldly Kimmy leaves her small Indiana town to strike out on her own in New York City. Her roommate is the flamboyant would-be Broadway star, Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), who serves as Kimmy’s cynical, self-serving foil. Kimmy Schmidt is served up in the rapid-fire joke format familiar from 30 Rock, and Ellie Kemper does a great job as the toothily grinning, indomitable Kimmy.
The New York of Broad City is much grittier and seedier. Ilana and Abbi (their characters share the actors’ first names) are a latter-day Abbott and Costello. Ilana is sexually adventurous, allergic to responsibility, but hopelessly devoted to the neurotic Abbi. Serendipity always favors Ilana, no matter how ridiculous her behavior, but Abbi cannot catch a break. There’s no real plot arc; each show depicts moments of typical New York angst, like tracking down your cell phone or chasing after a purse snatcher. Relationships and jobs begin with great promise, only to disintegrate into quirky disaster.
On the surface, Broad City is far edgier and potentially more offensive than Kimmy, never flinching from graphic depictions of sometimes perverse sexuality and drug and alcohol use. These situations usually turn hilariously cringeworthy, in the vein of Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and Louis CK, who, like Abbi and Ilana, are New Yorkers of Jewish descent. The show’s greatest strength is in how it mines bizarre little human moments in the lives of young, single women, the awkwardness of dating and working before they’ve achieved any real successes. I’m a generation older than Broad City’s target audience, but for me it’s the best kind of caricature, which blows up the minutiae of life into huge laughs.
Whereas Broad City tirelessly leans into and examines the grotesqueries of life, Kimmy too frequently glosses over them or rests on lazy stereotypes. Kimmy’s boss, the millionaire trophy wife Jacqueline Voorhees, is revealed to be a Native American woman passing for white. Jane Krakowski tonally reproduces her 30 Rock character Jenna Maroney, which made me wonder why a Native American actress wasn’t considered to play this part. Jacqueline’s parents are braid-wearing, buffalo-farming, sun dance-performing Indians, so much so that even self-conscious joking can’t elevate them from stereotypes. One of Kimmy’s love interests is an illegal Vietnamese immigrant who is a textbook Asian model minority — super nice, hardworking, earnest, good at math, and named Dong, a penis joke that the writers never tire of making. Just for good measure, there are only two Latina characters on the show, and both of them are maids.
I have ambivalent feelings about Titus, Kimmy’s roommate. On the one hand, I loved him for busting the gay best friend stereotype. He very much is not just Kimmy’s appendage. He has his own life and agenda, and often views Kimmy as just the means to the end of his own self-aggrandizement. In fact, half the time I wasn’t even sure if he was truly Kimmy’s friend at all. But the sassy black queen stereotype is a tough one to transcend, and the writing didn’t always succeed in doing so. A good example is in the episode where Titus plays a werewolf in a haunted house-themed dinner theater and finds that life in his werewolf costume is easier than his life as a black man. It’s a funny bit, but over-explained, and hit just a little too hard, as if the audience couldn’t be given credit to figure it out. A lot of Kimmy Schmidt is like that, especially when playing stereotypes for laughs.
A long comedy tradition
Broad City succeeds where Kimmy fails because Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson are the natural heirs to the great Jewish tradition of borscht-belt humor. The perpetual bad luck, bodily dysfunction, and relationship woes marry beautifully with self-aware millennial cultural angst. The show never takes itself too seriously, even when exploring the fraught topics of women’s sexuality and the constant hustling necessary to stay afloat post-college. And this is where I most see the similarity with Poehler’s work on Parks and Recreation, because there’s a sweet, goofy sincerity in Abbi and Ilana’s friendship even at its most codependent. We root for them no matter how badly they humiliate themselves.
Conversely, Kimmy Schmidt begins with a very dark premise. Kimmy’s a 14-year-old runaway from a neglectful mother and a moronic stepfather who winds up in a bunker where “weird sex stuff” happens. This, like the proliferation of cultural stereotypes, begs for deeper delving, for a greater commitment to subversion. Instead, we get the perpetual one-liners for which Fey and Carlock are famous. This sets a tone that often feels flippant, like these culturally painful topics are just the fodder for jokes instead of the platform to skewer society’s underlying dysfunction. So yes, I enjoyed Kimmy Schmidt, and I laughed, but conditionally, and not always with the clearest conscience.
Above right: Glazer and Jacobson in Broad City. (© 2015 Comedy Central)