Everyone says “Write what you know.” Well, not literally everyone but a lot of people do — people who give advice on writing. And that trick of the trade can seem daunting because most of us don’t know about explosions or steamy love affairs or astronauts exploding on their cheating spouses for having steamy love affairs…in space. No, most of us are most familiar with more normal stuff like family or school or work and, because none of those buckets seem exciting in and of themselves, our first reaction is often to buck the pro’s wisdom and write something that we think is cool and will set us apart. That’s almost always a huge mistake. Either we don’t get past page 4 because we realize we’ve got no idea how a submarine works and all our expert shipman are referring to the sub gadgets as “that knob” or we do finish the piece and it feels equally unauthentic.
Whether we think so or not, the key to creating work that will mean something and, for our purposes, make people laugh is sticking to what we know best. Chances are that thing — no matter how mundane or “done” the larger theme is — will be well received because it’s highly relatable and rings true to a lot of people. Broad City co-creator Abbi Jacobson knows this full well, focusing her new web series Annie and a Side of Fries on a very unique childhood experience couched within a larger, highly familiar topic — divorce. She’s writing what she knows. Not surprisingly, it works and is completely fascinating.
What was your inspiration for this series? What made you decide to do it in the midst of all this other stuff you have going on?
I decided to do this web series simultaneously as we were doing Broad City because it’s been this project that’s been on my backburner now for a while and I kind of felt like if I don’t do it before Broad City, I won’t. We just ended our writer’s room for Broad City yesterday. I finished the idea for Chesterbrook before our writer’s room started and I said, “If I don’t finish this before we finish Broad City, then I wont be able to do it. I’m not going to be able to do it.” It’s based on my own original pilot called “Chesterbrook.” My parents got divorced when I was in 7th grade and my dad moved into this condo complex called Chesterbrook, outside of Philadelphia, and it’s like 80% divorced dads. I exaggerated it for the series, but it’s so ridiculous. It’s all single, divorced parents and there’s a shopping center in the middle and I guess, in the 90s everyone just started getting divorced. I’d spend every other week there with my dad and my older brother and I just felt like it was so funny and such a cool world so I wrote this pilot and it’s about this dad moving into Chesterbrook and the little girl, Annie, had a vlog in the series and I thought that it was something that I still wanted to do; I so wanted to make that show. So in the meantime I thought, this would be a cool web series for me to do that would just focus on Annie’s vlogs and that would give you a sense of this whole world. I went to art school before I moved to NY, so I’m an illustrator as well and Chesterbrook, in my mind, is an animated show. I don’t know how to animate, but I know how to draw well so I tried to make it as close to animated as possible. So it’s in real time and the background is all 3D illustrations. The whole set that I made is wrapped paper around an object and I thought that was a cool way of doing an animation. I don’t even know what the right term would be.
What was the weirdest part of Chesterbrook that you remember, in terms of the day-to-day life of the residents?
I remember my Dad being newly single and some of the first dates that he went on were all other women that lived in the community and their kids would come on their weeks/weekends. It was almost like a weird camp for divorcees. You could be in the supermarket and that was a place where you could actually rebound.
Yeah you’re picking people up, it’s all singles.
You knew everyone was kind of going through the same thing. When I was in high school it was so fucked up. If I was spending a week with my mom and my dad was away, I just had a condo. It was a very weird, but cool situation.
You’ve had a lot of success in the web series space and that’s translated to TV. What advice would you give to people who are looking to break into web comedy, who have not had a lot of experience? What should they do?
During this new one I feel like I’m starting all over again because I haven’t been doing a lot of outreach and it’s just been remembering how Ilana and I stumbled through that. I’d say you have to find your POV/voice and don’t care if people don’t like it. Just keep making stuff and keep putting it out there. I think it’s about continuing to hone your voice. Also Ilana and I did a lot of outreach when we were doing Broad City. We both came from SEO jobs so we emailed a ton of people and thought about all the different parts of our web series that would appeal to different types of people. Like, New York City, Jewish ladies, UCB. All the different components of what we were doing. But really it just comes down to being confident about your voice and putting stuff out and not really caring what other people are saying about it.
What’s the biggest challenge in the web space?
That’s a hard question. One thing about the web space that’s really great, but also isn’t is that everyone has access to comment on your work, which can be awesome because you can get really great feedback and have people sharing it and it’s like a voice from this grassroots place. But it also brings in different sides of people where they can say really mean stuff. Also, I’d say once you put it out there you don’t really have a lot of control over it, besides constantly trying. I guess that’s kind of like everything. But as opposed to doing a live show and doing live comedy where you can continue to hone it and continue to hone that act and make tweaks, once you put a video online it feels so finite. Nothing’s ever perfect and you know those flaws and people point them out a little bit more to you.
How do you deal with that criticism?
I guess for some people it’s just like, “Well, people are crazy” but for Broad City as we started doing it, we started to up the quality of it and we were more specific with it. It was bigger deal for us as we kept going and even if it is finite, you can learn from those critics. That’s the only way to make it positive, even if people are being shitty online, you just have to take it and try to make it positive.
What’s next for you?
We’re getting into pre-production of Broad City and I still have to release 5 more episodes of this web series, which I’m excited about. And then I have these two coloring books that are out with Chronicle Books, called Color This Book. There’s one for NYC and there’s one for San Francisco, and I hope that they let me do some more cities. I can’t really start a project while we’re shooting Broad City, but I have a couple of things in my head that we’re trying to pitch around, which is exciting. And I think that’s it.
That’s a lot.
Yeah, I tried to get as much done as I could before we started Broad City.
I’m sure that’s going to suck up a lot of your time and I have a feeling that it’s going to be an ongoing thing for the next couple of years, at least. Which isn’t such a bad thing.
I really appreciate that.
HINT: This week’s three reasons to watch provide the recipe for the secret sauce that goes into every successful web series.
You don’t need a lot of scratch to make something funny. You just need the will, and a good idea.
Annie and a Side of Fries isn’t original because of some whacky theme, it’s original because no one could have told this story like Abbi Jacobson. Not because she’s talented (she is), but because she lived it.
True is authentic and authentic is funny. Don’t be afraid to make your actual life the subject of your comedy. All the greats did and do.