Ilana Glazer and Paul W. Downs' Excellent Adventure

With ‘Time Traveling Bong,’ the minds behind ‘Broad City’ find a way to turn the stoner and time-traveling genres on their heads.

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Complex Original

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On the coast of Massachusetts, just north of the base of Cape Cod, a settlement of timber-framed, one-room houses line a dirt path that leads towards a two-story meetinghouse on one end and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. For decades, this settlement has been a place where visitors are given a glimpse into the lives of the men and women who resided near there. Actors portray actual 17th century figures, engaging in conversations with visitors—in the dialect of the period—about religion, daily life and farming. It’s a place that prides itself on providing an expansive, hallowed replica of the past. 

Today, a freezing cold, dry Thursday in February, is a little different. Today, the location is serving as a stand-in for Salem, Mass., for a television miniseries about a pair of cousins who bong-rip their way through the space-time continuum. The show’s name is Time Traveling Bong.  

Time Traveling Bong is the latest project from Ilana Glazer, Paul W. Downs, and Lucia Aniello, a trio best known for the massively successful Broad City. Premiering on April 20, Bong will air three episodes over the course of three nights, as Glazer and Downs’ characters Sharee and Jeff bounce from 17th century Salem to prehistoric times to the future. It’s the first time in a long time that Comedy Central has taken a chance and eventized a show like this—a miniseries with an extremely high THC level. “This is something we haven’t done much of, but we just thought, let’s go for it,” says Kent Alterman, Comedy Central’s president of original programming.

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When the miniseries was announced in January 2016, the braintrust behind the show was notably tight-lipped. “No comment,” was the joint statement given by Glazer, Downs, and Aniello. But the direction and style of Time Traveling Bong could be seen in a short video of the same title the trio made for College Humor in 2011. In the video, Glazer and Downs hit the bong to travel to 1776 and realize one, very crucial fact, something overlooked by almost every other show or movie that’s tackled time travel: the past, and everyone in it, STUNK. Glazer and Downs grimace and gag as they’re approached by a colonial man with ghastly decayed teeth and a woman who is clearly unfamiliar with the concept of toilet paper, and narrowly avoid having human excrement dumped on them by someone doing a little housecleaning. 

It’s an extremely simple idea, but that’s what makes it so brilliant. In a minute and 40 seconds, Glazer, Downs, and Aniello stripped time traveling of its romanticism and brought real-life logic to a genre that’s innately fantastic and idealistic. No, Bill and Ted, medieval times wouldn’t be that awesome, and the girls wouldn’t be that attractive—they’d smell like shit.

Were there any real bongs involved in the ideation of time traveling bong? "I don't remember," says aniello, "which means probably."

“I was like, ‘Could you imagine if you were high, how much worse that would be?’” Downs tells me, thinking back on that fateful brainstorming session. “Not only would it be so disorienting, but also so hard to manage the high.” From there, it was a logical step for the trio to make the bong the time traveling machine—whisper the period you want to go to, smoke once to travel, and smoke again to go back. Now, were there any real bongs involved in the ideation of Time Traveling Bong? “I don’t remember,” Aniello says, “which means probably.” 

Glazer, Downs, and Aniello adapted the original idea and created more of a traditional story arc for the miniseries, which Downs likens more to a TV movie than a series of episodes. It boils down to this: Sharee and Jeff are a couple losers from New Jersey who stumble upon the magical bong during a trip to WaWa. They test it out, and after arriving in the 1600s, a colonial townsman smashes the bong, which alters the time-traveling efficiency of the device, even after Jeff has it (poorly) repaired. Jeff and Sharee can no longer just smoke back to the present—they’re stuck jumping from time period to time period instead. Or, as Sharee summarizes it, “So now what? The structural integrity of the bong has changed, so we can’t get home, and we have no ability to control where we go, forcing us to bounce around the space-time continuum indefinitely?” Yes, that. Exactly.

Back in Massachusetts, about 25 extras are packed into the colonial meetinghouse, along with Ken Cheeseman, an actor who has had roles in Joy, Shutter Island, and Mystic River, and who is playing the Salem colony judge (and in an earlier scene, a man named Sir Ipswich). Aniello and Downs are tucked into the corner of the building, huddled behind the camera. She is wearing a full-length down jacket and has a ski-mask zipped over her mouth and nose to combat the sub-freezing temperatures. He has on his character's outfit, currently a mix of modern and old: a cravat tucked into his hoodie, a colonial vest, and beat-up Jordan 1s. As Downs explains the scene they’re about to shoot, it’s clear that the miniseries’ logical approach is going to cover more than just the harsh odor of the past. 

After smoking, Sharee and Jeff travel to colonial Salem in front of a group of townspeople, he says. Almost immediately, the era’s disparate views of women and men become obvious. Sharee is singled out as a witch, while Jeff becomes a town celebrity. Both were caught apparating out of thin air, but only Sharee is considered a threat. 

“The show has a strong point of view about history,” Glazer tells me a couple weeks after my visit to the set. “The witch trials were fully misogynist and sexist and scary.” The idea to highlight the incongruous perceptions of gender over the course of history was simply natural and obvious, she adds. “This dude and woman are traveling back in time—they’re going to be treated differently.”

“People are like, ‘I wish I lived in this time or that time,’” says Aniello, “but there are so many things you don’t think about, about how horrible it would have been if you were actually living in that time period.”

The second joke at the heart of Time Traveling Bong is the clash of the highbrow and lowbrow. The idea of weed paraphernalia allowing a couple cousins to go back and forward in time is absurd, but the show makes it even more ridiculous by counteracting the inherent silliness with totally serious filmmaking. “It’s so silly that taking it really seriously makes the stakes even higher,” Glazer says while giggling. This isn’t a low-budget project—they used green screen technology and rigged Downs and Glazer to high-tension wires for the time traveling scenes, as if they were shooting the latest Marvel movie. It isn’t rushed either, instead spending time to carefully construct scenes and make the end result as cinematic as possible. At one point during my visit on set, Aniello had her D.P. incrementally shift his camera to capture and perfectly frame a shot in which the townspeople are walking through an entryway. “Didn’t Workaholics do this shot?” she joked afterwards.

“The production value is so high and it’s very cinematic, yet it’s the most ridiculous, dumb thing you could imagine,” Downs tells me. “And there’s something about doing it as a miniseries—the form doesn’t match the content. Miniseries are supposed to be like, Olive Kitteridge.”

Glazer walks into the meetinghouse decked out in traditional witch garb, hat and all. She looks beat up. “The bruises look good, they’re fresher,” she says to Aniello and Downs, before laughing about the absurdity of the scene they’ve laid out for themselves. 

Seated in front of the group of extras, Glazer stares sardonically at Cheeseman’s judge as he reiterates how plainly clear it is that she is a witch (“The smelly wench has survived many of our tests, which only a witch could survive”), before welcoming Downs’ Jeff to the witness stand. “Rise and applaud Sir Jeff,” the judge orders Glazer, after the extras have already given him an ovation. She complies, but with a roll of her eyes. She then emphatically claps—flecks of dust fly off her black robe as her hands smack together—and grits her teeth while mock-praising Downs: “WAY TO GO, JEFF. YOU’RE A STAND-UP GUY, JEFF.” Aniello has Glazer do several takes, and each time the actress varies her delivery, going off script to say things like, “HOPE YA DIE, JEFF” and simply, “F**K YOU, JEFF.” Seeing Glazer do this live makes you understand why she’s such a magnetic force on Broad City, and on Time Traveling Bong. She’s so in touch with her pointed sense of humor that she can draw laughs with a mere roll of her eyes, the speed of her applause, or added emphasis on an unexpected word. During every take, Aniello struggles to stifle laughter behind the camera.

An event series about a couple potheads who can time travel—it sounds like such a silly idea, the television equivalent of Doritos Locos Tacos—but Comedy Central embraced Glazer, Downs and Aniello’s pitch with open arms. “Was it a hard sell? No, we already believed in them,” says Alterman. “It’s not just pot programming—what really elevates it is how they’re able to build in social commentary so that it’s not just wacky or stoner comedy, or gags for their own sake.” Plus, Alterman jokes, the green light was clinched well in advance: “They sent some brownies for breakfast before our meeting.”

“Was it a hard sell? No...They sent some brownies
before our meeting.”
—kent alterman, comedy central president of
original programming

Because the pedigree is basically the same, you can draw a straight line from Broad City to Time Traveling Bong. Both shows pack their scenes wall-to-wall with jokes; they’re both fans of a good deus ex marijuana; and they both manage to make cutting observations about modern society, sexism, and general inequality without waving a big red flag that says, “MESSAGE” on it. The shows are intricately intertwined: the night before the Bong cast and crew shot the meetinghouse scene, they huddled into a Boston hotel room to watch the season three premiere of Broad City. “It feels like Broad City is my husband-wife the kids with, and Time Traveling Bong is my special lover that’s feeding me fuel and giving me life,” Glazer says. 

But anyone turning on Time Traveling Bong expecting to see a Broad City spin-off will have some readjusting to do. It may be hard to separate Glazer from her Broad City character, but that won’t be the case in Bong. Sharee is an Ugg-wearing Jersey girl who straightens her hair to a crisp. She adds a whiny, millennial “uh” to the end of many of her words, and is so far removed from Ilana Wexler’s wokeness that she dates a guy who wears “ALL LIVES MATTER” t-shirts. “It’s the suburban, sheltered version of me,” Glazer says. “We call them New Jersey dildos,” Downs adds, more matter of factly.

And of course, this incarnation of Glazer will be going on her adventures without Abbi Jacobson. Since Broad City premiered in 2014, Glazer and Jacobson have been a package deal. They appeared on Letterman together, have been profiled as a pair time and time again, and even do their Twitter Q&As while sitting next to each other on a couch. It’s hard to see them apart—Ilana’s separation anxiety on Broad City is shared by its audience. But just like your favorite bands have side projects, so too do Abbi and Ilana (Jacobson is working on an illustrated book, due out this fall). Neither actress is interested in just doing one thing. “Abbi and Ilana are independently so talented and so funny that I think it’s exciting for the world to see either of them do things with other people,” says Downs, who also revealed that Time Traveling Bong isn’t completely bereft of Jacobson’s wit. “Abbi was in a roundtable we had and she actually pitched what is the majority of the second episode,” he says. “We kidnap the young Michael Jackson to save him from the childhood trauma that makes him that weirdo at Neverland Ranch. That was Abbi’s idea.”

The winter sun is setting quickly in Massachusetts, and the temperature is dropping with it, but Aniello needs to get one more shot. Glazer, still in her witch costume, steps onto a makeshift pyre and is tied to the stake with a few coarse ropes. She’s bouncing up and down to stay warm. “Maybe slap me when you stuff the sock in my mouth,” she tells one of the extras. Compared to when she first entered the meetinghouse—about five hours ago at this point—Glazer’s noticeably worn down. Aniello, on the other hand, is still as energetic as ever, moving extras into their places, demanding bone-chilling screams, and fighting to get exactly what she wants. She seems most keyed into the time crunch the sunset has put them in, and has gone into full “get it done” mode. Watching her, it’s remarkable how easy it is to forget what all of this intensity and expertise is for: a scene in which Jeff sparks a time traveling bong with a piece of burning timber to save Sharee and get both of them out of Salem. 

After they nail the scene and get a perfect “Burn all the women!” line reading from Cheeseman, the cast and crew head for a visitor center where craft services have been set up. Extras shed hand warmers and heat insoles from their 17th century costumes, the reddening of their faces fades as they pick through the buffet. Glazer and Downs meander through the room, thanking the crew and laughing about everything they’ve just done. It’s a much-needed break for everyone involved, especially since they all have to go back outside and shoot a few nighttime scenes before wrapping.

“it feels like broad city is my husband-wife that i have kids with, and time traveling
is my special love
that's giving me life.”
—ilana glazer

Time Traveling Bong has been a saga for Glazer, Downs, and Aniello—an idea that percolated for years before swallowing up all of their time over the past four months—but it’ll be a quick hit for Comedy Central, a three-day binge. Its scope won’t be as expansive as Broad City and it’ll likely exit the zeitgeist as quickly as it enters. But for that trio, it’s proof. Proof that they can flourish outside the city limits; proof that they have the easiest handle on their comedy as any creators in the game; and proof that Comedy Central is willing to give them the keys to just about anything—and that they’re right to.

No one really knows what the future holds for the show. “Nothing's planned at the moment. We just sort of have open-ended conversations and we take it as it comes,” Alterman told me, a sentiment that Downs echoed separately. Aniello insists that “this isn’t the end for Jeff and Sharee,” but it feels just as likely that Time Traveling Bong will be contained to this iteration, a blip Glazer and Downs can time travel back to later in their lives and say, “Remember when they let us make that pot-time-travel show in 2016?”

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