Abbi Jacobson can really play baseball, she insisted. Just not when the cameras are on. “I totally squeal when someone is watching me,” she told me.
It was a recent weekday morning, on a shady bench overlooking a baseball field in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Jacobson lives nearby, in the apartment she shares with her fiancée, For All Mankind actress Jodi Balfour. She didn’t come out to play in the field this morning, which was a good thing—the diamonds were swarming with little children. (Besides, it was good because Jacobson can play and I can’t, even though she offered to teach me.) And, frankly, she deserved some fun in the offseason.
AT “Their own league”, arrival Aug. 12 on Amazon Prime Video, Jacobson plays Carson Shaw, a Rockford Peaches catcher. Carson is a fictional character, but the Peaches, an All-American Women’s Professional Baseball League team that debuted in 1943are delightfully real. During five rainy months in Pittsburgh, the 38-year-old Jacobson had to catch, throw, hit and slide back to base. Is it part of this computer magic? Of course, but not all. This means that Jacobson was playing while a lot of people were looking at him. And she played well.
“She’s really good,” he said. Will Grahamwho created the series with her. “Abby is constantly humble and self-deprecating, but she’s really cool.”
Carson, a talented and preoccupied woman, becomes the de facto leader of the team. As creator and executive producer and star of the series, Jacobson has led the team both on and off screen. This is a job she has been doing since the mid-20s, when she and Ilana Glaser created and eventually directed a dizzying, unfeminine comedy “Wide City”. In that show, she became the host more or less by accident. In “A League of Their Own”, inspired by 1992 film by Penny Marshall.Jacobson directed from the start and with determination, filling the script with her own ideas of what leadership might look like.
“The stories I want to tell are that I’m a sloppy person and feel insecure all the time,” she said. “What if the most insecure, insecure person is the leader? What if the dirty man takes control of himself?
So is Carson’s story her story?
“Something like that,” she said, squinting into the sun.
Jacobson, who describes herself as an introvert masquerading as an extrovert, is approachable yet alert, an observer before she becomes a participant. Even in the midst of a lively conversation, she has an attitude that suggests that if you leave her alone with a book, or a drawing pad, or maybe her dog Desi, that will be fine too.
Her favorite activity: “I like to walk and sit in a very crowded place with a book. One, she said.
That morning she was wearing a white tank top and trousers with paint stains, but the stains had been pre-printed and deliberate, sloppiness had become fashionable. The bag she was carrying was Chanel. She didn’t look much like a baseball player, but she looked like a woman who had settled into her own skin, who had cleaned up most of her personal clutter and used the rest for professional purposes.
“She’s the boss,” said the writer and comedian. Phoebe Robinson, friend. “And she knows herself deep down.”
Jacobson grew up in suburban Philadelphia, the younger of two children in a Reform Jewish family. As a child, she played sports – softball, basketball, touring football – until she gave them up for jam bands and weed.
“This team mentality was in many ways my childhood,” she said.
After art school, she moved to New York City to become a dramatic actress and then got into comedy in an improv class at the Upright Citizens Brigade. She and Glazer wanted to join the improv team, but team after team turned them down. So they created “Wide City” instead, which first aired as a web series and then for five seasons on Comedy Central. BUT “girls” unglazed, leaving marijuana smoke in his wake, he followed his protagonists, Abby and Ilana, as they zigzagged their youth trail. The New Yorker lovingly called this show: “bra”.
For Jacobson, the show was both a refresher seminar and a form of therapy. By writing and acting a version of herself, she became more confident, less anxious.
“Having that flair for her anxiety in the character allowed her to look at it and develop in a different direction,” Glazer said.
In 2017, with two seasons left before the release of Broad City, Graham (“Mozart in the Jungle”) invited Jacobson to dinner. He recently secured the rights to A League of Their Own, a film he loved as a child. He thought that with a few tweaks, it could make a great series. The weirdness of some of the characters, presented in the movie through the “blink and skip” subtext, should be more explicit this time around. In a movie, in a scene that only lasts a few seconds, Black woman returning the ball with a foul with power and precision, a hint of league segregation. This also deserves more attention.
According to him, Graham pursued Jacobson for her honesty, intelligence, agitated, nervous optimism. He wanted the experience of making the show to be joyful. And he wanted the stories he told, especially the weird stories, to also convey joy. He felt that Jacobson, who admitted to being in her thirties, could help.
“She’s so funny and also so emotionally honest – and so not afraid to be emotionally honest,” Graham said.
With Jacobson wrapping up the final seasons of Broad City, development began on a new series. She and Graham immersed themselves in research, talking to some of the female survivors who played in the All-American Women’s Professional Baseball League or in Negro leagues. They also spoke to Marshall on the phone before her death in 2018. Marshall mainly focused on the story of one woman: Dottie Geena Davis. Graham and Jacobson wanted to try and tell as many stories as the eight-episode season allowed.
“The movie is a story about white women playing baseball,” Jacobson said. “It’s just not enough.”
Gradually, the show took shape, going from a half-hour comedy to an hour-long dramedy. Then he found his partners: D’Arcy Cardin as Greta, the team’s glamor girl; Roberta Colindrez as Lupe, the team’s pitcher; Shante Adams as Max, a black superstar in search of his own team. Rosie O’Donnellstar of the original film, starred in an episode where he plays the owner of a gay bar.
The pilot was filmed in Los Angeles, then in Chicago, and then in Rockford, Illinois. The coronavirus hit shortly after, delaying production until last summer. Rising costs pushed the show to move to Pittsburgh, which happens to be a rainy city, a problem for a show with so many playday sequences. But the cast and crew did a great job.
“It was kind of like a summer camp,” Graham said.
And Jacobson, Glazer reminded me, had been a camp leader for many years. So in many ways, she owed this quality of the summer camp to her. And the relentless baseball practice she insisted on.
“There were so many baseball practices, really months of baseball practice,” Carden said. “We were more of a team than a cast. It was Abby. Abby is an ensemble man.”
Adams is first with Jacobson in the audition room. (As a longtime Broad City fan, she did her best to keep her cool.) On set, Jacobson made an immediate impression on her.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Adams said. “But even as the leader and star of the show, she always makes sure everyone’s voice is heard and considered.” Adams said that after filming ended, Jacobson continued to appear to her at the premiere of her Broadway show.
“It just melted my heart,” she said. “Abby is the epitome of what it means to be a leader.”
Jacobson doesn’t always think this way, but she feels it more often than before. “Sometimes I can really admit it,” she said. “Sometimes I go home and think what kind of person am I? Or what’s going on here?” So she lends the same self-doubt to Carson, a leader who develops when she acknowledges her vulnerability.
But Carson’s narrative is just one of many in a series that explores a range of women’s experiences: blacks, whites, and Hispanics; direct, strange and interrogative women; female women; meat women; and women in between. Many actors are beautiful in the way Hollywood prefers. Many are not.
However, the show insists that all these women deserve love, friendship, and fulfillment. In an email, O’Donnell remarked that although the film focused on the story of one woman, this new version gives nearly every character a rich inner life “in a beautiful and accurate way that highlights the characters’ humanity.”
Cardin has known Jacobson for 15 years, from the early days of their improvisation. No one ever saw her as a romantic hero until Jacobson gave her a glove and a hand-drawn card (“Charming and romantic,” Carden said) and invited her to join the team. Carden was proud to have taken on the role and proud to work with Jacobson again.
“She hasn’t changed at all,” Cardin said. “She’s always been Abby, but the confidence is different.”
Jacobson takes this confidence lightly. Glitches of uncertainty remain. “I have never been like you. She has to host the show,” she told me in Prospect Park.
But clearly she is. When she wasn’t on any team, she created her own, and now she’s created another one. An hour and a half later, she took her purse and a cup of coffee and walked back through the park. Looks like a boss. Like a coach. Like a leader.