There’s something about Paul W. Downs that just sticks with you. Maybe it’s his infectious personality and bubbly charm. Or his subjacent chameleonic nature. Maybe it’s his penchant for feminism. Or the slight (but just right) nods of political incorrectness that run through his work. Maybe it’s a combination of all.
Hailing from Sussex, New Jersey, his exact age is a mystery and he would like to keep it that way. “It’s good to be elusive and mysterious,” he tells us. The verdict seems to be between 1981 and 1982 but I guess we’ll truly never know. As one half of creative duo Paulilu, the other half being his also romantic partner Lucia Aniello, Downs is gearing up for the fifth and final season of Broad City, which will be premiering on Comedy Central January 24. We catch up with the actor, writer, producer, director and comedian on his first day editing the series to get the scoop on what’s to come from his character Trey and life and work after Broad City.
“We’ve taken a little bit of a break, so we get to revisit all the fun we had on set,” Downs recalls on a quick call from the edit room in New York City. “I’m reminded of all the craziness on set. It really is such a frenetic and fun show to make.” And so it is to watch.
Broad City originated as a web series, created by its stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, a decade ago and Downs has been involved pretty much from the start. Downs and Aniello met Jacobson and Glazer at what he calls “clown college”, a.k.a. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, UCB for short — an improv, sketch, and stand-up comedy club formerly located on 22nd Street, in the New Yorker district of Chelsea. “UCB was started by a group of comedians one of whom is Amy Poehler,” Downs recounts. “When I enrolled [after college] I actually met my partner Lucia in our very first day taking class, which is so bizarre because now we’ve been together, both romantic and also as running partners, for 11 years, and it was shortly after that that we also met Abbi and Ilana.”
“The four of us were pretty much the same generation of comedians that were coming up together and so we became fast friends and both Abbi and Ilana and Lucia and I were making videos online,” he continues. “We were just contemporaries and really admired each other’s work and then we started working together. In fact, Lucia directed a bunch of episodes of the web series and I was actually in it as an actor. It was really long before any of us were actually paid to make comedy that we first met. It was it was truly in the basement of a Gristedes. We met in this sort of like dank dungeon making comedy in New York.”
UCB is no longer there. On Nov 1, 2017, the legendary location held its last ever show, relocating to 42nd Street. The way capitalism works, the Gristedes might still be there but what surely resisted was Downs and Aniello’s relationship with Jacobson and Glazer. The quartet went from a dank dungeon to global TV — thanks in part to Amy Poehler’s involvement in the series. After appearing in the web series’ finale, Poehler actually became an executive producer on Broad City and, along the way, a mentor for the group.
“The four of us and really anyone who comes through UCB, considers her an inspiration, both in terms of what she’s done in comedy and also what she’s done for the world in terms of [her activism],” Downs admits of the renowned actor and comedian. “She’s really been someone that all of us admire and look up to for so long. And the fact that she was an early supporter of the series, really is what I think helped bring it to the world. She was really our Godmother in that way.”
It’s good to know the feeling it’s reciprocated. In an interview with Vox, Poehler described Downs and Aniello as “distinctive, imaginative and hilarious voices” and we can’t say we disagree. Broad City has been on air officially for more than four years but the time has come for it to end.
Late October 2018, the whole cast started sharing the momentous wrap pics of the series. “It is bittersweet [saying goodbye]. It was really emotional and sad. There was a lot of tears on set the final day. But it also feels really good,” Downs admits. “We’ve been lucky enough, with the support of the network Comedy Central, to be able to end it on our own terms and really design a final chapter in the way we all wanted. It wasn’t like we overstayed our welcome or the show was asked to end, it was really a decision of Abbi and Ilana’s, and also Lucia and mine. We were all on the same page as critical operators that it felt like the right time to let the characters graduate and move on to the next phase of their lives. You know, [the show] is about 20-somethings running around New York City and it just feels like these girls need to grow up in the same way that all of us have grown up. It really does feel like the right time.”
In the preview for the final season, things get a little crazy — to put it lightly. Alongside a flashforward to 2078’s NYC, where we see Abbi and Ilana as nonagenarians, and a shared casket scene, we also get a cheeky glimpse of a wedding — maybe Abbi and Trey’s? Downs does not deny nor confirm it’s true. “My character, Trey, makes some big moves. He takes big swings in the final chapter of Broad City,” he reveals. “I’m not going to say whether or not those pan out or what but I will say that the teaser does nod to my character but I would take that all with a grain of salt.”
Grain of salt taken, if you like me rejoiced with Trey’s alter ego, Kirk Steele, in season two, I regret to inform you he will, sadly, not be making an encore appearance. But the character itself isn’t done and dusted per se. “You’ll see Trey but you won’t see his alter ego,” Downs tells us. “Although I’ve heard recently that people have uploaded it to porn sites. I think there’s extended supercut versions on adult sites. So there are ways to find more Kirk Steele.”
Broad City’s themes have shifted drastically since the first season. Whilst the show’s main premise remains all about finding yourself and navigating life in New York as a 20-something, the show’s fourth season introduced some political commentary, in light of the results of the US 2016 presidential elections. The crew had to do some intense rewritings on the season and included some resources to adjust the show’s tone — like the decision to bleep the president’s name as if it were an expletive. Yet, Broad City does not intend to be dogmatic. It puts comedy before message and, in this day and age, when everything feels so political, the show manages to walk the line of political correctness marvellously (and sometimes even rightfully cross it).
“Making our North Star be both the truth of the characters and the story of the characters is what leads us every single episode. At heart, the show is a love story between Abbi and Ilana. We prioritize comedy because it is a comedy show: you want to make funny and you want to give people a little bit of an escape because the political climate is something that’s hard to escape from and it’s often really anxiety-provoking,” Downs explains. “That said, because our characters are young women living in New York, you can’t help but be political. Politics pervades not only the life of people watching the show but the fictional lives of the characters on the show. We want to make sure that it is something that feels current, contemporary and true to the values of the characters. And so in that way, I think it’s hard to avoid it.”
“We have a show that I think speaks to a lot of young people and it’s so important that they become active and participate and are civic-minded,” Downs continues. “Though we don’t want to be preachy and we don’t want this show to be a political machine, we also really want to use our platform in the best way possible to get people to have conversations. Even if it’s something that isn’t overtly political, we try always to consider what it is we’re putting out there.” The Broad City ensemble pays attention to every single detail, starting with the language itself because, as Downs says “the medium is the message.”
“It’s really important that we change our language and we change how we frame the way we think about things,” he explains. “That’s something that we think about all the time — how these women talk. The characters on the show are based on all of us in the room, all of the writers. In that way, we want to represent the ideals we believe in, as well as ones that we think are thought-provoking.”
The show manages to deal with politics and raise awareness on specific topics, without imposing a message on the audience. The demographics of Broad City are being masterfully represented, a move that’s quite complex and that yet the cast and crew pull off so seemingly easily. “We do this because we want to connect with people and feel connected to people,” Downs explains, “so when it resonates with people, it’s so fulfilling.”
In essence, truth is the key behind Broad City’s success. “We really try to remain true because that’s the thing. I think [Broad City] does mirror people and it is really relatable for a lot of people because all of the stories are based on things that happen to us when we lived in New York.”
But, as its creators, Broad City is growing up and moving on to the next chapter. “Lucia and I have moved to Los Angeles and Abbi and Ilana clearly aren’t in the same place they were in when they first started doing comedy in New York,” Downs recounts. “But all of the stories come from truth and true stories of our lives. Of course, they are heightened and they become much more absurd. Every year we have different people come and lend their voices. We try to be a really inclusive group of people, so it represents a pretty dynamic and varied demographic.”
As is the case with most of Downs and Aniello’s comedy, the experiences depicted in Broad City will hold up over years. Everyone goes through that period of time finding themselves in their 20s. But Downs is ready for his Broad City chapter to come to a close, and so is his partner. Despite what you might read on the Internet, the pair is not working on a sequel to Rough Night, their 2017 crime comedy starring Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Zoë Kravitz, Kate McKinnon and Glazer herself — but they do have “a lot of balls in the air”.
They have written a feature film about the mob in Boston. “Kind of like a comedy Godfather,” as Downs describes it, and have other still-undisclosed film projects lined up. But they are also venturing onto TV once again. With Aniello in the director’s seat, Paulilu are producing, along with Waldenbooks and Mike de Luca, a series for Netflix based on The Baby-Sitters Club books, a series of novels by Ann M. Martin that gained huge popularity in the ‘90s and “had a big impact on Lucia when she was growing up and a lot of other women.” The duo is also pitching a show with fellow Broad City writer Jen Statsky and is developing a show with Imagine Television that revolves around “couples that live in different places all over the world.”
“It’s a romantic comedy show that’s about how, no matter where we live, the details might be really different but when you’re in love, the details don’t matter,” Downs explains. “Hopefully it’s a show about how we’re all really pretty much the same when it comes to the basic things in life. We’re very excited about [this show] but it is in a very, very early phase.”
All of these projects will be rooted in comedy, but one that’s pretty different to what we’ve seen in Broad City. “Most of the stuff that we’re hoping to do in the future is more grounded [than Broad City] because I feel, in the end, and if you look at the episodes that Lucia and I have written, we do gravitate towards story and heart as much as we do hard comedy and jokes.”
But, aside from all the comedy projects he has already on the works and the many more we are sure will come after, on Downs’ ultimate bucket list is something else: drama — that is, at least from an actor’s perspective. “It’s something that I really do want to do and enjoy doing,” he tells us. “I do hope to be doing more of that. I am available.”
Despite what it might seem at first glance, comedy and drama aren’t that far away from each other. Do you ever hear people say there is a fine line between love and hate? Downs believes such is the case with these seemingly opposed genres. There’s a sense of discomfort in which both comedy and drama shine and, at their core, they share multiple parallels.
“It sounds really pretentious but I think the truth is, [both comedy and drama] are about well-observed moments and portraying them in a way that feels very real — it’s all about being truthful,” Downs explains. “I feel Meryl Streep is her funniest when she’s doing a dramatic role. She knows it’s funny but it’s not a comedy. Some of the hardest laughs I get are in Doubt when she’s popping her head into the frame as that curmudgeonly nun. And I think that happens a lot. There really is a lot of overlap and the things that I like the most exist in that grey area between drama and comedy.”
Unarguably, that is the best area to be in but just because Downs doesn’t take himself too seriously, that does not mean you should too. Comedians have a really hard time stepping out of the preestablished archetype and its stigma. But Downs is hoping to break the mould himself. “It’s all about people being able to see you in that way and give you the chance. It’s all about people taking the opportunity. A lot of times people who are comedians really do have access and are very good at doing things that are much darker and more dramatic,” he explains. “A lot of times people’s comedy and their material comes out of a place of wanting to laugh in the face of the darkness. Not everybody can do successfully and as well as people like Steve Carell and Jim Carrey. But I do think it’s really about people taking the risk and taking chances from a casting and directing standpoint.”
Incidentally, we have been able to see Downs’ dramatic chops on Broad City. He specifically cites an episode of from the series’ third season, named ‘Burning Bridges’, as a dramatic point of inflexion for his character Trey. Minor spoilers, but Downs is referring to that time when his character overhears Abbi downgrading him as a guilty pleasure to Ilana.
“That is a dramatic turn,” Downs explains. “Both for Abbi and Ilana is one of their first dramatic scenes and it’s also a very dramatic scene for my character because he has his heart broken. When he opened himself up to it and made himself vulnerable, it really was a big heartbreak for him. It’s something that we dealt with last season that we deal with this season as well. She had a profound impact on him but doing that was so fun and so rewarding and people really responded both to the storyline between Abbi and Trey, but also I think to the fact that there was dramatic work on the show. I really think made all of us excited about doing more of it.”
And he is right, the audience could really see a palpable shift in Trey’s characters from that moment on. He was infectiously happy all the time and then he gets into a quasi-perpetually gloomy state. And that is a testament to Downs’ skills. “I’m glad that the audience went along because sometimes it’s hard both from a creative standpoint but also from the audience standpoint to have characters evolve in that kind of way,” Downs explains. “It speaks to the same thing about comedians then doing drama. If people are open to it, it can be a really fun evolution to see somebody like Steve Carell take on roles that are really dramatic.”
While we wait to see him take on drama (Hollywood, we are looking at you), Downs has a more definite goal for 2019: getting back on the stage. Coming from a theatre and improv background, going back to his “roots” is Downs’ main resolutions for 2019. “You can see if I stick to it but I want to be performing live more. I haven’t been doing it as much as I did when I was first in comedy.”
If you’re wondering whether you could fit Downs live-Renaissance into standup or theatre, don’t because chances are it’d be neither. “I don’t know if what I do is traditional standup, in fact, I don’t think I would qualify it as that. At UCB, I did a sketch show, The Paul Downs Syndrome, [which] I used a lot of material from in my Netflix special, The Characters. But I am looking forward to performing in ways that don’t rely on props and wigs because I’m also tired of carrying those things around,” he jokingly admits.
We’ll definitely be on the lookout but, whatever form we’ll be seeing him next, one thing it’s sure: it would most likely be “rude but never mean.” “That is my motto. I like to be rude but never mean and we have that philosophy also at the show,” Downs narrates. “Sometimes we can be rude on Broad City but we’re never mean. In the end, it always comes from a good place.” And it truly always does, even if some people do arguably deserve the meanness.
‘Broad City”s fifth and final season premieres January 24 on Comedy Central.
This Schön! online exclusive has been produced by
photography. Jonathan Schoonover
fashion. Bárbara Vélez
talent. Paul W. Downs @ Kovert Creative
groomer + make up. Jessica Ortiz @ Forward Artists
executive producer. Sheri Chiu @ See Management
set designer. Tim Ferro
words. Sara Delgado
photo assistant. Stephanie Dimiskovski
fashion assistant. Delia Socorro H
production assistant. Christopher Wolfenbarger
location. Brooklyn Navy Yard, 63 Flushing Ave, Bldg. 280 Studio220, Brooklyn, NY 11205