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A conversation with 'A League of Their Own' star Abbi Jacobson

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

And finally today, TV and film fans, listen up. You know Abbi Jacobson from her comedic antics in the hit TV series "Broad City." She's starring in a new series called "A League Of Their Own." Yep, it's a TV adaptation of the classic 1992 film about the women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that began during World War II. Remember that scene from the film where Dottie and Kit are running to catch the train to get to the baseball tryouts? Here's Abbi Jacobson's character with her take on that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Ma'am, I can't let you board this train. It's technically already left. OK. Well, you can just pick that up in Boise because I am not going to let you forward. This - that's against the law. Ma'am, do not approach this train.

ABBI JACOBSON: (As Carson Shaw) Sir, just let it happen. I made it. I made it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I see that. Ticket, please.

JACOBSON: (As Carson Shaw) So - about that.

ESTRIN: The new "A League Of Their Own" television series expands on the original film, but with a major focus on race and sexuality based on true stories. The show premieres on Amazon Prime August 12. And we have co-creator, writer and star Abbi Jacobson here. What's up, Abbi?

JACOBSON: What's up? Thanks so much for having me. This is such a treat.

ESTRIN: Thank you for being here. So I got to say, it takes some serious chutzpah to say, yeah, let's do a remake of, like the most beloved baseball film in history. Why did you take this on?

JACOBSON: Yeah, it's a lot of pressure. It is people's - a lot of people's favorite movie. It's one of my favorite movies. And, you know, Will Graham, who co-created the show with me, is the one who brought the project to me. He had gotten the rights from Sony and asked me to do this with him. And when we first met - we first met in 2017 about this - we both loved this movie so much as kids. And, you know, from our initial conversation, it was like, we don't need to remake this movie at all. Like, we're not trying to do these characters again. But there was so much in the film that we felt like Penny Marshall, who was the director, was nodding to like, this is like also an iconic queer film, but like, no one in the film is gay and it's like not really that clear. But it is beloved by the queer community. And, you know, there's an iconic scene in the movie where a Black woman picks up a foul ball and chucks it back to Dottie. And you're sort of meant to know the historical fact that Black women were not even allowed to try out for this league. But Penny Marshall, 92, like, couldn't tell those stories. And so we were really excited to dive into the stories that were not told in the film, like the other people that weren't focused on in the film. So I always think of it as like a reimagining.

ESTRIN: And you actually spoke with the director of the film, Penny Marshall.

JACOBSON: Yeah.

ESTRIN: Right before she passed away, right? What did you guys talk about?

JACOBSON: Yeah. I mean, what an incredible thing to get to talk to her. I'm such a Penny Marshall fan. She's - I feel like she paved the way for what I do now in a really big way. And, you know, we wanted to get her blessing. First of all, I can only imagine hearing that people are going to like, in quotes, "remake" your thing for TV. There's got to be a lot of skepticism there and, like, what are they going to do here? And we told her how much we love the film and what we were trying to do in this version and how we were not trying to redo hers, and that we were shifting focus and really trying to tell the story of a generation of women who played baseball. And she said, well go and do it already. Like, go and do it. You know, she told us a lot about those scenes and the ways in which, you know, she felt like in a film, you know, the real estate, you just don't have the time to tell all those stories. And also in '92, it's a different time.

ESTRIN: Different time.

JACOBSON: And so we are really trying to tell all of those stories, a lot of stories.

ESTRIN: And it's, I mean, it's based in history, right? I mean, many of the women involved in the baseball leagues at that time were gay. Was that a surprise to you when you first took on this project?

JACOBSON: Yeah. I think Will and I both felt that queerness. And so much of this show is rooted in research. We had a full-time researcher on. And, you know, they were a huge asset to everyone involved. Our whole writers room, all our department had sort of had these binders full of research to make sure the show felt as authentic as possible. But when we dove into the research, it - yeah, it was surprising. It was a significant amount of women were queer. Also, we're just - we're really talking like, you know, queer people didn't just come about at Stonewall. Like, they - we've been around forever. And while it was really important to show, you know, the danger of what it was like to be queer in 1943, we also really, really wanted to show the joy of being queer and the joy of finding other queer people in your queer community. And that, like, going into the research about what those communities looked and felt like was really incredible, too.

ESTRIN: And you consulted with a number of former players in the women's baseball league, including Maybelle Blair, one of the original players in the women's baseball league. And she came out as gay at age 95.

JACOBSON: Yeah. I mean, Maybelle consulted on also like the baseball aspects of the show and what it was like to be in the league and what it was like to be a woman in 1943. But yeah, in June, we screened the pilot episode in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival and at the Q&A after she came out publicly at 95.

ESTRIN: Wow.

JACOBSON: And, you know, that just says so much about a lot - so much - you know, how being queer in 1943 was - is very, very different than now. Like, it took her - it's so incredible that she finally came out. And also, that's 95 years of hiding, you know. So, yeah, I just - like, her coming out at Tribeca and seeing her, I've seen her a bunch since that, and she's just living very differently. She's so much more open. She's always been full of life, but there's just a change. And I, you know, I feel really proud of this show that I think in us making this and us getting to tell her story on the show, she saw herself. And I really hope that audiences see themselves, too.

JACOBSON: It's not just a queer show, but I do want to ask you one more thing, because you've had your own journey coming out and being public with your own queerness. How did that shape the way that you played Carson, the character you play in the show?

JACOBSON: Yeah. I mean, I, like, came into my queerness pretty late in life. And also, I say that in a non-judgy way. Like, it's never too late. I guess Maybelle's an example. But I really relate in so many ways to Carson and that figuring out of oneself and that experience of having the world sort of all of a sudden feel a lot bigger than it did before, which I think is what that felt like for me and in a great way. And I think - I love the fact that we're - this is a show about a lot of things. Like, I hope people come for the baseball and come for the friendship and come for historical, you know, they love history. But it is also a very queer show. And I'm not the only queer character. Like, there - we're talking a lot of different queer experiences, and I think that's really exciting, too.

ESTRIN: Let's talk about the character Max, Maxine Chapman.

JACOBSON: Yeah.

ESTRIN: Because this is a major theme - the other major theme in the show. She's played by Chante Adams. She's a Black baseball player. She wants to join the league, but she can't because of segregation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Look. We're not going to have colored girls playing with our girls. Go on home.

CHANTE ADAMS: (As Max Chapman) Just give me one shot, one minute to throw for you. I promise you. You're going to want me pitching at every game. I know how to put on a show.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Look. If you don't get out of here now, I'll have you run off.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) OK, Max, let's go.

ADAMS: (As Max Chapman) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) No, let's just go.

ADAMS: (As Max Chapman) We're not leaving.

ESTRIN: She's just such a strong character, her whole family is. I just love them in this series. What - is her story based on anyone in particular?

JACOBSON: Yes. So Max's character is inspired by three women - Toni Stone, Mamie "Peanut" Johnson and Connie Morgan, who played in the Negro Leagues with men, and a number of other women as well. But that, you know, I mentioned the iconic scene in the film, and Penny hinted at that. And we really wanted to dive into, OK, so the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was this door that opened to this incredible opportunity for white women and white-passing women. And the film does a great job of showing that. But we really, you know, any institution, especially in 1943, but any institution has major, major flaws. And we thought it was really important to really pull out, like, that league did not allow women of color to play or try out. And what happens when that door closes for that opportunity to women of color? Where do they go play baseball? And based on those three women in particular, Max's story is not about getting on the peaches (ph). Max's story is about finding her own team. And Max is this incredible pitcher. Chante brought so much to this role. I mean, Max's world is just my favorite. Her mom owns a salon. And Max ends up going to work in the factory. And it was so exciting to get to explore factory life in 1940s. And I love how rich her world is.

ESTRIN: Yeah. So it's a very queer show, Not only it's a very Black show, not only - what do you want viewers to take away from from watching this?

JACOBSON: You know, I think it really is about finding your team. And these characters, a lot of them are finding their team on the field, which is a place that they've never really had that kind of camaraderie. But this show is also so much about finding your team in life, in your people. And I hope that whether you play baseball or not, I think this is a really analogous thing to whatever your passion is, to go and find those people. I feel like this is very analogous to my story in finding my people in comedy. Once I found them, I was like, this is - I can do this. I found other people that love this as much as I do. And then in the same way, it's finding your people who see you. I hope an audience will watch. And if they have their community, maybe they're watching with their community and they see themselves already, and if they don't have those communities yet, they know that it's never too late to find them.

ESTRIN: Abbi Jacobson is the writer, co-creator and star of the new television series "A League Of Their Own," which premieres on Amazon Prime on August 12. Abbi Jacobson, amazing to speak with you. Thank you so much.

JACOBSON: Thank you so much for having me. This was so fun.

ESTRIN: It really was. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.