'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' co-creator Mike Schur looks back on season 1
Back in the summer, I sat down with "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" creators Dan Goor and Mike Schur to talk about the creative challenges that come with the launch of any new comedy. In particular, we discussed — based on their experience on "Parks and Recreation," and Schur's on "The Office" — the process of fine-tuning characters from the broad sketches they are in a pilot to ones who best match the actors who play them, and best fit into the larger world.
It was a very good discussion, and one that played out over the course of the first "Brooklyn" season. There were some promising elements early on — Andre Braugher's deadpan, Terry Crews' innate Terry Crews-iness — but various balances had to be struck, so that Andy Samberg's Jake Peralta could be immature without seeming like a 12-year-old with a badge, or so that Melissa Fumero's Amy Santiago could disapprove of Jake without being a buzzkill. By tonight's finale — and you can read my review of that here — it had become one of the very best comedies on television, and one I'm happy I'll get to watch again next year.
With the season over, I wanted to revisit that discussion with Schur and Goor, but Goor's on vacation and only had time to answer one emailed question. So Schur tackled the rest solo (also via email), coming up just as soon as I slip in a Miley Cyrus "Toldja so" face...
When I talked with you and Dan last summer, one of the big discussion topics was reaching the point in making an ensemble comedy where you (and the audience) inherently understand what's funny about a character and can just come up with a lot of jokes in that vein. Do you feel you're at that point with all your regulars? Who was the quickest to figure out? Who took the longest? Why?
Mike Schur: It's a constant evolution, but I certainly think we'd found each character's sweet spot by the middle of the year. It's also a question of the actors finding the characters as we discover how to write them -- one of them "symbiotic" type situations. Just as one example, the episode where Captain Holt was challenged for the Presidency of his organization for African-American Gay and Lesbian police officers; after the challenger, a very pleasant man, respectfully and charmingly explains that he intends to run, Gina says "Very nice man," and Holt says, "Yes, he is. Now let's figure out how to destroy him." We were pretty confident Andre would get a big laugh with that joke, but then he decided to take a long, almost Shatner-ian pause before "destroy him," and made it a hundred times funnier. In the "Tactical Village" episode, Terry says "You are confirmed for maximum engagement," and Boyle says, excitedly, "Maximum engagement?! What is this, 'Jurassic Park: the Ride?'" That's a joke we couldn't have written for Charles earlier in the year, until we'd fully figured out his childlike enthusiasm.
You did a lot of stories early on where the central conflict was "Jake ignores Holt's advice for 2/3 of the episode, gets in deeper and deeper, then bails himself out by finally listening to the captain." You mostly dropped that dynamic by mid-season (though there are elements in the finale). Did you feel you really needed to hammer home the Holt/Peralta dynamic for new viewers (the old "repeat the pilot six times" rule)? Do you think the balance in that relationship got out of whack at that or other points?
Mike Schur: Some of that, yes, was simply repeating the pilot. All of our creative conversations with FOX were about making sure that dynamic came to the fore, at the beginning of the season. And since we felt like it worked in the pilot, we leaned on it for a while as we explored other dynamics -- Gina and Amy, Charles and Rosa, Terry and everyone. It was part of our backstory for Jake that he'd grown up without a strong father figure, and having him butt heads with Holt was meant to both display what was missing in him, and also point to Holt as a guy who wouldn't let him just get away with what he'd been getting away with all his life.
As for your second question, I object on the grounds that you are leading the witness! I've said this before, but some of every Season 1 is trial and error, and in your first ten episodes you go too far in one direction or not far enough in another. In Brooklyn's case, I think we figured out the right balance fairly quickly.
Related to both of the first two questions, do you feel like you've figured out the right maturity level for Jake, and if so when and how did that occur? Are there certain behaviors that you feel cross the line from man-child to actual child? How do you preserve the things that the audience likes about Andy Samberg while also making Jake credible as someone Raymond Holt would employ?
Mike Schur: That was our number-one goal -- preserve the fun, goofy essence of Andy, but still make him a believable police detective. Every show (and every main character, especially) has to have opportunities for growth. There need to be sections of the show, like chunks of dough, that are knead-able over the course of a season. Or, to use a worse metaphor (if that's even possible), the beginning of a show has to demonstrate some scuff marks that can be polished -- if your pilot presents a fully-formed, presentable, mature, sophisticated guy with impeccable manners, the rest of your series will be boring and unnecessary. Jake started off as a guy with a lot of talent and a decent number of maturity issues, and the story of the show will be how working with Holt (and others) helps him grow.