'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' creators Mike Schur and Dan Goor on following up 'Parks and Recreation'
Their new FOX comedy with Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher isn't a mockumentary
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One of this fall’s most promising new series is FOX’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a new comedy starring Andy Samberg as a wisecracking but effective NYPD detective, Andre Braugher as his disapproving new boss and Terry Crews, Joe Lo Truglio and Chelsea Peretti, among others, as their co-workers. (It premieres, like FOX's other Tuesday comedies, on September 17, and will air at 8:30, right before "New Girl.") Part of the promise comes from that cast, and part from the creative team of Mike Schur and Dan Goor, who have spent the last five seasons working together on a little show called “Parks and Recreation.” (Schur will split time between the two, while Goor is now full-time on "Brooklyn.")
Back in June, I sat down with Schur and Goor to discuss the process of getting a new comedy off the ground. They were spending the day considering stories for the first few episodes after the pilot, and whether they wanted to be married to certain character traits — that Samberg’s character, for instance, will eat anything you put in front of him — for the life of what they hope will be a long-running series.
It’s a long conversation (as my interviews with Schur inevitably wind up being) but I think illuminating about the challenges and opportunities for a show at this early stage of development.
Note: the conversation picks up in Goor’s office while Schur is busy on a phone call. Goor and I had just finished discussing our mutual admiration for “Barney Miller,” which both Goor and Schur have said is an obvious influence on “Brooklyn,” when I turned the recorder on.
So your characters aren’t specifically homicide cops, but there are dead people in your pilot. How do you make a comedy with that as an element?
Dan Goor: Well, there's a dead person in the room. We talked a lot about that. And you'll notice we don't spend a lot of time with the dead person. You'll also notice the dead person is not in the apartment when they go to the apartment; they've already gotten rid of the dead person. There are pictures of the dead person, which we undercut with the pictures of the food on the neighbor’s mouth. One thing I would say is real cops have real gallows senses of humor and make incredibly funny and inappropriate jokes in the presence of dead people all the time.
Certainly. And “Homicide” did a lot with that and “The Wire” did a lot with that.
Dan Goor: And “M*A*S*H.” “M*A*S*H” was also a precedent for us where it's like where Hawkeye Pierce is a cut up, but he's also an incredibly good surgeon. And the stakes of what they are doing are real and high. And when he's doing it he's a good at his job and he's not messing around. But they're able to make jokes while there are people dying all around them. There is an element of it being the only way to survive this job that I think we also have in this pilot. “Monk” did it. We were watching to see how different crime shows do cutaways and things. And there’s a “Monk” episode where there's maybe 55 shots of a dead person in the first four minutes. That's an hour long (show) and a little less of a …
But still the bulk of it is played for laughs.
Dan Goor: Right. But we've talked a lot about how we think it would be funny if there's a really hot medical examiner that Jake is always flirting with. And just below the frame is the gore of a body.
As soon as you mention “M*A*S*H,” it immediately clicks into place that Andre Braugher is Harry Morgan.
Dan Goor: Yes and no. In the first episode that Harry Morgan comes in as Sherman T. Potter, he automatically sees that Frank Burns is annoying and crazy but he thinks Hawkeye is going to be a problem. And meanwhile Hawkeye thinks that Potter is a pencil pusher who hasn't done surgery in a really long time. And then they have the incident. There's a bunch of casualties are brought in. It's immediately clear that Burns is a competent but not good surgeon. Hawkeye is an amazing surgeon and Potter is actually pretty good but rusty. And Potter basically shushes Burns, and he sides with Hawkeye and Hawkeye also respects Potter. It genius the way they did it.
But often when you have a comedy with a cut-up character like you have here with Jake, the boss is either clueless or he's always frustrated and kind of a jerk. It's very rare that you can have the Potter kind of character who's really good and wise and patient, too.
Dan Goor: Yes. And hopefully we're going to be able to pull that off for a lot of episodes. There's a moment in the pilot where he flashes his smile. And you're like, there’s going to be tension, but he’s okay. He's not like (annoyed) "Poindexter!!!!" And Andre Braugher is so infinitely likable.
(Schur enters around this point.)
One of the things I noticed watching the pilot is that Andre is not giving a radically different performance from Pembleton. He's an actor, he's giving a performance but you can insert Holt into an episode of “Homicide.”
Mike Schur: Yeah. The difference in the backstories of the characters is actually what's important in the context in which he's delivering that performance. But, yeah, he's being kind of straightforward; it's just he's doing it in the service of comedy instead of drama. The best thing about pitching the show to him and then watching him do it was he got exactly what he was supposed to do. He just knew exactly what he was supposed to do to make it funny. And he even said he went to Craig Zisk, our producing director, and said, “Tell me if I'm getting too broad or silly.”
Dan Goor: But he also said, to the writers, “Please make sure I’m the grounded one. That's my role on this show.”
Mike Schur: He totally gets the way that he's funny in the show and the way to make the show funny around him as if he's the no-nonsense straightforward guy.
Dan Goor: Well, the number one rule of comedy acting is “don't try to be funny.” Act as seriously as possible
Mike Schur: And it was so fun to pitch him lines too, because you pitch him a line and then he just says it in that incredibly earnest way.
Is Jake good at his job? This is a question that often gets brought up with comedies, but it feels like because they're cops, it’s more of a big deal than if Andy Dwyer is good at his job.
Dan Goor: The short answer is yes but I also think that there's something about it being Andy Samberg and he's doing this grounded character who's a good cop but also funny. And I think in order for the comedy to play, the world has to be grounded and he has to be good at his job. And it's a similar thing to Hawkeye Pierce on “M*A*S*H,” I think.
Mike Schur: Right. Hawkeye was a good surgeon, and we always talk about Leslie being good at her job. She's a public servant, she's being paid by taxpayers. And cops are both paid by taxpayers and have people's lives in their hands. So in order for you to like get behind him and all of them as characters, you have to feel like they like are competent people. If they're shitty cops, then it would be pretty bad.
Dan Goor: There’s a joke in the pilot about an old lady that's only okay if he's a good cop. He gets away with having a gallows sense of humor that a cop would have if he is able to solve crime. If he's a bad cop and he's making jokes about that old lady, then it's like, “Man do your job. Don't be an idiot.”