Story ideas don't always come easy, but the work is usually worth it for the great FOX comedy
Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Jax McTavish (Steve Howey) in a scene from last night's "New Girl."
"You must think we're such dummies," an exasperated J.J. Philbin tells me.
This is somewhere in the fourth of five hours I'll spend at the writers offices of "New Girl" late on a Friday afternoon in January, watching as the show's writers work on a story outline for "TinFinity," the 18th episode of the terrific FOX comedy's second season. (It aired last night.) As Philbin suggests, it has not been coming easily to them on this day.
The staff has been working on “TinFinity” in one form or another for weeks. The episode’s credited writers, Kim Rosenstock and Josh Malmuth, put together an outline over Christmas break, involving two stories. In one, Nick and Schmidt throw a party to celebrate their 10th anniversary as roommates. In the other, Jess tries to make out with football star Jax McTavish to take her mind off of her recent kiss with Nick — “I need a new mouth on my mouth” is a proposed line of dialogue that will be said over and over throughout the day — only to be hamstrung when Jax accidentally walks in on her while she's using a porta potty. They wrote a draft after the holiday, but everyone feels the ideas need more fine-tuning — particularly the Jess/Jax story — to help set up what’s going to happen in the episode after “TinFinity.”
“Because we’re in the back half of the season where we know where things are moving,” explains one of the show’s executive producers, Dave Finkel, “we’re taking a bunch of steps forward and then looking at it through the prism of how things should be breaking, and then going back and fixing things. I think we made some assumptions about the way things are breaking, and then we realized, ‘No, they’re not quite right; we need to recalibrate based on this over-arching story.’”
This re-breaking of a story isn’t unusual in the comedy business. Finkel and partner Brett Baer
have worked on a variety of half-hour series — everything from “30 Rock” to “United States of Tara” to “Joey” — and Baer says, “I would say most shows will re-break after a draft comes in. It’s not like you’re throwing everything out — the baby with the bathwater. Every show we’ve been on, the draft comes in, and then we talk about it.”
In this case, the ones talking about it — and about the Jess and Jax story in particular — when I arrive are Finkel, Baer, Malmouth, Rosenstock, Philbin and Luvh Rahke, plus writers assistant Sophia Lear and executive producer and director Jake Kasdan. The day before, Kobe Bryant randomly showed up on set to hang out, and all are still raving about his star presence, and trying to draw some inspiration from that for the writing of Jax McTavish.
“I don’t like fake famous,” says Philbin, sparking a debate over whether a fictional celebrity ever seems plausible on screen. Meanwhile, the writers go back and forth on whether Jess should kiss Jax before or after the porta potty incident, and whether they want that to be what derails them as a couple or simply Jess’s recognition that she still has feelings for Nick.
“New Girl” creator Liz Meriwether is down on the stage supervising the episode being filmed that day, but she calls to check in. Over the speaker phone, Baer explains their Jax concerns, and Meriwether suggests they could beef up the character by having Nick be impressed by him, as well. Rosenstock suggests that Nick might be confused over whom he’s more jealous of: Jax or Jess?
There’s also the matter of tying Winston into the story. The idea is that Winston has met Jax at the radio station, but nobody’s sure how Winston gets Jax from the station to Nick’s bar, or what his ultimate role will be. One idea being talked about is Winston giving Jess a crash course in football. Rahke proposes that Jess explain, “I’m more of a visual and smells learner,” to big laughter from the room. (The line, like so many that are a big hit in a sitcom writers room, will not survive to the final version, in part because the story changes to leave no place to put it.)
Meriwether hangs up as Katherine Pope, another executive producer and president of the show’s production company Chernin Entertainment, arrives. Baer fills her in on where they are, and talk quickly shifts to who will play Jax. Size is a limiting factor — there aren’t that many actors of the right age who are both funny and will seem believable as an NFL star — and Pope suggests Steve Howey from “Shameless,” who used to play a football player (albeit arena league) on “Reba.”
Pope is primarily concerned with who is driving the action here. In one version, for instance, Jess is reacting to Nick taking the phone number of another woman, rather than initiating the action on her own. Drive is one of the most-discussed topics in the room.
“It's the essence of storytelling,” Finkel explains later. “If the audience doesn’t have a clear idea of who’s going after what, it’s impossible to laugh. If people are trying to figure stuff out, if it’s unclear, if it’s muddy, they don’t laugh because they're working too hard with the left brain to make sense of it, and then they can’t enjoy on a more instinctive guttural level what the jokes are.”(*)
(*) Though I do hear jokes pitched throughout the day like the “visual and smells learner” line, the show’s writing staff is divided during my visit between the people re-breaking the “TinFinity” story and the ones in the next room writing dozens upon dozens of alternate punchlines — what in the comedy business are referred to as alts — to be thrown at the actors during filming so Meriwether and the show’s editors can decide which gag ultimately plays best. According to Baer, “Mike Schur” (co-creator of “Parks and Recreation” and Philbin’s husband) “calls our room ‘The Salt Mines of Alt-ville.’”