How a 'New Girl' script gets made: From outline to final cut on 'TinFinity'
Story ideas don't always come easy, but the work is usually worth it for the great FOX comedy
That Monday before any table read often turns into an all-nighter, which Finkel and Baer both compare to the atmosphere at “Saturday Night Live.”
“Dave and I and Liz will often like end up spending that next table read here at the office and then taking shifts of sleeping breaks of two hours or whatever,” says Baer. “And then we get up and keep going. It doesn’t always happen that way but when you feel the clock ticking, there’s an excitement about trying to get it into shape. And there’s always a moment at about 2 in the morning when your eyes are blurry and you look at it and you go, ‘Is this a thing?’ And then when you start to see, like, ‘Holy shit, it’s actually coming together,’ that’s the good feeling.”
“In a lot of ways it’s very exciting and horrible,” says Finkel, “and I’ll tell you what there’s no more euphoric feeling — even in our worst moments when the table read has just hit the shitter. After the table read, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, that was weird and exciting and horrible.’ Every emotion just rolls off you. And then you let down and feel, ‘Okay, that happened. Cool.’ It’s pretty intense.”
The “TinFinity” table read goes reasonably well, but everyone agrees on two things: 1)The character of Jax (who will, indeed, be played by Steve Howey) needs to be beefed up, and 2)The gag about Jax seeing Jess going to the bathroom, that has survived every other tweak to the script, isn’t as funny in execution as it was in the idea stage.
“It didn’t feel like it reflected like what we wanted the dynamic between Jess and Jax to be,” explains Finkel. “We wanted something a little bit more substantial and a little weird, and it just didn’t quite work by itself.”
So the writers dive back in and reconceive Jax as a guy who’s very in touch with his feelings, which for Jess is an appealing contrast to Nick — until it turns out he’s too in touch with those emotions, and winds up crying and declaring his love for Jess on their first date.
“That happens, like, once every like three or four episodes where we’ll get locked in,” says Finkel, “on this one set piece you want to do. And then, more often than not, that set piece becomes a bit of an albatross. And you have to at some point realize you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.”
“The story’s over here: this is the thing that actually is working or matters, this thing that people care about or follow,” adds Baer. “And sometimes you have to let go of like a joke or whatever.”
The story of TinFinity itself came together much more easily — Baer estimates that 80 percent of the Nick/Schmidt jokes from the table read survived to the final version, and 100 percent of the structure — because, as Finkel puts it, “That dynamic of those two guys trying to figure out the dynamics of their friendships generally tends to work for us.”
But they wrestle with the Jess/Jax/Winston material until they’re pleased — at which point Mother Nature decides to intervene. The entire second half of the episode takes place at the outdoor party, in a public park, and persistent rain kept delaying filming of those scenes — “It took us a month to shoot that episode,” Finkel sighs — so that the final cut was done only days before it aired.
In their initial version, episodes tend to come in at 27 or 28 minutes long, when the air version has to be cut down to 21 minutes and 35 seconds. And because so many different versions of each joke are filmed, the producers don’t really know what the episode looks like, or whether it entirely works, until right before editing is completed.
“The episodes really don't take complete form until hours before we lock,” says Finkel. “Liz is really kind of brilliant in getting in there and finding these odd gems that you didn’t expect to work. And they just turn themselves around.”
Finkel recalls Meriwether and editor Steve Welch’s work on the recent episode “Table 34,” largely set at an Indian wedding convention, which no one thought was quite clicking until they saw the finished cut.
“They really have a knack for re-creating the fabric of every episode in a way that’s surprising,” says Finkel. “That was one of those episodes were we looked at it afterwards and were like, ‘Wow, that was really kind of a heroic.’”
With “TinFinity,” the trick is to find enough time for all the important story beats of Jax and Jess’ aborted courtship, and Schmidt and Nick analyzing their friendship, and on top of that Cece accepting a wedding proposal from her boyfriend Shivrang — right in front of ex-boyfriend Schmidt, using the light show, confetti cannon and Queen song he was intending to use for his toast to Nick — while still leaving room for jokes. Though Jax never catches Jess using it, the porta potty itself survives — when told by a salesman that the one he wants is going in the garbage, Nick scoffs, "’Garbage.’ That's what the nursing home said about my mattress.” — and is used as part of the conflict between Nick and Schmidt.
All in all, everyone is pleased with how it turned out, given the difficulty in breaking the story, followed by the weather disruptions. But there’s no real time to celebrate, because there are new stories to break, new alts to be written, scenes to be shot and edited, as the business of show requires team “New Girl” to keep powering through until the last joke in the last script of the 24th episode of the season is as good as it can possibly be.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org