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.
Where did Jake's love of role-playing and his invention of fake names and backstories come from?
Mike Schur: Just came out of the room pitching on character details, I think. We thought he would be a guy who revered the old, gritty, Serpico/Donnie Brasco NYPD, and dreaming up alter egos and undercover names sort of naturally came out of that. In the finale he finally gets his wish to take on a big undercover op, though he has to be himself.
Throughout the season, you tried out Jake in a partnership with every regular character, even Gina at one point. Were there combinations that you felt especially pleased with or surprised by?
Mike Schur: I really enjoyed the “Pontiac Bandit” episode, when he was paired with Rosa. Andy and Melissa have nice chemistry, so we knew the Jake/Amy stories worked well. Jake/Charles and Jake/Holt were off and running from the pilot, and everyone in the world has fun working with Terry Crews, so Jake/Rosa was one of the only combos we hadn't really thought about by the time we started breaking stories. We didn't really crack their dynamic until after that table read, when we came up with the backstory that they went to the academy together, and had a shorthand and an implicit trust. That episode was always going to be fun because of Craig Robinson, but the Jake-Rosa backstory made it much more important for the series long-term.
You started off the series with Boyle crushing seriously on Diaz and at least hints of Jake being attracted to Santiago, but both of those things waxed and waned before becoming a bigger deal again at the end of the season. How were you trying to approach both pieces of unresolved sexual tension? And were you at all tempted to have Boyle wake up in bed with Rosa, or was he always going to wind up in Gina's bed there?
Mike Schur: We wanted to slow-play Jake and Amy, and only bring it to the fore at the end of the season. The basic idea was that Jake slowly realizes over the year that he should be interested in women like Amy, and also that women like Amy aren't going to be interested in him unless he cleans up his act a little. Charles and Rosa was mostly a comedy story about a sad sack who projects a lot of complicated feelings onto a powerful, dark and mysterious woman regardless of whether or not she is right for him. We came up with the twist ending of Charles and Gina fairly early on, as a way to complicate everyone's world heading into season 2.
Boyle seems to have developed the most facets compared to the character he was in the pilot. Where did the many sides of Boyle come from, and when did you realize how much Joe Lo Truglio had to offer?
Mike Schur: We knew how great Joe was — everyone in the comedy world has known for a long time. (Allison Jones (the show's casting director) has been his biggest fan and booster for years, and Allison Jones is never wrong.) The fleshing-out of his character is nothing more than having more minutes of screentime, and a very talented writing staff who love writing jokes for him.
Terry spent half the season working at a desk, afraid to be out in the street again, but then he got better and was much more active in the season's second half. Did you think the cowardly giant gag had run its course, or were you just itching to give Terry Crews more to do?
Mike Schur: I think the original plan was to have Terry's journey back to active work take the whole year, but we quickly revised that down, mostly because it's fun to see Terry Crews be kick-ass. I mean, he's a real-life super hero. At some point, watching a superhero who does clerical work will go from amusing to just disappointing.
How did you and Dan and the other writers approach Santiago so she could become a funny character in her own right and not just the disapproving straight woman for Peralta?
Mike Schur: We were very nervous about her being a killjoy. That's one of my least favorite roles that women fill on TV shows — the killjoy who tells the goofy fun guy to knock it off. We consciously tried to avoid that dynamic — we had them like each other, treat each other like peers, seek advice from each other, and (maybe most importantly) we made them both screw up a lot, albeit in different ways. Melissa and Andy make it easy, though, by playing their scenes not like “fun-time Charlie and his mean schoolmarm watchdog” but like two real humans who tease each other.
Over the season, there were moments where Gina was presented as a functional (and mostly harmless) sociopath, and others where she was shown to have actual vulnerabilities and affection for others. Back in the summer, you and Mike talked about figuring out how best to translate what you found funny about Chelsea into what she was doing on screen. Do you feel like you solved that equation by season's end, and what would you say is the right balance between crazy Gina and simply eccentric Gina?
How much time is spent in the process of writing each episode simply thinking of words and phrases that would be especially funny to hear escape Andre Braugher's lips?
Mike Schur: Less and less, because Andre has become a kind of joke-telling assassin, who makes everything funny. Not just with pronunciation, but with these lethal pauses and intense glares. There's just something about the timbre of his voice. I love the way he said “Boyle looks like a lesbian!” in the Superbowl episode. I should make that my ringtone.
Is there an episode you would point to this season as either the one where you had it all figured out, or at least as something you could show to a newcomer as an example of what “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” can be at its best? Or do you think there are still things that can be improved, and if so, what?
Mike Schur: Everything can always be improved, and we will always keep trying. I think of “The Bet” as a kind of watershed for the show; it was about halfway through the year, it took a big leap forward for several personal stories, and it featured some really lovely acting and comedy from everyone in the cast — Terry and his wife (and Holt being goofy, maybe for the first time), Charles telling Rosa he didn't look before he jumped in front of the bullet, Jake and Amy having a quasi-date during the stakeout — it felt to me that the show shifted gears during that episode.
How much do you think the Golden Globe win actually helped your cause for returning for another season? Was the win in any way a negative, maybe suggesting the show was more fully-formed than it was at that moment?
Mike Schur: It certainly wasn't a negative, in any way, and it was completely unexpected and flattering. And I honestly don't know if things like that factor into the network's calculus.
The finale shows that Peralta and Holt have reached a new level of trust and respect for each other, and ditto Peralta and Santiago, but it's also a situation that's going to take him away from the precinct for months at a minimum. Why did you decide this was the right story to end the season on, and how much have you guys already mapped out for how you're going to deal with it in season 2 (or if we're going to return with Jake already back at his desk)?
Mike Schur: We have some nascent ideas for what happens next. This just seemed like a good way to throw a wrench into the precinct dynamics for a while — how much of his assignment we will or won't work into S2 remains to be seen. We might jump ahead to his last day and fill the viewers in via flashbacks, or we might spend a while on the case if it warrants. We just wanted a situation that would shake things up, and force Jake to tell Amy how he felt, and this one seemed fun since (as I mentioned earlier) he's always wanted a cool undercover assignment.
The ratings have not been great, and the audience that watched you on Super Bowl night didn't follow you (or “New Girl”) back to Tuesdays. Both of your shows are coming back next season, but do you look at the ratings they're getting, that “New Girl” and “Community” and “Enlisted” and some other terrific comedies are getting at the moment, and wonder if there's a new – and very low – ceiling for how these kinds of smart single-camera comedies can do? Or is it just a bunch of shows in troubled timeslots on troubled networks all at the same time?
Mike Schur: I think about this a lot. First of all, those overnight ratings are very silly, and we all need to stop reporting them and caring about them. You see a show gets a 1.3 or something, and you think “Uh oh.” Then you see that L+7 it gets a 2.2 (or something), and you think, “Oh, well, okay.” Then you see that L+30 across all platforms it gets a 3.3 (or something) and 8 million viewers (or something) and you think: “Well that's not bad.” Now obviously, what matters is how networks can make money from ratings, but this is the system we have invented, where you can watch episodes of most shows on many different platforms at your absolute leisure, and yet we are still using a system that measures only the people who watched it the second it aired. It's like measuring album sales based on who bought the album within ten minutes of its release. It's really not anything we can control, except by making the show consistently good so more and more people hear about it and decide to give it a shot. Which is plenty hard- enough work.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org