Mike Schur On The Art Of Crafting Great Opening Scenes For Television

Senior Television Writer
12.08.16 14 Comments

NBC / Fox

Brooklyn Nine-Nine opened Tuesday’s episode on this simple, silly note:

This was the latest winner from a show that’s been on a roll with both its overall episodes and with its teaser scenes, which are sometimes referred to in the TV business as cold opens, because they come before the opening credits, and thus before the audience has been properly warmed up to watch the show.

While some comedies use their cold opens to set up the plot of the episode that follows, Brooklyn generally uses them as standalone comedy sketches, continuing a tradition that goes back to when the show’s creators Mike Schur and Dan Goor worked together on Parks and Recreation, and before that when Schur was a novice sitcom writer on The Office apprenticing under Greg Daniels.

I was impressed enough by the recent run of Brooklyn cold opens to reach out to Schur — who’s also a big fan of Cheers, one of the first sitcoms notable for beginning episodes this way, and whose writing career began on Saturday Night Live, which often puts its most important sketch of the night before the credits — to ask about his history with and philosophy about the device, and to look at a few examples from his series. (Though Goor is now the primary Brooklyn showrunner while Schur works on The Good Place, Schur’s still creatively in the loop, and in fact wrote up his answers to my questions while on break from directing an upcoming Brooklyn episode.)

Cheersis your favorite comedy, and that was a show that did a lot of great cold opens, at a time when that wasn’t a standard sitcom device. Do you have any particular favorites of theirs? And how do you feel about the way they used those pre-credits sequences?

Like everyone else, I loved the “We Will Rock You” one. I remember watching it and finding it cool that it was wordless for so long, and as you start to figure out what’s happening, it’s kind of exhilarating. I also remember one where Woody is bummed because every day at five a guy comes in and starts talking his ear off. Then Frasier starts giving advice on how to handle narcissistic blowhards who prattle on and on — in the process, of course, prattling on and on — and he eventually says that if it happens again, Woody should just walk away. At which point everyone in the bar turns and walks away. Just a perfect little in-character sketch. There’s also a pretty cartoony one where an old umpire comes in and Sam is at first delighted to see him, but as they reminisce about the guy making a bad call on one of Sam’s pitches, it turns into a full-on player-umpire fight, and the ump kicks Sam out of the bar. It’s broad, but escalates in a really funny way.

I loved the cold opens on Cheers, because it felt like you got two episodes every time the show was on — one mini comedy sketch and then the main episode. That was the philosophy Greg Daniels had when we implemented them at The Office — it should just be a little bonus, bite-sized piece of comedy — the amuse-bouche before the meal.

I know your SNLspecialty was Weekend Update, but were you ever involved in the cold opens there? Outside of the episodes when the open was directly responding to a big news event from that week, was there a particular rule of thumb as to why a sketch would be considered for that spot as opposed to later in the show? Or were the cold opens always written explicitly as such, and thus ending in the “Live, from New York…” catchphrase?

I wrote a few things that served as cold opens — mostly political things. I worked on the Chris Matthews Hardball sketches and some of those turned into cold opens, I think. Once I wrote a Bill Clinton piece, post-Lewinski, where he was apologizing for that, and then he apologized for a million other things. It was Lorne’s idea, and it ran as an Update feature in dress rehearsal, but got switched to the cold open for air. That happens frequently at SNL: Things can shift position in the show depending on how well they do in dress. I also co-wrote the cold open right after the 2000 election, where Al Gore and George W. Bush decided to co-run the country, as the Odd Couple. That was probably the most famous cold open I worked on, just because of the massive attention the show was getting around that time.

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