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

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.

SNL cold opens are usually one of two things: the show’s take on the biggest political story of the week, or a big performance piece with popular recurring characters. In election years it’s almost always the former. The best writer in SNL history is Jim Downey, and a big reason why is the cold opens he wrote.

All of the sitcoms you’ve done (including Master of None) do pre-credit scenes. Is that the Cheersfan in you? The SNLalum? Just the fact that you started in primetime on a show (run by another SNLalum) that did them and did them well?

All those reasons apply, as well as the fact that networks really want the end of one show to blend right into the beginning of the next one, for ratings retention. Additionally, I learned to write sitcoms from Greg Daniels, and he used them to great effect. (But mostly, I’ve just always loved them.)

Across Office, Parks, Brooklyn, Master of None, and The Good Place, there have been lots of different styles of humor featured in the teaser. Is there any kind of common element that you feel they have to have, regardless of the difference in tone from series to series, or even episode to episode?

Different shows use them for different reasons. At The Office, Greg always wanted to celebrate and accurately portray the small moments of everyday office life, and cold opens were a perfect medium for that. Eventually, there emerged a sort of meta-cold open, where some small thing from the Office writers room would be transferred to the fictional world of the show. We all got obsessed with our writers room DVD player screen saver thing, where the little cube bounced around the screen in an irregular pattern, and once every ten minutes or so would perfectly strike one of the corners of the screen. Jen Celotta turned that into a cold open where Michael Scott was giving a boring presentation and everyone was cheering on the cube, ignoring him, but he thought they were reacting to what he was saying.

At Parks and Rec, they started similarly — as just little fun standalone comedy vignettes — but in later years we would often just take the first beat of one of the stories and make it into the cold open, if it had a good blow. Brooklyn is more the Office model, I think. The Dianne Wiest one from the other night is my favorite of all-time. (I was not around for its inception, but Luke Del Tredici told me someone just wrote “Charles has a Dianne Wiest infection” on the white board, and then later when they needed a cold open they were just like, “Well, we have *that.*)

Good Place cold opens are almost always picking up right where the previous episode’s cliffhanger left off, but we tried to give them the same feeling of standalone cold opens: build them as little comedy sketches, to the extent that it makes sense for the story.

The only truly consistent element across all the shows is a good final joke (“blow”) that sends you careening into the credits. At The Office we did one where Dwight had purchased an exercise ball and was using it in place of his desk chair. He is being really annoying about how much better it is than a desk chair, and bouncing and rotating his hips in typically annoying Dwight-ish fashion. As written, Jim asks Dwight how much it cost, Dwight tells him, and them Jim takes a pair of scissors and punctures it. The idea was that it would slowwwwwwly deflate, and as Dwight sunk lower and lower, Jim would take out his wallet and calculate how much he owed Dwight — “Let’s see, so, twenty bucks for the ball, I’ll say three bucks in gas money… why don’t I give you 30 and we’ll call it even?” — that sort of thing, as Dwight sunk lower and lower, glaring at Jim all the way down. We did it a bunch of times and it was hilarious. Then on the last take, I think, completely accidentally, John (Krasinski) happened to stab the ball right on a seam or something, and the ball just exploded, and Rainn (Wilson) hit the ground in a flash. (You can actually see Phyllis laughing before it cuts away.) I argued at the time that the slow collapse was funnier, because Rainn’s glaring at John was sublime. But Greg’s argument — a good one — was that the whole point of a cold open is to kind of propel the audience into the theme song with a burst of energy, and the exploding ball was far better for that. Also, it kind of felt like, if the universe just hands you a punchline like that, it would be foolish to reject it.

On Office, Parks, and Brooklyn, the teasers usually have nothing to do with the episode that follows. Do those get written independently of the episodes themselves — i.e., there’s a hopper of different pre-credits scenes, and you pull out the idea that fits, time-wise — or are they cooked up at the same time you’re breaking the rest of each script?

Greg used to have us write a bunch at a time, both as an exercise in getting the characters’ voices, and as a way to build up a sort of “break glass in case of emergency” storage bin, for any episode that needed one. (That felt very SNL-y — we used to do that with commercial parodies, in the weeks leading up to the season premiere.) So we would have a reserve supply, and then also every writer would try to write a new one when (s)he wrote his/her episode. You can never have enough funny one-page cold opens.

Let’s look at some specific examples from each of the network shows (with full clips where available, punchlines where not):

The Office

Kevin brings his famous chili to the office:

I was not around for this, but I remember Paul Lieberstein pitching it to me and thinking it was going to be hilarious. I pitched him an alt-ending where, after you see Kevin spill the chili all over the floor, you would continue to hear him describe in painstaking detail how he makes it, while the b-roll would continue and you’d see him scrape it back into the giant pot (no one was in the office at the time), and then it would cut to later in the day as everyone is happily ladling it into bowls and eating it, while Kevin looked to camera sheepishly. But Paul liked the simplicity of “long explanation of laborious task, concluding with clumsy disaster.”

Dwight’s fire drill:

This is, obviously, the best cold open the show ever did, but it’s also kind of a cheat, because the Super Bowl episode demanded a massive grabby cold open, and it’s so long it’s almost an entire act. But it’s just wonderful. The build is so perfect and everyone is acting exactly in character. That was another aspect of cold opens that Greg loved — it was a sort of distilled, economical, punchy way to show people on the show acting perfectly in character. And in one this complex and long you can get a moment like that from everyone — Kevin smashing the vending machines, Angela and her cat, Michael throwing the chair at the window…

Parks and Recreation

Leslie Knope raps:

I had actually pitched this as a cold open for Michael Scott, but Greg never saw it. In season two of Parks, one of the goals was to let Amy have more fun, performance-wise, and to show that Leslie was a looser, sillier person than we had let her be in the first six episodes, and I felt like she would nail this. We shot it for like two hours, because it had to range all over the office. I don’t remember who came up with the blow — Ron saying, after she had been ostensibly been singing for five minutes, that the “situation” was that there was a fire in a park and Leslie was urgently needed — but it made the whole thing.

Ron Swanson meets a puppy:

This one contains three very simple comedic ideas: 1) Have Chris Pratt hold a puppy. 2) Have Aziz Ansari say the word “puppy” as many times as possible. 3) Have a puppy lick Ron Swanson’s mustache. No idea who pitched it. But that person deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

The squad guesses why Santiago is late for work for the first time ever:

This is one of those “everyone in character” ones — a simple guessing game, where every character’s guess highlights who that character is. And then the nice twist — that Holt’s very odd guess happens to be right — leads to Andre Braugher showing why he’s such a comedic force: The “hot damn!” comes out of nowhere, and yet is somehow very Holt-ian.

The squad does competing impressions of Captain Holt eating a marshmallow, then lets him eat one to determine the winner:

I remember talking early on with Dan Goor about a whole episode where Jake would be doing an unflattering Holt impression and Holt would catch him, and it caused massive problems. We never got very far with the episode idea, probably because it’s too thin to sustain a whole story, but it’s a perfect cold open idea. The specificity of the marshmallow puts it over the top. (That’s also very common for how cold opens come about — they’re thin episode pitches that get condensed.)

Boyle has a “Dianne Wiest infection”:

Just a perfect cold open. (I can say that because, again, I had nothing to do with it.) Simple, in-character, and perfectly executed (acting, directing, and maybe most importantly, editing).

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com