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Tom Lennon Shares Some Cool Stories About ‘Reno 911’ And Classic Sketches From ‘The State’

The amount of craft that goes into making something that seems off the cuff and effortlessly funny is something that I find to be endlessly fascinating. And you probably do too, or else why would you click on an interview? As one of the three main creative drivers behind Reno 911, Tom Lennon was, of course, fully immersed in the hard work of making good comedy during production on the long-awaited continuation of the show that launched recently on Quibi.

But to hear Lennon talk, in detail, about the lengths they went to underwrite the on-screen silliness, is to understand the level of care that goes along with the work. And to hear him break down the motivating factors behind the work done with The State, his legendary sketch comedy group (with a roster that is foundational to modern comedy culture), is to gain a greater understanding of the tenacity that drives that concern.

We discussed all of that with Lennon recently, gaining a deeper understanding of some fresh Reno 911 bits and some classics from The State before learning what one of the busiest people in comedy does when his playpen is limited to his backyard.

So, I guess, the first question is, how close were past reboot attempts for Reno 911?

It was always a possibility. The cast now is closer as friends than we ever were. And we’ve all taken so many years off from it now. I don’t think it really ever got close until the Quibi scenario. I also think the notion of doing it just for another TV network or something didn’t really feel like the right move. There’s just something about Quibi that’s so interesting. I think the length is just a huge plus. I’ve heard, I think one person, complaining that they thought the episodes were too short. I had none of those feelings.

Is it freeing to not have to have the full narrative structure of a 22-minute episode? Because it does seem that there’s a renewed energy with doing it in almost sketch form, essentially.

What’s interesting is, the new episodes, they do have storylines. They’re just hella concise. Which I think is part of the fun of them. So yeah, very, very few episodes you have to follow from one to the next. But that’s not really the way people consumed Reno 911 anyway. It’s fun to do long Reno 911 episodes and movies. I enjoyed all of those things, but I should also point out that the vast majority of the way people really consumed Reno 911 was on YouTube. It’s funny because we frequently get sent links by people who are like “Check out these funny cops videos, these cops are doing something dumb.” And it’s on YouTube, and I’m like, “That’s from Reno 911.”[Laughs].

Was there anything that you incorporated into this season that you had left over from the previous run?

No, we really started fresh. All we took from the old show, really, was just a couple of things that I think we know that we’re good at. So, we’re really good at terrible PSAs. We just thought about, like, what are people’s strengths? We really wanted to do something with TT, which led to the giant 1917 episode. We’d all just seen 1917 and were like… TT is an old character who really doesn’t do anything except run around and scream. She has no agenda. And so we’re like, what if we do something like that, but we’ll like make 1917 out of a TT scene. So TT’s Auntie’s Funeral was very specifically an homage to the film 1917. If you noticed, we run through the construction site and there are giant explosions happening all around us. Our special effects guy, Micah Roehr, got in touch with the 1917 people to just confirm what was the best way to use super close explosions right next to you.

Honestly, that was my favorite part from this season, that and the forced perspective thing with the bike.

That scene has a title just because we always put a title up on the board. So the weird thing about that scene is that it is technically called, for us, “Dangle’s Michel Gondry Bicycle Nightmare.” It is definitely inspired by Michel Gondry videos where he played some sort of trick on you with the camera. It was interesting, we did some tests for Lieutenant Dangle’s Michel Gondry Bicycle Nightmare. And the original idea that I pitched was, what if it was a huge bicycle, so they steal my bike and then way, way, way far away, someone brings in a bike that looks the same size. But it’s like six or eight times bigger than my bike, that’s why it looks the same size.

And Jim Hensz, our first AD, he is a brilliant dude. And Frank Barrera, our GP, actually did a lot of tests. And we figured out that there was no way to do it with a giant bike in the back. That was physically impossible for us. But we could do it if we could get a spot where we can put a tiny, tiny, tiny bicycle. Out of everything we’ve ever done on Reno 911… I’ve shown our Michel Gondry Bicycle Nightmare to some people and the joy of watching people’s faces when they figure out what’s happening, it is pretty pronounced.

Is the writing process for these any different from the previous show?

The process is literally exactly the same. It’s me and Ben [Robert Ben Garant] and Kerri [Kenney-Silver] sitting in a room and we put cards up on the wall, sometimes they’re based on like a big context idea, sometimes they’re very simple. Like Lieutenant Dangle keeps trying to get recruited for Space Force. That was the first idea and then the twist that we decided is, it was so sad that he’s never, of course, going to make it. That episode is really about, Jones and Junior had read some of Dangle’s letters on his laptop to try to get into Space Force and then they hire a dude to pretend that he’s getting me trained for Space Force.

How does Tim Allen get involved with that?

We always aim for… whenever we’re casting a scene. We’re like, “Well, who’s the dream?” Tim and I have been friends for a super long time. We are very close and I was like, “He is Buzz Lightyear, do I just ask?” And he was like, “Well, send me some notes on the scene.” So I sent him some notes and he sent back his notes already in it. And I was like, “Oh, he must be doing it if he just sent me notes on the scene.” It was really fun.

Obviously 2009 [when the show ended] and 2020 are very different times with different sensitivities and things like that. Was there any change in your approach or concern about that going into the show?

If there’s one thing I’m certain about it’s that any piece or episode of Reno 911 will probably piss someone off, there’s just no way around it. What I will say is that I think the show is not mean-spirited in any way, I think it’s a remarkably upbeat show and always has been and always will be. The characters and cast are a very diverse group of people who… No one’s being fed any dialogue to say, ever. So you’re getting a very real sort of take on things. I mean, we did a huge piece about Richard Spencer getting punched in the face. Have you seen Gary the Klansman, in our episode called Let’s Shoot A White Guy?

Yes.

You know, we’ve seen that Richard Spencer video where he gets punched and we’re like, “We got to do something like that.” So Gary the Klansman, played by Chris Tallman, just gets punched over and over and over again. It’s one of my favorite scenes that we did. So we did a Richard Spencer piece. We did a weird white lady calling about black kids in the pool piece. We’re doing all of these things. There’s an episode with the kids from Copwatch, which is a real organization that watches the police. Here’s, what’s weird: you can say like, “Oh my God, Reno 911 is so political, look at all these hot button issues they’re addressing.” But the answer is, watching the show, I don’t really think you notice. We’re only doing those things if there’s some other level of funniness to them, for us. Like just Copwatch, that’s not inherently funny in any way, but the Reno Sheriff’s department staging shootouts, just so they can get the Copwatch kids to jury duty, that to me is a pretty great sketch.

Honestly, I don’t know how you could do the show if you didn’t… especially considering these things are in the news. You can’t do a show about cops that’s having fun with the idea of police and it’s a satire of police without mentioning these things. And I think you guys do a really good job of finding the funny.

Oh, thanks. Yeah, that’s what’s weird, we’re a show that definitely has some dumb cops in it, but it’s made by people with a very high level of respect for law enforcement. We shoot usually at real stations and we know how hard that job is. So the butt of the joke usually in Reno 911 is these specific characters themselves.

If you’ll indulge me, I have a couple of questions about The State.

Sure.

When you started up The State, was SNL even on your radar? Were you trying to upend that or push back and be like a counter for that? Or do you not even care and you’re just doing your own thing?

Oh my God, we cared a lot. All of us had been raised on Saturday Night Live. There were a couple of fractions in The State who loved different things. There were die-hard SNL fans. There’s a big chunk of the group that just basically treats Monty Python like it’s a religion, almost. We were fascinated with SNL. And at the time, I genuinely think that in The State we probably thought that SNL was like Wham! and we were going to be The Clash. At this age, now that sounds really pretentious and dumb.

It’s spot-on though.

It’s exactly how we felt. We were like, “We’re not going to do a bunch of dumb characters who say something over and over again.” And even when we did do that, we did it as a total fuck you to everyone. The State‘s attitude, even to each other, was fuck you. [Laughs] And we were so hard on each other. I came in the other day and my son… because there’s a couple on YouTube. He doesn’t know we have the full DVD set, but my son was watching just a random episode of The State and I’ve got to say, it held up really well.

It really does.

I think it holds up so well because we were so angry and so pissed off. And we were just like, none of us were going to give an inch, especially with the other members of the group if we thought the material was like, okay. SNL now is amazing. SNL is really incredible, at times. But in 1988 when we met, it would not be probably your dream run. We probably had felt a little weary of very sort of corporate bright TV show, that SNL had been during part of our teenage years. During our childhood, it was insane and dangerous and then it got a little less dangerous and I think we wanted to be more dangerous.

It’s so impressive to me that you’re still able to work with some of the same people going on now 30 years — are you still pushing yourselves in that same way? Are you still not giving an inch?

I think the main thing about The State, and why the vast majority of the State still works all the time… I mean, we’re just hard on each other, but we’re also fanatically supportive of each other too. We acted in every way like a gang. And I mean that in the good ways and the bad ways. But definitely like if you weren’t in our gang that means we’re against you. We didn’t like any other sketch groups until like Exit 57. We gave them a pass because we liked them, and Upright Citizens Brigade we gave a pass and became friends with them. But we really thought of it sort of like gang stuff.

But the reason that you see everybody in The State around so much is the group of people, as individuals, they’re relentless. I mean, it’s a relentless group of people who make each other crazier sometimes, but almost always make each other better also. I’ll give you a great example of an insane State sketch that shows us at our best would be like The Waltons theme song. It’s really, really bizarre. So it’s Kerri, Michael Showalter, Ben, or maybe Michael Ian Black, and we’re all in these sort-of large wigs, and the wigs are little too large and their suits are all like light lavender, and they’re just singing the Walton theme song. And they pitched the sketch, and I was like, “I’m totally going to support this if one thing happens, which is at about the midpoint in the sketch, I want all of you to start bleeding from your mouths as if you’ve had like a terrible stroke. So like the blood just starts kind of pouring down your chins.” And everybody was like, “You know what, that’s exactly what this sketch needed.” Now some of The State seems like nonsense, but we’ve definitely thought about it and crafted it.

I mean, just the instinct to go to a darker place is a favorite aspect. I wrote this large article on the era and I tried to find representative sketches and wound up with Sideways House Family for The State. I can’t even imagine how that was even put together, but it goes to such a dark fucking place.

Sideways House, it’s so funny because my mom always thinks that in I some way Sideways House was based on our life. [Laughs] My mom was a… she’s still with us, but she was a hoarder for a long time. So there was stuff sort of piled up pretty high literally everywhere in the house. So she always sort of thinks that’s about us. But I guess that is, in many ways, a signature State sketch because the idea was just take something really stupid and bright and upbeat and shiny, like sitcoms, and then give it a funny title, because everything we did on The State always had funny titles, no matter how weird it would get. And then so the sketch opens with the theme song [Lennon sings this, remembering it with no issue] and then everything in the sketch is just tragedy. Joe’s [Lo Truglio] dead, Joe fell from the bathroom and is already dead.

And playing the hell out of a corpse also.

It was amazing. And he had his pants down and toilet paper in his hand. The mother, everyone is in tears. And then actually, I think if you look at the take I tripped and hit my ankle as I come through the door. So when you see me really upset in Sideways House Family and I’m screaming when I came through the door, I hit that … you know the real, the bony part of your ankle? You can see in the bit, I hit it on something by accident, which I’d never done in rehearsal, but it hurt so bad that I’m really about to start crying. And then again, like really a great State sketch, it’s not really about the Sideways House Family, it’s about the introduction of Michael Ian Black’s character as the wacky neighbor.

I could stay on with you all day and talk about The State, but I have to wrap up. I do want to ask, though, is Cannonball Run still a thing that’s on your radar?

I have absolutely no idea. I know that Ben and I wrote a couple of drafts of it. But if you write in the studio system it’s always weird. So we’d written some drafts that I know people loved at Warner Brothers, and then the next thing I read was that there was a director attached and they were looking for new writers. I literally got emails from people saying, “Congratulations,” because they saw that they’d announced that a very good director had been put on Cannonball Run. And then I was like, “Thanks. Did you read the whole article where they said they were looking for new writers?” This happens all the time, yeah. It’s part of the process.

You work so much. I mean, my God, the amount of credits on your IMDb is crazy. How are you dealing with this slow down now with everything?

You know, I think the same reason that The State got off the ground when we got on the air is why I’m still doing stuff now. Like most days I go to the box of wigs or I put on the Joe Exotic outfit and I do a sketch in the backyard with what I have around. So, yeah, like 30-something years later, I’m doing basically the exact same thing that got me started in every part of the industry, which was doing sketches with stuff that I have around and filming them and editing them myself. That’s it. So it’s kind of back to the basics really.

‘Reno 911’ season 7 is available to watch on Quibi.

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