In a world where Two And A Half Men rules, it doesn't seem like a brilliantly satirical show like Reno 911! should have lasted this long. But the improvised fake-reality show, which follows the bumbling officers of the fictional Reno Sheriff's Department, debuted on Comedy Central in 2003, and it's still going strong, with three seasons now on DVD and the big-screen spin-off Reno 911!: Miami debuting in theaters this week.
Creators Ben Garant, Kerri Kenny, and Tom Lennon all cut their teeth on MTV's mid-'90s sketch-comedy show The State, and on Viva Variety, The State's stranger, short-lived spin-off. Reno 911!'s ensemble has a real improvisational chemistry, and the characters are surprisingly sympathetic, considering their often-disturbing antics. Like Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen, Lennon and Garant have done all press for the film in character, as Lt. Jim Dangle and Deputy Travis Junior, respectively. But for the first time, they broke character to talk to The A.V. Club about the film, Reno's surprise success, punching up movie scripts, and Lindsay Lohan's breasts. Their alter egos pitched in to discuss law enforcement in Reno here.
The A.V. Club: Why do you think Reno has caught on where your previous shows didn't?
Tom Lennon: There's a widely misperceived notion that The State was canceled, which is not true. Actually, MTV wanted to renew it, what I heard, for a minimum of 65 more episodes. We were very, very badly advised at the time. [Laughs.] We never really heard about that offer until much later. We had been advised to try to do these specials for CBS, which seemed like a big opportunity. But had it been up to MTV—to exonerate them somewhat in history, they actually did want to do many more State episodes, and in hindsight, it probably would have been a good thing to do. We were just hitting a stride. But it's fun to be The Police of sketch comedy, who couldn't keep it together. [Laughs.]
Ben Garant: When we were doing Viva Variety, we knew, "Boy, this really cracks us up, but this is not for everybody. This is a little weird." [Laughs.] In sketch comedy, people had characters that they loved and characters that they didn't love, but the characters never came back. But for Reno, I feel like we've stumbled on characters we really like. It's still basically a sketch show, but you have these main guys—you can pick a favorite one and grab onto and watch, so I think that's a big part of it. Sketch shows change gears so drastically every two minutes. I think sketch shows are for sketch fans; they're not really for everybody. I think Reno combines what we do, which is sketch, but makes it into a situation comedy so people can tune into their favorite guys every week.
AVC: On a related note, what have you learned from your friends' shows, like Stella and Dog Bites Man, that didn't catch on?
BG: Honestly, if Stella had been on longer, it probably would have found an audience. We found an audience gradually. Stella should have been cheaper; Stella was twice the budget of our show—and honestly, it's that simple. If they had shot it at a production model more like their shorts that they did on the Internet, it would still be on.
TL: You know, it's really, really hard to keep a show on the air, and honestly, I think the formula we've figured out for Reno—"have characters that people want to keep seeing what's happening to them"—is totally by accident. Honestly, Reno was not ever supposed to have that. It was supposed to be just a sketch show in the Cops format, where we played both the cops and all the perps, exactly like a Python film. But we accidentally added this sort of soap-opera aspect to it, really not by choice. It just sort of happened. [Laughs.] People have always been telling us, "You've gotta have characters people wanna see, that people are going to want to hear their stories." And that worked. We play eight stereotypes, but very, very sincerely.
BG: If we keep it under budget, [Comedy Central doesn't] give us notes. We didn't get a single note on the comedy. As long as we stay under budget, we're totally under their radar, and we can do anything we want.
AVC: So Comedy Central has never put the kibosh on the racier material?
BG: No, the first season before we had aired, we had to iron out what we thought the sensibility was, and what they thought the sensibility was. We had a lot of gay stuff and a lot of very dark stuff, which at first they were a little reluctant to do. Now they can see that our characters are basically likeable guys, even though they're doing stuff that's really off what most people would think of sitcom-y characters. It took some convincing, but now they let us do what we want.
AVC: You don't work from a script on the show. Was the film the same way?
BG: No, we have outlines. We know basically the beginning of the sketch and the end. We know we're going to walk up to a whale because we think it's a topless beach, and then when we get there, it's not topless chicks that need help, it's a whale. We're gonna try and push the whale around, and then at the end, we're gonna blow it up. But we don't write dialogue, and we don't rehearse it. We get an outline, and that's it. The outline is really for production purposes, so that we know the whale's going to take a long time to build, we've got to trigger it to blow, we need the hottest topless chick we can find, she needs to speak a foreign language so it gets us to the beach not knowing there's a whale there. But we don't rehearse. We just hire people we know are going to be funny.
AVC: When you watch the first season now, do you notice changes in your improvisation skills?
TL: Oh my God. When we started with the first season and the pilot, our improv skills were zero; we'd never done it, ever. Everything we'd done, we'd spent a lot of time on the scripts, rewriting. We never really riffed on them ever. So it was pretty much on-the-job training out of the gate, although our format of the improvisation is directly against the traditional "yes and" format. We just tell people "Stop," which means, "Keep doing what you're doing." Luckily we're doing a very easy kind of improv. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you approach the film as a feature-length version of the show?
BG: Well, we knew we had to do a couple of things. We knew we needed to have a bigger plot. We knew we couldn't actually solve the mystery at the end, because that's not really what we do. But we knew we had to have some kind of big, overarching, unfolding plot that would keep people watching for an hour and a half. As a fan of sketch movies like [Monty Python And The] Holy Grail—there's a point 50 minutes into Holy Grail where you start to get a little bored, even if you really like it. So we knew that, and we knew we had to show the characters doing things that we've never done before on the show.
AVC: What's the ratio of stuff that gets filmed to what makes the final cut?
BG: On the show, we were scheduled last year to shoot 20 episodes, and we turned in 27. There's still a kill-board of stuff that doesn't make it. Like when we walk up to Big Mike, who's played by Toby Huss, we know he's stealing newspapers, so me and Tom arrest him for stealing newspapers. So then we say "Cedric, Carlos, you go up and arrest him for something." We don't really plan it. Usually we're ahead of schedule. And then me and Tom will go up and arrest him for something else. So we have Toby there to shoot one sketch, and I think last year we got seven. Same with Patton Oswalt. Throughout the course of the season, we've learned to shoot extra runners, extra plot pieces, because we know we're going to end up with extra episodes. For the movie, we accidentally shot twice as much as we needed. [Laughs.] The DVD is going to come with we call "the lost version." It's like an hour and 12 minutes, and it's not different takes; it's totally different everything. It's got a whole scene with Oscar Nunez that's not in the movie, and a long dinner scene with us and Patton Oswalt and Mindy Sterling, who plays his mom. It's all hilarious, but we couldn't have a Kill Bill Parts One And Two Reno movie. [Laughs.]
AVC: Ben, you directed the film. How much new ground did you have to cover?
BG: I think I aged a year during the movie. There was one point where we were on a bridge, and there were two explosions that were going to happen, and a helicopter had to be coordinated to come up. We had all these different departments we had to run it by: Homeland Security, Harbor Patrol, Miami Police, Miami Beach Police, and the Coast Guard. I've never really felt that much pressure, with that many people looking over my shoulder, and knowing if the helicopter hurts somebody, it's 100 percent my fault… We've never tried anything that big before. My hair is going grey, and I'm losing it. I knew making a movie would be stressful; I had no idea it would be as stressful as it was.
AVC: Reno has an ensemble method, so how does it work being both part of the ensemble and the person who has the last say?
BG: There has to be somebody on set people know to go to for an answer, because if you go to three different people, it's really confusing. I think with any movie, directing is more in the preparation. You just have to prepare for everything that's going to happen. Because after we start shooting, every actor, especially the guest stars, gets an equal vote in how the scene's going to turn out. It's not like we start a scene, and the director comes in, and I say, "No, you need to be more angst-filled. Everybody's not getting the point of the scene." We don't really know what the point of a scene is until the camera starts rolling. So it's fun. I think all movies are very ensemble, but none of them are nearly as ensemble as Reno. We bring in the Toby Husses and the Oscar Nunezes so they can do whatever they want, and not so we can tell them exactly how to do the joke. Which is great, which is fun. I think we get really good performances out of people, because nobody asks them to do that anywhere else.
AVC: You've done a lot of punch-ups for movie scripts, from Starsky & Hutch to The Pacifier and Taxi. Does working on scripts open up doors for you elsewhere?
BG: Working on scripts really opens up doors.
TL: Everybody hated Taxi, but Ben Stiller read the script of Taxi, and it got us the production rewrite of Starsky & Hutch, so it's like your credibility in one affects the other a tremendous amount. People don't have to guess what our sense of humor is like; they can watch Reno. So even when I think we've survived in the movie industry a Taxi, a Pacifier, a Herbie Fully Loaded, it's because you can look and see our sensibility. It's on every week—what we meant is on every week.
BG: Sometimes when you do a whole script, you hand it off and it gets rewritten by a bunch of people, and people don't really get that much of a sense of how funny you can be. But when you do punch-up work, you're sitting around a room, always with a director, usually with the producer, and sometimes the star who demanded that the script be funnier. So it's a good chance to really show people, "Oh, okay, now I know Lennon and Garant's voice." We didn't do as much rewriting the past couple of years as we have previously, just because we've been too busy, but it was a really good way to get us established.
AVC: Do you enjoy doing that? Is it tougher working within a script's framework?
BG: Oh no, it's great. Thinking up jokes is easy; it's thinking up characters and plot that's hard. [Laughs.] When you're just there to think up jokes, it's great. I think we have a big advantage over a lot of writers. There's a lot of writers who've never had anything produced. This town is full of writers who never got to really write a joke and then get on a set and direct that joke and see whether it works—and it's very informative. It's very difficult to be funny if you've never actually seen one of your jokes performed, so I think it gives us a good insight on how to censor ourselves, especially. We've seen a lot of jokes fail. [Laughs.] I think a lot of people are much more confident in their material because they haven't had a cable show and watched their jokes land like fucking lead balloons for 10 years.
AVC: How hard is it when you watch a script you worked on turned into something else entirely, like Herbie Fully Loaded?
BG: The first time we saw Herbie Fully Loaded, it was really painful. As much as people on the Internet hate that movie, Tom and I hate it worse. Our script of it was so good. We wrote a script that was greenlit off the very first draft, and it was great. Then they hired, I think, 24 other writers after us to change it, and God, our script was good. Then when we sat and watched it the first time, other than being amazed at how great Lindsay Lohan's boobs were, we were just cringing that they got every single joke wrong. And every single scene was the opposite of the way that we had intended it to be. Aw, man. We wrote a really funny movie that I think kids would have liked, but I think State fans would have loved. It is what it is, but we ain't writing novels. It's always painful. It's why we do Reno. In Reno, if something sucks, it's 100 percent our fault, which we totally accept, and it's not nearly as painful as handing your stuff off to someone else to fuck up.
AVC: Do you worry that the reputation will follow you, though? Like "Oh, those are the guys who did Herbie Fully Loaded," even though what you did isn't what they saw?
BG: We're getting more and more used to that. Depending on who's writing the article, they'll either say "It's the guys from Reno 911!", or they'll say, "It's those two turkeys who wrote Herbie Fully Loaded." Now we're used to it. I think that's fair that people like some things that we do and don't like some things that we do. I think that's totally okay. I really don't expect every single person in the world to love Reno and Night At The Museum, and I don't care. I'm just doing my best here.