New Girl showrunners Elizabeth Meriwether, Brett Baer, and Dave Finkel recently spoke to the The A.V. Club about their show’s second season. Following part two, this installment covers episodes 12 through 16, beginning with “Cabin” and ending with “Table 34.” (Note: This portion of the piece is an edited transcript spanning two phone calls, the second of which Finkel was unavailable for.)
“Cabin” (January 8, 2013)
Nick and Jess put their ongoing relationships to the test when they shack up in a cabin with Angie (Olivia Munn), Dr. Sam (David Walton), and a bunch of absinthe. Back in L.A., Schmidt tries to “allow Winston to be his blackest self”—to hysterically disastrous ends.
Brett Baer: There was a Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? discussion: How can we get these people a little drunk, and see what the hell happens? Especially considering the Jess and Nick stuff hadn’t really been dealt with in some time—since maybe “Halloween.”
Dave Finkel: And we knew we had to think about Olivia because she had to go back to The Newsroom.
Elizabeth Meriwether: I remember we had our midpoint-of-the-season meeting with [Fox chair] Kevin Reilly. I nervously pitched him “Cabin,” I think because it was the only thing we had. [All laugh.] I was like, “Oh… they all go to a cabin.” And then he said the ultimate jinx: “Oh my God, that sounds so funny, it writes itself.”
EM: J.J. Philbin, who’s just an unbelievable writer, who’s so good at these relationship arcs, we just kept breaking it. It was me and J.J. late into the night breaking and re-breaking it and trying to figure out… you know, I can’t even remember what the problem was on that one.
BB: I remember early on we had a draft of it come in—it was the version without the absinthe, and it just felt a little flat.
EM: It felt like, “What is their problem? They’re all attractive people, in a cabin, having a good time.”
BB: I remember being in a room, and coming up with the guns and the absinthe. Giving them stuff that felt dangerous. That was part of it, making Olivia’s character more dangerous, and challenging Jess by having Olivia be much more out there and crossing boundaries.
EM: The scene where Nick is at the table having just taken all the absinthe, that’s just Jake Johnson at his most strong. The things he is doing with his face, I mean, you can play that scene as it is on the page, as “Nick is tripping. Nick is on absinthe.” You could do a goony version of it that you’ve seen a million times, but the way he takes it and internalizes it and has this quiet, emotional reaction to the conflict happening at the table—and he does it with these insane faces. I think I made them do an extra take for no other reason than I just wanted to see it again because I was laughing so hard. [Laughs.]
One of the things about the episode was not wanting Jess to feel like a ninny. Not wanting her to feel like she was the wet blanket, telling everyone not to have fun and not to do crazy stuff. I think one version of the episode had her in that role. When Zooey first came onto the show, she told me, “I never want to be that person who’s the ‘classic wife’ character.” You know, the wife’s like, “Don’t do that, you’re going to end up in trouble,” and then the guy does it. That episode, the first draft of it, she was more playing that role. We were definitely trying to figure out the Angie/Jess dynamic—that was one that we were definitely struggling with and how far they would go. I think that we were thinking about them possibly bringing some pot cookie or something, but it felt really familiar.
BB: Or potato salad. There’s a reference to it early in the episode, but the first version of it they brought up pot-laced potato salad or pot-tato salad. [Laughs.]
DF: But the network said we couldn’t do pot-tato salad.
EM: Why couldn’t we do it? Because it was a drug and we were having too much fun with it? There’s a rule on network television that if someone does a drug, something bad has to happen to them. [Laughs.]
EM: Oh my God. I forgot it was pot-tato salad.
DF: Couple that with the crack story, and it was a double drug thing.
EM: We get that word a lot from Standards And Practices: Tonnage. “You guys, tonnage!”
DF: The crack story is my favorite story we’ve done so far. And being down on set for it and watching those guys play it as real as possible, and letting Schmidt being so earnest about wanting to do this thing for his friend.
EM: It was one of those things that I was talking about with Alec Berg, who directed this episode, about the Seinfeld room. That story was making me laugh from every stage. I love when you’re in the writers’ room, that moment where you’re like, “I don’t know if we can we do this?” Having Schmidt try to buy crack, you’re right on the edge of “Is this okay?”, and that’s a good place to be and a good zone for us to be pushing boundaries and be kind of offensive and crazy and funny. And there were some emotional elements to it that felt like it was at a good place.
BB: It was the beginning of something that would take root later in the season with Schmidt/Winston storylines: They’re developing their friendship, which is something we talked about doing at the beginning of the season. Because Nick and Jess ended up together in so many storylines, it was great to be able to play those two guys against each other and they did a lot of really funny stuff together.
DF: That final car scene where they go to buy crack, Brett was on location and I was here in the office with Liz and J.J. working on the other story for that episode. They were rolling camera on the final crack scene, and we didn’t have pages for it—we just had establishing shots.
EM: It was like a little bit too offensive the way we had written it.
DF: The original thing with the story was they go to buy crack, the guy gets in the car, and there’s a gun and it was just a really weird ending.
EM: The guy who got in the car was actually a robber and was actually mugging them.
BB: And they ended up getting all their money taken.
DF: Which was the moral of the story. But I think Liz had the idea and the notion to make the guy hapless, and it’s just a misunderstanding between all three of these guys, and we were literally writing those pages as we were shooting it.
BB: We had cast a guy to play the part of a thug who was actually holding them up. [Laughs.] So even as we’re writing these pages, we didn’t know if this guy was going to be capable of playing a regular guy.
EM: Because he had auditioned for the thug.
BB: And he held his fingers out like a gun and all of that stuff.
DF: I think in the sides it says “scary robber” or something like that. But we got to the set, and the guy was fucking hilarious. It was funny that he looked like a thug but he was playing hapless—“And how did I get myself into this situation?”
EM: Was that an improv? Because that made me laugh really hard when he said his name was Robert. [Laughs.]
BB: [Laughs.] That was an improv. That was him.
EM: And that, to me, also was great—Max and Lamorne. The timing was great, and the rhythm they had was just them playing off of each other.
DF: That was one of those stories, too, that is such a big idea it’s easy to go overboard with that stuff. They’re eating ribs and Schmidt’s point of view on it is so wrong and racist that we just leaned into it and took ownership of it.
BB: One of my favorite acting moments from Lamorne for the entire series is when they’re in the car. In a normal show, if he was going to make Schmidt look like a jerk and an idiot for bringing him to buy the crack, that character would be laughing up his sleeve. But the fact that Lamorne was so panicked and you could see it in his eyes—even though he was going through with the prank, deep down inside he’s shitting his pants—and he did it so well.
EM: That was an episode where we were rewriting a lot, and when we were shooting the cabin stuff [Laughs.] we didn’t know how the rest of the episode was going to go down. So we were shooting pieces of it out of order, and the actors were coming to me and saying, “But what happens? Because I don’t know what to play in this scene.” Television is so hard on actors; you’re getting thrown new stuff all the time and you just have to make it work.
“A Father’s Love” (January 15, 2013)
Nick’s ne’er-do-well dad, Walter (Dennis Farina), pops into the loft with a proposition that involves a horse and stretching Jess’ trust to its breaking point.
EM: We knew we wanted to introduce Nick’s dad. Because we knew that we were going to kill him soon. [Laughs.] So we wanted to have an episode that kind of introduced him and—
BB: Got the audience invested in the character.
EM: And showed what was wrong in their relationship. And we’re really into horse cons. [Laughs.]
BB: These two episodes, “A Father’s Love” and “Pepperwood,” were basically the caper section of the season. We were functioning at two levels: There was all of this emotional relationship stuff between Nick and his dad that we wanted to flesh out. And I think so that we didn’t get too “looking inside our own navels”—we wanted to add an element to it that seemed like it would be fun and interesting. Because in the first season every mention of Nick’s dad was about how he was a bit of a con man, that he was kind of a shyster, that he was up to no good. And we thought that could be a really fun way to tell a relationship story that would be interesting for Nick. That wouldn’t just be the typical parent/son thing you’ve seen on shows before.
EM: And we can’t just do an episode about Nick and his dad—we really had to find an in for Jess. With her being so gullible, it seemed like a funny dynamic to have her believe everything that Nick’s dad said.
BB: I think in earlier versions we were really working up to the plan that, based on the new model of the Jess character, she might look naïve on the outside, but by the end of the episode she was always working a long con. I don’t know how much of that actually ended up in the episode because it’s a lot harder to do in a 21-minute sitcom than we thought in the first place. [Laughs.]
EM: There was no way that we should have been trying to figure out a con episode.
BB: I’ve been involved in prank episodes before, and if the audience isn’t ahead of the prank, they’re not enjoying it. They can’t wait for the end of the episode to go, “It was all a scam!”
BB: It was December, and we were really all fried and wiped out, and we gave ourselves a very complicated episodic problem, which was to not only write a really good television show, but come up with a short con and a long con.
EM: And we had this horse. Jake Kasdan directed that episode, and I think he was being pretty hard on us, too. He’d read the draft and be like, “I don’t think this feels like our show.” So we were constantly rewriting up until the last minute. And we were trying to figure out what that final moment was going to be between Dennis Farina and Jake. I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly it was like, “Obviously the horse has to eat Nick’s pants.” There were no other ideas, and we were like, “Crap, we’re shooting that this week.” So we had to train a horse to eat a pair of pants. Which, it turns out, horses don’t actually do that.
BB: That should have been a sign to us. “It’s the New Girl episode where a horse eats Nick’s pants.” We should have put that together and went, “What are we doing?”
EM: We were at Santa Anita, and it was very tense. There was molasses in the pants pockets, I think, and we just didn’t know if that was going to work. Then in one take, the horse started to chew the pants.
BB: Dennis was amazing through all this, too. That was the other thing that was great: He seemed to be having a good time. And he doesn’t seem like an easy cookie to please.
EM: That night he said he’d never been on a set where he didn’t have a gun and couldn’t say “fuck.” [Laughs.]
BB: We did have to cut back on the usage of “horse semen.” We said it like 18 times.
EM: There were a lot of negotiations [with Standards And Practices] about the numbers of times that we could say “horse semen.” Also Dennis’ nickname for Nick was “Little Penis.” All throughout the episode, he was saying “Little Penis.” We were like, “We’ll give you two ‘semen’s for one ‘penis’.”
The A.V. Club: Did you do more negotiating with Standards And Practices this season than you did in the first?
BB: Yeah, I think so. We had a couple of classic ones last season. Like “b-hole” we were allowed to say, right? We couldn’t say “a-hole,” but we could say “b-hole,” so we said “b-hole.”
EM: At some point this year, she told us we could say “dick,” which opened up a whole realm of possibilities.
BB: As long as we weren’t referring to male genitalia, you could have a character call another character a “dick.” And we were like, “Oh my God, this is incredible.”
AVC: Cece breaks up with her rebound guy, Robby, a few episodes prior, but he comes back for “A Father’s Love” to share the B-plot with Schmidt. Did you ask Nelson Franklin back because he and Max Greenfield had such great chemistry in “Halloween”?
BB: Immediately after seeing the first cut of “Halloween” we were like, “We’ve got to develop this relationship.” And for a long time, we talked about carrying it through for the rest of the season. But we felt like it was getting a little repetitive when we started pitching on it, so we didn’t do that. But we liked him so much. He almost filled a Frasier role on our show, the way that Kelsey Grammer came into Cheers and was so fun to have around that they just incorporated him.
EM: The room kept breaking Nelson Franklin stories. And I was like, “We also need to create stories for the other characters, guys.” The writers’ room just really loved him and thought that dynamic was really funny.
BB: As we started to think about Nick and Jess moving forward into the back half of the season, we needed somebody to be able to play straight for Schmidt. And Nelson did such a great job of it. There’s that little scene in “Halloween”—the head-butting scene. We shot that at like 4 in the morning, and the two of them were so funny together. Just reading each other’s rhythms, and improvising together in that physical stuff was so great. At one point we were planning on them sabotaging the wedding in the finale.
EM: We wrote a little Nelson piece in the finale, and then we took it out because we had so many things going on. If we could do the 35-minute show, Nelson would have shown up too late. [Laughs.] We wrote this scene, it was really funny, and he was like [Excitedly.], “Where is it? Where’s the wedding?”
AVC: You’d teased out elements of the relationship between Nick and his father—what were the challenges of establishing that relationship onscreen in the 21 minutes before you kill Walt off?
BB: [Laughs.] What was helpful to us was that they had a relationship—at least as we’d established to ourselves—in which Nick’s dad would constantly come into his life and exit. There was a clear relationship pattern we were working off of that helped the episode. We knew he would come in out of nowhere, we knew he would just exit without saying goodbye. We knew that Nick’s dynamic to him was distant. So the work of the episode was to try and get them into a situation where they were forced to have an emotional connection.
EM: I know we were talking a lot about Nick’s character. When you’re meeting the parents of a character you’ve already developed, it’s like you’re working backward. You’re looking at who that character is and then thinking, “How did they get that way? What are the things their childhood left them with that made them this way?” And I think we were looking at this character and trying to think, “Okay, so we know his dad wasn’t that great of a dad.” We figured out that Nick’s dad was more of a dreamer and more of a positive go-getter, ambitious-in-a-criminal-way guy. [Laughs.] And that led Nick to be this negative person who doesn’t trust anybody. He watched his dad’s pipe dreams come to nothing. That was an interesting conversation because you’re building a character out of a character that you’ve already built. I’m looking forward to doing it for Schmidt in season three. [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s a whole mysterious spectrum of Schmidts out there.
BB: [Laughs.] It’s true. The cool thing is for Schmidt—and it happened for Nick and Jess too—you lay in all these jokes over the course of the season that relate to their parents. We have a few jokes: We know that Schmidt’s parents are divorced, and we know what his dad’s relationship to him is, and we’ve seen one pop of his mom. There’s like a framework that we have to start with, that we’ve laid out as to the truth of what the character is. And then we have to fill in the blanks a little bit and flesh that out. And that’s what we had to do with Nick this season because we’d made so many references to the father in the first season.
“Pepperwood” (January 22, 2013)
An episode with a pair of mysteries: Is one of Jess’ creative-writing students a murderer? And what’s the one annoying thing each roommate does that bugs everyone else in the loft? (Otherwise known as their “pogo.”) Detective Julius Pepperwood—a.k.a Nick Miller in a hat and a bad Chicago accent—is on the case.
EM: We did feel like we were starting to tread water a tiny bit with the Nick/Jess stuff at this point in the season. And we lost Sam. What [Jess] does for Nick at the end of “A Father’s Love,” when she says, “I understand why you want to break things. I want to break things too”—they’re so connected in that moment. I remember when we were shooting it, I was like, “This is ridiculous. Why are they not making out? Why are they having conversations that married couples have about parents?” I remember being like, “Oh God, what are we doing?” That started also in “Pepperwood.” They were so flirty and connected in that episode. It was another one of those where the drum was beating a little bit.
BB: Which is interesting that you mention that—because we didn’t think about that. Certainly while we were shooting “Cooler,” we didn’t even know that they were going to get together at the end of “Cooler” when we were in production on it. So in a weird way “Pepperwood” was acting out the playground hair-pulling and teasing and flirtation that goes on when a couple can’t really consummate. I think by the time we got to “Cooler,” we were like, “What the fuck are we doing? These two have to get together.”
AVC: Was there ever a conversation along the lines of “How physically close can we make Zooey and Jake without making them kiss?” Because there’s a tiny game of chicken going on throughout “Pepperwood.”
BB: I think in a weird way we were acting out our own frustrations, don’t you, Liz?
EM: I don’t know—“Pepperwood” was such a fucking blur. I’d like to say in retrospect that we had a perfect plan for that, but— [Laughs.]
BB: We pick on “Pepperwood” so much because I think it’s a funny name that is representative of how stupid the episode is. But audiences really enjoyed it. We were all pleasantly surprised. By the time we got done with it, we were looking at it like, “This is ridiculous.” When we read the online reviews and stuff, despite the fact that it was so dumb, people seemed to enjoy the Jess/Nick fun of it all. Which I think was a drumbeat moving forward to where we were going with them. And I don’t think we knew it at the time.
EM: We don’t do a ton of just “fun” episodes. We started out knowing we wanted to do an episode at Jess’ new work.
BB: She’d gotten a job eight episodes earlier, and we’d never really seen her work. And the school stuff is the hardest stuff to do well because it’s just so boring. They say in improv don’t ever do teaching scenes because they’re just boring to watch. And it makes it hard when you’re doing a television show to do stuff in a classroom.
EM: And I gave us all that problem by making her a teacher in the pilot. It does fit her personality. We were just struggling to come up with a work story that wasn’t about whether or not she was a good teacher. We wanted to do something that involved her workplace but wasn’t about being a teacher. We were banging our head against the wall on that one. I felt very bad for the writers in the room. What was [The Office executive producer] Greg Daniels’ term about the World War I battle?
BB: Oh, you send the first line in and they take all the bullets, that thing?
EM: I did this panel with Greg Daniels, and he said he coined some term where the showrunner comes in and says, “This is what I want for this episode,” and then the writer goes over the hill and gets shot down. [Laughs.] Like a World War I battle. I kept being like, “This has to be a work story, this has to be a work story.” And every time I’d come into the room, it’d be like, “This is our attempt at that.”
BB: The idea that Nick would be in one of Jess’ classes had been floated five times, and we could never really justify why Nick, at this point in the relationship, would choose to take a class from Jess. Then this notion of him having to be there to protect her came up.
EM: Sometimes the stories come out of accidents. Everyone is so frustrated that somebody makes a good joke. And I think that’s what happened. I think we were all sitting in the room, and we were like, “What if she thought one of her students was trying to kill her?” Because we had nothing else. And I latched onto that. Maybe I was in some broad frame of mind after “Father’s Love,” where I thought we could do a murder-mystery episode.
BB: This was our post-Alec Berg Seinfeld period. Alec had directed “Cabin,” and we had all these conversations with him about Seinfeld and the way they story-broke over there and what they looked for in comedy. And we were like, let’s try some of that. I think in a weird way, “Father’s Love” and “Pepperwood” were the results of a lot of those conversations. [Laughs.]
EM: I came back in the room and they were like, “Okay, so he has an alter-ego detective named Julius Pepperwood.” Then it dawned on me what we were in for. [Laughs.] I was like, “Okay we’re really doing this.” It was funny because we had Lynn Shelton to direct it, who’s like this indie-movie director, and she did “Injured” for us last year.
BB: Our most emotional episode last season.
EM: She’s very good at emotions and character stuff and really beautiful, small acting work. And we were like, “So you’re doing this huge physical comedy.”
BB: “How are you at wackadoodle farce?”
EM: I know she was having a blast and she did a really good job, but while we were shooting it I felt so bad. It did feel like a step out for us. Sometimes things like that are fun, like this turned out to be. But I was really worried that we’d completely gone off the mark. I was really afraid while we were making it.
AVC: And you didn’t just give Lynn the big physical farce—she had to handle a B-story that’s partially about Winston’s erections.
BB: “So the A-story is going to have a lot of big physical farce, and the B-story is going to have a bunch of big physical farce.” [Laughs.] There’s no grounding element to this episode at all.
EM: “Pogos”—that was probably our B-story low point. We have some good B-stories on this show, but that was one where it made me laugh in the room and we didn’t have anything else.
BB: The original concept got to an interesting idea that I don’t know we ever really delivered on. That notion that people have opinions about you that you’re not aware of until somebody tells you, felt rich. And in a weird way might have made a better A-story for the four of them together. I think one of the issues we had was it ended up being just Schmidt and Winston back and forth with each other, with a little Cece—because Jess and Nick were off on this murder-mystery adventure. So we didn’t get to explore the deeper meaning of, “When you live together like that, people are going to be talking.” It might have been a better jumping-off for an A-story that we could have actually developed further to a different dynamic. We didn’t do it its full justice.
EM: It was either an A-story or a C-runner. It just was not a B-story. [Laughs.] The other funny thing about that story was that Cece was always around. In the first scene they’re like, “Oh your plumbing is out,” and then she would just appear in scenes for no reason. It was a little bit lazy.
BB: Usually if we’re going to do an A-story that’s as broad as this, we’d try and choose a B-story that’s smaller and more relationship-driven. And we didn’t really do that. We had people plucking their eyebrows and big toenails and stuff like that.
AVC: Who provided the drawings?
BB: Our props guy, Ben Lewis, found an artist who did an excellent job of creeping us all out.
EM: There were a lot of conversations about how creepy they were and what we wanted on them. I’d be like, “Can you do a knife stabbing a daisy?” [Laughs.]
I feel like Pepperwood might come back in some way, don’t you? Maybe we can figure out a more emotional way to bring him back.
AVC: Well, he’s the guy that Nick wishes he could be, right?
BB: Exactly. And he discovered his new zombie-novel character: Detective Pepperwood, zombie detective. He might come by in that guise, too.
EM: Maybe he’s just something that we trot out in the middle of the season when we don’t have anything.
BB: The other thing Liz was really specific about: You don’t want “pogo” to be one of those television terms where we were trying to create a meme. So we were very careful about how we used the word “pogo.” Because we didn’t want it to be that subconscious kind of thing.
EM: But then I think it ended up that way. We said it so many times because we had nothing else. [Laughs.]
“Cooler” (January 29, 2013)
A “Clinton rules” round of the incomprehensible drinking game True American changes New Girl forever.
AVC: It wasn’t until you were already in production when you decided it was time to have Nick and Jess act on their feelings?
BB: The original premise of this episode was just to do a big True American game. We added the strip element to make it more fun. And at the end, Schmidt and Jess ended up behind the blue door.
EM: I came in and suggested Nick and Jess—and actually suggested them kissing. Then I said they should kiss behind the blue door in the game. But the writers were like, “No, no, no, that’s a terrible idea,” and they talked me out of it. Ultimately I agreed with them because I didn’t want this important moment—this kiss moment—to feel like it was a part of the game. So that’s where we left it, and they didn’t kiss in the episode that we tabled.
We also knew that we wanted it to be a bottle episode—we just wanted it to be the characters hanging out together. After “A Father’s Love” and “Pepperwood,” we all were feeling like we wanted to get back to our core show.
BB: Back to our characters, back to the loft, back to the relationships.
EM: And I know there was a “Let’s all get the guys going out as guys and trying to get laid” idea, because we hadn’t done that in a while. So Rebecca Addelman wrote that and tabled it—and we just felt like it was a great moment to actually have them kiss, and we pitched that the kiss doesn’t happen during the game but that it happens after the game. And that opened up that door for me as it being a great way to do it, but not have it seem like it’s an inconsequential part of a game. It was also one of those pitches where it was all of us working on it collectively—I don’t think just one person pitched it. Nick comes back and kisses her after the game—there was that feeling in the room. Sometimes something just clicks the first time you hear it, and that’s how I felt about that idea.
BB: We had done so much ramp-up in terms of this game that we were really cognizant of not wanting to manipulate the audience and use the Nick/Jess dynamic as a way of dragging them along. In a weird way, it felt like we were blue-balling the audience. We were going to have our fun with that, but also pay it off at the end of the episode. We knew what the promos were going to be—we knew it was probably going to be them behind the blue doors almost kissing—but if you stay for the last two minutes of the show, we’re going to turn the series on its head. It felt new and exciting because we were giving the audience what we promised but doing it in a surprising, interesting, deep way.
And, in a great way, the fact that the first “kiss” was all in the context of the game and silly and fun and they were bad at it gave you some contrast for the moment when Nick grabs Jess in that Clark Gable way and plants one on her. I think that first stuff really set up what feels like a really powerful television moment, and the audience seemed to respond to it that way, which was cool.
EM: This has always been goal for the show, but I wanted it to be genuinely sexy. I feel like so much of that kind of stuff was is jokey that it’s not actually hot. I really wanted that kiss to be genuinely hot, and I think that was part of the fear of having it happen during the game—it was going to be too much of a joke.
BB: Getting locked up behind the blue door actually goes back to the first episode of the season. We broke an entire episode as a season opener, and the reason we threw it out is because the cast was separated from each other behind the blue door. And we decided, “We can’t do that. We can’t come right out the gate and isolate all the characters from each other.” But we loved the idea and we were always like, “We need the blue-door idea, but we need to use it to make two characters confront each other about something.” So we had that in our back pocket, and when we were developing the True American game, we were like, “Well, if we’re going to try and build toward a relationship dynamic out of the silliness of True American, what if they became stuck behind the door?” And that’s where the kiss thing ultimately fulfilled that.
EM: Coming out of this crazy zone of “A Father’s Love” and “Pepperwood,” we were all a little lost and were like, “What is this show we’re making?” Those episodes turned out pretty good, but I think we were all feeling a little lost at sea—and I remember everything just clicking in “Cooler.” We’re like, “Okay, we’re back to our people. They’re playing True American.” This felt like our show again. And [director] Max Winkler brought a lot of energy in that episode—and a lot of handheld stuff—and it was a lot of fun to make, I think.
BB: True American looks like a lot of fun—but it’s really, really hard work. The cast is putting up so much energy for 12 hours, 14 hours a day, playing drunk and jumping around on the furniture and yelling the whole time. Those are really challenging days, with so many people on the set—and they’re all over the set and there’s a lot of coverage and you can always see that they have that intense game face when we’re shooting those scenes, because it just knocks the wind out of them.
EM: And our writers have come up with a lot obscure American history facts. [Laughs.]
AVC: Among the writing staff and the cast, who has the broadest base of U.S. history and presidential knowledge?
BB: Luvh Rakhe, Dave, and I tend to put a lot of the references into the script.
EM: Brett, who did the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act? [Laughs.]
BB: That was Finkel. [Laughs.] We love that shit.
EM: And I always feel like the actors are like, “What the fuck is this?!” [Laughs.]
BB: Greenfield threw in the Homeland shout-out. [Laughs.] The Abu Nazir reference.
EM: I think one of the Homeland writers was like, “Hey, thanks for the shout-out!” And they were obviously the cool kids on the floor.
BB: Yeah, [Homeland executive producer] Alex Carey yelled up to us like, “Thanks for the shout-out.” [Laughs.]
EM: It was like the seniors talking to the freshmen. We were like, [Imitates a teenager.] “Thanks, man!”
BB: Didn’t we realize that on Homeland the husband and wife are named Nick and Jess, too?
AVC: Yet another pin for the Homeland conspiracy boards!
BB: Exactly. Start your theories. And then it can’t be watched.
EM: [The kiss] was, literally, the last thing we shot in 2012. We shot it right before Christmas break, and I went down to the set and there were butterflies in my stomach. I felt like the show was on the line—like, if this scene doesn’t work, this show is done. [Laughs.] Potentially overstating it, it’s the kind of thing where you do everything you can, but it’s in the hands of the actors and you’re like, “I hope this works.” We had this fried-food truck and there was this plate of fried food, and I just felt like this creepy woman behind the monitor eating this fried chicken and getting ready for them to kiss. The first take they did, it was amazing and they yelled “Cut!” and the entire crew was clapping, and it went from being the most terrifying moment to this joy, and I was like, “This was amazing. This is what we should be doing.” It felt like a whole new thing, a whole new road to go down.
“Table 34” (February 5, 2013)
Nick and Jess work through the fallout of their secret kiss (and inadvertently display their compatibility) in the worst possible locale—at the Indian singles convention where Schmidt tries to prove to Cece he’s arranged-marriage material.
BB: We left each other for two weeks for Christmas having basically changed the entire landscape for the future of the show in a weird way based on that one scene.
EM: Everything had to get rewritten. We had broken the story for the next episode, and we had to completely redo it and completely redo the episode. We were all elated that the kiss worked out, but we were like, “Oh, crap. We have to re-break our entire season.” [Laughs.]
I took the script for “Table 34” and spent two straight days on it, which I rarely have the time to do. I came out of that writing hole [with] the table draft, and I was so cocky, like, “I did it. I completely cracked this episode.” But we tabled it, and I don’t think there was one laugh at the entire table. [Laughs.] I described it as a Pieces Of April New Girl. [Laughs.] The whole thing was so sad, and I was so exhausted and an emotional mess. But the episode was so sad and both Nick and Jess were crying and there was so much angst from, like, “We kissed. What does this all mean?” At the end of the table, I was just like “Oh my God, I’m such an idiot. This is supposed to be a sitcom.” [Laughs.] It’s supposed to be fun to watch.
BB: We took a turn in the direction that people were afraid we were going to go, and I think that bad table-read was the wall we had to bounce off of to say, “Oh, not that direction. Let’s go this way.”
EM: One of our execs was like, “They just kissed, right?” [Laughs.] “There’s nothing really wrong.” Over Christmas break, I did another pass at it and it got a lot funnier, but I feel like we almost had to go in that direction in order to realize that wasn’t what we wanted to do. There was a general feeling that we were down the road from this Indian marriage convention, which actually had been an idea of Hannah Simone’s. She told us there were these conventions, and I just thought that was so funny. I had been pushing to have an episode happen at one of these singles conventions, and I hadn’t been planning on it being the one after Nick and Jess kissed for the first time. [Laughs.] So I remember we were all just like, “Shit! Now we have to do this aftermath episode, and it has to be at an Indian singles convention.”
BB: I was really concerned about that. Like, “Is this where you spend the day after this big moment? Where they’re wearing these silly costumes?”
EM: We were too far down the road. We were already building the set for it, so we had no choice but to make it work. It ended up really helping us because we couldn’t make it all about Nick and Jess. It was a good setting to make us realize that there are other things going on in the series.
But then we had to get them all there. We felt like Sam had to go, which we were a little bit bummed about, because we had talked about keeping him for the rest of the season.
BB: But we were getting into pilot season, and Walton had two or three pilots going at once.
EM: That relationship couldn’t withstand finding out about the kiss. It was a tough one to figure out because Jess, in the pilot, had gotten cheated on and this was about how she had done this with Nick while she was dating—so it felt like a bit of a minefield of not really knowing what her attitude about it should be.
AVC: When you have Cece considering an arranged marriage and you set an episode at a singles convention, what are the precautions you take to make sure you’re not coming off as culturally insensitive?
BB: It usually starts with, “Where’s Luvh?” [Laughs.]
EM: That poor guy got leaned on so much this season. And we have a producer, Pavun Shetty, who is also Indian, and he was working on it, too.
BB: And Hannah as well. And one of our other writers was engaged to somebody who was working on a documentary about arranged marriages.
EM: Jake Kasdan was really on top of that, too. We knew we were basing it in reality, and there were a lot of conversations about “Well, should they do traditional dress?” We talked about everything until we were blue in the face to make sure it felt like something that actually happens. There was definitely concern that the guys were dressed that way, and I think in the first draft they were all in traditional garb. We pulled back on that and just had Schmidt, because it felt like it was in his character to completely misunderstand the situation.
In comedy, there’s always this fine line because you want to be pushing the boundary of what’s okay to say—and that’s when you find something funny, when someone says something that makes you uncomfortable for a second and then you laugh. My way of navigating that isn’t full proof, but it’s just to make sure that the jokes are as honest as possible and based in reality.
There was a moment where Schmidt is making that big speech at the end—“Get your shit together, India” or something. [Laughs.] I was onstage and I was pitching Max alts for that speech, and some of the jokes were genuinely offensive. [Laughs.] And the entire room was filled with Indian and Indian-American extras, and Max was standing there with this pained look in his eyes, like, “Please don’t make me say that!” [Laughs.] That was a good indicator: If I felt uncomfortable saying it, it shouldn’t go in the show. Definitely a lot of sex jokes involving Indian deities. A fair amount of sacrilege that I was having trouble saying. [Laughs.]
BB: All a lot harder to shoot when Kobe Bryant decides to show up and watch you shooting. [Laughs.] He showed up to set and walked in and sat down at the monitors and just watched for like two hours. Kobe Bryant on set at the same time that Norman Lear came to visit us in the writers’ room. We had this “legends lunch” where Norman came to us and let us ask him questions. He couldn’t have been greater, but it was at the same moment that Kobe was onstage, so it was all very strange.
EM: He really loved that joke about Cece’s nipples being different sizes. That was a Donick Cary joke. [Laughs.] Kobe Bryant was, like, dying and it felt good. [Laughs.]