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 one, this installment covers episodes five through 10, beginning with “Halloween” and ending with “Santa.”
“Halloween” (October 30, 2012)
Jess’ “no strings attached” relationship with Sam (David Walton) hits a snag when she sees him in action as a pediatrician. However, their romance meets its grisly end on All Hallow’s Eve—as do several other onscreen couplings, including the one between punch-happy Nick and his old campus crush (Maria Thayer).
Dave Finkel: “Halloween” was a, no pun intended, monster on a lot of different levels.
Elizabeth Meriwether: You keep doing these puns, man.
DF: That’s in my wheelhouse. It was a massive location shoot and then a huge set on our stage with stunts and stuff.
Brett Baer: Anytime you get that many costumes for the main characters, it’s going to be a bear.
EM: And that was our production designer, Michael Whetstone. That haunted house was so cool. It was so much work, and I don’t even know if all of it made it into the show. And our costume designer, Debra McGuire—those costumes were amazing.
BB: I know Jess was dressed as a zombie Woody Allen in that episode, but in my mind she’ll always be a gorilla. Because that’s what I wanted to hold on to.
EM: Yeah, I think her original costume was a gorilla.
The A.V. Club: With the mask on and everything?
BB and DF: Yeah.
EM: The Woody Allen thing came from my life where I dressed like a slutty Alvy Singer for a party in L.A., which was a huge mistake because in L.A., Halloween parties are so ridiculous. Everyone is so hot, and nobody does ironic costumes—everyone does hot, perfect costumes. And I, being in the New York mindset, didn’t understand that. I was like, “I’m slutty Alvy Singer.” And I had a curly, red wig, and I looked terrible. And I’ll never forget, because my friend was trying to set me up with someone, and he turned around and looked at me and then he turned back around. [Laughs.] It was one of the worst nights. Then he hooked up with my friend.
DF: Most of that episode was also spent trying to figure out the perfect pairing of Cece and Schmidt—that perfect coupling of, “They’re this, but when he puts down his hat, he’s this and she’s that.”
EM: There were so many pitches. I think “bride and groom” was our original pitch, and we never beat it. It was so hard to figure out. She intended to be an angel, and he intended to be Lincoln, but when they were put together, they looked like bride and groom. But when you scratch the surface, you’re like, “If she’s an angel, why didn’t she wear wings? Why is she wearing just a white dress?” I do feel like one of my favorite moments of this season was Max taking off the Lincoln costume and giving it to Robby [Nelson Franklin] and turning into Magic Mike. When we were shooting, he walked away and did that stripper move to that group of people randomly, and I was like not surprised at all that Max had a stripper move under his belt.
DF: And we were [into] the morning when we shot that, too.
EM: That was the other thing about that episode: We shot it all night long.
DF: 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
EM: You know that YouTube video where the guy jumps out of the trash can, and the other guy punches him in the face? That is a classic.
DF: There’s not even a pause between that guy jumping out and the other guy punching him in the face. It was a knee-jerk reaction, and we knew we wanted to do something like that.
EM: We knew we wanted Nick to punch Jess in the face, and the idea of that episode was that it was just after “Fluffer,” and Nick had just told Jess he had feelings for her. We thought it would be amazing if he then, in the next episode, mistakenly punched her in the face. So when the episode order got changed, we were like desperately clinging to him punching her in the face. And doing all of this story.
BB: I remember [executive producer] Katherine Pope finally saying to us, “Guys, let it go. It’s not fitting.”
EM: Someone pitches that thing and you’re laughing so hard. And it’s that thing that sticks in your head. You’re like, “How do we not do that? How do we not do that?” So that story got re-broken and re-broken because we were trying to make that work—because we also knew that we wanted Sam to end things.
BB: When we broke these stories, we didn’t have the casting yet, so we didn’t have David Walton. And we thought this character was going to be three and out. And Walton was so good and we enjoyed working with him so much that by the time we got to this episode, we knew that the potential to bring him back if we could make a deal with him was high, so we were excited about it. We wanted to protect the character because the truth is he and Jess did have an agreement that they weren’t going to be monogamous to each other, so that was fine. But the level to which he was pursuing other women was a big debate for us and a question mark about how we would pull that off.
EM: When we were shooting “Halloween,” we were breaking “Santa.” We knew he was going to come back, so we knew we had to do it in a way where you’d want him to come back. We were trying to figure that out and we also knew that we wanted the big moment of the episode to be Nick punching Jess in the face—but the story had turned into this Sam-and-Jess story, and so we were really trying to scramble to figure out Nick’s attitude and why he was going into the haunted house. Out of that came Maria Thayer’s character, who was Nick’s ex from college. What was the connection?
DF: She was from college and it never happened, and she came to town and they hooked up immediately. That part stayed.
EM: That part came from a writer’s real life: They’d hooked up with someone and realized right after sex that it was a huge mistake and now they wouldn’t leave.
BB: The Shelby thing came from one of our writers, Donick Cary. [Laughs.] His wife actually has the “raining cats and dogs” costume and we were allowed to do the story about the “raining cats and dogs” costume as long as she could have our professional “raining cats and dogs.”
EM: The end of that story is that she got the professional costume and wore it on Halloween, and she was like, “Eh, it’s too heavy.” So she went back to her original “raining cats and dogs” costume. [Laughs.]
We knew we wanted to break Shelby and Winston up, and that story was a lot of fun. At one point very late at night, I was like, “Guys, the haunted house is a metaphor for a relationship.” So I tried to do a good job of that, but that was something that I think only lived in our heads: the idea of all these couples going into this “haunted house.”
BB: When Nick was walking through the haunted house, Dave and I told Jake Johnson, “Just scream like a girl.” And he was like, “Okay. I’ll give it a try.” And what came out of him was so high and piercing and weird and funny that it became a new character trait.
EM: It wasn’t in the original cut of the episode, and I was sitting in the edit bay, like, “But wasn’t there a take of him screaming like a girl?” And the editor pulled it up, and I was dying. I was like, “This has to go in! There’s no way we’re not putting this in the episode!” That still makes me laugh. I think all of the punch stuff turned out really well, and it still made me laugh. I remember we did that P.O.V. shot of all the characters coming at him, which I thought was really cool.
DF: We couldn’t get it right. We kept doing it over and over, and it wasn’t haunting enough.
EM: [Laughs.] The ghost was this amazing martial artist.
DF: The set had this little curve that didn’t give a lot of running space for him to do that jumping front kick into Nick’s balls. We must have done that 20 times, trying to get the kicking right.
EM: We wanted him to appear to be flying through the air and it was so complicated. And poor Jake. I think he was like, “Guys, he’s getting closer and closer to my balls.” [Laughs.]
AVC: When “Halloween” wrapped, did it feel like a concrete conclusion to what had occurred in the first portion of the season?
BB: I think it was designed to wrap the first quarter of the season. But yeah, I think it was designed to be the end of the Sam thing, and it was supposed to be the start of a new movement, for Jess especially. Because we really fell in love with David Walton and we wanted to bring him back, it was the conclusion of that.
“Menzies” (November 13, 2012)
Everyone gets uncomfortably close, as Winston shares sympathy PMS with Jess, Nick makes a new friend in the park, and Schmidt starts working under (and over, and all sorts of legally binding positions) Carla Gugino.
AVC: So what was the “move” for Jess that starts with “Menzies”?
EM: [Laughs.] We knew that we wanted her—[Laughs.] Oh my God, we’re just airing all of our dirty laundry now. We knew we wanted her to get a new job, so we went into the writers’ room and I don’t know how it started, but we broke this whole idea: My mom taught art at a prison—
BB: So we thought it would be fun for Jess to be dealing with hardened people and trying to make the character face these adult challenges. We thought it would be a funny idea for Zooey to become close with Danny Trejo.
DF: The original idea was for Jess to teach literature in a prison. She’d be teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, and there’s a guy in there who has not come around and he’s really quiet and she somehow gets in his head a little bit. And a Dangerous Minds thing happens, where they form a real friendship and she draws him out—then there’s this insane third act thing where they do a performance of To Kill A Mockingbird but the lights go out and there’s a jailbreak. It was like the cookie story.
EM: We literally wrote a jailbreak into the episode, and the big comic idea was that Nick went into the prison with her and he was cast as Boo Radley. [Laughs.] Because he’s the weird white guy or whatever. And Kim Rosenstock, who is this amazing playwright from New York, we dumped this episode on her lap and we’re like, “Jess goes into a prison. There’s a prison break.” So she wrote this up, and she named the episode “Boo.” And we read it—
BB: And were like, “We can’t do this.”
DF: She gets so tight with Danny Trejo that, at one point, her car got stolen and he gave her this lowered, tricked-out, insane car.
BB: I think we had about 15 meetings on the car alone, and we were like, “This is ridiculous. We absolutely can’t do this.”
EM: It was about two days before the table-read and we were like, “Oh my God, we can’t table this. This story is insane.” We have to come up with something. Somebody said something about periods. It had been a pitch early in the season: All the guys think they’re getting on Jess’ cycle. So we tabled that, and I think that was our worst table-read of the season. It was so awkward. There were so many period jokes, and the guys were such idiots because they all genuinely thought they were getting their periods. [Laughs.] It was so uncomfortable.
DF: The one thing from that draft that was actually a pitch from Jake Johnson last year was the Tran stuff. Jake texted Liz late at night, as he is wont to do—
EM: —with story ideas.
DF: With story ideas. Clearly on a friend level. And he was like, “What if I have a Vietnamese friend in a park?”
EM: “And he doesn’t speak English, and his family gets really mad at me for hanging out with him.”
BB: Which was supposed to be a huge part of Thanksgiving. We were going to bring this Vietnamese character to the Thanksgiving episode.
EM: We had nothing two days before the “Menzies” table-read, so we were like, “Shit. Let’s pull that story from the Thanksgiving episode, and put it in this episode.” But then that turned out well.
BB: That came from a personal story Dave Finkel told to the writers’ room on the first day of the first season.
DF: I had gone to, for my first anniversary with my wife, Two Bunch Palms out in Palm Springs, where The Player was shot. They do this thing called Watsu, which is a water-massage thing. It’s what we used in the episode, so what happened to Nick is what happened to me, but in a much creepier way. We were putting on our clothes, putting on our shirts and shoes, and it was very quiet between the masseuse and I, and he said, “I had you opened up like a mermaid”—and it was a really odd moment.
EM: Shooting the water-massage sequences was some of the weirder moments. We were in this women’s spa in Koreatown for hours and hours and hours in this basement with this hot tub, and there were these Watsu experts there trying to teach Jake how to Watsu. And the guy playing Tran was touching Jake and he was very funny—but it was very odd. All of the weirdness that comes through onscreen was actually taking place.
BB: Also weirdly where we shot the Casserole Shanty [from “Neighbors”] in a closet at the Korean spa.
EM: Yes! We were doing re-shoots on “Neighbors” while we were shooting “Menzies,” and so we shot the Casserole Shanty pop at the Korean spa. That was a bad week. [Laughs.]
The other crazy thing is that while we were in pre-production for “Menzies,” we got a heads up that Modern Family had a Watsu thing in one of its episodes and I completely started freaking out. I was like, “Oh no! I can’t believe we’re both doing Watsu jokes. Oh God, it’s going to look like we’re copying them.” But then I learned that it was only a brief mention of water massage.
DF: And I think it got cut.
EM: Oh, did it? But for a good half an hour, I was like, “We’ve built an entire episode on Watsu.”
That is, to me, the beauty of television: It’s two days before the table-read and you’re like, “We need a whole new story,” and we’re just pulling things from our own lives and stories that were floating around, trying to craft something. We were lucky this time because I felt like after the table, we went away and we changed the story to be more grounded and about Jess getting the job and only Winston thought he was getting the period. The really bad table-reads sometimes turn into the really strong episodes because you’re working so hard on the episode the week before in pre-production, then you do all these re-writes during production because you’re under the gun. After good table-reads, you get a little cocky, but then you don’t see the things that could become a problem later. I was really proud of this episode, because it was so much work and I was doing pages every day and it was crazy.
BB: After the table-read, we went down and were like, “Okay, we need to figure out this Jess story. What’s going to make this work?” Making the decision to use the period stuff as a red herring for her feelings of insecurity and getting back out into the workforce gave her so much fun stuff to play and allowed us to use more [Laughs.] period comedy. That scene where she’s breaking down—
EM: And at the beginning of that scene, if you’ll notice, there’s some To Kill A Mockingbird references that we kept in. [Laughs.]
AVC: The dead dog in the photo that makes her break down is named Boo, right?
EM: A little reminder of the prison episode that could have been.
DF: Did it make it in the episode about Lamorne’s nipples?
EM: [Laughs.] No. It was too crazy!
DF: Winston is definitely on Jess’ cycle, and in one scene they’re sitting on the couch and she realizes that his nipples are ridiculously erect. So he had nipple prostheses.
EM: There were a lot of conversations about how to make his nipples look like they were very, very erect. [Laughs.] And it’s one of those moments where you’re like, “I can’t believe this is my job!” There were lots of emails back and forth and phone calls. I don’t know where we ended up.
DF: We ended up with these little Band-Aids with pushpins in them and they stick out, and then there are little pencil erasers. I think that’s what we had.
EM: I think it was erasers.
BB: Because the ones we used originally weren’t working. They looked like baby bottle tops.
“Parents” (November 20, 2012)
Thanksgiving brings the fighting Days of Portland (played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Rob Reiner) and an appropriately overzealous member of the Schmidt clan (Rob Riggle) to the loft.
EM: We knew we wanted to meet Jess’ parents, and we knew they’d be divorced, so we took a swing on this Parent Trap story. This is definitely one where we went back and forth on deciding if it’s too silly or too broad or juvenile.
DF: Thanksgiving episodes are always difficult out of the gate, and we were adding in these two huge guest stars for us. And it was huge for us to have those two people onstage for us.
EM: It just adds to the workload because you want to make sure you’re servicing everybody, and we were so lucky and excited to get Jamie Lee Curtis and Rob Reiner. I wanted to have the story ultimately be about divorce—accepting it and understanding it and the way holidays bring up those family issues—and I think a lot of that came from our writers’ room. A lot of our writers, not surprisingly, come from divorced parents. So it was discussing about how to juggle both families and both parents, so that got us going.
DF: Jamie and Rob came to play, and they’re amazing and legendary. I don’t think either one of them were quite prepared for the firestorm that is our process.
EM: It was just us throwing jokes out on set and extra lines, and it can be overwhelming if you aren’t used to people throwing lines out to you. And I do think that Nick turkey-basting with Jamie Lee Curtis was—
DF: —the filthiest thing we’ve ever shot. Definitely for those of us that grew up with Jamie Lee Curtis.
EM: I feel like if I could do it again, I wouldn’t have done The Parent Trap story. It turned out okay, but I felt a little bummed about it. To understand the production schedule: “Halloween” was all-night shoots, we were writing “Menzies” on the fly—by the time we got to Thanksgiving we were all so wiped out and exhausted, and that was right before a break. It went by in a blur for me because I was so exhausted from it.
DF: In defense of “Parents”—but The Parent Trap story specifically—I remember talking about it with my wife, whose parents don’t get along. But there was one moment when they were in the same room together and even though they don’t get along, there was that spark of a thing that even 25 years later, she’s like, “Oh my God. What if, what if, what if?” And there was that idea that even though you know better, there’s always that “What if?” So it was a sound idea, I just don’t know if it was executed in the most clean way possible. But I still liked the idea.
EM: And those dinner sequences are so challenging to shoot because you have to shoot them from every angle. I remember we were shooting that for most of the day. With that many people sitting around the table, you have to cover it from all points of view, and it was just exhausting.
BB: The food preparation alone. I mean, you don’t think about all this shit when you’re writing it, but then honestly the plating of the turkey and all that stuff is so annoying. And the actors have to eat all this stuff again and again and again, and it slows down the process. By the end of the day, the whole stage smells like baked turkey and potatoes because the lights are cooking all the food.
EM: And you’re trying to think of jokes in a haze, and all the actors are bummed out.
BB: It’s like working in a Boston Market. [Laughs.]
AVC: So is “Parents” the last Thanksgiving episode of New Girl?
EM: I don’t know. The holiday episodes are always really fun for us, but we put a lot of pressure on ourselves because we always try to have something big and emotional happen on the holiday episodes.
BB: [Jokingly.] Like stuffing a turkey into a dryer.
DF: Thanksgiving and Christmas are particularly hard holidays because you know you’re going to have a giant sequence at a table. And for Christmas you know you’re going to have a giant party of some sort, and those always seem to be labor intensive.
BB: When you see a holiday episode where the characters are all trapped in a box, you’ll know why.
EM: “Nick! Why did you get this big box?”
BB: “Jess, just shut up and get in it! It’s so dark in here. There’s no lock on this cardboard box.”
“Eggs” (November 27, 2012)
The pregnancy of mutual friends (June Diane Raphael, returning as gynecologist Dr. Sadie, and New Girl writer Kay Cannon) initiates major life decisions for Jess and Cece. Nick, meanwhile, decides he needs to truly live in order to make progress on his zombie novel.
DF: “Eggs” came from Kay Cannon, I believe. And it was Kay’s room, just talking about the hardships of fertility issues.
EM: It came out of this idea from—like what Brett said [about “Neighbors”] that this show is set in a time where you’re 30 and not 23, and at a moment where you start feeling the differences between the male experience and the female experience. I’m 31, and I definitely don’t feel like I need to go out and have a baby, but you definitely become aware of the realities of life. You watch your male friends, who are just as emotionally immature as you are, not having to deal with any of that. And we felt like it was a good area for our show and an interesting emotional thing to dive in to. We like to make it really hard on ourselves [Laughs.] and choose subjects like infertility and cancer and try to make them funny. When the more serious episodes come up, I just get a little scared, you know? It’s such a tough issue to grapple with, but I think that was exactly the reason we all felt like we should do it. We talked earlier on in the season about all the character arcs, and with Cece we knew we wanted her to have a wedding by the end of the season.
BB: We were looking for reasons and motivations for that to happen, and the whole idea of her having an arranged marriage was on the table, and we decided to accelerate that by giving her a fertility issue. It was so different from how her character had been portrayed prior to that. We also wanted to really do a story where Jess and Cece could relate to each other on that level, and we had that discussion, I think when we were writing this episode, about guys having the freedom—like Nick having the freedom to get drunk and go to the zoo and explore his creative future and what he wanted out of his life—without him having a clock on him the same way a woman might.
EM: The whole point of the episode was to show that guys can be idiots for as long as they want and that women have to be more serious. [Laughs.]
BB: That was a writers’ room full of men deciding we should do that.
EM: No, I think it was us. A bunch of angry women.
Didn’t we introduce Nick’s zombie novel in the first season?
BB: Yeah, in “Injured.”
EM: “I got halfway through a zombie novel.”
DF: Which was really funny to us that he would be writing a book.
EM: So that flowered in this episode: The idea that Nick isn’t really a writer but says he’s a writer felt like it was right for his character.
BB: There was a time where we thought Nick was going to inherit or purchase a small plot of land somewhere—
EM: Don’t give away all our secrets! [Laughs.] These things are definitely coming back at some point.
DF: We still love that idea.
BB: At one point, our line producer said, “Hey, the studio has these two junky trailers they’re trying to get rid of—the kind you attach to the back of your car for cross-country trips. Would you guys want one?” And we were like, “Nick would buy that!” So we had a whole story broken for that.
EM: And then we searched for a brand of junky trailers we could do product placement for. [Laughs.]
DF: So we did the idea of Nick trying his hand at real-estate investment and trying to be responsible in some regard to the best of his abilities—and the best of his abilities was buying a trailer.
BB: And then turning it into a pop-up speakeasy/bar that he would serve drinks out of. That was part of it, too.
DF: There were a lot of ideas of Nick having shitty ideas involving drinking, but that was shuttered pretty quickly.
EM: We’re lucky because with the Nick character we’ve never gotten any of the classic network notes where they say he should be more successful or he needs to be less of a fuck-up. We’ve never gotten that note, and we’ve always felt it was organically time for him to try to take a step in the right direction.
We tried and tried to see how we could make counting the number of eggs you have left funny.
DF: Apparently it became an issue among fertility doctors. They were getting a lot of calls about this test. Because we understood it is an actual test.
EM: It is an actual test, and we did a lot of research and checked up on it.
BB: It just doesn’t have the specificity and the clarity that the one in the show did.
EM: It did! I feel like we looked up, and it said that Sadie, as a gynecologist, wouldn’t have access to it. Only a fertility doctor would have access to it.
BB: But if it wasn’t Sadie, how could we not have Schmidt go to Sadie the lady gynecologist and explain his process?
DF: That was an idea we had last year: The “vagenius.”
EM: That was a thrown-out idea from season one that came back. And shooting that, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that hard. Tears were pouring down my face and that was, I think, some of the funniest notes from Standards And Practices. I still have one of the emails framed in my office.
AVC: What does it say?
EM: It’s something about what part of the vagina we can show on television. And we couldn’t show any “suggestive” hand motions. It was tough because Sadie is clearly a gynecologist and we weren’t allowed to show any medical sketches.
BB: All we were allowed were a few cross sections—
EM: —of the uterus. [Laughs.] So we’re trying to make this story about fingering the cross section of a uterus. [Laughs.] That scene had much more clearly suggestive language, but the day before we shot it, we kept getting notes from Standards And Practices. That’s when all of those insane metaphors came into being because our hands were tied, and we couldn’t shoot the clearer version.
BB: Which made it funnier.
EM: It made it so much funnier that we ended up not being able to shoot it that way. My favorite thing he said, I don’t think it was even in the script, but “I’ll go outside, pick up the paper, and shake the neighbor’s hand.” [Laughs.] Max was just at the top of his game, and June Diane Raphael was just brilliant. The two of them together.
BB: And the different takes the way she modulated how turned on and not turned on she was getting based on how he was talking—we got such range from her.
EM: There were some really broad takes that didn’t end up in the final cut, but on any other show it was just knockout funny. My favorite was when she’s like, “I think you’ve got to go now.” [Laughs.]
I feel like that Schmidt story ended up being beautiful, where he realizes he’s in love with Cece. That scene with Carla Gugino, I thought she played that so well. She’s like, “You’re in love with her.” That, to me, is where I love the show so much: You have two people in bed, one of them is dressed up like a sexy French maid wearing a tool belt and the other one is wearing hot-glued feathers and sparkles all over his bare chest. Then they have this real, emotional scene about love; that’s where I get excited about the show.
AVC: That storyline, where Schmidt enters into a Fifty Shades Of Grey-style arrangement with his boss, came and went pretty quickly. Do you wish you could have had more time with it?
EM: Yeah, it’s tough. It’s like I said, you’re always trying to gauge how much room the B-stories are going to take up, it’s tough. I wish we could have used Carla Gugino more. She’s really amazing.
BB: We’ve been so lucky. On most shows we’ve been on in the past, you write a great part for somebody for two or three episodes. Then you go out and look for actors, and it’s almost impossible to get anybody you enjoy working with—because people are busy, or they have other commitments. We’ve been so fortunate on this show that we’re almost always feeling like the seams are busting because everybody that we bring in is so exciting and funny; sometimes the episodes just can’t hold everybody. It’s one of the things we struggle with, because if you’re lucky enough to book somebody for three episodes, you definitely want to use them.
EM: Yeah. And we never quite made all that zoo stuff in “Eggs” work. [Laughs.] I remember it came in and we were like, “God, this isn’t working.” Then we put a cut together and we’re like, “Oh, it’s working.” Then we aired it and I was like, “I guess that one worked.” Then I made a horrible mistake of watching it again recently. [Laughs.] I don’t know why. Then I was like, “Oh man. That never really worked.” That bummed me out for a little bit. But I did really love the ending. I loved them all on Nick’s bed, and Winston reading the novel out loud.
DF: I have a feeling that Nick’s zombie novel, or his writing career, are not done.
EM: I remember, I was driving to work, we only had a little piece of the novel in the script, and I was like, “We’re going to want to shoot more of that novel.” I called into the writers’ room and asked Berkley Johnson, “Can you take 10 minutes and write the first paragraph of Nick’s zombie novel?” He was like, “Sure.”
DF: I love that he can’t spell “rhythm.” I have the same problem myself, I’m sure many do, but I love that he spells it many different ways.
“Bathtub” (December 4, 2012)
AVC: On the subject of guest stars: Where did the idea to bring Olivia Munn into the fold come from?
EM: I had a friend who dated a stripper, a friend of mine who I base Nick on—his last name is Miller. He was dating a stripper who was also going to college. She said to him, “Don’t ever, ever tell your friend about this and have her put in on the show.” And he told me immediately, and I, being kind of an asshole, was like, “I have to put that on the show.” I just thought Olivia was really great, and had a great mix of funny but smart, but sexy and tough; we wanted a girl who could really challenge Nick. We got really excited about the idea of a girl who calls him on all his bullshit. He thinks he’s dark, and tortured, and a badass, and this girl actually is dark, and tortured, and a badass. We got excited about that, and thought it would be funny, Jess trying to deal with that. And then…
AVC: Then there’s a bathtub on the roof.
EM: [Laughs.] Yeah, that was not our best A-story, I would say.
DF: We had been trying to figure out for a long time, because we wanted to do a Jess-Winston story because we hadn’t done a ton of them, and we wanted to see what that dynamic was. They are really great together—but it was a bit antic-y for this show.
EM: Well, I think, again, it was the same problem: We just never figured out what was emotionally compelling about them getting a bathtub. It was definitely more of a comedy story initially, and then I tried to add in this idea of Winston having anxiety problems, and then the story just—
DF: —spiraled from there.
EM: Like the roof that the bathtub sat on— [Laughs.]
DF: —it collapsed in upon itself.
What actually does work in that episode, I think, was that there was a performance moment for Max. Where the whole episode is about keeping this information from Max, from Schmidt, and then in the end where he realizes he can’t have Cece, his heartbreak in that very big moment where they’re pretending to have been ransacked again. His heartbreak in the moment is profound.
BB: That story, from that episode, was the story that we all felt the strongest about in terms of its success. Max was great, that stuff between him and Cece, where she opens the door to give him another chance and he blows it.
EM: That was the thing we figured out the second half of the season: these emotional, real, funny relationship stories. We’re never going to make a story about a bathtub work. [All laugh.] I was angst-ily—I don’t know what the word is—talking about this episode while we were cutting it, I was like, “We can’t figure it out. This episode is not coming together.” And my friend who’s a writer was like, “What’s it about?” I was like, “Jess tries to buy a bathtub.” And they were like, “Yeah. That’s the problem.” It’s so important, for something to be funny, to have the stakes be really high. I think that was part of the problem of the episode: The stakes are never going to be that high.
BB: The original intention was that Winston would be forced to reveal something to Jess. Then when they got into trouble with each other, they would each need to share a secret with one another—so that they had some bribable material on one another, and that was supposed to help develop their friendship and relationship, and force intimacy.
DF: The other core idea, that I think would have been really useful—but we didn’t really play it out right—was that Jess doesn’t really have her own place in this apartment, in this group of people. She is constantly being sidelined by them. Her trying to find a foothold in the apartment and this dynamic was the original idea, but it got blown out of the water. Bathtub on the roof, who hasn’t had that moment?
EM: As [20th Century Fox TV chair] Dana Walden would say, “Who can’t relate to your bathtub falling through your roof?”
DF: And ruining your friend’s expensive suit, causing him to wear his one suit that has a lightning bolt on the back? What? [Laughs.]
EM: That, by the way, was definitely thrown in my face at different times over the course of the season from the costume department. Where I was like, “I don’t know, I just feel like that costume’s a little too broad.” And they’re like—
DF: “Lighting bolt suit.” That suit is awesome, though. I would totally wear that suit.
AVC: But that suit is well-deployed in the episode, because you only see the lightning bolt for a split second when he’s on the couch with Cece.
EM: That was definitely our editor, Steve Welch—he’s the master of dry understatement. [Laughs.] He was like, “Guys, I think the lightning bolt plays best when you don’t see it very much.”
BB: Which was his shorthand for, “This isn’t very funny.” [Laughs.]
DF: The other thing that’s great about that episode: In real life, Max Greenfield is terrified of birds. So I think that was the impetus for putting a bird in that scene. It was, “Let’s see what happens when Max is forced to deal with a bird.”
EM: That episode, though, didn’t it have three animals in it? It had the bird, the goat, and the ferret. I remember our saintly producer, Erin O’Malley, coming to us at some point, being like, “Do you guys want to lose one of the animals?” You can tell how much we’re struggling in an episode by how many animals. [Laughs.]
“Santa” (December 11, 2012)
DF: [Sarcastically.] But things got much better when we did the Christmas episode. Oh wait, that was a challenge.
AVC: You were saying Christmas is tough, because you usually have to stage a party scene—so you went and staged three parties for “Santa”?
DF: It was four originally, but then ended up being three. First of all, that was maybe the biggest mistake we made all season—
EM: And it was my idea, it was definitely my fault.
BB: It was a good idea. The party-hopping notion was something that people could definitely relate to. But from a production standpoint, to do three Christmas parties was really challenging.
EM: The first half of the season was all about us giving ourselves impossible production challenges. [Laughs.]
BB: The hardest party, obviously, was the one in the glass house, up on top of Mulholland Drive. Which, even when we got to base camp—where we have our actors’ trailers, the makeup trailers, and where we eat—it was another 25-minute drive from base camp up to the set because it was all the way up at the top of the mountain here in L.A. It was a beautiful, interesting home, but it was so hard to get to, and it was so cold. That was another one where we were like shooting from 6 at night to 6 in the morning, where we were fighting daylight.
DF: There’s that whole sequence with that sleigh, out in the backyard. When they were directing the set, they realized they couldn’t get the sleigh onto the location, so they had to rent a crane to lift it up and over the house—not a small fee, for a gag that lasts all of 20 seconds.
EM: It was like the opening sequence in La Dolce Vita, with the flying Jesus, but it was a sleigh. It was a very low-rent La Dolce Vita.
BB: We were shooting and all of our crewmembers, who were exhausted and over-tired, kept accidentally walking into the glass windows of the house. They were all carrying equipment, and you hear like, “Gong!” “Gong!” And they were all like, “Son of a bitch!” It was horrible, but it was funny. So we were like, “We should have Zooey do that.” So when she turned away, we were like, “Zooey, do you mind trying to run out and walking into the window?” And she was like, “Sure, I’ll try it.” And she did it, and it was funny. And we were like, “Okay, try it three times.”
EM: When we cut it, that was also just such a huge feat of editing, where we were working so hard to make it all fit in 21 minutes and there was just too much going on. Then we worked so hard at making all the stories line up. And it still, it was just confusing because we didn’t have any establishing shots of the parties. Where were they? What was happening?
DF: In my very rudimentary version of Photoshop, I slapped together invitations—
BB: On your iPad.
EM: Weirdly, the episode slowly started coming together. It was all this work in post. We put more man-hours in post into that episode than I think any episode all year and with Dave’s awesome Photoshop invitations, then suddenly it was clear where they were.
DF: It gave a framing device to the episode.
EM: We faked a couple of the cars driving, taking us to the next party, so you could track it a bit better.
BB: Oh my God, we shot all of the driving in that episode in about 15 minutes. We were running out of time, we had to break down at four o’clock—a hard out. We had to stop shooting at four o’clock. We got back to our soundstage at like 3:30 in the morning and gave the crew like 15 minutes to set up the shot, with the cameras on the camera car and everything. Then for 15 minutes we just drove around the studio, and grabbed everything, like that cop pulling them over. Which is incredibly fast for television.
But people seemed to like it. We were all stunned. I think it was our hardest episode that we’ve ever done. The script was rough, the shoot was a nightmare, and then the post-production just was—
EM: That last sequence in the hospital where Jess finds Sam and they sing the carols, that didn’t work until we found this great Fitz And The Tantrums song. [“Santa Stole My Baby”] I think that was a Jake Kasdan idea, where he put that song in. That was an example of you don’t even sometimes think about the music. To me, suddenly everything was exciting and it was a good scene, and it was this big song at the end of the episode that did it.
We do so much work in post in the show. It’s exciting because we just generate a lot of footage when we’re shooting, and then post becomes the place where it all comes together. There is some fun, when you’ve hit your bottom on an episode; when you’re cutting it and you’re like, “I give up, I fucking give up.” Then you start doing crazy shit—like the Photoshop invitations, putting the carol up against the stripping—because you’re just like, “I don’t know what else to do.” Then that’s where you get great ideas, from the moment where you’re like, “I have nothing left.”