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Thomas Lennon and ‘Reno 911’ Cast Explain the New Season on Quibi
When you make an appearance on Reno 911!, the producers (who are also the writers, who are also the stars) make one request, just before the cameras start rolling: before you laugh, try to wait a beat. It is not an “if you laugh,” it is not even really a “try not to laugh.” That you will laugh is a given, as it should be when some of the world’s funniest people are in one space, operating with no scripted dialogue. You’re going to break, and so are they, all that they ask is that you not ruin a take, that you give an editor something to work with. It is a simple, nearly impossible task, one that cast and crew alike are struggling to complete on this February morning in the ballroom of an equestrian center in Burbank, CA. It’s been eleven years since the gang was last together, but the familiar sound of stifled laughter and the faint smell of gunpowder bring it all rushing back: Reno 911! has returned.
Though the last episode aired in 2009, co-creator (and wearer of Lt. Dangle’s still very-short shorts) Tom Lennon tells me that, “the vibe is that this new season picks up twenty seconds later.” I’m here on set for the first episode back—in which I’m playing a designer of concealed-carry fashion, because of course—and though the excitement level is high, there’s no real nervousness. “Wendi [McClendon-Covey] hit the ground on fire and hilarious,” co-creator and cast member Robert Ben Garant says, “and immediately we all said, ‘Oh, we’re back. We’re fine.’”
After six seasons and a movie, the creators and cast had been trying to bring the show back for ages, “and it’s a blessing and a curse,” says Lennon, “but everyone’s been very busy.” This is an understatement: aside from starring in the recent CBS Odd Couple reboot, Lennon and Garant have been writing screenplays, Wendi McClendon-Covey’s been starring on The Goldbergs, Cedric Yarbrough on Speechless, Niecy Nash on Claws and When They See Us, Mary Birdsong on Succession, co-creator Kerri Kenney on just about every other show on television. But it’s been on everyone’s agenda—one cast member in particular.
“The show really came back because Niecy kept reminding everyone that she wanted to do it,” Lennon says.
Kenney agrees: “She was in line in front of me on a red carpet, and an interviewer said ‘I heard Reno’s coming back.’ I said ‘What are you talking about?’ And she said, ‘Niecy just told me.’” She willed it.
That it’s come back on the just-launched video platform Quibi makes perfect sense: Doug Herzog, the guy who helped develop the show as a pilot for Fox prime time back in 2000, is an executive there now. (Fox ultimately passed, but Herzog brought the show along to his next gig at Comedy Central a couple years later. “Doug Herzog has now bought this show from us three times,” Lennon says.) And the quick-bites format suits the show well; in adapting the show for its new home, the creators asked their editors to cut some episodes of the Comedy Central version down to seven minutes and found that it worked. “The show is basically a sketch show,” Garant says, so the new time constraints fit perfectly. “This feels like the old show, just with no padding.”
The old show arrives in a new, more complicated world. “Years ago, when we were first doing this, we never said ‘oh, we really should address this weighty topic that’s happening in the world.’ We didn’t think that way,” Kenney says. “But now there’s such intense stuff happening around cops and race, we have to address it. It would be weird if we didn’t. But I think we’re doing it in a way that isn’t preachy.”
Again, she may be understating things a tiny bit.
As Garant explains: “A running bit in the new season is that we’ve never shot an unarmed black guy, so if we were to shoot one unarmed white guy, maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing. And Quibi said ‘Great. Here’s some money, here’s your mustaches. Go.’”
The process of shooting an episode is the same as it ever was: you still try to get through a take without laughing, you still get a script that says, in full, something like “[They talk],” you still play some dirty, dirty people. “Our take is still the same,” Garant says. “Our characters are who they are. They’re woefully undertrained, they’re woefully underfunded, but they’re trying their best.” Kenney isn’t so sure: “People in interviews used to say ‘So, Truly Weigel…she means well,’ and I would agree, but at one point I thought about it, and actually I don’t think she means well at all. She doesn’t think of any human being on Earth except herself. I don’t think she necessarily means well. You don’t really see that on television that much.”
Something you didn’t see on television ever until now is Quibi’s proprietary feature allowing users to toggle between portrait and landscape modes. Most Quibi shows simply apply this feature to switch from wide shots to close-ups, but the Reno gang is using it to pack more jokes in. “We ended up 3D-printing ‘Quibi-Cam’ frames to hang over the monitors on set,” says longtime producer David Lincoln, “but we had fun coming up with specific gags for the Quibi verticals, like police body-cams, civilian cellphone video, and live-streaming cops and criminals.” You’ll need to give each episode a couple of views, and, you know, right about now you’ve got the time. Lincoln also directed a bit in episode three that he calls “the Reno version of 1917,” which…you’re just going to need to see to believe.
The new season, out today, features the full original cast, together with season six additions Joe LoTruglio and Ian Roberts. And in a new world, with new technology, a new platform, and new sensibilities, the show feels refreshingly like the one we left in 2009. Kenney sums it up: “It’s chemistry. You don’t see each other for a very long time, and then you’re like: ‘oh, we’re family.’” She pauses. “It reminds me of prison.”
Dave Holmes is Esquire’s L.A.-based editor-at-large.