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Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant on RENO 911!’s Legacy, HELL BABY, and More

Fonzie’s jacket. Zack Morris’ oversized cell phone. Uncle Jesse’s mullet and leather vest. These are but a few of the most iconic pieces of clothing and accessories in television history, but now another can be added to this vaunted collection: Lt. Dangle’s shorts from Reno 911!. Created by The State members turned multi-millionaire screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (alongside Kerri Kenney-Silver), the cult classic Comedy Central cop series Reno 911! spawned six seasons and a feature film, Reno 911!: Miami. Now, five years after it went off the air, the entire series is being collected on DVD. Recently, I spoke to both Lennon and Garant about their experiences getting the series from concept to completion, the series’ legacy, and what other projects they have on the horizon.

Nerdist: It’s been five years since Reno 911! ended, and now we’re finally getting this sweet, sweet complete collection boxed set.

Tom Lennon: Ben and I have turned – we have a specialty in our career, which is we do shows that people say are amazing five to ten years after they’re cancelled. [laughing] You put us on the shelf, and after a while they say “Oh, you know that $2 dollar wine from 2004? That’s actually really good if you open that right now.”

Robert Ben Garant: [laughing] It turned out really good, yeah. You just had to let it sit there for a long time.

N: Yeah, I mean, 2009 was a great vintage year.

RBG: The two-buck-chuck of sketch comedy.

N: Well, listen – I think it tasted great then, and it tastes great now as well. But looking back at the show, what was the experience like, and how has it been looking back five years out?

TL: For me it’s hard to describe. What you can see happening on Reno 911! – we were given an unbelievable amount of leeway. We were never – the network was so supportive of us, because the show always was sort of a good ratings performer…

RBG: And cheap.

TL: …Mm-hmm, and cheap, so they never did anything but give us literally 110% support. I remember doing some weird stuff. We did a whole episode that was a tribute to Waiting for Godot. We did long sketches called “Who pooped in the book donation box?” I think if you were to try to pitch a network an episode where we’re the bodyguards of Kenny Rogers, and so Kerri dresses up like Kenny Rogers, and Carlos falls in love with her because she’s dressed as Kenny Rogers.

RBG: They’d say no.

TL: Yeah, most networks would not say “Yes.” But that’s what was great. The thing that I think that you can tell what we’re doing on Reno 911! – our policy was don’t talk about it, just try it.

RBG: Yeah, try it.

TL: We never – nothing is being edited by a committee. Most jokes, if you see a joke on network TV sitcom, it’s going through basically 30 to 40 people to get to be on the screen. Nothing that we ever say on Reno 911! was ever vetted by anybody. You know, it’s just as close to a Rorschach test of our senses of humor, because that’s when you get the truly great stuff. There were also things that you couldn’t talk about if you had a script for that.

RBG: Yeah.

TL: Like, we would deal with really weird issues between each other, like race issues, and sexual issues, and all this weird stuff that if we had written it out, people would have said, “Don’t do that, that’s gross,” or “That’s really offensive.” But you can tell the cast, especially when we’re talking about the weird stuff, the sexual stuff and the race stuff and all that, you can tell the cast doesn’t have time to think about what they’re going to say, because the cameras are rolling. That stuff usually comes up about 10 minutes into a 20 minute improv, and so you don’t have time to calculate your mouth shape for what you’re going to say is, so people just sort of talk, and they know that if they go too far, it’ll get edited out anyway, so people are surprisingly honest in a weird way. Everybody’s joking, but people were not censoring themselves, and I think you can tell.

RBG: The other thing is that people tried to do “Reno 911! at a ____” – at an auto parts store, at a grocery store. The other thing you have to know is that we worked really hard on all the outlines, so as casual as it feels, we really spent a lot of time writing the sort of structures that were going to exist. And then also, it wasn’t like a band that put together – I mean, we were always, the people who created the show, were the people in it. There wasn’t, like, a writing staff telling us “Hey, we’ll do this kind of stuff.” It was just us, and Cedric and Niecy and Wendy and Carlos and Jo. So everyone creating the show was literally on the screen, which is kind of a rare thing. That’s not often the case where everyone – what you’re seeing is right there on the screen.

N: Other attempts at recreating that model, you can tell they don’t know exactly where they’re going, but with Reno 911! there are always narrative signposts that you guys would hit. The way you would get there would feel very natural and of the moment.

TL: I think coming out of The State, coming out of sketch comedy, I think gave us a big advantage, because when you look at the improv ensemble shows that have sort of come and gone since us, there’s only about five or six scenes a show, and the scenes go on for five or six minutes, which, I mean, if you go to a Harold [improv performance], scenes are 30 seconds. In improv, they’re so fast.

And so when we would structure the show in advance, we would structure it with 10 to 14 scenes in a 22 minute episode. We would have punch lines for all of the intermediate scenes. There’d be a little bit of plot, and then we’d do a great big “Gotcha!” Then we have a little bit of plot, then we’d do a really funny Jim Rash sketch, so we know in between the plot, there’s a really quick pacing, so that the scenes, whether it’s plot or comedy, are all going to be less than 2 minutes, and I think people don’t realize that when they were carting up shows like this. We would shoot 30 minutes and use 25 seconds.

RBG: Yeah, without a doubt.

TL: That was our thing about – don’t worry about it. Get up on your feet, do it, shoot it, and you know what? If it’s not funny enough for the show, we’ll use five seconds of it and say “Next week!” If we could only get one joke out of something, we’d go “On the next.” A couple of times we’d have a sketch where we had an explosion, and after we were done, the explosion was really the only thing that worked, so we would put that explosion at the end credits.

RBG: Sure. That would happen a lot.

N: That’s awesome!

TL: How many times we got physically hurt…

RBG: Yeah.

TL: I’m doing a network sitcom, and I don’t come home every day now covered in blood and scrapes from wrestling with the popular hero in her underwear in a gravel pit. You went camping. Like, you’d come home after a day and you felt like when you camp and you’re finding weird bruises.

RBG: Yeah.

TL: You have no idea how you got – it was every day. Every day, it was that. On the upside, sometimes you’d get to wrestle around in a gravel pit with Natasha Leggero.

RBG: Exactly!

N: To shift gears slightly, I was a big fan of what you guys did with Hell Baby, and I was just curious…

TL: You are the one.

N: Yeah, that was me. I will watch any movie where people eat a lot of po’ boys. Are there plans to do more independent comedies like that?

TL: We really, really got fucked on that one…

RBG: Yeah.

TL: Eight ways from Sunday. I mean, we got reamed. By my map, taking the cast out to dinner, me and Ben, in New Orleans, for about six weeks, I think we each spent about $20,000 on that. Just the restaurants! And then the movie came out on like five screens. The movie really didn’t get distributed at all. We liked it. It was a lot of fun. And we’ve experienced – I mean, we’ve done movies that people love and that people hate. And so we know what it’s like to sit in audiences and see people laughing at the movie. The Reno movie was similar.

At the Hell Baby movie, we saw it like five times in front of unpaid audiences, and we saw how much people laughed, and then we’d go home and Google the reviews, and people just hated it. So we’ve done that before, and that’s always a real bummer, but when the movie doesn’t even come out, like with Reno 911!, at least it came out, so people got to see it anyway. But for this indie, critics who hated it got the final say and it never even came out. It was so much effort, and to me the bummer is that I think everybody in it is really good! I think it’s really funny. I think Corddry is great; Riki is great.

It’s just a bummer to me that nobody even got to see it. I don’t know – indies are not as magical to me as they were before we actually did one. People that really hated Hell Baby – and it was basically every single review that reviewed it said they hated it – my main question is, well what were you expecting? What did you think?

But yeah, so the answer is, on that front, I don’t know. I mean, Ben has got some very cool, legitimate films coming out that are just straight-up horror films, which I just love. But right now we’re back in the – we’re pretty squarely back in the giant studio movie business, which has an upside, despite what everybody says about it.

RBG: If people on the internet are going to hate our stuff, it might as well be Night at the Museum, you know?

TL: It might as well be something pretty big.

RBG: Yeah.

N: Nice, nice! Well, hopefully more people will discover Hell Baby on DVD or Netflix and see the light.

TL: Oh, thank you! Please feel free to plug it.

RBG: We think it’s great.

N: It’s worth it alone just to see Kumail try to back up that van.

Both: [laughing]

RBG: That’s so good!

TL: In the original cut it was even longer.

Reno 911: The Complete Series is available on DVD now.

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