How the ‘Reno 911’ Creators and Stars Pulled Off Their Epic 2020 Reunion
On this bonus episode of “The Last Laugh” podcast, “Reno 911” creators and stars Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney-Silver and Robert Ben Garant reveal all.
Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney-Silver and Robert Ben Garant were in the middle of editing their long-awaited seventh season of Reno 911 when the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down. Like the rest of the world, they moved the entire operation online.
“We’ve been doing a lot of Zooming,” Kenney-Silver says during the mini-reunion on this week’s bonus episode of The Last Laugh podcast. She then deadpans, “It’s kind of brain surgery, so I don’t know if you understand, but it’s very high concept.”
They were somehow able to pull it off and on May 4, 11 years after the show wrapped up its initial run on Comedy Central, new bite-sized episodes of the now iconic comedy series started popping up on the new mobile streaming service Quibi. Incredibly, they were able to reassemble the entire original cast, which also includes Wendi McClendon-Covey of Bridesmaids and The Goldbergs fame and multiple Emmy-nominee Niecy Nash, who was a driving force in getting the show back up and running.
“She has been such a cheerleader,” Kenney-Silver says of Nash, who apparently never wanted to stop doing the show in the first place. “Every six months or so, she would text me and say, ‘OK, are we going to do it now? When are we going to do it? Are we going to do it now?’”
She recalls doing press for a different project a couple of years ago. Nash was a little ahead of her on the red carpet line and every time Kenney-Silver would speak to a reporter, she would hear, “‘So I hear Reno’s coming back!’” She would look back at Nash who flashed her “a sly little smile.”
“I think the real reason Niecy has always been the person pushing to get Reno 911 back in some format is so that there wouldn’t be a moment of human entertainment that she’s not in,” Lennon jokes.
“I think on paper it sounded insane, because people are on different networks now, people are under different contracts,” Kenney-Silver says of getting the entire cast back on board. But in the end there were no holdouts: “Everybody was game.”
When they got on set all together that first day, Kenney-Silver says it was “daunting” to get back in her uniform as Deputy Trudy Weigel. “Like, what if I can’t do this again? What if I don’t know this person, how this person moves and speaks?” she remembers thinking. “And, and then within 30 seconds it was like, ‘Oh, it’s this person.’ And everybody was just off and running.”
“We did the original pilot for this in the year 2000,” she adds. “We've been doing these characters for 20 years. If we don’t know them by now, that’s kind of sad.”
“I think one thing that’s pretty convenient is we put zero thought into them in the first place,” Lennon, who says he spent the car ride that day trying to remember how Lieutenant Jim Dangle’s voice was supposed to sound, reveals. “When we shot the original pilot, we went so fast that basically, people picked an outfit and a name tag and that was it.” He describes the officers as “slightly radioactive enhanced versions” of themselves, citing Dangle’s love of Stephen Sondheim and jazz dancing as two elements that come directly from his own life.
“I waited until my mother passed away to say some parts of it were certainly my mom, but I say that in the most loving way,” Kenney-Silver says of her disturbingly clueless character.
Besides Nash, the person most responsible for Reno 911’s return has to be Quibi executive Doug Herzog, who has “employed us our whole lives,” in Garant’s words. Herzog bought their original sketch show The State when he was at MTV. He then bought the original Reno 911 pilot for Fox, but when the network ultimately passed, Herzog moved to Comedy Central and brought the show with him. So when he called about reviving it at this new $1.8 billion experiment called Quibi, they felt like they had no choice but to hear him out.
“He called and he pitched us that it was short form, which seems really oddly perfect for Reno,” Garant, who plays Deputy Junior on the show, says. “He told us he wouldn’t give us any notes and he’s the one guy on earth [with whom] we know that’s true. He’s worked with us, he knows the Reno process. He said he wouldn’t give us any notes and he didn't.”
The show has always been provocative and that lack of censorship was particularly important to the creators during this era of #CancelCulture.
“I think people thought we were going to sort of phone it in or do, I don’t know, like the touring company version of the show. But this is the real Reno 911,” Lennon says. “We come out swinging. We don’t apologize for anything.”
The show previously existed without social media, which meant that they could do an episode like the one in which the officers and a group of Ku Klux Klansmen go down to Mexico to “build the wall” and nobody reacted to it online. “And so now we’re in this new world where we know everything we’re going to do might create some weird person on Twitter reacting to it in a way we didn’t intend, but we still have to do what we do,” Garant says. “We have to be really stupid incompetent cops, but set in this real world, you know? So we plan stuff very carefully.”
As we’re speaking, the first few episodes have been released and Lennon is excited that there’s already an online critic who’s “very angry with me” about a scene in which his character celebrates International Pronouns Day. “They were super mad at how old we are and that I would do a sketch about that,” he says.
“I believe they called us Boomers,” Kenney-Silver adds with the laugh.
They appear to be referring to Consequence of Sound’s Clint Worthington, who recently panned a “painfully tone-deaf PSA from Dangle about just how wacky all these new pronouns we have to remember are, amirite fellas?” The writer added, “That it’s placed in the mouth of the most openly queer character on the show feels especially strange: what’s the joke here? Is it on Dangle for feeling overwhelmed by gender stuff? Or, more likely, are the middle-aged writers of the show waving their hands at how ridiculous they feel it’s all gotten?”
Or, like so much of the show’s ethos over the years, it’s silliness for silliness’ sake. But that’s not to say they don’t also strive for social commentary in the series.
Another big cultural change since the show was last on the air concerns police violence and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, something they decided they couldn’t ignore this time around.
“We talked about this a lot,” Garant says. “We knew we couldn't pretend it was still 12 years ago. We knew we couldn’t ignore that and act like we were in this sort of time-capsule Mayberry where none of that had happened.”
The very first scene of the new season finds a white woman reporting a group of kids in her apartment complex pool to Deputy Jones, played by Cedric Yarbrough. “Let me guess, the kids in the pool are black?” he asks her. He scolds her for calling the sheriff’s department for the non-crime of swimming while black, asking her, “What are they doing?” When he’s finally done, she replies, “They’re drowning!”
Later in the season, there’s a two-episode storyline about how the department has never shot an unarmed white guy in its history. “If we shot a white person, it wouldn’t be the worst thing,” Dangle says in their morning meeting.
Because the new episodes were shot before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, the new season does not address how the Reno Sheriff’s Department would handle a citywide lockdown. But as Kenney-Silver reminds us, they did sort of tackle it “unwittingly” in a season three episode that came shortly after the SARS outbreak.
“There was this new six-foot rule at the strip club,” she recalls. “So Junior had to walk around with a six-foot pole in between the strippers and the clients. And the music is loud, so he had to translate from one to the other.”
“‘He wants to know if you go to the junior college!’” Garant remembers his character shouting.
Now that the editing is complete and the seventh season is out in the world, they have been looking for other ways to stay funny under quarantine. For Lennon, that has meant appearing as Tiger King’s Joe Exotic on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert from home using wigs and costumes he happened to already own. And recently, all three comedians participated in another reunion of sorts with the entire original line-up of The State.
Director David Wain assembled the star-studded group on yet another Zoom call to recreate their classic “Porcupine Racetrack” sketch, which is somehow even sillier in the year 2020.
“That brought me more joy than it probably should have,” Kenney-Silver says of the final product. “I will fully admit that I teared up the first time I saw it completed. David Wain is a genius. I don't know, maybe I am a Boomer, but I was so impressed how he put it all together.”
“Yeah, I definitely cried watching that,” Lennon adds.
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Stand-up comedian—and Reno 911 guest star—Patton Oswalt, whose new stand-up special I Love Everything premieres on Netflix Tuesday, May 19.