Michael Schur knows how to make comedy work when TV viewership is splintered by the internet and delayed DVR viewing. For him, nabbing a large audience isn’t a sprint so much as a marathon, and that philosophy has translated into a cult following for each of the series he’s helped create: The Office, Parks and Recreation and now the Andy Samberg-starrer Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Schur and his former Harvard buddy Daniel Goor set out with Brooklyn to reboot the cop comedy, drawing inspiration from such benchmarks as Barney Miller and Police Squad! They also have maximized laughs by mimicking the handheld shooting style of cop dramas. The show has won over critics and earned Golden Globes for comedy series and lead actor for Samberg.
Awardsline: How did Brooklyn Nine-Nine get off the ground?
Michael Schur: I was under a deal at NBCUniversal, and Dan Goor was the number two guy on Parks and Recreation since the beginning. There hadn’t been many comedies set in a police precinct since Barney Miller. It’s hard to find areas in the comedy landscape that haven’t been troughed. After pitching to Universal, we sold the show to Fox. When Andy Samberg came aboard after Saturday Night Live, all the big stumbling blocks you can run into with developing a show went away.
Awardsline: How did the show test?
Schur: The show tested like every pilot. Testing is a silly process. There are a lot of problems: It’s very unscientific, especially since they test in North Hollywood. It’s as though the crowd in North Hollywood represents everyone in America. While that might have been true several years ago, you have to go out of state to find people who aren’t biased. There can be a 12 Angry Men effect where one person has a strong opinion and has sway over the entire group. Everyone liked Andy Samberg, Fred Armisen’s cameo and Stephanie Beatriz. But if testing is going to give any accurate reading of a show, they should show four episodes. You get feedback like, “The side characters are under-developed.” Of course! They are only onscreen for 18 seconds. It’s a catch-22: You can’t make four episodes unless it tests well.
Awardsline: The show has been ratings-challenged throughout the season. Does this concern you?
Schur: Fox has been on board from the beginning. Everyone on the studio side likes the show. We wish it was being seen by mass audiences. We think the show is good and that it’s moving in the right direction and creatively it’s in a good place. Not an easy conversation to have in 2014. If this was 35 years ago, we’d pull a guest-starring stunt and put Mary Tyler Moore on, but that stuff doesn’t work anymore. The last time in recent TV history was How I Met Your Mother with Britney Spears. Even the Super Bowl isn’t known to have a lasting effect. This year it was us and New Girl. Shows are known to quadruple their ratings after the Super Bowl and then go back to where they were before. The network isn’t stupid. They know the number of people truly watching the show isn’t available until a month after (an episode) airs. You look at Brooklyn’s same day average and it’s 4.5 million and Live +30 is over 8 million. That’s a lot of people. The network is incredibly sympathetic, and they’re frustrated just like producers. They’re looking to monetize that number, and the problem with advertisers is that they only monetize Live +3. Everyone is fully aware of the insanity of these numbers and until there’s a new standard, it’s like reporting the score for a basketball game six minutes into the game.
Awardsline: You mentioned that guest-star stunts no longer work to spike ratings, but the show has had a number of notable guest stars.
Schur: On Parks and Recreation we have this casting rule that we call the Poehler Doctrine. In season three, there was a guest character that called for a handsome, hunky police officer who Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) was going to date. Amy suggested Louis C.K., and I said, “He doesn’t match the profile.” Her response was, “Who cares? He’s hilarious.” I agreed, and from that point forward, even on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, our M.O. is to cast the funniest people for the part.
When we needed a man to play the classics professor husband of Captain Holt (Andre Braugher), we looked to Marc Evan Jackson. He had a recurring role on Parks and Recreation. We originally auditioned him for Joe Lo Truglio’s role, but he didn’t fit that character description. When we needed Mark to play Holt’s husband, there was no need to chase our tail and find a bigger star. With any guest star, it’s not to goose the ratings; rather, it’s about making the show as good as possible. If you can make a great show every week, that will determine if you survive. In the world we live in, every episode is a great sales tool. You don’t know when someone will find an episode, i.e., in an airport on Hulu. Someone once asked Joe DiMaggio why he played so hard every day. His answer was, “Because you never know when there’s someone in the crowd who hasn’t seen me play.” That’s how I feel about TV: You don’t know when one person will see your show for the first time.