Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have been laughing at and with and around each other since before Americans got to know them as members of the State, the comedy group whose MTV sketch series debuted twenty years ago this December. But Reno 911!, another cultish show they co-created (along with Kerri Kenney-Silver, also of the State), has also reached a milestone: The wacky 2003 to 2009 series debuted on Comedy Central ten years ago. To mark the occasion, we asked Lennon and Garant — who wrote, directed, and star in the indie horror-comedy Hell Baby — to pick five scenes each in which Reno’s signature improvisation threatened to go off the rails, and they threw in an extra one for good measure.
Thomas Lennon’s Top Five
THE SCENE: “Picking Up Guns on the Highway” (Season 4, Episode 3)
Tom: Of everything we’ve ever done in any of our TV shows, picking up guns on the highway is the most freeform. No discussion about it, no planning, no preparation. All we did was shoot one 25- to 30-minute take of me and Ben in the dark with flashlights picking up guns.
Ben: And it was the only thing we’ve ever done that we didn’t light. Normally when we’re lighting things on Reno, that’s when we rehearse slash plan slash talk about what the sketch is going to be. For that one, it was just flashlights and the lights of the car. Normally we have at least 30 minutes of prep time while they set up lights, but for that one we just went. It was really great. It was fun. We never even discussed it with each other.
Was it an experiment?
Tom: Well, you know, the two creators of the show are in a scene together, with nobody else to have to explain anything to and nobody was allowed to say cut, so we’re like, “Wow! Papoose! I’m gonna make a papoose!” Normally, if there was a grown-up around, they would say, “Hey, guys? Maybe we should figure out what this scene’s about before we keep going?” But no, we were Coppola and Kurtz at the same time.
Were you able to hold it together for all 26 minutes?
Tom: I think I got Ben a couple times with the word papoose.
Ben: He got me with papoose, so he kept saying it. And he always said it like it was a foreign word that only he knew. And he knew that it was making me laugh, so he kept doing it. Yeah, he got me. It was lucky it was dark so he couldn’t really see me laugh.
Tom: The great thing about the mustaches is that you often can’t see that we’re laughing lots of the time. [Laughs.] I would love for people to just watch the whole thing, because it gives you a real insight into what our minds are like.
THE SCENE: “The Arby’s Reenactment” (Season 3, Episode 7)
Tom: [Laughs.] Very, very similar situation, because that’s me and Ben and Kerri, all three creators of the show. We both had not really any plan, and we also did not have permission from Arby’s.
Ben: No, we got that after the fact. That’s why we made sure anytime you said Arby’s you said “Piping hot delicious Arby’s.”
Trudy is such an innocent about cocaine.
Tom: She is. I believe in one of the Arby’s reenactment scenarios I walk in and she’s jacking off, which is pretty much my favorite thing that’s ever happened on the show. I just walk in and I go, “Oh, hi, Wiegel, I see you’re jacking off in this scenario.”
And what the hell is a monkeyroll?
Tom: That’s a real Kerri Kenney thing. There’s a weird musical theater aspect to our group, which is quite strong.
Ben: I think she was using it as a fake dance term.
Like something Bob Fosse would say?
THE SCENE: “Patton Oswalt’s Dungeon Master” (Season 2, Episode 7)
Which one of Patton’s appearances is the best one?
Tom: Well, we’ve always had a very easy workflow with Patton. We all tend to laugh at the same sorts of things. My favorite was when we decided to let him tell us the longest possible story he could tell. And I only really know how long it was because Dangle smokes two Merit 100 cigarettes during his speech. If you’re a smoker, you will know, that’s a long time.
That’s a hard filter.
Tom: They were 100s, and there were two of them. So. I can’t tell you anything about the story that he tells other than I was trying to keep a straight face.
Ben: Yeah, we talked to him about it and I don’t remember if it was his idea or ours, but 911 has been called, we walk up to a D&D group, somebody has been shot with an arrow, and all we do is ask Patton, “So what happened?” and then he talks. And he talked for I think about 44 minutes, just explaining why one of them was shot with an arrow. That was really wonderful. That’s a good chance for you to sit there and you have to remember to keep the scowl on your face as you’re just getting to listen to Patton Oswalt invent a 44-minute D&D scenario.
Is that the one where Patton is talking about the saving throw and the three points of protection? Because in that scene, Ben seems to know exactly what he’s talking about.
Ben: Yeah, I played a little D&D. That might’ve been slightly out of character, because I don’t know if Travis Jr. has played any D&D. It may have been because Travis Jr. has arrested Patton before, but me, yeah, I’ve played some D&D in my time.
THE SCENE: “The Human Giant Pyramid Schemes” (Season 6, Episode 12)
Tom: Hands down, every one of the Human Giant pieces with us are absolutely the worst, the hardest for me to not laugh out loud during scenes.
Tom: Without a doubt. The one where they explained what kind of bear attack we’re covered for in our new insurance, that one is one of the all-time greats.
Ben: Like the one where they explain the time share and we figure out the time share opportunity was in a cinderblock, windowless facility several miles from the beach in Florida. That was good.
Tom: It used to be basically like a prison.
So how much did you write for that one?
Tom: We gave them a little bit, but not much.
Ben: A lot of it is just, like, you’re pitching us something and let’s see what happens. They showed up to do one, and we did three. They just kind of did their thing. It was really funny. Eighty percent of what they said we had no idea what they were going to say.
So you layered them over several seasons?
Tom: We would overshoot like crazy. We would shoot ten, twelve hour days where we were filming 85 to 90 percent of that time. We didn’t talk about stuff. Our theory was don’t talk about it, just shoot it and see if it works.
Ben: I think Human Giant came and shot three different bits; we probably did two reels on each bit, so like each bit was 40 minutes of them just like talking. And all of the prep is on-camera. We never discussed what they were gonna say, we just started filming. And after the first five minutes, they got into their groove and then we started going along with it. So we ended up with 40 minutes of good material in three hours.
Do you crack up because every time they plant one of themselves in your midst?
Tom: Scheer is often the audience plant, and it’s such a good-natured vibe.
Ben: And if you go to the UCB theater, where Huebel and Scheer do stuff all the time, the enthusiastic, obvious plant is one of their bits. It’s a really funny recurring thing that they do. Huebel’s onstage and Scheer is like, “Whoa! Whoa! What you’re saying is terrific!” It’s such a recurring thing of theirs and they did it really well on our show.
THE SCENE: “Keegan-Michael Key’s Hypothetical Criminal” (Season 5, Episode 1)
I love “Let me accommodate this vehicle!” but there are a lot of them. The conceit is so good.
Tom: When we first met him, we realized, “Oh, my God, this guy is on the next level of improv.” I mean, we wrote the entire movie Hell Baby just to let Keegan be that dude.
Had you heard of him before you worked with him?
Ben: I had not. He came in and auditioned for us. And I remembered him as like UPS guy from MadTV, but he came in and auditioned. At our auditions, me or Kerri or Tom would improv with the auditioner, and people would come in with sort of an idea, and we would just ask, “So did you call the cops or were the cops called on you?” And Keegan said, “Oh, yeah, no, no, no, probably somebody called the cops because of me.” And we go up and sort of improv with him and he just starts talking. And after five minutes of him doing that character explaining why he’s not guilty for the crime that we haven’t even heard of yet … we’re like, “Oh, my God, you’re so good.” And you couldn’t throw anything at him that fazed him. Just next-level stuff. So funny.
And he does this thing where it feels like he’s like talking himself out of detention in high school.
Ben: Charming, and like so obviously lying and confessing at the same time. It’s just great. Just wonderful.
Robert Ben Garant’s Top Five
THE SCENE: “Brian Finney Claims to Be From the Department of Weights and Measures at Carmen’s Whorehouse” (Season 4, Episode 6)
There’s a moment when Deputy Kimball suggests that he should drink some orange juice to tamp down the acid. I always thought orange juice had the exact opposite effect.
Tom: I will tell you that Ben was with me at my bachelor party when I was on a really bad trip.
Tom: And he gave me the same advice then. And we did go buy some orange juice. And now that you say it, you’re right, it’s not a good idea. All it does is it adds a little sugar to your system and it kinda just reinvigorates you and makes you ready to be higher. So … not recommended, kids!
Ben: No. Brian Finney is like an old friend of Tom’s. And he’s just this great actor from the Actor’s Gang. And Rachel Sterling is the madam of the whorehouse, and one of the most beautiful women we’ve had on the show, and just great. And Brian pitched us that bit and I didn’t understand it when he pitched it to us. And then we did it, and I still didn’t understand it. And then we edited it, and I still don’t understand it. And I kinda love that. In a way, it’s the most Cops thing we ever did. Because I still don’t know what Brian’s talking about. And obviously Brian does. So I’m happy that that was on the show.
It’s a drug joke. The department of weights and measures.
Ben: Yeah. Brian was really passionate about that being one of the bits that he did.
Tom: I’ve never wrapped my head around it either.
THE SCENE: “Reverend Gigg LeCarp” (Season 2, Episode 5)
You guys looked completely taken aback by Brian Phelps’s performance. He comes in and kisses Travis; he kisses Clementine’s boobs; he ignores Wiegel.
Tom: Not everybody knows that Brian Phelps is half of the [Los Angeles morning radio] duo Mark and Brian. And he came to us and he’s like, “I want to do something on the show.” And we’re like, “The guy from Mark and Brian? Oh, man.” And then he came on and turned in the greatest performance on Reno ever.
Ben: Yeah, he was a huge fan. And I think one of the things that made his performance so good was he knew and loved the show. He knew every character. And he came in and was just berserk. And obviously he has issues with religion. And it was just wonderful. Yeah, he really surprised us.
Tom: If you look closely, he’s never carrying the Bible. He’s carrying a copy of The Da Vinci Code.
So were you casting for a television evangelist?
Tom: No! Not at all!
Ben: He pitched Reverend Gigg LeCarp. And I think this is safe to say, Tom, I don’t think in any of the years of Reno, anybody ever came in and steamrolled over all of us.
Tom: No, nobody.
Ben: And he totally did. He blew us out of the water in a way that nobody did. He just took charge and it was great. It was so funny.
THE SCENE: “The Poop-in-a-Book Donation Box” (Season 2, Episode 11)
What did you use for the poop?
Tom: Nestle’s pudding, I believe. But that was one of those formats where we just have a very simple, very idiotic concept, and we just decide that we’re going to commit one million percent to what we’re doing.
Ben: For Reno, the first stages of the writing process are Tom and I sitting in an office with index cards that we glue to a wall. And Tom wrote, “Somebody pooped in the book donation box.” And I don’t feel like we ever discussed it. It was his idea, I kinda knew what he meant, but I don’t think we ever talked about it all. Tom and Kerri did a two-hour improv where somebody pooped in a book donation box. We probably could’ve shown the full two hours. It was all pretty good.
Tom: Oh, sure.
THE SCENE: “The First Arrest of Chris Tallman, Wrestling Him Down for Making a Porno With an Inflatable Doll in a Motel Room” (Season 1, Episode 8)
That was very physical. That looked dangerous.
Tom: We had run out of things to shoot ‘cause we had lost our location or something like that.
Tom: And we were thinking, well, who’s one of the funniest people we know? What if we get Tallman in here and we just don’t have any agenda; we just sort of see what he wants to do? And he says, “What if I make a porno with a blow-up doll?” And Chris actually gets a little scaped up because he goes through the window.
Ben: I don’t know what’s in the final edit, but in the take he went through that window twice. On the concrete, through a window, in his tighty-whities.
Tom: We’ve been friends with him forever because he was so off-the-charts fearless. There’s nobody else that would go that crazy.
He played a Klansman for the rest of the series.
Tom: He’s also in the movie. He’s the guy who gets eaten by the alligator. He’s T.J. McIlroy.
Ben: “T.J. McIlroy!” When we had our show Viva Variety on Comedy Central, he was in another group that had a show there called the Bert Fershners. Which was great. We had a bunch of Bert Fershners on the show. But we hadn’t worked with him in forever and we hadn’t seen him in years and he came in and was great. But we had no idea what that piece was gonna be. That was all Chris.
How big is that dude?
Tom: Chris is not that big. He’s taller, but the weird thing is everybody thinks that he’s some enormous guy? Carlos, Ben, and I are all rather diminutive guys.
Ben: We’re tiny. We make regular-sized guys look really tall.
Tom: I’m five-foot-eight, so at six feet tall, Cedric looks like a giant next to me.
So you gave him his body issues in that scene.
THE SCENE: “Kyle Dunnigan’s Craig Pullin Character” (Season 2, Episode 2)
I just saw him open up for Sarah Silverman in this character. Did he bring that character in, or was he workshopped up on the show?
Ben: He brought in “Craig Pullin. Pullin, like you’re pullin’ something.” He didn’t know what to do with it, but he did an audition where he called 911 because somebody stole his ice cream cone. And we thought, “This guy is so funny, and I don’t know what that bit is, but let’s have him on.” And he was the first and only character to ask Trudy Wiegel out on a date. And then we cut and we’re like, “Oh, okay … now Trudy’s in a relationship?” And then five seasons later they were married and he was in the electric chair. We figured it out as we were going, but he came in with just this weird fun, lighthearted character. And so we made him into a horrible serial killer.
He still works with that character.
Tom: That was always Kyle’s guy, but he let us live with him for a while.
Ben: The last season we came up with the idea, “What if he sends videograms to his kid from the grave?” And that was just to create a chance to see that character again. But no, that character is all Kyle. Making him into a horrible serial murderer and marrying Trudy? That’s us.
BONUS SCENE: “Nick Swardson’s Terry” (Season 5, Episode 1)
Ben and Tom: Yay!
I talked to Nick on the phone recently and he told me about the time he got Tom. It was the scene where Terry was married to Christina Applegate and was explaining his marital problems, and he says, “When we get naked, I can’t get hard and I vomit.” Nick said, “Pretty sure I got Tom on that one.”
Ben: [Laughs uncontrollably.]
Tom: He made me laugh really, really, really hard. That was a great one. Terry had introduced his super-hot wife that he’d always been bragging about. And we’re like “Fuck, it’s over, so we need to bring in Terry’s super-hot wife.” So we asked Christina Applegate and she’s like, “Oh, yeah, sure, of course.”
Ben: With her big hooters, her massive hooters. She let us talk her into wearing a huge push-up bra.
Tom: The fun thing is, Christina got to listen on headphones to everything that Nick was saying about her. And then got to corroborate it when she entered the scene. Like, her name was “Seeeeeeeemji,” and all this crazy shit.
Who was the guest star that got the most appearances in the end?
Tom: It’s gotta be Swardson, right?
Ben: It’s either Nick Swardson or Toby Huss. Toby Huss is Big Mike. It’s either one or the other.
So, is that fans going crazy for the character, or is it you guys?
Tom: Terry has put out a whole Christmas album of his own, so obviously it’s a combination.
Ben: There’s also a certain amount of trust. By the later seasons of the show, we would always start with either Nick Swardson or Toby Husk. Because you knew it was gonna go fine. You knew that no matter what you had or how much prep you did, it was going to turn out okay. You were going to get some pretty funny material. And they woke up all the cops. Halfway through the first take with Toby Huss you’d remember, “Oh, yeah, this is what Junior sounds like.”