Talking to ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ Co-Creator Dan Goor

Network TV’s best new sitcom, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, sure has had a successful first season. In its inaugural year, Brooklyn won two Golden Globes, received an early renewal for a second season, and got to air an episode in the coveted post-Super Bowl slot.

I recently chatted with Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s co-creator and showrunner, Dan Goor, who got his start working on The Daily Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien before becoming one of Parks and Recreation’s key writers and eventually co-creating Brooklyn Nine-Nine with Parks mastermind Mike Schur. Goor and I discussed the future of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, what makes a good sitcom pilot, and having your material mercilessly made fun of by Conan O’Brien.

Have you guys started planning season two yet, or are you gonna take the summer off?

We’re gonna take a little bit of time to sort of collect ourselves and review what works and breathe and sleep and hopefully be recharged enough to figure out season two. We have a few ideas. There are some cliffhangery things at the end of the finale that we have to pay off, but there’s a lot of rest and recuperation that needs to happen.

Were you able to write the finale after the news of the renewal came in?

No. The finale was written before the renewal.

Is that scary writing cliffhangers not knowing whether you’ll be able to resolve them or not?

We had a good feeling that we were gonna be picked up before the announcement, so at the risk of tempting the gods, we decided to proceed as if that were happening. Obviously, you can’t ever take anything for granted at all, but we thought our best shot was to write a finale and assume that season two would be there.

It seems like on Parks and Rec, you guys operated cautiously with that.

Yes. The situation we were in in Parks and Rec, that was usually season three and season four — less so than season one — where we didn’t know if it was gonna be a series finale or a season finale, which meant that we had to advance all the characters very rapidly. It’s incredibly satisfying and fun, and I think really satisfying for the audience. It was a really cool challenge to have to write finales that felt like they could either be a season or a series finale, but it was also nice [on Brooklyn] to not feel like we had to do that this time.

Yeah, and I imagine when wrapping up a show that’s been on for four years, there’s a different level of responsibility there than with a new show.

Yes, exactly.

You mentioned Parks and Rec advancing the lives of its characters very quickly. Is that something that you plan on carrying over to Brooklyn Nine-Nine?

Mike [Schur] and Greg [Daniels] both have a philosophy that I share, which is when a character learns something on a show, they should really learn it. They shouldn’t be repeating their mistakes over and over again in an unrealistic way as if a prior episode hasn’t happened. That’s not to say people don’t have habits and don’t do things several times before they really learn a lesson. I think our characters are growing and will continue to grow. We’re making some kind of big moves at the end of the finale. Jake’s position at the NYPD is really on the line. It’s a pretty stakes-y, dramatic finale. But in general, part of Parks and Rec is that a character like Leslie Knope is so driven professionally to succeed and conquer new things. That was part of the reason that her  character has continued to take on new responsibilities.

I think there’s less pressure on our characters [on Brooklyn Nine-Nine] to do that. Jake wants to be a detective. That’s what he wants to do. He wants to solve the coolest crimes, take down the worst people, and be put on a serial murderer’s trail, stuff like that, but he doesn’t necessarily want to be the Commissioner of Police. I think that if we had stalled Leslie Knope, it would have been frustrating to the audience, but I don’t think it feels like a stall to have Jake continuing to be a detective. Certainly not after one season.

What are your goals going into season two?

I think we’ve gotten to know the world of the precinct very well, and I think it would be very fun to continue to expand the world of Brooklyn, the world that the precinct touches, and that means introducing fun characters the way that Parks has done that. I think world-building would be a really cool goal. So, meeting a harried assistant district attorney who has it out for Jake and has a thing for Rosa, or something. I mean, I’m making that up. That’s not a pitch that’s currently in there. Or like, meeting the local crime boss who is kind of harassing the Nine-Nine or who Charles Boyle accidentally takes down and finds himself in a standoff with. Or an ambulance chaser who unjustifiably sues one of our guys for harassment. So there’s that kind of world, the work world that we could expand, and then there’s also, is there a guy who runs a donut cart on the street in front of the place that’s a really big actor that we could get who’s somebody that they get to talk to and be funny with?

New York’s a way bigger city than Pawnee. Moving from Parks and Rec to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, how does that change the kinds of characters you can add and repeat?

It’s interesting because the way that Pawnee is fictitious, we could kind of invent any character. But in a weird way, it’s similar in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is so massive and filled with crazy, real people that I think it’s possible to come up with almost any character and find a real-life analogue of that person in Brooklyn. In a way, I’d almost say it’s similar.

Right from the start when you’re trying to establish a show, one of the lessons we’ve learned is that’s it’s important to establish the core group of characters and the core world. But as we’ve done that and as we continue, we’ll really be able to expand that. From the pitch stage on, we’ve always talked about how it would be great to have, like a regular who’s in the drunk tank or two prostitutes who are there all the time and know everybody. There was a pitch early on that there’s a guy who considers himself to be the neighborhood Sherlock Holmes, even though he’s a total doofus. He keeps showing up at crime scenes, and he’s kind of Jake’s nemesis in a weird way. There’s real opportunity, I think, with the police aspect of our world to expand Brooklyn.

You helped to expand that world on Parks. What was your guys’ model for that? Was it The Simpsons or SCTV, or were you kind of just doing your own thing?

I think we were kind of doing our own thing, but we were very aware that it had been done before. The Simpsons was definitely something we loved and, I think, was an influence. It’s not like we sat down and we said, “Hey, we want to be like The Simpsons,” but as we expanded the world, people were like, “Hey, this is kinda like The Simpsons where they’re expanding the world.” We were like, “Yeah, that’s amazing. If that’s what we’re doing, that’s awesome. We love The Simpsons and we love the way in which they expanded the world.”

One thing that Mike is really good about is, he feels like anytime a character appears, that character should have a name in the script, even if the character only has one line. You’ll very rarely see in a Parks or Brooklyn script a character named “Nurse.” It’ll be a character named, like, Janine Placento, and it’s an ER nurse. You’ll never hear her name, but it’s in the script. I feel like an unintentional consequence of that is you start to fill the world because these characters have names, so they’re people; they’re not just “Nurse.” And then, when we go back to the hospital, Janine Placento is there because you remember that Janine Placento is there, in the writers’ room.

Does that ever get confusing, trying to remember which characters are which? Let’s say you have a script that has 10 characters who have one line and they all have goofy names like that, does it become hard to keep them apart?

It can be. The worst thing is when you write that goofy name, and then, for some reason three episodes later, you bring the person back and their name has to be said or written out, and you’re like, “Oh no.”

[Laughs] I’ve definitely noticed the names of minor characters in the credits of Parks and Rec. it seems like you guys are almost trying to top eachother with weird names.

Yeah, sometimes that happens. We had a really good one recently. The name was Gilbert Stanp, which is so hard to say.

Being at Parks and Rec from the ground floor, what were some lessons you learned when it comes to building a show that you brought to Brooklyn Nine-Nine?

The biggest lessons we learned at Parks, we learned that it was important to have all the characters like our main character and to have our main character be good at his or her job, so we definitely instituted those things at Brooklyn. One of the reasons, for instance, in the pilot that the captain is the new person and not Jake is because by having Jake be the person who’s in the world, we can create a world where he’s still kind of a wiseass but everyone liked him because they already liked him and they knew him and he had a right to be a wiseass with them. Often in a pilot, there’s a new person, who comes in to help explain the world, because the viewer’s a new person and that new person sees the world through their eyes. By having Jake already be there, it allowed us to have this comedy character but still have everyone like him.

We knew he had to be good at his job. In a realistic world, which is what Brooklyn Nine-Nine is — it’s a comedy world, but it’s a realistic one — it’s very hard to like a cop who’s just super crappy at his job. That right away makes it tough to write comedy for the person, but that’s one of the things we learned from Parks and Rec.

One of the reasons that we chose to set Brooklyn Nine-Nine in a police department is that it felt like people were so familiar with police departments and police stories from police dramas that it allowed us to have a shortcut in terms of telling stories. In Parks, they had to spend a lot of time setting up the story because they had to explain how the government works. You had to say like, “Okay, today, I want to open the world’s smallest park, but first, we need to do a petition and then an environmental impact study and then a this and a that.” And you have to explain what a petition is and what an environmental impact study is, et cetera. Because people are so familiar with police shows, on our show, you can go, “This is John Smith. John Smith was murdered, and we have to catch his murderer.” All of that exposition is done.

I feel like in workplace sitcoms from the past, like for example, Mary Tyler Moore or NewsRadio, there was a tendency to have the main character be the new person in the office rather than a supporting one being new like on Parks and Rec or Brooklyn. What are the other reasons for that besides the one that you mentioned?

There’s that improv comedy rule that, when you start a scene, all the characters have known each other for six months. I think there’s an element of that. It makes the scenes more interesting if people know each other because there’s backstory, and they’re not spending half of every scene introducing themselves. It allows you to drop in on a world that exists already. The other thing is, often on a show, the pilot is the roughest, toughest episode to write, and it’s not always the funniest episode. Everyone’s goal in writing a pilot is to write an episode that feels like it’s Episode 7. I’m just hypothesizing, but maybe it’s a shortcut to being in Episode 7 if everybody knows each other already.

When it came to building the writing staff on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, are there certain types of writers that you look for, people with certain skills? Or do you just like everybody to be able to do everything?

I like everyone able to do everything. I think we have a really, really talented writing staff. Everyone has different strengths, but they’re  all incredibly good at every aspect of the job: pitching stories, figuring out stories, breaking the stories, writing drafts, writing jokes, punching up drafts, punching up other people’s jokes, and then being on the set when it’s your episode and pitching stuff in the moment and problem-solving in the moment. If a scene doesn’t work, trying to figure out how to fix it in the moment.

Mike comes from SNL and I come from Conan, and on SNL and Conan, the writers are essentially producers of their sketches, so you spend a lot of time on the floor and you spend a lot of time dealing with the departments and figuring out how to produce the bits so they’re at their funniest. We like to empower the writers to do that on this show and Parks and they did that on The Office. It’s not that uncommon. It’s not like we invented this.

Was that a tough skill to learn when you started on Conan? Figuring out how to fix things as they’re being shot, while everyone’s waiting around.

Yeah, there’s definitely a learning curve. I was there for five years. If I look at the stuff I produced in the first year versus the third year, I had learned so much from writers, from Mike Sweeney who’s the head writer, from Conan. Rehearsal with Conan was an incredible learning experience. You put your bits up on their feet, and he would hilariously rip it apart if it was terrible. Now, they post some of his rehearsal footage on Team Coco, but he would just brutalize you, in a way that made you laugh uproariously but it was a real learning experience.

But the nice thing about Conan is that it’s a nightly show, and they need material. If you fail, if you make a sketch and didn’t work and you had a good pitch for the next day, you went out and did the new thing for the next day. There was no time to lick your wounds. That made it a great, great place to work. The longest I ever worked on something was a week. You’d shoot something, and it would air that night.

Are there any Conan characters or sketches that people might know that you wrote?

There may be a few. I wish I could say I invented any of the most famous ones. I was a writer on the India remote. I went to India with Andy Blitz to get his computer fixed by a call center.

I did the Horny Manatee. I did a bunch of remotes. I did the bird watching remote, “Conan Sells His Ford Taurus,” we did the Intel remote.

It’s hard to find any of the stuff now, but I did a buddy cop movie with Robert Reich. Robert Reich was the Secretary of Labor who was like 4’8” tall and Conan is obviously 6’4”. I had a character named Gynoblast, a superhero. She shot babies out of her vagina. I had a bulimic Trojan horse I always really liked, which was a Trojan horse that would throw up Greek soldiers. I kind of spearheaded… we did an all-skeleton version of the show. It was a repeat, and we used just plastic skeletons that we puppeteered. It was a Halloween show, Conan in Skelovision. I did that with two other guys. I did a lot of the Shofar guy sketches. I did the Kayak Guy, I wrote them with [Brian] McCann. These are all pretty deep cuts.

What was it like transitioning from late night TV to sitcoms? Had you been writing pilots and specs on your own?

Yeah, I’d written a spec for The Office. At the time, it seemed like incredibly bad luck but it turned out to be incredibly good luck. I got hired on Parks and Rec in the very beginning, before Amy [Poehler] was the star of it, and then Amy signed on, which was obviously great. She’s an all-time comedy superstar hero. But she was pregnant. And the order went from 13 episodes to six episodes. I had quit my job at Conan, my wife had quit her job as a lawyer at a hedge fund in New York, and we moved out to LA and all of the sudden, the order was cut in half, which was incredibly frightening.

But I ended up working as a consultant on The Office for two or three months. Basically, that just meant I went in and I was a writer without portfolio. I just went in and I could pitch jokes, and I could work on story-breaking. It was like being a little bit more than a fly on the wall. Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky and Mike Schur and Mindy Kaling, all of those people were incredibly nice and incredible teachers. So I spent two to three months effectively in a boot camp, and then we started Parks and Rec. I felt like I had gone through this accelerated sitcom college course. Once we started, I felt comfortable. It really eased the transition.

Do you remember what your Office spec script was about?

Yeah, it was Secretary’s Day, and Pam did not like the attention because she didn’t really want to be a secretary. She goes to the bathroom to hide out, but when she opens the door, she finds the night janitor has died over the weekend. He’s lying there and he’s dead. Dwight immediately launches an investigation, which is like the C-story. Everyone’s like, “It’s not a crime. The guy clearly died of a heart attack.” I forget what Jim’s story was, but the A-story was about Michael trying to cope with the death and trying to prove that he was empathetic. There’s a conference room meeting and he talks about the janitor, and Michael’s like, “Nobody knows his name. He’s a janitor.” Everybody knew the name, so he had to way overcompensate for the fact that he didn’t know the name of the dead janitor. It ends up being about Michael dealing with mortality.

That sounds great.

It turned out really well. For a long time, it was the thing I was most proud of writing. Even after I’d been on Parks.

Even after you’d been there for a while?

Well, I don’t know about that. The first episode I wrote was “The Reporter,” which I was happy about, but the second episode I got to write was “Hunting Trip,” and I love that episode. That being said, the other reason to be proud of a spec script is you write it on your own. The stuff you’re writing on a sitcom is eventually rewritten by the entire group and is owned by the group in a lot of ways.

You’ve done a little bit of movie writing. What’s it like going from sitcoms to features?

By no means am I an expert on feature writing. I’ve only written one feature. It definitely has a totally different rhythm. I talked to Greg Daniels about writing movies once, and he was saying that it was an interesting experience for him because he, in his bone marrow, knows the rhythm and feel of a 22-minute-long show. When he’s writing it, he just knows ‘This is time for a heart moment” and ‘This is the time for a big laugh’ or whatever. He’s just spent so much time doing that. Features just have a totally different feel and rhythm. It was very different in a lot of ways, writing that. But it was really cool and really fun and interesting and challenging. There’s so much you have to do. In a way, you have to write a pilot in the first 10 pages. You have to pilot the entire world and all of the characters and hook people and then you’re off to the races. It’s crazy. It’s difficult to write a pilot in 35 or 30 pages, let alone in 10 pages.

That’s an interesting way of putting it. I’ve never heard someone compare the first 10 pages of a movie to a TV pilot.

Yeah, it’s a pilot that you completely disrupt. But I love doing it. I’d love to write more movies. If anybody wants to hire me to write a movie, I will do it.

[Laughs] I think that’s a good note to end on.

Exactly. If you could include my phone number…

Photo credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images North America

Talking to ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ Co-Creator Dan Goor