'Reno 911!' creators remember the show 5 years later, talk reunion
On July 8, 2009, Reno 911! aired its season six finale, an episode titled “Wiegel’s Couple Therapy.” It concluded with Jones and Dangle telling a classroom of young children (in song!) that it’s okay to have gay parents; a fitting season finale, but not necessarily a fitting conclusion to the entire series.
After killing off series regulars Wendy McLendon-Covey, Carlos Alazraqui, and Mary Birdsong at the end of season five—a decision that some fans disagreed with—season six was the show’s most heavily debated. Still, that didn’t make it less shocking Comedy Central decided to pull the plug on Reno altogether that August.
Series creators Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon had never intended for “Wiegel’s Couple Therapy” to serve as the show’s true ending. So now, on the accidental series finale’s five-year anniversary, EW chatted with Lennon and Garant about how they’d planned to end the series, what their favorite episodes were, whether there’s hope for the future, and more.
On how the pair wanted to end the show:
THOMAS LENNON: We had no idea we were about to be canceled, so we didn’t wrap anything up in any way.
BEN GARANT: I think if we’d known it was coming, we would’ve planned some sort of Twin Peaks end to the whole thing, but we never got a chance.
LENNON: Yeah, Ben and I had talked for a long time about doing a storyline that did wrap up, and it was inside a dream. Lt. Dangle was taking like, a Chantix, a stop smoking drug, and basically, you’d been seeing a bad trip he’d been going through for years or something.
GARANT: Yeah, the last season we were going to do, like, a six episode arc that was like Twin Peaks. In fact, we were going to try to get Kyle MacLachlan to be that sort of character as himself, and there would be a murder, and we would get to the bottom of it. But at the end, there was no Kyle MacLachlan. Dangle was on this weird smoking suppressant drug and hallucinogen.
LENNON: I wish we had known. We were plenty surprised that the show got canceled, especially because [of] the ratings. It was actually a very highly rated show for pretty much its entire run. It never really…
GARANT: It never dipped.
LENNON: Yeah, and it was a remarkably easy-to-produce show. We would shoot whole episodes of the show in the amount of time people just kind of talk about things, as you can tell because the shows look very slap-dash. [Laughs] We never thought about things for a real long time. We were just like, “Why don’t we just go out and kind of—”
GARANT: “—Do it,” yeah. You can poke a lot of holes in it if you really want to.
LENNON: Oh yeah.
GARANT: But yeah, it was really cheap. It was really fun. Everybody got to do other stuff because it basically only took up 20 shoot days for the cast. We were really surprised when they pulled the rug out.
How the show came together:
LENNON: Lately, I’ve been going back to watching some Reno 911!‘s. There have been a lot of attempts at “Reno 911! in blank,” like, what if it’s Reno 911! in a garage, or Reno 911! in an animal hospital. I think what a lot of people don’t know is, to make it look so loose and unprepared, a lot of planning went into it. We did write outlines for almost every single scene that ever happened, just so we had some sort of sense of what was going on. It was slightly more structured than it seemed.
GARANT: We really had a planned punchline for every scene. We were much more organized than you would ever think by watching the show. And the other thing I think people don’t realize is [that] to get about a minute and a half of material for Reno, we would shoot for about 40 minutes of improv. I think a lot of people think that you can just roll, and the actual take will be hilarious. But the show really did come together in the editing room. [For] “Morning Briefing,” we would shoot all day—literally 8 hours of tape—and then, at the end, edit it down to about 15 minutes of “Morning Briefing” for the season. Because it was improv and it was based on outlines instead of scripts, we never got script notes. We never had script meetings; we never had script approvals. So we were really left to our own devices, which was very, very fun.
LENNON: Once in a while, we would do stuff where there wasn’t really that much of a plan. We tried to have punchlines and such, but occasionally we would just say, “Well, what if we had, you know, like 100 stuffed animals full of cocaine, and we’ll cut them open, and we’ll shoot for like an hour?” And we did that also on something called “Arby’s Reenactment,” which was like a crime scene where the only evidence we found was Arby’s and some murdered people. So we would just keep reenacting scenarios, every one of which involved “piping hot Arby’s.”
GARANT: We would card up ideas. Our wall was just covered with little index cards, and so we would sit in the office for a few weeks and just write up these cards. Tom wrote on a card, “Someone pooped in the book donation box” and stuck it up to the bulletin board. And that was all we ever said. We never discussed it. We never talked about what that would be. But since the budget of that is a cardboard box and a little pudding, we’re like, “Yeah let’s do it.” But no one ever talked about that one. We just sort of shot it. And we shot for an hour and it turned out great. It was fun.
LENNON: We often would work like that. Kerri [Kenney] played a character on the show called “Jackie the pickle-throwing hooker,” who was a hooker who would sort of drink pickle juice, and she had an eye patch. It was based off of just titles of things. I wrote that on a card long before and just put it on the wall and was like, “Kerri, you think you could probably do this, right?” And she was like, “Oh yeah, that’s right up my alley, whatever that is, Jackie the pickle-throwing hooker.” And she actually never threw pickles, but she did drink a lot of pickle juice, as I recall. One of the great things about doing that show is sometimes, we would do long scenes where the rest of the cast would be just sort of waiting right off camera. It was very much like being in a live play where you’d kind of just wait and listen on headphones to see what was happening in the other room to see if you should come in or not. We did some long, long takes.
GARANT: You don’t see that except in actual improv shows. In actual improv shows, you wait in the wings and think of a funny idea and come in and add to the scene. One of the other tricks to doing a show like Reno is we were always in the same clothes, so you could edit together different things from different shows. If you didn’t have a line to make something make sense, you could steal it from another scene in another show. Because everybody was always in the same clothes, people could just walk in and walk out of scenes sort of at their own discretion and it never created a continuity problem.
LENNON: I will say I’m proud of all of the episodes that exist. As you can probably tell, it was a labor of love. While it’s the funnest job we’ve ever had, it’s also probably the hardest job we’ve ever had. We’d start at like five o’clock in the morning, we’d be there till 10 or 11 at night—and I remember going home every day from Reno, and you know how sometimes you can’t tell how many cuts and scrapes you have until you get soap on them in the shower? At the end of Reno days, I’d get in the shower and just go “Oh my god! Ow ow ow ow ow!” Because I’d realize my whole body was covered in like…
GARANT: Cuts and bruises.
LENNON: Yeah, from like, wrestling in gravel with Natasha, or Toby whipping a chain at me, or some dumb sh– that had happened.
The idea that they couldn’t make work:
LENNON: Cedric [Yarbrough] had a character that he kept pitching—and I think it was just because the words sounded funny—called the Naked Jamaican.
GARANT: The Naked Jamaican we never got around to.
LENNON: We tried, remember? We did end up trying it.
GARANT: Oh yeah it did work! He had a catchphrase. His catchphrase was, “I’m just letting my skin breathe.”
LENNON: “I’m letting my skin breathe, man.” [Laughs]
GARANT: But it didn’t really have much more to it than that, so that one didn’t really work.
LENNON: By the way, if something did not work at all, but it had literally one funny moment or one joke, it was usually in “Next week on Reno 911!” We used every part of the comedy buffalo on the show.
GARANT: If the actual scene wasn’t working, we would just take a sidetrack and head down that sidetrack full speed and that ended up being the scene. A lot of scenes, we would go up to a comedian who was there, and maybe the scene was kind of a dud—but then you’d go back to the car and talk about, like, the poop that you stepped on during the scene for 30 minutes, and end up with something great. So everything was always savable.
How cops felt about the show:
LENNON: I’ve actually had many, many police officers say that they felt like Reno 911! was the most accurate police show on television. I’m totally not kidding. I think the reason is because we sound very real. I think what they were always surprised by, not the sort of like foolery of Reno 911!, but the things we talked about to each other in the briefing room, for example—it just isn’t stilted.
GARANT: We don’t talk like Aaron Sorkin wrote us, you know? Everybody sounds kind of normal, and I think cops just love that. In cop shows, the police don’t get to rag on each other and rag on their commander and rag on the person they just pulled over. That was all Reno was, and I think that’s all cops do 90 percent of their day.
LENNON: There was a sketch we did called “Shoot My Dog,” where Garcia and Jones come up to this very sad man whose dog is very sick and he can’t afford to put him down. He just gives them this very sad sob story and reluctantly, Garcia and Jones go around a corner and decide, well, the only thing to do is to put the dog down. So they go back behind the garbage cans and shoot the dog. You don’t see it, of course, but you see the muzzle flash, and then seconds later, the lady comes running out of the house and she’s like, “What the f— did you do to my dog?”
GARANT: “Who shot my dog?! Who shot my dog?!”
LENNON: And the guy’s like, “I told you to shut that dog up.” It was a pretty interesting sketch, but the most interesting thing is that it’s actually used by the L.A. police department as a training video.
GARANT: Don’t believe anybody.
LENNON: I think the message they’re trying to teach people is when you pull up to a scenario, somebody’s lying. So just be careful who you believe when you pull up to a crime scene.
The movie sequel they never got to make:
GARANT: This shows you how we can over-think something and under-think something at the same time, [which] I think is sort of our craft. We were going to do Reno 911!: New York, New York, Las Vegas, which was like a Die Hard set not in New York, but in the New York, New York casino in Las Vegas. We were really excited about being locked into the one casino and doing a bad action movie.
LENNON: Yeah, it was like “Christmas, Christmas inside the New York, New York Las Vegas.” And as it was technically the sequel to Reno 911!: Miami. Reno 911!: Miami: New York, New York Las Vegas, I believe, was the full working title of that feature film we were hoping to make.
Would they revisit these characters?
LENNON: The further we get from it, the more open to it I am. There have been some discussions. Netflix had asked about us doing it, but we never really investigated it that deeply. I mean, they’re certainly very fun to play. I would be open to it at some point, the idea of revisiting them.
GARANT: We did a reunion show at the San Francisco Comedy Fest that went really, really well with everybody except Wendy [McLendon-Covey]. Carlos [Alazraqui] came, and it was after the Garcia character was dead and so halfway during the show, Carlos, wearing chains like Jacob Marley, came from the back of the theater and said [in a ghostly voice] “Jones, Jones.” And all the cops acted like they couldn’t see him except Cedric, and Cedric was freaking out, and we were all saying, “What do you mean? There’s nobody there.” And he came and haunted him, and then we all laughed and said, “Oh no, those guys weren’t dead; those guys just transferred to Carson. Oh, we told you he was dead; that was a joke.” And it went great. We did like, a full in-character drug awareness and prevention seminar as us, and we fixed the Garcia-being-dead thing, and it was really really fun.
Their biggest regret:
LENNON: A lot of fans were upset when we switched out some members of the cast. It’s certainly probably something I regret.
GARANT: I’ll say that I’m really glad that we added Joe [Lo Truglio] and Ian [Roberts], [but] I wish that we’d kept everybody.
LENNON: I agree. It was a mistake. But it was also just in a sort of passionate creative time, it’s like being in a band. I guess that’s the closest I can equate it to. But certainly, I regret it in hindsight.
GARANT: Yeah I agree with that.
NEXT: Their favorite moments and the reunion they’d want to do
Their favorite moments:
LENNON: I feel like season 3 was really solid. I have some favorite episodes. Brian Phelps from Mark and Brian did an episode where he played Gigg LeCarp, who was a reverend who came back to do a show from our jail.
LENNON: I remember I didn’t know much about him—he was like a real whacky morning DJ—and then he came in and did one of the most brilliant, subtle performances. It was just crazy.
GARANT: So funny. Yeah.
LENNON: It’d be really hard to pick. There’s a lot of moments. Anytime you got to do a scene with Jim Rash was really wonderful.
GARANT: Oscar Nunez auditioned for us. He just talked really funny. He was a UPS guy and he “has a lot of uniforms.” What he auditioned with was just sort of a fast-talking con man, and we said, “Well, what if this guy came in as Homeland Security, and he’s teaching us Homeland Security?” And that was season one. It became like a two-episode thing just because he was so weird and funny. That was the first time that during the shooting, we all realized, “This doesn’t make any sense that he’s from Homeland Security. What if he’s not? What if he’s lying?”
LENNON: Without even telling him, we decided about halfway through shooting that he was going to be a con man.
GARANT: So at the very end, right before he left, we told him, “Hey we need to take your mug shot because you’re not really with Homeland Security.” And he thought that was hilarious, and so he became Spanish Mike Alvarez. He became our super villain.
LENNON: One of my favorite scenes we ever shot, it’s the least a guest star ever did. Zach Galifianakis played a character named Frisbee. He lived in a school bus. He was basically like a David Koresh type character who had a little compound and some child brides, and we did a full scene with him where we pulled up to his weird bus with his child brides. We walk up to him for a long time and we say, “Hey Frisbee, you haven’t seen those young civil rights workers who were walking around trying to get some…” [Laughs]
LENNON: Yeah. And he just shakes his head no, in the most suspicious way ever, and we walk back to the car.
GARANT: And we say, “All right, okay.”
LENNON: Basically you know in that moment he killed them and buried them somewhere on his property. But no one ever said anything. It was just one of those great little moments. That was one of my favorite things.
LENNON: All the stuff where Patton Oswalt played the D&D.
GARANT: The Boozehammer of Galen, man. Wow.
LENNON: It was always really fun to fight and wrestle with Natasha Leggero. Those were always great moments. She would always put up a really great fight to not get in a police car. George Lopez as…
GARANT: Mayor Hernandez, yeah.
LENNON: [He] would come in with his hand bandaged up and weeping, saying, “Anybody can make an allegation.” Those were really fun.
GARANT: We just pitched to him, “Hey George, what if you came in as our Mayor, and you just were going to tell us not to believe the stuff that was just about to come out about you?” And he said, “Okay, great.” So he came in and gave those wonderful speeches with a bandage on his hand.
LENNON: He’s got like, blood on his hand. [Laughs]
GARANT: Toby Huss was always great. Toby Huss, Big Mike—we’ve known him for a long time, and we told him when we were just starting to develop the show, “Yeah, it’s like Cops, so we need to run into sort of characters in Reno.” All he said was, “What if I had a do-rag and like a wife beater with a pack of cools down the front of my shirt?” And that’s all he told us. And we said, “Yeah, okay, great. We’ll see what happens.” And then he became Big Mike. After season 2, the very first day of every single shoot every season was always Big Mike because we knew we would get something. We knew that it would kind of warm us all up and remind us what the show was.
LENNON: A really great moment I remember was, we had Nick Swardson who played Terry—one of the greatest characters ever. He had been bragging about his beautiful, super hot girlfriend. Christina Applegate said she wanted to come in and play Terry’s girlfriend. She was waiting in, like, a fancy car down the street with headphones on, just listening to what Terry was saying about her, including what her name was. She had never heard any of the stuff about the character, so she was just waiting in a car around the corner with headphones on so that she could drive into the scene and then corroborate everything he was saying.
GARANT: What she did for a living, her name.
LENNON: Seeeemji with four E’s and a silent J.
GARANT: Paul Rudd was so tricky because he’s so busy, and so whenever Paul Rudd came as the weird creepy Lamaze instructor who was very, very into pregnant women, that was always wonderful.
LENNON: Those were always really fun. We really had a lot of exactly who you would want on the show.
GARANT: Drew Carey really wanted to do it, but every time we were shooting—like, one time he was off doing USO stuff. We almost got Drew Carey a bunch of times, and that would’ve been really fun. But we got almost everybody.
LENNON: I liked how we used Kenny Rogers, that was really nice.
GARANT: Oh my God, yeah. Kenny Rogers wrote a blurb in TV Guide. They asked random celebrities what they’re watching on TV, and he had a little blurb that said that Reno 911! was the best show on TV right now, and so we called him and he said, “Great, I would do it.” So he came as himself. He had such a good time, and he had such a great sense of humor about himself. Kerri dressed up as like the decoy Kenny Rogers.
LENNON: Kerri dressed as Kenny Rogers making out with Carlos, who had fallen in love with her because she was dressed like Kenny Rogers. That was one of my favorite…if you recall, Patton Oswalt assassinates Kenny Rogers and he walks up to him and says, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” Boom. And then assassinates him. That was a great episode.
The reunion they’d want to do:
LENNON: I would like to [bring everybody back]. It’s actually not a hard show to do.
GARANT: It’s not a hard show to do. There’s a reunion that you can see online of The Andy Griffith Show—the tone of it is really funny. They’re all really old, and they’re sitting up in this panel giving this really heartfelt discussion, but they’re in character. It’s really weird. I think I would love to do a show like that years and years and years in the future—that we’re still doing it, that you’re catching up on us. We never went anywhere, it’s just the documentary crew went away.
LENNON: Oh, we talked about that, right. There had just been a couple years where we weren’t being documented.
GARANT: I love the idea that we weren’t a show that got canceled, it’s just Comedy Central stopped filming us.
LENNON: [You] stopped looking at us.
GARANT: Yeah, you just stopped looking at us.