Jake Johnson explains why he was too 'embarrassed' to ask Zooey Deschanel to join Hoops
In the first season of Jake Johnson's new animated Netflix series Hoops, New Girl fans will recognize many familiar voices, with Max Greenfield, Hannah Simone, and Damon Wayans Jr. all making appearances. But viewers won't be hearing from the titular New Girl, Zooey Deschanel, who combined with Johnson to play the Fox sitcom's adorable will-they-or-won't-they couple. So why no Jess and Nick reunion?
"Honestly, I would have wanted Zooey but this show is so disgusting that I was a little embarrassed to ask her," says Johnson with a laugh. "I think I would have a hard time with Zooey in the room and me being like, “[Yelling] F--- off, motherf---er, you motherf---ing piece of s---!” Even though she’s not a prude, I would feel a little weird about it."
Created by one-time New Girl guest-star Ben Hoffman, Hoops follows Johnson's foul-mouthed, hotheaded, and shameless Coach Ben Hopkins and his mission to turn around his awful high school basketball team in hopes of turning his own miserable life around and getting promoted up to the "big leagues."
Ahead of Hoops' Friday premiere on Netflix, EW chatted with Johnson about why he's glad the series is just about jokes and no greater message, what he did to differentiate this voice from Into the Spider-Verse's Peter Parker, and how quickly Coach Hopkins would be kicked out of the NBA's Disney bubble.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: For someone who was missing basketball, watching these 10 episodes was much-appreciated. Served as a nice, vulgar warmup for the NBA playoffs.
JAKE JOHNSON: It’s funny you ran through them all because what I’ve been saying if you like the first minute or the cold open where coach is yelling, if that doesn’t offend you, then I think you’re going to like the whole show. And if it does offend you, then you shouldn’t watch because I don’t think you’re going like the whole show.
That should be on the poster: If you don’t like minute one, move on.
It doesn’t get better if you don’t like it. But I think what the writers have done a great job on is it takes a similar joke and keeps hitting it in different ways.
What was it about Hoops and the character of Coach Hopkins that made you want to do this?
Honestly, we started this about seven years ago, maybe even longer. I think it was after season 1 of New Girl and then it just kept coming back. Netflix ordered it a year and a half ago. So the original idea of wanting to do it was Ben Hoffman said, "Let’s make a presentation that is so loud and ridiculous that MTV has to pass on it." And that felt like a really fun thing to do. We recorded for two hours, we did the cold open, we did the scene in the locker room where he gives his Bang Bus password, we did the scene with Matty where he’s going to get him a prostitute, and the scene with Connie. And so the fact that it took seven and a half years and now it’s out, it’s trippy. But what I like about it is that it’s just a show about jokes and there’s no message in it. If this is not your sense of humor, you’re not going to like it. But if it is, it’s just loud and ridiculous and fun and it’s not trying to be anything other than what it is. And, for me, I think there’s something refreshing about that.
I appreciate that. Sometimes it’s okay to just be a joke machine.
That’s exactly right. I just did a podcast and she said, “Did you have any epiphanies, if you will?” And what I liked about Hoops is, no, I didn’t. I like what you said, a joke machine, it was just a joke machine, but it was so fun to do a joke machine again. I might start using joke machine for the rest of press. If you ever see it, know that you get the credit.
You mention how loud the show is, and I’d best describe what you’re doing with your voice work as yelling, a lot of yelling. So what was it like recording in such a way? And has your voice recovered since then?
[Laughs] There'd be a moment in the record where we knew we were losing my voice because, with Coach, even when he’s yelling it’s obviously one thing, but what we realized is he has to kind of be talking like that all the time or we lose who he is. So even in quieter scenes he’s like, “[Yelling] Dad, you’ve got to understand, I got nothing here!” There’d be a moment where you’d hear my voice just start cracking and we knew we had a couple more takes and then we were done. So we tried to save the yelling rants of each episode for the last bit of each record.
True or false: You yelled so much so that kids wouldn’t think that Peter Parker has given up fighting crime to move to Kentucky to coach basketball and curse a lot?
It’s funny, it was a happy accident because I did this voice the first time seven years ago and what we did realize when we decided to turn it into a series, because we tried at first maybe when he yells he’s like, “F--- you,” and then when we did a quiet scene we thought, well, maybe it could be closer to my voice. And when we did that the juxtaposition to that was too much, where you’d go from “[Yelling] You asshole!” to “[Soft voice] Look, Shannon, I really care about you.” It just didn’t work, and it felt too close to Nick Miller and it felt too close to Peter Parker. And we just thought, let’s let Coach be Coach. He’s his own thing, he’s a character and I like playing him. I don’t relate to him. I can’t understand why he does the things he does. I’ll read scenes, like remember the gumball scene, which to me is the epitome of the sense of humor of this, and that’s Ben Hoffman’s joke through and through. To me, I can’t relate to that, but I find it so funny. Where he goes, “I’m not going to spend another penny here in my life! Oh, a gumball machine, f---ing great.” And that rhythm I could do endlessly, I just find it so weird and so funny.
There’s an incredible lineage of coaches in movies and TV shows, whether we’re talking Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, Kyle Chandler in Friday Night Lights, or Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday. Where would you slot Coach Hopkins in on that pantheon? Above or below Whoopi Goldberg in Eddie?
He’s got to be really low because he’s also a terrible basketball coach. One of the things about coach that is important to realize is it’s not just that his players are bad, he’s actually a bad coach — he doesn’t know basketball. [Laughs] So he’s never going to make it. He sells everyone out. He’s got big dreams, but the only reason he has this job is because of his daddy. He’s not a talented guy. Mostly in the movies they’re talented but they have like problems with alcohol or a terrible divorce. Coach just got the job because nobody wants it. Lenwood is not a basketball school and his dad is a famous basketball player and they gave him a chance. So I would say that he is almost more of a physical education teacher than a basketball coach.
In this seven-year process of crafting this character, did you pull inspiration from anywhere specific for Coach?
Well, let me interrupt that, in terms of “crafted,” we did the character one day in the booth, we laughed a lot, we improvised a lot, Ben would pitch jokes, and then it died for seven years. [Laughs] And then it came back to life. It was not a seven-year process of fine-tuning Coach. What I love about this character and this show, and I say it as a compliment, is there’s not a lot of depth to it. Coach is not a fully-realized human being, it’s whatever works for the joke machine. It reminds me of like moments in Caddyshack, and I’m not comparing this to Caddyshack, but the idea of the joke machine and when Rodney Dangerfield enters that movie, he’s not a real human, it’s just, “Well, this is really funny so leave it in,” and that was more the feeling of Hoops. If someone came in and was doing something that was really funny, like for example Cleo King who is the principal and I think steals the show, she did this whole Denzel Washington bit as an improv. So we were just messing around about her dream and she starts talking about Denzel Washington going down on her. [Laughs] She’s the principal of a school, it doesn’t make any sense with the character that we had written, but it was so funny that we left it in. So a lot of it was, if a an actor does something really funny, we will change a little bit to make that work as opposed to a deeply honed character.
That makes sense. If you worked nonstop for seven years then there probably would be a little bit more depth to it.
[Laughs] You know what, there better be.
In the first episode, Coach Hopkins says he hopes to use this job as a stepping-stone to being head coach of the Chicago Bulls, which is quite the ambitious plan. As we speak, we have the NBA playoffs going on in a bubble down in Disney World, so how do you think Coach would be faring in there right now?
He would have been kicked out almost instantly because he wouldn’t follow any rules. There’s no way Coach Hopkins would wear a mask. There’s no way that he would believe in a pandemic. There’s no way that he would stay quarantined. He would be the first guy to screw it up, 100 percent.
The first season of Hoops serves as a few mini-New Girl reunions with Max Greenfield, Hannah Simone, and Damon Wayans Jr. all lending their voices to characters. So that begs the question, was Lamorne Morris asking for too much money?
You know, Lamorne was out because he wanted to play Coach Hopkins. [Laughs] No, the truth is that I believe there was a part where we tried to get Lamorne to do and there was something with scheduling. Honestly, I would have wanted Zooey [Deschanel] but this show is so disgusting that I was a little embarrassed to ask her. [Laughs] I think I would have a hard time with Zooey in the room and me being like, “[Yelling] F--- off, motherf---er, you motherf---ing piece of s---!” Even though she’s not a prude, I would feel a little weird about it. But I love the cast of New Girl. My thing is when I work with people and I like it, I like to do it again, so, for me, it’s just an opportunity to see a friend who is really talented.
Hoops tips off Friday on Netflix.