With its third season kicking off on Sunday, there’s never been a better time to revisit Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s second-season finale. Remember how Jake and Amy kissed? Like, multiple times? And how Holt might not be the precinct’s captain anymore? Gina even went with him! Plus, the vending machine broke!
Never one to let something good go without multiple layers of cautious analysis, The A.V. Club sat down with Brooklyn Nine-Nine writer and co-executive producer Luke Del Tredici, who wrote last season’s finale, “Johnny And Dora.” He walked us through not only the sitcom’s action, but also what goes down inside the writer’s room both while they’re filming and while they’re on hiatus. He even drops a few not-so-subtle hints about what viewers can expect from the third season of B99.
Note: For maximum reading pleasure, give “Johnny And Dora” a quick revisit before reading this piece.
The A.V. Club: Are you ready to talk about “Johnny And Dora”?
Luke Del Tredici: The really confusing thing is that while it’s the last thing that people saw, we’ve broken 10 episodes now. We’re so far beyond what happened in the finale. I always have to remind myself that people who don’t work here haven’t moved on with us.
AVC: And people who don’t read The A.V. Club, for instance, might really think, “Oh my God, we’re never going to see Gina again.”
LDT: Yeah, that was a real surprise to all of us, how much people thought that we might actually be getting rid of Andre Braugher. And we were worried about it a little bit, but we thought that if we put Gina with him, it would be a sign to people that, no, we’re not getting rid of two characters. We’re just shaking things up a little bit. And still, every writer has been inundated with questions about what happened with Andre Braugher and why he wanted to leave the show. It’s just like, no, no, no, it’s going to be fine. We’re not getting rid of everyone’s favorite characters.
AVC: That’s the initial reassurance anyone reading this article will need.
LDT: Yes. Holt is not gone from the show. And Gina’s not gone from the show. We just thought that a change of scenery would provide us with some new storytelling opportunities. Hopefully.
AVC: Let’s start from the top. Do you have a list of cold opens? How do those get picked for each particular episode?
LDT: We have a list of them and then we almost always write them at the very last minute. They are the first thing that airs always, and obviously they start the episode, but they’re always the last thing that gets written because they’re usually just disconnected, free-standing little comedy bits.
This one was weird because we don’t tend to write episodes where the stories are thematically linked and there’s a lot of heavy symbolism. But this one, the episode ends up being so much about change that we liked the idea of starting it out with seeing them all having a little bit of trouble dealing with change, given where the episode is going to go. And I think for awhile a lot of the episode was set in front of the empty gaping hole where the vending machine used to be.
I think we came up with this idea on the morning of our table read for this episode.
AVC: So you just have to sit there and say, “How are we going to represent change in about 90 seconds?”
LDT: They have the whole rest of the episode broken out and then we’re trying to think of what the cold open will be. Often you’re just trying to think of something that will be physical and fun. And you often try to think about cold opens in terms of, is there a character who’s light in this episode. We have so many characters that sometimes people are given a little short shift in any given episode, so you try to think, is there someone who needs a couple really good jokes this week?
Somebody probably pitched this idea and then we decided we liked it because it could tie into what was happening in the rest of the episode.
AVC: And you got to break some glass and knock stuff over.
LDT: Yeah. We often try to think of things that are big and physical for these openings.
But I can’t tell you how little planning goes into this stuff. By the end—this is our 23rd episode last year, and at that point, we’re so behind and we’re so run down and we’re so out of ideas, that nothing is the result of long-term planning. It’s all just us scrambling to get something done.
AVC: Have you been with the show since the beginning?
LDT: Yeah. I came on right after the pilot.
AVC: One big through-line, through both the finale and the show, has been Jake and Amy. Will they or won’t they? Has that always been by design?
LDT: It’s obviously always been there from the pilot. You could tell that was a thing that we were building to. At the same time it’s this appealing thing that’s out there for our writers. Out there for when you’re writing it.
I think that we were also as a staff afraid of falling into that will-they-or-won’t-they trap, especially too early, because it’s a very appealing thing to write towards because it gives you stories and it gives you conflict and it’s an easy way of getting an audience to root for your main characters. At the same time, it’s such a trope and it’s such a hard thing to do in such a way that doesn’t feel a 100 percent familiar or derivative.
We held off doing it in season one at first. I think we even pulled away. There was a bet between Jake and Amy and that sort of flirty competition was pretty absent for the first six or seven episodes. I don’t remember how long it took. As we were writing that first season, we were still finding Jake’s character. He was sometimes coming across as a little too cocky, a little too confident, and we wanted to make sure we could ground and humanize him. He’s a pretty good cop and he’s a pretty confident person, and we wanted to find a scenario where he could be an underdog.
We leaned into the Jake and Amy thing where he liked a girl who he thought was—and probably was—objectively better than him. We thought it was a nice humanizing thing that knocked him down a peg and gave you something that you could root for Jake, putting him in that underdog role. And then once we were committed to the idea that he liked her a little bit, which you saw in that season one bet episode, then it was just a question of how fast to move and what our end game was and what felt like.
You want to find an original take on it, but you also don’t want to be scared of things that have worked for shows since the beginning of time. At a certain point, there are only so many things you can do with a romance.
AVC: Just because Jake is a great cop doesn’t mean he’s a great person, either. Or, rather, he’s not much of a functional adult.
LDT: That’s certainly a thing that we try to do. Nobody wants a main character who’s perfect at everything. A complaint among writers is that you always get the note from networks that all the characters have to be good at their jobs and it feels like that’s the enemy of comedy. But, on this show, we found that, given that they’re cops, it does sometimes feel like if they’re actually too bad at their jobs, it becomes hard to root for them. If there’s a story where Charles and Jake are having some petty little fight about something and then they screw up a case, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for either of them, whereas if they worked at a magazine, you don’t really care if they’re screwing up whatever article they have to write. We’ve sought to find ways in which Jake could be bad at things that are not being a cop.
AVC: You also have to convince people that these two characters might actually want to date each other. What incentive does Amy have to like Jake, other than him being kind of handsome?
LDT: Exactly. We wanted to give him somewhere to have to grow to. You want to give him something to be working toward and he’s a guy who, professionally, he has the job he wants. He doesn’t want to be the boss. It’s not Jim from The Office, where there is this whole world of things he could want outside of being a salesman at a paper company. This guy is happy in his job, so we wanted to give him something to aspire to. We settled on the idea that, at least for the first two years, he wanted to aspire to be a grown-up enough person that Amy would like him. That gave him room for an emotional arc.
AVC: Talking about the will-they-or-won’t-they, for awhile on the show it was always about Charles. It was Charles and Diaz, and then Charles and whatever he had going with Gina. Is that done? Are we supposed to read something into him knowing what she wanted for her birthday?
LDT: I read some response to the finale where people thought that the point of that story was saying that really Rosa and Charles were meant to be together and not Rosa and Marcus. That was not our intention with this story. What I think happened was a case of, you have guest stars like Nick Cannon, and you want to write plots with them, but the blessing and the curse of our cast is that we have all these amazing actors and they all have unique voices and they’re all so, so talented and there are seven of them—nine if you count Hitchcock and Scully—and it’s just so hard in 21 minutes to find room for everyone to be funny and to get a little bit of a story and maybe have a nice emotional moment. And so what we ended up doing I don’t think was fair to Nick Cannon, who I don’t think we’ve given nearly as much fun stuff to do as we would like. But if you have a story about Marcus throwing Rosa a birthday party, when we really get down to writing it, we would rather spend time with Rosa and Charles than Rosa and Marcus just because Charles is our character and we want to see that. So it became a friendship story, and I think some people saw it as us trying to say that they were meant to be together.
AVC: Marcus could only put that party together with Charles’ help.
LDT: We found that the Charles/Rosa relationship was really great in season one and it gave us something to write to for a long time. But it also became constrictive and we tried really hard in season two to just do away with it. To let them have a friendship and grown-up interactions where there wasn’t this subtext all the time that Charles was in love with her.
It’s the same with Charles and Gina. We tried to put those relationships in the past. The Gina one is obviously more alive, though, because their parents are married now, which we keep coming back to.
AVC: How do you write physical comedy? For example, in “Johnny And Dora,” when Terry is trying to break into the filing cabinet, how is that represented in script?
LDT: You try to write it out as much as you can. Physical stuff is hard because it’s what you most want to get on set to see how it’s going to play and envision the space and envision what you can do and at the same time, it’s the thing that you have to be the most precise about in a script because they need to prepare. If you want Terry to pick up a cabinet—Terry [Crews] is the strongest human being I’ve ever met, but you still don’t want him to have to, take after take, pick up a gigantic heavy filing cabinet. So they have to make a filing cabinet that’s hollowed out and doesn’t actually have drawers in it. And they have to be prepared if you want him to jimmy a thing open—that was on location on some stages in downtown L.A., and they have to have a ruler for him to try and crowbar. And if you want that to snap, it needs to be scored so it snaps off.
It’s hard, because you really have to know what you want with the physical stuff as you’re writing it so that the hundreds of people who work on the production team are prepare. You can’t get there and make a huge change to any of that stuff. I think that scene was pretty specific, where we knew that Terry would be in there and that he would try the drawers and they would be locked. Then he would try to break them open with a crowbar type thing and it would snap off, then he would just end up picking it up and heading out the door.
The funny thing about that scene is that stuff is very specific, but the dialogue in that scene was very loosey-goosey. It was heavily improvised by Chelsea [Peretti] and by Billy Merritt, who played the file clerk, or whatever we said his position was. He was a guy some of our writers had known and he’s very funny. We had liked him as a performer, and we wrote the part so that she would talk to him about bird watching, because somebody said that Billy Merritt actually knows a lot about birds, and so we did the laziest thing possible, which is that we wrote the scene and we got on set and I said to him, “just improvise. Just talk about birds.” There’s a full 20 minutes of footage of him just talking about different kinds of owls, [and that footage] never aired, and that made me laugh so much.
It’s so much fun to make changes on the fly and adjust as you go and see what the actors come up with. But anytime there’s a physical thing or a stunt, it has to be really planned out to the smallest detail.
AVC: What about the scene in the restaurant where Jake and Amy finally say nice things about each other, though it’s supposed to be as Johnny and Dora? How carefully did that have to be scripted? It seems like since it changes the tone of their relationship and changes the tone of the show and the whole scenario, that has got to be something that you have to get exactly right.
LDT: The interesting thing is that I would totally agree with you, but that scene was largely found on set, weirdly, though it absolutely was not the kind of thing that we shouldn’t have left to chance. That was our hardest scene in writing the episode because we weren’t 100 percent sure what we wanted besides the idea that they’re sort of lying to protect their cover. I think we understood going in writing that they are trying to maintain a professional relationship and then they are thrust into this night where they have to go through an incredibly romantic evening together and then they are being egged on by this criminal to push themselves into more and more romantic territory. But when we were on set we were finding there was a lot of comedy but there wasn’t much happening emotionally in the scene. It felt like things were flat-lining between Jake and Amy a little bit. Dan Goor, who created the show, was on set with me that day and he and I and Andy [Samberg] and Melissa [Fumero] spent a long time talking about the scene. I think that’s the most takes that we’ve ever done, and there was a ton of improv. And then we paused the camera and we’d write new stuff to get to that moment to them actually saying something sincere about what they liked each other. And I think what you see was a pitch Dan had late after we had already done 10 takes and we still felt like the scene wasn’t working—that this comedy scene would get to this brief glimpse of something true between them.
I never know if people want to hear that everything is planned out and happens exactly as we thought it would or if it’s all chaos. Chaos is often much closer to the truth than people think.
AVC: Well, the kisses are in the script, right? Those aren’t spontaneous.
LDT: No, there was always a structure. We’re not just making it up.
AVC: Otherwise it would be very hard to shoot.
LDT: There’s an awful lot of stuff that you sort of find just spontaneously all throughout the process. It’s what’s exciting.
AVC: It seems like it would be fun to write for Wuntch and Holt.
LDT: It could not be more fun. The reason we sort of introduced Wuntch was that we always wanted some villain for season two sand some downward pressure on the precinct as a whole that we could use for stories. Captain Holt is such a smart and competent character, and Andre brings such intelligence and dignity to it by virtue of just being Andre with his amazing performance, that we worried after season one that the character of Holt could tip into being a little saintly. Someone who never made mistakes. So we really liked the idea that there was a character from his past or a nemesis who would just bring out this incredibly childish side of this incredibly dignified man. It was endlessly fun for us to write him just having this blind spot for this one person, where he was reduced to name-Acalling and bickering.
AVC: But awkward name-calling.
LDT: Yeah, awkward. Not at all what either of them are good at. It is so much fun to write. And to see these like cracks in his veneer of perfection.
AVC: Or to see him getting patted down.
LDT: Again, those are things that at some point were so long in some cuts. There was so much footage of that. It was really fun.
The idea of some sort of simmering attraction at least from Wuntsch toward Holt crept in over the season. I think a lot of that came from an idea that was Kyra Sedgwick’s originally. At some point we were talking to her about why they hated each other so much and I think it was her idea that maybe somewhere deep inside, Wuntch is still totally madly in love with Captain Holt. We ended up running with that a lot, and it was fun.
AVC: She also really screws him in this episode. And then Holt has a bit of an emotional breakdown.
LDT: We’ve set Holt up as something of a brilliant guy, and over the course of season two, he was outsmarted by Wuntch. We kept trying to find ways where he could lose to her, but not in ways that didn’t undermine the audience’s respect for him as a character or make seem stupid. In the previous episode, we liked the idea that he lost in winning, that he had a victory and that her plan all along had been to promote him out of there as opposed to demote him. And then in that last moment we liked the idea that he earned the victory and he gets this letter and he outsmarts her and he nominally has a victory, but then he’s undone by what we saw as the difference between the two characters, which is that he still has a little heart and a little bit of humanity. As much as we play him as this emotionless robot, he cares about these people who he works with and he’s not willing to let them be hurt and he sacrifices. I don’t even remember if it was in the script, but we did have lines in there at one time about how she really saw that as a core difference between them, that he would let himself care about people and she used it against him.
AVC: She’s a bit of an evil queen figure in a way. She’s willing to slash and burn.
LDT: She’s terrible. It’s fun to write, but we’ve talked at times about trying to find little ways to keep her… you know it’s fun to have a character you just hate, but we’ve tried at different times to find a little bit of humanity for her. And that’s a thing we’re still working with going forward.
Andre is just so incredible in that last scene when he leaves. He’s this amazing actor who is so funny on the show and he’s so much fun to work for, but so often, the funniest direction in any given scene or any given joke is for him to be very emotionless and very robotic. That’s what‘s so fun about the character and he’s so good at it, but he’s this like wildly talented actor. Sometimes you’re like, “We should really be giving him big monologues with real emotion to play.” I think this was a scene where it’s not a huge speech and it’s not like one of his monologues from Homicide, but it was a little bit of emotion to play. Being on set, it felt like he was getting something with a little meat on it, so he was excited and he just knocked it out of the park. We were so happy with how that scene turned out.
AVC: And he ends it with the meep morp stuff, so it’s still funny, but also heartbreaking. You have to walk that line.
LDT: We always have trouble with that, and every comedy does. You always have trouble with how to handle things that are emotional or things that are serious, if there’s something actually happening in the plot and you still have to have characters tell jokes and not seem like monsters.
On set, Andy was having trouble with the first time that Jake breaks in after Holt says, “I’m sorry for getting so emotional.” I think that Jake says some equivalent of, “Pretty consistent tone, actually.” Andy felt like Jake was being a dick. Like, clearly this guy is coming out and something emotional is happening and he has to tell this joke. You need those jokes for the scene, but you don’t want to just have Jake be this insensitive monster who is making jokes at the most inappropriate times. So we often struggle with that.
We write jokes and they read really funny and you do a table read and they get laughs and then you watch an emotional moment on screen and you think it seems crazy that we put jokes in the middle of this real scene.
The final kiss between Jake and Amy in the evidence room, that was a scene that had a lot more to it. It had a lot more jokes originally. Gina leaving and going with Holt played as a flashback in that scene in terms of how it was scripted. We shot it so it could be continuous with Holt leaving if we wanted. Originally they threw to a flashback of Gina in the middle of their big emotional scene and there were more jokes between them. But when we got on set, Andy and Melissa felt like just stripping away the comedy of that scene really helped. Just letting that play as a real moment and relaxing and letting us go 20 seconds without a laugh or an attempted laugh. And it’s great when it works and it’s a good lesson, because I think sometimes we get afraid that if you go three lines of dialogue and someone isn’t telling a joke that you’re not doing your job.
AVC: Don’t writers think it’s harder to write for couples that are happy or together? Like, where do you go from there?
LDT: I think it’s hard for comedy writers to write anything too sincere because our natural inclination is always to undercut everything with a joke and be afraid of feeling preachy or sappy or trite. You just feel like, “Are people not going to think we’re just being like so sappy and dumb if they just kiss and it’s this nice moment and we play it on looks between each other and don’t we need some hilarious joke here?” You get very nervous about it.
I watch the cuts come in, and I was so, so happy with how well the movements in that scene played without huge jokes. But again, it’s also a big finale and big things were happening and you can’t do that every week with every story.
AVC: You don’t end on that kiss, either.
LDT: Yes, there’s another cliffhanger. More importantly, we end on a totally insane joke from Hitchcock where he says, “What if it’s me. I just hope I’m ready,” which is the craziest thing.
That cliffhanger with the captain, that was something we knew we were going to have for awhile. Those two things: that Jake and Amy would kiss, but not know what it meant, and that we would have a new captain. We knew we were building toward that through the last third of the season at least.
Again, at [the time of this interview] we’ve now figured everything out because we’re 10 episodes into writing season three. But at the end of 23 episodes, we’re also exhausted and spent, and we didn’t know who the new captain would be. We didn’t know what we were going to do with Jake and Amy. We ended the season as writers in the same headspace as the audience, where we had no idea what was going to happen next. It’s exciting in that way, because we got to take a little break and a hiatus and come back. Everyone had lived with it and watched the finale as it aired and we talked about it a little bit even when we came back because we’re obviously writers, but also with a little more objectivity than you’d normally get. As fans of the show, just about what we wanted to see happen. It was exciting to not know totally where we were going. And now we’ve settled on directions for both those things and I think it’s very fun.
AVC: Can the audience guess where things are going to go?
LDT: No, definitely not. You have no idea.
AVC: Oh, scandalous!
LDT: [Laughs.] No, you can almost definitely guess where things are going.
It’s great. We had a season three picked up very early for a show last year, and I think that allowed us to leave things very open ended. Mike [Schur] and Dan [Goor] come from Parks [And Rec], and Parks was always living in limbo at the time when they would be writing their finale. They weren’t ever guaranteed of a pickup. Mike’s talked about how many possible series finales they had to write for Parks. I think he always had to end seasons in a place where if the show never came back, that it would be a satisfying ending for the fans. But then it had enough of a hook and a throw forward and left enough intriguing stuff that people were excited for a subsequent season and it didn’t feel like you wrapped up everything.
We had the benefit of knowing we were coming back, so we could just lean fully into these big cliffhangers and not resolve things.
AVC: Do you guys feel outside pressure at all? Are people hitting you up on Twitter with story suggestions?
LDT: I don’t feel any pressure in one particular direction. I think we certainly feel like we’ve invested time in trying to get the audience to care about the characters and to care about the storyline of Jake and Amy and if you ask people to care, you don’t want to do anything that feels like a slap in the face. You want to honor the emotional investment that you’ve asked people to put into the show and put into the characters and into that couple. But when you open yourself up to listening to people on Twitter or on the internet now, you get such divergent opinions.
Our show is an interesting show because we do a lot of different things and we have episodes that are very broad and stories that are very police heavy and stories that are very small and emotional. Sometimes the show plays like a real workplace comedy and other times we lean into relationship based stuff. We have seven characters and we focus on different ones at different times and when you listen to people, everyone likes different things. When you actually really listen to everyone you get such a cacophony of differing opinions. There is no consensus about what everyone wants. You open up Twitter and people are like, “Ugh, enough Jake and Amy.” And someone else is like “Peralgo! Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point.” And that doesn’t help us at all.
Ignoring it is nice because it just frees you up to feel like we should just do what we think will be the most satisfying because you can’t make everyone happy. You just have to do what you think is going to be the best for the show, and it will be interesting.
What’s good for us with Jake and Amy is that it is still an office place sitcom and it is still a cop show and wherever we go with them as a relationship, it doesn’t have to be the sole focus of every single plot in every single episode. We’re not a show that is first and foremost a romantic comedy, so that allowed us to really slow play the will-they-or-won’t-they stuff in season two. You would have an episode about it and then you’d have three episodes where they weren’t partnered together, or if they were interacting they were just interacting about a case. There are stories that we can tell that aren’t just Jake and Amy, or about what’s going on with the two of them. It gives you a lot of options to stretch out that material and not feel like we’re running through it so in season three you’re going to feel like they’ve gotten together and broken up and gotten together and broken up.
We’ll see where it goes.
AVC: I didn’t know that they had a couple name.
LDT: I think the internet has settled on Peralgo, but I’m not sure. There might be an entirely different camp that like Santialta.