Fall 2014

Cop Comedy

Brooklyn Nine-Nine ADs Tony Nahar and Kenny Roth and their team keep the set relaxed and ready to go. They might even make the show funnier.


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COOL GUYS: Tony Nahar (left) and fellow 1st AD Kenny Roth meet for lunch in their office and compare notes daily. They seem to exude equanimity at all times. (Photo: Eddy Chen/Fox)

Can assistant directors help make a comedy series even funnier? Tony Nahar and Kenny Roth, the 1st assistant directors on Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, think so.

“A sense of humor is very important,” insists Nahar. “In my case, it’s just keeping the mood light on set. I will sacrifice myself to be the butt of a joke to get a laugh and then I will immediately roll that energy right into a take. The mood on set is essential for our show in keeping the energy level elevated, and I do believe the enjoyable atmosphere has a positive effect on what ultimately ends up on the screen.”

“I think we do make the show funnier in some respects,” Roth says. “It helps if you have a rapport with the writer or the director. We’ve come up with things where we’ll say, ‘It might be funny if this person does that.’”

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is currently shooting its second season, is another workplace comedy from Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation), who created the show with Dan Goor. It centers on the disparate eccentric detectives in a Brooklyn police precinct, led by frenetically acerbic Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and deadpan Capt. Ray Holt (Andre Braugher).

“First AD is the hardest job on the set,” says Schur. “No one ever gives you credit; everyone only gives you blame. Tony and Kenny have the right temperament for the job. They never get their feathers ruffled. They say you never know the names of the best NFL referees because they never make mistakes and never call attention to themselves. That’s the best tribute you can give to them, and that’s what you can say about Tony and Kenny.”

“Their jobs require an unbelievable amount of attention and coordination,” adds Goor. “Our shoots run so smoothly, no matter what we throw at them. They can take tattered bits of ideas and work out a schedule. What a clinic in TV-making it is to watch them work. They’re at the nexus of everything—they have to know everyone else’s job, and they do. They’re incredibly calm and laid back and fun, and funny people. They make our set hum.”

Clearly, you don’t have to be a dictator to make the trains run on time. Roth and Nahar never seem to exude anything other than equanimity at all times. They’re assisted in their efforts by 2nd AD Audrey Clark, 2nd 2nd AD Stephen L. Dudycha, and UPM Richard H. Prince.

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1st AD Tony Nahar says a sense of humor helps keep the mood light on the set. (Photo: Eddy Chen/Fox)

Today, the production, housed on Studio City’s CBS Radford Avenue lot, is shooting its Halloween episode, which features a flashback to the last season’s Halloween show. Nahar is running the set for Eric Appel, directing his first episode of the series. Elsewhere on the lot, Roth is prepping the next episode. So while Capt. Holt sits fuming in his office, the show’s other characters are outside in the detective’s bullpen clad in Halloween costumes and joking with one another. Their dialogue is largely improvised.

“As the actors, writer, and director are coming up with improvised dialogue and action, I’m simultaneously working with Gio [Lampassi, director of photography] and the camera operators to quickly stage the action so everyone’s in position to properly capture the newly restructured scene,” Nahar explains later. “Sometimes you only get one take at it and you want to shoot as fast as possible before the potential magic is lost.”

Onstage, he calls out to his cast and crew, “All three cameras are in Holt’s office. He’s plotting his revenge; you’re all out here laughing. We’re not going to rehearse it.” A momentary glitch prevents shooting, so Nahar keeps the energy level high by declaring, “Seconds away!”

“Tony’s been great,” says Appel, who has also directed episodes of New Girl and About a Boy. “There are certain shows I’ve been on where it’s very stressful and you’re fighting to get your day done in less than 14 hours, but Tony just has this level of confidence that this show runs a certain way and it will run that way while I’m working on it. It puts me at ease.

“He gave me an overview on how everything operates, as far as how the crew works and the do’s and don’ts of how to cover a scene,” Appel continues. “It’s a loose, handheld style like Parks and Rec, but without giving it a documentary feel. There are certain rules about shooting through windows—they don’t want any of those sneaky documentary shots. I had this plan to shoot it a certain way and Tony was like, ‘We don’t exactly do it that way; we don’t shoot it like a documentary.’”

Back on set, a number of extras playing arresting cops and arrested perps in Halloween garb perambulate in the background. Second AD Clark assists visiting directors in selecting those background actors. “I find out if they like this kind of look as opposed to that kind of look,” she explains, pulling out her iPad and scrolling through pages of headshots she has prepared in the past, with a few actors’ faces circled to denote approval. “For some shows, they’re looking for interesting or more character-y faces; for other shows, they’re looking for people who won’t stand out as much.

“I love it when directors don’t want to pick the background,” she continues. “That’s one part you can have a lot of creative input, where a lot of my job otherwise is clerical in a way.”

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GETTING READY: Roth says the show will occasionally move so fast and smoothly they’ll shoot scenes from the next day. “I love getting the script and figuring out the schedule and trying to make it fit.” (Photo: Eddy Chen/Fox)

During their lunch hour, Nahar and Roth hang out in their office to discuss the day’s work. They speak in measured tones with similar cadences; they seem more like brothers than co-workers.

Nahar came to Brooklyn Nine-Nine when Schur recruited him from Parks and Recreation, and Roth returned for season two after wrapping the final season of The Newsroom.

“They’re different shows, that’s for sure,” Roth says of his two most recent projects. “There was no improvisation on The Newsroom. Scenes were six pages and the actors were right on it and knew all their lines. But we would also do more takes to get the tone of the scene right as well as the exact dialogue.

“In this, scenes are all generally under two pages,” he continues. “So it’s a little easier for the actors, and Andy and the cast are so good at improvisation that they don’t have to be right on with the exact dialogue. Most of the time the alternate lines can be read in what we call a series. Andy or one of the other actors will just do the alternate lines, as many as four or five, one after the other, and we don’t have to keep resetting from the beginning.”

Roth points out another important difference between Newsroom and Brooklyn Nine-Nine: “Both shows use three [handheld] cameras, but in The Newsroom, we used different setups each time. Here, Gio does a fantastic job of setting up the shots with the three cameras [locked in position] and you do it that way and you’re done. This way, the humor stays fresh and you don’t have to come around to the other side and do another three-camera setup and reshoot it.”

Even given Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s improvisatory atmosphere, Nahar adds, “It’s important for us to make sure we get scripted takes cleanly, so I’ll work with the actors to help us nail the script. I also try to make each shot better by working with the technicians, so the director can focus on the performance and jokes.”

Some directors new to the show need to be informed that Brooklyn Nine-Nine shoots its scenes from one side of the axis and there are no turnaround shots. “It’s a new thing for some of them, but it’s something you can grasp pretty quickly,” says Nahar.

Nahar is particularly proud of the fact that Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s production days are relatively short by industry standards. If the cast and crew are in at 7 a.m., they’re often out by 4 p.m.

At least, Roth jokes, “Tony’s episodes are. He must just be better. Mine tend to be longer.” Though he’ll also later note, “Occasionally we shoot so fast we bring up scenes from the next day and still finish in under 12 hours.”

UPM Prince likes to say his job is “like being the plumber who’s waiting for the pipes to break—if you have a good crew, then the pipes aren’t going to break. And we have a good crew.”

Roth and Nahar credit their ability to avoid leaky pipes to the assiduous preparation they put in before each episode goes into production. “Things get flagged from Tuesday through Friday when we have meetings every single day. By Thursday, we’re in great shape. I can’t think of a quandary we had in the moment on the set.”

Prep work for future episodes begins before Nahar or Roth even see a script. “I got notes on what’s coming up in the next episode,” says Roth. “We don’t have a script yet, but we can start scouting locations tomorrow and know where we’re shooting and start preparing the schedule.

“I love getting the script and figuring out the schedule and trying to make it fit,” he adds. The ADs chart for the incoming directors what scenes should be shot and where, and on what days of production. “A five-day schedule would seem pretty easy to put together, but all kinds of variables come up that you have to work around: This location isn’t available on this day, and this actor has something else to do on that day. That’s fun for me to work out.”

“And even if we don’t have a script,” says Nahar, “we can bring the director down to the set and introduce them to the different locations—the office, the break room—and tell them how much time it takes to work on that set.”

Given that most directors on the series have directed only one episode, Roth and Nahar have given that maiden tour many times. They also direct the principal cast members when they appear in the background of scenes. Second 2nd AD Dudycha takes care of moving the extras.

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Team Players: (top) UPM Richard H. Prince, with Nahar and 2nd AD Audrey Clark, brought in a stunt team and coordinator to be a part of the show; (bottom) 2nd 2nd AD Stephen L. Dudycha, with Nahar, is responsible for moving the extras in a scene.(Photos: Eddy Chen/Fox)

In the beginning, Brooklyn Nine-Nine used only two cameras on each take. “One growing pain was figuring out how long it would take to shoot a scene,” Roth recalls. “Getting that three-camera format and the blocking resolved that. More coverage, less time to finish a heavy day.”

“It created great performance value,” Nahar adds. “We can now get our wider shots and variances in coverage as well as close-ups with the performances at their peak.”

Prince, charged with crunching the budget numbers, justified the added expense of an additional camera with the amount of time it saved on set. “That was the biggest aspect in evolving the rhythm of our show,” he says.

Prince, who previously worked on CSI: NY, brought some invaluable experience to this very different cop show. “You don’t think of a comedy as a stunt-heavy show, but we’re flying people up in the air, doing pratfalls and fire gags, we have water gags, so it’s not all that different from CSI, only with a comedic bent,” he says. “I got hired on Brooklyn Nine-Nine two weeks after CSI: NY was canceled, so that stunt team was available, and I was quick to hire them. When you’re doing stunts, it’s a mistake to pick up people a day here or a day there. You want to make them part of the creative team. Once I brought in a stunt coordinator, they started to rewrite episodes to exploit that.”

Prince’s forethought was rewarded when the series won an Emmy for Norman Howell’s stunt coordination in its first season.

Howell was busy indeed during Roth’s previous episode, Roth recalls. “We had slips and falls and fire extinguishers, we had a fight, we had people running over barricades, we had a football game, so it was one of our bigger productions. We shot at a football field and [director] Rebecca [Asher] and Norman got together and we plotted out four different plays for them to run. So when Norm brought out his stunt guys and the actors, it went really fast. With good directors like Rebecca, it’s all about the prep.”

The football sequence featured a former NFL player who showed up late on the set, forcing Roth himself to improvise. “I brought the cameras out to the field and we shot crowd reactions. I had our AD team line up and act out the plays we were going to do and we shot reactions of the background. The rest of the morning went smoothly because of our tireless prep.”

Clark also helps coordinate the stunts. In the case of the football game, it was a simple matter of securing a football from the prop department. But in the same episode, a stunt was added at the last moment for one of the cast members.

“So I had to get the stunt coordinator involved and figure out if the actor could do it,” she recalls. “They wanted him to slip and fall. So how do you shoot it? Do you want a stunt guy? Do you want it off-camera? Can the actor do it? Some actors have bad backs. Little things like that popped up. I love putting my two cents in, whether it’s asked for or not. I go on a lot of the tech scouts and attend as many of the meetings as I can. The costume supervisor told me, ‘I’ve never known a 2nd AD to go to all these meetings,’ and I was, like, ‘That’s what I do.’”

Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s cast and crew seem a world away from the dysfunctional bunch the program portrays, and they’re bound together by the directing team. As Goor says, “I’ve had people come up to me on the crew who have worked for 30 years in TV and say, ‘This is the most pleasurable set I’ve ever worked on.’ And all the credit goes to those guys.”

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