Splitsider

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

'Reno 911!' Meets 'Cheers' in Tom Lennon and Ben Garant's Rejected NBC Pilot 'The Strip'

"The Script Pile" is a biweekly column on Splitsider that takes a look at the screenplays for high-profile movie and TV comedies that never made it to the screen.

After Comedy Central abruptly canceled Reno 911! in the fall of 2009, co-creators/stars Tom Lennon and Ben Garant spun around and sold a new show to NBC in just a couple months' time. Following the cancelation, Garant said this in an interview:

"We had a great run on Reno — 87 episodes and a movie. Not too shabby … Our next show is gonna be better, and it's gonna have a lot of the same faces from Reno … To tell the truth, I was thinking that Reno was gonna be my last TV show … Movies are very, very good to me; What do I need TV for? But, no. Getting fired in a kinda crappy way makes me wanna do another show. What's that Squeeze song? 'Now knowing I am single, they'll be fire in my eyes.' We're gonna do a new show."

Lennon and Garant's next show was The Strip, a pilot they sold to NBC in the fall of 2009 and filmed in spring of the following year, and it's the script we're looking at this week. The Strip followed the employees of a run-down strip mall in the outskirts of Las Vegas, with Lennon, Garant, Reno alum Cedric Yarbrough, Andrea Savage, Natasha Leggero, Dave Holmes, and newcomer Carrie Wiita starring in the pilot, which was helmed by longtime SNL director Beth McCarthy. After producing the pilot, NBC passed on The Strip and chose Outsourced, Perfect Couples, and The Paul Reiser Show as its new sitcoms for the season — all of which were canceled by the end of the year.

Set in North Las Vegas, an arid sprawl of suburbs and strip malls 15 minutes away from Regular Las Vegas, The Strip finds Lennon and Garant returning to the same geographic region they effectively mined for comedy in Reno. The pilot focuses on the employees of one of these strip malls, with most of the action taking place at Bubba Jr.'s, a tacky Hooters-esque restaurant owned and operated by protagonist Tim (played by Tom Lennon).

Tim isn't exactly the kind of person you'd expect to be running a Hooters clone; he's a hoity-toity, cultured guy who's constantly dropping literally references and French phrases that baffle his beer-swilling, chicken wing-devouring clientele. Tim originally opened Bubba Jr.'s as a classy wine bar with a different name but had to turn it into its current form after no one was interested in his original business. Tim is also a former child star, having acted in the short-lived '80s series Bubba Jr. (after which he named his bar), which was about him, Kenny Rogers, and a bear living on the prairie, a show that he thinks more people are familiar with than actually are.

The Strip's eclectic supporting cast includes Ben Garant as Randy, the strip mall's security guard who never leaves the bar; Andrea Savage as Jackie, Tim's old flame who takes a job at Bubba Jr.'s; Yarbrough as Mr. Maurice, the owner of neighboring shop, The Duke of Mattresses; Natasha Leggero as hard-living waitress Natasha; Dave Holmes as Dave, the gay owner of a Christian bookstore; and Wiita as Ashley, a 20something waitress who Tim is about to start dating until Jackie comes back into his life. It's a nice mix of characters and the interplay between them works well, with Tim a fish out of water in his own bar. Characters like Dave and Natasha don't get a lot of time in the pilot script, but they would have been fleshed out in subsequent episodes if NBC had ordered the series.

The pilot's plot is pretty low-concept with Tim caught in a love triangle between Ashley and new hire Jackie while a subplot tracks him trying to get his slobbish patrons to stop throwing chicken bones on the floor by installing a fun game over the trashcan and another follows Mr. Maurice hiring Tim to use his acting prowess to intimidate a couple into buying an expensive mattress from him. All of it works pretty well despite ignoring a lot of the supporting characters for the sake of showcasing Tim.

While the strip mall is the overarching setting, all of the pilot except for one scene at the Duke of Mattresses takes place at Tim's bar, and that actually winds up being one of the show's strengths. It's rare to see a single-setting sitcom at all these days and a single-setting show set in a bar is, of course, going to inspire comparisons to Cheers. Looking at how effective a bar is as a setting for It's Alway Sunny in PhiladelphiaCheers, and The Strip's pilot, it's surprising more shows haven't used a bar as a central location. Aside from the setting, though, The Strip doesn't have much in common with Cheers, and it's about a very different kind of bar.

In addition to being a primetime show for a major network, The Strip is also a step towards the mainstream for Tom Lennon and Ben Garant in that it's a multi-camera show. Although the draft of the script I read is in single-cam format, Lennon and Garant do a good job of adapting to a network show without losing their style and voice. The Strip is a little cleaner than Reno 911! or The State — it would have to be to fly on NBC primetime — but it still feels like it came from the same folks.

In comparing Reno 911! to The Strip, the biggest change is that, being a multi-camera show, The Strip would have to be tightly-scripted and wouldn't have been able to make use of the loose, improv-heavy style that made Reno feel so fresh. It still works fine, but Lennon and Garant are so great at the half-improvised/half-scripted format that I'd like to see them try it with another series — and they actually did. After NBC passed on The Strip, Lennon and Garant sold a pilot called Alabama to FX, a partly-improvised single-camera comedy about the crew of a United Nations peacekeeping spaceship that many press outlets referred to as "Reno 911! in space."

Alabama seems a little more in their wheelhouse than The Strip, even though the pilot script is funny and sets up a strong potential series. But like NBC, FX bafflingly passed on the post-Reno Lennon/Garant pilot they commissioned too. Not that it's any skin off Lennon and Garant's hides as they're busy with countless movie projects and are exec producing Comedy Central's latest hit, @midnight. Plus, Tom Lennon wound up on a primetime NBC sitcom anyway as the villain on Sean Saves the World, a show that's a safer bet for NBC although it lacks the originality of The Strip.