Thomas Lennon, Ben Garant, and the Lasting Legacy of ‘Reno 911!’
The team of Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant are a match made in comedy entertainment heaven. As members of the comedy troupe and MTV television show The State, these two created (along with Kerri Kenney-Silver) and starred in the ever popular, Reno 911! After six seasons and the Reno 911!: Miami film, the duo has written blockbuster films, a book about writing said blockbuster films and yet still finds time to appear on television and in film.
Five years after the show concluded, the complete series is now available on DVD. I spoke to the pair about the series’ character and sketch inspirations and shared experiences with police lessons in the classroom.
Thomas Lennon: [laughs] We were basically just saying that we’ve mastered creating TV shows that people love, really adore 5-10 years after they get cancelled— it’s sort of our thing.
Those are the ‘cult classics,’ if you will.
TL: That’s our jam! [laughs] Exactly, they’re gonna love us when we’re dead!
Oh God, well that is the sign of a true artist [laughing].
Ben Garant: There you go!
Are any of the characters in Reno 911! based on, or influenced by real people in your lives?
TL: Here’s what I’ll say at the risk of embarrassing everyone in the cast: I think that everyone in Reno 911! is playing a very slightly bizarro-universe version of themselves. Everyone is playing a version of themselves that could have happened, had they been left to their own devices and not gotten into comedy. But, that’s why I think people find all the characters so solid and still like them 10 years later, no one’s doing some huge bit.
TL: I just turn up the gay side of me, which is fairly strong already and then Ben turns up his inner “zen hillbilly”
BG: Who I really am. I really am that guy.
TL: But then you find out later that Travis is blind and can’t read. Cedric [Yarbrough] is sort of a ladies’ man and Kerri has some crazy aspects of her personality. All we’ve done is take those things that hover around a 2 or a 3 and turned them up to an 11.
BG: I think our Reno cops are basically if you made us make fun of ourselves at a party. That is what we would do. We would do those characters and not really think about it. We didn’t develop the characters; everyone just put on a name tag and started improvising. I mean, people didn’t have time to think up some weird, convoluted back story. People just started being themselves, and it really worked, and it’s really fun.
If you were born in a different place or grow up how you did, anybody could have slipped into that type of character. That could be what your life was like [laughs].
Where did the idea come from for the character interviews? That’s probably my favourite part of the show because it’s so realistic to see how people actually talk about each other.
BG: In the TV show Cops. Originally when we did the show it was going to be a companion piece for Cops on FOX, it was going to be after Cops on Saturday night. FOX passed, it was too weird. Then Comedy Central bought it years later. In the original Cops they sort of phased it out, but for the first few seasons they go home with the cops and there are a lot of cops in the car being interviewed about their lives. Later they sort of phased it out when it became more action-packed. So when we were doing the pilot for FOX we thought, “What interstitials do we do?” We needed some sort of interstitials to get you from one sketch to the next and that just was the natural thing to do. We realized this is a really good glue to put the show together. There’s a bit of soap opera or plot that can come out clearly in the scene. We can just cut to somebody’s face saying, “You know what, I really hate that Dangle and I’m gonna get him at this bachelor party.” It really is a great way to sort of lay track in a quick, organic way. People are really funny in them. We didn’t tell people what to say, we just asked questions and people really shined with their personalities in the straight to camera thing.
You can really see the chemistry between the characters on camera in those instances.
BG: Yeah, I totally agree.
TL: I think the really nice thing is, the reason it has maintained, is no one is censoring anything they’re saying. There’s no committee that approves any jokes you hear. No one approved anything we say or do on the show. Basically [it was] unconditional support from Comedy Central who were like, “Yeah, go nuts!” I actually can’t even really think of when they gave a note other then, “Cut that, it’s too long” and they got bored.
BG: Yeah, but creatively they just trusted us. They really let us go. They gave us a very long leash, if any leash at all.
Which is very rare.
BG: Yeah, you know if you are doing a TV show kids, keep it cheap and you get—
TL: A lot of leeway.
Were the community outreach in school scenes inspired by your experiences growing up? Those scenes take me back to Elementary school with cops telling us young kids, “This is bad and this is bad.” Did you have any of that growing up?
TL: Those were really fun to shoot. The fun thing about shooting those is that the kids were never there.
BG: Yeah, we would go in first thing in the morning and shoot out the side of the room we were looking at, to the kids.
TL: Cause everything we did after the kids left, was some of the grossest and weirdest.
TL: Like it was always something really weird.
BG: In Tennessee we had the junior deputy program that took place twice a year. A cop, I think he was a Lieutenant, came and addressed us third-graders. And I remember very specifically one, where he described a case where a guy kicked in a screen door, walked inside, grabbed a kid and left. Now, how did he catch that guy? For the whole hour, kids guessed, “Fingerprints?” Nope. “A description of him?” Nope. It was a whole hour of guessing and nobody got it. At the end he said, “Microfibres on the screen door” and that was the whole class.
BG & TL: (laughing)
BG: It was like an hour and I remember thinking, “Wow!” As an adult I remember looking back at that thinking that guy probably forgot he was doing this until they told him 5 minutes before that he was going to go teach a class of third-graders about—
TL: About how likely you’re going to get abducted?
TL: And they may not find that guy who does it?
BG: Yup, and they may not catch him. That was the whole hour and I’ll never forget it.
I had something similar. Growing up in the Toronto suburbs, in grade 6 we had a program where an officer came in to teach us about peer pressure, drugs and alcohol. They made us put on play about it and write our own little sketches, then present them for our parents and everything.
BG: Drugs and alcohol… [laughs] right.
TL: The way we handled drugs on Reno 911! you always know the cops talk about different drugs like, “Wow, they know a lot about drugs!”
TL & BG: [laughing].
TL: Obviously it wasn’t knowledge of something scientific. They know a ton about whipits, they know about trucker speed, they know about everything you do.
They’re always in the know. How was The State reunion at Festival Supreme in LA? It looked like a lot of fun.
TL: It was a lot of fun except for some of the backstage stuff. [Laughs]
What are you guys working on right now?
TL: We just wrote a movie for Sacha Baron Cohen called The Lesbian.
BG: A great experience, he’s really great to work with.
TL: A lot of fun. We wrote a movie for FOX called Choose your Own Adventure that Rawson Thurber is directing. So a couple big studio projects, things like that. Ben has two different movies coming out with Blumhouse [Productions].
BG: A little horror movie called Jessabelle that’s out now, then another one coming out in the Spring I think. And Tom is in every single thing on TV, he’s in everything. When does Monster Trucks come out?
TL: Next Memorial Day — a little Paramount movie.
BG: A quiet little weekend to drop a little movie [laughs].