The Quiet Rise of Good Cop Great Cop

goodcopgreatcopThe fifth episode of New Timers’ second season almost didn’t exist.

It was the sixth day of a six-day shoot in one of the hotter weeks of July, and Charlie Hankin — the digital series’ co-creator and co-writer — was unwell. What began as a containable, behind-the-scenes nausea morphed gradually but irrepressibly into a mana-sapping barrage of symptoms that left Hankin in the hospital and Matt Porter scrambling to piece together an episode without its co-star. The setting was exterior, a rooftop, and depended on a sun rapidly nearing the horizon; assistant director Siena Brown stood in for over-the-shoulder shots of Porter, but the unavoidable truth was that this show could not go on without his scene partner. On the phone, he told Hankin what anyone would tell his best friend, roommate, and collaborator of nearly a decade: don’t worry about the shoot. So there’ll be five episodes instead of six — it won’t be the end of the world for the show which, incidentally, is about the end of the world.

This was the conclusion of a long journey and likely the start of a longer one for Hankin and Porter. Best known for their work as comedy duo Good Cop Great Cop, the two are frighteningly productive for artists so early in their careers: Porter as a filmmaker, Hankin as a painter, illustrator, and animator, both as writer-performers. Frankly, it’s hard to know where to start with them. As comedians, they offer evidence that the form has depths yet to be plumbed. As people, they offer evidence that perhaps there is some higher order to this universe — if not because they met as randomly-assigned roommates at NYU, then because Hankin, against many if not all odds, lurched away from his IV to finish shooting New Timers before sundown.

One of Comedy Central’s “Not For TV” properties, New Timers is very much a product of the duo’s dedication to their sketch work, which they launched a year out of NYU in 2011. That’s a bit of a broad classification, though. While Good Cop Great Cop looks and smells like sketch comedy, and features some of New York’s finest sketch actors, the project was never conceived within the confines of genre. It was simply an outlet for collaboration after a post-grad year that took Hankin and Porter in very different directions.

Upon graduating with a degree in film, Porter returned home to the Bronx to teach film at his former high school. It was a position and department that didn’t exist when he was enrolled, and by fortune the teacher who started it quit before he arrived. “It was a perfect scenario for them to hire someone unqualified who was just out of college,” said Porter. Though he fondly recalls his love for teaching, he says he eventually reached a cold awakening after a year on the job: “Either I need to do this for the next sixty years or I need to leave right now.” After returning from a film festival in Oklahoma City, he cut the cord and slid into freelance life as an editor.

Hankin, whose degree is in mathematics, found himself tutoring math and physics to high schoolers on the Upper East Side. “This was an important day job,” he said, “besides being lucrative and maintaining a life in New York, because it kept me grounded in a passion I otherwise would have abandoned.” It wasn’t his only passion, though. A painter, Hankin spent his first year out of college working on a single painting of himself taking a pie to the face. This was on the side of his tutoring gig, a means of keeping the artistic muscles limber. In the summer of 2011 his priorities shifted and he rented a Greenpoint studio where painting became a full-time pursuit, supported later by a tidy pile of cash he won on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. “I was painting for like eight hours a day in the summer,” he said, “and realized this was the sort of ascetic lifestyle I could really get used to.” He had no trouble envisioning the rest of his life in front of a canvas. “I was like, okay, all I need is fifteen paintings I’m proud of so I can apply to an MFA and then that’s gonna be my career path.”

But it was not to be. That autumn he and Porter launched Good Cop Great Cop and discovered an unforeseen pleasure of close collaboration: as two sharp-witted writers with overlapping sensibilities and quick rapport, the two took very little time to write and produce their material. Working as a duo eliminated what Hankin describes as the “trial and error of standup” — the oft-frustrating cycle of writing, performing, refining, performing, and refining again. The shorthand they’d developed over five years of friendship allowed them to quickly pinpoint and workshop solid material. Their production schedule — initially a new video each week, though that ultimately proved unfeasible — allowed for rapid improvement and experimentation.

In other words, they found they could create more and get better faster than they would in any other medium. For Hankin, a life in painting would entail weeks spent on a single piece, then another, then another, until after a year or two he had enough to open a gallery show — and then start the process all over again. For Porter, well, we all know how long it takes to make a movie.

Good Cop Great Cop is an exciting departure from what we typically recognize as sketch — not only in its distinct voice, but also in its studied formal approach. The work tends to move slowly, even casually, with low stakes that seldom rise. When they do, it’s never as you’d expect. The sketches are generally populated by normal people acting normally; there’s little of the push-and-pull between straight man and zany scene partners that defines so much (often very great!) sketch comedy. It’s a liberating effect.

“We treat our sketches as contexts for some exploration of characters or story,” said Hankin, “rather than just a joke delivery machine.” Porter agreed: “It’s high concept world, low concept delivery.” The frame allows for refreshing playlets like “Universe,” an intimate conversation between two friends that only passingly reveals a darker narrative reality. Similar is “Dawn,” which makes no effort to explain or question its odd protagonist; the pleasure is in his sincerity, which owes a debt to Justin Danforth’s charmingly deranged performance. Few sketch characters are this well-realized, yet Hankin and Porter’s canon is bursting with equivalents. Like a good poem, the world of Good Cop Great Cop is so surprising, so delicately imagined that we cannot help but go along for the journey.

Often the work is successful precisely because it refuses to indulge in comedy. Consider “Guide,” a long con reminiscient of Olde English’s excellent “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The sketch lulls us into a sense of complacency with what we perceive to be its structure — an increasingly unorthodox audio tour — until surprise!, turns out you’re an idiot for ever trying to make sense of the phenomena. The same effect is achieved through a narrowing rather than broadening of context in “Heroes,” which has only a handful of jokes and long stretches devoid of humor. The sketch succeeds by zeroing in on a sincere emotional truth; it compels by using that truth to redefine an irreverent context.

This too is a poetic notion: that all it takes is a subtle turn of the head, a shift of focus to upturn everything we thought we knew. Hankin and Porter’s fluency in managing and subverting expectations is likely their greatest power. What’s crazy, though, is how they use it to achieve those same reversals in the radically different template of live performance. Here’s Porter:

A lot of people will assume ‘oh, you have 77 sketches, you just do those live… No. None of them would work live. So when we write for live stuff it’s a whole new muscle. We don’t really know how to play characters, we don’t really think we’re the kind of sketch group that would be able to do blackouts between sketches, and we should just be ourselves and just acknowledge that we’re on a stage. So the way that we’ve always written is we have a list called the Why list — it’s on my phone under the word “Why” — and the idea is just: why are we doing this? And that always leads to a sketch — well, maybe we’re onstage to make an announcement, maybe we’re onstage because we’ve found someone’s backpack backstage and we’re trying to figure out whose it is. Nancy Pelosi [their live show at the UCB] was two of those… We’re introducing a person and we’re doing a presentation about a product.

Good Cop Great Cop live might be the closest we’ve gotten to pure naturalism in sketch comedy. They abide by each of the classical unities, performing with no fourth wall in a unit set and time, yet still manage to craft satisfyingly complete narratives. One sketch begins as an announcement that someone in the audience left the light on in their car. Over ten minutes it deepens into a (hypothesized) confrontation between a daughter and her long-absent father. There are very few jokes, because Hankin and Porter don’t care about jokes and don’t need them to be funny. “We can get away with our performances being so deadpan or so naturalistic,” Porter reflected, “because a lot of the time what we’re saying is not even the joke anyway. More often than not, the thing that’s funny is how normal we’re being.”

The road from Good Cop Great Cop to a Comedy Central web series was undoubtedly causal but totally unplanned. “At the end of the day,” Hankin said, “we were trying to do things we liked… things nobody wanted, really, things that just existed to amuse ourselves.” They wanted to build a body of work, to do what they felt they were good at — even if it had little market value. And for a time it indeed seemed there was none at all. An initial 2012 meeting with Comedy Central saw each of their pitches rejected. What came out of it was a relationship with Eric Abrams, who heads digital development for the network: “Over the next year or so we kept him in the loop as we continued to release new videos,” said Porter. “Not every one, but just the milestones. Happy 30th video, Happy 40th video.”

Porter was at a friend’s place in Fire Island when Abrams finally called, after video 50, to invite them back for another pitch. “The only reason we were able to get this web series,” he surmised, “is [Abrams] was like, ‘Listen, you guys are clearly doing some sort of thing, so maybe we’d like to see some more pitches.’ And the only reason I think he had that feeling was because we’re so in our own little bubble, developing in the bubble, that he was just trying to tap in on something that will exist with or without the world around it. Which is fun to be a part of.”

New Timers got the green light in February 2014 and shot in July. In spite of the added elements of a bigger budget and creative team, little changed in the duo’s writing process. “We still think very, very practically while we write,” said Porter, “and try to write ideas that we know we can make with the resources we have. The budget just allows us to do what we’ve always done but with a little more certainty that we can pull it together, especially in terms of production design, which is a huge priority to us. Meredith Lippincott designed both seasons of New Timers and having the ability to give her the resources she needs to fully create a world for us to bumble through is really the greatest gift.”

“At the end of the day,” Hankin agreed, “the whole point of New Timers is that it doesn’t revolve around post-apocalyptic set-pieces; it revolves around its characters. We never really write anything outrageously expensive.”

For Season 1 they shot three episodes in three days; for Season 2, six episodes in six. Locations included the Floyd Bennett airfield and a decrepit boiler room in Long Island City, the latter of which was setting for an ensemble scene with many of Hankin and Porter’s artistic peers: Colin Burgess, Brett Davis, Steve DeSiena, Ana Fabrega, Lorelei Ramirez were just a few. The concentration of talent was maybe a bit concerning — should the crumbling ceiling have fallen in, well, there goes half of Brooklyn’s comedy underground.

“They are going to do amazing things,” said Davis, who booked Good Cop Great Cop for its first live performance on his Macaulay Culkin Show. “Their success is bittersweet, because they used to be comedy’s coolest secret talent.” The successes have indeed been abundant of late: Porter is enjoying great acclaim for the Josh Rabinowitz-penned short film Hasta La Vista, which he co-directed with Matt Kazman; he is in post-production for the feature 5 Doctors, which he wrote and directed with childhood friends Max Azulay and Phil Primason. Hankin, who draws for the New Yorker, just inked an animation project I cannot yet reveal. He also gleefully reported the arrival of an Amazon shipment with his leisure reading for the summer, with titles including Tensor Calculus for Physics and a workbook on general relativity (tough to say what he’s plotting with those). Later this year they’ll develop a web series with IFC’s Comedy Crib; it’s hardly a stretch to imagine them, just a few years down the line, making films and TV series that some critics describe as “delightfully Charlie Kaufman-esque” and others as “unbearably Charlie Kaufman-esque.”

For the moment, though, New Timers is probably the platonic ideal of Hankin and Porter’s work so far: scrupulously imagined, ruthlessly deadpan, surprisingly resonant. Set after an ambiguous global catastrophe, Season 1 follows Charlie and Matt as they deal with the humdrum affairs of post-apocalyptic life. They debate whether it’s kosher to bring dip to a gathering without something to dip in it; they spar with a roving band of survivors over the use of civilization’s one functional outlet; Matt comforts Charlie when his date doesn’t show to dinner (“She’s probably dead, or has a boyfriend or something”). Season 2, which Comedy Central will release in the fall, is twice the length and spends more time exploring its dystopia; Porter and Hankin also give us a taste of who they were before the collapse. Though the New Timers universe exists apart from the Good Cop Great Cop universe, it nonetheless embodies what they describe as the “Good Cop Great Cop code of honor: humility, sincerity, respect.”

In blunter terms — it’s a good show. Check it out.

Image by Sasha Arutyunova.

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