After several attempts to revive Reno 911!, Thomas Lennon finally pulled it off, partnering with Quibi for a seventh season and earning his first Emmy nomination, right as he “slipped under and turned 50.”
Created by and starring Lennon, Kerri Kenney and Robert Ben Garant, the Reno-set series is a spoof of law enforcement documentary programs—most notably, the now-canceled Cops. Centered on violent, profane, drug-abusing officers, Reno 911! is a show without a soapbox, but it nonetheless poses a question that Lennon finds to be more relevant than ever in 2020: “Are these people supposed to be cops?”
From the actor and screenwriter’s perspective, the series’ cancellation by Comedy Central in 2009 was oddly premature. Nonetheless, in the new medium of short-form, he’s found that it’s truly come into the height of its powers.
Below, Lennon discusses the genesis of the revival, his thoughts on tackling politically incorrect humor today, and seeing his original inspiration for Reno 911! go off the air, earlier this year. Additionally, he teases more seasons of the comedy to come, and his dual roles in the Russo Brothers’ upcoming Cherry, opposite an “off-the-charts” Tom Holland.
DEADLINE: How did Reno 911! come to Quibi? And why has its revival been something you’ve been passionate about pursuing?
THOMAS LENNON: Well, there’s a couple of interesting details. One is we got canceled, and this is something that, I guess, me and Ben and Kerri have been kind of good at in our life. We walked away from MTV when we were at the height of our popularity with [The State]. Viva Variety just sort of ran its course, but Reno was originally canceled off Comedy Central at sort of the height of its fame, which was pretty weird.
I mean, we had made some goofs. We were having a ‘break up the band’ sort of scenario, which was kind of sh**ty. But I think it was weird that the ratings we were getting when Comedy Central canceled us, they would give their eyeballs to get those ratings now. [Laughs] You know, that’s back when TV was like a thing. So, we were always a little bit stunned and bummed, and then everybody went away for 11 years. It was mostly Niecy [Nash] who kept saying, “Let’s do it, let’s do it,” and everybody was like, “Yeah, of course we want to do it.”
Then, the big game-changer that made it happen basically overnight was Doug Herzog going to Quibi. Doug, who has been basically our mentor and benefactor for our entire comedy career, he’s been everywhere, and we have a loyalty to him that’s pretty off the charts. He’s always made sure that we do something for him, and two things happened. One was, Doug went to Quibi and was like, “Let’s do Reno 911!”
It was interesting because I was working on another show for Quibi called Winos that ended up not going, so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out, what is an eight-to-10 minute TV show on your phone, and it was a complicated thing to work on. But then as soon as they said, “Let’s talk about Reno 911!” I was like, “Oh, that’s not remotely complicated.”
Your phone and eight to 10 minutes is really the only scenario that Reno 911! is good in. [Laughs] That’s like the only place we should be showing because it’s completely disposable and fun. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. I know not that many people have the new episodes yet, but with absolutely no irony, I think the 25 six-to-eight minute episodes we did for Quibi are by far the strongest work we’ve ever done. And I actually think there’s a good chance that the super-short format just makes it better.
DEADLINE: What has the writing process been like, in translating the show for short-form?
LENNON: It’s almost exactly the same. Kerri and Ben and I get in a room and we start putting up ideas. This time, the relationship between the world and the police is probably a little bit different than it was when we first started, but it’s also in many ways not that different. It was just something that we were always talking about that sort of slipped through. I mean, we were always abusing our power, cursing and killing people, and giving illegal chokeholds. We’ve been doing that for the 17 years, off and on, that we’ve done the show.
But it was very much the same. We put up a board of like, “Let’s do a piece that’s so smart and interesting, and then let’s do the stupidest f**ing thing in the world next to it.” So, I think our secret to writing is, we just kind of go high, low, high, low.
One of my favorite ideas that I pitched for this year, and everybody was like, “Can we do that?” was our two-part episode called “Let’s Shoot an Unarmed White Guy.” I pitched it, and everybody’s like, “Okay, I guess you can do that.” And I was like, “F**k it. I’m a grown man. I have a cop show. I’m going to do a couple episodes called ‘Let’s Shoot an Unarmed White Guy.’” I think we’ve gotten to a place where most of the cast on the show operates not from a place of fear, but from a place of a certain level of confidence, having done the show for so long now.
DEADLINE: What was it like for you to see Cops go off the air this year, following the death of George Floyd? Certainly, the timing of the revival’s launch in relation to current events is somewhat ironic.
LENNON: It is because honestly, we came to television as a spoof of that show. In the beginning, we even spoofed the disclaimer that says, “This show contains situations that are unsuitable for sensitive viewers,” and then when we met John Langley, creator of Cops, he was like, “You guys owe me millions of dollars for stealing my show.” [Laughs] He was very nice about it, but he did say that—and then we clarified that we had never made millions of dollars off of the show.
But I think always, weirdly, when that show was sort of glorifying stuff, we were really just sort of humanizing. Like, our shows, while there’s tons of violence and mayhem, all of the deputies are in love with other deputies. They’re also casual drug users. [Laughs] It’s funny because we were never the show that glorified cops, which I think is why we’ve come through the other side.
DEADLINE: Reno 911! has always leaned into politically incorrect comedy. The new season addresses a number of timely topics, from social justice warriors to gender pronouns. What are your thoughts, in navigating this kind of territory today? Is there any hesitation or anxiety in doing so?
LENNON: It’s interesting. The gender pronoun sketch—which is a sketch I’m really proud of that I wrote myself, and I thought was hilarious—is the one thing I got flak over, and I didn’t really understand why I was getting flak over it. Because the content of it is [Lt. Jim] Dangle celebrating all these new pronouns, and it’s incredibly upbeat and fun.
For us, there’s always going to be people that [have that] knee-jerk reaction to something, that are just like, “You cannot make a joke about that at all,” and I guess I’m just not from a world like that. I’m from a world where your intention means a lot, and I think the reason that we can stay, and Reno 911! will stay as politically incorrect as it’s always been, is we do some of the darkest s**t ever, but you will never, ever see something mean-spirited on our show. I think that has to do with the cast and the creators of the show, and who we all are. Like, we’re going to do some f**ked up stuff. [But] the joke’s never on anybody else, if you’re watching Reno 911!. The jokes are usually at our own expense.
I think there’s the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law, and that’s the same with us in comedy. It’s like we come to this with a spirit of being pretty positive people, and there’s always going to be stuff that’s going to piss people off. But it’s interesting, a show that pisses people off, in an era when everyone’s pissed off all the time, about everything already. Because it’s also like, how do you even tell?
The other thing [is], unlike other shows, I don’t think we’ve ever been trying to make anyone think about anything. [Laughs] I’ve always joked that I feel like you could watch Reno 911! episodes along with your dog, and they’ll get a certain amount out of it. There’s me in the shorts running around, just fun sounds and things. We’re not really up on a soapbox of any kind, but I will say that we don’t feel like anything is really sacred, in terms of that sort of stuff.
DEADLINE: What did it mean to you to land your first Emmy nomination this year?
LENNON: I’d love to be one of those people that’s like, “Oh, you know, these things, they’re not a big deal. It’s whatever. It’s a popularity contest.” But I’ll tell you right now, it means a lot. You never notice how much it means until you get one, and then tears well up in your eyes a little bit, and you’re like, “Oh wow.” To be recognized for the thing that I’ve basically devoted my entire life to, I can’t act like that doesn’t feel pretty amazing, and put a lot of wind in your sails.
DEADLINE: What has quarantine been like for you? As a writer, I imagine you’ve managed to stay busy.
LENNON: I have been writing like…You know how they talk about that room of an infinite number of chimpanzees? I basically have been creating that same amount of output. I think a lot of it is definitely stress-writing like, “Is the world going to open? When do we get to do TV and films again?”
Really, “I am the one thing in life I can control,” to quote Hamilton, so I’ve been ferociously writing a bunch of different things—some movies with Ben that hopefully will happen, some totally random TV ideas and things like that.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you? I know you will appear in Anthony and Joe Russo’s upcoming drama, Cherry.
LENNON: I’m glad they’re waiting to put that movie out in the right scenario because I was lucky enough to play a couple of roles, which is pretty neat. I’d been a Tom Holland fan going into the movie, but then I think when you see Tom Holland in Cherry, it is a completely different level of performance. I mean, I say this from acting in scenes with him. I have not seen the film, but it’s a performance that will, I think, make people’s heads spin. He’s pretty amazing in that. I look forward to seeing it.
So, I’ve got that and I’m always working on the Ronan Boyle novel series. There’s more of those books coming out. The first one made the New York Times list; the second one came out the day that the world shut down for COVID, which was fun. But hopefully, I’ll tour on the next Ronan Boyle book again.
DEADLINE: Will we see more seasons of Reno 911! on Quibi?
LENNON: I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say about it, but f**k it. So, as soon as it’s safe, we’re definitely going to do an eighth season for Quibi. They’ve been amazing. They gave us everything we needed and wanted to do it, and then they also gave us, to my knowledge, never one note on the first 25 episodes we did for them. It’s pretty neat.
So, I can basically guarantee we’re going to do more Quibi Reno 911!s. I mean, they’re going to be filmed in an interesting way… Look for a lot of daylight exteriors.