Reno 911, the gonzo sketch series disguised as a Cops spoof, has a signature move: the misdirect.
A couple of cops help a local man put down his sick dog . . . only to find out the dog actually belongs to the man’s neighbor and is not, in fact, sick. That particular misdirect, from season two, proved so popular with real-life police, they adopted it as a training video, to prepare officers for someone at a crime scene possibly lying.
The show’s seventh season, the fist half of which bowed on Quibi back in May, opens with an all-time classic misdirect. Deputy Jones (Cedric Yarbrough) responds to a call from a white woman about some Black kids inside her swimming pool. Jones, who is Black himself, pushes back against the Amy Cooper-like entitlement of using the police as one’s personal racist security squad. (The scene was shot back in January, four months before Cooper’s notorious police call on a Central Park birdwatcher.) What are these Black children doing in the pool, Jones demands, that this woman just had to call the police about it?
The answer: They’re drowning.
It’s a darkly funny start for the rebooted series, which signed off from Comedy Central in 2009. But as far as previewing what lies ahead, it’s no misdirect. The seventh season is indeed chockful of equally trenchant, finger-on-the-pulse commentary about police in modern America. While the race factor may be a bit more pronounced in the new season, though, whose back half drops on August 24, it’s not a late-breaking bid for wokeness.
Ever since it arrived in 2003, Reno 911 has always been the most radical, subversive cop comedy on TV.
“Because of all the dumb shit we do, I don’t think anyone ever noticed that we’ve been talking about all of this stuff for like 17 years,” cocreator Thomas Lennon says over a Zoom call with Yarbrough and costar Niecy Nash. “But either no one noticed or no one cared.”
Anyone watching, though, would’ve had to work pretty hard to notice that Reno 911 is the one cop comedy where all the jokes stem from the police being utterly terrible at their jobs. On a good day, these officers are incompetent but well-intentioned buffoons; on a bad day, their goofery is laced with malice.
The die was cast in the very first episode, during which various police officers shoot an innocent person at a surprise party, beat up a mime, accidentally help facilitate sexual assault, and crash into another car—which, fortunately for the cops, has a bunch of weed in the trunk, retroactively justifying the fender bender. This show is essentially a funny compendium of ways that police officers abuse their power, and by the end of season two, all the main characters have been fired, arrested, and incarcerated. (Temporarily, it turns out.)
“We’ve never shied from the race issue either,” Yarbrough says, as we discuss some of the poor behavior of his fictitious police force. “We’ve always spoken about it.”
Indeed, the hundred or so episodes of Reno 911 are larded with moments that illustrate police prejudice. In one such instance, Lennon’s legendarily shorts-clad Lieutenant Dangle falsely assumes a coffee shop gave him the wrong order as a stealthy signal that they’re being robbed. Dangle then accosts the first Black customer he sees (30 Rock’s Keith Powell) before the misunderstanding is cleared up. In another episode, Yarbrough’s Hispanic partner Garcia (Carlos Alazraqui) suggests the pair interrogate a witness using the classic police technique, “Good cop, Black cop.”
Perhaps the reason so few people seem to have noticed all the vaguely political and racial moments tucked into the show all these years is because the creators have always put funny first. In fact, Reno 911 became a cop show practically as an afterthought.
It all started, in the early aughts, when Lennon put together a sketch show pilot with frequent collaborators Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney—a pilot Fox promptly scuttled after a table read. Since the show had been slated to pair with Cops on Fox’s Saturday night slate, the team pivoted to a sketch show with interstitials of police officers cruising to crime scenes, each new sketch beginning once they arrive. After Fox passed on this pilot as well, Lennon and company reworked the show again and eventually sold it to Comedy Central, where it ran for six seasons of heavily improvised, cop-skewering shenanigans.
But just because the show started as a vehicle for the cast’s rare comic chemistry doesn’t mean its creators aren’t also interested in making a statement.
“We know a lot of the crazy things that some cops are doing are not a laughing matter, but we do try to shine a light on all of the foolishness, and in a very fun way,” Niecy Nash says. “And I think that’s what art is supposed to do.”
Of the show’s eight primary cast members, Nash is the one most responsible for getting the band back together for its current Quibi run. Although she has since gone on to an Emmy-nominated turn in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and leads the ensemble cast of TNT hit Claws, Nash was a Hollywood novice on Reno 911. Lennon and his partners cast her after seeing her perform standup at the Improv in L.A., near the end of Nash’s self-imposed nine-month limit to either break through in entertainment or give up and get an office job. The reason she fought to get Reno 911 back on the air, though, is neither nostalgia nor gratitude, but because making the show was some of the most fun she’s ever had.
(Lennon takes this opportunity in the interview to point out that every time he followed up with Nash about her professed interest in making more Reno, she was busy dividing her time between several other TV shows and movies.)
A lot else has changed in the world, beyond the state of Niecy Nash’s career, since Comedy Central canceled the show in 2009. Some of those changes are reflected in the new episodes. The show’s fake PSAs now include ones about International Pronouns Day and revenge porn. Patton Oswalt, who frequently guested during the show’s original run, now plays a character clearly modeled after Alex Jones, and Lieutenant Dangle references the “fake news media.” Also, Lennon made it a point to recreate the infamous Richard Spencer face-punch in the new season, subbing in recurring character Gary the Klansman (Chris Tallman), who is now a Proud Boy.
One of the most major changes in between seasons, though, was the rise in awareness of police brutality against Black people. Of the many nods to this development in the reboot, perhaps the most pointed is the two-episode arc in which the officers search for an unarmed white man to shoot—their first—to prove that they are, in the words of Deputy Jones, “equal opportunity shootists.”
Unfortunately, the show’s newly heightened racial message proved only too timely. Within weeks of the new episodes premiering on Quibi, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis.
Yarbrough, who had recently moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis when he was originally cast on Reno 911, took Floyd’s murder especially hard.
“I’m Black, I’m from Minneapolis, I play a cop on the show, and there are many similarities between George Floyd and myself,” Yarbrough says. “So, it felt very personal. I started wondering about, ‘Can we ever be funny doing this show again?'”
The first thing Yarbrough did after the news broke was coordinate with the rest of the cast to donate $10,000 to Floyd’s family for funeral expenses. Later on, he initiated a series of searching conversations with the rest of the cast, individually, to discuss the future of the show.
“My pitch to Cedric [Yarbrough] when we talked about this,” Lennon says, “was that it’s ironic that Cops was canceled and Reno 911 was picked up for an eighth season on the same day. [Editor’s note: According to Quibi, talks for an eighth season are still ongoing.] I think it’s cool that maybe we get to sort of write the end of the story.”
Yarbrough ultimately agrees.
“I feel now it’s better that we actually have a voice,” he says. “We have a venue to actually talk about how we feel about these specific issues. If we take ourselves out of the equation, then we lose our voice. So being able to stay in the game, being able to flip the script and make it funny, is really important right now.”
The only nugget the group lets slip about a potential eighth season is that it would likely include a Hamilton spoof scrapped from the seventh season—an all-nude musical revue about Benedict Arnold, featuring Dangle’s show-stopping number, “You Got Benedict.” Beyond that, the only plan is to continue playing cops as deeply flawed individuals who are terrible at their jobs.
It’s a plan that so far has somehow made the show weirdly popular with real-life police officers.
“I’ve been pulled over before and gotten out of a ticket because of the show,” Yarbrough says.
“Me too,” Nash adds.
“A hundred per cent,” Lennon confirms.
As for whether the feeling with police is mutual, the group is reticent to comment one way or the other.
“I think that as inept as we are as characters on our show,” Nash says, “if Reno was running all of these police departments, the world would be a better place.”