Network sitcoms sound clean, mostly because they don’t have time to sound sloppy. Traditional sitcoms have 22 minutes max to set up a few first-world problems, defuse a core conflict and resolve a subplot or two, and tack on a stinger for the fans devoted enough to fast-forward through a fourth commercial break. Due to those constraints, sitcom characters tend to be not only impossibly witty, but impossibly articulate too, forever free from l’esprit d’escalier. Even the space cadets and dunderheads endemic to TV comedies speak without stumbles or hesitations. Sitcom casts stick to a strict schedule: They rehearse so they won’t have to hesitate.
The price of consistent comedy is that sitcoms don’t sound or look like real life. Real life is less laugh-out-loud funny, so it’s a price we’re happy to pay. Even so, it’s satisfying to see something unscripted creep into a tightly controlled take. We’re tickled to see furtive smiles sneak into Seinfeld when Jerry pulls an SNL-era Fallon at Kramer’s physical comedy or a classic Costanza line. We perk up when Catastrophe characters actually laugh at each other’s jokes, as if they haven’t heard them before at a table read. And we’re pleasantly surprised when a scene appears unpolished, which helps explain how Fox staple New Girl is still staving off staleness as it nears its Season 6 finale.
“We’ve been doing it for so long, and we’ve done so much of it with the same people over and over and over again, that there’s just not a lot that’s new and different,” Max Greenfield, who plays New Girl’s neurotic metrosexual Schmidt, says about being on set. “And there’s not as much to find anymore. And then every once in a while, you’ll find something, and you’ll go ‘Oh my gosh! That was new.’ And that’ll really get you going.”
New Girl’s newness often sounds like a mistake. Characters mispronounce words, or use them improperly. They mutter, stutter, and slur. They talk at the same time instead of observing sitcom etiquette and waiting their turn to deliver the perfect putdown. New Girl’s basic setup doesn’t stray from the Big Four formula: attractive young people in an implausible living situation, having high jinks and falling in and out of love as longevity and the latest arc dictates. But after 132 episodes, New Girl’s looseness still sets it apart from its peers.
That looseness lives on in the most recent episode, “Operation: Bobcat,” when Nick (Jake Johnson) yells over Cece (Hannah Simone) that “sparkles are in.”
The same ethos is evident in a Nick outburst from the Season 2 episode “Models,” when Schmidt’s gift of a cookie rocks the Schmidt-Nick friendship to its foundation in an unscripted exchange that co-showrunner Dave Finkel describes as “so real.”
According to Finkel, New Girl’s fondness for off-the-cuff comedy goes back to the beginning, an organic outgrowth of collaboration between its cast, crew, creator and executive producer Liz Meriwether, and EP and pilot director Jake Kasdan, who had previously produced and directed in the Apatow world. “When we first started talking about [New Girl] and Jake was here, we would talk about the process on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared,” Finkel says. “This is very much part of that universe, and probably the next generation of that, where they produced that show by letting it be a little looser, a little more ragged, seeing the seams.”
By 2011, when New Girl debuted, the Superbad/Knocked Up aesthetic was trickling down to TV. “There was sort of a change in television comedy at the time,” Greenfield says, “where we were shifting from mostly multicam — where it’s all very scripted and you really wouldn’t even attempt to improv on a show like that — to these single-camera comedies, where you could play a lot more with the way something was shot and you know that you could fix stuff in editing.”
Embracing a less sitcom-y style has helped New Girl avoid some sitcom pitfalls. First: a visually lackluster setting that’s always the same. “It’s a show in a loft,” says Steve Welch, New Girl editor and sometime-director. “People aren’t really doing anything a lot of the time. So you’ve got to have them talking.”
And not just talking, but talking over each other. New Girl’s snappy exchanges started where Welch’s favorite quick-talking comedy characters — Walter and Hildy from His Girl Friday, Sam and Diane from Cheers, Dave and Maddie from Moonlighting — left off, but they evolved over time. Co-showrunner Brett Baer labels Welch “the keeper of the tone of the show,” but Welch, who calls that Altman-esque element “a huge part of our show,” gives himself a less lofty title: “the overlapping dialogue guy.” Welch’s specialty doubles as a comedic device and as a means of slowing the sitcom’s ticking clock; he can’t make the episodes longer, but he’s hit on a way to cram extra content into something with a standard size. “We’ve got so much stuff we want in there, and we want to put it all in, so we’ve got to pile it all on top of each other or we’ll run out of time,” Welch says.
Experience made New Girl more adept at manufacturing informal moments. “In the first season, we would end up on stage and we’d let [the actors] improvise, and we were only shooting one direction,” Baer says. “And we were constantly saying, ‘Oh god, that was brilliantly funny, when we turn around we’ve got to make sure that we pitch that again and get the response that Zooey [Deschanel, as Jess] would have to Jake if he said that.’ And then we got to the point where we were like, ‘You know what, it’s more efficient and it’s funnier to actually have that in the moment and not have to rebuild it in post.’”
The solution was a technique called “cross coverage,” which calls for the crew to set up a camera on each side of the room to film both actors simultaneously. That way, both action and reaction can be captured in real time, rather than asking an actor to remember and respond to an improvised moment. Thanks to cross coverage, Baer says, “We’re able to let them overlap and improvise and just run off on riffs and roll the camera, and because it’s on digital and not film, we can shoot all day.”
Cross coverage was once a rarity on sitcoms; Welch, who edited Malcolm in the Middle for seven years, never used it on that show because the actors never ad-libbed. Improv’s increasing acceptance, coupled with more sensitive cameras that make it easier to light a scene for two actors on opposing sides, has made cross coverage more common, but Welch says that New Girl still uses it more than most shows, which improves performances in two-person scenes.
“In a normal single-camera comedy, one person is actually acting and the other person is off camera reading lines,” Welch says. “And they’re acting with each other, they’re trying to help each other out, but they’re not performing at 100 percent. The nice thing with cross coverage is both actors have to be performing at 100 percent because they’re both on camera. And so you get a much more natural interplay between the two of them.”
Greenfield confirms that cross coverage keeps the cast more engaged. “You can cut those scenes together and while you’re in them, feel free to sort of jump on each other and have fun and not worry about like, ‘Ooh, I stepped on your line,’” he says. That lack of inhibition comes through most clearly when characters fight, as seen in the Season 2 episode “Fluffer.”
“When it does get crazy, and really over each other, and it really does feel like, ‘What are these guys doing, there’s no way that this is scripted,’ it’s probably not,” Greenfield says.
Tuning New Girl’s sound required more than mechanical adjustments. It also demanded a mindset change from TV veterans who hadn’t worked this way before, and whose instinct was to fix flubbed or mumbled readings such as Schmidt’s in “Fluffer”…
…or Nick’s in “Operation: Bobcat.”
“Brett and Dave and myself, our training probably is that sharper, cleaner comedy thing that you see on sitcoms more commonly, and I think we would default to that early on,” Welch says. “Just feeling like, ‘God, I just want a clean read of this line.’ And Liz would come in and look at the takes and be like, ‘I like that one.’ I’m like, ‘That’s the sloppiest line read I’ve ever heard.’ She’s like, ‘No, it feels more real.’ And I’d be like, ‘OK, I think I see what you’re talking about.’”
The greatest challenge to the traditional reading may be Schmidt’s mispronunciations, a character trait inspired by Steve Martin stand-up and the enunciation training Greenfield took to reduce a strong New York accent when he moved to L.A., which taught him to find “these almost new and almost made-up syllables.” The practice started in “Cece Crashes,” when Greenfield pronounced “chutney” as “chut-uh-ney.”
“Liz was on set that day, and she was dying laughing,” Greenfield says. “And when you get Liz to laugh, it makes you feel really nice. It’s a very good sign. So when she started laughing, I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I have the green light to do this whenever I want.’”
From there, he moved on to “turdlet” (toilet) and “Jay Cut-uh-ler,” culminating in “cup-ons” (coupons) as a Season 6 highlight.
“When we shot [the ‘turdlet’ scene] I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that hard, and I can’t explain why,” Finkel says. Greenfield became so attached to the tic that “he started doing it all the time, and sometimes we’d have to say to him, maybe in this one you don’t do that, because it’s like a serious line,” Baer says. “And he would be like ‘OK,’ and he would give us one without it and then he’d go back to doing it. … It’ll be like, if we write it he won’t do it, if we don’t write it he does it.” (“They are exactly right,” Greenfield says.)
It takes a ton of work for New Girl to sound so unpracticed. When I talked to Welch on a weekday evening, I thanked him for staying to speak to me after editing. “Oh, it’s not after editing,” he said. Improv and cross coverage solve some problems, but they create another: too much material. Even after making creative calls about which takes to keep, Welch says, “All of our first cuts come in like 28 to 30 minutes, 31 minutes sometimes. I think our longest might have been 40 minutes. It’s a lot to cut out of an episode and still make it hold together.”
By embracing unpredictability, Welch says, New Girl has committed itself to “doing a lot of work that then gets discarded,” which many productions won’t do. But he believes that the byproduct “absolutely shows up in the show.” Baer says it’s the recipe that results in “that sense of these people really living together, where it doesn’t feel so setup, punch, setup, punch, but where they’re just talking and talking over each other.”
After six seasons, the impulse to experiment is so deeply ingrained that New Girl’s unscripted sound has reverberated back to the writers and left its imprint on the page. “The writers’ room has started actually writing to Steve’s editing and the actors’ improvisation,” Baer says. “So if you look at some of our scripts now, we’re writing dialogue in what we call ‘dual dialogue,’ where it’s like on two sides of the page, mostly to save space but also because it’s part of the language of the show. We start writing the overlap that they perform on camera.”
If an episode is so stuffed with story that it starts to resemble more rigid sitcoms, its creators will go out of their way to restore the show’s signature sound. Baer remembers a recent time when “we were sitting in the editing room and working on a cut, and we were like, you know what we’re missing in this episode? A little bit of that kind of loose, fun stuff. And [Steve] is like, ‘Oh yeah, I have a couple of moments of it, we should dig that out and use that stuff.’ Because that is the tone of the show, and when it’s not in there you kind of recognize that it’s not there. We go hunting for it.”
Like its language, New Girl’s characters have grown stranger and more singular by the season, exposing previously untapped territory such as Nick’s paranoia and Winston’s (Lamorne Morris) heartwarming weirdness. Despite its constant tinkering, though, New Girl’s ratings have fallen further each year. Syndication and streaming might save it for now, but eventually it will go the way of all sitcoms. Until then, New Girl will keep reaching for its greatest renewable resources: spontaneity and slips of the tongue.
“It keeps you going,” Greenfield says. “Especially after doing six seasons of this. Let’s mix it up, man. Let’s say some stuff wrong!”