TV NotesPutting Prestige in Service of ComedyAndre Braugher in ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’
By Mike Hale, The New York Times
- Feb. 1, 2014
LOS ANGELES — Before his name appeared, however incongruously, on a list of possible cast members for a new Fox comedy set in a fictional Brooklyn police precinct, Andre Braugher had an epiphany.
His latest television drama, ABC’s “Last Resort,” in which he played the righteous captain of a rogue nuclear submarine, was about to sink in the middle of its first season. This was a familiar feeling.
“My typical pattern is the critically acclaimed flop,” Mr. Braugher said recently at a West Hollywood restaurant where his lunch was the vegan soup of the day (coconut curry red lentil) and a tofu Cuban sandwich. “I’m in love with low-rated shows. That’s true of ‘Men of a Certain Age,’ ‘Thief,’ “Gideon’s Crossing.’ I fall in love with projects that are almost freighted with prestige.”
Mr. Braugher, of course, is freighted with prestige himself. At 51, his résumé includes Juilliard, early renown in the Civil War film “Glory” (1989), regular New York stage appearances, and the television series “Homicide: Life on the Street” (1993-8), for which he won the first of two Emmy Awards (the second was for “Thief.”) But “Homicide” remained his only real hit.
“I began to think maybe I needed to rethink how I approached my choice of material,” he said. “I knew that in order to make a more lasting impact, to be on a show that people would watch on a regular basis, I would have to change my thinking.”
And so he found himself Skyping with Dan Goor and Michael Schur, the creators of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a raucous situation comedy built around the former “Saturday Night Live” star Andy Samberg that would land on the Fox schedule in September 2013. He signed to play Capt. Ray Holt, the comically stern precinct commander and straight man to Mr. Samberg’s wild-child detective, Jake Peralta.
It was his first sitcom, after 25 years of mostly dark dramas, from “Homicide” to roles on “House” and “Law & Order: SVU.” His stentorian voice and conspicuous dignity would be employed as ballast — to “counterbalance how silly and sort of bananas I get,” as Mr. Samberg said — on a show not afraid of toilet jokes or to use a psychedelic Speedo as a visual punch line.
Mr. Braugher’s change of thinking appears to be paying off. Prestige, of a sort, has followed him again: “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was an unexpected winner last month of a Golden Globe Award for best comedy series, and Mr. Samberg won for best actor in a comedy. A week later, the show’s audience increased by about a million viewers over its average for the previous 10 episodes, to 4.55 million.
And seemingly everyone associated with the show, including Mr. Samberg, does not hesitate to give Mr. Braugher a large share of the credit for this success. Speaking during a break from filming in the gritty Lincoln Heights neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles, Mr. Samberg said, “It’s just been great to show up on set and know that I’m going to be playing scenes opposite somebody who is going to make things feel real and is going to make me look better.”
Mr. Samberg professed to never having had doubts about Mr. Braugher’s ability to thrive in the fast-paced, constantly adjusting, sometimes improvisational milieu of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” but Mr. Braugher had concerns, or claimed to have.
“Oh absolutely, I had a lot of trepidations,” he said, comparing himself with others in the cast. “I’m never going to be an improv comedian; I just don’t have that thing that Joe Lo Truglio and Chelsea Peretti and Andy have. There’s a muscle that I really want to exercise, and it’s always been tricky and it’s always been a challenge. And I’m really up for a challenge.”
Mr. Braugher was not entirely unfamiliar with comedy. TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age,” in which he starred with Ray Romano and Scott Bakula for two seasons beginning in 2009, was a comic drama, and his character, the henpecked, middle-aged car salesman Owen Thoreau Jr., was the vehicle for much of the show’s humor. From Mr. Romano, he said, he learned the importance of honesty in comedy.
“One of the first lessons, Ray said: ‘Whenever I ask you a question, you have to answer honestly,’ ” Mr. Braugher recalled. “Don’t try to be funny, just answer every question in a situation honestly and it’ll take care of itself.’”
He also identifies another, less obvious, forerunner to his current show.
“Not many people are going to agree with me, but ‘Homicide’ was a comedy too,” he said. “It was a shoot-’em-up, and there were all these dangerous situations, but at heart I think it was an office comedy. We always came back to the squad, and the relationships were built upon mutual affection. And I always felt that they were comic in tone.
“I don’t want to go way out on a limb about this, you know what I’m saying, and be challenged about it. But I think they’re both workplace comedies. In essence it’s taken 20 years to come full circle, but I think they’re in the same place.”
Even if you buy Mr. Braugher’s analysis of “Homicide,” it was still the case that he had not acted in a situation comedy, or worked at any length in an improvisational style, in his professional career. But by all accounts he has been a quick study.
“He has an incredible performance I.Q., like the way they talk about a football I.Q., it just comes very naturally to him and he understands what things are and are not supposed to be,” Mr. Samberg said. “At first if we’d come into a scene and somebody would throw a line out that wasn’t in the script, it would definitely throw him for a loop, because I think he’s much more used to hard-scripted performing.
“But he’s gotten so much better at everything he was worried about, so fast, that it’s getting to the point where I feel like it won’t even really be a conversation anymore, that he’s just a great comedic actor and he knows how to do it. He’ll throw an improv out as quickly as some of our other cast at this point. It’s been fun to watch, for sure.”
Stephanie Beatriz, a member of the large “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” ensemble who plays the frighteningly matter-of-fact detective Rosa Diaz, completely pooh-poohed the notion that Mr. Braugher started out with any comedy deficit at all.
“There’s not a real learning curve for him, even though he’s probably suggesting that there is,” she said. She went on to suggest Mr. Braugher was full of, well, hot air.
Ms. Beatriz also punctured the notion, eagerly offered by other cast members, that Mr. Braugher brought a particular gravitas to the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” set.
“Just like a beautiful lady, when he walks in a room, you are aware of him,” she said. “However, he is the dorkiest, nerdiest dude in the world. I mean, he sings to his dog. I think he’s just a regular dude, he just happens to have that heavy voice and has had a career where people take him really seriously.”
Mr. Lo Truglio (“The State”), the veteran comedian who is Ms. Beatriz’s foil as the klutzy Det. Charles Boyle, was more firmly in the star-struck camp, citing the seriousness Mr. Braugher brought to Captain Holt. It was a commitment that included long sessions of questioning with actual precinct commanders, and a habit, unusual for a sitcom, of quizzing directors and producers about Holt’s motivations.
“Andre, just by being Andre, is bringing a validity to this show, specifically making it believable that we might be cops,” Mr. Lo Truglio said. “That is undeniable. If you’re watching Andre Braugher listen to someone, then you might listen to them too, because Andre Braugher is listening to them. And that, I think, is truly an integral part of why the show works.”
Mr. Braugher’s serious regard for Holt’s motivations extends to his approach to the captain’s homosexuality, an aspect of the character that was in place early on, according to Mr. Goor.
“We wanted this to be the character’s first command, and for him to be very motivated for the command to succeed,” said Mr. Goor, who was a writer and producer for “Parks and Recreation” before creating “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” with Mr. Schur. “Him having had to overcome an obstacle would help with that. We needed something to stall the career.”
Research showed, however, that while being gay would have halted an officer’s progress in the 1970s and ’80s, in the time frame of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” it would likely have had the opposite effect — “He would have been a poster boy,” Mr. Goor said. So the creators came up with the idea of Holt’s actually having been a poster boy, working in the department’s public affairs section before finally gaining a command.
Mr. Braugher said he had a “short conversation” with Mr. Goor early on, to make the point that “Holt is either a gay captain or he’s a captain who’s gay.”
“That distinction’s clear for me, and I wanted to make sure that Dan and I were on the same page,” he continued. “It’s not about wearing pink hot pants and singing ‘Y.M.C.A.’ It’s not about Holt’s flamboyance, it’s about an accident of his character.” He added that the “drumbeat of Holt’s gayness” had diminished as the season went on, and it became obvious that the other characters were comfortable with it.
“There’s an episode where we meet my husband — that’s coming up in the next couple of weeks — and it’s a quirky, complex relationship, as opposed to meet my superhot husband,” he said. “I like that.”
Mr. Braugher maintained that he was learning as he went along, and that “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was more than just a shot at a bigger audience.
“This really is a goofball show, it’s not a sophisticated comedy,” he said. “But I knew that I would come out a better actor on the other side of this project no matter how long it lasted.”http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/02/arts/television/andre-braugher-in-brooklyn-nine-nine.html?ref=television