Angie Tribeca: Where Slapstick and SVU Collide

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<i>Angie Tribeca</i>: Where Slapstick and <i>SVU</i> Collide

If Olivia Benson of the NYPD’s Special Victims Unit and Frank Drebin of The Naked Gun were ever to make love and produce offspring, we bet she’d be a lot like Tribeca—Angie Tribeca. A slightly broken, hard-nosed LAPD cop with a Lower Manhattan neighborhood as a last name, she’s the titular character of a new TBS comedy, played by the estimable Rashida Jones.

Angie Tribeca is the network’s first foray into comedy crime procedurals, and it’s a doozy. The show—which debuted all 10 episodes with a 25-hour marathon this weekend, before settling into its regular Monday night timeslot—combines the retro slapstick of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker productions Police Squad and Top Secret! with stories that are [not entirely] ripped from the headlines. Caveat: Not everyone will love the humor, as sight gags, juvenile jokes and puns abound, but those who enjoy physical comedy, police parody and just 22-minutes of pure episodic silliness are in for a treat.

Paste Magazine had an opportunity in late December to visit the Angie Tribeca set at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles to check in with the show’s cast and creatives, who were well into the second season’s production. Yep. TBS had already renewed the show before a minute of the first episode aired. Why would the network pick up an untried series that quickly? For one thing, Angie Tribeca was created and executive produced by Steve and Nancy Carell, a husband-and-wife team who might know a thing or two about comedy.

“Fortunately, Steve’s a better real boss, than fake boss,” Jones quipped, referring to Carell’s Michael Scott from The Office. “Obviously, their comedy instincts are so on point. They’re our fearless leaders.” It also helps that Jones’ and the Carells’ taste in humor align: “Just like the dumber the better…almost,” said the Harvard-educated actress.

Jones, a comedy veteran from The Office and Parks and Recreation, described Angie Tribeca as being crafted “in the spirit of the procedurals” that she loves—C.S.I. and Law & Order. “We treat each case with the same level of intensity as those actors do.” She described the one big difference: “It’s just that we have a dog as a detective, who drives.” (We’ll explain that in a bit.)

Nancy Carell (The Office and SNL), who co-wrote the pilot episode with Steve (who directed), also copped to a Law & Order: SVU obsession, and wanted to clarify that their show is “an homage to TV detectives, more than trying to mock them.” Angie Tribeca’s creative team, led by showrunner Ira Ungerleider, borrows tactics from favorite police procedurals and flips the script, creating humor from absurdity, she said. That’s a perfect way to describe a scene in the pilot, in which Nancy guest stars as the L.A. mayor’s wife. A typical police questioning scene between a suspect and police is given the Airplane! treatment: There are pork ribs, donuts and cotton candy involved, and it’s ridiculously funny.

Angie Tribeca is stuffed to the gills with visual humor and punnery, some subtle, and some over-the-top. Blink and you’ll probably miss a joke…or five. We did a double-take watching the opening shots of the pilot as a hand reached over to shut off a ringing alarm clock. (Check out Tribeca’s serious case of “man-hands.”) Later in the episode, as she and her new partner Jay Geils (Hayes MacArthur) investigate a blackmail case against the mayor, Jones, stone-faced, has to describe one of the mayor’s tattoos without flinching: “It’s a picture of a sheep with the words, ‘That’s what sheep said.’” We can hear Michael Scott’s stifled snicker now.

“I hope that there’s so many jokes per episode that you can’t watch it one time. You have to go back and see what you missed,” Jones said.

With comedy heavy-hitters both in front of the cameras and behind-the-scenes, the guest stars on Angie Tribeca are a famously funny bunch, and include Bill Murray, Lisa Kudrow, Keegan-Michael Key, Gary Cole, James Franco, Adam Scott, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Jones’s own parents, Peggy Lipton and Quincy Jones. “Rashida just knows everybody,” Nancy Carell said. “She’s just been invaluable in getting these people to come on.”

While some may compare the show to another current cop comedy,Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Jones said that the programs are quite different. “That [Nine-Nine], to me, is a show that has a lot of heart, and it’s about the relationships between the people. This is a show about… jokes. This is a show designed for you to laugh. If you like this kind of humor, you’re in. And if you don’t, you don’t.”

Slapstick comedy may look carefree and casual onscreen, but the show is carefully choreographed, with the animal trainers at the ready to queue up the furry actors and production personnel on the edge of the frame handing the actors props. “[Physical comedy] is actually much more difficult to execute. Hopefully, [we] execute well,” Jones said. During the set visit, we watched a scene being shot in the morgue between Tribeca, medical examiner Dr. Monica Scholls (Andrée Vermeulen—watch our interview below), her colleague Dr. Edelweiss (Alfred Molina) and a highly uncooperative pool noodle.

In addition to Tribeca and Geils, other characters rounding out the precinct include Lt. Atkins (Jere Burns of Justified and Breaking Bad) and stand-up comedian Deon Cole (who was the highlight of Black-ish). “I play Officer DJ Tanner over at the Canine Unit. And I have a partner named Det. Hoffman, who’s a dog. He’s actually a human, because he does everything a human does: Drinks coffee, takes aspirin, fixes printer jams,” Cole explained. (For the record, Det. Hoffman is played by a German shepherd named Jagger, whose credits include the feature film, Max. His co-stars swear that Jagger’s not a diva, despite having his handler with him at all times.)

MacArthur explained how it’s possible for the cops in the squad to gloss over the fact that the detective at the next desk over—is a dog, “We treat everything totally straight on our show.” Added Cole, “I think that’s the challenge for everyone on the show. Me being a standup comic, my hardest job is to not be funny on the show.” Although silliness is de rigueur, not breaking during scenes can be especially tough for the actors, but both Cole and MacArthur ‘fess up to the tools they use to get through scenes: “I can’t look at no one’s eye,” said Cole. “In a lot of episodes, you’ll see, I’ll be reading something.” MacArthur added: “I just clench my toes really tight.”

Being on a basic cable channel like TBS has its advantages for a show like Angie Tribeca, including the experiment with the show’s release. Though not a binge-watcher herself, Carell is excited about the way the show’s being launched, airing all season one episodes back-to-back on the 17th. “That’s how people watch TV now,” she said. “And I love the way TBS is rolling it out, and it’s getting a lot of attention for the show.” To hedge their bets, TBS will also begin airing the show in a more traditional weekly format on Monday nights beginning on Jan. 25.

For Jones, the benefit of being on TBS comes back to playing with the boundaries of comedy. “I think we get two ‘shits’ per episode. I think because it’s not network, we can get away with a lot more. And because it’s satire, we have to push things as much as we can, because that’s where the fun is,” she said.

Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.