21CF Chats: ‘New Girl’ exec producers Dave Finkel and Brett Baer on making the crossover episodes with ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’

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On Tuesday, Oct. 11, the worlds of FOX’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (8 p.m. ET/PT) and “New Girl” (8:30 p.m. ET/PT) will collide in a special back-to-back crossover-episode event. Viewers will get to see the endearing characters from both of these sitcoms share the same screen for an hour of programming, but what they won’t see is all the hard work that went into making the crossover happen.

I got a chance to ask “New Girl” executive producers Dave Finkel and Brett Baer about how these crossover episodes came to pass. They talked about the challenge of the writing process, what it was like working with the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” cast and which show’s craft services reigned supreme.

First things first: How did this come about, and how long was this in the making?

Brett: We got a phone call back in May from [FOX Broadcasting Company EVP of Comedy Programming and Development] Suzanna Makkos saying they had this idea to do a crossover with “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” For a while we thought it might be for the premiere, but then for lots of logistical reasons and to maximize eyeballs on it, we pushed it to episode four for each of our shows. We started talking about it in the writer’s room as early as June and had several conversations with [“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” creators] Dan Goor and Michael Schur. They were incredibly hilarious and cooperative, and the “New Girl” staff had a really good working relationship with the “Brooklyn” staff. We came up with two episodes for both of our shows that made sense. We had a lot of logistical things to work out – specifically, who’s going to go where? They’re in Brooklyn, we’re in LA – somebody had to move, or we could meet in Chicago.

Besides the location, what were other challenges you had to overcome to make the crossover possible?

Dave: The bigger challenge was with schedules. We’re trying to make our shows while at the same time making the big crossover show. They had to shoot an episode with their cast and they were a week ahead of us in terms of shooting, so we had to figure out how to clear time out for Joe Lo Truglio, Andy Samberg, Chelsea Peretti and Andre Braugher. It’s not easy because, first of all, geographically they’re just far away from here, and where they were in their shooting was very different from where we were.

Brett: One of the biggest challenges on the writing side was that everybody’s intention was to be really respectful of each other’s shows and characters. We did a lot of passing material back and forth. We’d write something, send it to Dan and the “Brooklyn” folks, and they would weigh in or rewrite what we wrote for them without trying touch the lines for our own characters because they wouldn’t take that upon themselves, and vice versa. So when they wrote a scene with Jess [played by Zooey Deschanel] in it, it would come to us and we would rewrite the Jess lines but try to keep [Andy Samberg’s character] Jake Peralta’s line as they were written. We didn’t deem ourselves the right people to make those kinds of choices.

Dave: The other thing that was tricky for both sides is once you table read a story, if some part of it doesn’t work and you have to rewrite it, the stuff that you wrote all has to shift. So we can all agree on a scene and how it’s all going to play out, but once you get a call from Dan one night saying, “Hey, it’d be better if Chelsea did this because the story reflects this now, so we need a change there,” you start the whole process over again.

How was it working with the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” cast?

Brett: I think the “Brooklyn” actors were incredible. Andre, Andy, Joe and Chelsea were really funny. It was kind of cool to see new recognizable faces with our cast adding a whole fresh perspective to what our show does.

When the crossover was announced at the TCA summer press tour, “New Girl” creator Elizabeth Meriwether made a tongue-in-cheek statement about the uneven history of the sitcom crossover. Do you feel a certain pressure to buck the trend? Or have you tried to put on blinders to the past?

Brett: I think we wanted to do the two best episodes possible. I think there’s a little extra pressure when you’ve got a big public press event where people have their eyes on it, so you really need to step up. I think the crossover was really popular back in the 90s. I think NBC did a ton of them across their Thursday night lineup. They’re always episodes that kind of stick in the memory because they have a little something extra special about them. But in the end, you’ve got to tell a good story and you’ve got to be funny, just like every week, and that’s ultimately the most important goal.

Dave: I think the issue with crossovers historically is that, like we talked about, logistically it’s just tough. It’s really a tough thing to wrap your head around and to make the stories on both sides of the show work to the best of your ability given that when you bring someone in from another show and they have their own meter that is a byproduct of their show.

Brett: “Friends” and “Seinfeld” are both shows that took place in the mid-90s in New York City with people of a certain age just trying to get by, living in apartments. Yet you can’t think of two shows that are so totally different. Trying to incorporate those two voices together can kind of be like trying to push a square peg into a round hole.

Are there certain lessons you’re taking away from this process making this crossover that may help or inform the way you work or what you do on “New Girl” going forward?

Dave: Yeah. One thing that I think helps is you realize that you can’t make the stories simple enough. The simpler you can make it, the more you can pack moments with comedy, pathos and all the good stuff. It’s always easier when you’ve got fewer hurdles to jump over.

Brett: I would say the other thing is that it was nice to have a little perspective from a day-to-day relationship with Dan, where you can kind of commiserate over how difficult this can be sometimes and just know that every show is suffering the same kind of challenges and struggles that you’re going through to make a good comedy.

L-R: Lamorne Morris, Jake Johnson, Zooey Deschanel, Hannah Simone and Max Greenfield in the special “New Girl”/”Brooklyn Nine-Nine” crossover episode of “New Girl” titled “Homecoming,” airing Tuesday, Oct. 11 (8:31-9:01 p.m. ET/PT), on FOX.

Photo credit: Adam Taylor/FOX

Can we expect to see future “New Girl” crossovers or out-of-the-box episodes in its future?

Dave: We’re always looking to break boundaries and push the envelope. I think we’ve tried to do that as much as possible. At the end of the day, you’re making 22 episodes a season at a breakneck pace. To try and really break it in a real way – try to do something high concept with interesting new buttons and knobs – is difficult. But more than anything, we like to challenge and entertain ourselves. So anytime we get a different way to look at our show, we say, “Yeah, let’s try it. Let’s do it.” I think we operate everything with a “Sure, let’s try it” point of view.

What do you hope fans will say after the crossover has aired?

Brett: That it was really funny and really unique, and that it was a great opportunity to see people who are at their top of their game performing together.

Dave: Yeah, I think we just want people to have fun.

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” co-creator Dan Goor said he was excited to see how your craft services compared with theirs. What’s the verdict?

Dave: It’s a great question. Theirs is probably much fancier – like really fancy food, finger foods and passed hors d’oeuvres. They’re just fancier people.

The special crossover episodes of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “New Girl” will air Tuesday, Oct. 11, starting at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.