Reno 911! could be the most American sketch comedy show ever to grace the airwaves, and certainly the funniest.
When we were doing Viva Variety, we knew, "Boy, this really cracks us up, but this is not for everybody. This is a little weird."
-- Robert Ben Garant
Reno 911! could be the most American sketch comedy show ever to grace the airwaves, and certainly the funniest. A loose spoof of COPS, with completely improvised dialogue, the Comedy Central series about the fictional Reno Sheriff's Department is infinitely more layered than the reigning champ of sketch comedy, Saturday Night Live, and its ugly stepsister, Mad TV. Unlike those more popular predecessors, Reno 911! commits completely to its characters and aesthetic, creating a bizarre but authentic little world. Other sketch shows, including Comedy Central's own Chappelle's Show (racism as satire) and Mind of Mencia (racism as entertainment), rely heavily on the performers' unshakeable personalities: Whether he's wearing white-face or riding around with Wayne Brady, Dave Chappelle is always Dave Chappelle. But the ensemble troupe of Reno 911! forsakes individual stardom in service of the weird characters they're playing, and that makes the show truly great.
Still, there's nothing special about Reno 911! -- Reno's Most Wanted (Uncensored), a single-disc compilation of seven episodes arbitrarily culled from the show's four seasons so far. That's not to say the episodes aren't funny, but there are just as many funny episodes and individual sketches that aren't represented here. (I'm thinking in particular of the story arc where one of the deputies winds up dating a serial killer.) But these episodes do have some wonderful moments and give a broad look at the characters while also demonstrating the show's worldview.
That worldview is a perverse one, peopled by wacky stereotypes who come across as likeable, if pathetic, working stiffs. On the Uncensored DVD, they deal with everything from Homeland Security training to an exchange program that brings a British constable into the mix, but the outsiders always wind up being con men or hypocrites, reinforcing the surprisingly soft-hearted notion that the group of deputies is a family all its own.
The seven half-hour episodes fly by pretty fast, but the DVD also packs some minor treats in the way of special features, including a "Top Ten Calls" segment that features a series of random sketches from the series, though how they assembled the list without one of Patton Oswalt's brilliant "D&D Nerd" sketches is beyond me. Though the box proudly proclaims the material to be "uncensored", all that means is that the bleeps have been removed from the blue dialogue, while certain body parts remain blurred. Apparently it's okay to say "fuck", but not to flip the bird, the kind of head-scratching hypocrisy it's best not to think about. The special features are rounded out by a cutesy if somewhat dull clip featuring Thomas Lennon (who plays hot-pantsed Jim Dangle), Cedric Yarbrough (the lothario Jones), Kerri Kenney-Silver (Trudy), and Niecy Nash (Raineesha) performing in character at Comedy Central's upfront presentation a few years ago, the first time the TV ad/scheduling bonanza was mined for consumer revenue.
The episode that best captures the show's zeitgeist is the first one on the disc: "Scavenger Hunt", in which the deputies compete for the chance to win tickets to an execution by collecting perps who have been assigned point values. The hunt unfolds like all the plots on Reno 911!, as a series of sketches in which the deputies respond to emergency calls and try (and usually fail) to keep the streets safe. Some of the cast members have been working together for years, from MTV's The State to Comedy Central's Viva Variety, but with Reno 911!, they blend their love of rapid-fire sketches with the subplots involving their characters. For every scene in which a deputy nabs a criminal for the contest, there are two or three scenes that don't fit into the larger narrative at all.
The best example of this is when Dangle and Junior (Robert Ben Garant) attempt to arrest a local felon named Big Mike (Toby Huss) in hopes that he has a tattoo (as this warrants more points). Not long after, they come across a naked drunk guy in an alley who speaks garbled Armenian and keeps trying to high-five them. The naked guy doesn't have anything to do with the main story, and could have popped up in any episode. It's moments like that one that keep Reno 911 feeling fresh, as if these actors are just riffing in front of a camera for the hell of it. In fact, a lot of the scenes with actors like Huss are shot sequentially, so that from episode to episode, the deputies might address Big Mike by name and later act as if they've never met him. It's a curiously blurred line between pure standalone sketch and continuity-driven sitcom. It's a little weird, but hey, that's Reno.