Brooklyn Nine-Nine: “Charges and Specs” – The Ballroom Competition
Actor Edmund Gwenn is cited as saying the famous line “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” There are any number of reasons for this sentiment: comedy is highly subjective, so it’s hard to know if something will make something laugh. Making a serial comedy TV show can be even more challenging than making a funny movie. Over the course of each episode, you not only need to consistently deliver laughs, but you also need to juggle the other challenges of writing a serial TV show – progress your plots, develop your characters, and come up with a unique episode each week.
A comedy series can be a practice in contradictions. Comedy is a game of delivering the unexpected, but developing a series means having characters behave in a consistent, semi-predictable way. Making a comedy series means creating situations where your characters behave in a consistent, but unpredictable way. How can that happen?
Brooklyn Nine-Nine takes a traditional drama format to the comedy realm: it’s a police show, following perennial goofball Jake Peralta as they investigate the various crimes of New York City. After mining humor from murder and drug dealing, the series caps off its first season with “Charges and Specs.” In this ballroom dancing scene, Peralta and his partner, Amy Santiago, along with their superior officer Raymond Holt, pose as competitors in a ballroom dancing competition in order to infiltrate a money-laundering scheme.
Fans of the series will recognize that each character gets to act against type in this scene. Perfectionist Santiago finds herself in a setting where she can’t excel, and doesn’t know how to handle the looming failure. Immature and irresponsible Peralta gets to take the lead, showing his dancing skills. And the normally taciturn gay captain proves to be a lady-killer. (This trait was driven home even more strongly in a prior scene, where he flirts with a female judge to catch a break at a hearing). After a full season of establishing character, each of the three can break out of their tropes to try something new.
Even if you’re not a fan of the show and don’t know these characters, however, this scene brings its own internal momentum that brings its own sense of humor.
First, the set-up itself is a source of humor. For decades, building a film or movie around a major set-piece, such as a dance number, has been a staple of writing. So, even though this is ostensibly a cop show, seeing our characters at a ballroom dancing competition is still familiar to most viewers. The unfamiliar element comes in that the show doesn’t fulfill the obvious trope. Instead of a major, impressive set piece, our characters struggle with the seemingly basic dance steps. Expectations are undercut.
The episode blends the expected with the unexpected. Any scene that builds its humor around bad dancing will include jokes about stepping on toes, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine does so here. However, they follow that up with an original quip unique to their series: an Amy Santiago sex tape joke. Throughout the series, Peralta has needled Santiago, so that whenever she inadvertently uses a phrase that implies an unpleasant experience, Peralta announces that it’s a name for Santiago’s hypothetical sex tape. So, when Amy apologetically says, “I’m horrible at this; when can we stop?” fans know what’s coming. However, once again, the expected is blended with the unexpected. The punchline the audience knows is coming gets delivered by a surprising character: Amy. And, in an additional twist, Jake adds his own “sex tape” title: “Well done.”
Holt has his moment, too. The first beat for him comes at the beginning of the scene, as Santiago and Peralta are astonished to see his talent for ballroom dancing. Again, here is a character trait that is unexpected, but not out of character for Holt.
The scene ends when Holt chastises Peralta for not focusing on their mission. He immediately undermines his own criticism, by instructing his partner to “And spin.” Presumably, although he expects Peralta to focus, he can break focus to improve his dancing. Again, a beat is unexpected (Holt will instruct his partner on dance moves immediately after criticizing Peralta for focusing on dancing), but in character (the serious, supremely competent police captain would approach a dance competition with the same competence and gravitas.) Peralta draws attention to this seeming contradiction, ending the scene with the rhetorical question “Who is he?”
While ideally, audience members shouldn’t be left questioning who these characters are, surprise is the cornerstone of all comedy. To make a successful comedy, whether it be a single scene or a several-year TV series, the creative contributors must blend the expected and unexpected, undercutting expectation while fulfilling characterization. No wonder that Gwenn thought death was comparatively easier.
Angela Jorgensen originally hails from Iowa. She currently resides in Los Angeles and aspires to write for hour-long television dramas. She’s currently producing a documentary called The Longest Straw [www.thelongeststraw.wordpress.com].