Editorial
Op-Eds, Hot Takes, or Long-Form Articles From Consequence's Finest

Reno 911! and the Thin Blue Line Between Satire and Cruelty

on May 05, 2020, 3:30pm

In a world where micro-streaming service Quibi was watched by anyone except exhausted culture writers assigned to cover it, their relaunch of the mockumentary sketch show Reno 911! would take up at least a couple days’ worth of exhaustive Twitter culture war discourse. For what it’s worth, the cast of the acclaimed Comedy Central show are all back and haven’t missed a step, sliding back into their roles as if no time has passed. Unfortunately, that same sense of nostalgic comfort is also the show’s greatest weakness; for better and for worse, the show (and its sense of humor) hasn’t changed a whit since it went off the air in 2009.

In the Bush-era heyday of Reno 911!, the show perfectly fit that South Park peak of edgy, subversive humor. The sketch-based, improv-heavy nature of each episode pushed just the right buttons while keeping the jokes centered on the buffoons of the Reno Sherriff’s Department. In a lot of ways, the new Reno 911! scratches that itch just the same: Lt. Dangle (Thomas Lennon) is still a fabulously acerbic cop with a pair of teeny shorts, Clemmy (Wendi McClendon-Covey) remains a fearlessly overconfident mama bear, Weigel (Kerri Kenney-Silver) a painfully awkward cat lady, and so forth. The Quibi format works fairly well for the sketch-based nature of the show: seven-minute episodes can fit in about three or four sketches where they can just get in, tell the joke, and get out. Lennon even said in a Newsweek interview that the new show is “the Lay’s potato chips of programming … just have a couple and then, yeah, you’ll feel a little sick.”

The world’s changed a lot since 2009, though, and some of the gleeful anarchy of the show hits different in a world where names like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner still ring in people’s memories. What do you do with a cop comedy in a post-Black Lives Matter world? To their credit, Reno 911! tries its best to roll with the punches — the very first sketch of the new show sports Sgt. Jones (Cedric Yarborough) lambasting a white woman for calling the police on black kids in her building’s pool, only to finally hear that she called because they were drowning. In a later episode, the department reflects on the fact they haven’t shot a single unarmed white person, and cynically starts looking for one to shoot to even out their numbers.

Clearly, Lennon, co-writer and co-star Robert Ben Garant, and the rest of the cast have these sensitivities in mind when crafting a Reno 911! that has to feel the same as the old show but fit into not just a new format, but a new cultural landscape. But the results don’t always work, and that’s why a lot of the new show feels shaggy and unformed, and the targets of their satire miss far too often. For every pitch-perfect sketch about a “2nd Amendment gun show”, where everyone’s scrambling to feel like the ‘good guy with the gun’ in a room, there’s a painfully tone-deaf PSA from Dangle about just how wacky all these new pronouns we have to remember are, amirite fellas? That it’s placed in the mouth of the most openly queer character on the show feels especially strange: what’s the joke here? Is it on Dangle for feeling overwhelmed by gender stuff? Or, more likely, are the middle-aged writers of the show waving their hands at how ridiculous they feel it’s all gotten?

Defenders of the show would say I’m being oversensitive, or that Reno 911! is the last bastion of political incorrectness in the ever-escalating culture war that rages throughout the Internet. As of this writing, the only real review of the Quibi version of Reno 911! comes from, of all places, The Federalist. There, culture editor Emily Jashinsky applauds the show for “harkening back to funnier times” when the regressive left and political correctness didn’t police our speech, and preemptively excoriating “legacy media” for presumably dismissing it, “even if they allow for a little more wiggle room than the left’s most humorless detractors.”

That’s where talking about Reno 911! feels like walking into a minefield in the first place; no amount of even-handed criticism will be interpreted by some as anything but bile from a humorless leftie who thinks we just shouldn’t joke about things anymore. But there’s gotta be some wiggle room between “hey, maybe this joke isn’t artfully constructed enough to be effective as satire” and “the SJWs are coming for your Jew jokes.” When does pointed satire just become mean-spirited? Are you a wokescold for just thinking a joke punching down at disabled people or winking at cops for getting away with murder isn’t funny? Where the line falls for you may determine whether you want to dip back into the hijinks of the Reno Sherriff’s Department.

Maybe the best case study for Reno 911!‘s ability to survive as a comedy show, regardless of the precarious position of its platform, lies in its most ambitious sketch of the season: a four-minute one-take jazz funeral for the aunt of frequent Reno troublemaker T.T. (Niecy Nash). Watching Nash storm out of the church in her buck teeth and oversized shirt fires off one’s minstrelsy alarms pretty quickly. But then the sketch keeps going, and it becomes a long-take symphony of escalating Tex Avery stakes: the Sheriff’s department act as uncomfortable pallbearers while a brass band plays them down the street, only to have to weave through construction, demolition, and all manner of cartoonish obstacles to get to the cemetery, where the coffin is finally dumped unceremoniously in the grave. It’s a beautiful sketch, where the initial shock of a poorly-aged recurring character gives way to a new kind of comic genius.


How you read that scene will likely determine how much you’re willing to invest in Quibi’s version of Reno 911!. (Well, that and the fact that it’s on Quibi.) But if they can hone the targets and execution of their satire — and future cameos from Patton Oswalt as an Alex Jones-type and “Weird” Al Yankovic at Literally Ted Nugent gives me hope — we can at least lament that no one’s going to be watching this on their phone in two months.

16 comments