When Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur and writer Dan Goor wanted to talk with Andre Braugher about portraying Captain Ray Holt on the sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Braugher was more than a bit curious.
No wonder. Braugher had never been in a TV sitcom before. In fact, most of his previous roles tended to be dramatic, dark, and serious–definitely serious. Fans knew him as Dr. Ben Gideon on Gideon’s Crossing, lawyer Bayard Ellis on Law & Order: SVU, and the iconic Frank Pembleton on Homicide: Life on the Street.
But funny? The closest he had gotten to playing comedy was the role of Owen Thoreau, Jr. on the short-lived, but excellent, Men of a Certain Age. And while it was funny, it wasn’t a sitcom.
After an hour-long Skype session with Schur and Goor, Braugher was willing to give it a try. “I had been a fan of Parks and Rec, so I knew where Mike was coming from, and I knew that Dan was a writer involved extensively in that show,” says Braugher. “I felt as though I understood their pedigree, so I could have confidence that they wanted to create a loveable, goofball world populated with interesting characters. Our characters have a real affection for each other. I’ve never done comedy before, but I felt as though I was working with people whose vision for the show was interesting and humane,” he says.
The Comedic Adjustment
Braugher admits that he had a lot of growing pains–at first. “Part of it is really on-the-job training. You need enough episodes underneath your belt to really understand the tone,” says Braugher. His wife, actress Ami Brabson, helped coach him. They watched the first season together, and the advice that came from this was one word: relax.
“A score of episodes in, I began to simply trust myself and the material together,” explains Braugher. “Some episodes are more difficult than others to find the right tone. I feel as though I’m very much in the ballpark now.”
Considering that he’s been nominated for an Emmy for the role three times, we tend to agree.
When describing his Brooklyn Nine-Nine character, Capt. Ray Holt, Braugher says that he’s an admirable man, who’s a dedicated public servant as well as a good partner to his husband Kevin Cozner, played by Marc Evan Jackson. “Capt. Holt is a man with a variety of interests that are all classical. He’s a man who knows, at all times, what’s proper. He’s just quirky and quite fluent with the language of the street,” says Braugher. “He’s up on the political aspect of being an openly gay police captain.”
In fact, one of Braugher’s concerns before he took the role was that the character not be marginalized in stereotypical quirkiness. “One of my main considerations is to make sure that Capt. Holt is a police captain who’s gay as opposed to a gay police Capt., and that distinction is pretty plain,” says Braugher. He and Goor talked extensively about the character before Braugher began playing Capt. Holt.
Coming from Drama
While Braugher loves playing dramatic roles—and he’s spent much of his 30 plus-year career doing them—he loves the benefits of comedy. “One of the great upsides about comedy is that you’re dealing with really lovely, fun material,” says Braugher, “as opposed to rapes, robbery, and murder.”
Playing comedy, though, has allowed him to observe and learn from some of his younger co-stars who have performed mostly comedy. “I admire what Andy Samberg and Joe Lo Truglio do. They’re not the only two actors on the show whom I admire, but I want to point out that Andy is very skilled in understanding what the camera does, how the work is edited,” states Braugher. “You only learn from failures, so what I do is I watch how Joe solves the problem of jokes that aren’t funny. He and the writer on the set will huddle together and really explore a way out—they’ll come up with a snappy accent or be willing to deconstruct the jokes so that we can get to the heart of it, and then they rewrite it right then.”
“What I’ve learned from Joe is that when things go wrong, to understand that it doesn’t get funnier in the editing room. The time to make it funny is now. He’s an incredibly inventive comic actor. There’s not a single gag you can’t give him where he isn’t thinking about, ‘How can I go further?’” says Braugher. “His commitment is pretty inspiring.”
Fine with Funny
Braugher knows that he may eventually play more dark, serious characters once again. But that’s fine with him too. When talking about Homicide’s Frank Pembleton, he says that “What I loved about him was his strange, eclectic mix: he’s a very religious man, but he’s also amoral in certain ways. He’s a family man, but he’s also a hard-nosed avenger,” says Braugher. As for playing Pembleton today, Braugher says he would do it, but “I would be an older, slower, fatter Frank. He would still have the same qualities, but age gives us access to more wisdom, and I think that would be true for playing Frank also.”
While he’s sticking with comedy now, he’s open to more drama in the future. “I like both of these worlds that I’ve inhabited,” says Braugher. “You know, they both have their merits.”
Catch Brooklyn Nine-Nine Tuesday nights on Fox. Check local listings for times.
The complete series of Homicide: Life on the Street was recently released by Shout! Factory.
About Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski
Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski is the award-winning author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box, writer of the award-winning humor column, Wojo’s World®, and future award-winning stand-up comic and speaker. Having lived in Baltimore her whole life, Wojo first “met” Braugher on Homicide, and he scared the heck out of her. She loves his comedy and swears that interviewing him was not like an interrogation in the box! For more Wojo and lots of funny stuff, check out her website at www.wojosworld.com.
Feature photo courtesy Fox Photo Publicity