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Wondercon

The Queen Of Improv… Reno 911!’s Wendi McLendon-Covey

Interview by Chauncé Hayden

Wendi McLendon-Covey is best known as Deputy Clementine Johnson (or as she puts it, “Queen of the Dog Track”) on Comedy Central’s on Comedy Central’s hit, Reno 911! The popular series also made it onto the big screen in Reno 911!: Miami. The film version follows the hilarious rag-tag team of Reno cops called in to save the day after a terrorist attack disrupts a national police convention in Miami Beach.
Wendi’s work has received critical acclaim world wide. In fact, her characters on such shows as Lovespring International and Reno 911! have become fan favorites. Wendi also produced, co-wrote and co-stars in another improvised, independent film “mockumentary,” Cook-off. The film centers on amateur chefs from around the country who compete for a million dollar prize in the ultimate food fight.
Wendi remains a member of the famed Groundling Theater in Los Angeles and is one of the stars of their summer show, the Groundlings Good Time Pig Farm.
I recently caught up with Wendi to talk about the success of Reno 911!, the art of improv and if we can expect men to start wearing short shorts any time soon.

 Steppin' Out Interview March 2007

Chauncé Hayden: How does it feel to bring Reno 911! to the big screen?
Wendi McLendon-Covey: I’m nervous and very excited. Everyone keeps asking me, “What are you going to do today? It’s the opening day!” But to be honest, I’m just trying to ignore it.

Are you the type who reads their own reviews?
Yeah. But we’re obviously not making Babel here! It’s a spring break movie. It’s not the kind of movie that really even needs to be reviewed.

Reno 911! may not be the next Babel but wouldn’t you agree it has a slam dunk audience?
Yes. I totally agree. It’s just a funny movie. It’s light. It’s fluffy. You can go in and forget your problems for a little while.

However, the film will be compared to the television version. How do you think a half hour sitcom will translate into a 90-minute film?
I feel like we stayed pretty true to the television version. The only difference is that we had a bigger budget on the film and a couple more celebrity cameos. The biggest difference that I saw was that in the film we don’t pixelate anything and we can swear. Some might find pixelated nudity funnier than the full monty.

Actually, I agree. I think the pixelation is very funny! I get a real kick out of that. It’s more like the TV show Cops. So why not leave the pixelated nudity in the film if it’s funnier?
(Laughs) Unfortunately, nobody else agreed! They really wanted an R rating. So the nudity and swearing where never in question.

Was there anything that you refused to do in the film or felt it was too risqué for you?
(Laughs) Oh gosh! A lot of stuff! The first cut of the movie was three and a half hours long. There were so many guest stars, perps and victims. The first draft of the movie we actually fought crime.
But because of time, and to get it down to 90 minutes, obviously a lot of stuff was cut out. So when
the DVD comes out there’s going to be a whole separate movie. There will be two versions on the DVD. It will kind of be like Anchor Man and Wake Up Ron Burgundy. There was just so much extra footage.

But back to my question. Anything in the film you refused to do?There was one thing in particular that I thought was over the top even for us. But I can’t tell you what it is because it won’t be out until the DVD comes out.

You seriously won’t tell me what it was?
I can’t! I’m so sorry. Trust me, if I try to explain it, it won’t make any sense. You’ll just have to see it.

How did Reno 911! come to be?
The show was being developed for Fox, but it was a sketch show. They turned us down because they felt it was too much like MadTV. But they said we still had some money in our budget if we want to think of something else. It was literally a spur of the moment thing back in 2000 when Ben [Garant], Tom [Lennon] and Kerri [Kenney] said, “You know what? Let’s just act like cops. Let’s just take a camera and go out and see what we can film.” That’s how it started. Two years later, Fox still hadn’t done anything with it. So it went to Comedy Central and that’s when I came on.

The rest is history?
Yep. It was just a series of happy accidents. But Fox still got the movie because some brilliant lawyer over there said, you can go but we retain the movie rights.

When you see yourself on a 30-foot screen, that’s a lot different than seeing yourself on a television. Are you comfortable seeing yourself that big? Some actors have a hard time with it.
It’s so shocking and so other worldly. Believe me, I don’t go around in life looking like Deputy Clementine Johnson. I never get recognized! Clemmy is just a cyclone of a woman who’s always bursting out of her clothes. All she does is smoke pot and drink on her off time. She doesn’t go to the gym. Her only exercise is sex.

Speaking of sex. You created the character yourself. So you have nobody to blame but yourself when it comes to Deputy Johnson’s sexual behavior.
(Laughs) I know! She is the total sum of all the women I saw growing up on television who I thought were so glamorous. Of course, what you think is glamour at seven years old is a lot different than reality. I remember thinking how amazing Dolly Parton was and how gorgeous she looked. What I love about Clemmy is that she’s so free with her ways and of course that she feels so hot. That to me is funnier than if she really is.

You can’t argue with success. Maxim magazine voted Deputy Johnson as one of TV’s Top Ten Nymphs.
There you go! Do you know how proud my parents are? They are just so proud! I love playing different characters and just completely transforming myself.

You were described by TV Guide as the “Queen of Improv.” Not too shabby. That is very nice. Is improv more difficult than acting off a script?
Honestly, I think it’s easier. In fact, we’re improvising right now. It’s just listening to someone and responding. That’s all improvisation is. So, as long as you know your character inside and out and you know how they would respond, the rest is easy. It seems all I’ve been doing lately is improv type things. I love it!

Including Reno 911! Isn’t that totally improv as well?
Yes. About 97 percent of it is. The only thing that we ever scripted is our public service announcements. And that’s very obviously read off a cue card.
Did they have the courage to improv the film version as well?
Yep! All we got for the film were rough outlines. Maybe a paragraph for each scene.

That’s amazing. Does it make it easier knowing you don’t have to worry about learning lines?
I think it makes it fun because every reaction during every scene is totally fresh. Nobody knows what is going to happen. Even our guest stars are chosen on the basis of what they bring to the show. They’ll give us a rough idea of what they want to do and if Tom and Ben think it’s funny, they’ll add it to the show. It’s collaborative all the way around. So when we hear this is what the action is going to be, we can make the choice where we win, and actually get them into custody, or we lose and they run away. Sometimes there is no resolution and we just keep fighting and fighting! Improv gives you a lot more choices in the editing room.

I’m surprised you never guest starred on The Larry David Show since that’s all improv as well.
I actually auditioned for it.

And?
I never got on. I don’t know what happened!

And you’re the freaking “Queen of Improv!”. What’s up with that?
I know and I was wearing my crown and everything! Maybe that’s what turned them off.

They were probably threatened by you.
(Laughs) I doubt it!

Let me ask you about those ultra short shorts that Lt. Dangle (played by Tom Lennon) wears. Is there anything sexy about a man in those types of shorts?
No. There’s nothing sexy about it. And there’s nothing sexy about a man who keeps adjusting himself in the shorts.

How do you keep a straight face?
We’re all so used to it by now. I feel like I need to send Tom’s balls a Christmas card! I’m so familiar with them.

So there’s no chance the success of 911! will start an ultra short shorts fashion trend this summer?
It might! I know it created quite a few Halloween costumes.

I hate to date myself, but there was a time many years ago when guys actually wore shorts that short.
Yeah, those Dolphin shorts! I remember those! Those were scary times. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again. By the way, Tom’s outfit is actually a little unitard. His shirt is sewn to the shorts. It’s actually a little jumpsuit! So, men’s jumpsuits might actually come into fashion.

Let’s face it, funny people are also usually very odd people as well. How does the Reno 911! cast get along off camera?
We actually get along very well. Unfortunately, off-season we can’t really see each other as much as we would like to because everyone is busy doing other things or live far apart. So we don’t get to see each other as much as we’d like. But we are like a big dysfunctional group of adopted children when we’re on that set. When we film our morning meetings, forget about it. We have to do so many takes of those because someone always starts laughing or we go off on a journey with our improv that goes so off point it has to be redone. We just forget ourselves and really become our characters sometimes. The hardest things for me is when I have to pretend I don’t like the other cast members, or being racist! When I make a crack about Raineesha’s ass I actually start to feel bad. I wonder if I’m hurting Raineesha’s feelings even though it’s a fake ass! In fact, when I’m called a “white trash whore” people will come up to me and apologize. But I don’t care! I mean, I’m not really that person!

Obviously there are restrictions on Comedy Central as to what you guys can get away with. Do you ever wonder what Reno 911! would be like on HBO?
(Laughs) That would be frightening! I watch things like Rome and it makes me wonder if there would just be full on anal rape on our show. Probably! Listen, I’m very square in real life. There are some things I don’t even know how to respond to, and I play the pervert of the bunch. There are some things that people will say and I’ll think, “Oh, shame on you!” It’s funny because Comedy Central has a Standards of Practices division. But none of us have been able to figure out how they work. Usually they’ll tell us to go weirder. They have no problem with us going weirder. But it comes down to “you can say this word but you can’t say that word because it sounds like this other word.

Doesn’t that effect the way you improv a scene? I would think it’s always on your mind what you can or can’t do.
Yeah, sometimes. Because there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to their logic. But at the end of the day, we can always bleep it or save it for the DVD.

Would you ever try stand-up comedy?
Stand-up comedy scares the hell out of me. I don’t think I could ever do it.

You never even tried?
Never! I’m too scared.

That shocks me. You would think if you can improv a comedy scene you could also do stand-up.
It may just be a mental block I created for myself. But I can think of nothing I’d rather not do than being on stage by myself telling jokes. I couldn’t do it. I have so much respect for people who can. But I’m the kind of person if someone heckled me I would probably throw up or start crying. My skin isn’t thick enough.

Not for nothing, but that sounds like a great act.
(Laughs) Well, it’s not going to happen.

Is it wrong to make jokes about Britney Spears and Anna Nicole?
To me the funniest thing about those two situations is the people that surround them and the people that report about it. That’s where the humor comes in. Of course it’s not funny when someone who has been in an altered state for years finally dies and leaves behind a little baby. But the judge playing to the camera, seemingly trying to get his own show, is just hysterical.

There’s been so much news coverage of Anna Nicole that you have to wonder what important news stories came and went that we’ll never know about.
I do wonder about that actually. Especially when the local news does 15 minutes on Anna Nicole and then a blurb that Tony Blair is taking troops out of Iraq It’s unbelievable! And you wonder why the rest of the world thinks we’re stupid.

Will there ever be a Hackensack 911?
Laughs) You never know! We’ll have to wait and see how many people come out to see the movie.

If Norbit was the No. 1movie for two weeks, Reno 911! will probably win an Academy Award.
Chaunce, get out of my mind!