Last night, on Fox television, a comic star was born. This is not some young up-and-comer, fresh from the nightclub circuit or improv scene; Andre Braugher is 51 years old, and not exactly known for being funny. For six years, he was doing (bar none) the best dramatic acting on television, as Detective Frank Pembleton on NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Streets; he continued doing fine character work in films like Primal Fear and Frequency and on failed but interesting television shows like the medical procedural Gideon’s Crossing and Ray Romano’s Men of a Certain Age. Little on his résumé would indicate a hidden comic genius. But as Captain Holt on the new Andy Samberg cop sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, he proves what countless dramatic actors have discovered before him: that the key to being funny is to play it absolutely straight.
The program was created by Parks and Rec’s Michael Schur and Dan Goor, and it plays like a mash-up of that show and an ‘80s buddy cop comedy. Last night’s pilot barely had time for introductions (and lest we forget, it also took a few episodes for Parks to flesh out its ensemble), but there are hints of Jerry Gergich in clumsy, mush-mouthed Detective Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), of gossipy Donna in administrator Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti, the brilliant stand-up and former Parks writer), even a bit of Chris Traeger in therapy-seeking squad leader Sgt. Terry Jeffords (the great Terry Crews). Presuming Brooklyn gets the long life it deserves, these characters will have the opportunity to grow out of Parks’ long shadow, just as that show grew out of The Office’s.
But the most transparently Parks-inspired character is Braugher’s Captain Holt, whom Alyssa Rosenberg correctly pegs as “a black, gay riff on Ron Swanson.” The key to Swanson is Nick Offerman’s dead-serious playing; he’s not only not in on the joke, he’s not aware that there is a joke. Braugher makes the same accurate assessment. His first entrance involves the oldest commander/subordinate gag in the book, the one where the young wiseacre (Samberg) is preemptively mocking his new superior, unaware that the object of his derision is directly behind him. Braugher presses the matter: “You were describing what kind of person I’m going to be. I’d like you to finish.” He further insists that Samberg “do the robot voice” — and when he hears it, he sternly admonishes, “That’s a terrible robot voice.”
But his best bit of deadpan comes in the following scene, as he’s catching up with Sgt. Jeffords, whom he worked with earlier in his career — when Jeffords was much heavier. “They used to call me Terry Titties,” Jeffords confesses. “I had large — ”
“Yes, titties, I remember,” Holt replies. Look, it’s not the best bit of comic writing you’re going to hear on television this week. But there’s something about the flat, matter-of-fact spin that Braugher puts on that line that is, quite simply, perfect. It’s one of the episode’s biggest laughs — and there are a lot of them. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is even more joke-dense than Parks, and most of the laugh lines land. The pilot is directed by 21 Jump Street’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and it shares much of that film’s fast, crisp style. And while Samberg hasn’t quite found a character to play just yet, the wisecracking Axel Foley groove he’s working will do until he finds one. And there’s no real rush — there’s a funnier and more inspired comic performer stealing the show in the meantime.