Television writer Lakshmi Sundaram was born in Brooklyn, but in order to write about her native New York, she had to set up shop in Los Angeles. As one of the writers of Fox’s Andy Samberg-helmed cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, she helps craft the daily antics of a fictional precinct of the NYPD. (The exterior shot of the station is actually Prospect Heights’ 78th precinct building, on Bergen and 6th Avenue.) We spoke to Sundaram about what it’s like to Brooklyn-splain for a national audience.
What is it like to leave actual Brooklyn to reconstruct Brooklyn in LA?
You know, I was born in the precinct that the show is supposed to be about. It’s a really weird thing. People think we shoot in Brooklyn all the time, but really we shoot in downtown LA. The writer’s room, though, actually has a lot of experience with the borough. Everybody’s a comedy writer, and many of them started in New York writing for Conan, The Daily Show , and Saturday Night Live . A lot of us lived in Brooklyn at some point, but for legal reasons, we don’t reference specific places on the show. It’s a comedy, so we’re going to make fun of everything, and so we can only use a place name if it either doesn’t exist, or if, say, it’s everywhere.
Have you found any part of Brooklyn-life difficult to translate?
Pretty much everybody has an understanding of what goes on there now. It’s very public, what happens in Brooklyn. It’s become a brand. For instance, I was in West Elm in LA the other day and they had aprons that just say “Brooklyn” on it. That’s weird!
I’ve found that the pitches from the writer’s room about the community are pretty on point. Once in a while, because I lived in Brooklyn more recently and am more rooted in that community, someone will have a question. Mostly it’s something like, “We need another street name. Something other than Union.” Joralemon is a favorite one for people to say. Or the constant refrain of: “Is this thing still there?”
Do you have an example of that?
Joe Lo Truglio’s character, Charles Boyle, is a ridiculous foodie, which is our way of nodding to Brooklyn food culture. When we wrote an episode where there’s a debate about the best pie in New York, we talked about the pie places in Brooklyn for a long time.
The first episode I wrote last year was called “Sal’s Pizza,” about three competing pizza places. When I was pitching jokes, one of them came from when I was hanging out with friends in Bay Ridge, and they had two pizzerias, Nino’s and Pepino’s, and we ordered pizza from one and couldn’t figure out which it was. So I think I pitched that the places should be named Gino’s, Nino’s, and Pepino’s.
What’s it like to write about the NYPD in the current climate?
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is really about the characters. Sure, it’s a cop show, but if we talked about the NYPD specifically all the time, it would be taking a lot of real estate away from the characters that we’ve developed. I’m sure people think that’s—no pun intended—a cop out. My experience is that the reliability and specificity of the stories comes from them being cops. They have very specific roles in Brooklyn, and navigating that complicates their lives. But it’s true, we’re not a ripped-from-the-headlines show. We have a different end game, and different mandates. It’s not The Sopranos . The storytelling is different.
But you know, I grew up on Staten Island, and I have a lot of friends and family in the NYPD. I’ve always loved cop stuff. When I’m working on script, I’ll ask them, “Is this accurate? What’s the protocol—if you’re going to kick down the door and go in this warehouse, how would you hold their gun?” And we have consultants who work with the show to make sure that things are mostly accurate. It’s exciting to be a part of a show with these characters at the heart of it, where there are strong female characters that both care about their jobs and are respected in them. And it’s just a fun place to work. I’m so proud of the show, both as a writer and a New Yorker.