Pop Culture

How ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ Nailed its Backstreet Boys Cold Open and Achieved Sketch Comedy Perfection

An oral history of a flawless 87 seconds of comedy, as told by the writers and actors who wanted it that way

How ‘Brooklyn NineNine Nailed its Backstreet Boys Cold Open and Achieved Sketch Comedy Perfection

Photographs: Brooklyn 99; Collage: Gabe Conte

If you’ve been on the internet in the past five years, chances are the video for the Brooklyn Nine-Nine sketch “I Want It That Way” has come onto your radar. An expertly executed 87 seconds of comedy from late in the fifth season of the NBC sitcom, it features Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) requesting that five suspects in a lineup sing the Backstreet Boys song “I Want It That Way”: Gwen (Devin Sidell), a crime witness who only heard but never saw the culprit singing this song in a bar, needs to have her memory jogged to ID him. After the confused suspects each sing a line of the song, building to a crescendo that Peralta gleefully orchestrates, Gwen says, “It was number five. Number five killed my brother.” In a perfect punch line to an already perfect sketch, Peralta says, “Oh, my God, I forgot about that part.”

The key to the cold open’s viral success—it has 36 million views, while most other videos on the Brooklyn Nine-Nine YouTube channel hover under 700,000—is that it requires zero knowledge of the show from which it originates. This frees it up perfectly to be spread around the world as though it were a standalone sketch.

So how did this modern feat in television sitcom writing come to be? Here, the writers and stars reminisce on creating one of their series’ best bits in a random mid-season episode.

Jeff Topolski, writer: I wish it was like a lightning-bolt moment where I was just sitting and thinking, and then suddenly the Backstreet Boys came to me and then I wrote it all.

Justin Noble, co-producer: I thought that this was the brainchild of Luke Del Tredici.

Luke Del Tredici, executive producer: I actually remember this pretty well. I was with Dan Goor, who created the show, and Jeff, and we were going through the rewrite of the episode and it was just getting late in the day.

Noble: There’s usually this “Oh, fuck” moment where you’re like, “Oh, right, we need a cold open.”

Del Tredici: As we were falling behind in the rewrite, Dan sent me over to the story room to push Pause on whatever they were doing and come up with a cold open for the episode. I went in there and we just batted around ideas.

Early in the show we’d done a lot of bits with a police lineup. And then we hadn’t done it for, like, three years. I had an idea of Jake trying to make a bunch of the perps sing a song for him. I think I originally pitched it as a Disney song, which would never have cleared. I believe my first pitch was “The Daughters of Triton,” the song from the animated Little Mermaid. Somebody—I really wish I knew who—someone else I know pitched the Backstreet Boys song.

Noble: We knew that it was so fun as we were writing it. My attitude was, “There is no way in hell that we will get to do this.” The idea of getting a network in the US to pay for a song on a network comedy is unheard of. They were so cheap about that—hilariously so. There were many times when we would try to write in a song and the go-to joke was them coming back and saying, “Could you use the 1970s song ‘At the Car Wash’ instead?” Because [NBC] owns the rights to it.

Del Tredici: Andrew Guest pitched the moment when Andy sings, “Now number fi-ive.” Phil Jackson pitched the blow to the whole thing—where we hold off the information that it’s about a murder and Andy forgot about that.

Topolski: They came in and were really proud of themselves. They were like, “We have a really funny cold open. It does use a song. But here’s how it goes.”

Noble: The showrunner would always talk about me as a singer because I was in this very embarrassing college a cappella group and went on a world tour. I believe I had to go into the rewrite room and perform it with some other people to sell the idea of it—which I think was instrumental to it succeeding.

Topolski: We loved it and started working on it to get it ready for the table read.

The Table Read

Del Tredici: It was probably written at 6 or 7 p.m. on Tuesday, and we table-read it at 10:30 the next morning.

Noble: A bad cold open is like a death sentence. You’re really just trying to secure the best comedy vibes.

Del Tredici: A well-known song can cost $30,000 to $100,000. It’s often expensive if you want to change the lyrics yourself. We sort of decided that the only way Matt [Nodella, producer] would do it is if it did really well at the table read.

Noble: The one person you really want to sell is Andy, because if Andy likes something, it’s gonna stay. I remember him starting to chuckle during it, and that was the moment of “This is gonna happen” because it now has buy-in from too many people to stop it. It’s a runaway train.

Devin Sidell and Andy Samberg in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s classic Backstreet Boys-inspired cold open.Courtesy of Universal Television

Del Tredici: Right away, it killed. It did so well.

Topolski: Everyone was dying.

Jaffar Mahmood, director: So I was like, holy shit, this is gonna be really cool to direct. The most gut-wrenching part was that as soon as that finished, the line producer who is in charge of the money is like, “Guys, I hate to burst anyone’s bubbles, but I just want to warn you all that we don’t know if we can afford this song.”

Topolski: There was a day that I spent looking up other songs, and all of the royalty-free songs are all really old, lame songs. It’s like “She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain When She Comes.” After that the producers were like, “Okay, we can make it work.” So that was a huge relief. We were moving very quickly. Our table read was on a Wednesday, and we started shooting on the following Monday.

Mahmood: We knew we had to get great singers. We obviously wanted vocal ranges.

Adam Bucci, “Perp No. 2”: I come from a theater background and a singing background, so it was really refreshing to have an audition where you didn’t have to memorize too many lines.

Devin Sidell, “Gwen”: I remember in the audition it was a lot more emotional; I was crying, and we were sort of getting the comedy out of that.

Bucci: When we arrived on set that was our first chance to meet each other, an hour before shooting.

Ahmed Brooks, “Perp No. 1”: We had done a little practice, a couple of run-throughs actually singing the song; we’re working on the harmonies and stuff.

Bucci: So we literally took 5, 10 minutes and just harmonized and tried to sound like the Backstreet Boys.

Mahmood: It was starting to feel almost like a barbershop quartet.

Bucci: They were like, “Okay, cut. You guys are sounding way too good. That’s not the point of this.” I tried to take the note and tried to be a little flat but I feel like some people didn’t take the note and they sounded good. I saw some comments later and they were like, “Number two is flat,” and I was so offended. This is my chance to redeem myself, in this interview.

Sidell: I did what I did in the audition, and Jaffar came by and was like, “You know what I think? You can’t be that upset because then it makes Andy’s character seem like way more of an asshole.”

Mahmood: To me the most important part, that wasn’t necessarily on the page, was as they’re being asked to sing, the looks to each other—the connecting to one another, like “What the hell is going on here?”

Topolski: There was actually a part where [Andy] was singing it up when he was supposed to go down. And I was like, “Hey, this is weird that I’m giving you a note on how to sing the song because you’re Andy Samberg but actually it goes down.…”

Sidell: Andy was not sure he was getting the notes right for “Tell me why” and he really wanted them to be perfect, so he was like, “Can someone play the recording?” and people in the crew were getting it on their phones so he could get the exact notes.

Bucci: After we stopped filming you could hear the lighting guy, the gaffers, all humming the song because it was stuck in everyone’s brain for the entire day.

Adam Bucci, who plays Perp No. 2 in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s “I Want It That Way” cold open, says he purposely sang flat to stay in character—which viewers didn’t realize was intentional. “This is my chance to redeem myself, in this interview.”Courtesy of Universal Television
The Reception

Mahmood: This was so gold I was just like, “I hope the editors don’t mess it up.” And when it came through I remember just being elated.

Del Tredici: Dan and I were having lunch and as I went in, I saw that NBC had posted it to their social media stuff. By the time I stepped out of lunch I was like, “Oh, this is gonna be the most popular thing we’ve ever done.”

Mahmood: I’ve directed a lot of really big hit shows—Modern Family, Young Sheldon, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—and I’ve never done anything that has had this level of notoriety. My first cousin posted it once, having no idea I directed it. I’m like, “Omar, I directed that.” He’s like, “WHAT?”

Brooks: I was out in Sweden working, and I remember sitting on the couch, and it’s like a group of 20 people and I’m talking with somebody. I said, “Really?” And this guy sitting on another couch was like, “Wait a minute—you’re that guy! When you said ‘Really?’ it just clicked on me.” He called his wife and he was like, “Hey, I’ve got the guy from that Brooklyn Nine-Nine scene!”

Topolski: My wife and I were at some hotel and there were kids in the pool, singing the Backstreet Boys song but they sang the Brooklyn Nine-Nine version. She was like, “Can I go tell them that you wrote that episode?”

Sidell: Sometimes on Reddit, if I see people talking about it, I’ll respond and be like, “That was me! I’m so glad you like it!” And then they’re like, “You’re such a liar.”

Bucci: It’s such a weird thing to be part of because you’re not really credited as the small costars. There’s no residuals, so you see it get to 100 million views and you’re like, “Aw, man, I wish there was residuals involved in that.”

Ahmed Brooks, Adam Bucci, Marcus Terrell Smith, John Shartzer, Roshan GolcondaCourtesy of Universal Television

Del Tredici: It is totally the product of the American writers’ room system: It was written by committee, which is one of the main things that we’re trying to fight for [in the strike]. And from an actor’s perspective, this is the most iconic thing the show ever did, and it’s Andy Samberg and six day players. It really is about trying to make sure that these everyday working actors who book guest-star roles here and there are able to survive. This cold open is testament to the value that those actors bring.

Sidell: I wrote a whole other comedy script. It was a satire on our lives after the scene. And it was us thinking we were super-famous but nobody recognizing us. The Starbucks person is like, “Do you want that with foam?” and we’re all like, “Yes—I want it that way.” Stupid, stupid stuff. I started working on it with a producer friend of mine and we were like, “We could get sued, possibly.” We had an actual production. It was a whole thing. At the last minute we were like, We don’t wanna risk getting in trouble. We were like, What else can we do? And we were like, We’ll do a music video. We shot around my condo complex, in my rec room and everything.

Bucci: I was wondering, When are the Backstreet Boys gonna address it and post it, because that would be so cool. They actually had someone film them in a lineup and they were mouthing us.

Noble: I think it’s such a strong cold open on a show that really cared about cold opens. For an audience, it only hits a sliver of them, so I think it hits even harder for those people who are familiar with it. Gen Z would probably watch this cold open and be like, “I don’t understand it.”

Sidell: To have been lucky enough to get cast in it, to be able to do it and make people laugh, is gonna be one of the highlights of my life.

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