'New Girl' Creator Liz Meriwether Talks Prince, Super Bowl Pressure and Letting Zooey Sing
The showrunner tells THR about the decision to hold nothing back in the big postgame episode: "I think we can come back from this without losing all of our integrity."
Not long after the confetti freezes to the turf at MetLife Stadium and a few lucky players are coerced into announcing a trip to Disney World on camera, Fox will premiere an episode of New Girl to what will likely garner its biggest audience ever.
The team behind the third-year comedy, which got the green light for the coveted post-Super Bowl time slot almost nine months ago, has been prepping the episode since they found out -- though they tweaked plans accordingly when Prince made himself available.
Prince -- that's Purple Rain, pride of Minneapolis, sometimes a symbol Prince -- reached out to the New Girl producers earlier this season after they had first tried to recruit him for a cameo in 2013. The resulting collaboration, which will include the rock icon performing a tune with New Girl star (and She & Him frontwoman) Zooey Deschanel, is a semi-surreal turn for the comedy that creator Liz Meriwether says is more about wish fulfillment than anything they've tackled before.
Ahead of the Sunday premiere, Meriwether spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about working with Prince, giving in to the temptation of having her musically inclined star finally sing and the future of Damon Wayans Jr. (and fan favorite game True American) on New Girl.
So you first tried to get Prince on the show last year?
We thought it was would be really fun if Cece [Hannah Simone] lost her virginity to Prince in that flashback episode ["Virgins"], so we offered him that role and he couldn't. He said, "I'm a big fan. I'd love to do the show at some point in the future." I think I didn't really take that seriously because, you know, that can't be true. And then we were contacted by his manager in the beginning of this season that he was serious.
And he's no stranger to the Super Bowl.
They approached us right about the same time Fox gave us the post-Super Bowl slot, so we built the episode around him. He was really involved in the planning of it and emailing back and forth about what he wanted to do on the show, collaborating with us. It's a really fun, crazy, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
How long was he on set?
I think he shot for two days. He performs a song in the episode, and he also acts. He has a bunch of scenes with Zooey. He plays ping-pong with Hannah.
Does Prince have a ping-pong stand-in or did he really play?
Prince is fantastic at ping-pong, like maybe one of the best I've ever seen, which is amazing because I kind of think you can only be really good at one thing -- but you can be really good at a lot of things if you're Prince. He told Hannah to practice. She actually got one back at him during the first take, and he was genuinely surprised that she could score a point off of him.
This is not the most organic thing to happen to these characters. How easy was it for you to write Prince into a storyline?
We went through a couple scripts where it didn't feel like our show. It was funny, but it didn't feel real. These are real characters, so it was actually a huge priority that we kept it feeling like the show -- even though these huge, semi-implausible things are happening. It is a Super Bowl episode, so we also have a little bit of leeway. I remember one pitch that we didn't do involved Prince playing the lead singer of a Prince cover band. That would have felt a little more like what would actually happen to our characters, but there's a great wish fulfillment kind of fun and a slightly fantastical feeling to this episode that I really like.
Did you approach anything differently knowing so many viewers may not have seen New Girl before?
It's definitely a chance to introduce the series to a bunch of people who haven't seen it before, but we also wanted to give the fans a really special episode. We made sure that we did both things. And, at the end of day, it's just a sitcom. It's not Homeland. Our main goal was for it to be as funny as possible and a little romantic and sweet. I think we did that.
Opening sequence aside, the show has always been restrained in using Zooey musically. Did having Prince there have to change that?
It might, it might. (Laughs.) There is a moment where Zooey sings with Prince. That was also definitely about trying to figure out what was within the world of the show, but it was just so fun to watch and shoot. We just felt, again, it was one of those moments where we're like, "Well, let's just go for it." I think we can come back from this without losing all of our integrity. Basically, it's just awesome to see.
Give the people what they want.
Why not? Exactly. I mean, there have been nights when I've done karaoke and I'm convinced that I have an amazing voice. There are just moments in your life where you do something insane that you'll never do again. I think that's what this episode feels like.
How much do you see the show focusing on Nick [Jake Johnson] and Jess as a couple for the rest of the season?
I think for better or for worse, this season has been about them as a couple. I think toward the end of the season, we're playing that out. And this episode is a big milestone for them. I think it's just a great, romantic episode. After this episode, we're going to … spoilers, spoilers! But I do think the end of the season will have big things in store for Nick and Jess. That's what we're in the process of figuring out right now. This episode feels like a culmination of what we've been trying to build this season. And there's Prince!
What's been the biggest change writing a couple into the show for the last year?
I think we've gotten some great episodes out of it. They still have amazing chemistry. They're just great together. It's almost like they're great together in whatever form their relationship takes. It's obviously been a big change for Nick's character because he, in the first two seasons, was sort of this miserable, semialcoholic, angry old man trapped in a young man's body. To give that character this amount of happiness with Jess and to give him what he wants has definitely adjusted him a bit. I'm glad that they got together because, if they hadn't, it would have felt like we were playing with the audience, which we never want to do. We've always just wanted to tell the story as organically and truthfully as we can. I think we found a way to make two happy people funny. It hasn't always been easy this year.
Are you trying to keep Damon Wayans Jr. as a regular in season four?
Yeah, I think we would love to have him in the fourth season. I don't know exactly what is going to happen, based on a couple things, but we love having him. We definitely feel like he is one of the cast. I'll just keep my fingers crossed.
When can we anticipate another outing of True American?
We are actually working on it right now as we speak. There's a big True American episode coming up. I think we have to do one once a year.
And you're updating from Strip True American?
Yes, definitely. We always put it off in the season until the moment when we just need it. It kind of gets us all going as a writing staff. It's a little reward that we save for the doldrums in the middle of the year when we need help.
Sundance: On the Scene