You may recognize the multitalented Wendi McLendon-Covey from any number of her large and small screen projects, including Bridesmaids or The Goldbergs, but one project she’s worked on falls into both these categories: Reno 911!
Geek Girl Authority caught up with McLendon-Covey over Zoom to ask all about making Reno 911! Defunded and Reno 911!: The Hunt for QAnon, how voice acting compares with live-action work, and about her work as (assistant) editor of an academic journal of social work for over a decade!
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
Avery Kaplan: In some ways, Deputy Clementine Johnson is extremely resistant to change. However, I’m curious how your relationship with the character has changed over the years?
Wendi McLendon-Covey: Clemmy was a character I did at the Groundlings, but she wasn’t a cop. She was just a freewheeling lady who knew she looked good and did not need your compliments, although please keep them coming. She was patterned off of my favorite aunt, who is no longer with us.
When I got the call to do this again, it had been 11 or 12 years since I had put on that uniform. I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know if I remember how to do this,” because it was all improvised. I had a lot of backstory in my head and I was like, “I have not thought about this for years.”
Luckily, it came back. Clemmy still tries to phrase her sentences in ways that sound really intelligent, whether or not she knows what all the words mean. She still loves carnal pleasures, but maybe she likes staying in more a little bit. It’s got to be more of an emotional connection. Maybe she’s still into the Wicca, light Kitchen Witchery.
I think also she’s come to terms with, “Yeah, I’m a cop and this is what I’m doing now.” Before I felt she always had one foot out the door and now maybe she does, but she just doesn’t know where she would go if she didn’t have these idiots around her all the time.
AK: With the improvisational nature of the show, I imagine there were many unexpected moments throughout the years. Do you have a favorite or a least favorite unexpected moment that took place during filming?
WMC: My least favorite moments are when everybody’s talking at once because everybody wants to get their little joke in or get screen time, but that’s not how improv works. In the editing room, all that stuff’s going to be cut. I learned early on, don’t pipe in unless you have something brilliant to say, and if you don’t then just shut up.
Because of the improvisational nature of the show and our locations, you can’t control what’s going on around you. Look, let’s be honest. Most of our stuff was filmed on the fly and permits? What are those?
I remember one time we were filming at a nearly-abandoned trailer park. One of the scariest men I have ever seen came up to us and started saying, “Hey motherf*ckers, get off of my property.” Just kept saying, “motherf*ckers.” He had an entire– I don’t know if it was the Last Supper tattooed across his neck. I don’t know what it was, but it was ornate. Didn’t have all his teeth, very aggressive.
The flip side to that question. We did come up with some dumb names of things on the fly, like “Tacos Tacos Tacos Tacos” or “Burger Cousin.” Names came out of our little improv scenes and also, other characters. I think Weigel’s boyfriend came because we just kept talking about some guy that was never there, and ascribing all these traits to him and then they were like, “Oh, I’m sure we could find someone to play this.”
AK: In preparing for this interview, I listened to Reno commentaries, which you’ve recorded both in and out of character. I’m curious, does recording a commentary in character come naturally and how does it compare to just filming the show?
WMC: Recording commentary does not come naturally and I think it might not be as interesting for the audience because when you’re doing commentary, it’s to educate people on what really happened behind the scenes. When you’re talking in character, you’re not answering the questions that they have.
When we did press for the Reno 911! Miami movie, they had us do it in character and I know because I got this comment from one of the reporters that they didn’t learn anything about the filming of the movie, and they didn’t really get any of their questions answered because we were in character. I think there is a time to do that and there is a time to just give the audience what they want because as the Geek Girls know, you want to know the minutia and you want to know the truth of what goes on behind things. Fans really love that. I say, give the people what they want and talk out of character.
AK: Speaking of facts from the commentaries, as I understand from one of the commentaries, like you, if there is one type of Reno 911! shenanigans of which I cannot approve, it’s when cats get hurt but in Reno 911! Defunded, you share a scene with a cat that did not end in violence. I’m curious if that was by your request, and what that was like?
WMC: No, that was not by my request but yes, that gorgeous Ragdoll kitty.
The whole point of Defunded is we’re all having our side hustles because we aren’t making any money anymore. One of the side hustles was “Oh, we’re going to put a cat calendar together” because, for some reason, people love cat calendars. Religious people buy a lot of cat calendars so we tried to do a religious theme. Anytime I get to work with animals, come on, I love it. I don’t know that the animals love being on set, but this one was a pretty good sport.
When we were trying to get that little flooff to look like he was hanging on a cross, dear God. The God I worship has a sense of humor and did not find that sacrilegious at all. Lightning has not struck me and I’m pretty confident that it won’t.
AK: In addition to live-action work, you have multiple voice acting credits including Bob’s Burgers and American Dad! as well as a significant role in Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. How does performing as an animated character differ from live-action?
WMC: It is different because it’s fast. You’re in a booth and you are reacting to nothing, most of the time. Maybe you have a storyboard. It’s just a different muscle to use. While I love it, it is more physical than you think it’s going to be.
For instance, I play the motorcycle mom on a show called Big City Greens on the Disney Channel. She’s always on her motorcycle, she’s always having these adventures and they’re very physical. Maybe I’ll be told by the director, “Okay, so here’s what happens. The sidecar from your bike gets loose, and you have to reach over and pull it in and then you fall down and you end up face-to-face with a coyote.”
Well, I’ve never done any of those things so it’s like, [makes sound of reaching over to pull in sidecar but ending up face-to-face with a coyote] Do any of those sounds match?
It’s a lot of guesswork, but I love the finished product always, always, always, always. It is fun and I like being pushed to figure these things out.
AK: What was it like to return for Reno 911! Defunded after the summer of 2020? The show incorporated these events rather than pretended they didn’t occur. Did this facilitate the comedy?
WMC: Well, here’s the funny thing about 2020. I don’t know if you remember a short-lived service called Quibi. The whole reason we got back together was for Quibi. The first season we did, we finished it right under the wire before the shutdown. After our launch in April, they said, “You know what? We’re going to do it again.”
I was filming The Goldbergs at this time and they had everybody sequestered at a hotel in Santa Clarita that was called “The Bubble.” You could not leave The Bubble for two weeks, except for, I think, me and Mary Birdsong. We had other gigs so we could come and go, and I only worked on the weekends, which damn near killed me. It’s a very long two weeks.
Three days in, Quibi folded. So everybody’s going, “Well, do we keep going? The checks are still clearing, so let’s keep going. We’ll sell it somewhere. Someone will buy it.” We finished and I think the backdrop of being defunded was great. It gave us a lot of material because the whole conceit of the show was that the Reno Sheriff’s department, they’re not getting a lot of funding anyway. Once they were defunded, and the general attitude towards police was so bad, it gave us a lot to play off of.
That was a trip! Most of what you see was filmed in a hotel or in empty park spaces nearby. Talk about guerrilla shooting. That’s what that was. That was just arts and crafts.
AK: What was filming The Hunt for QAnon like? Based on a few jokes, was it filmed after Defunded, and were you really on a boat?
WMC: We filmed that on The Queen Mary, Long Beach. That was a trip again, two weeks on a haunted ship.
The Queen Mary had been shut down since the pandemic. Certain productions had come and used it, but for the most part, it was empty and no one was taking care of it. Portholes had been open to guest rooms and there were feathers from birds and bird sh*t all over the place. It’s so sad because it is a beautiful ship and a beautiful piece of history.
When you go into certain corridors, the air is just still because it hasn’t moved. That adds to the freakiness of being a haunted ship. That was fun. A lot of the stuff we filmed did not make it into the movie. Again, that was another thing where I was shooting The Goldbergs at the same time and like, “Oh God, someone just give me a coffee and point me in the right direction because I don’t know where I’m driving today. What wig am I wearing today? I don’t f*cking know.”
We got prejudged by people on the interwebs of like, “Oh, Reno‘s getting political.” No, we’re not. Come on, look. It’s QAnon. People that thought JFK Jr. was going to come back and say hello to everybody in Dallas, you deserve to be made fun of.
Mostly it was filmed on The Queen Mary. A couple of scenes were filmed in the bay right outside The Queen Mary and I did not throw up, so points for me: I get very seasick. And then maybe two days in Malibu. If your audience hasn’t seen that movie yet, I strongly recommend it. I think it’s funnier than Reno 911! Miami, personally.
AK: Preparing for this interview, I discovered you were editor of California State University’s academic journal of social work until 2012. Can you tell us about that experience and do you feel it affected your work in entertainment?
WMC: Yes, it did. I was so grateful for that job. I was the assistant editor but I did everything. I worked there from 2000 to 2012. That was all through Reno, all through all my other shows and movies, all through Bridesmaids. People were like, “You have a side job?” “Yes, I have a side job.” It takes a long time to make money in this business. I never wanted to hate acting so I thought, “I’m going to keep the side hustle that’s flexible so I can still pay my bills and stuff, and not put so much pressure on what I love doing.”
I love doing this because I have the most supportive boss in the world. First of all, nobody knew what I did on campus. I had an office and everything, but I would skulk in my pajamas in the middle of the night and turn things in. My boss was like, “I don’t care when you do this, I don’t care how you do it, just get it done because I don’t want to train anybody else. I know you’re trying to be an actress, I support that 100%. Just don’t leave me, I don’t want to train anybody else.”
She was so awesome, and then she died, and I kept it going for a year with no supervision. Someone else was forced to take it on. We kept it going for a while and then it folded because it never made money. Academic journals do not make money.
It gave me something to be proud of outside of what I was trying to do. It kept me in touch with real problems, people with real difficulties. While I was there, 9/11 happened, Hurricane Katrina happened, lots of major events happened, and reading these stories from the social workers — because that’s what it was, personal accounts of social workers out in the field — it reminds you that there are people out there doing really important things for no money. Just hitting walls day after day, trying to get support for these marginalized communities. That’s what’s important.
I have nothing but respect for anyone in the helping professions because you’re not doing it for the money. You’re not doing it for the benefits. You’re doing it to help, and that’s a very noble thing.
AK: Thanks so much for chatting with me, Wendi! This was such a lovely time.
Reno 911! Defunded is available for streaming now on Roku, and Reno 911!: The Hunt for QAnon is available for streaming on Paramount+.
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