‘New Girl’ costars Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. together again for ‘Let’s Be Cops’

New Girl co-stars Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. relied on each other when they were filming their second project together, Let’s Be Cops, out Wednesday. They agree that about 70 percent of the finished film sprang from their joke pitches and improvs.

“On this movie, I don’t mean to disrespect anybody else, but it was really Damon’s laugh I was going for more than anybody else’s,” Johnson says. “If he said it was funny, I believed it. If everybody else said it was funny, and he didn’t, I’d keep working.”

In Cops, the two play longtime friends whose post-college move to Los Angeles hasn’t turned out as planned. Loud-mouthed gonzo dreamer Ryan (Johnson) is years removed from his moment of glory as Purdue’s quarterback; Justin (Wayans) is too mild-mannered to get his painstakingly designed video game the chance it deserves.

They’re 30 and deep in malaise when a mishap results in them walking around dressed as policemen, and they decide to keep impersonating officers.

Let the idiocy begin.

“We were originally going to do it the other way around, then last second, we switched it to the way it is,” says Johnson of the casting, adding that, whichever roles they were going to play, they knew they’d have a blast working together.

Which is good, considering that no-filter Ryan gets to have most of the insane fun, while uptight Justin takes a pounding — in both body and pride. He does get the not-insignificant consolation prize of a possible romance with only-in-L.A.-hot waitress Josie ( Nina Dobrev). But it’s a nice change-up from their New Girl roles, in which Johnson embodies Zooey Deschanel’s love interest, low-key, cerebral, slacker-loser-guy Nick, and Wayans plays their aggressive roommate, Coach.

Wayans says of the film casting, “We had no problem either way. It was a duo thing, and Jake and I are never ones to want to steal the scene. We’re good about sharing jokes and sharing time to shine or whatever, so we’re never worried about that.”

Adds Johnson: “We knew we were going to improvise and pitch each other jokes. It was basically who’s going to play what character, and then outside of that, we just made up a bunch of [stuff].”

He credits other cast members, mainly Keegan-Michael Key, Natasha Leggero and especially Rob Riggle with significant contributions.

Wayans cites a diner scene in which the two fake cops suddenly pull their guns on each other, to the horror of unsuspecting patrons, as one of his favorite of Johnson’s ideas. Johnson, meanwhile, enjoyed seeing his friend get climbed on by a filthy, obese and totally naked lunatic.

“It was Damon’s idea for the guy to go over him,” dragging his horrible nakedness over Wayans’ face, “to have the camera where it was; you see his face between his legs. I think it’s the funniest scene in the movie.”

And “when he was outside doing the investigation of the bad guys, and he starts dancing, and he says, ‘Dance like you just found out you’re pregnant,’ or something like that,” adds Johnson, as they both laugh. “That’s a total Damon-type joke that’s so weird, but so funny.”

“For Jake, any time he had a chance to drink,” says Wayans. “He loves to get a little beer in the scene — but he made sure we got real ones on the set.” Both men laugh again. “I can’t hang. I’m kind of a lightweight when it comes to drinking. He can do it. But halfway through the scene, I’m like, I’m [messed] up.”

Johnson’s drinking has been productive in the past as well: His inebriated retelling of the events leading to the death of R&B great Otis Redding inspired buddy Derek Waters’ Drunk History shorts and eventual series. Wayans, eldest son of comic actor Damon Wayans (who plays Hard Rock Live Friday night), was named a staff writer on his father’s ABC sitcom, My Wife and Kids, before reaching 20.

“He’s an incredibly funny dude, he’s really cool,” says Johnson of his friend. “I would say he’s America’s hunk. He’s, like, what you want in a big movie star, I guess.”

Wayans responds, “I would say Jake is a hilarious person, guaranteed to make you laugh. And he’s pretty smart for a dumb guy.”

Both laugh again.

Michael Ordona

San Francisco Chronicle