Artistic coordinator, Justin Chabot got his Golden Retriever, Kweli, when he was still a student in Boston, and started Kweli’s off-leash training during their late-night forays for a place to park his van. As Justin recalls, “I would stop at an intersection, make him sit and stay, and walk back across the street and wait until the light changed. Then I’d say ‘OK, let’s cross.’ Now, he walks with me and never goes into the street — he never steps off the sidewalk without me being there. He’s off-leash even in Times Square.” Another handy trick that Justin easily taught the bright and relaxed Kweli is how to ride steady and calm on the back of his bicycle and motorcycle. He made Kweli a co-pilot seat from an old milk crate, which the dog sits in during their commute down the West Side Highway from Harlem; they turn a quite a few heads as they go by.
Supervising producer Tim Green-berg’s Ally, a rescue Pointer-mix, is a more recent addition. When Tim first adopted Ally, she had fear issues, so he did a lot of concentrated training with her. Initially, he only brought her in on slow days, then, gradually added more time to her “work” schedule. He’s convinced that the training built up her self-confidence, and is the best way to maintain it. When Ally first met Kweli, Tim says, “she tried to eat from his bowl, he snapped at her and since then, they’ve established their relationship — she looovvves him.” Like Parker, Ally flirts with Kweli constantly and shamelessly.
Good training is essential to making the office-dog dynamic work. Everyone knows that having their dogs in the office is a privilege, one they don’t want to lose. As Jen observes, “We all feel this responsibility to keep the dogs pretty well-behaved. If someone comes in and thinks this is a free-for-all, they would be mistaken.” Tim adds that “like the show itself, there really is a strict discipline underlying what looks like a free-form.” From my perspective, it seemed that the office camaraderie, conviviality and general bonhomie — laughter can be heard everywhere — inspires and affects both the people and the dogs.
Many staffers jokingly admit that they rate guests on how attentive they are to the dogs, who are hard to avoid en route to or leaving the studio. Kweli and Parker, in particular, can usually be found hanging out nearby. I talked with Hillary Kun, supervising producer and the show’s talent booker, about guests they considered “get-down-with-the-dogs” standouts. On that list are Jennifer Aniston, Tim Gunn, Ricky Gervais, Betty White and, most famously of all, President Obama (a senator at the time), who literally got down on the floor to hug Parker and pet the dogs. NBC news anchor Brian Williams and his wife, Jane, are also huge dog lovers and have a particular affection for Kweli; Williams always asks for him when he comes to visit.
The dogs may have their own opinions, which they sometimes seem to register. For example, Jim Margolis’ dog, Aunt Blanche, once peed (just this once) on the floor outside the green room when Sharon Stone was visiting, he thinks his dog was expressing her opinion about “Basic Instinct 2.” (Such accidents are rare, however.) So far, the only guest to bring a dog on the set has been Ted Koppel, who came with his granddog, a little black pup named Pepper.
When asked what the dogs add to the mix, Hillary, who confesses that she thinks of the dogs as her nieces and nephews, said that “the dogs loosen up the place. Personally, if I have a bad day, or am stressed, it’s nice having the company of the dogs, to have them come into my office. Dogs are therapeutic.” Everyone I spoke with agrees that having dogs as co-workers may have something to do with the show’s ongoing success. Not only are they great de-stressors, good for morale, comforting and relaxing, the dogs contribute their own dose of inimitable comic relief to a group that’s focused on creating and showcasing comedy. Like the time Parker snatched one — yes, only one —meatball from a tray in the kitchen area. She trotted back to show everyone her prize and dropped it at Jen’s feet to much praise. Then Kweli swooped in and finished it off.