How A Nonsensical Drinking Game Became New Girl’s Most Beloved Bit

True American was meant to be a quick, kooky bit. The cast found it to be a “nightmare to shoot.” But it endured.

by Jessica Goodman
Fox, EyeEm, gmnicholas, Douglas Graham/Getty Images, Yeamake, Super/Shutterstock

Back in 2012, Fox’s New Girl was in its first season and already a hit. Viewers had fallen in love with quirky teacher Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and her silly, prank-prone roommates, bartender Nick Miller (Jake Johnson), sort-of smooth-talking Schmidt (Max Greenfield), and former basketball player Winston (Lamorne Morris). Together they brought a kooky, slapstick burst of joy to primetime television, with their inside jokes and over-the-top hijinks becoming the series’ lifeblood.

But it wasn't until episode 20, which guest starred Dermot Mulroney as Russell, Jess’s older, more put-together boyfriend, and also Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (?!) that New Girl debuted an instantly beloved fake drinking game called True American. It started as yet another one of the loft-dwellers’ quick bits — a way to highlight the maturity differences between Mulroney’s character and the gang — but after the episode aired it was obvious that True American would become a thing, with entertainment sites and rabid fans being quick to supply guides and rules for how to play the game at home.

The game, which, let’s be clear, truly has no rules, came to be featured in almost every season, and made up the emotional core of the series finale in 2018. Along the way, it was also a catalyst for big moments like Nick and Jess’ first kiss (swooon) along with their breakup (sad).

The cast has moved on in the years since the show went off the air. Johnson is currently starring in HBO Max's Minx, Greenfield can be seen in CBS’s The Neighborhood, and Deschanel, Morris, and Simone launched an iHeartRadio podcast about New Girl called "Welcome to Our Show." Now, ten years after True American first came into the pop culture lexicon, they’re back along with much of the crew to reflect on the game’s origins, how fun it was to film all those scenes, and the amount of beer that was actually consumed during filming. JFK, FDR! Let’s begin.

“It Was Basically A ‘Floor Is Lava’ Game”

In New Girl’s first season, writers would regularly spend all hours of the night at the office, polishing scripts and coming up with bits. True American came about when they were looking for a way to bring Mulroney’s character into the fold.

Berkley Johnson (writer/co-executive producer): This all happened during a very sleep-deprived time in all of our lives. We wanted something really inane and stupid for the roommates to be doing when Jess brought Russell back to the loft to contrast adultness with our characters. [New Girl writer] Lesley Wake Webster went to college with some people who played a game resembling True American in her dorm.

Luvh Rakhe (writer/co-executive producer): It was basically a “floor is lava” game they called True American. The name came from Lesley. We knew we didn't want to explain the rules to the audience. That would give us a lot more license to make it completely insane.

Nick Adams (writer/ story editor): Very frequently, you would spend all day getting really excited about something that you thought was really funny, and then it would get killed. You learned to temper your excitement. But with this, once people started talking about it, it was pretty obvious that it was going to happen.

Berkley Johnson: Luvh Rakhe wrote that episode. One night, another writer Kim Rosenstock and I were leaving the office at 2 a.m. and Luvh was like, "I don't know what this stupid fucking game is. Can you just type up some shit for it if you don't mind?" I remember standing at Luvh's computer in his office. We didn't even turn the lights on. We were just typing, "They walk on pillows, they turn some stools upside down and use them as boots.”

“The Writers Were Like, ‘Get a Little Weird, Guys’”

The show’s writers were keen on allowing the actors to inform their characters. So when it came time to introduce the gang to True American, the writers had no doubt the cast would bring their own unique spin to it.

Adams: Maybe it was Max [Greenfield] or Jake [Johnson] who sort of looked around like, "What is this game? What are we doing?" But I think they understood very quickly that was the point.

Zooey Deschanel (Jess): It was written very vaguely because it was supposed to be a game that’s hard to understand and hard to learn.

Max Greenfield (Schmidt): It didn't stand out because everything else was a little bit off-center. I do remember thinking, “Well, what is this and how are we going to shoot it?”

Hannah Simone (Cece): The writers were like, "Get a little weird, guys."

Rakhe: It could not work without the cast being as committed to it, and committing to nonsense is a very hard thing for an actor.

Steve Welch (editor): The writers had something of a structure laid out in the script, but they were also on set while shooting, thinking up random silly stuff, which this particular group was exceptionally good at.

Adams: Everybody was always encouraged to add stuff, to pitch jokes, even up into the shooting of the show. People would just be yelling jokes from behind the camera.

Rakhe: We always had the numbers. The numbers on the forehead were always there.

Deschanel: The first time we “played” True American, I pitched the call and response bits: “1,2,3,4 JFK, FDR” and “George Washington, Cherry Tree,” and some other historical references and it stuck.

Lamorne Morris (Winston): It took a life of its own once Zooey started to yell out American history terms.

“We Just Vomited On Camera For An Hour Or Two”

After the first True American episode aired, it became clear that the game would become part of New Girl canon. But despite the fanfare, the cast themselves never found their footing while shooting these scenes. To them, True American was always utter chaos.

Jake Johnson (Nick): [Creator and showrunner] Liz [Meriweather] would refer to being on set as a “lab,” meaning you would do the scene, but really, you were just trying to get a lot of footage so that they had enough options in post-production.

Greenfield: Jesse Peretz directed the first episode. He set a really cool tone for what the game looked like on screen. I remember asking Jesse, "What are we doing here?" And he would be like, "Now jump on this and scream this." [The True American scenes] were always a nightmare to shoot because you knew that nobody knew anything that was happening. There were going to be stunts and the prop department was going to build weird shit. We would just laugh and goof around, but none of us knew what we were doing. It was just like, "Oh, I guess for the next seven hours, we're going to shoot True American."

Jake Johnson: We just vomited on camera for an hour or two, and then [the editors] went to work and cut together True American.

Welch: [The editing] was very much a team effort. It was tricky to find that balance between slightly structured chaos and nonsense that we were looking for.

Jake Johnson: True American was different because anything can happen. If you wanted to start standing on the couch, then stand on the couch. If somebody throws a pillow at you and yells, "Pillows," then everybody starts throwing pillows and yells, "Pillows.” You're like, okay, I guess we're doing that for six minutes.

Welch: It’s like cooking. You can’t just throw all your favorite foods into a bowl, stir them up and end up with a delicious meal. When I’d first go through the dailies, I’d pull out all my favorite beats and string them together and those strings would be 14 minutes long. I’m sure a lot of moments that I thought were hilarious never saw the light of day.

“I Don't Know How To Make It Any More Clear, There's No Rules”

Despite the fact that the loftmates themselves can hardly keep the rules of True American straight, audiences were desperate to play the game. YouTube videos popped up offering step-by-step guidance; Entertainment Weekly published a story titled, “I tried to play 'New Girl's fake drinking game.” There’s still a relatively active Reddit thread piecing together the rules.

Adams: At a certain point, one of the writers said they got an email or a text from someone asking for the rules. And we were like, "What? Are you crazy? Did you watch the episode? It's not a real game. It's just a silly thing that we made up."

Berkley Johnson: I'm always surprised that anybody reacts to anything, because by the time it's out there in the world, you're so fucking sick of it.

Jake Johnson: I have answered in the press probably 100 times, "What are the rules?" And I don't know how to make it any more clear, there's no rules.

Adams: The network always got really excited anytime there was something that they felt they could promo or market. I think they were like, "What can we do with this phenomenon?" But True American isn't built to hold that much weight. The more you examine it and the more serious you take it, the less funny it gets. The humor is that it's this ridiculous game that if you tried to play, it would just fall apart very quickly under any sort of real scrutiny.

Morris: I remember being in Hollywood and a group of us were walking and there was this house that felt like a frat house, even though it wasn’t. There was this thing set up like an obstacle course. [People] were all screaming and drinking and it was like a big, big ordeal. Me and my buddies stopped to see what the party was. We were just walking and then they recognized me and someone said, "Oh, they're playing True American." Randomly. I was like, "Holy crap." I might have photos from that day. I felt that was one of the coolest moments in my life.

“I Never Thought, ‘This Is The Centerpiece Of Our Show"

There was much debate about how to end New Girl’s final season. Ultimately, the writers landed on featuring the show’s first-ever flash forward, which showed the gang playing True American with their future children.

Berkley Johnson: We wrote up a list of stuff we wanted to touch on in the last season, and of course, True American was up there.

Greenfield: When we ended the finale with True American, I was like, “This is a good way to tie it up I guess." But I never thought, "This is the centerpiece of our show."

Deschanel: I had just had my second baby when we shot the final season. I was bringing him to work every day and I had a two-year-old at home as well. I was so incredibly tired. I don’t remember a ton about that last season. It’s pretty much a blur in my mind.

Simone: I never played True American until the last season [Ed note: Hannah played True American in Season 5’s episode “Wedding Eve”]. But when I played, we went to open the can of beer and I don't know whose beer it was, but it fully sprayed me in the face and soaked my hair. On TV, you have to have some continuity — I can't look like a wet dog before we even started the game. I remember being like, "Well, I failed at True American within one second and now they have to bring up hair dryers to fix my face.”

Berkley Johnson: We were all there for the last shot and getting emotional.

Deschanel: It was definitely one of the most memorable running plotlines from the show, so I think it was fitting to end with it.

Jake Johnson: This group really cares about each other, and I think the reason True American might have taken off is it just felt like the fabric of that friendship.