How a 'Parks and Recreation' pitch becomes a joke, part 1: Inside the writers room
Back in early June, while on a trip to LA to meet with my HitFix corporate overlords, I had a chance to go over to the "Parks and Recreation" writers room and watch Mike Schur and the rest of the staff brainstorm ideas. I've been to that writers room before, and many others, but always during either the summer press tour (late July/early August) or the winter one (mid-January) - in other words, after the season's larger story arcs had been figured out and now the focus was on individual episodes. This was June, though, and the writers hadn't been back at work for very long, and were still trying to figure out the content of the season premiere, and many episodes to follow, and I thought it would provide a good opportunity to show how a comedy - especially a great one like "Parks and Rec" - constructs jokes and storylines at the start of a season.
I spent several hours at the writers room, and then did a follow-up interview with Schur a few weeks ago to see what happened with these various ideas. (I eventually broke out a long chunk of that interview, on the Leslie/Ben break-up, and published it after the premiere aired last week.) Part 1 here is my fly-on-the-wall account; part 2 (which should also be up) is the Schur interview.
Spoiler warning: While a lot of the discussion is about the season premiere, there's a lot about other episodes - a good chunk of time was spent on a story that was originally slated for the season's second episode, and will now take place a bit later in the season - or featuring jokes and story pitches that aren't being worked on now, but may be picked up on at a future date. (As Schur explains in the interview, when he was on "The Office" writing staff, they spent years trying to figure out how to make the basic story behind "Weight Loss," the fifth
sixth season premiere, work, but they eventually got back to it.) If you don't want to know anything about things that are either definitely coming in some form, or that might turn up in modified form weeks, months or even years down the road, don't click through. In this case, I think the illumination of how the process works is worth the exposure to that stuff, and Schur has never been especially concerned with putting this kind of information out there in the world. If the individual jokes are executed well, then it won't matter if you know something about them in advance. (And to protect anyone who chooses not to read, it is not okay to discuss any of this in individual episode reviews - at least, not until we get up to the episode featuring a particular joke or story discussed here.)
So without further ado, let's travel back to Studio City on an early June afternoon...
Writers rooms may vary in terms of the decor or the available food ("Everybody Loves Raymond" was always the champ in that regard), but the basic atmosphere is the same from room to room, show to show. You will have a large space (in this case the common room of a suite of offices), usually around a table (here a big coffee table) where the writers can gather to eat, to brainstorm and to argue about completely unrelated matters, which sometimes end up fueling stories and other times are just procrastination while everyone waits for the next good idea. In the case of "Parks and Rec," the man responsible for both research and procrastination is writers assistant Greg Levine, whose Google-Fu is among the best I've seen, whether he's being asked to dig up some obscure government regulation that might be used as the basis of a story, or to find photos to settle a debate between the male and female writers about whether Kid Rock and Josh Holloway look alike. (While the men seem to have the edge with a pair of shots of the two fully clothed and wearing similar hats, the women ultimately win this one after Levine finds similar shots of them shirtless in the ocean; suffice it to say that Sawyer's abs are way better.) And as with virtually every writers room in town, the walls - and many of the remaining surfaces - are literally covered with ideas: index cards with one-line pitches for story arcs, episodic plots, sometimes just jokes that no one wants to forget. Some were specifically produced for an episode they're currently writing; others are just stray ideas that someone came up with once upon a time, and that may be incorporated down the road.
I arrive just as the writers are sitting down to enjoy lunch and hash out ideas for the season premiere. Though everyone knows that Leslie's decision to run for office will fuel storylines for much of the season, it's still unclear at this point exactly when the premiere will take place, whether Leslie will have already decided to run when the episode starts (and, if so, where in the campaign cycle we might be), and, most importantly, whether Leslie will have to break up with Ben in order to run, or if she'll try to keep their affair on the down-low.
Assuming they start out with Leslie on the campaign trail - or, failing that, as something to try out later in the season - Dan Goor likes the idea that Leslie alienates all the old people in Pawnee, who are the most likely voters, and now has to energize an entirely new base. Co-creator Greg Daniels, who splits his time between "Parks and Rec" and "The Office," says he's not sure that sounds funny; Norm Hiscock jokes that it would be funny if Leslie kills some of the old people.
Daniels, who, like Schur, got an early break writing for "Saturday Night Live," suggests that Pawnee could have its own local version of "SNL," and that Leslie could appear on it like Nixon went on "Laugh-In" to ask, "Sock it to me?" The writers all crack up about the prospect of bringing back former guest stars Will Forte, Andy Samberg and Fred Armisen to be castmembers on this show-within-the-show. Schur busts out his Don Pardo impression and announces, "Music by Mouse Rat! Ladies and gentlemen, for the 37th consecutive show, your host... Perd Hapley!"
Alan Yang loves the idea of Tom and Jean-Ralphio teaching a class on sketch comedy, which turns into a brainstorming session for things Entertainment 720 could be doing at the start of the season. While they're re-watching the fake Entertainment 720 ad they put online (a meta moment in which Levine is asked to call up a video in which he briefly appears), my gaze wanders around the room to all the index cards - some that were eventually used in past seasons, some still in play. One that catches my eye is "Leslie pushes Ben out a window." It turns out there are several of those, and that the joke gets pitched all the time - for whatever reason, everyone likes the idea and has many ideas for the how and the why, but they've never been able to work it into a larger story - as well as other cards that have proved too difficult. One says, simply, "Challenge Day," and all anyone will tell me about it is that they "spent 600 hours" trying to make it work. Goor explains that they try to model every episode on either "The Contender" or "The Remains of the Day," which eventually leads to a viewing of "The Contender" trailer. (Again, you never know where the ideas will come from, and failing that, you've gotta kill time some way.)
The conversation moves on to the idea of a threat to Leslie's life, but Goor brings up the obvious concern about a comparison to Gaby Giffords. (There had been a B-story proposed for last season about reports of a gunman wandering City Hall, which would eventually be revealed to be a misunderstanding; fortunately, it had already been scrapped well before the Arizona shootings.) The idea is modified to be about Leslie being blackmailed, and new writing staff addition Chelsea Peretti suggests bringing back Leslie's teen nemesis Greg Pikitis. Schur says they had previously discussed Leslie getting a vague text promising blackmail without any details, but it ran into a dead end, "When we couldn't figure out the who and why." Katie Dippold proposes the idea of Leslie simply getting a text that says, "Scandal much?," and that making the blackmailer a 7th grader would take the danger out. (Daniels: "That's funny; it's a mean girl.")
Schur wants to keep incorporating ideas that seem "zeitgeist-y," and they discuss how to do their own take on the Anthony Weiner scandal, but they also have a list of decidedly non-topical story ideas that could involve the Pawnee Scouts or Chris throwing a housewarming party. Everyone seems to like the idea of Leslie setting a record for creating the world's smallest park - which could then be stolen.
All of this is potentially useful for down the road, but they still don't have a concrete idea for why Leslie chooses to run in the election. Schur, aware that their ratings aren't huge and that they're moving to a different timeslot, says he wants "Something less dependent on an intimate knowledge of the characters" to draw people in.
Daniels, meanwhile, would prefer if the premiere jumped ahead a bit to after Leslie has decided to run. Schur likes the idea of doing a series of "quantum leaps" through the summer months, which would allow them to do, say, a July 4 story. (Broadcast network shows tend to stay close to the fall-spring calendar, so episodes set in summer, and dealing with summer holidays, are rare.) Daniels says, "That's hard to pitch to the network," and notes that if they cover a lot of time in the premiere, they'll have to wrap up or artificially stall all the cliffhangers they set up in the finale. Schur counters that, say, Entertainment 720 could still be going strong a month or two later.
Discussion turns to the proposed second episode, which would deal with the cult of Zorp, a bit of '70s Pawnee history introduced in a previous episode. Schur says that Rob Lowe has pitched the idea of Chris becoming obsessed with Eastern religions and reincarnation after his mortality scare in the finale, which could be tied into the Zorpies somehow, while Daniels is intrigued by trying to go outside the box to cast the latest Zorp guru with someone like Katt Williams. (Remember, this was the start of June.)
Daniels leaves and Schur has to go to his office to do a conference call, which leaves Goor running the room and trying to nail down the Zorpie story, which would also allow the show to do a ripped-from-the-headlines story about a false Rapture. Both Goor and Aisha Muharrar are worried about how to get the characters or the audience to take the idea of the Rapture seriously, and Goor looks to Hiscock to ask, "What are Leslie's stakes?" ("Norm's good at stakes," he explains to me.) Hiscock says they need to connect it to the campaign somehow. Dippold brings up the CERN project to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang, and whether that could generate a sense of danger, which leads to a long discussion of physics. ("Now we're in the 'Futurama' writers room," Goor quips.)
Harris Wittels suggests turning this into another media creation like the curse from "Harvest Festival," with the Zorpie leader appearing with Perd Hapley, Joan, etc., but the more they talk about the Zorpie leader, the more Goor begins to worry that they're now pitching an episode that's built around a guest star and not around Leslie or one of the other regular characters. The discussion turns to how each regular character might respond to the Rapture. Wittels suggests that Andy would buy into it and join up with the Zorpies (he and Hiscock will later have an argument over who came up with that idea first), which then requires everyone to ask what April's reaction to this would be. Dippold thinks Jerry would just head to his lake house in Muncie to ride things out. Goor likes the idea that the Zorpies pay for an expensive parks event by check with funds they don't have, figuring the Rapture will solve the problem for them, and that perhaps this could be the conflict: the Zorpies accidentally throw the parks department into a big financial hole. Yang isn't sure if any of this works as a story for their show.
Eventually, Schur's conference call ends and the writers tell him about all the ideas pitched in his absence. Then everyone returns to discussing the premiere - specifically, the still-undecided question of whether Leslie will break up with Ben to protect her political ambitions. Goor and Yang are in favor of them continuing to date in secret, with Goor arguing that it's much funnier if they stay together than if they split. Schur thinks they already did the secret dating thing at the end of the third season, and that this feels like a legitimate reason for them to split up and raise the emotional stakes. There's discussion that if they go with the quantum leap idea for the premiere, they could have a running gag where Leslie makes up her mind that this is finally going to be the moment when she breaks up with Ben for real, only for her to chicken out at the last minute each time due to circumstances or her own attraction to the guy.
Schur picks up a football and begins tossing it back and forth with Yang. "Well," he says, "we just came up with 500 ideas. Are any of them good?"
To find out which ones they decided were good, click here for part 2.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org