Interview: 'Parks and Recreation co-creator Mike Schur post-mortems season 3
"Parks and Recreation" just concluded a remarkable season of TV comedy: 16 episodes (6 produced last spring, the other 10 after a long break while Amy Poehler had her baby), and not a bad one in the bunch. And the streak goes back at least 5 episodes into season 2 - I might be inclined to draw the line at "Park Safety," if only because I didn't like Andy Samberg's character - but more likely 11 episodes back, with "The Set Up" as the last episode that didn't work overall. So they've been cooking with gas for a very long time now.
I've already posted my review of the season-ending double feature, and I did an extended e-mail interview with the show's co-creator, Mike Schur, about some of the thinking behind season 3's stories, the limits he and Greg Daniels try to place on both the town of Pawnee and characters like Ron Effing Swanson, and a lot more.
The obvious question first: how could you introduce us to the joy and majesty of Li'l Sebastian and then take him away from us in the same season? Just how cruel are you people?
We’re pretty damned cruel. Originally, we had the idea that a human would die – perhaps Mayor Gunderson, or Councilman Dexhart, from some kind of venereal disease “perfect storm.” But it is after all a comedy show, so a very old miniature horse seemed like a slightly less morbid way to have a big event finale.
There was a clear arc to the six episodes you made last spring, which wrapped up in the first episode you produced when you came back from hiatus. After that, though, the stories were much more episodic in nature, though there were some ongoing elements like Ann recovering from the Chris humiliation, Andy and April's married life and, of course, Leslie and Ben. Why did you decide against doing another big arc for the season's remaining episodes? Was it just that, like Leslie, you weren't sure if you could top the harvest festival? Is the more standalone structure something you're all ultimately more comfortable with?
When we learned that we had to do those six extra episodes, making (essentially) a 30-episode season, we used that arc as a way to organize our tired, end-of-the-year brains, and focus things a bit. I also just tend to like arcs, which organize chunks of seasons without (hopefully) alienating anyone who’s tuning in for the first time. The second half of the year was not nearly as arced, but the idea was to loosely show what happens to Leslie in the aftermath of her first great success. Everyone else’s stories were just natural progressions from what had happened earlier – Ann becoming more confident and loosening up a bit, Andy and April rushing into marriage, and so on.
All of these decisions fall under the general heading of character development. My own preference is that everyone on the show should be in a different place at the end of a season from where they were at the beginning of the season. I don’t like shows where you catch an episode in repeats and it could literally be from season 2 or season 8. People change in real life, and I think they should on TV as well.
As a baseball fan, how much do you care about streaks? And are you cognizant at all of the idea that a lot of people feel you just finished a 16-episode streak with no bad episodes? (Actually, the streak stretches back well into season 2, I'd say.) I know your intention is to make every episode as good as it can be, but if you believe in the power of streaks, does that put added pressure on you when you come back for season 4? And given that the two chunks of this season were written so far apart, what do you think accounts for the streak? Is it just that you guys figured the show out in season 2? Or do you feel like you came to understand what works even better as you were assembling this 16?
If it is a streak -- which is a very nice sentiment, and thank you to whomever thinks so -- it's just because everyone who writes on the show, and acts in the show, and produces the show, is good at what they do, and the more we do it the better we get. Hopefully, with our cast and an ever-expanding world, we can just keep churning out good episodes, and become the Joe DiMaggio of network sitcoms. And you know how much it pains me to make that analogy.
How did the idea of having Andy and April get married so quickly originate? There's always that fear among your bretheren about what to do with long-simmering couples after they get together, but marrying them off actually seems to generate a ton of stories in a way you might not have if they were just dating.
In the break between seasons 3.1 and 3.2, we were discussing how to deal with them as a couple. All we knew was that we wanted to avoid the standard-issue TV romance plots: fights, other men/women driving them apart, and so on. We just thought about who they were – two impulsive goofballs who don’t approach their lives in a responsible, adult manner – and decided, what the hell? What if they just make a rash decision and get hitched? As soon as the idea came up we felt it made sense, and as a bonus, the stakes would subsequently be higher for every story we told about their relationship. Also, it just seemed funny that they would be the only couple on the show that’s actually married. Andy dispensing marital advice to Ron seems like a rich vein.
Speaking of long-simmering couples, you may know I wasn't crazy about the introduction of Chris' anti-dating rule as the means to keep Leslie and Ben apart for a while, though I ultimately liked these last few episodes dealing with it, and it seems it's going to be a big plot point next season. What was the thinking behind that? Were you just reluctant to put two different couples together in such short order? Between this show and "The Office," you and Greg have a lot of practice at maintaining sexual tension; how do you decide when's the time to wait and when's the time to move forward, and what obstacles work better than others?
The “no dating” thing is a very big deal in government – these people are handling taxpayer money, so relationships are even more frowned upon than they are in the private sector. There was realism to the obstacle, which was key, and more importantly it seemed like with Leslie and Ben, two people who care very deeply about their work, the idea that work itself is keeping them apart would be nicely ironic. This is the first guy that seems like Leslie’s true soul mate, so it demanded we ramped it up for at least a little while -- though really, from the time she asks him out to dinner and finds out about Chris’s rule (“Soulmates”) to the time they say “screw it” and kiss (“Road Trip”) is only like 4 episodes.
Obstacles are tricky things – they have to exist, but audiences these days are extremely savvy, and have seen just about every one of them played out a number of times. This one seemed at least kind of fresh, and specific to our show. As far as knowing when to make those jumps, it’s really just a balancing act of trying to establish the obstacle and play out the tension in a satisfying way, without drawing it out so long that viewers get annoyed.
Ron's other wife Tammy has been mentioned briefly in the past, but we know almost nothing about her. Now we know that Tammy II is terrified of her. What can you tell us about her? And what sort of actress might you be looking at to play such a part?
We have some ideas, both for the actress and the character, but I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. Offerman is angling to play Tammy 1 himself, in drag. I think I am going to decline that request.
In my review of the episode with the burger cook-off, I expressed the tiniest of concerns that if you're not careful, Ron could turn into the Fonzie of this show, where he's always right, great at everything, etc. Obviously, that hasn't happened yet, and stories like his fear of birthday parties and him having to suffer in the swivel chair kept him somewhat humble. How cognizant are you of celebrating what's awesome about Ron Effing Swanson without turning the character into a parody of himself? What can you do to keep him in balance?
Honestly, I don’t worry about that. Writing for Ron is kind of a gut-feeling thing – I think it has a lot to do with Nick Offerman, and what kind of actor he is, and what kind of person he is. Stories that we come up with for him either feel right or they don’t. The character has certain qualities that are sort of superhero-ish, and also a lot of flaws that make him extremely vulnerable and human. I don’t think he’ll soon acquire the ability to bang on a juke box and have music start playing. And hopefully he’ll never strap on waterskis.
Some of my readers have had trouble reconciling the Chris of Rob Lowe's first few episodes (so ultra-positive that he refuses to associate himself with any bad news, leaving Ben to play hatchet man) with the Chris who's working as city manager (imposing lots of new rules that nobody's especially happy about). How compatible do you see his performance in the two jobs? Or was this just a case of you writing the character one way when Lowe was just a guest star, and having to tweak things to make him work in the long term?
Well, he’s had two different roles. One as the interloper whose job was to bound in, psyche everyone up, and play “good cop” while the budget was slashed. Once he took a permanent job in the town, he became more concerned with integrity and making the ship run smoothly. He doesn’t like frayed ends or controversies – he wants the body politic to be as clean-running and organic as his own human body. Part of the design of the character was to give the other characters a true boss – an actual authority figure whose rules and regulations meant they had to toe certain lines, even while his endlessly cheery disposition made it hard to argue with him.
Was Ann's new job the result of you guys struggling to constantly justify why she would be hanging out at City Hall, participating in official Parks Dept. functions, etc.? And, if so, was there an episode in the past where you guys most beat your heads against the wall asking yourselves what Ann was doing in a scene other than the fact that Leslie loves Ann and everyone loves Rashida?
I personally never really cared about the “why is she hanging around so much?” question. It’s not that big a town, the hospital is near City Hall, her best friend works there, for a while her boyfriend worked there... I understand that viewers might see her constant presence in City Hall as a convenience, but she was designed as an outsider who got drawn into Leslie’s world, and I never felt compelled to rush her into the office permanently. After 40+ episodes, we just decided that Leslie’s pull would be strong enough to get her to make a move, career-wise. (And yes, it does make it a little easier to break stories that involve her. Fine. You got me.)
You've built quite a deep bench of characters throughout Pawnee whom you can bring back as needed. How do you decide which of those characters - say, Jean Ralphio, or Joe from Sewage - are ready for more burn, and which need a little more development? And how hard is it to balance time for the likes of Perd and The Douche with servicing what's a pretty large regular cast?
That’s the hardest part – carving out time for everyone. We always try to serve the main cast first, and use the side characters only when it seems helpful. But it’s been a real joy to invent these people who populate the town, and then to find reasons to bring them back. Some just came from meeting actors we liked, like Nick Kroll or Ben Schwartz, and then figuring out how to use them. Some came from jokes in the script – Orin, the creepy goth kid who appears in April’s wedding, was brought up in a throw-away joke in “Time Capsule,” and then Katie Dippold (who wrote the wedding episode) loved the idea of Orin so much we decided to make him real. Sometimes it’s just that someone knocks a small role out of the park, like Jay Jackson with Perd Hapley, and then before you know it, he’s recurring a dozen times and doing the worm.
The more those characters show up, and new ones emerge, the more (hopefully) people will get a sense that Pawnee is a real place, filled with all sorts of people. It thrills me when people make the “Simpsons”/Springfield comparison. That was something Greg and I discussed a lot early on – trying to create an actual place, that could expand infinitely.
In terms of that Pawnee/Springfield comparison, how real a place do you want Pawnee to be, and/or how sane do you want its citizens to be? There are times when the town seems fairly down to earth and then other episodes like "Time Capsule" or "Harvest Festival" where everyone seems like a complete lunatic. Do you not mind, so long as each script is funny, or have you placed any limits on just how cartoony things can get? Was there ever a pitch that had everyone in the room laughing, but that ultimately made you say, "That's too far out there, even for Pawnee"?
There have definitely been pitches we rejected by reason of insanity. And even when things get kind of cartoony, we try to figure out some way to ground it. For example, in Harvest Festival, when things almost fall apart because of a "curse," we made sure that it was the local media fanning the flames that caused trouble, and not every single person in the whole town believing in curses. That would've been too goofy.
Basically, we want to make the town as funny as possible while still seeming real. And based on the kinds of people we personally witnessed speaking up in city council meetings, and the kinds of local goofballs that pop up on YouTube and other places, I think we're still within the general boundaries of realism.
Now that he's doing "House of Lies" for Showtime, how available is Ben Schwartz going to be to you next season? However long Entertainment 720 lasts, I would assume Jean-Ralphio is going to be an important part of those scenes.
We’re trying to work it out right now. Hopefully, he’ll be back early and often, as Entertainment 720 figures to be a big story at the beginning of next year. He’s deeply funny, that guy. And he’s my wife’s favorite character.
And this is something we've talked about before: how do you deal with the upward mobility of certain characters while also trying to keep this ensemble together working as well as they have? Tom finally quits to try to be the Diddy of Pawnee or whatever, and Leslie may finally be running for office, but eventually people will expect and/or want everyone to just be back in that office together goofing around. How do you handle that? And, again, how much did you learn about this on "The Office," where Jim at the start of the series said he would kill himself if Dunder-Mifflin became his career, and has now made it his career?
Again, I think it’s vital to telling good stories that characters grow and change. Tom has always had big dreams, and I think it would ring false if he didn’t try to follow those dreams at some point. (It would also be really sad.) The challenge is to find ways for the characters to strive, in the uniquely American “reach for the stars” kind of way, without losing the central workplace family dynamic that the show is built around.
For all the talk of how fat the people of Pawnee are, the great majority of the actors who appear on the show are fairly slender. I'm sure it may be uncomfortable (if not illegal) to include a Body Mass Index requirement on the casting sheet, but at some point don't you either have to cut back on those jokes or start bringing in a lot of plus-sized extras and guest stars?
We probably should hire a few more plus-sized actors down the line. Or maybe we’ll just say that Chris Traeger personally led the entire city in 1980’s Japanese factory-style morning calisthenics, and now everyone is an Olympic-level athlete.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org