Interview: 'Parks and Recreation' co-creator Mike Schur previews season three
"Parks and Recreation," one of the best shows NBC has and one of the best comedies anywhere on television, is for reasons fathomable only to people who think the pilot for "Outsourced" is funny, not on NBC's fall schedule. It will be back at some point in mid-season - hopefully right after "Outsourced" deservedly fails, but maybe not. (NBC has a bunch of other comedies slated for mid-season, and the network's priorities are, as always, weird.)
That the show isn't on that schedule came as a surprise to everyone who works there, since the series stayed in production after the end of the second season so they could film six more episodes before Amy Poehler had to go on maternity leave. (She and Will Arnett had their second baby, Abel, a few days ago.) Instead, those episodes will sit on a shelf for a bit, and last week "Parks and Rec" showrunner and "Office" alum Mike Schur began plotting out the rest of the third season, which will now include Rob Lowe as a regular. (Where Adam Scott signed on full-time immediately, Lowe was originally going to be in only a handful of episodes.) Since I was still in town for press tour, I drove over to the lovely CBS-Radford lot to ask Schur to revisit certain developments from last season, and to preview some of what's to come whenever the show returns.
(NOTE: There are some mild plot spoilers to follow, but nothing Schur was uncomfortable discussing, and certainly nothing that ruins any of the jokes on this very funny show. But if you want to remain completely unaware of the goings-on at Pawnee City Hall, don't click through.)
First of all, what was your reaction when the schedule came out?
When we were told we were mid-season?
Obviously I was disappointed. But in my most zen moments, I sort of feel like that’s not anything that we can control. We can make our arguments for why we think the show should be on and what time the show should be on, but ultimately the only thing we can actually control is the show itself. So I’m trying to just focus on that and not worry about the internal workings of the scheduling and programming.
But because of Amy’s pregnancy and the early pickup and doing the 6 episodes, was that all done with the understanding that you would be on in the fall?
Yes. Obviously the whole reason that we stayed in production and shot 6 extra episodes was that we could be on the air premiere week in September and then not miss a week going all the way through. So that made it extra ironic that we were now mid-season. But, yeah, it was very disappointing and the network has their reasons for doing what they’re doing and we trust them that this is somehow going to all work out.
How pregnant was Amy looking by the end (of production)? Because she was looking quite pregnant by the end of the season.
What’s funny was that my wife and I were watching, I think, the telethon episode when it aired, and my wife was like, “Wow, she’s really pregnant.” And when we were shooting that episode she was two months pregnant or something, but you could really tell. I directed the last of the 6 episodes and it’s the episode called “The Time Capsule” where they all bury a time capsule, and we just designed a really big time capsule. As luck would have it, she was standing behind the time capsule for most of the shots and/or behind the desk. For most of the shooting I didn’t want to do the thing where she’s always carrying a bag of groceries when she walks in the door because it just calls attention to it. I think our wardrobe department did a really good job of dressing her in a lot of dark colors with ruffly, fringy things that sort of worked. And there were times when we were on the set and there was just an angle that, "Oh, we can’t use that because people would be wondering why Leslie... who the father is."
So there was no discussion - even not necessarily making Leslie pregnant but doing a story where Leslie’s been eating too many Sweetums or something?
I would hope what happens is that in this day and age, the viewers and the show are making an agreement. They’re just making a silent, tacit pact that this actress is pregnant, that happens. Women have babies and we’re just going to watch the show and enjoy the show and not have to come up with any kind of explanation for why her stomach is larger than it usually is.
Okay. So what can you tell me without going into too many spoilers about what happens in these 6? We ended with the government shut down, and Leslie’s job in jeopardy.
Right. The basic idea of the finale was that the government is shut down and in the final of season 2, Leslie just sort of soldiers on and decides that her job is to bring enjoyment and fun to the people of her town. And so she’s going to do that anyway. And by doing that and pulling off single-handedly this children’s concert, I think she proved to Adam Scott and Rob Lowe’s characters that she’s a valuable government employee. And what happens when we pick up is that they’ve spent the entire off-season - I would say summer but I don’t know when we’re actually going to air - fighting tooth and nail for every last dollar she can get, but the budget has been dramatically slashed. When we pick up in the premiere, she’s basically finding herself with a very, very stripped down - even by Pawnee, Indiana standards - workforce and budget and she decides that she needs to gamble a little bit. And she comes up with an idea for a project that she can do that’s sort of a long-term project that may be able to bring in some money for the government. And she sets off to complete that project. And that’ll be an arc for at least 6 or probably 7 or 8 episodes. She's basically saying to Adam and Rob’s characters, Ben and Chris, "Let me do this." The story of the premiere is that she finds buried in the massive budget document that there’s a kind of rainy day fund. That they’ve set aside a tiny little bit of money for another emergency and she’s making a pitch that she should be given that money for her department. And with that money she will do this project and if the project works it’ll be this smash success and money will pour in. So the first 6 or 8 episodes is going to be the preparation for that project and then the actual event.
Originally, you were maybe going to have Rob for these 6 and a few more. Was that what you were planning and then he was just so great that you kept him around, or was it always a case of you were going to wait and see what he wanted to do?
Because of Amy’s pregnancy and the fact that we were going to shoot those 6 episodes continuously, we thought to ourselves, "Well, we have this guy. It’s 8 episodes, but it stretches over 2 seasons so it feels like a very substantial arc." And so all we knew was that, because we’d shoot those 8 episodes over 2 seasons in a very small amount of time, we knew we could get him for that much time. Then after that it was a question of is he going to have his own show or a movie or whatever? And basically we said to him when we were trying to work it out, "Look, at the end of these 8 episodes let’s just see where we stand, and if you’re having a good time and you think it’s fun and we’re having a good time and we think it’s working then we’ll try to make it work for more.” And that’s exactly what happened. So at the end of the shooting, we knew we wanted him back and there was only the question of whether he was available, and he was, so he’s back.
So within the internal logic of the show - I mean obviously (on "30 Rock") Jack Donaghy spends a lot more time on this one show at NBC - how do you justify both of these guys being so involved on a long term basis with the Pawnee Parks Department?
That’s certainly a challenge that we have to address in the writers room. With Adam Scott’s character, the idea of the first 6 is that he is sort of the overseer of the project that Leslie’s working on. And so that’s what tethers him to the world. And Rob’s character is sort of wrapping up his job, but in the second episode there’s a moment where he has a kind of burgeoning story with Ann, Rashida’s character. And Ben is having a little bit of interest in Leslie, and the two of them have a little conversation where they sort of say, "Maybe we should ask for an extension. Maybe we’ll stay here just to make sure all the loose ends are tied up and stuff." And so it’s actually it’s a really nice moment because they both are coming to like the town and coming to like the people and we put that in specifically because we knew at the end of the 6 episodes we might need to have planted a reason for them to both stay.
The way it worked in the two they were in in the spring was Ben’s the guy who actually gets stuff done. Chris is the pretty face. Adam’s the one actually having human interactions with people. Rob is broad and silly. How far can you take that?
We haven’t finished editing or anything but right away in the premiere we take very specific steps to humanize Rob’s character and make him less of a broad, silly cipher, and to soften Adam’s character a little bit. And we were going to do that regardless of whether Rob stayed on. For the first 2 episodes where they were at the end of last year we just wanted to play for mostly for comedy and stakes and starting with next year we turn both of them into more long-term-feeling characters. Because, yeah, that one joke would have worn thin after awhile. So we squeezed the juice out of that joke and now we’re going to move on.
And some people suggested to me on Twitter that the show almost has too many good people now.
(laughs) It’s a big cast, yeah. I mean, it’s a good problem to have. As a producer and writer if our biggest problem is that there’s too many awesome actors on the show, I’m cool with that. I mean it is a challenge because we tell a lot of different kinds of stories. We tell very silly comedy stories and we have romance stories and we have friendship stories and everything else, so we don’t want people to lose screen time - any of them - so it’s going to be a challenge to juggle all of those people.
And eventually Jerry will get screwed.
(laughs) Yeah, Jerry. Well, Jerry’s used to it, so.
Speaking of Adam, Brendanawicz is gone.
And Mark and Ann - I love Rashida but her role within the show has often seemed a bit nebulous beyond the fact that she’s Leslie’s friend.
How good of a handle do you feel you have on her now?
It’s funny. It’s like she’s serves a very important purpose for our show because she exists outside the world of the government and she’s not stupid. Andy existed outside the world of the government, but he wasn’t a trustworthy way in for the audience because he’s comedically dopey. And Ann is the reasonable sort of citizen who gets to tell the audience, "Come with me and I’ll show you these crazy people."
And last year because we paired her with Mark, she was Leslie’s friend and she was causing a little bit of tension in her friendship with Leslie and that sort of stuff but she wasn’t driving the world forward usually.
She was mostly like a person who hung out with Leslie and was sort of along for the ride. That changes this year because her romantic interest is now Rob Lowe and he is obviously a very powerful person in the world of the show for the time being and will continue to be. So her basic role on the show is staying the same, in the sense that she’s an outsider who is the audience’s friend, but the romantic aspect of it is much more comedic with Rob Lowe, because he’s more of a comedy character than Mark was. I think you’ll see a pretty significant difference in the way that she’s used especially in the first 6 episodes. She has a very funny arc: it’s been a long time since Ann has not had the upper hand in a relationship. And as she begins a relationship with Rob’s character and falls for him very hard and because of that, it's like, "What do I do when I really into a guy instead of having a guy being really into me?"
And you used her to throw a wrinkle into Andy and April?
I’m curious: do you feel that they needed that? Could it have just been they finally get together or would that have just not been interesting?
Well, I’m sure they could have just gotten together. What I liked about that moment where Ann kisses Andy was Ann has just ended a relationship and she says in that episode, “I often do kind of rash things right after I’ve gotten out of relationships." And because Andy was in the hospital, she was having this familiar feeling: ""I know how to take care of this guy when he’s hurt."
What I liked about it was that it just felt organic. What we had originally devised was a situation where April told Andy that she didn’t want to date him because she was afraid he was into Ann, and then he gets injured and then she just rushes into his arms and says, "Oh my God I’m so sorry." And then we realized if he’s injured and Ann is kind of reeling from this other thing that those two ships in the night could kind of pass at a moment and have a completely human, natural thing happen - which is that she gets a little too close to his face and kisses him for 3 seconds. And we just thought, "Well, that’s more interesting." I think that’s more interesting and ultimately it’s not about Ann and Andy getting back together or anything. It’s just like that could happen and then when April finds that out, it confirms her worst fears and off she goes. And that just seemed like more kind of more interesting than just Andy and April getting together. That’s why we did it.
So here’s something I want to ask about: early in the series, Leslie would always give these talking heads about her aspirations.
"I want to run for office. I want to be Hillary Clinton" or whatever.
She’s of a certain age. She’s still in Pawnee. She’s still a non-elected civil servant. Does she actually have these aspirations or is it more just something that she says? Because you did introduce in one episode that her goal is basically to become City Manager one day.
These are not fake aspirations. I mean, I don’t think if you could corner her and say, "Do you really think you’re going to be the President of the United States?" would probably say, "No, I don’t think I’m going to be the President." It’s a little bit like someone who says, "I want to own my own business and become a millionaire." It’s not a fake ambition, but also it’s not maybe specifically "I want a million dollars." It’s like "I want to succeed at this chosen profession." She loves public service and she loves helping people and she loves her town. I think this year we’re going to get more into specifically one way or the other what the next step is for her and what she wants to accomplish and how she wants to move up in the world. She’s not delusional. She doesn’t really believe that one day she’s going to be in the Oval Office, but she likes to think of herself that way because she is the kind of person who is not ever satisfied with what she’s doing at that moment. Even if she loves her job she’s always trying to do more and more and more stuff, and she does want to go up the ladder and progress in her career. So it’s just fun to have her talk about what kind of hat she’ll wear if she’s elected President.
That’s going to be an interesting challenge because she’s on the rung she’s on and she’s in this little world and you want to keep her in this world but she’s a character with ambition.
Yeah. It’s hard. That was something we always dealt with at “The Office” as well. One of the essential ideas of being American is that you can make it. Which isn’t true of the British world as much, I would say, and that’s why the Tim character in the British “Office” just sort of had no hope in his life. And we always tried to say Jim is more of an ambitious person than Tim, and I think that Leslie is a more ambitious person than maybe a civil service counterpart in another country somewhere. So you want the characters to progress and you want them to change and you want them to evolve and move up in the world and everything else. But the show is also called “Parks and Recreation,” so if she goes too far too quickly we’re going to run into a logic problem. So it’s a challenge. I think Tom is great for that kind of striving quality because he has a lot of ambitions. He wants to own his own nightclub and have his own cologne and be an impresario and all this stuff, but he’s just terrible at it, so we can have fun with that. Like he’s like the id of this idea and Leslie’s kind of the superego.
On “The Office,” did you struggle with the idea of why Jim would still be in that place?
Yeah. On that show it was certainly (a struggle). And the answer with him for a long time was Pam. And then after Season 3 ended, we had to ask, "Okay, now he’s got Pam, so why is he staying?" And I think that’s why in the intervening years they’ve addressed it. They’ve had him want to move up and take care of his family and get a promotion and be co-manager and I think that would continue, I would guess.
Alright, so what can you tell me about Mr. Ron Swanson?
Let’s see. What can I tell you? Well, probably the biggest news is Tammy comes back. The episode is literally called "Ron & Tammy Part II."
We hope that if we’re on the air for 10 years that we get to run "Tammy Part 10" at least.
Just like "Bar Wars" for “Cheers”?
You know we honestly talked about that a lot. We talked about it with "Greg Pikitis" too. That’s one of my favorite aspects of “Cheers” I was a huge fan of “Cheers,” where once a year you would get that episode, and I remember distinctly whenever I realized it was a Gary’s Old Towne Tavern episode, a sense of excitement would wash over me, you know? So I don’t just want to do the same thing every year and Megan (Mullally) had a great time and we loved having her and we felt it was a no-brainer to have her back. But we only wanted to do it if we felt like we had a new reason to do it. And we came up with idea because of the project that Leslie’s working on, there were some different stakes involved and because of the fact that Ron is in a relationship. He’s dating Tom’s ex-wife Wendy at the end of the year, so it’s a new situation. He’s got a woman he’s involved with and there’s a lot of differences in the setup. And then the results of her re-entrance into his world are much more dramatic and destructive than they were the first time. So I think it’s a hilarious and great episode and I hope that people enjoy it and don’t think that we just did the same thing again, because it didn’t feel like we did. I hope that I’m right when I say that. So that’s one big thing.
There’s another episode, the second episode of the year, that is called “The Flu Season” and a lot of people get sick with the flu including April, and Ron needs someone to step in for a day as his assistant and he needs someone really incompetent to keep the people away. And he goes and gets Andy and so it’s a really nice episode where Andy and Ron spend the day bonding and just doing male things.
Not that you need to do this, but I’m just curious: do Tammy and Ben cross paths?
They don’t really cross paths. Are you asking for "Party Down" reasons?
Yes, for the five people who watched that show.
I’m one of them. They really don’t have a lot of story moments together, but I think it was nice for them to reunite.
Alright, so Ron is with Tom’s ex-wife. Tom meanwhile is with Natalie Morales.
What do you feel she adds and how much are we going to be seeing her?
You’ll see her in 2 or 3 episodes, I can’t remember which. And the story there is they’re great for each other and she really gets him and understands why he’s funny and harmless instead of skeevy and disgusting. And I think she’s awesome. I’m a huge Natalie Morales fan and the storyline we had written for her was meant to be one episode and it turned into, like, five because we just liked her and wanted to keep her around. I guess it was meant to be two and then we extended it to four or five.
Now, more important question: D.J. Roomba.
(laughs) Well, D.J. Roomba’s the most important part of Season 3.
Yes. No, there’s no plans on bringing back D.J. Roomba but, and maybe this was happening last time you were here that people were actually selling D.J. Roomba...
The last time I was here you screened me the first few scenes with D.J. Roomba in them.
And you were worried about keeping it in the episode.
But now somebody's selling D.J. Roomba t-shirts.
Yeah. That’s insane. That’s all Alan Yang by the way. That was not in any outline that we had. I don’t know where the idea came from but he just turned that in. We all thought it was hilarious but it’s one of those things where it’s so unimportant to the story that when we’re trying to cut these episodes down from 35 or 36 minutes to 21, it was like, "God this D.J. Roomba takes up a lot of time." We kept doing versions of the episode where he was cut out and we’re just, "I kind of miss D.J. Roomba," you know? So we ended up cutting a bunch of other stuff to shoehorn D.J. Roomba back in.
I want to double back because we talked about Rob, I want to talk about Adam.
Obviously what happened with “Party Down” happened with “Party Down,” but why did you feel the need to add two people and why did you go for him?
Well, we had the idea of bringing in another person in this capacity as an overseer and a threat, and that that person might be a love interest for Leslie. When we were designing the character in our heads, (Adam) was the guy. I was like, "If Adam Scott were available, you would get Adam Scott to do this because he’s very good at being serious, and he seems like he’s a very no-nonsense guy, but he’s also capable of extremely broad goofy comedy" - which, by the way, he gets to do a lot more of in Season 3. So then someone called me and said, "You know, the 'Party Down' actors are on one-year contracts, and they don’t even think they’re bringing that show back, and Adam Scott is available." It was like, "Well, Jesus, if they guy’s available and he’s the model for the character, we should try to get him." Now around the same time we met with NBC and they said, "What do you think about putting Rob Lowe on the show?" And that was a whole different thing: "Oh, wait a second. If you can get Rob Lowe on your show, maybe you should do that." And then we decided what the hell, let’s shoot the moon. Let’s go after both of them and see what happens. And we got both of them and then we made them partners. So the idea for the character was always there and then it became a partnership and the good cop/bad cop thing when we got both of the actors we were going after.
Well I mean because the show has been pretty terrific creatively in Season 2.
Was there just the sense you needed to bring in outside people to get more folks to watch or what was the impetus? Not that Adam Scott is a draw, but Rob Lowe in theory could be?
That wasn’t the idea originally. When NBC was pitching Rob Lowe, the bonus of Rob Lowe to me is that being a huge “West Wing” fan, it wasn’t hard to sell me on Rob Lowe. And in addition, he’s one of those guys who just has this fan-base who follows him around. So that was sort of gravy to me. It was really more about we wanted to do it because we felt we had a little bit of an authority problem on our show. Because you don’t know who the mayor is. We’ve never met the mayor. And in a traditional sit-com or a normal workplace sit-com, the boss is the person who’s telling people they can’t do things. And in our case, Ron does say that sometimes, but a lot of the time he’s just disinterested and he just lets Leslie do whatever she wants. And so what we wanted to do at the beginning of Season 3 was create a scenario in which there was someone scary who was above everyone who was calling the shots. So that was the original idea for bringing in a character and then we paired the two of them together and had them both fill that role.
Okay, moving on: Mouse Rat? How early and often will we be seeing Mouse Rat perform?
I don’t think they perform in any of the first 6, but there is some Mouse Rat discussion.
And it is revealed in the first 6 that they have a new album coming out which is something that will happen sometime after the first 6.
It’s weird because I came to this realization around "Galentine’s Day" that Mouse Rat’s kind of good.
(laughs) Not bad, right? I mean they’re a very straightforward bar band. They sound like Hootie and the Blowfish. All of their songs are essentially Hootie and the Blowfish songs from 1994 or something. We had a wrap party when we finished shooting the 6 episodes for season 3, but it was essentially a season 2 wrap party, and Mouse Rat played and the wrap party was in a bar and it was totally appropriate. It was like if I was just a person who was in this bar and this band was playing, I’d be perfectly happy.
And there was a very special guest for that performance.
There was. Unbeknownst to everyone except for me and about 3 other people Duke Silver walked onstage and played saxophone during "The Pit." Mouse Rat closed with "The Pit" and Duke Silver sat in and the place went wild. Oh and my friend Paula Pell, who’s a writer for “30 Rock”, God bless her, took off her bra and threw it at Nick.
And it was like it was so believable that it would really be happening. It was almost like you forgot for a second that she was a comedy writer.
And Nick, I assume, plays the saxophone?
He does indeed, yup.
At this point are there Nick Offerman skills that have been untapped?
There are some. I mean, it was pretty impressive when we worked in his re-caning a chair skill. I said, "Wow, we’re getting deep into the Nick Offerman real life skill canon."
But that fits in with the woodworking.
It fits in with the woodworking, yeah. But in the "Sweetums" episode when Leslie walks in and he drank 6 glasses of whiskey and crafted a small harp and he says, "I use an oscillating spindle sander" or whatever that was, all of that stuff was real. I said to him, "So you could make a harp? It sounds like you know what you're talking about." We wrote in something and we said to him, "Just say whatever you would really do." And he said, "Oh, I’ve made a harp before." And we had come up with the goofiest thing we could think of that you could make in one night. He said he didn’t think he could make it in one night, but he’s actually made a harp with his bare hands. So there isn’t much left that he can really do that we haven’t discussed at least on the show, but I’m sure we’ll find something. He’s a true Renaissance man, that guy. Oh I know, he used to teach stage combat at Steppenwolf.
In Chicago and he’s an incredibly accomplished stage combat performer and knows how to do sword play and he can like fence. So at some point, I would imagine, Ron Swanson will get into a situation that requires him to...
Well, he’s taught self-defense already.
He’s taught self-defense but he hasn’t taught sword play. I feel that at some point we’ll contrive a situation where he is holding a Samurai sword and someone attacks him with a different Samurai sword and he’ll ward them off. That would be a good episode. I would like to see that episode.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org