'Parks and Recreation' co-creator Mike Schur on writing the perfect finale (again and again and again)
Tonight's first episode won't end the series, but it could have
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Over these last two and half years or so, have you done stories in part under this philosophy of “We could go off the air at any point,” and in retrospect, you wish you hadn’t done it that way?
Mike Schur: No, there really haven't. I mean, it's a pain in the ass, because we did a huge finale last year where our main character achieved this gigantic goal. And the goal moved her into a new phase of her life. And it was a pain in the butt when we came back for season 5 to have to conceive of new characters and new storylines, and figure out how she fit into the world she used to be in. It’s become a joke on our show that everybody has like five jobs. Ann has two jobs, and Leslie kind of has two jobs, and Tom now has two jobs. And it’s because, again, we want to have people growing and changing in the ways that they are supposed to.
So it’s a pain in the butt, but I don’t regret any of it, because I think it makes a more interesting show. If Tom Haverford just sat around for years and years and years, and just dreamed of doing things and never actually did them, or every time he did them they were failures, that would start to really get depressing to me. And I don’t like that on shows, except for “Cheers,” which had a sort of “Iceman Cometh” kind of deal. But even on “Cheers,” Norm got jobs.
He got the painting business.
Mike Schur: He got the painting business and it kind it worked. He made a little money and paid down his bar tab. I think even in shows that are designed not to change, characters have to change. They have to mature or else they get really stagnant and boring. And I was thinking about recently was the episode where Norm had an idea and a co-worker stole his idea. And he was really upset and they convinced him that he should march into his boss's office – this is towards the end (of the series). It's such a funny episode. They were like, “This guy stole your idea; this is a great idea. You have to march in there and tell him it was your idea.” And he gets psyched up and he starts to walk in the office, and then from inside he hears his boss saying, “That is the stupidest idea I've ever heard my life. Get out of here; you're fired.” I think he actually fires the guy who stole the idea, and Norm just kind of scuffles back. It was such a funny, unexpected thing because you're so conditioned to the idea that he's going to walk in and say, “That’s my idea.” And the boss is going to go, “Peterson, you have a promotion.”
So, the season 3 finale, you kill the beloved L’il Sebastian. You staged this big funeral, Andy writes a song, Ron burns his eyebrows off; all sorts of crazy stuff happens. Season 4 finale, also big: the election, all sorts of stuff. Was (episode) 13 of this season also designed like that?
Mike Schur: One of the benchmarks of every year is that they sort of buy episodes. They still do this order 13 and then maybe a back 9 thing. So at the beginning of the year, were looking around the landscape. And “30 Rock,” it was only, by their choice, going to do 13. And “Up All Night” was ordered for 13, I believe. And “Community” was ordered for 13. And so we had this kind of Spidey sense that if we wanted to make a hundred percent sure that we would not be caught unaware, that we should build to something around episode 13. And we did that. We got our back nine, so we’re going to go all the way to 22.
So there is a kind of little thing that happens in episode 13 where the idea was, “We’re going to assume we have a full season, but just in case to be extra sure, we’re going to build to something in 13, and we’re going to stick to it.” That even if we got our back 9 order, which we did, we wouldn't deviate from the plan. We would execute that plan and then just go past it. So that is going to happen in February.
I used to talk about this with the “Chuck” guys all the time, because they were in much similar straights to you where they wrote many different finales for that show over the years. And it became harder and harder to top what they’d done. “Oh, now he’s proposing marriage. Okay. Well, fine. The next one will be, now we’re seeing the wedding and what do we do after that?” As you guys working on this finale right now, is it in any way difficult because of all the big things you’ve done previously?
Mike Schur: I think it’s always hard to do finales, frankly. But the advantages of having a big ensemble show like we have are that there’s a lot of different aspects of their lives that we can kind of focus on. And so there’s Leslie work life and personal life and her engagement to Ben is obviously a big thing this year. And there’s also Tom’s new business, and there’s a big storyline for Ann that’s coming up that will be introduced in a couple episodes. There’s a big storyline with April that’s coming up. Like, we have so many characters and so many big moves we can make that it doesn’t seem like we have to top what we did. It seems like we have to come up with a new kind of formula for what to build towards and then how to execute it, if that makes sense.
Finales are hard and yet once upon a time there was the idea that, other than “Cheers” and “M*A*S*H” and a few others, with sitcoms the season ends and the season finale or series finale is just another episode.
Mike Schur: Yeah.
So what are comedy finales in the past that you've admired, whether it’s the end of the series or just a great way to end a season?
Mike Schur: Oh, boy. God, that’s a good question.
And you can say something like “Casino Night” (the season 2 finale of “The Office”) if you want.
Mike Schur: Well, here’s the funny thing about “Casino Night.” No one remembers the casino aspect of Casino Night. What they remember is Jim tells Pam he loves her. That’s the point of “Casino Night,” right?
Sure. Though I used to quote the bit about Toby beating Michael at blackjack, where he says, “I’m gonna chase that feeling.”
Mike Schur: This is the kind of genius of “The Office” — and it came from the British version — was the wacky boss is the big, main part of the show. And the inversion of that old trope, so the romance happens in the margins, instead of the main point of it being, will they, won't they. And the casino part of that had so many funny jokes. Like it's revealed in that episode that Kevin actually won a World Series of Poker bracelet. That’s just a crazy character detail. It was just casually dropped in but what was great about that is what you're left with is the juicy romantic stuff.
I co-wrote the season 3 finale with Paul Lieberstein. And it was the same idea. The main plot of that episode is that Michael is trying to get this job at corporate, but the thing that happens in the end is that Jim comes back and asks Pam on a date. And that’s kind of what you’re left with. That formula makes so much sense to me, that you try to have a big giant comedy explosion in the finale to make everyone feel like you’re going out in a bang. But then the thing that you're left with as a viewer is this intriguing romantic, personal story.
It’s funny you say that, because I think a lot of the classic series finales that people talk about, for good or for ill, all they're really remembering is the last scene.
Mike Schur: Yes, they remember the Hawkeye and the helicopter (on “M*A*S*H”).
Yeah, Hawkeye and the helicopter, the autistic kid putting the snow globe on TV (on “St. Elsewhere”), Bob waking up…
Mike Schur: Bob waking up in Suzanne Pleshette’s bed (on “Newhart”).
And obviously Tony at the ice cream place. What happens in the rest of “The Sopranos” finale? Tell me anything.
Mike Schur: I don’t know if I can. Well, no, I remember Tony going to see Uncle Junior, and him saying, “You ran all of North Jersey,” and Junior saying, “How nice,” and staring out the window.
Mike Schur: Which I personally felt, at the time, “I want this to end right now.” That to me was the best possible ending for that finale.