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'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
(For the next five or 10 minutes, the conversation devolved into us trying to remember details of various comedy finales — both season and series — before returning to the idea that many comedies would just do standard episodes at the end of each season, rather than something big and finale-like.)
Well, “Friends” would do big ones. The one where they had “I, Ross, take thee Rachel…”
Mike Schur: “Take thee Rachel” is great. That was very exciting and crazily unexpected. I still don’t know to this day how I did not see that coming, but I did not.
“Seinfeld,” obviously, did the one where they shoot the pilot.
Mike Schur: Right.
They did the one where Susan dies, are you pro or anti that episode?
Mike Schur: I was anti.
Are you still anti, though?
Mike Schur: I haven’t watched it in a long time.
But I’m saying in light of seeing “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is it still so jarring?
Mike Schur: Yeah, well “Curb” is a whole different beast. He’s more intentionally miserable than George was in “Seinfeld.” But I was anti; I didn’t like it at the time, I remember.
And how do you feel about the “Seinfeld” series finale?
Mike Schur: I think the “Seinfeld” finale is underrated. Again, I haven't seen it in a long time, but I remember being shocked about how much people hated it. But it was like a very like astute summation of the entire life of the show to me. I was very impressed that they decided to do it that way. I liked that the conversation they had in the jail cell was the same conversation they had at the start of the pilot. And I liked the idea of their miserable, awful, selfish lives being put on trial. I think it was a little on the nose because they were literally put on trial.
I don’t know. It just felt to me like Larry David came back to say, “You people are so stupid, you didn’t realize you were watching assholes for nine years.”
Mike Schur: And I think that’s interesting. Isn’t that interesting? I mean, you were put on the side of those characters as a viewer. You loved those characters. And they were not good people. They just weren’t. They weren’t evil, but they weren’t good people. And that was part of the DNA of the show, and I really enjoyed seeing them confronting that. I think the problem is you can’t ignore that for 250 episodes, and then suddenly slam people in the face with it at the end. It was so jarring that they were being meta in that way that I think it maybe wasn’t entirely a success. But maybe it’s just my personal taste, I enjoy characters percolating like that. And I think that maybe there had to be a little percolation. But I also like the super early days of “Seinfeld” more than I liked the later years. When the show was being watched by 79 million people in the later seasons, I didn’t like it as much as the early seasons.
What do you remember of the “Cheers” finale other than the last five minutes — the bull session?
Mike Schur: I remember the whole finale. I remember the announcement that he was leaving with Diane and I remember him yelling at everyone and telling them that they needed to get lives and him on the plane. And then they did the crazy thing where the pilot starts talking to them; they can both hear the pilot, which was an insane, an insane device.
But I still marvel at that last whatever it is; 16 minutes of essentially continuous dialogue in play form where they're all smoking cigars, and that’s beautiful and perfect. And that they all slowly leave. I did this thing on Vulture a long time ago about “Cheers,” and the thing that blew me away is how the theme of that show is repeated in basically every episode. You can pick any episode at random and the theme of the episode is that these people are family, and that it’s important to be with your family. And that it’s a place where everybody knows your name, and all that stuff. And in the finale, I think Frasier has a line in that sequence where he’s leaving. Oh, there was a thing where the phone rings, and they say it might be Vera, or it might be one of Carla’s kids…
And they’re all just not gonna answer.
Mike Schur: Just let it ring. Let them think we’re on our way home, which is such a lovely idea, and they never answer the phone. And then they all leave slowly, and then Norm comes back in. And it’s a great joke where he says, do you know what I love more than anything else? And Sam says, “Beer, Norm?” And Norm goes, “Yeah sure I’ll have a quick one.” But I guess it’s true. Finales aren’t that big of deal in comedy, now that you think about it.
You’ve worked on other things but this is the show you co-created, you’ve been running it for a while, and obviously you’ve done these in case of emergency kind of finales. As both a comedy writer and an amateur comedy historian, do you ever think, “Are we doing something here that’s going to stand the test of time?” Is “Win, Lose or Draw” one day going to be talked about in those terms, as you're working on it? Or can you not think that way?
Mike Schur: I can’t think in that away. I mean, I hope so. I hope so. Greg (Daniels) and I, when we were writing the pilot, I remember having a conversation where we played this game, where it was like, “Okay, let’s say the show makes it on the air, and it lasts for seven or eight years. What is the finale? Where do we want to point all of these characters? What are they all doing?? And it was an interesting exercise. And at the time, I thought, “Okay it’s very obvious what the finale is. The finale is a ribbon cutting ceremony on this new park that Leslie's gotten built and she cuts a ribbon and burst into tears because she’s so happy.” And now it’s very different what the finale would be. If I knew when the finale were I wouldn’t have that be the finale because a lot's happened to her since then. But I don’t ever try to think of it - I only try to think of it as what’s the move for the characters that’s interesting.
But hypothetically, you get renewed for next year and it's not quite a “30 Rock” deal but Bob makes it clear that this is it: you get to come back one more time, that’s it. How would you approach that finale differently, if at all?
Mike Schur: Well, I don’t know. It’s a weird situation to imagine writing final words for characters. And I think I would just say that I want to make sure that everything that every character says, as a last line or moment, is perfect. Like, I love the pictures in our opening credit sequence. I think they're all something like 42 frames long. It's like a minute, a second and a third. But in every single one of them, every character is doing the exact thing that they should be doing. It’s the perfect second long essence of every character. Like if you watch them, everyone is like - Leslie’s like, Leslie’s face just lights up in a big way. April smiles and then sees the camera and hides and Andy’s got a guitar and he points dramatically at the camera. And Ben gives a shrug of like, “I can’t believe what happening right now.” And Rob Lowe snaps his fingers and points at you. And I think that that would be the goal: whenever these stories are, or whatever the last words that they say are, that I would want them to be that essential to the characters.
You mentioned the park. You’ve returned to Lot 48 this season.
Mike Schur: Yeah.
The show had moved beyond that. Basically after “Kaboom,” it ceased to be an issue at all. Why did you decide to return to it?
Mike Schur: Part of it is that feeling that this might be our final season. I love it in shows — my favorite season of “The Shield,” I think, is the Forest Whitaker season. I remember watching the premiere and thinking how impressive it was that they were going to base season 5 on the pilot. It's the large-scale version of when Ron told Diane about Duke Silver on our show. It’s like, “This is a thing that was planted a really long time ago and now here it is.” And so part of it was saying, “Okay, we don’t know what our future holds but one dangling participle in her life is this big project. It’s the reason she met Ann and it’s the thing that got her so jazzed up at the beginning.” So we wanted to return to it a little bit. It’s an arc that is going to end. It’s not going to dominate the rest the year, but I just felt like if we don’t know what our future is, that’s something I want to take care of.