Michael Schur walks us through Parks And Recreation’s third season (Part 3 of 4) 

Michael Schur walks us through Parks And Recreation’s third season (Part 3 of 4) 

Parks And Recreation co-creator Michael Schur recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the show’s third season, episode by episode. This section of his interview covers episode nine through episode 12, beginning with “Fancy Party” and concluding with “Eagleton.” Part one can be found here, and part two can be found here.

"Fancy Party" (April 14, 2011)
Andy and April invite their friends and family to a dinner party that turns out to be a surprise wedding.

The A.V. Club: There are a couple of interesting things you do here, and one is, obviously, that you just hooked Andy and April up three or four episodes prior, and now they’re getting married. Where did that come from?

Michael Schur: We went on a writers’ retreat when we came back [after the first six episodes], before breaking the next 10 episodes, and one of the main topics for discussion was their relationship. And I got very sleepy when we started talking about maybe an old girlfriend of Andy’s could show up, and that would break them up, or maybe blah blah blah blah blah. And we just sat down, and we really thought about who they are and what they were doing with each other, and I sort of felt like maybe they should just get married. They’re young and impulsive, and they live in the quick of their skin, and they don’t have any reason not to get married, so let’s get them married. 

As soon as I pitched it to the room, the room started instantly pitching ideas for what could happen with them after they were married, and also ways in which their marriage can be fun and stuff. That’s always a good sign, when you tap a rich vein in a writers’ room, and everyone starts talking at once. That’s usually a sign that you should do whatever that thing is. So that was the impetus for it. And I was very nervous about it, because it is a weird thing to do. It’s a very counterintuitive thing to do. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense, because part of the purpose of them in season two and the beginning of season three was, they were the sort of “Will they, won’t they?” couple, where they were slowly moving around each other and stuff. And that’s a really important energy for a comedy show to have.

So when you get rid of that, you have to replace it. And then I instantly realized we are replacing it. We already have. It’s Leslie and Ben now. They’re the couple that is slowly moving toward each other and circling around each other. That’s great. We’re transferring the energy of that cautious, budding romance to our main characters, so that’s taken care of. And then I was a little worried about the realism of it, and then Dan Goor, one of our writers, was like, “My parents got married after three weeks, and they’re still married. They’ve been married for 35 years.” So I was like, “Okay, that’s good.” And it just kept making sense.

I tried to attack it from every angle to find a flaw in it, and it just kept making sense. And the last step was to call Aubrey [Plaza] and Chris [Pratt]. And I said, “This is what we’re planning. What do you guys think about it?” And they were both instantly on board. And they are very good guardians of their own characters. So when I heard that positive reaction from them, that kind of sealed the deal for me. So it was a very good lesson for me, because the point of the search was: “What is true to these characters?” Not for what makes a good season of television, or a grab for ratings, or anything like that. What would the characters do? And it just seemed like that’s what the characters would do. And so we jumped in, and it seems like, so far [Knocks on wood.] it’s worked out.

AVC: Was there hesitation from the network or the studio?

MS: No. There really wasn’t. They had no hesitation at all. They thought it was a great idea. They brought up the same concerns about the romance. And I made the point about Leslie and Ben, and they were like, “Oh, right. Great! Sure.” We met zero obstacles with it, which was very nice.

AVC: Do you have a fairly good relationship with the network?

MS: I have a great relationship with them. I’m very frequently being asked to tell horror stories of terrible things that the networks have done to us, and obviously, it wasn’t my favorite moment when they moved us to the midseason slot. [Laughs.] But in terms of the day-to-day note-giving and the process of the episodic production, it couldn’t be better. The people who deal with me are very smart. They understand the show; they like the show. Their notes are often very good notes. We don’t always agree. We very often disagree, but it’s always a kind of respectful, “Here’s my position.” “Here’s my position.” “What if we tried this?” 

The way that we work is, we do a lot of edits. We edit constantly, and we re-edit constantly, and we rewrite constantly. Very often, if they don’t like a specific moment in the show, our response is, “Oh, we’ve got takes where this happens. We’ve got a take with a different joke here.” We do a lot of alt-shooting and stuff. So we’re very often able to solve their problems in ways that we also like, or can get behind. It’s really pleasant.

AVC: Around the third act of this episode, the story falls away. Instead, we’re hanging out with the characters. Did you ever try to force a story onto it?

MS: We really didn’t. It was intentional, because what we didn’t want to do was a kind of classic sitcom move of having Leslie stand up and object, or do anything dramatic. The idea was, because of her own path and her own beliefs and her maternal instincts and her big-sisterly instincts, she is very, very concerned about this decision, which seems to her—because it is—very rash and poorly thought-out. She, in a very Leslie-ish way, expresses her concerns about it for two acts. And then at the beginning of the third act, she sees April walking down the aisle, and she sees the way Andy… 

There’s a really great editing sequence that our main editor Dean Holland did. If you watch this sequence of shots, you see April, and then you see Leslie being very, very nervous and kind of having trouble breathing. And then the Simon And Garfunkel song is playing, “April Come She Will,” which is very pretty, and then you see Andy looking at April with pure… It’s a really great silent-movie acting moment from Chris Pratt, just the whole heart and soul of this big, giant golden retriever is laid bare for everyone to see in terms of how much he loves her. And then you see Leslie again, and she already is softening. And she’s already realizing that this is not her place. That she’s expressed her reservations and will go no further. 

That whole sequence tells the entire story of what’s happening without anybody ever saying anything. Like, we love April and Andy, and we want them to be happy. And she can express her maternal concerns about them to a point, and then after that, she’s gotta stop. Because if she keeps going, then she’s crossing the line into inappropriate meddling and controlling. And so the beginning sequence of the actual ceremony, without Amy saying a word, you see her come to grips with what’s happening, even if it’s not the decision she would make. It’s what’s happening, and she kind of lays back. And that’s crystallized in a conversation she has with Ron where he brings her a glass of wine, and he says, “You wouldn’t have been able to stop them. Don’t worry. I’ve been married twice, and I was older than they were, and they were both disasters, and all you can really do is try to find someone you love and roll the dice.”

And the story becomes, at that point, Leslie, who is extremely cautious and always wants to make pros-and-cons lists about everything in her life, including when she talks to Ben about whether he should leave or not. This event and the whole point of the story is that their decision, which is based purely on their guts, and Ron’s speech about how unpredictable love and romance is, leave her to not make a pros-and-cons list, and instead express to Ben that she wants him to stay. So we just kind of transferred the energy of the story from April and Andy into Leslie, and had her carry the third act.

AVC: Chris Pratt is kind of the unsung hero of this show. He seems to be the soul of the whole show. But in the first season, he was kind of a lout, almost. What was the evolution of that character like?

MS: Well, the original design of the character before we had auditions was that he was the lout who Ann would get rid of after six episodes. Then Pratt auditioned, and we instantly abandoned that, and were like, “This guy’s staying.” He was a guest star in season one only through a contractual technicality. But we always planned on keeping him. And as soon as we knew we were keeping him, we had to change the character, because we had shot one or two episodes of him being kind of a dummy, and then we very quickly reversed course. He went from a lout to a pleasant dope, and then to a golden-retriever puppy who just loves everybody and wants to lick everybody’s face. [Laughs.] And that was largely also Pratt just being so loveable as a performer, and so full of joy. So the actor very much informed the character, I think.

But I totally agree. I think he is an unsung hero in the cast. First of all, he’s just so open-faced, and just earnest and sweet and funny. And he also has maybe the best pure, unthinking comedic instincts of any actor I’ve ever seen. He rolls onto the set about eight minutes before he’s supposed to shoot, he may or may not have read his lines before he’s there, but within one take of shooting every scene, he’s being explosively funny and great. And he never does the same thing twice. I actually tell directors when I have a tone meeting with them, “When you shoot this scene, he’s going to do something that is completely different from the way you imagined it, and the way you think it should happen. You don’t need to tell him anything. Don’t say anything to him, because you won’t need to.” 

The next take, he’ll do something completely different. He acts by trial and error. He just throws everything at the wall, and he sees what sticks. And when he figures out what he wants to do, he just does that three or four times. And this episode is a very good example of that, because we have hours of footage of him improvising his toast. I mean, not improvising, but doing different versions of his toast to April, and his speech about how life is short and you just gotta do what makes you happy. And it’s all really great. [Laughs.] 

He’s kind of a writer’s dream. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: He has the best improvisation in a cast full of world-class improvisers. Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari and Nick Offerman and Aubrey Plaza. Like, people who trained and are great in improvisation. The best improv in the show’s history was Pratt’s, and it was in “Flu Season,” when Ben is walking Leslie out the door to go to the doctor, and Andy is just taking over as Ron’s assistant. As they’re walking by, Pratt says, “Hey Leslie, I typed your symptoms into the thing up here, and it says you could have network connectivity problems.” [Laughs.] If I could write a joke that good, I would be a happy man. And it was completely improvised. He’s just so in the moment, and all of those actor-y terms. He’s so present and in the moment and fully fluent in his character that he can make up perfectly formulated jokes like that on the spot, and it’s incredible. He’s improved every episode he’s ever been in.

AVC: And what was your vision for April, and what was changed by having Aubrey Plaza play her?

MS: Well, I designed the character for Aubrey. We met with her, and she is a singular kind of person. She’s unique, and she is very funny. She’s the driest person I’ve ever met, probably. And we didn’t have that character in the pilot, and then I met with her because Allison Jones was casting Funny People and called me and said, “I just met the weirdest and funniest girl of my life, and she’s like, 24, and she is from Delaware, and she is really scary and weird and funny. You should meet with her.” And any time Allison Jones tells me I should meet with anybody, I do, because she’s always right. 

And so I met with Aubrey, and Greg Daniels and Howard Klein met with her, and we were all instantly like, “Oh yeah, we’ll figure something out.” And as soon as the meeting was over, I wrote a scene for her where she was Leslie’s intern, and Leslie was ebulliently trying to interest her in the vagaries in the boring bureaucracy she was working in, and April was completely uninterested in it. And we just wanted to cast her, and we had to, technically, for NBC’s purposes, put her on tape, so she was the only person we auditioned for the role. We just had her do this scene, and she was hilarious, and we cast her. And we didn’t know what her future was. We just wanted to establish a really ironic, “I don’t want to be here” character to bounce off Leslie, really. Because we knew that Leslie would care a lot about women in government and opportunities for women and everything, and April wouldn’t care at all, which just seemed funny. 

Aubrey had improvised something in the season-one finale about Andy’s bands, where he had been describing the sound of his band in a very boring way, but she was kind of staring at him with those giant Aubrey eyes and said, “I totally get what you mean,” or something. It was just a tiny, little throwaway thing, but when we saw it, we were like, “Oh, maybe there’s something there in the future.” And then halfway through season two, we had started to pair them up and see what happened. It was the “Hunting Trip” episode, and they were very delightful with each other. It suddenly just made so much sense. They’re polar opposites, and the story we designed was that April’s character was maybe a little bit weary of being weary of everything. And maybe she was a little bit tired of seven layers of irony cloaking every decision she made. Of hanging out with only really dry, ironic, hipster-y gay dudes who were also her boyfriends. And maybe Andy’s completely open, heart-on-his-sleeve kind of way would appeal to her at some level, and it just sort of took off from there.

It led to some really fun things, like when we meet April’s parents. Like, her dad is very much like Andy, kind of. He’s very goofy and has a goofy dad energy, and so everything fit together as soon as we got the two of them together. And one of my favorite tiny moments of the season was the next episode, when Chris and Ron are having their burger cook-off. Andy is gonna go with Chris to the health-food store, and he says, “Chris is a food genius. Did you know that the food that you eat becomes energy?” And he starts punching the air going, “This is a cookie!” and kicking and going, “That’s a potato chip!” or whatever. And the camera whips over to Aubrey, and she just looks to the camera and goes, “That’s my husband.” And that, to me, is the whole relationship. She gets him, and she’s cool with him, and she finds him amusing. And he loves that someone as cool in his mind as she is finds him interesting. It just kind of works. I don’t know. I guess it’s sort of an opposites-attract thing. But I think it’s really about the actors, largely. That they just seem like they go together.

"Soulmates" (April 21, 2011)
Leslie is matched with Tom in an online dating service, while Chris and Ron engage in a burger cook-off.

AVC: What in your opinion does romance add to a show like this?

MS: I think it’s kind of everything. Like, what do people care about, really? You care about where you work and who you’re in love with, and so the where-you-work part is every episode of the show, and it makes sense to me that you should always be discussing who everyone is in love with. We did get into a situation where we had five love stories going at once, but I kind of like that. [Laughs.] It’s interesting to me. You want all of your characters to have fully realized, three-dimensional lives, and have lots of interests, and to not get predictable. To me, there’s an infinite number of different kinds of relationships or love stories people can have, and that you can tell stories about. There’s the Ron and Tammy kind, the "horrible, disastrous, miserable, “They’re terrible for each other, but they can’t stay away from each other” kind of romance. And then there’s the very slow-burning Leslie and Ben kind, and then there’s the rash, youthful, exuberant Andy-April kind. I find it to be more interesting to follow love stories in comedy shows than just about anything else. 

This is just personal taste, but I get bored of comedy shows without any romance in them, because it’s just every week you tune in, and it’s a certain collection of jokes, and then you react to the jokes positively or negatively on an individual joke basis, and then you’re done, and nothing sticks with you. It’s a lesson I think I learned from The Office, because it was very easy to tell that Steve Carell was a comedy genius. That word is very overused, but I truly believe he is. He’s a kind of savant. And I would watch [John] Krasinski, and Krasinski would be hilarious in a very different way, and Rainn Wilson was hilarious, and Jenna Fischer was hilarious, but the constant story of that show is Jim and Pam, and it was kind of from the beginning. It was the story that people really hooked into, and got invested in, and followed. Ultimately, the story of Michael Scott didn’t end with him doing a crazy conference meeting, it ended with him finding a woman that he fell in love with, and changing, and moving to a different state so he could be with her, because those are the things that make for good stories to me. It’s always my personal preference to have characters’ romantic lives be at the front of their stories. 

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AVC: How wary are you of the shadow of Jim and Pam?

MS: I wouldn’t say we’re wary of it; we’re very aware of it. We’ve certainly pitched stories before that have felt more appropriate for those two characters on that other show, and we’ve shied away from them. At SNL, you used to know when a sketch was really great if it destroyed a thousand other sketches. The Jack Handy sketch “Happy Fun Ball,” when I was a kid, there was nothing funnier than “Happy Fun Ball.” I taped it, I instantly memorized it, and when I got to SNL, I can’t tell you the number of times I would come up with an idea, and then say, “Ah, I’m doing ‘Happy Fun Ball.’ It’s ‘Happy Fun Ball’ again.” It’s so present in my brain as a trope or as a genre of sketches, and I think the same is true of Jim and Pam at some level, and it comes from Tim and Dawn, too, but it was this definitive will-they-won’t-they romance. And it’s definitive because of how it was incredibly well-constructed and incredibly well-told, and the two actors were phenomenal. There’s no way to improve that specific version of it. You couldn’t say, “Oh we’ll do the same story, but our lady is better than Jenna.” They were great, everybody was great. It’s obviously not forever-and-ever. There was Sam and Diane before them, and there’s been a long history of different great romances. There was Ross and Rachel or whatever. At some point in the probably very near future, now that they’ve been married on the show for three years, and they have a kid, and the show is going into season eight and probably won’t be around in two years, and so at some point someone will start over, and they’ll do another great, classic will-they-won’t-they because the palate will be cleansed, and they can move on. 

At the time we were developing the show, The Office was in season five, it was very, very present in everybody’s mind, but again, it’s not the only kind of romance. There’s a million kinds of romance. I think everyone has gone away from will-they-won’t-they because of Jim and Pam, and it’s all cyclical, and at some point, it will bend back around, and someone will do another one. People won’t be talking about Jim and Pam as the problem, they’ll be talking about Gertrude and Steven… which is the new show I’m working on. [Laughs.]

AVC: When you came up with Chris, how much did you want to throw him in scenes with Ron?

MS: It was definitely a card that we wanted to play from the very beginning, but we didn’t know exactly when, and the opportunity didn’t really arise until after “Camping,” when [Chris] became a permanent fixture in City Hall, when he took a permanent job in City Hall. As soon as he was officially everybody’s boss, then it seemed like, “Now we can start telling these kinds of stories,” and putting him at odds with Ron proved very fun for us as writers, and we have more plans to do that more down the road. They’re very different people. They’re two very different kinds of alpha males. They’re both commanding presences, and they both are bosses, and they’re both energetic people in their own way, but they have zero in common. [Laughs.] This was our first attempt to show that they could butt heads.

AVC: At what point did you know Rob Lowe was going to be a series regular?

MS: We knew from before the first six. Well, no, that’s not true, after we shot the first eight episodes with him, with the two at the end of season two and the six at the start of season three, then it was just a matter of, “Is he gonna get cast in some giant movie that he would rather do?” And then he had a good time, and we had a good time. That was the agreement that we sort of worked out, like, “We know we can give him these eight episodes, and if everyone wants to continue, we’ll continue.” Contractually and also personally, it was a very simple thing. He was having a lot of fun, we felt like he was a great addition to the cast, and so everyone triggered their mutual options or whatever you want to call it, and we just kept going.

AVC: You wouldn’t think of him before this as a comedic actor. At what point did you realize he was really strong at it?

MS: It’s funny, because I kind of knew him from comedy. I knew him when I was a kid from Wayne’s World and from hosting SNL, and so to me, he was a comedic actor. Obviously, I also knew him from St. Elmo’s Fire and stuff, so it wasn’t like I only thought of him that way. He was obviously a funny person, and I was a huge West Wing fan, and he was funny on West Wing. That wasn’t a comedy show, but he was always funny, and they would give him funny stories. 

You can identify in him, like, even when the scene doesn’t call for him to be comedic, you can tell he has the comedy and the attitude of a funny person. He’s got the funniness in him. That was never an issue for me. I met with him to talk about joining the show, and I explained what the character was, and he started improvising in the character instantly, and it was the first time he ever used the word “lit-erally.” Which, he may not admit this, but when he says “literally,” he pronounces it “lit-erally,” but when he was improvising the character, he amped that up like, 12 degrees. I was like, “Oh, there’s the hook of the character,” and it was very natural. It was very effortless in terms of how he would join the cast and be funny in the role.  

"Jerry’s Painting" (April 28, 2011)
Jerry reveals a painting featuring a naked centaur that looks very much like Leslie, causing a town uproar.

AVC: You’ve said you don’t like the comedy of being mean, but everybody’s mean to Jerry. How do you make that work?

MS: I guess that’s where my theories sort of fall apart. [Laughs.] We didn’t know who Jerry was for a long time. We just liked Jim O’Heir as an actor. We wanted to populate the world a little bit. We hired him without having a character for him. We did an episode in early season two when everybody was digging up dirt on everyone else. The writers came up with this thing where, they were like, “Okay, let’s dig up dirt,” and then Jerry would be like, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this. I don’t like this,” and we didn’t really know why, and we came up the idea that maybe there was some dirt on him, and then someone pitched that he had been arrested for public urination. So we wrote that in, and I don’t remember which of the writers pitched the joke, but the joke that really sealed the deal for him was that Mark walks in, and Jerry very gingerly says, “A little birdie told me you have two unpaid parking tickets,” and Mark says, “Oh really? A little birdie told me that your adoptive mother was arrested for marijuana possession,” at which point [Jerry] goes, “Oh my God,” and Mark says, “Yeah, you didn’t know that, huh?” and Jerry says, “I didn’t know I was adopted.” [Laughs.] 

As soon as he pitched that joke, that a 58-year-old man would learn in that moment because of this shitty game that he was adopted, it’s like, “Oh, that’s who he is. He’s the office punching bag. He’s gonna get the shit kicked out of him, and it’s going to be hilarious.” So then we started beating him up over and over and over again. Then it got to the point where I started to feel very queasy about it. And then we did that episode where he pretended to be mugged to hide the embarrassing fact that he had dropped his burrito into a river, and had fallen in trying to get it. My only qualification for that, my only requirement was that he would get a chance at the end of the episode to explain to the camera how it is that he’s okay with the role that he fills on the show, which is described earlier on the show by Ron saying, “A schlemiel is the guy who spills soup at a party, and a schlimazel is the guy he spills soup on. In our office, Jerry is both the schlemiel and the schlimazel.” And so we gave him this tag where he says, “You know what, I’m two years away from my retirement. I just want to get to my retirement. I have a beautiful little house by a lake, I have a wife and two beautiful daughters who I love, and I’m going to retire there, and I’m going to smoke a bunch of cigars and read a bunch of mystery novels, and it’s going to be great.” Which is partly my uncle Steve. He worked for Deloitte Touche, and as long as I can remember, it’s been his dream to retire to a house and smoke cigarettes and read mystery novels. That’s all he wants to do, and it’s what he’s currently doing in Ireland.

So we just gave that to Jerry with the idea that he understands his role, he understands that this is what happens to him, and he’s kind of okay with it. He’s ironically the only married person in the office. He’s the only person who has a wife and daughters, and he has these outside interests. He’s a classical pianist, and he paints these beautiful landscapes. He just kind of gets that this is his role in the office, and he’s okay with it. As soon as he said he was okay with it, I felt like we could keep doing it for comedy’s sake.

AVC: You sometimes kick up fervors in the town about things that seem trivial to the characters. You’ve played around with Leslie’s ideals of herself. How do you play around with those ideas?

MS: For fervors, we had been trying to break an episode for like a year about art vs. pornography, and about public art, because public art is always something that causes controversy. It’s the classic government-project controversy, because it’s taxpayer money that’s creating something that’s so subjective that people are guaranteed to hate it, no matter what it is. And what happens often with public art is, someone has an idea for publicly funded art, whether on the federal level or the local level. It could be architecture, or a painting, or a sculpture, and everyone gets up in arms about it because they feel like, “I’m paying for it, and I don’t like it. Why should I have to pay for it?”

Now, never mind the fact that the greatest societies of the history of the world were all great patrons of the arts, as Leslie expresses in this episode, that the Greeks and the Romans and European societies and every great, forward-thinking culture has always used public money to fund artistic endeavors of some kind. It’s virtually impossible to do this in America today. The amount of money that the NEA has actually spent is like nothing compared to the federal budget. It’s like zero. It’s like $50 million or something, and yet every election cycle, politicians make massive amounts of speeches and crazy amounts of political hay out of the NEA. It’s always the first thing they’re trying to cut from the budget. It has nothing to do with the budget; it’s because people just don’t like art. That’s what it comes down to. 

So we had been trying to break a story about a sculpture or something that people were offended by, and they have a very abstract debate about the role of public art. We had been to all these different towns, and we had seen versions of public art, and what happens is, someone has an idea for a giant sculpture, and people object to it, and then they change it, and then other people object to it, and by the time they’re done with it, they can make a sphere, like, “Here’s my public art. It’s a big rock.” That is very frustrating to me, and it’s very comedic to me at the same time. It’s hard to build a comedy episode around an abstract idea like “What is art?” So we didn’t crack the episode until we came up with this idea that the art itself has to be funny, and then someone pitched that Jerry do it, and that it be a painting of Leslie nude, and then that was funny, but also creepy. 

Then we retro-engineered the story that if she was feeling very powerless because of her situation, and the painting was her in a very powerful goddess-like way, that she would actually become in favor of something that might be considered pornography. And as soon as we had her defending the art, instead of her taking the responsible bureaucratic position of, “I want to reflect the society. I want to listen to what the society says, and respond and try to help them,” if we could get her in the position of angrily defending it, and taking a position on it, then that would give the necessary conflict for the episode. So that was the whole genesis of it. And then when we came up with the idea of Leslie as a naked centaur, we were like, “Well, there you go. That’ll work.” [Laughs.]

AVC: This was the one that aired after the final Michael episode of The Office, and it had to be extended. Was it already at a point where it was easy to extend, or did you have to find stuff?

MS: We had to go back in and throw in some stuff, but it was from the script. Norm Hiscock wrote the script and Dean Holland directed it. It was one of the hardest episodes to cut down, and so when they wanted to extend it, it was like, “Oh, no problem. You want five extra minutes, I’ve got five extra minutes for you,” because it had been such a difficult one to edit down. I had to cut a lot of stuff that I really loved, because I also really loved the B-story, which was Ben moving in with Andy and April, and helping them mature a little bit. That story turned out really well, too.

My one regret is that because we had two great, meaty stories, there’s very little Ron Swanson in it. He has one extremely funny, memorable monologue where she gets him to make the opening remarks at the thing, and it’s a really great performance from Nick. It was such a great performance that we, instead of editing reaction shots throughout it like we would normally do to cue laughter, I just let it play as a one-er, because I wanted everyone to realize this is all one take. This is him letting it ride. If we had the ability to go back and write extra stuff and shoot extra stuff, I would have created a Ron story, because an extra-long episode with very little Ron makes it stand out more to me that there’s no Ron. So that was a bummer, but it wasn’t hard to fill the time. 

"Eagleton" (May 5, 2011)
Leslie’s anger over a fence built through a park straddling the border between Eagleton and Pawnee sends her after her former best friend, played by Parker Posey.

MS: We wanted to do a story about Eagleton, because Eagleton was something we talked about in the writers’ room a lot and had never done an episode about. We had mentioned it a couple times, and we knew that there was this town next door. There was a town next door to my town growing up called Simsbury. Simsbury has, like, 9,000 people in it, and everyone there was incredibly rich and good-looking, and my town, West Hartford, which is a very solidly middle-class, or even upper-middle-class town, had a kind of inferiority complex about Simsbury. West Hartford was roughly the size of Pawnee, like, 65,000 people. Simsbury had 11,000, if memory serves. I could be totally wrong, it could have 30,000, but in my memory it was much smaller, more elite. Everyone was richer, all the houses were bigger, everything was nicer. So we had this idea that they had this rival town that they had this inferiority complex about. 

It came together when we figured out that there could be Leslie’s rival in Eagleton, but it didn’t break very easily until we cracked the idea that they had worked together. I think we had written the whole script and went to the read-through before we came up with this idea, that they had worked together and that Leslie had been offered that job and turned it down, and then Parker had taken it and bolted. Once we had that as the backstory, it gave some personal stakes to the story for Leslie, and some personal slighting. Instead of just a kind of abstract feeling of inferiority about the town next door, it made it a personal story, which helped. 

And then we had this B-story, which was that Leslie finally figures out Ron’s birthday, and is going to throw him a party. Once we had figured out that they used to work together, it all fell into place. Because then the story became she, five years ago, asked Ron for advice, he gave her advice that was very Ron-ish in terms of, “This is your hometown. Your hometown means something. You can take the job if you want to, but your town means something,” and then it filled in a blank that’s been missing, which was why would Leslie stay and work for a guy who is the diametrical opposite of what she believes in? Why would she continue to work for this guy when she had these great opportunities? It’s another great lesson: Once we made it personal instead of abstract or premise-y, everything fit together. 

AVC: Are there episodes where you didn’t incorporate a personal aspect as well as you could have?

MS: Most of, if not all, of our episodes have that kind of personal story, and if they didn’t at an earlier stage, we ended up adding them. Back to season one, we had that story of Leslie canvassing the neighborhood to try and get support for this park, and the story was very, very hard to break, and the thing that eventually did it was that it was about impressing her mom, and getting her mom to that event, and when she displays some political savvy, she sees her mom smiling at her. And that’s how she knows she did a good job, and that all of the failures at the work level don’t matter, because she did something that her mom was impressed by. 

The closest we’ve probably come to not having one, maybe, was the one where the Venezuelan delegation came, and there isn’t really a personal or emotional backstory. It’s really about her and her town. The same is probably true of “Time Capsule.” If we don’t have a direct personal story between two humans, the personal story is usually between her and her town, and I think that the strongest ones are when it’s her and a person and the town. The end of “Eagleton,” with her and Ron, with her throwing a very, very personally crafted party for him and the simultaneous explanation that she does things like this for him is because he at some fundamental level understands her and what kind of person she is and respects her, and she respects him: That’s when the show is at its best for me, when it’s really meaty and personal.

AVC: This one was directed by Nicole Holofcener. How did that come about?

MS: There’s a connection through one of our writers, Aisha Muharrar. And she asked me, “I know her. Would you want her to direct an episode?” I’m a huge fan of hers, and essentially said I would kill to have her direct an episode, and knowing that she had directed some TV before. So Aisha reached out to her friend, Nicole, and Nicole was, if not a fan of the show at the time, at least a fan of Amy [Poehler’s], and she had a daughter who I think liked the show, so she was like, “Sure! What the hell?” 

I think she’s one of the best writers of film currently going. I’ve seen all of her movies, but I’d seen Please Give fairly recently, and was blown away by that script. I had the feeling that if you examined that script on paper, it would look like a bunch of lines of dialogue where people are talking to each other without any real story, and when you see the movie, it’s crafted so delicately and so perfectly that I want to examine it, get some kind of very powerful microscope and examine her scripts on a molecular level to understand how they work. Because I don’t understand how they work, but they do. They’re amazing. So it was honestly like a dream come true for me, because I’m such a fan of hers. 

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