Parks And Recreation showrunner Michael Schur recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the fourth season of his show. Following part one and part two, this section covers episodes 10 through 13, beginning with “Citizen Knope” and ending with “Bowling For Votes.”
In which Leslie Knope is stripped of all the things that define her—she’s suspended from work, her campaign is falling apart—save for her boyfriend and friends, who resuscitate her bid for city council with a Christmas miracle!
Michael Schur: There’s an “A,” and there’s a “B”—her job, her career, and her campaign was “A,” and then “B” was Ben. She was constantly trying to decide between “A” and “B,” and she’s chosen “B” right now. So we wanted to show that choice “B” is going great—it was the right decision, she’s super-happy, she’s madly in love—but by the end of the episode, choice “A” was going to be in complete disarray. So we started it off with them in the diner being happy, because we wanted to signify that she had made the right choice in that sense, but then strip everything else away from her posthaste.
The A.V. Club: And then see what effect her boundless enthusiasm would have on the members of her citizens’ group, the Parks Committee of Pawnee?
MS: Yeah, exactly: What would be the reality of Leslie being a citizen? She is not a person who just relaxes and takes it easy and reads books and puts her feet up. All that energy has to go somewhere. So it was fun to imagine her becoming the thing she always deals with, which is a revved-up public. The idea you get from the episode is that if she weren’t working for the government, if she were just a citizen activist, she would be the most successful local-citizen activist in the world. [Laughs.] She whips that group into a well-oiled machine in 30 seconds. I hate this phrase, but it’s a “can do” attitude that, whatever you do in life, you should have. If we were all a little bit more like Leslie in the sense of how dedicated we were to whatever cause we were working on, whatever job we were doing… We could have just as easily made that episode about her getting obsessed and interested in tropical fish, and by the end of the episode she would have had the most elaborate tropical-fish tank with the best behaved fish in the world, who were all swimming in perfect synchronized-swimming motions, eating the perfect amount of food, and being the most beautiful tropical fish in the world. Maybe we should have done that—that actually sounds like a good episode.
AVC: Does that enthusiasm open a lot of doors for Leslie?
MS: Yeah, and if the doors aren’t open, she just kicks them in and keeps walking. There’s a nice moment in that episode when Chris Traeger’s assistant comes in to announce that his meeting is here, and before she’s done with the announcement, Leslie’s already strode into the room and begun the meeting. She’s just so energetic about whatever she’s latched onto—she’s like a terrier, and she’s not going to let it go.
AVC: Was that aspect of the episode meant to contrast with Ben’s slow parade through private-sector drudgery?
MS: [Laughs.] We knew fairly early in the season that Ben was going to end up resigning to save Leslie’s career, but we weren’t 100 percent sure what to do with him and what his job would be. And then we got the idea that he would be her campaign manager when we started the Bad News Bears section of the season. Ben is incredibly ambitious in his own way, and so we wanted to tell a tiny story—or not even a story, just a couple of episodes where he was floating and didn’t know what he was going to do with his life. He essentially had the same job for many, many years, and he was very good at it, so it might be fun to see him out of work for a couple of episodes. Someone had pitched the Low-Cal Calzone Zone, and for a while, when we were in pre-production, there was going to be a 10-episode arc where Ben was going to totally lose himself and work at a crappy pizza place and then try to get the Low-Cal Calzone Zone off the ground. And we ended up condensing that to just one episode, which was the right move. I don’t know, it seemed like he deserved one or two episodes where he wasn’t doing something boring with his life.
AVC: At what point did you say, “Maybe we should shut down the Low-Cal Calzone Zone 10-episode arc”?
MS: As soon as we realized he would become Leslie’s campaign manager, there wasn’t room for it, because there was no real space between him resigning and Leslie’s campaign starting. We actually opened up room, just so we could do the one episode where he’s doing Claymation and baking calzones, before he signs on to become the campaign manager. But I remember, on the Internet, in the reviews of the episode, people were already ahead of us; they were already like, “Well, this is what Ben’s going to do: Ben’s going to become her campaign manager,” and I was like, “Oh shit, they’re on to us.” [Laughs.] So one episode is probably the most we could have gotten away with before he agreed to take that job that was obviously tailor-made for him.
AVC: “Citizen Knope” has that wonderful ending, which garnered a lot of comparisons to It’s A Wonderful Life. Did you wait to deploy this turn of events until the Christmas episode for that reason?
MS: Not for that reason—it was a nice coincidence. It was really about splitting the year in half, and the Christmas episode is the 10th of 22 episodes. When you do your Christmas episode, you’re then off the air for a month—it’s a natural caesura in the season, so it just happened that way. But it’s obviously a nice coincidence.
AVC: Because she has friends, is Leslie the richest woman in Pawnee?
MS: [Laughs.] I think she is, yeah. I feel like [Amy] Poehler really stepped up her game this year. She’s always been great, but there are so many moments in this season where the actress in her runs ahead of the comedian in her—which is saying something, because she’s a world-class comedian. That scene where she gets choked up when her friends all announce their new job titles, I was like, “I think that’s the best she’s ever been on the show from an acting standpoint,” but I think she topped it later in the year in both the debate episode and the finale. It’s a beautifully acted scene, not just by her, but by everybody. I think that’s some of Nick [Offerman]’s best work, too. Jim O’Heir absolutely nailed that joke when everyone announces what their positions are going to be, and they turn to him, and he says, “You guys didn’t tell me you were doing this, and I didn’t prepare anything.” [Laughs.]
I think that was the best episode of the season to that point, and maybe top five in the series. I was so happy with it that after I read reviews and discussion of it online, I made the decision never to read any Internet reviews or discussion of my show again—partly because I had started getting wary of it, and getting a little annoyed by it at certain times. Whether it was good or bad, it didn’t matter. Just the whole process of it was kind of trying. And then that episode was well-reviewed and nicely complimented, and I thought, “This is a nice note to go out on, I’m going to stop reading the Internet now. I can always pretend that, no matter what, this is what everybody thinks of every episode we ever do.”
AVC: What was the mood on set when that scene was shot? Just talking about it makes the eyes misty.
MS: I think it was a little misty. It’s a testament to the characters—and not just the writing, but the acting and the themes of the show—that we could get to a point where we could pull off a scene like that. The real, genuine, heartfelt emotion expressed in that scene wouldn’t have meant anything if you didn’t care about Leslie and her journey, if you didn’t care about the way her co-workers and friends feel about her.
There’s a phrase in the comedy world that we throw around sometimes: “harvesting your seed corn.” The idea is that, over the course of the life of a show, you plant corn seeds in the ground, and the stalks grow up, and the corn flowers and blooms, and you try to harvest it at the right moment, when it’s at its ripest and juiciest. And I think that episode was largely about harvesting seed corn for us. It was about paying off what felt like a good, solid 56 episodes of character development for everyone involved, arriving to the point where this is a real moment where they were making an enormous sacrifice for Leslie. She says in the scene, “I can’t ask you guys to put your lives on hold for me,” and Ron says, “Name one person here who you haven’t put your life on hold for.” So we were really taking that combine harvester and rolling over the whole cornfield that we had planted for three and a half years. And it’s scary, because it means that now you’ve got to start planting more seeds, but it just seemed like the right moment in the right episode at the right juncture of the season, and the right crossroads for all the characters. You’ve seen these people come to care about each other enough to make this a legitimate move and a legitimate decision.
Knope 2012 2.0 faces a minor setback, soundtracked by an ironically appropriate Gloria Estefan track. While Leslie and company are stymied by ice, Chris attempts to shake Ben out of a personal rut.
MS: I was talking to Alan Sepinwall about this; the idea behind this was essentially that season of Friday Night Lights when Coach Taylor goes to East Dillon. In that season, the first episode of the year, his team gets beaten so badly, they forfeit at halftime. As I was watching it—it was either at the end of that episode or at the beginning of the next one—I realized, “Oh, I know what’s going to happen: They’re going to get their asses kicked, they’re going to maybe have a couple of triumphant moments over the course of the year, they’re going to pull together as a team, and then in the last game of the year, they’re going to play West Dillon, and they’re going to beat them.” And that’s exactly the way the season unfolded; they won on a last-second field goal. The fact that I had guessed what was going to happen did not decrease my happiness at the end by 1 percent. It was exactly as satisfying and great as I had imagined it would be.
So when we were discussing in the room whether Leslie should win or lose, the argument for her winning was: If you tell what amounts to an underdog sports story, which is what the second half of the season is—she’s polling at 1 percent, her campaign advisors have abandoned her, and no one knows what they’re doing—what would be fun and appropriate and rewarding would be that she claws and scratches and bites and gets all the way up to be basically tied, and then squeaks out a last-second victory. So that was the operating principle for the second half of the year, and it begins in this episode with the first campaign event run by her ragtag bunch of misfits, who are absolutely terrible at running a campaign. [Laughs.]
AVC: So that humbling first game is where Leslie and the campaign team go out on the ice and make total fools of themselves?
MS: Yeah. We had done a lot of emotional stories in a row: “Smallest Park,” “The Trial Of Leslie Knope,” and “Citizen Knope” were all very emotional, kind of mushy—and I use that word lovingly—and I wanted to do an episode that was almost pure comedy, with physical comedy and the most laughs we can pack into a single episode. So that was the directive for this: “Let’s not worry about big, sweeping, emotional finales or huge romantic plot twists; let’s just tell the funniest story we can.” So the whole episode was built around that climax on the ice where no one says a word for two and a half minutes, and they’re trying to make their way across an icy landscape while Gloria Estefan plays over and over and over again. [Laughs.]
AVC: The show is typically reserved with its use of physical comedy. When is the appropriate time to deploy gags like that?
MS: There’re no rules or anything set in stone about when you should or shouldn’t do it. In this case, the episode was built around that—let’s get everybody out on the ice, moving very, very slowly. We wrote in a bunch of suggestions for the kind of stuff we wanted them to do, and the general pattern was laid down. But then Tucker Gates directed it, and we told him and the cast, “You just have to do this five times and try to find new funny things that happen,” and then we cut it all together. [Editor and director] Dean Holland was working on the first cut of the sequence, and he said, “I cut it super-long because I wanted to show you everything I thought was funny, so it’s really, really long.” And from that “really, really, long” sequence that he showed me, we maybe trimmed out four seconds. [Laughs.] I was like, “Yeah, this should be really long, this should go on forever.” Because every time “Get On Your Feet” starts playing, it was funny to me. I think there’s five individual music cues of the same song in that one sequence.
AVC: Was the Gloria Estefan song the only song considered for that scene?
MS: Yeah, I believe I pitched that as the song, and it was partially because of that famous Steve Ballmer video. Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft and one of the least cool human beings on Earth. I say that never having met the man, but just his look—he looks what you imagine the CEO of Microsoft would look like. It’s just the dorkiest thing you have ever seen in your life. I’ve watched it a thousand times. This whole paragraph should be a hypertext link to the Steve Ballmer video; that’s how important it is.
That song has always been in my head as a funny song to use in a physically uncomfortable scenario. We almost didn’t get the rights to it. And I rarely do this—I believe that, with things like music cues, there’s always another song that can work just as well—but in this case I made it very clear to people that it was deeply important to me that the song playing be “Get On Your Feet” by Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. It’s very synth-y and cheesy, it has those salsa rhythms. I wish I could say I planned this, but it’s weirdly appropriate that they spend most of the time it’s playing trying to actually get Leslie on her feet. [Laughs.] It wasn’t intended that way at all, but it ends up having a funny double meaning. The shot of them actually pushing her up onto the podium, which was something we wrote into the script—I said to Poehler when I was looking at the cut of it that it was like she was a human Iwo Jima flag, and that they were all trying to raise her up. Weirdly, at one point, they get into an Iwo Jima flag-raising position where they’re at different levels of kneeling, lying down, and sitting, trying to push her up onto the stage.
AVC: Was the Chris-Ben plot in this episode meant to give Chris a redemptive arc, after playing the “villain” for a few episodes?
MS: In “The Trial Of Leslie Knope,” we worked really hard to try to show that he’s not a bad person at all. He’s just a person who has a lot of integrity, and sort of like Leslie, he has a deep belief that government is a sacred thing, that you have to behave properly and correctly, and that you shouldn’t betray the public trust. He had no vendetta against Leslie or Ben—he loves Leslie and Ben very much. We worked hard to make that delineation, and we wanted to reinforce it in this episode by showing it’s not just that he thinks Leslie and Ben are good government employees—it’s that he cares for them, especially Ben, with whom he has worked for a dozen years. Despite the fact that they’re different people, and they don’t always see eye-to-eye on everything, there’s a real friendship there that Chris works hard at.
AVC: Did Ben’s temporary obsessions for the episode go any deeper than Claymation? Was there a level of dorkiness below that and the calzones?
MS: I think we pretty much maxed out. He’s reading a potboiler novel at the beginning and eating cereal out of the box. And then Claymation and calzones are two pretty dorky things to be thinking about committing your life to. [Laughs.] The Claymation was the big breakthrough—I have no idea who pitched it, but it seemed like exactly the kind of thing that Ben Wyatt would always have wanted to try. When you read about the guys who make Wallace And Gromit, and you read how long those movies take, and how painstakingly slow they are, we thought it would be really funny to show that he’s been working on this for several weeks and has exactly three and a half seconds’ worth of video to show for it. [Laughs.] He’s so focused.
When Chris says, “Do you need help?” and Ben, kind of confused, looks at Chris and says, “With my Claymaysh?” I believe Adam improvised the line—or maybe it was given to him on set. Mike Scully wrote the episode and is a total master of the on-set comedy pitch, and it’s possible that Scully gave that to him. Scully is so funny, and oftentimes the best joke that’s in an episode will be one Scully comes up with on the set—which is very depressing when you’re a writer. You feel like you should be able to come up with jokes over the course of the many, many weeks of writing and rewriting the script that should beat what Scully comes up with in the five seconds between takes. [Laughs.]
AVC: Who made the decision to put Ben in a Letters To Cleo T-shirt?
MS: I will take credit for that. Letters To Cleo was extremely important to me when I was in college. I went to Harvard, so I was in Boston at the height of their power, and I saw them at The Middle East and several other locations throughout Boston because they were always playing. [Laughs.] And Aurora Gory Alice was a seminal album for me. I grew up in central Connecticut, so there was no local music scene, and I was so happy to go to school in Boston because there was a real music scene. And other cool indie bands would come and play in Boston—unlike West Hartford, Connecticut. So I got really into Boston music, and I got really into Aurora Gory Alice, and Morphine was really big at that time. It was almost a Morphine T-shirt, because I loved Morphine—they were my favorite band when I was a freshman.
The enemy campaign has a face, and that face is the genial mug of dimwitted Sweetums scion Bobby Newport, which floats through the background of stories involving medical checkups for April and Andy and a budget-cutting team-up starring Ron and Chris.
AVC: When did Paul Rudd’s name come into consideration for the role of Bobby Newport?
MS: He was the dream casting for it. When we think of a recurring character, and we’re discussing it in the room, instead of just calling him or her “Bill” or “Jane,” we try to think of the perfect actor to play them, and then we start referring to that character as that person’s name. This character was named Paul for a long time because we felt like the best possible casting would be Paul Rudd. We thought there was at least a chance that Paul would do it, if he had time, because he and Amy are old friends—they go back to Wet Hot American Summer—and he and Adam are friends. There were enough personal connections to him that we felt like we had a shot, and fortunately we snagged him.
There’s not that many people who could have played that part. It sounds like a weird thing to say, but the trick was that he was a real grade-A moron—but he had to be incredibly likeable. We wanted to create a character where you really wanted Leslie to win because you saw what would happen if he was elected. But the more you got to know him, the more you saw how nice he is, and how pleasant he is, and how well-intentioned he is. We needed the audience to think, “Well, it wouldn’t be that bad. What’s he really going to do? He seems like a nice guy.” [Laughs.] And it’s not easy to play a real moron who is the main character’s rival in something—but one who would also win people over. The word “likeable” is overused in reference to actors, but it applies to no one more than Paul Rudd. He’s just about the most likeable performer I’ve ever seen.
AVC: What other Parks And Rec characters started out with dream actors’ names and ended up being played by those actors?
MS: There’s been a lot. Bradley Whitford—that was a West Wing tribute on our part. Patricia Clarkson was like that for us. We discussed a lot of actresses in theory, because Tammy One was a tricky part, but she was our first choice for that. Kathryn Hahn. We built her character around Kathryn Hahn before we knew whether Kathryn Hahn could do it, which was probably not the smartest thing in the world to do, but what the hell. [Laughs.]
I’ve said this many times before, but all of this stuff comes from Louis C.K. When we were casting that role of the cop, the character description did not in any way match Louis C.K.’s actual human description, but Poehler was like, “Let’s get Louie to do it; he’s the funniest person in the world.” And we got him, and he was great. You just realize that it’s so much easier to write for an actor than it is [to write] for an imaginary character and then try to fit that character to an actor. It doesn’t work very often in my experience. Partially because actors are busy, and it’s not like you get to design a character, and then you just get your pick of any actor in the world; they do other projects, and some of them can’t do it, some of them don’t want to do it, some of them want more money than you can pay them. It’s so much easier to try to get the actor first and then design the character around the actor. So that became our M.O. after Louie. We can’t do it all the time, but we try to identify actors that we want to be on the show. When we can’t do that, we just act like we have the actor, and then try to go get them. [Laughs.] If we hadn’t gotten Paul, I don’t know what we would have done. We would have probably changed the character somewhat to fit whatever actor we could nab.
AVC: How many days were you able to have him on set?
MS: The first episode, we only had him for a day and a half. So someone came up with a very good idea: Use some of that time to have him shoot a ton of campaign ads and have these campaign ads running everywhere in the world for the entire episode. It was perfect, because it made you realize how much airtime the character has bought while simultaneously maximizing our use of him by having more of Paul than we could have gotten if he had only been in scenes together with other actors. He’s only in two big scenes: He’s in the cold open where Ben and Leslie challenge him to a debate, and then he’s in the last scene when they go to the restaurant and meet him, and he says the ad they’re running is mean. [Laughs.]
It feels like he’s in the whole episode, but that’s only because of those campaign ads. We shot like 20 of them. And I feel like I’m shilling for the DVD, but I’m really not—the ones we didn’t use ended up on the DVD. When Andy and April were in the doctor’s office, we cut a scene where they’re in the waiting room, and one of Bobby’s ads is playing on the TV. In the longer cut of the episode, it gave this feeling that he was everywhere: He burst onto the scene, he had a ton of money, he could do whatever he wanted. Which is why I really like the last scene, when Andy and April get up off the park bench and walk away, and you see that there’s a Bobby Newport bus ad on the bench. [Laughs.] It’s been a complete and utter blitzkrieg, blanketing the entire town with his face and his campaign slogans.
AVC: Was there any worry that this was overkill for a city-council race in a small Indiana town?
MS: No, I didn’t worry about that. It’s a little bit cartoon-y, but his family is the Kennedys of Pawnee—they’re the richest, most powerful, most famous family. They own the only real, gigantic business in town, which is responsible for most people’s employment. As a spoiled, entitled rich kid who has decided that he’s going to run for city council to impress his dad, it’s pretty realistic that his name would be everywhere. If you’re starting with a 70-point lead, and you have name recognition, you keep your foot on the gas, you put your name everywhere, you obliterate any idea that there’s competition—which is why he says to Leslie, “I’m pretty sure I’m running unopposed” at the beginning. [Laughs.] It’s a comedy show, and obviously we have to make it funny, but I don’t think it’s that outrageous that that would be his strategy. “Everybody knows my name, so all I have to do is put my name everywhere and let people know that I’m running, and then everyone will vote for me.”
AVC: The B-plot of this episode is a callback to “Soulmates,” where Chris takes Ron to the health-food store. This time Ron’s helping Chris deliver bad news. Do you see Chris and Ron as perfect foils for one another?
MS: I don’t know if they’re perfect foils, but they’re pretty good foils. They’re not exact opposites, really, but they’re very, very different people, and they’re both authority figures. Obviously, Chris is Ron’s boss, technically speaking, but Ron doesn’t really care about hierarchies in the traditional sense. And obviously their lifestyles are incredibly different, and we tried to milk that a little bit this year with this episode, and also with the meditation episode. But, again, what I like is that it’s not hostile or anything; Ron doesn’t have a lot of interest in what Chris has to offer, and Chris happily keeps trying to offer it. We knew we wanted to play this thing over the course of the second half of the year, where we linked Chris and Ron’s futures to Leslie’s. So this was the first step, where Chris was saying, “I’m considering you for this job of being my assistant city manager, and I just wanted to let you know that, and start the process of getting to know you, and figuring out whether you’d be a good person for me to work with.” And then Ron just thinks the whole time that Chris is trying to be his friend, and wants to hide from him.
When a voter says Leslie doesn’t seem like someone he could go bowling with, she sets out to win his vote by any means necessary. Meanwhile, a painful breakup with Jerry’s daughter pushes Chris toward extreme fundraising goals.
This was based on that idea that a major polling service, during the 2000 presidential election, put out the question, “Which one of these candidates, Bush or Gore, would you most want to have a beer with?” People responded “George Bush,” and that became a weird media talking point. Like, this is a serious problem: Gore has a “beer with me” gap that he needs to close. Despite the insanity of using whether you would want to have a beer with someone as a legitimate reason for voting for or against them, I always felt that is indicative of a massive problem in politics: It matters as much what your personality is as how smart you are or how good you are at your job. That is a huge, huge problem. [Laughs.] A lot of people who are very smart or very good at their jobs are not people I would want to ever have a beer with—but I would want them making massive policy decisions with huge implications for the future of the planet. I get why it matters—I get the fact that this is a media culture, and people are on television, and that feeling comfortable, friendly, or warm toward a candidate is a reason people would emotionally attach themselves to that candidate. I get the mechanics of it, I just hate that it’s true.
So that was part of the idea for this, and the other half of the idea was that Leslie is someone who just can’t let anything go, and that she wants to make everybody like her. When she gets fixated on something, she can’t shake it off, and Ben was gonna be the one who would help her shake it. So that’s why he says to her, “Not everybody’s gonna like you, you just have to let it go.” Katie Dippold wrote this [episode], and she wrote that great talking head where Leslie says, “I’m really not good at letting things go. I can’t tell you how many friendly tug-of-wars with a chew toy with a dog have ended in anger.” That’s a perfect image for me, that Leslie, essentially, is a dog with a chew toy about everything in her life.
AVC: Do you think that’s something that had occurred to the character before?
MS: To Leslie? Yeah. She’s not unaware of her problem. That’s another big difference between her and, say, Michael Scott. She’s acutely aware that this is an issue for her—she just doesn’t care.
It also comes out in a way that’s particularly galling to her, because the way the guy phrases his comment is, “I don’t want to go bowling with her,” and she takes it literally. She reads it on its face, and that’s obviously what her problem is. Even though she knows it’s not really about bowling, she just can’t let that go, and so that’s why she decides to try to put together the perfect bowling outing—for that guy in particular. She’s on this journey where she’s transitioning from being a parks-department employee—where a citizen comes in and complains about something, and then she helps that citizen—to this much larger world where she’s trying to win one more vote than the other guy. There’s a certain amount of mass appeal that she needs to start playing to, and that’s the harsh lesson she learns: There’s going to be a lot of people that don’t like you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Instead of trying to win them over one by one, you need to do things that are getting huge swaths of votes.
AVC: In a different type of competition, Chris attempts to be the campaign worker who raises the most money in a single night. Is this the point where Chris snaps? Are the first steps toward racing the tour bus taken here?
MS: This was another one of our interesting character-combination ideas, where we wanted there to be a tiny April-Chris story that played out over the year, and this was the first beat in that story. She’s the one who figures out what’s going on and makes a little gesture to try to make him feel better. The scene where April goes to Chris at the end and gives him the movie tickets is my favorite Aubrey acting scene of the year. This is very rare on our show, because we do a lot of editing, but I believe that every shot of her in that scene is from the same take. Usually, like most shows, we cross takes a bunch of times and use different parts of different things, but she was so good and consistent in her performance that I think we used one entire take of her.
Chris’ story for the second half of the year is romantic disappointment. It’s hard: Rob Lowe is famous for being good-looking. It’s very hard to imagine a woman in Pawnee, Indiana not wanting to date Rob Lowe. So we worked hard to create scenarios where he could actually have romantic disappointment. One of them was by dating a woman who’s younger than he is—which is probably why she broke up with him—and another would be realizing that he had feelings for Ann again, but it was too late, and Ann had moved past him. [Laughs.] But I think we managed to figure out different ways that it could happen.