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Michael Schur has enjoyed a fruitful comedy career thus far. He was a writer on Saturday Night Live from 1997 until 2004, when he left to begin work on a project many naysayers were ready to denounce before it began: The American adaptation of The Office. He worked under Greg Daniels for three years before following him to Parks And Recreation, which began as a spin-off, but quickly ditched the notion and became its own show. Daniels and Schur conceived of Parks And Rec’s characters and the beloved town of Pawnee, Indiana; then Daniels handed over the reins to Schur, who serves as its showrunner. The show got off to a shaky start before rising in its second season to become arguably the funniest sitcom on television. Then it somehow got even better this year. Schur has had his work cut out for him during the excellent third season, though: It began at midseason, and production was rushed, then delayed, due to Amy Poehler’s pregnancy. Now that Parks And Rec has wrapped its early-season storylines (namely the Harvest Festival), The A.V. Club called Schur to discuss why people love Ron Swanson, why everybody hates Jerry, and what makes Andy the perfect foil to April.
The A.V. Club: You’ve mentioned you have qualms about TV criticism. What are those, exactly?
Michael Schur: My main one has been when people review TV the way they review movies. They watch the pilot, and write a definitive review of the show. The obvious analogy is that you don’t read the first eight pages of a book and then talk about whether the book works or not. [The pilot] is the first half-hour or hour of what you’d hope will be 50, 100 hours of television. People want so desperately in this day and age to declare something thumbs-up or thumbs-down that they declare it immediately. There are certain shows where that might be more applicable, like if it’s a CSI-type show and you can project yourself into the future, imagining what’s going to happen. But for a character-based comedy, it’s absurd. You don’t even know who these people are yet. There are certain people who reviewed our pilot who were like, “This relationship isn’t working, and they should give this person more screen time.” And, like, it’s 21 minutes long! We’ve got seven characters!
AVC: The same pilot logic could be applied to the entire first season of Parks And Rec. What did you make of the huge shift in how well episodes were received from season one to season two?
MS: There were a lot of different things going on there. First of all, we did make some changes. Normally you shoot a pilot, test it a million times, tinker with it, reshoot stuff. You have six months between when you shoot it and when it airs, and we didn’t have that. We shot the pilot, then a week later we shot episode two. We treated that whole six-episode season like a pilot. If you go back and watch those episodes now, you can see us making changes. The sixth episode is different in tone than the first. And we made some character tweaks, like every show ever does. The other big thing that accounts for [the shift] is that there was an arbitrary break between episode six and episode seven. Most shows make those kinds of changes on the fly as well as during breaks, but the first six episodes is just the first quarter of their season. The thing I always say when asked about this: Pick your favorite comedy. Go back and watch the first six episodes. They’re very different from what the show became. The first four, six, eight episodes of Seinfeld, of Cheers…
I did this PaleyFest thing the other night, where I said that I’d recently watched an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry is super-neurotic about women, and George is the one giving him advice. It’s the exact opposite of what the show became, and it’s just a blip on the radar. But people refer to “our first season,” and, like, it was just those six episodes. You shouldn’t compare our first season to other shows’ first seasons.
AVC: A lot of the best comedies on TV right now started off slow: 30 Rock, The Office, Community, etc. Is there something unique to comedy that requires that slow build? Dramas seem to have a better track record coming out strong right from the gate.
MS: It’s certainly very different. All of comedy at some level is trial-and-error, whether it’s a stand-up trying out jokes or a comedy show trying stories. But there’s another big thing—and I think it’s more applicable to The Office and Parks than to Community and 30 Rock—which is that those shows are essentially character comedies. Until you know who the characters are, you just won’t find them that funny. Very often, people say to me, “I went back and watched those first six episodes, and they’re a lot funnier than I remember.” Well, now you know who Tom Haverford is, and you can laugh at what he does. We always had the idea that Tom—in the pilot, he hits relentlessly on Ann, then he holds up his left hand and says, “I’m not hitting on you, I’m married.” We always knew the marriage was going to be a sham, but if we had very quickly had him say that, it wouldn’t have been funny or enjoyable. Part of the joy is getting to know who the people are. People think the characters got funnier, and I think the real answer is that you just got to know them.
AVC: Was it considered risky to treat the first six episodes as the pilot?
MS: It’s risky, sure. Everything in TV is risky. We didn’t really have a choice, because Amy [Poehler] was pregnant. It had worked on The Office.
AVC: Where did the decision come from on The Office to start with six?
MS: I don’t know. I think that’s all they were comfortable ordering, quite frankly. In comedy worlds, the British Office is the most legendary thing ever created. But in the world of American broadcast television, I don’t think anyone cared. I would also guess that part of it was that the first British season was six episodes.
AVC: What did and didn’t work in those first six Parks And Rec episodes?
MS: It was nice to see the show built around a female friendship. That was part of the conception of the show. Amy and Rashida [Jones] are friends in real life, and you can just tell. Some of the characters were great from the beginning—Greg is fond of saying the cast was great before the show was great. Nick Offerman walked onto the set as Ron Swanson from day one, and if you look back, there’s one talking-head segment where he talks about bacon-wrapped shrimp, and the palpable joy in his voice—he was dead-on. Aziz was dead-on. Two of the biggest things we changed were that, first, Leslie was reading to people—completely unintentionally—as ditzy. That was never our intention. We always thought she was really smart and good at her job. We realized we had screwed it up a little. And another big thing was that we’d originally designed the character of Andy to be there for six episodes, then be gone. Ann was going to wise up and realize he was a loser and get rid of him. But Pratt auditioned, and we were like, “This guy’s too funny to not use.” We slowly changed that character to one that’s more loveable and sweet—a moron and doofus, but not a bad person.
AVC: The characters on Parks And Rec all really like each other. How do you avoid the nastiness?
MS: For storytelling purposes, there has to be conflict, but that doesn’t mean the people have to be mean. I’ve never liked mean-spirited comedy. The characters on our show make fun of each other, but not in a biting, angry way. And there’s no shortage of conflict in the world of government. The public forums, for example, are one conflict-generator. They hate the library, there’s another. My favorite sitcom of all time is Cheers. That’s a perfect example of how, like, people made fun of Cliff, but you never got the sense that they didn’t like Cliff.
AVC: Until the episode where Jerry falls in the pond, it seemed like the characters were just going to make fun of Jerry without any indication that they liked him.
MS: We didn’t really have a character for Jerry at the beginning. Or Donna. We just liked those actors and figured we’d work it out later. So we threw them in desks—this is something Greg had a lot of success with on The Office: Just populate the world with other people, and let those characters naturally develop. We didn’t figure out Jerry until the episode where all the characters are digging up dirt about each other. Jerry meekly says to Mark, “A little birdie told me you have two unpaid parking tickets.” And Mark says, “Well, a little birdie told me your adoptive mother was arrested for marijuana possession.” Everyone laughs, and Mark says, “Oh, you didn’t know about that?” And Jerry says, “I didn’t know I was adopted.” As soon as we came up with that storyline, for some reason everyone was digging up dirt on Jerry. And we realized that’s who he is: He’s the guy who wants to put his head down and get his pension, but is asking for it all the time. In the next three scripts—it was like throwing chum into the water—every script after that had 15 slams on Jerry. I remember having the discussion like, “We can do this, but we will have to do an episode where we show they care about him.”
AVC: What goes into creating Ron Swanson?
MS: A lot of the credit has to go to Nick Offerman. In real life, he’s an incredibly interesting guy, and at the very least, it’s much easier to play an interesting guy when you’re an interesting guy. Some of the details, like the fact that he’s a woodworker, come from Nick’s real life. The original genesis was the idea that the director of the department would be a Libertarian who didn’t believe in government. We thought it was too jokey, but then we met with this woman in local government and told her the idea. She said, “Oh, I’m a Libertarian. I’m aware of the irony.” That solidified that this was possible. As the character expanded, he began to represent the kind of guy that’s not shown on TV a lot: a man. He’s a real man. He doesn’t care about anything that’s appeared in a magazine. There’s a line coming up—this is a minor spoiler—where someone references Julia Roberts, and he says, “Is that the toothy girl from Mystic Pizza?” That’s what he would know of Julia Roberts. What he wants to do is go to his cabin in the woods, go hunting, kill a deer, eat it, and be alone. A lot of the details are Nick, and a lot of them are us brainstorming for a guy like that—a 19th-century rugged individualist.
AVC: It seems like the writers are falling over themselves trying to write for Ron Swanson.
MS: That’s certainly true. And the great thing about him is that you can do really big, elaborate stories for him—like the Swanson Pyramid Of Greatness—but because he’s so interesting an actor, there are episodes this year where he has probably 10 lines, but they’re all memorable. You don’t feel like he’s missing from an episode if he doesn’t have a big story, because every time he’s onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off him. There’s an episode coming up called “Jerry’s Painting” with a little art show in the town. Ron gives the welcome speech to the show, and it’s essentially the only thing he does in the entire episode. Yet it’s so funny, and he’s so captivating when he does it, that at the end, it feels like he was in the whole episode.
AVC: April has changed the most since the beginning of the show, and a lot of that feels like it came from her doing more scenes with Andy. How did you guys decide on that pairing?
MS: We wrote the part for Aubrey. Allison Jones, who is one of the people who cast the show, called me and said, “I just met the weirdest girl I’ve ever met in my life. You have to meet her and put her on your show.” Aubrey came over to my office and made me feel really uncomfortable for like an hour, and immediately I wanted to put her in the show. We didn’t totally know what we were going to do with her, we just thought it would be funny if Leslie had a college-aged intern who she wanted to inspire, and that that person would be Aubrey Plaza. Then after we established that relationship, we realized she had more range and is a more interesting performer than someone who just rolls her eyes. So we designed the hunting-trip episode, where the only two people left behind are Andy and April—and there’d been a little glimmer in the season-one finale, where April’s looking at Andy and says, “I totally get you,” improvised by Aubrey. At the time, it was this little nothing, throwaway thing, but when we watched it, we thought there might be something there. And there was such good chemistry in that hunting episode. Plus Pratt can make anyone smile, and he told Greg, who was directing that episode, “I’m gonna get something out of her.” He turned on that goofball charm, and it totally worked. Somehow, it seemed to make sense that April Ludgate would be tired of only scowling at things, and could fall for a guy who is nothing but upbeat and positive. It’s really given Aubrey a chance to show off lots of different colors.
AVC: Last season, you guys decided to fill The Pit, and there was no longer an overarching project to work on. This year, the Harvest Festival filled that void, and was dealt with in episode seven. How did you decide to suddenly write The Pit off, and what brought about the decision to introduce another overarching project this season?
MS: The conception of the show was to use that project as a way to bring everyone together. My favorite TV show of all time is The Wire, which has the feeling of a project-based show. You draw in people from disparate parts of the world, and they have to work together to achieve a goal. The idea was to follow these people over the years, and the series finale would be the ribbon-cutting ceremony. We probably went too heavy on stories about The Pit in the first season. People felt like this whole show was going to be about filling in The Pit, which wasn’t our intention. We felt like we had to signal to the audience that it wasn’t going to be all about this one thing. So we accelerated it.
As far as the Harvest Festival, that really came out of Amy getting pregnant, and us having to extend our season after having shot 22 episodes in season two. We kept rolling and shot the first six of season three. So we felt like we should come up with some kind of project that would give those episodes an arc, like a tree with branches. It really helped us organize our scattered brains.
AVC: What sort of inspiration do you continue to draw from the mockumentary format?
MS: I love it. I think it brings a lot. We’re not as hardcore as The Office was. At The Office, we had incredibly strict rules about how it could be shot, how it could be edited, and how the actors should be. It softened the ground and made that format, which was a little foreign to people, possible. It allowed us to be looser with the rules. The main advantage is that, at its core, it’s a device for showing the ways people act and behave differently when they’re in public and private. You can see people behaving a certain way around the corner or through some blinds, then you can interview them and they’ll spin like crazy, hiding their feelings. We wanted this to be a mockumentary show because in the world of government, the difference between what goes on behind closed doors and what people present to the public is a huge issue. Plus, the single-camera format can be alienating, and the talking heads help us relate directly to the audience, and provide breaks in the action.
AVC: The show continues to be beloved by critics, but ratings are low. Why do you think the show hasn’t struck with a larger audience?
MS: I don’t know. All of NBC is pretty depressed, ratings-wise, these days. These things have a way of self-perpetuating. On CBS Monday nights, they have these massive juggernaut hits, which they use to promote Hawaii Five-0, which promotes CSI Miami, on down the line. The fact that the network has been in rough shape for a while hasn’t helped. Then, you add that anyone who’s hoping for a massive resurgence in television is going to be disappointed, because the problem now in getting and holding onto huge audiences is that there are a million channels. No matter who you are or where you are in the world, whatever your particular taste is, there’s a whole channel for you. When I was a kid, whether you were a 7-year-old girl or a 49-year-old man, you watched Growing Pains, because that’s what was on. This all sounds like an excuse or something, but it’s not intended that way. I would love it if our ratings went up and up, and we’ve done a pretty good job of making our show inviting and friendly, welcoming to new viewers. Other than that, I’m not sure what else we can do. It’s very disconcerting.
I’m not in any way comparing our show to The Wire, but that was a show that existed and was on, and no one cared about. The reason The Wire is such a big deal now, at least to writers and critics, is that devoted and insane fans of the show hammered their friends. Everyone I know who is obsessed with The Wire wasn’t watching The Wire when it was on TV. Sometimes, it just takes a while for word-of-mouth to spread. I hope because of the critical reception of this season so far that there’s a momentum to it, and that there’s a sort of Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Point-type scenario coming up.
AVC: It must not help that between Parks And Rec, The Office, 30 Rock, and Community, people feel like there’s a competition to decide which is funniest on any given week, or to deem one of them “the best.”
MS: Yeah, that’s silly to me. It happened in the early days of The Office between that and 30 Rock, but they’re both really good. You can like both shows. I do. I’ve never missed an episode of 30 Rock ever. I’ve never missed an episode of The Office, even after I stopped working on it. They’re very different shows. It’s happening now because we started roughly at the same time as Community. I’ve read stuff like, “Which is better: Parks or Community?” And I don’t feel like you have to decide that, really. I’ve also never missed an episode of Community. Obviously, people want to root for the home team, and that’s great. But I don’t think it requires making a choice. As a viewer, what’s good for one of those NBC shows is good for all of them.