Michael Schur walks us through Parks And Recreation’s third season (Part 1 of 4)
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Before its third season could begin, NBC comedy Parks And Recreation had to wait on the bench from May of 2010 until January of 2011. In that time, it also had its episode order cut from 22 to 16, and some wondered if the mild success of Outsourced in the post-Office timeslot meant the show would be benched indefinitely. Instead, the cheery small-town comedy emerged in January for a season with better ratings than its second, a season that garnered terrific reviews and the show’s first Emmy nomination for outstanding comedy series. Co-creator and executive producer Michael Schur recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk through the third season, episode by episode.
“Go Big Or Go Home” (Jan. 20, 2011)
Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) gets the Parks And Recreation department back together after the Pawnee government shutdown and proposes a big idea to save the day.
The A.V. Club: Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you were shooting that, you didn’t know you were going to be off the air so long.
Michael Schur: Yes, we didn’t know until we were shooting... I think we were actually shooting the fourth or fifth episode. The sixth one, the last one we were gonna shoot of that little miniseries that we did to accommodate Amy’s pregnancy, was a Halloween episode, and we had to throw it away and start over.
We ended up doing a fair amount of reshoots to this episode because once we knew that we weren’t going to be on the air in September and were most likely going to be pushed—the earliest was mid-October and then the latest was… the latest was never, I guess, if the show was cancelled. [Laughs.] But probably in January. Suddenly there was a recalculation we had to do in terms of what we couldn’t rely on the audience to remember from where we were. So we actually stripped the story down and made it a little more simple.
The original concept of it was that Ben and Chris, the auditors, had come in and they had slashed the budget, but they had created what we were calling “the rainy day fund.” The premise was that Leslie was trying to get that rainy day fund for the Harvest Festival project. And the episode was called “Rainy Day,” originally, which we thought was very clever. [Laughs.] But when we knew we were going to be delayed, it suddenly seemed like it was too arcane and a little too inside-baseball in terms of the inner-workings of the government and stuff. So we stripped that away and just made it a simple story of they had just slashed the budget to zero, and she was trying to get it reinstated. So we did some reshooting on it when we came back to shoot episodes seven to 16 and simplified it in that direction.
All the calculations we did in terms of reshooting, rewriting, and editing were based on the idea that it’ll be seven months since anyone’s seen this show. And also, we’ll have new people tuning in because we don’t know where our time slot’s gonna be. We ended up being behind The Office, which is great. But it was very, very difficult and it was very scary because we didn’t have any idea when it was gonna air or who was gonna watch it or when it was gonna be on or anything. [Laughs.] So it was very much operating in the dark. In fact, the whole season, creatively, we were operating in the dark.
AVC: Did you make shifts to accommodate newer viewers?
MS: You know, once we got moved midseason, my only concern was, like, “Make the show good.” Because at the time, we didn’t know what our time slot was gonna be. The only thing I cared about was making the show as funny as possible. So all of the strategic or tactical decisions that we could make in terms of, “Oh, we’re gonna be behind this audience, maybe we should go a little more in that direction.” That all kinda went out the window. Because we had no idea. And it was weirdly liberating. We didn’t have to worry about, or at least, take into consideration, “Okay, Community’s our lead-in. Who likes Community? They like this kind of story. Maybe we should do more of this.” All of that stuff disappeared. And it became a weird Zen exercise of just, “Try to make a funny TV show, and hopefully it will land somewhere where people like it and appreciate it and see it.” [Laughs.]
AVC: At what point did you find that you were only doing 16 episodes?
MS: That was earlier. That was when we came back to do episode seven or eight, around that area. What happened was, they looked at our production schedule and said, “You can basically fit 10 more episodes before Christmas.” And I think it was a financial consideration, because the reality is, if you shoot after Christmas, you’re still paying for stuff. Those three weeks you have off between December 15 and the beginning of January, you’re paying to rent your stages and your lights, and you’re holding crew members so they don’t leave and take other jobs. And any episode we shot after December 15, after that break, was a very expensive episode because you had to account for all the money they had to spend just to hold everything. So originally they said, “We think you can do 10 more episodes,” and the 10th episode of that was gonna be the first week of January. So then we had a choice to either eliminate that episode or lose a hiatus week when we weren’t shooting and cram it in before Christmas, which was what we did, because we wanted to do as many as we could.
AVC: Where did the idea to structure these first six episodes as a story of their own come from?
MS: Well, when Amy told us she was pregnant, which was—oh God, I can’t remember the timing now. It was sometime in December or January [of 2009 or 2010], I think. It’s all very hazy. She was due, basically, in late July, which was exactly when we were gonna start shooting. So that meant we couldn’t shoot then, because she’d be nine months pregnant. And then, you know, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to have a baby, and that meant she was gonna have to recover for a couple months. And then, suddenly, it was like we wouldn’t be able to start shooting until, I don’t know, September or October, and that meant you can’t get on the air until December and no one goes on the air in December because it’s the end of the year.
The only thing we could do was once we finished season two, roll right into season three. And that was a very scary prospect because we were gonna do 24 episodes and then, basically, you’re very burned out as a staff after that. So the only thing we could do was take a two- or three-week break and then keep going. So instead of just trying to break six more comedy stories, which would just be hard to do after you’ve done that 24 weeks in a row, we figured if we could create some kind of little mini-arc, that would help us generate stories.
So we came up with this idea of her planning a giant project and the first six episodes would be the planning stages of that project. And then, when we came back, we would actually do the project and then keep going. So once we came up with that idea, the stories broke very easily. And then we also did things because she was gonna be five or six months pregnant. That’s why, for example, we got Megan Mullally [as Ron’s ex-wife Tammy II] to come back. Because we figured we could lean on the supporting cast and guest stars a little more. We accelerated the Andy/April relationship story, and we had a lot of stuff with Chris and Anne. We just tried to spread out the workload a little more.
“Flu Season” (Jan. 27, 2011)
Leslie’s plans for a town meeting go horribly awry when a flu epidemic sweeps through Pawnee.
AVC: This one had a lot of Rob Lowe in it. When you conceived the character of Chris, what did Rob Lowe bring to that and what did you shift about that character when you found out he would be doing it?
MS: We invented the character for him. We were chasing Adam Scott for this character; it was just gonna be one guy. And then we found out that Rob might be available because he was leaving Brothers & Sisters. So we were in this weird situation where we had developed a very specific character, essentially for Adam Scott, and then Rob Lowe was also an attractive person, no pun intended, to have in your cast. [Laughs.] So we didn’t know whether to abandon the direction we were moving or to go with Rob. And then we sort of felt, “Let’s just shoot the moon here and go with both of them.”
The one thing we did add in “Go Big Or Go Home” that I think really helped was the idea that he had this backstory, this history of having been very, very ill when he was a baby and that was a fundamental part of his character’s DNA. This “every minute is a gift” and “live life to the fullest” was coming from some real place instead of just a cartoonish kind of guy. So that helped us a lot. In “Flu Season,” the idea was, and this came back a lot in the season, too, that a guy who has a belief and is obsessed with health and well-being would not deal with illness very well.
Originally, the idea of everyone getting the flu was really like, “Amy’s gonna have a giant belly, let’s put her under a hospital bed for half the episode.” And then we’re like, “Oh! That would work for him, too.” You know, you always read about how it’s important when you’re a kid, you have to get 100 colds because you need to build up your immune system. And the idea was, his immune system was very, very frail because he was so healthy all the time. So it became very funny to imagine him going from being perfect to a complete disaster and then back to perfect again, basically overnight.
Then, we threw him in a room and gave him the flu and just sort of let him loose. And then, that scene where he says “Stop pooping” kind of became the main thing that people latch onto. There’s like 20 minutes of him just improvising. That line was given to him by Norm Hiscock, I believe, who wrote the episode. But there’s literally 20 minutes of him just improvising, just being a disaster on the floor and looking at himself in the mirror and just being a total nightmare. [Laughs.] And he’s really funny. Turns out he’s a really good improviser.
AVC: How much improvisation are the actors allowed to do? How comfortable are you guys with that?
MS: Our preference is to always allow time for improvisation, and we do that in a couple ways. Basically, the thing we told the cast is that once we’ve shot the script and we’re confident that we have what we wrote—because what you wrote is what the hundreds of thousands of man-hours went into, like making sure that the story tracks, that the beats are tracking correctly, that the scenes are doing what they need to do—once we have that, if you can beat anything we’ve written, go nuts.
And it’s interesting. They approach it in different ways. Like Aziz [Ansari], for example, he’s a master of the individual joke. Changing and altering an individual joke. Like, we use his improved jokes individually more than anyone else, probably. And Amy, having come from that world entirely and being completely immersed in that world, can change whole sentences and whole directions for scenes in really great ways. And Chris Pratt kind of does it by sometimes changing a joke but also sometimes just completely changing the idea behind the delivery. Like, he did an improv in a scene later in the year when they were gonna promote Snake Juice. Tom’s getting everyone to do guerilla marketing to promote his dumb product, and he did this line where they’re reading off a script, and the line is, “Yeah, I’m pretty boring, so I’ll have a beer, too.” And then his improv was, “Yeah, I’m pretty” and then looked again and said, “Boring, so I’ll...” [Laughs.] But our preference is to always try to give them time in every scene to try to beat what we’ve written. And they very often do.
AVC: What does it take to be able to step back and say, “Maybe something they improvise will be better than what I came up with?”
MS: It doesn’t take much for me. I came from Saturday Night Live and so did Greg [Daniels]. And at Saturday Night Live, writers and actors are kind of the same at some level. At least, the actors are also writers all the time. And they’re very often funnier than the writing. We care an incredible amount about our scripts, but most of that caring for me is from the story level. I care more about making sure the story is correct and the characters are behaving in character than I do about the individual jokes.
And I sort of feel like scripts aren’t poems. They’re blueprints. They’re kind of like maps for the way that the characters are supposed to grow and change over time and interact with each other. On a joke-by-joke level, to me, it should just be a meritocracy. It should just be the best joke wins. And my job is just to make sure, essentially, that we don’t ever use anything that alters the story or the character to the point that it’s unrecognizable. And we have many, many times thrown away jokes that we thought were way funnier than the stuff we wrote because, completely unintentionally, in the moment, they alter the scene. They change the motivation of the character or they indicate that the character doesn’t care about something that he or she cares about or something. And I will always cut those jokes out because it’s never worth sacrificing the scene or the story or the character for one joke. But if they can beat a specific joke in a way that doesn’t alter anything in the character or the story, then I couldn’t be happier. It’s like a second writing staff.
MS: We shot that last [of the first six] for a couple of reasons. To accommodate Will Forte’s schedule, because MacGruber was coming out and he was doing a media blitz for that. And also because it was relatively easy to shoot for Amy. We designed it to be relatively easy to shoot. And we figured, “Let’s make this one last, so that when she’s at her pregnant-est, she would have the least amount of burden.”
AVC: Everyone’s done Twilight jokes at this point. How do you sit down and tackle a topic like that that everybody’s taken and find new things to say about it?
MS: Twilight was a relatively new phenomenon to me. I decided to write and direct that one because I felt like it was the end of this, essentially, 30-episode season, and I felt like I couldn’t make anyone else do that. [Laughs.] Like, it would be too mean. And I had never read Twilight, I had never seen any of the movies. I didn’t know anything about it. So I actually read the book. Slowly over the course of that little six-episode season I read that first book.
I actually talked to Forte a year earlier because we’d had an idea for a completely other, separate episode about a guy who comes in and handcuffs himself to Leslie’s desk. And I ran into Will at a concert and told him, and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, Forte’s gotta play that part!” And I told him about it and he’s like, “Yes! Totally. Anytime.” So we had this idea and we converted the old episode into this episode. And I called him, and he could do it, and it was great. And I just thought the point of it is not Twilight. It could have been anything. It could have been Harry Potter; it could have been The Fast And The Furious 4. The point of it was the guy was just trying to do something nice for his kid. So we were debating whether it should be Twilight or something else when we were breaking the story, and then we found out that Retta, who plays Donna, was in real life super into Twilight, which seemed funny. And then we poked around and we got the rights to use Twilight and a clip from Twilight and everything, and that’s often very difficult to do. So once we had that, it was like, “All right, let’s just make it Twilight.” When we knew we wanted to do Twilight was when we imagined a book club with Will Forte, Aziz, and Retta just discussing vampires.
AVC: This one started to bring back a lot of the Pawnee figures from season two. How much prep work did you think you had to do for the new viewers who were watching, or to remind people who these people were?
MS: I think the most exciting thing to me about criticism of the show is when people talk about Springfield. I honestly feel like if that could hold true for the length for the run of the show, that would be my greatest dream. I mean, how many characters do they have on [The Simpsons] that recurred? They must have hundreds and hundreds of characters. And the joy of it is that you don’t need explanation for them when they show up. If you’re familiar with the show, you know immediately that’s Sideshow Mel. But also, if you don’t know the show and a character pops up, you get it. You know when the Comic Book Guy shows up and says something about what’s going on, even if you’ve never seen him before, you understand the role he plays in that show. And I think that’s our goal, too, on this show. Every town has someone who is the morality police. So when Marcia Langman shows up and is the morality police, I don’t think anybody needs to have that explained to them. I feel like if we do our job correctly, then people will just kind of get it even if they’ve never seen them before.
AVC: Do you have characters that you thought would recur or you hoped to recur that either just didn’t work out within the show or you haven’t been able to bring them back?
MS: No, not yet. I’m sure we will at some point. I mean, we weren’t sure we were gonna be able to get Megan [Mullally] to come back, but she had a good time and was really funny, and we got a good response from her being on the show, and, obviously, Nick [Offerman] is her husband, so it’s fun for her. I’m sure at some point there’ll be someone we hope can come back but can’t for whatever reason. But ideally, the beauty of creating an entire town is that you can just create another character to fulfill the same role.
AVC: In those town forum scenes you bring a lot of extras in. How elaborate can those be to shoot?
MS: They’re actually not that hard. They’re not cheap, because you have a lot of extras, generally speaking. We do a thing with those where whoever the speaking parts are for the public forum, we write two or three jokes for them. So it’s easy, even if they’re just day players, it’s easy to get [alternate takes] because, usually, they only have one sentence. So we’ll just have them, “Here’s your lines in the script, and we’d like to have you memorize these two or three other lines.” And then you just have them raise their hand and stand up and say something, and you can get four jokes very quickly in the space that normally you’d only try to get one.
And there’s a number of places very close to our set where we can go, like high-school auditoriums or junior-high auditoriums or multipurpose rooms where we can set up very quickly and get out. The whole point of working in the government is that you’re representing people. And this is where she meets those people and those people interact with her. They’re very good scenes for putting pressure on Leslie and directing the story in terms of, like, her job is to serve these people. So even if they’re crazy and weird, that’s what she has to do. Answer their queries and problems.
You know, in The Office, the idea behind it was there was a basic, staple comedy scene, which was the conference-room scene. It was Michael Scott saying, “Everybody. Conference room, 10 minutes.” That was where the episode would kind of crystallize in terms of what was, psychologically, going on in Michael’s world. We wanted to have a similar thing on this show, but it didn’t seem right to just have it be another conference-room thing. That’s not her job, really. Her job is about serving the people of the community. So the public forum has sort of taken over for the conference-room scene on The Office in terms of how we crystallize what the conflict is in the episode and also show what her job is on a day-to-day basis.
AVC: What are some books or movies that have had an influence on the show and its world?
MS: Well, there are many. There’s a little bit of Rushmore, I think, in terms of a character who likes to be involved in everything and do a million things. Part of our creation myth of Leslie [Knope] is that she sleeps three and a half hours a night, and she’s always taking community-center classes and rec-center classes and also teaching them. In “Road Trip” there’s a line that we cut where, when Ann has found out that she was dumped by Chris a week earlier and is really freaking out, they go to the Snakehole Lounge and get drunk. We had this line that we really liked we just had to cut for time where Ann’s leaving and she goes, “All right, I’m gonna go home and go to sleep and not leave my house for two days,” or something, and Leslie said, “I’ll be at your house tomorrow at 7 a.m. to play tennis.” She probably can’t play tennis; she can’t do everything expertly, but she is always doing whatever it is. There’s a lot of Jason Schwartzman’s Rushmore character, I think, in her. [Poehler] did a show called The Mighty B!, an animated show, which is a little bit in the same vein. Her character is a little mini Girl Scout who wants to collect every merit badge and is just covered in merit badges.
But then there’s also a lot of books that I’ve read about the American social and political scene, and that other people have read, too, that were very influential, I would say. There’s a book called Bowling Alone, which is truly great. It’s about the death of community activities, like bowling teams and bowling clubs or book clubs or things like that, and about how the society has become so fractured that there’s not a real sense of community meeting places anymore. That’s a lot of where “Go Big Or Go Home”’s storyline came from, I would say. She says in the episode if people just stay in their houses and play videogames, then the town will die. And events like the Harvest Festival that bring thousands and thousands of people to the same place and have them talk to each other and interact with each other are vital for towns and communities.
I also did a lot of reading about the corruption in government and how corruption in government really works, and how people try to fight it and what are the pitfalls. I read a lot of Thomas Frank books. In the very early stages of the pilot preparation, we imagined that Ron Swanson was going to be a little more of a kind of modern-day Neocon, who not only didn’t believe in the mission of the government, but was actually trying to destroy it by de-funding community programs and stuff. He was sort of more of a villain. That fell away. But once we wrote it and once we cast Nick [Offerman], and we saw the way Nick and Amy interacted, it became a completely different character, which was a much more 19th-century, or even 18th- or 17th-century individualist who just wanted to be on his land without anyone bothering him for any reason.
But at the time I was doing a lot of reading about why governments fail, what they do wrong, how they screw over the people that they’re allegedly trying to serve. We’ve transferred some of that in kind of an intangible way into the city council that we’ve never seen and the mayor that we’ve never seen. I think it’s in a Matt Taibbi book I read this thing about how the city of Chicago had a budget shortfall, and to plug a hole in their budget deficit, they basically leased all the parking meters in Chicago to Goldman Sachs for 99 years for one lump sum. It was like, $6 billion or something, they get all the parking meters. It seems like, “Oh, all right, they plugged their budget, that’s good, you’re supposed to not run a deficit.” The problem is that there are all these city ordinances in Chicago that prohibited increases or limited increases in parking meters, so once they leased them to a private company like Goldman Sachs, it was like, “Oh, that’s gone now.” So Goldman Sachs overnight doubled the amount it cost to park in Chicago. So in the very short term, the city of Chicago plugged a hole in their deficit. In the very long term they’re screwing over everybody who lives in Chicago, and also they’re losing this future stream of revenue.
Obviously, a lot of this stuff is incredibly dry, very, very boring, and this is a comedy show. The point of the show is not to get into a really specific and arcane investigation of how it is that city governments function, but at the same time, the idea of this stuff goes into the background of the show somewhere. And when Ben and Chris came in and audited the city and found that the city was totally bankrupt, people understand what bankrupt is. And the comedy comes out of, how does Jason Schwartzman’s character from Rushmore function when she lives to serve the people of her community but has no money to do it? That’s why she works so hard and why she’s so tireless. If she can improve one person’s life by 10 percent on any given day, she feels like she’s done her job.
AVC: I don’t know if you’ve read this article in The Awl, which basically is longing for the political friction of season one. And you yourself have mentioned The Wire, which obviously has a very dark view of the political system, as an influence. But you have such a sunny show. Do you ever wish that you could get back to the more realistic, or more cynical portrayals?
MS: I honestly don’t. This is a very complicated issue. First of all, it’s a half-hour comedy show, and our job at a very simple level is to entertain people. That’s the first umbrella thing, I would say. The next level down, I would say, is that I personally don’t like comedy shows where everyone’s mean to everyone else, where there’s a lot of insult humor and cutting down of people. I think that was a trend that happened for many, many, many years, and I get weary of it. I don’t like watching it. I don’t like snappy sarcastic rejoinders as a comedy engine. It just seems really boring to me. So I’m very pleased with the tone of the show, personally. I think it’s more enjoyable to see positivity than negativity.
That being said, comedy comes from conflict and from problems and from flaws and from a lot of stuff that has a sort of negative connotation or negative spin. So we have to make sure that we’re not just portraying a utopia where everybody’s happy and everything is wonderful. I think the way we’ve done this is, we’ve delocated or decentralized the conflict from our main cast to the town and to the ideas of how hard it is to run a government, and of the problems of small-town America in 2011, and to things like the library, which we’ve just said is a terrible organization. We can bring in villains when we need them, and have there be conflict coming from the outside world, or just from the almost-impossible-to-navigate moral and ethical position that people who work for the government are put in.
It’s a little bit like the NCAA or something. If you’re a college football coach, and you put in five bucks to fill out a college basketball pool, you can get fired for that. The rules are so strict, so stringent, and for a reason, obviously. These people are guarding the tax money that we all pay. And no one likes to pay taxes, but if you pay taxes, you want to at least believe that the people who are handling that money are honest and ethical people. They’re not. They’re no more superhero-ish and honest and ethical than the average person, which is to say they’re 25 percent immoral and unethical, because everybody is. The people who work for the government are put in very, very difficult positions and have to go to extreme lengths to satisfy the people for whom they work, which is everyone. So there’s already enough problems in their world, and it seems like, to me, the least we can do for these characters we’re creating is make them genuinely happy people and have them enjoy each other’s company and stuff.
I’ve said this before, but I think that most people who create TV shows, and I won’t speak for Greg Daniels, obviously, who created the show with me, but I think that most people split their own personalities and put different parts of their personalities into different characters. And for me, mine is split pretty evenly between Ron and Leslie. I sometimes feel as though the modern government and the modern country that we live in is impossible, and there’s no point to any of it. It’s like, why bother trying to navigate any of this? Society is completely unreasonable. People want everything and want to pay for nothing. They panic if they think about their taxes being raised, but if their garbage collection is a day late they scream and yell.
People don’t seem to make the connection between their tax money and the benefits that they get from their tax money, like free education, and the fire department, and police protection, and everything else. It drives me bonkers, because it’s pretty straightforward to me. People think of taxes as money just being robbed from you. They don’t consider the benefits of paying taxes. The benefits that they get and also the benefit of just being a part of a large group of people: a town, or a city, or a country, or a society that allegedly should stand together and all try to help each other. So my cynical, angry side I gave to Ron. And we have him voice the idea that there’s no point, that governments can’t function, that society is unreasonable, that everyone should just leave everybody else alone.
The other half of my personality is this incredibly, wildly optimistic, rah-rah, patriotic, America is the best place on earth. Every time I read about anything that’s going on in any other country about how other countries treat women, or, you know, if you’re gay in the Middle East you’ll just be instantly murdered, I think, “Okay, we’re not perfect, but dammit, we’re way better than they are.” And I want to put an American flag on my front porch and salute it, and sing the national anthem really loudly. So that side of it is kind of with Leslie.
The most interesting stories that I’ve been able to tell have been times when either Ron’s dogma or Leslie’s beliefs have been shown to be completely flawed, and cracks are shown in their facades, and they see the reasoning behind the other one’s point of view. Ron can talk all he wants about how he doesn’t care about people, and he had a line in “Flu Season” where he says that he once worked with a guy for three years and never learned his name, and he’s the best friend he ever had. And then he says, “We still never talk sometimes.” Yet the point of that episode was he ends up hanging out with Andy over the course of the episode and really, against his better judgment, comes to have some genuine feelings of friendship and closeness with him. Leslie can wax poetic about the framers of the constitution and the glory of the county, but she’s constantly being confronted by people who are unreasonable in their beliefs and challenge her notions of what this community is, and what it wants, and what’s good for it.
This is all a long-winded explanation or way of saying that I think the tone of the show doesn’t have to be season one-ish, if you want to describe it that way, and cynical and kind of downbeat and unpleasant or something in order for these issues to get raised and discussed by the characters who represent those different points of view. I think our show got much better when we stopped trying to let The Wire, for example, influence the way that we told our stories. A lot of the promotional material from before we even shot the pilot, we used a lot of terminology like “bureaucracy” and “red tape” and “frustration” and “impossibility,” because that’s what we imagined the show was going to try to represent: one woman’s march against that tide. I think it got a lot better when we made it instead of focusing on the calcified system of the government, we focused on the woman who was trying to break that up and to improve the town. And I think that is probably the breakthrough that we had. Let’s not spend 80 percent of the time talking about how frustrating it is and 20 percent of the time showing Leslie fighting it. Let’s flip that ratio and focus on the sunny, bright, optimistic, happy, funny character played by a once-in-a-generation comedienne, who is way more fun to watch than our internal depiction of the calcified system.
That being said, The Wire’s the best show ever. [Laughs.]
“Ron & Tammy: Part Two” (Feb. 10, 2011)
Ron’s ex-wife Tammy returns to make Ron’s life miserable, but the two end up hooking up, getting married, and going to jail.
AVC: Ron’s the closest thing the show has to a breakout character. How do you know when too much Ron is too much?
MS: It’s a good question. I don’t know. I think Ron, and Nick specifically, is part of a very successful feedback loop, where we will try things with him, and unlike most things in TV comedy, it is instantly apparent whether it’s a successful joke or story or whatever. At the table read, it’s instantly understandable what we’ve done right and wrong, and I think that’s because Nick is so good and so authentic as a person. There’s a lot of Nick in Ron. It’s very, very clear when we’re going too far or not far enough, or how much we can get away with. It’s kind of a broad character, but he’s a very small performer, which is a really good situation to be in.
Because of his excellent performing style, we can get away with doing pretty silly stuff, because he’ll pull it off. I think the “Ron And Tammy” episodes are a good example of that. When we knew we wanted to bring Megan back and do “Ron And Tammy Two,” the first thing we had was, “He’s in cornrows wearing a dirty kimono in a jail cell.” Honestly, we didn’t know how to get there, but we started with that image and worked backwards. And that’s insane; that’s a crazy image. Yet he’s so still as a performer, and he owns everything he does, and he commits to everything he does, in the episode you don’t even really think, and I never thought, “Oh, we’ve gone way too far; this is crazy; we’ve got to back off.” Because he’s still Nick; he’s still Ron. He’s just in a crazy situation.
It’s a very gut-level thing with him, at every level, writing, performing, and editing. You just know right away if you are screwing up or not. And sometimes I’ll think, “Well, this is too far,” and then I’ll watch it, and I’ll go, “No, he pulled it off.” Another example of that is in the episode where he goes to his favorite steakhouse, and we have him basically have a nervous breakdown because the steakhouse has been closed for health-code violations. He’s wearing a bib, and he’s trying to kick the door down, and he starts crying because he can’t eat the steaks. That’s a very silly situation, and he managed to pull it off perfectly.
AVC: This show and Modern Family are embracing the documentary aesthetic, but you’re not saying, like The Office, that this is a documentary. What are the appeals of embracing that aesthetic to begin with, and why do you think it works?
MS: When we were developing the show and talking about whether it should be traditionally single-camera, should it be multi-camera, should it be mockumentary, the mockumentary style for this setting makes a lot of sense, because even though they’re not elected politicians, they’re still in government. And the point of mockumentary style, to me, is that people act one way when they know the cameras are there and act a different way when the cameras aren’t there, and when they’re doing what we call “talking heads” or “confessionals” to the cameras, they often will say the exact opposite of what they think, and the cameras will peer through a plant and will catch them interacting with someone else, and we’ll see, “Oh, that’s how they truly are.” And so for government, where people are constantly making speeches and appearing in public and then also going behind closed doors and having totally separate conversations about the same topics, it was a natural way to shoot the show. We’d also come from The Office, where we had a lot of success with that style. We knew how to write and edit in that style, and it just seem like it was kind of a no-brainer.
The other thing about it is, I think that every single-camera show has to have a way to break up the narrative of the story they’re telling and relate more directly to the audience. Some shows like Scrubs or 30 Rock do it with quick pops. Or like Family Guy, which is essentially a single-camera show, does the same thing. They’ll say, “This reminds me of the time when you did…” I just watched a repeat of 30 Rock the other night, and they have a joke where someone makes a reference to Prince Hal [of Shakespeare’s Henry IV], and Tracy says, “Who’s that?” and Jack McBrayer says, “From Shakespeare, you played him in Central Park last year.” Then there’s a whoosh, and it goes to Tracy in full Prince Hal regalia, and he just says, “I don’t remember any of my lines!” And [makes whooshing noise] it goes back to the scene. So that’s how those shows relate to the audience or give the audience a cue to laugh.
And the way that The Office and Modern Family and our show does it is by talking heads, and by breaking a scene and cutting to a character just talking essentially right to the camera, slightly off, like they’re talking to an interviewer. And you can use that for just pure jokes, or you can use it to skip through story points and explain what’s going on, or you can use it to illustrate how a character really feels about something, or obviously doesn’t feel about something but is spinning it to make it seem like he or she feels about that thing. Every show needs that thing. It just made more sense to us on this show to do the talking head, mockumentary thing, than it did to do the whoosh-pan 30 Rock or Scrubs thing.
The next level for discussion is, The Office was incredibly pure in its approach to the mockumentary style. We had endless discussions with directors and with our director of photography and with the actors about what was and what wasn’t reliable. There was an episode we did on The Office called “Did I Stutter,” where Michael is having a meeting and Stanley says something and Michael makes a joke or something, and Stanley snaps at him and says, “Did I stutter?” Then the story’s about Michael, having been yelled at by one of his employees, being very scared and not knowing what to do. So we had this scene that was B-roll during a talking head where Michael started to walk to the bathroom, but he would have to cross in front of Stanley, and he was so scared that he walked the other way, went down the stairs, walked all the way through the parking lot, up the stairs, back through the annex where Toby sits, in back through the thing to go to the bathroom, then went back, just to avoid Stanley. And we had this endless debate about, “Is this possible? Could the camera operator legitimately get to all of the places we would need him to be in order to shoot this sequence?” But we made Randall Einhorn [the episode’s director] walk it to see, like, okay, if this is the way we want to shoot this, you need to show us that a real camera man in a real scenario could get to all those places in time to shoot all of those shots. He did it, and so we were like, “Okay, then go ahead and shoot it.” That was season four or something. That was well into the show. We were still incredible sticklers for that realism of the documentary.
In this show, right away, simply because the whole show wasn’t essentially taking place in one room, we immediately loosened up the rules for shooting. We have essentially one main rule right now, which is: You can’t shoot any kind of coverage in which you would see the other camera. So traditionally, if you and I are talking here, there’s a camera right here, and it would cut to a camera over your shoulder right there, shooting me, but this camera and that camera would see each other. So we never let our directors set up shots where you would see the other cameras. Even that rule, on occasion, we’ve broken, because if a director comes up with a really awesome shot that looks great and is really beautiful, and really helps tell the story, then we go, “Ah, screw it.”
Now, we never would have done that on The Office. At least in the early years, we never would have done that. On this show, we greatly relaxed the rules in part because we weren’t, unlike The Office, trying to train people who were not used to mockumentaries how this stuff gets shot. We felt like after four or five years of The Office, and with Modern Family coming out, that people were just more used to the style. We didn’t have to give people a new visual vocabulary.
So we’re trying to have our cake and eat it too. We’re trying to maintain the mockumentary style in enough of a way that it still gets what we want out of it, which is showing the different ways that people behave when they’re on camera or not on camera and all that sort of stuff, without being 100-percent pure in terms of the way the directors actually interact with the cast. We never instructed any of the Parks actors on how they should interact with the camera. We sort of let it emerge organically. It’s been really interesting to see the different ways that they do it.
Like, for example, Amy almost never does it. You wouldn’t think that, because first of all she’s the main character of the show, and the analogous character would be Michael Scott, and he’s constantly relating to the camera. But he is a guy who is incredibly concerned with what people think of him, and she isn’t. She’s very self-possessed and confident. I don’t think this has been a conscious thing. It might have been, but she almost never relates to the camera, which is very interesting thing to me. Aziz does it when he is proud of some jackass thing that he’s done, and he looks at the camera like, “What’s up?” And Chris Pratt does it… to Andy, the camera’s his best friend, he’s always looking at the camera like, “This is awesome, can you believe this?” April looks at the camera like, “Can you believe the misery of my life that I have to put up with these people?” Ron only does it when he’s sheepish.
Occasionally we will write into scripts a stage direction that instructs the actor to be aware of the camera, or when we’re on the set, we’ll say, “Maybe you’ll have a little camera awareness here.” But even that has largely fallen away. That was much more prevalent in season one and early season two, and now the actors are self-perpetuating machines, where they have really specific relationships to the camera. They just do it instinctively. To me, it’s just this extra thing that you wouldn’t get in a traditional single-camera show. It’s just this extra layer of comedy that emerges when the characters develop and when they form their personalities.