Michael Schur walks us through Parks And Recreation’s third season (Part 4 of 4)
More The Walkthrough
- The New Girl showrunners on topping season two’s big kiss (Part 5 of 5)
- The New Girl showrunners on solving a season-two puzzle—then re-arranging the pieces
- The New Girl showrunners on building the second season toward its “big kiss”—and the aftermath
- The New Girl showrunners on some of season 2’s biggest challenges (Part 2 of 5)
- The New Girl showrunners on wrangling season two’s first five episodes (Part 1 of 5)
Parks And Recreation co-creator Michael Schur recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the show’s third season, episode by episode. This section of his interview covers episode 13 through episode 16, beginning with “The Fight” and concluding with “Li’l Sebastian.” Follow these links to access part one, part two, and part three.
“The Fight” (May 12, 2011)
Leslie and Ann have their first fight, and Tom gets in trouble for attempting to sell his new beverage, Snake Juice.
The A.V. Club: Amy Poehler wrote this one. You talk a lot about the writers on the show. What do you look for when you’re hiring writers to work in the room or freelance?
Michael Schur: I read sample scripts, and I think I’ve known in every case upon finishing the script whether I wanted to hire the person or not. It’s just a very clear thing to me. It’s just a yes or a no. I can at least say with every person I’ve hired, that is the feeling I’ve had.
Emily Kapnek was a writer on our show for two years, was a consulting producer, and then left to do her own show at ABC this year. I think she came through Howard Klein, who’s an executive producer on the show. He doesn’t represent her. I think he’s just a fan of hers. And when we were starting the show, he said, “Here, just read this,” and I read the first two pages of her script and called him and said, “I want to hire her.” There was a joke on page two that I just knew that that was it. I was sold. Then I met her, and I was like, “Yeah, I’m right about this person. I want to hire her.” She couldn’t come to work with us at that moment; she was doing a pilot. But she came the following season. That’s true of everyone. Katie Dippold, who’s a writer on the show, wrote a pilot called Widow’s Bay, and I read the first page of it and wrote, “Hire her” on the first page. So I don’t know if it’s anything in particular, it’s just like a sensibility. Something clicks in my brain, and I know right away.
AVC: Do you hire a lot off spec pilots, or is it still spec scripts?
MS: I always prefer to read spec pilots, because it’s sometimes hard for me to judge with a spec version of an existing show whether it’s a really great writing sample, or the person is just a good mimic of a particular style. Like, it’s especially hard with 30 Rock, because 30 Rock is so joke-intensive that I sometimes get lost. Like, someone will write a 30 Rock spec that has three awesome jokes, and I’ll be like, “Oh my God, this person’s amazing!” and then on the next page, there’s three terrible jokes. And then you wonder, “Who am I gonna get? Am I gonna get the person who wrote the three amazing jokes, or who wrote three terrible jokes?” So I just find it harder to evaluate someone’s ability with an existing show than an original piece of writing.
AVC: How did Amy come to write this episode?
MS: Well, she wrote one in season two. She wrote the “Telethon” episode, and it was awesome. Like, her first draft was as good or better than most of our first drafts as writers, and so it was a no-brainer. I mean, I had worked with her at SNL for three or four years. I knew she was a great writer, so it was a no-brainer to have her write. And then she did an awesome job, so it was a no-brainer to get her to keep doing it. It makes my life easier.
And we’d had this idea for a long time of Ann and Leslie’s first big friend fight. And I just thought that was a natural episode for her to write. I wanted it to be a very, very realistic and funny portrayal of the way women really fight. I mean, we have capable women on our writing staff. Many of them. There were like, five or six women on our writing staff at the time who could have also done a great job, but I felt like it would just be a fun episode for her to do. So I sat down with her and talked it over, pitched her the story, and she seemed to really like it, so I said, “Here, go do it.” And her first draft was phenomenal. Like, it really was great.
AVC: Did she come and work on the script in the writers’ room with you guys?
MS: No. I mean, we did very little rewriting to it, honestly. She met with the writing staff; we pitched her the whole story; we gave her all the notes. We spent a few hours with her, just pitching jokes with her kind of poking and going into different corners and trying to figure it out, making everything hold together. And then she went off and wrote it. And I did a quick pass of it. A very, very minimal pass of it, and then we put it to the table, and it killed at the table, and then we punched it up a tiny bit and wrote some alt-jokes, and that was it. Eighty-five percent of that final product is stuff she wrote, which is an incredibly high ratio.
Again, I really wanted it to be a realistic version of a fight between two people who have probably had a fight coming for a long time, and she just really did a great job of the slow burn. Like, in the first scene they’re in, they’re talking to each other on a bench, and it’s clear that Leslie’s a little bit annoyed because Ann is off dating all these guys and not spending time with her, and she just expresses a little bit of irritation that a book that she lent this boyfriend of Ann’s is gone forever because she dumped the guy. Then Ben walks by, and Leslie jumps up and runs off with him, and Ann is kind of like, “Bye. That was kind of rude.” And just very, very gradually, one little slight at a time, the two of them start getting at each other’s throats, and then it’s all fueled by them drinking, which is never a good idea. And she just did such a great job of showing that crescendo. I mean, if it were a really, truly realistic version of the way that women fight, it would have taken place over seven months, probably, but she just kind of nailed that ramp that we designed the episode around.
AVC: Like Community, your show has a lot of female writers. That’s unusual in comedy, a lot of the time. How did that come about?
MS: Honestly, it just kind of turned out that way. Like, Katie Dippold, I just read her script, and if you had submitted these scripts blind without any names on them, it would have ended up the same way. Emily Kapnek, I fell in love with as a writer. Emily Spivey came and wrote for us last year, and I had worked with her at SNL and knew her to be a hilarious person. And she was also friends with Amy. Honestly, I felt that it was important to have female voices in the room, because our main character’s a woman, and our central relationship is two women, and it would have felt phony if it were all dudes writing for ladies. It’s just kind of worked out that the writers I’ve responded to the most, a lot of them have been women over the past two or three years.
AVC: This is another one where you have the whole cast getting drunk at the same time. It’s so easy to write over-the-top drunk comedy. How do you rein that in and keep it true to the various characters?
MS: I kind of just trusted the actors. I’ve watched Amy play drunk a million times, and she’s always funny doing it. Same with Rashida. And we’ve done it in the show before. We did it in “The Master Plan” at the end of season two. But I was like, “I’ve never seen Nick play drunk, but that’ll be funny.” And Aziz has played drunk on the show and has been hilarious.
What was great was that the crux of the episode for me, and the part that I knew, even when we came up with the idea, was gonna be the centerpiece performance-wise, was what I referred to as “the talking-head tower,” where it’s just Donna says, “Look around, everybody’s wasted.” And it’s just boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. Everyone in the same place, drunk, acting in character as drunk people. It’s so fun to show, like, Aziz is super-cocky, and April lapses into Spanish, and Ron is just dancing with a tiny hat on his head. [Laughs.] And it was just an opportunity for the actors to go crazy.
“Basically, we’re gonna block out 15 minutes. The camera is sitting on a tripod, which is rare for us.” Or maybe it wasn’t, maybe it was handheld. “But the camera’s pointed in one direction, you don’t need to worry about anything. You don’t need to worry about anything except being… Remember what is happening to you in the story. Like, Aziz, remember you’ve just been told that your character is being bossed around by a guy, and remember, Amy, that you’re in a fight with your best friend, and the same is true with you, Rashida. But Ron, April, Andy, just go. Just turn ’em loose.” And there’s like, 15 minutes of footage of all of them being drunk morons, and it’s really delightful. [Laughs.]
AVC: Will there be a DVD extra?
MS: Yeah. [Laughs.]
“Road Trip” (May 12, 2011)
Leslie and Ben go on a road trip together that tempts them to act on their romantic feelings, in spite of office rules to the contrary.
AVC: It felt like the Ben and Leslie relationship was going to be a slow burn, but then you dramatically accelerated it. Why did you decide to do that?
MS: Well, the idea was in order to make it something that could last the whole season, I came up with the idea that Ben began to be interested in Leslie through the Harvest Festival arc, but she was so focused on the Harvest Festival, she didn’t read the signals and pick up on them. When that was over, starting with “Camping” a little bit, but really the wedding, the idea was, suddenly, the event of the wedding caused her to open her eyes a little bit. When Ben says, “I’m thinking about leaving,” you see on her face, like, “Wait a second. Why do I feel this way? Why am I feeling like I’m scared about that?”
And then once that happened, like, Leslie’s not a shrinking violet. Her romantic history has been that she’s pretty straightforward with the guys she’s interested in. And she’s not a wallflower, so as soon as we made her realize that she had feelings for this guy, we were like, “Well, she’s gonna do something about it.” So that’s why, the very next episode, she asked Ben out to dinner, and he gets kind of squirrely, and that makes her freak out. She learns of this rule that Chris has about hierarchical dating, which is a real thing in government. You’re not allowed to do that. And then in “Eagleton” we kind of paused for a second, because it was about Parker [Posey]’s character.
And from then on, it was like, “All right, we gotta go. We gotta move.” She’s not gonna sit around and wait for something to happen. She’s not Pam. Like, Pam had very low self-esteem, which is a large part of the reason that Jim and Pam’s romance took so long. Because Pam is very fearful that she could leave her fiancé, and the fact that she had someone engaged to her meant a lot to her, because she didn’t have a very high opinion of herself. But Leslie doesn’t suffer from that problem, so she’s gonna make a move. And the only thing stopping her from making a move is this institutional rule, and then, very quickly, she just blows past that and is like, “This is something that my heart wants, and I’m gonna go for it.”
So the idea of “Road Trip” was to have all that culminate, putting them in a pretty irresistible situation where Ben, now, having fallen in love with Pawnee, and Leslie, who’s always been in love with Pawnee, and the two of them are kind of in love with each other, are alone on a road trip. Specifically, on a mission for the town. And they have a success. It’s like, there’s no way they’re not making out with each other. [Laughs.] Then we played the comedy of Chris showing up and throwing a wrench into the works and reminding them of the stakes of what they were about to do, but at the end, it was like, “This was gonna happen.” Which is what Andy says to Ben in “Jerry’s Painting.” He says, “Look, if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen. Rule or no rule.” And so this is where it actually happens.
AVC: The hierarchical dating thing exists in the real world. But in the TV world, it can sort of feel like an imposition from the writers. How are you playing around with getting around that feeling?
MS: You know, when we had to create an obstacle for them, just because it’s good tension, and you get good stories out of it, we talked to a lot of people in government, and that’s a really hard-and-fast rule. And I totally understand that from a casual viewer who’s not intimately familiar with the vagaries of municipal law or whatever, it seems contrived. But I felt like it was okay even if that’s the way it’s read, because we were gonna dispense with it pretty quickly. In other words, they were not going to bemoan their fate without acting in a very human way for more than, like, two episodes.
It’s still obviously an obstacle, and it still exists, and it’s still something for them to deal with, but we didn’t give it the same weight of Pam having a fiancé, which is obviously a much more tangible thing. So we just wanted to play the realism of the world they’re in a little bit, and we wanted to create an obstacle for them so we could delay them getting together by a little bit. And then, in general, we knew we were heading toward this place where, at the end of the season, Leslie was gonna run for office. So we created a scenario where the idea of this was like, “Okay, we’re kind of breaking a rule. And if we are caught, that could have unpleasant consequences for us. We could get suspended, we could get fired, Ben could get transferred somewhere else, and [we] both like [our] jobs. So there could be serious consequences for us. But it’s worth it, because we like each other.”
The idea was now someone comes in in the finale and says, “But what if your job were your dream job?” And what if this seemingly not-that-big-a-deal kind of thing would take on a much greater, catastrophic bent if it were to be revealed while you were campaigning, which, as we recently learned with Anthony Weiner, these things do [come out]. Now, obviously, his scandal is different than this, but any kind of sexual impropriety when you’re a candidate for office is always blown up. You can imagine what the local media would do with a sex scandal or any kind of impropriety scandal for someone running for office.
So the idea was that all it needed to do as an obstacle, basically, was cause them to be really cautious and feel like, “Ah, we’re kind of doing something wrong, but it’s worth it.” Because it had to be a bridge to a scenario where Leslie is told, “Now if you’re caught, it could derail your political dreams and your political aspirations. So what do you do in that context?” So season four, at least the beginning of it, is going to be about her making a decision about what to do. Is she gonna break it off with him? Is she gonna keep going in private with this massive Sword of Damocles hanging over her neck? Is she not gonna run for office? How is she going to decide what to do, given the fact that they did break a rule, and specifically, the rule that she broke was sleeping with her boss?
And if you think about season three, there are a lot of things that will look damning if the scandal breaks. He was responsible for diverting a very large amount of money to her for a project she did. Now, granted, the project was a huge success, but it kind of doesn’t matter. It will seem like she slept with him in order to get money for this giant project. It will seem like a lot of things if the scandal comes out. So the only thing that obstacle really needed to accomplish was to create a scenario in which if she were to run for office, the revelation of their relationship would cause a lot of problems for her. So that was our operating principle.
“The Bubble” (May 19, 2011)
Leslie and Ben’s relationship is complicated by her mother, while Tom has to go work on the dreaded fourth floor.
AVC: How deeply have you guys thought about how Pawnee’s government works? Is this just something you expand when needed?
MS: We don’t have the entire universe mapped out, but we know where all of our characters are. And any character you’ve seen, like Joe, who runs the sewage department, we know in our brains where that office is and stuff. But we couldn’t tell you every single person who works on the third floor and the second floor, and who’s by the elevator and whatever. In this case, we were about to end Tom’s arc with him making his decision to quit his job, so we wanted to put him in a really, really awful municipal office and have him do really, really boring work to force him to realize that maybe in order for him to fulfill his dreams of being an impresario, he needed to quit. And so we had already established this thing of the fourth floor, and it was like, “Oh! We’ll put him up there! That’s awful.” And then we paired him with Andy just to have some comedy relief.
AVC: As far as Tom’s story goes, he’s always been a side-character, and you’re giving him this arc. Where did that idea come from?
MS: It came mostly from my preference that characters be constantly growing and changing. I hate and am afraid of stasis with any character. And a lot of the decisions we’ve made about the ways in which the characters change their personal lives or their jobs is just because I get really restless and bored if I feel like everyone’s doing the same thing all the time.
So with Tom, we created this character where he’s in this dumb little town, and he has a very, very inflated sense of his purpose for being on earth. Which is, you know, he said before, he wants to have a line of designer sweatsuits and open nightclubs on every continent. To me, it’s a funny character, but it would be sad if he never tried to accomplish any of that stuff, because then it’s just like this is The Iceman Cometh, where he’s just hanging out in a bar and talking about his pipe dreams. So it just felt like we should have him make a move. It might not work out the way he wants it to, because that would be ridiculous, if he actually became Diddy in any meaningful way. It would be absurd. But I feel like we owe it to the characters that we created to allow them to achieve what they want to achieve.
He’s not going to become Diddy, but he’s gonna try. He’s at least gonna try. And he’s gonna have some adventures along the way, and he’s gonna have some experiences that maybe cause him to recalibrate his dreams and his goals. Or he’s gonna have some successes and some failures, and I just want him to try. Because if he didn’t, then he would just be a kind of sad-sack who’s wandering around a boring job, making $42,000 a year and continuously talking about how he wants to be a billionaire impresario, and that’s not funny to me. That’s sad. So the less-sad version, and the hopefully funnier version, the more interesting version—not just for him, but for everybody—whatever their dreams are, they go for them and they try to accomplish them. And if it doesn’t work out, they try something else.
AVC: The characters all have wildly idealistic dreams. Where do you come up with their goals and dreams, and how do you decide when it’s time for them to pursue them?
MS: Sort of when we start to feel like we’re in danger of repeating ourselves. Tom has had a lot of stories where he’s had ideas. And the ideas are pretty goofy. And we play them for comedy and stuff, and then he gets something out of it, and he moves on. But eventually, it felt like, “Okay, he’s gotta make a big move now, or else we’re just gonna do 50 more episodes where he has some dumb invention, or he wants to throw some dumb party at some dumb club, and it’s not helping him in any way. It’s not advancing him forward in any way.”
I think everybody in America at some fundamental level believes that they can be rich. Everyone believes that. That’s why people play the lottery. That’s why people of low incomes vote against tax increases for rich people. Because at some fundamental level, they believe, “I’m gonna have $20 million someday, and I don’t want to pay taxes when I have $20 million.” And so with Tom, specifically, that’s kind of his belief system. He really, truly, deeply, fundamentally believes that he is going to be a big deal. And if he kept hanging out at City Hall doing nothing but coming up with Snake Juice or a game-show idea that he wants to sell to a network, and that was as far as it went, that would not be accurate to the kind of person he is. So it just felt like a natural thing that we would make this bold move with him at the end of the season, and have him try to strike it rich.
And again, it’s not going to work. He’s not going to become this massive, multimillionaire movie mogul or music mogul or anything, but hopefully whatever experience he has will change him as a person, will make him adjust his dreams a little in a way that is still aspirational, but maybe not as unlikely, and he’ll have a happier life because of it.
“Li’l Sebastian” (May 19, 2011)
Leslie and Ben have to cover up their relationship at the funeral for Li’l Sebastian, and Leslie is offered a chance at her dream job.
AVC: Looking back at where you started, what changed the most from your initial vision of the season to what actually aired?
MS: The season unfolded pretty organically. There wasn’t a lot of revision on the season, because again, we did the whole thing in a vacuum, so it wasn’t like we were airing the episodes, learning what worked and what didn’t, and making changes or anything. The idea behind the season was again, the first half is a project that is a success, the second half is the aftermath of that success. We had always had the idea that at the end of the year, Leslie would be approached about running for office, and that stayed the same. Most everything stayed the same.
The actual episode, we had discussed possibly having it be a person who died. We thought maybe that the point of it was that the mayor died—we’ve never seen the mayor, but the mayor died, and maybe Leslie would give a moving tribute to the mayor at the funeral or something, and that would lead people to think, “Oh, maybe she could run” or something. We tried to break that story. We tried to break a story about a city councilman dying. It’s not that funny to do a funeral for a season finale. Again, like “Jerry’s Painting,” it’s like we didn’t break the story until we realized the funeral service itself had to be funny.
Then we were like, “Oh, the kind of other breakout thing from the season was Li’l Sebastian. People seem to love Li’l Sebastian.” We established in the episode that he was 25 years old, which is very old for a miniature horse. It won’t be that sad when he dies, so we built it around that instead. The way it was written, when Leslie announces his death, everyone is incredibly somber, and she’s giving this very, very sad, moving eulogy, and then the reveal is that it’s Li’l Sebastian. You think it’s a person. That, even though it was funny, it seemed too somber. Then on the set—and this is why, on our show, the way we shoot is so useful—Dan Goor, the writer, and Dean Holland, the director, were like, “Let’s do one where you just go like, ‘Hey, I have some news about Li’l Sebastian,’ and everyone claps, and then she says, ‘He died yesterday.’” And it took one-eighth of the amount of time, and was way funnier. Again, it was another good lesson of, like, “Even if it’s a funeral or a sad memorial service, we only have 21 minutes to tell this story.” [Laughs.]
AVC: This episode is another one where what they’re doing in paying off the maintenance guy is comical on its face, but it’s something that could come back eventually and be a huge scandal. Were you consciously already building toward that idea?
MS: Yeah, first of all, let’s show that these two very good-hearted, good-natured people are incredibly bad at lying. To me, that’s one of Leslie’s most endearing qualities, that she’s a terrible liar. So we built that performance. It’s my favorite Amy performance of the whole season, when she walks in and Ron is there, and she does that halting, awful, terrible, “The nerve of—the audacity—the how dare you.” That whole thing is so funny to me, and Nick is so funny just staring at her. And then the kicker is that Ben comes in and is bad in exactly the same way, which has the effect of making you think, “Oh, they’re meant for each other. They’re both terrible liars.”
But knowing where we were going, we wanted to drop a couple things into the episode, when she decides to run for office, knowing that it’s too late, she’s had this relationship with this guy, and no matter what the future holds, this could come out and be scandalous someday. We wanted to drop a couple things in this episode that we could use, or not use, depending on how we unfold season four, that fan the flames of the scandal. So we had that maintenance guy catch her—who, incidentally, trivia, is the same maintenance guy she bosses around and makes change her light bulb in the “Jerry’s Painting” episode, so she’s mean to him in that episode, and then he catches her. So if she runs, there’s all these loose ends that could come back to bite her in the ass.
AVC: This episode has three or four cliffhangers. How do you generally feel about cliffhangers?
MS: I love ’em. This is the Greg Daniels method that I learned season two of The Office. The biggest debate/fight that that writing staff ever got into was how to end season two. Steve Carell wrote the episode, and it ended with Jim just flatly saying to Pam, “I love you. I’m in love with you,” and her saying, “I can’t. I want to be friends with you,” and him saying, “I don’t want that. I want to be more than that.” We fought tooth and nail to stop that from happening. Because we felt like, “What do you do? How do you come back from that?” Oh, and by the way, she’s on the phone with her mom, and he comes back and kisses her, and knowing that she’s engaged, that she’s essentially just kind of cheated on her fiancée, that Jim has declared his love for her, it’s like, “What do you do now? How do you come back from that?” And Greg was like, “I don’t know. But we have all summer to figure it out,” and his theory was make the juiciest, meatiest, most “How the hell are they going to get out of this one?” episode you possibly can, and then use the collective brainpower of the creative team to figure it out in a satisfying way in the summer.
It was totally the right call, and that was absolutely the operating principle of both season two and season three for me: “I don’t know how we’re going to get out of it at all.” I didn’t want to do any of these things unless we at least had a plausible idea that I felt was somewhat good. So for every one of the cliffhangers, for Tammy One showing up with Ron, for Leslie being approached to run for office, and them basically saying, “Is there a scandal out there?” and her basically saying, “No,” to April being Andy’s manager, to Chris maybe showing interest in Ann again: I didn’t want to do any of those things unless we could at least have an hourlong discussion about one way it could possibly go, which we did, and we came up with some ideas that I thought were at least possible. And then after that, it was like, “All right, let’s do all of it. Let’s throw everything out there and create a really crackling act three of this episode, and we’ll figure it out later.” And so that’s what we did.
AVC: A lot of people have asked who you would like to have play Tammy One. But I’m gonna ask if you could cast any actress ever, even too old or dead. If you could somehow grab a time machine, who would you want?
MS: Well, it’s hard to answer that question without giving away what we have decided to do with Tammy One, so I’ll answer very abstractly in terms of just the parameters of the character we’ve been working under. What do we know about her? She was married to Ron Swanson, which suggests a very particular kind of lady. She scares Megan Mullally to death. And her reappearance into his world causes him to blanch and get very, very scared. So there are certain actresses that that just kind of rules out. A lot of women, it kind of rules out, because they’re just not that kind of person. And that says nothing about their acting ability or whatever; it’s just a very specific kind of person.
That being said, we’ve talked about very short, blonde-hair women and very tall brunettes and everyone in between, so it’s not like there’s only one type or something. But from history or something, I think, like, if Rosalind Russell were still around, I think she’d be a good choice based on His Girl Friday. Bette Davis would have been good. Anybody who was very powerful onscreen and very no-nonsense. He’s said before, he likes pretty, dark-haired women and breakfast food. If an actress who’s been suggested didn’t have dark hair, we’ve often wondered whether she could dye her hair dark. [Laughs.] And Rosalind Russell fits that mold. There must be a million ladies. I don’t know, Joan Crawford maybe would be good? It’s a fun game to play. It’s a really big wind-up for a character, and we have someone in mind that we’re going to start pursuing very soon, and I hope she does it, because she would be perfect.
AVC: So you’re getting into the idea of Leslie running for office, which has been teased throughout the show. This is another thing that has so much build-up toward it. How do you make sure it doesn’t disappoint?
MS: I think, again, it’s about following through on who the character is and how she would actually run a campaign and what would be important to her, and the specific obstacles she would face that would have nothing to do with her or her platform or anything. It’s been very interesting to do research into city-council campaigns and mayoral campaigns, in that there’s just a lot of specifics and details. It’s been an interesting challenge to figure out what to focus on and what not to focus on.
And obviously part of the reason to do this is to do some commentary and satire about the political system and the absurdity—the literal absurdity—of running for office, and what kinds of things matter to people, and what kinds of things don’t matter to people. And they often have nothing to do with what kind of candidate is actually being presented. So, to me, I don’t worry about being true to Leslie or anything, because I think that part will sort of take care of itself. I worry about being able to tell a good, compelling, funny story about a subject that is inherently absurd and ridiculous. Which I think we have a good idea of how to do. And we have some good twists and turns planned out for this season, in terms of what goes on and everything.
We’ve talked to people who have been in local elections in cities about the size of Pawnee, even a little bigger, and their stories are absurd. And if we actually tried to dramatize their stories as they happened, people would complain that we’re being too broad and absurd. I mean, one guy that we’ve talked to, first of all, spent two consecutive years doing nothing but campaigning. He knocked on every single door—this is a city much larger than Pawnee—of every person in his district a minimum of four times, and sat in everyone’s living room a minimum of two times, and had hourlong conversations. This is what he did every day. Basically sunup to sundown with a break for lunch. For two years. If we tried to claim that that’s what Leslie had to do to win, that would be ridiculous. No one would do that, but that’s actually what you have to do. Especially in a local election.
Most local elections don’t have parties. There’s no party ticket. People don’t run as Democrats or Republicans. And in many places, like in L.A., if you’re a Democrat, basically you go in and you pull a Democratic lever and you’re voting for a bunch of people. You have no idea if they’re good or bad; you just vote for them because they’re on your team. And you’re voting for judges and local magistrates and comptrollers and people who do jobs you don’t even know what the jobs are! But you’re just voting for them because they have a word coming after their name. That’s ridiculous. That’s certainly not what the founding fathers of this country had in mind when they created our democracy, but that’s what happens.
And the flipside of that is having to be so grassroots about it, and having to be so direct that this one guy we spoke to, we asked him if he did polling, and he said that by the time the election came around, he knew the results because he had met every single person in his district who was a likely voter, and he had gotten an answer from them for how they were gonna vote. And if they said, “Yes, I’ll vote for you,” he checked “yes.” If they said, “I’m not sure,” he split those 50/50. And if they said, “Let me think about it,” he knew that was a no, because that’s what you say when you don’t want to vote for them. If they said, “No,” that was a no. And he predicted that he would win by five and a half points, and he won by six points.
This is where the rubber meets the road. This is the opposite of voting for your U.S. congressman or your senator, where basically, you have two choices. One of them’s on your team, and one of them’s on the other team, and generally speaking, you’re gonna vote for the guy on your team. You’ve sat down with this person if you’re in a local town, and you’re interested, you’ve sat down and talked directly to this person for two or three or four or five hours, and you know everything about them. That’s such a crazy idea. It’s not something that we could really try to dramatize, because it would take the entire season to show her doing nothing but walking around and knocking on people’s doors.
AVC: Out of the season, what was your favorite episode, and what was your least-favorite episode?
MS: Man. [Mockingly.] It’s like asking me to say which of my children is the best.
Well, it’s a very difficult question. I’m not sure they’re my favorite or least-favorite—I’ll tell you ones that I admire and maybe admire slightly less or something. I think the wedding. More work and planning and shooting and editing went into the wedding because of its importance to the show, and it was kind of the fulcrum of the season, not only for Andy and April, but for Leslie and Ben and a lot of different characters. More man-hours were spent on that episode than any other, and I was very, very happy with the way it turned out. And then “Harvest Festival,” I was very proud of, because we spent a half a year building to a single event, and then, I think, figured out a way to make that event worthy of the amount of time we spent building up to it. Which was a little nerve-racking.
And as far as the less admiration goes, I don’t know. [Laughs.] I think that the hardest one to do, probably, at the end of the day, was the “Time Capsule” episode. I’ll take it on myself, ’cause I wrote it and also directed it. I really like it. I’m very proud of it. It was an episode that was floating in time and space. By design, it didn’t have a real gritty, meaty, personal story involved in it. I mean, the B-story was Andy trying to figure out how to get April back, and Chris helping him. And I think that was ultimately really important. And it was fun to pair up Rob [Lowe] and [Chris] Pratt in an episode. And I think they’re really funny. There was a lot of really great stuff in it.
I like doing episodes, sometimes, that are just about Leslie and her town. And this was really an episode—it was a little more abstract—that was really about Leslie and her town and how she feels about her town. And because of that, it sort of was a one-off, singular episode. It also, you know, is about Twilight. I think if you’re not into Twilight, or you don’t care about Twilight, or you feel like Twilight is overplayed or whatever, you’re maybe going to like it less than other episodes. I totally understand that. But I really like it. I’m really proud of it, and I really wanted to do it, because I want to do episodes at least once or twice a year that are really just about Leslie contemplating her town and the people who live in her town. And that was the design of it. Bring in a citizen who appears to be a loon, who really has something more important going on in his life, and having her react to that in a way that she spends a lot of her time and her energy just trying to make that guy’s life better.
The best part of the episode, to me, is the part where she marches into Ron’s office and says, “I want to put Twilight in the time capsule,” and Ron has a line I love, which is, “We don’t negotiate with weirdoes.” And Ben says, “What about it having to be a representation of Pawnee in this moment?” And she says, “Well, to that guy, that’s what Pawnee is. It’s about reading that book to his kid.” That, to me, is the essence of the episode, and is something I really love about the character. But it was the hardest one to do, I think, because it wasn’t our characters really relating to each other as much as it was her relating to her town. But that said, I think Will Forte’s hilarious. I would love to have him back. I think there are a lot of great performances in it.
It was also, by the way, essentially the 30th episode of the season, and we were all kind of exhausted. But I will never apologize for it. I think it turned out really well. The season, because it was short and we condensed a lot of stuff, ended up being very, very rich in terms of interpersonal stories and characters relating to each other and everything else. And that was maybe the one episode that there wasn’t a really meaty story about our characters with each other.
AVC: What are you hoping to do, expanding back out into 22 episodes?
MS: I think it’s a little bit like a goldfish. Like, we’ll expand it to fit the size of the bowl we’re in. I mean, I wish we had done 22 episodes last year. I think we were really on a roll creatively, and if we had done six more, they all would’ve been good. So I don’t really worry about that. We’ll just keep breaking stories until we have to stop. We’re not lacking for ideas. We have a very large canvas of actors to play with, a very large canvas of a setting in which they live. And we have a lot of meaty relationships and a lot of very meaty, professional stories, with Tom’s new business and Leslie running for office, and we have April managing Andy’s band. There’s no dearth of story-generators, so I think we’ll just keep going. And if they order more, I would be happy.
AVC: What has been the single biggest topic of conversation in the writers’ room about season four?
MS: It’s about the campaign. It’s how to structure it. How to make it satisfying. Whether to reveal the scandal that exists. If so, when to do that? What does it mean for her and Ben? Should we break them up because the stakes are too high? If they’re caught, should we keep them going quietly and have them try to manage this high-stakes, high-profile career move of Leslie’s while they’re still dating, or not? I mean, that’s been 70 percent of what we’ve talked about. And I think we have it mapped out now, and we’ve moved on.
We’ve talked about Tammy One a lot. Who she is, why she’s there, what’s going on. We’ve talked about everything. And also Entertainment 720, Tom’s company, like, how long it should exist, what should its fate be, how many episodes is Detlef Schrempf available for? [Laughs.] Should Detlef Schrempf be a series regular? There’s no shortage of conversation topics. We often find ourselves just running out of time in the day before we get to everything we’re supposed to get to.