Showrunner Michael Schur on building Parks And Recreation’s fourth season (Part 2 of 5)
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Parks And Recreation showrunner Michael Schur recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the fourth season of his show. Following part one, this section covers episodes five through nine, beginning with “Meet ’N’ Greet” and ending with “The Trial Of Leslie Knope.”
“Meet ’N’ Greet” (October 27, 2011)
On the brink of bankruptcy, Entertainment 720 scores a client: City-council candidate Leslie Knope. Tom busies himself with turning Leslie’s meeting with local business owners into an ad for his own local business, while across town, a Halloween party causes stress at the Dwyer-Ludgate-Wyatt residence.
The A.V. Club: We get a bit of unfiltered Tom in this episode. How do you strike the right balance between his grounded qualities and his exaggerated characteristics—or any character’s, for that matter?
Michael Schur: It’s impossible to say. It’s on a case-by-case basis and episode-to-episode basis. In this case, we established that he started this company with Jean-Ralphio, and it was clear from the beginning that they had no idea what they were doing. Entertainment 720 was always designed to go down in flames. [Laughs.] But we didn’t want to have it be like that in the première—“Oh, the company failed and I’m back.” That’s a yank, and I don’t think that’s fair to the audience. When you do a move like that, you have to commit to it for a little while. So we played it out, and the “Ron And Tammys” episode is when Ben audits the company and gives Tom a little warning—“You guys are gonna be bankrupt in a month.” And they mostly ignore his advice. [Laughs.] It was around this time that we felt like, “Okay, I think we’re ready to begin wrapping it up.”
It’s tricky, because Tom isn’t completely incompetent. Tom has a lot of dreams, and a lot of his dreams and inventions are ridiculous—but he does have a knack with people. He has a way of sycophantically flattering people that makes them like him. That’s why Joan Callamezzo likes him. And there are certain skills that he has, that if he were older and more mature and had a better business partner than Jean-Ralphio—who’s the worst business partner you could imagine—he could someday theoretically be a successful business owner. The idea behind Entertainment 720 was, “This is going to be that seminal private-sector failure in Tom’s life that is going to teach him it’s not just about dreaming big and thinking big and swaggering around.” And so this episode was about that coming home to roost, where he still thinks at the 11th hour, when everything is falling apart, he can just throw a big party and turn everyone into a believer and save the day. Obviously that does not happen, and he does it piggybacking on an event for Leslie, which is a terrible, terrible mistake. [Laughs.]
AVC: The Entertainment 720 arc provides a nice contrast to the campaign. Parks And Recreation is a sunny, optimistic show, but not everyone’s dreams can come true.
MS: There are pragmatic realities to things, and the difference between Leslie and Tom is obvious: Leslie works really, really hard and thinks everything through, and Tom doesn’t work at all, and thinks nothing through. So as one star is rising, another is crashing down to earth. It allowed us to say, “Hey, it’s great to be a dreamer, and it’s good to be a striver, and it’s good to want more in your life, but if you don’t put in the work, then you’re never going to achieve those dreams.” He’ll never have his own cologne and his own line of designer sweatsuits—or whatever it is he’s looking for—if he doesn’t buckle down and learn about the realities. Tom makes a lot of fun of Ben for being a nerd when Ben is telling him that he needs to have revenue streams and do spreadsheets and file tax forms—but that’s not being a nerd, those are the basic facts of owning a business. You can’t just sit around in leopard-print slippers and drink champagne all day and think everything’s gonna work out somehow.
AVC: Was the Halloween party at Andy, April, and Ben’s place intended to shed some light on Ben and Andy’s relationship?
MS: Yes. Ben had been living there for a while, and we hadn’t gotten into what the dynamic of that crazy house was like, with the three of them living together. That whole story was built around a talking head that we did where each character explained whether they have siblings, if so, how many, and what their sibling dynamic was like. And Ben talks about how his WASP-y family keeps everything buttoned up inside and doesn’t ever talk about their problems or what’s bothering them. April has a sister with whom she engages in outward, public one-on-one battles. Andy has five brothers, and they just beat the shit out of each other all the time. [Laughs.] And so those are the strategies—April is psychological warfare, Andy is physical warfare, and Ben is no warfare at all, except for private seething. The point of it was to show, “Here’s what happens when people who have those three methods of dealing or not dealing with problems come into direct conflict.” And ultimately, Andy’s version, which is “just beat the crap out of someone,” wins the day.
I’m a very non-confrontational person—Ben’s method would be my method. When I worked at Saturday Night Live, one of my bosses was Steve Higgins, who’s a producer on SNL and is now Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night announcer. Steve had several brothers, and Andy’s story is a little bit Steve’s story, which is that Steve and his brothers—all of whom are gigantic men—used to pound the crap out of each other. And even today, in their 40s and 50s, they still pound the crap out of each other. Steve used to come running into my office and scream at me—in a joking way—that I had to get out of my head, and would punch me on the arm so hard. He bruised me repeatedly. And he would take off his shirt, and tackle me to the ground, and talk like Robert Mitchum, and rub his naked belly in my face. It was completely and horribly abusive. It also probably made me laugh harder than any repeated action has ever made me laugh. I would laugh so hard, I would choke and not be able to breathe. It was so funny and so different—I grew up with two sisters, and I was the middle child, and I never had any of that real experience—and Steve Higgins introduced me to what it’s like to solve problems or discuss things with physical violence. [Laughs.] Andy’s whole worldview is based on Steve Higgins at some level.
“End Of The World” (November 3, 2011)
The Reasonabilists, the cult that controlled Pawnee in the 1970s, makes its most recent end-times proclamations. This mostly means paperwork for the parks department, but the thought of the world ending pushes Leslie toward Ben—and April and Andy to the Grand Canyon. (Or is it Mount Rushmore?)
AVC: This was your first “written by” credit for the season. What does that credit mean in the Parks And Rec writers’ room?
MS: Well, the stories are all broken in a group, and we go over them and over them and over them, and we pitch jokes, we refine the stories, we do a lot of work—and then that whole mess of notes and outlines and stuff is given to one writer. That writer goes off and writes the first draft. And then from that point on, that writer is in charge of the episode. That writer will be on the stage the whole time, and they’ll be in charge of producing the episode and working with the director. Once they write the draft and they turn it back in, I’ll do a pass on it, and then I’ll turn it over to the room with notes, and then we’ll do the rewrite. And then the same thing will happen after the table read—we’ll do another pass and another rewrite. But it’s really about that first draft, and taking all of the work that the room has done and forging it into a fine blade of Valyrian steel. Sometimes on shows, a writing credit ends up meaning very little, because episodes are largely group-written. I like to think that means a little bit more on our show, because it doesn’t matter whether it’s a staff writer or a co-executive producer—we try to give the writer of the original draft a lot of authority, and try to keep everything we can of what they’ve done for the first draft.
AVC: The seeds for this episode were also planted in “Time Capsule,” where Leslie makes an allusion to the local cult, The Reasonabilists.
MS: The first mention was where she says that one of the slogans of the town was “Engage with Zorp,” because the town had been taken over by a cult. And that was always lingering, like, “We’d love to meet some of those cult members sometime.” So that was out there, waiting for us. That old weirdo, that radio guy who kept announcing the apocalypse was coming, Harold Camping—I became obsessed with him, because he announced the world was going to end on October 27 or something. And that was on a Friday, and we were going to try to make the episode air on the Thursday before that. We ended up not being able to do that. But I was obsessed with that guy, because he made this huge prediction months in advance, and it was like, “Man, that is such short-term thinking.” Because the world is not going to end on that day, and it’s going to be really embarrassing for him. And I know that he’s one of hundreds and hundreds of people who, for different reasons, predict the end of the world will happen on a specific date. I know he’s not in his right mind, and you can’t expect rational ideas to percolate from someone like that. He’s predicted it before, and he would predict it again—right after it happened, he was like, “Oh wait, I was wrong—it’s six months from now.” So I thought it would be funny if we met that cult and if that cult was constantly predicting the end of the world, to the point where all it meant to the town was a minor inconvenience for the parks and rec department, who had to take care of certain permits for them, and chaperone them as they waited out the end of the world in the parks. So that was the way it was treated in the episode: “Oh, really? Okay, well, let’s see what park is available.”
I didn’t want anyone at all to take the threat seriously. I wanted it to be like, “This has happened 50 times before, and will happen 50 times again.” What became interesting was that everyone in the world that I talked to was also obsessed with Harold Camping and made a lot of fun of him, and we talked about how ridiculous it was and all that sort of stuff. But as that day grew closer, everyone was also like [adopts falsetto voice], “You know what’s interesting is, I’m kind of thinking about what would happen if the world did end.” You can’t help it if you contemplate, even in the most ridiculous circumstances, the world ending. Then it’s just a moment where you reflect on your life and on what choices you’ve made—would you feel a sense of calmness and security in the choices you’ve made, or would you freak out and panic and say, “Oh God, I’ve never seen the Great Wall of China!”? Or both? That was the design of the episode: Everyone know it’s ridiculous, everyone knows it’s stupid, but if the end of the world as a concept is swirling around people’s brains, how do they react, and what kind of things do they do? Which is why Leslie has her little freakout about Ben possibly dating another woman.
AVC: And then she has that conversation with Ron.
MS: Yes. That was, again, the fulcrum of the episode. This was like a wrap-up of the first chunk of episodes to me. That Leslie would have this realization that if the world were ending, she would want to be with Ben. And that she would express that to Ron, and that it would be the first time that she said out loud what she had probably been thinking since the moment they broke up. It’s not getting easier, for her, being away from him—it’s getting harder. And that that would send her on a path where she would come to realize that she cared more about those feelings than she can tolerate, and that she would act on them.
“The Treaty” (November 10, 2011)
The unresolved romantic tension between Leslie and Ben spills over into a session of the Pawnee Central High School Model UN, nearly claiming thousands of theoretical Danish and Peruvian lives.
AVC: “End Of The World” forms an interesting pair with the next episode, “The Treaty,” where the small-scale drama Ben and Leslie are going through is shot through the large-scale metaphor of the Model UN.
MS: Yes. The fun of that was putting Leslie and Ben in a situation that they both love. And that’s why they have their excitement in the cold open. I love Adam’s talking head. It was semi-improvised—it was one of many versions he did when he went, “Oh, I don’t know, I didn’t really do Model UN in high school. Except, oh wait, I super-did.” It was like, “If we’re going to have them really have it out and discuss their relationship for the first meaningful time since they broke up, it should come out of a place where their particular brand of nerdiness overlaps.” And this Model UN seemed like the perfect setting for that.
We got really scared, though, because we broke that whole episode—I think Harris Wittels wrote it, I think he had even turned in the first draft—and then we heard Community had also done a Model UN episode. It was like, “Oh shit.” So we weren’t sure whether we would be able to do it, but I was confident that the ways our show and Community handled the topic would be different. But I called Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan, the showrunners at Community, and they were incredibly nice about it. And they even sent me their shooting draft, and said, “Go ahead, take a look,” and they were very nice about that. And I read it and realized it was extremely different. And they were going to air like six weeks apart, and I don’t think anybody—apart from the fact that A.V. Club commenters would probably do a second-by-second breakdown of both episodes and determine which jokes were better than other jokes—would really see any problem with it.
AVC: Was there a sudden influx of former Model UN participants in writers’ rooms this season?
MS: [Laughs.] Well, no. I think there are 10 million television shows in the world, and comedies are all written by comedy writers, and dramas are all written by drama writers, and when that happens, you get these random moments—it’s something in the zeitgeist, or it’s just complete random chance. If you flip a thousand coins in the air, or if you ask a thousand people to name a number between one and a million, 16 of them are all gonna say “4,520.” That’s not statistically accurate, don’t check my math on that. There are so many shows on TV, and comedy writers are all working out of some kind of giant collective brain, where they have certain characters who need to have conflicts and tensions and scenarios and settings and locales. Two movies about asteroids hitting earth came out like a month apart. That’s not a good analogy, because it works differently in the movie industry, where one studio is doing a movie about something, and then another studio decides to dig up an old script about that same thing and try to beat them to the punch. But in the world of comedy, it’s just happenstance.
“Smallest Park” (November 17, 2011)
The parks department—in the midst of an Entertainment 720-engineered rebranding—races to build Indiana’s smallest park. The adorably tiny green space acts as the perfect setting for Leslie and Ben’s reconciliation.
AVC: Chelsea Peretti is the credited writer on this episode—given the show’s reputation for producing female showrunners, what are you doing to keep Chelsea on staff?
MS: Well, now that you bring it up, it’s too late. She’s already run off. Chelsea’s leaving our show, sadly. She wants to focus on her stand-up career, and ideally, I think, develop a show for herself. So we lost another one. It’s impossible to keep women on our writing staff. But only because they’re good, and they go do other, bigger things. It’s a good problem. It means we’re hiring the right people.
This is the first script Chelsea wrote for us. It originally had a totally different B-story—or C-story, I guess you would call it, where the office was playing four square in the courtyard, and a lot of different people were confident about what good four-square players they were, and had been in school. We wrote it, and it was very funny, but we realized it was almost impossible to film. It would have just been so endlessly difficult to film an actual game of four square, so we bailed on it.
This was also the first “All right, let’s have them kiss each other” moment for Leslie and Ben. That was the move. Nicole Holofcener directed it, and she did the shot of them actually kissing in the tiny park at the end, and it was so beautiful and cinematic, and it gives a giant middle finger to the entire idea of mockumentary television making. [Laughs.] Because the camera is right in their faces, and it has beautiful sweeping movement, and if we were the kind of show that uses music, a lot of music would have swelled at that minute. But Nicole said that that’s how she wanted to do it, and I was like, “Yeah, you know what, that’s gonna look a lot better than a spy-shot through some leaves. So go nuts, go crazy.” And I’m so glad she did it that way, because I think it looks great.
AVC: She took your advice to heart, because isn’t there a crane shot at the end of the episode?
MS: There might be. What’s your point? [Laughs.] The Office was incredibly rigid when it came to mockumentary rules, in part because it had to be—it was re-introducing the idea of mockumentary to American TV. And so for that reason, the show was incredibly strict about camera placement, and about what you could and couldn’t see, and what kinds of tools you could use to shoot those things. It was also shot 95 percent indoors, in the same four rooms, so things like cranes and all that sort of stuff would never come into play. But I think it loosened up the world for viewers at home, and I think viewers are a lot more used to it now. If you watch any of the shows that are either actual mockumentaries or a mockumentary in style—and there’s a bunch of them—the rules are much looser. We can get away with more, and we don’t need to teach a visual vocabulary to anybody. Everybody’s already very, very familiar with how these shows look and what they’re like. And our show is just outside more than The Office was. There’s a lot more on-location shooting, and it gets very dull to do a very, very strict mockumentary style when you’re outside and moving around the world as much as we are. So we still have certain rules that we use, but we gave up on the strict style manual a long time ago.
AVC: That’s especially apparent later in this season, as elements like the talking heads fall away, and the show becomes more of a cinéma-vérité sitcom. Was that intentional?
MS: Yeah, those stories have a lot of momentum—events are tumbling on each other as you get down to the waning moments of the campaign. You don’t choose mockumentary randomly as a style to shoot a show in—you choose it because it serves the themes and the ideas of the show. And certainly with The Office—and this came right from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant—the idea was that we were going to be a fly on the wall, we’re going to make it look like a real documentary of the middling lives of these average people in this average business in this average town. The main character of that show, both in the British and American versions, the whole point was that he thought he was hilarious, and he believed deeply that everybody loved him, and so the mockumentary style was great for that, because it showed him acting for the cameras, trying to be this huge, funny clown. And then you got to whip over and see the less-than-enthusiastic reactions of the people for whom he was ostensibly performing. That style fit that show perfectly, and I don’t think you could have done The Office, British or American, without the mockumentary style, without the tiny glances to camera, and without the main character who is performing all the time.
In our show, we realized early on that Leslie is not performing for anyone. Leslie is completely authentic through and through, she doesn’t care what people think of her, necessarily, or whether she comes off as cool, or any of the stuff Michael Scott or David Brent cared about. That means it is not as vital that we stick to that style, because it is not as vital to the theme of the show. We still love it, because it allows us to get exposition out in funny, brief ways—you know, people can just tell the cameras what is going on, which is a very excellent tool. It’s a tool that, if you don’t have it, you end up with a lot of conversations where people speak unnaturally, where they say things like, “Bill, you’re my best friend, and we’ve known each other for 25 years”—things no one would ever say to each other. We don’t have to do any of that, because we have the device of people explaining to the cameras what’s happening that day. I still love that, and I can’t imagine doing TV without it. But when you get an arc or an episode that has a lot of forward momentum and doesn’t need any exposition like that, then you can eliminate some of the aspects of the mockumentary format without disrupting the show—you don’t have to have talking heads if you don’t want them, and you don’t have to have the characters interacting with the cameras that much if you don’t want to. So it’s maximum flexibility for us.
AVC: Does the fact that Leslie isn’t performing for the cameras help the character nail emotional notes like the one at the end of this episode?
MS: The thing that makes those work is that Amy is awesome, and she’s a good actress. But you can imagine how bad and inappropriate it would be in that moment in “Smallest Park” if she were camera-aware. If she glanced at the camera or acted like she was concerned about whether she was being caught or not—that’s inappropriate for that moment, and that would have ruined that moment. You have to believe those two people are just alone, out in the middle of nowhere, standing on this tiny patch of green that she’s created, completely indifferent to the rest of the world—that’s why it’s emotional and interesting, and that’s why it’s great that the camera gets that close to them without them recognizing that it’s there.
The actors, in large part, make up their own minds when they want to relate to the cameras or not. We used to write it in occasionally, but we haven’t done it in a long time, because the actors know their characters well enough to know when they should or shouldn’t do it. And in this case, obviously Amy didn’t do it, and she shouldn’t have, so it all worked out. [Laughs.]
“The Trial Of Leslie Knope” (December 1, 2011)
The details of Leslie and Ben’s clandestine affair are made known to Chris, who calls a disciplinary hearing at city hall—a move he can only make with the right blend of supplements. Character witnesses are called, and the most damning evidence comes from Li’l Sebastian’s memorial service.
AVC: Do you see this episode as the turning point in the season, thematically and plot-wise?
MS: It’s probably a turning point for the whole character—the idea of calling the episode “The Trial Of Leslie Knope” was to say that she made certain decisions in her life, she knew what she was getting into, and she is also running for office now, and things have consequences. She’s going to be put on trial for her actions, she’s not going to get off unscathed—it’s not going to be a magical TV reality where someone swoops in at the end and everything is fine. These three episodes—“Smallest Park,” “The Trial Of Leslie Knope,” and then “Citizen Knope,” the Christmas episode—were all of a piece. It was like, “All right, I’m making a decision that I want to be with you, and that decision comes with certain requirements, like we have to tell our boss that we dated for a long time when we weren’t supposed to. We’ve got to get this all out in the open—no more secrets, no more subterfuge.” And then you see the results of that, which are that revealing an indiscretion leads to an investigation into possible other indiscretions. And it’s not Leslie who ends up getting punished—it’s Ben who throws himself on his sword for her. Their lives take adverse turns because of their decision to be together, which is a romantic notion, I guess. But we also wanted to show that this is not a magical, happy world where everything is always just going to be okay. When our characters make these kinds of decisions, bad stuff happens because of them.
AVC: So, in that regard, it’s the Empire Strikes Back of the series?
MS: [Laughs.] Yeah, I suppose it is. Any comparison to The Empire Strikes Back will always make me happy, so I’ll take it. Also, we knew at the beginning of the year that the season was going to be divided into two parts, that the first half of the year was going to be Leslie running for office with a slick campaign team who had her on a smooth course toward victory—and then her personal life was going to interrupt that and cause everything to go haywire. The second half of the year would be her friends stepping up and saying, “We don’t know how to do this, we have no idea what we’re doing, but we love you, and we’re going to help you,” and turning into the Bad News Bears, where the ragtag bunch of misfits tries to figure out how to come together. So this was the climax of the first half of the year, all of the stuff coming out, and the consequences of her actions.
AVC: Chris’ rule against superiors fraternizing with their subordinates hung over the show like a specter for about a season and a half. Was it a relief to let that sword drop?
MS: Yeah, it was, and it was even more of a relief to write the line that I wished I could have written a long time earlier: Leslie refers to it as “your rule,” and he says, “It’s not my rule. This is a rule that exists in every government everywhere in America,” which is true. And sometimes I would read Internet reactions like, “Who cares, screw Chris, he stinks, that’s a dumb rule.” But the reality is, that is a standard rule—that people in positions of authority cannot date their inferiors or vice versa in government—and it’s just not done. You can’t legislate relationships, but in the case where two people wanted to date, they would have to be put in a situation where one of them wasn’t in any way reporting to the other one. And there’s a very good reason for this, obviously: The government is entrusted with the will of the people, and they’re paid by the public that they serve, and if favorable behavior is given to people because of a personal relationship, that’s not what the taxpayers deserve. So it was a relief to be able to bring that storyline to a close, but also to have our characters explain to the audience—some of whom maybe thought that it was just this one guy who had this one kind of stickler-y rule—that this was a serious thing, that this would be the case whether they were in Pawnee or in Chicago or in L.A. or anywhere. So that was a relief to be able to just have Rob Lowe say those words very clearly and straightforwardly.
AVC: Parks And Rec temporarily transformed into a legal drama for this episode; later episodes took on the trappings of political dramas and police procedurals. What other costumes would you like to dress the show in?
MS: Kabuki, obviously. [Laughs.] I’m not sure. That wasn’t a plan or anything. I mean, the trial obviously came naturally out of the situation we were in. It also came pretty directly from the fact that Poehler is obsessed with Law & Order. I think she’s probably seen every episode of Law & Order that was ever produced at least four times. And we liked the idea of putting her into a situation where she was in a quasi-courtroom and was enacting her Law & Order fantasies as a defense attorney. [Laughs.] We’re not Community, we don’t do genre-bending stuff all the time as laboratory experiments—which they do, and which is fascinating to watch. I really enjoy it. But our show is not aiming for that same goal. I think it’s probably accidental that that is the case. Although I guess you could say that with the crime-procedural thing, with Bert Macklin, the characters have imaginative lives, they have rich imaginations, and they enjoy putting themselves into different scenarios like that. But if we ever do that, it’s because it comes out of what the characters think, not out of a desire to genre-bend. [Pause.] Is that a verb? I think that’s a verb.