Showrunner Michael Schur on building Parks And Recreation’s fourth season (Part 4 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 and part two, and part three, this section covers episodes 14 through 18, beginning with “Operation Ann” and ending with “Lucky.”
“Operation Ann” (February 2, 2012)
Leslie sends Ben on a Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt so she can focus on her main goal for the holiday: finding a date for Ann. Those efforts fail, however, until April orchestrates an unlikely love connection.
Michael Schur: April’s on a little bit of a slightly nicer than usual kick, I guess. Not huge strides, but baby steps toward being a warmer person. April still hates Ann because Ann kissed Andy like two years ago. [Laughs.] And also because she’s just the kind of person April hated in high school and still just continues to hate out of inertia: a pretty, nice girl who’s self-confident. But yeah, it was nice to create a story where April was the one who threw her feelings out of the situation and actually helped Ann. We had this idea—for comedy purposes only—to get Ann and Tom together for a while, and see what would happen with that.
The A.V. Club: Did you anticipate how controversial the Ann/Tom pairing turned out?
MS: We talked about this in the room—I was 100 percent sure that, of the fans of the show and casual viewers, there would be a certain percentage who wouldn’t like this move. I think that’s true no matter what. Whenever you get two characters on a show together, there’s always gonna be people who think you’re blowing it, because, “This character should go for this other person,” or, “This isn’t right,” or, “Why are you doing this?” It’s also just a move that happens on TV shows a lot. It’s like in the final year of Friends, they were like, “We gotta tell a story somehow, so guess what: Joey and Rachel are getting together.” [Laughs.] Romance is a huge part of comedy, and TV shows get characters together and break them up in order to be able to tell stories that are interesting.
It does not surprise me at all that some people didn’t like this move. I totally anticipated that; everybody anticipated that. We talked about it with Rashida [Jones] and Aziz [Ansari], like, “There’s gonna be people who hate this, so whatever.” I just didn’t care. All I care about, with any story, whether it’s romance or otherwise, is that it makes sense. And this story made sense to me because the whole thing was casual—it was never deeply emotional or meaningful to either of them. They’re roughly the same age, they live in a small-to-medium sized town, and they’re both single—it’s uncontroversial to me that they would go on a few dates. I think that sometimes people judge things before they actually see them, and that may have happened here, because it was like [yells], “Why would Ann go out with him?! Ahhh! Why?!” Like, totally panicked. If you didn’t like it, you didn’t like it, that’s fine—everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion. But the story made sense to me, and I found the characters really funny during the story. I think I said this to Alan Sepinwall: How many minutes did we devote to this story? Maybe 31. It was not a significant part of this season; it was purely done for comedic moments. To me, that whole storyline was worth it just to get Aziz to improvise an R&B song to Ann in the sound studio, because it was hilarious. It’s totally valid if you didn’t like it as a story, but I enjoyed it.
AVC: In that Sepinwall interview, you say “not every storyline has to go somewhere.” That’s an important distinction for this season, which contains a lot of long-term, plot-based material, but still experimented with little character-based arcs like Ann and Tom’s relationship. Do you think people saw “Operation Ann” and assumed that relationship was going to be a major part of the season’s second half?
MS: I totally stand by [that answer]. What’s important on a comedy show, or any show, is that some stories have to go somewhere. There have to be ends to the beginnings and middles you create. But sometimes it’s like a way station on the highway, and as long as the stories you can tell are either interesting or funny—or ideally, both—and as long as the characters end up in a different place, then the actual thing doesn’t have to be this giant, climactic, life-changing, game-changing thing.
We looked at our landscape around this point in the season and decided this: Leslie and Ben are on this incredible, intense journey together as they march further into their relationship, and as she marches closer and closer to this giant election that’s going to change her life and the lives of everyone they work with. Chris and Ron are gonna have these huge professional changes at stake. Andy’s on this self-realization journey as he’s taking classes and growing up. April moves up in the world. We do a lot of these meaty stories about how the characters’ lives change and how they relate to each other and what they want and dream about. And then it’s just like, “Well, maybe we should just have Ann and Tom fuck around with each other for a couple episodes, and not everything has to be this gigantic, meaningful thing.”
If you didn’t find the story funny, that would be a perfectly valid criticism. But I think there was this sense of, “Well, it’s not going anywhere!” Well, it doesn’t have to go somewhere in that sense. I reject that as a legitimate criticism. It wasn’t intended to be a huge story—it was intended to be what it was: a casual, ill-fated trial run for a man and a woman to hang out and see if they have anything in common. I would venture to guess that everyone above the age of 19 has had a number of relationships in their lives that didn’t necessarily “go anywhere,” that nonetheless have some value to them. That was the other thing: We had so many soulmate-y, deep relationships on the show: April and Andy got married right away and are always cooing at each other. Leslie and Ben are falling more and more in love every day. It was never gonna be that; it was always going to be just for fun.
“Dave Returns” (February 16, 2012)
Securing an endorsement from Pawnee’s outgoing chief of police proves tricky for Ben for two reasons: One, he’s terrified of cops. Two, it involves asking a favor from Leslie’s ex-boyfriend Dave, who has lingering feelings for his former flame.
AVC: Dave was an important device for showing Leslie’s human side in the show’s second season. Was his return intended to illustrate how much she’s changed since he left Pawnee?
MS: Yeah, partially. It was also intended to get Louis C.K. back on our show. [Laughs.] That was a very formative thing for us, when he was on the show in his first arc. It was the first time we relied on a guest star, and he was just so awesome. It was also very formative for Leslie, because the point of this story as it originally occurred was that she had a little bit of a snobby feeling toward him. She had this feeling of, “He doesn’t know who Madeleine Albright is, and he’s not super-smart, and he’s not the kind of man I should be dating.” It’s pointed out to her—well, she half realizes and half has it pointed out to her—that he’s a really nice person who cares about her, and his intellect is not the most important part of him. There are many other aspects of his personality that are winning. And so she ends up liking him because he treats her well, and he respects her, and he admires her, and the things he likes about her are all these wonderful qualities she has. So it’s partially to show how far she’s come, but it’s also partially to remind her that he’s a good person and that she learned something from dating him.
Also, the idea of this was “Let’s get Amy Poehler, Adam Scott, and Louis C.K. to a restaurant, sit them down at a table, and not let them leave for 20 minutes.” [Laughs.] That was honestly how we pitched it. All we knew was that the three of them were gonna go out to dinner, and it was gonna be super-awkward. It was what some people would refer to as “cringe humor,” which is not a term I particularly like, because I feel like, at some level, all humor is cringe humor. It’s about making you feel uncomfortable, whether that’s by having someone fall down on their face or by having someone say something embarrassing. In this case, the point of the episode was to put the main character in a classically awkward situation. Dave was a character who always wore his heart on his sleeve, and so we figured that as soon as he had one second alone with Leslie, he was just gonna come out and tell her he was still in love with her and make the rest of the dinner really unpleasant for Leslie.
AVC: This episode is directed by Robert B. Weide, who’s done a lot of work on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Did having him around help nail the awkward tone of those scenes?
MS: That was totally accidental. We just wanted to have him direct an episode, and he ended up with that one, which was perfect. It was the right tone for a Curb director. He did a really good job. I also feel like if you had no one manning the cameras and trained them on those three actors and let them roll forever, we probably could’ve made a good episode.
AVC: Can any currently working comic actor make insecurity as funny as Louis C.K. can?
MS: No, I don’t think so. I mean, Adam’s close, frankly. His fear of cops—which is a trait I personally share—delights me to no end. There’s an awesome moment—and this is why Adam Scott’s great—where Leslie’s giving a talking-head interview in the parking lot of the police station, and Adam is sitting in their car waiting for her to finish so they can drive home. Deep in the background, an unseen extra in a police uniform walks through the frame, and Adam reacts as if someone just jumped out and yelled “Boo!” in a haunted house. It’s this tiny little moment where no one told him to do that, he was just so in character, and he latched onto that character trait of being afraid of cops so thoroughly that he just did that in the deep background of a talking head. The two of them—insecurity is their bread and butter, I would say, Adam and Louie. They’re so funny playing that color, in very different ways.
AVC: That episode is also where the campaign song “Catch Your Dream” debuts. Harris Wittels wrote that episode—did he write the song, too?
MS: No, all the songs are written by Mark Rivers, who’s the drummer in Mouse Rat. We just sort of tell him what we want, and then he—seemingly about 20 minutes later—sends us a perfectly conceived and executed version of what we wanted. He writes a lot of the lyrics, and then sometimes [Chris] Pratt will also write some of the lyrics. Sometimes one of the writers will help, but usually it’s 85 percent Mark Rivers.
“Catch Your Dream,” if you actually listen to the lyrics, is so subtly funny, because it’s about, like, hunting and catching and shooting down your dream—your dream, in the song, is like an eagle. He’s talking about how you have to shoot your dreams down and catch them and lock them up in a cage. It’s the exact wrong imagery for an inspirational song, and so it’s perfect. This is how Andy Dwyer ham-fistedly tries to encapsulate the idea of what you should be doing with your dreams. But it’s also really catchy. I was talking to Mark at our wrap party, and he was saying that every single Mouse Rat song is in the key of G, which is the most basic, happiest, major-chord key signature, and it makes perfect sense. It’s like, “Yes, that’s what Andy likes.” He likes things that are happy and fun and catchy and that have good melodies you can belt out.
AVC: April spends a lot of the episode hiding the fact that “Catch Your Dream” is being recorded at the studio frequented by Ron’s sax-playing alter ego, Duke Silver. How satisfying is it to remind the viewers that April knows Ron’s secret identity?
MS: It’s nice that she shares that secret, because that story would have been hard to tell if there weren’t one person Ron could talk to about his problem. For a while, we had a different Duke Silver story planned for the year. Leslie was going to get a significant campaign contribution from someone named Duke Silver. And there was going to be an ethics investigation into who this person was, because they didn’t have a home address, and someone was going to think it was fraud or something. They were going to track him down, and the secret of Duke Silver was going to be revealed to everybody. The idea was that all of Leslie’s friends have volunteered to help her in the campaign, but that also made their lives open books, and Ron’s most shameful secret was going to be writ large. We went pretty far down the road of trying to break that episode, but we never cracked it. At the end of the day, Ron cares a lot about this, but it’s not like he murdered someone or robbed a bank. Still, it had been a long time since Duke Silver made an appearance, so we wanted to work him in somehow.
“Sweet Sixteen” (February 23, 2012)
Everyone forgets Jerry’s birthday, which is easy not only because Jerry is the department pariah, but also because he was born on Leap Day. Leslie cobbles together a surprise party, but in a very Jerry turn of events, no one remembers to invite the guest of honor.
AVC: Are you ever tempted to let Jerry win?
MS: I don’t think it’s in his nature to win. I think a win for Jerry is different from what it is for other people. He is very effective as a story-breaking tool. I mean, the title of the episode is about his birthday, and the entire episode is ostensibly about his birthday, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with him. Everyone is circling around him and is off in their own stories, and he’s just sort of a prop that gets used in order to tell the story. So I don’t know what it would even look like for Jerry to win. His whole character is based on keeping his head down and doing his job and trying to put a smile on his face. He’s not an ambitious person at all, he’s not striving for anything—he just wants to get by. He loves his wife and his daughters, and he likes fishing, and he wants to retire and spend time with his wife. The win will be when we let Jerry go do that.
AVC: And until then, it’s just slow-motion pies to the face and forgetting to vote for Leslie?
MS: Yeah—he’s the most well-intentioned punching bag in television history.
AVC: Does that have to do with the affable way Jim O’Heir plays the character?
MS: Jim is just an immensely likeable guy. He’s a big teddy bear. We happened to stumble on the idea that Jerry is a punching bag, and Jim happens to play a punching bag really well. It’s a nice dovetail of a talented performer and a good idea from the writing staff. I’ve said this before, but we didn’t have a character for Jerry when we started the show. We just wanted to add a couple more characters, and we auditioned people with random signs that I put up, and we just were like, “All right, it’s Jim O’Heir and Retta. We don’t know who they are, we don’t know what kind of people they are, we have no backstory for them, but we love the performers, and we think they fit in the world visually.” We would do improv exercises with Amy and Retta, and then with Aziz and Jim, and it seemed to be funny, we liked the different dynamics, so we just sort of thought, “Well fuck it, we’ll figure it out later.” So season two was largely about figuring out who they are. In the “digging up dirt” episode [“Practice Date”], Mark sprung it on Jerry that his adoptive mother was arrested for marijuana possession, and Jerry said, “I didn’t know I was adopted.” We were like “Oh, there it is: He’s a punching bag. He’s a sad, sad punching bag.”
In real life, by the way, Jim O’Heir is 49. We made him 64 on the show, which is so mean. There’s an inside joke in “Sweet Sixteen” about how we aged Jim by 15 years. In the scene where Leslie is doing the roundtable party-planning session, she says, “Jerry is turning 64 this year,” and Pratt improvised the line, “He’s only 64?” Which was just yet another indignity that the real-life Jim O’Heir had to suffer at the hands of his fellow castmates. They miss his birthday, they plan a birthday for him, they forget to invite him, they rip him out of his bathtub, Leslie drags him all over the city, they force the birthday party to happen at midnight, Leslie falls asleep on Jerry—it’s just indignity after indignity. But the nice thing about the episode is at the end, Leslie makes up for it because she gets everyone to pitch in, and she sends Jerry and his wife to their favorite B&B in Muncie. I love that he lives in Pawnee, Indiana, and his favorite place on Earth is Muncie, Indiana. He’s not a big dreamer, Jerry.
“Campaign Shake-Up” (March 1, 2012)
While Bobby Newport parties his way through Spain, he’s represented on the homefront by his shrewd new campaign manager, Jennifer Barkley (Kathryn Hahn). With Leslie busy competing against Jennifer to court the elderly vote, the parks department devolves into a water-fountain-induced chaos only April can tame.
AVC: With regard to Jennifer Barkley, did you want a character who could legitimately outwit Leslie and Ben?
MS: Yes, that was the whole point: The Newport campaign, sensing this sure thing slipping away, brings in a hardcore ringer. We wanted her to run rings around them the entire time. They’re riding pretty high, and we needed to throw a wrench into the works.
This very crudely drawn graph exists in our writers’ room, which was the general arc of the second half of the season for Leslie and her team. The Y-axis is how good things are going, and the X-axis is the episode numbers. It was a pretty steady line going up, and then I was like, “Maybe around episode 17, there needs to be a hitch,” and the line suddenly slopes severely downward. Then for the rest of the episodes, it crawls back up to the point where Leslie would go into the finale essentially tied with Bobby. We threw that up on the wall as a general guide for the rest of the year, and it ended up being almost exactly right. The way it worked out, episode 17 was the one where we introduced Jennifer. For the first time, Bobby [Newport’s campaign] was being run by someone who was competent, whose first move as a campaign advisor was to send him to Europe to get him the hell out of town so he would stop talking and blowing it for himself.
AVC: We talked about how Jennifer was one of the characters written with a specific actress in mind. Once you had Kathryn Hahn on the set, how much did she contribute to forming that character?
MS: A lot. That’s true of everyone who’s ever been on the show: They contribute a lot. But this character was tailored for her. Our basic note to her was just, “Do what you do.” I pitched her the character and the general arc on the phone. Kathryn is one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. She’s constantly laughing and shrieking and giggling and talking about how wonderful things are. She’s just a truly delightful human being. My pitch to her was “Leslie’s doing great, Ben’s doing great with Leslie, you come in, and everything falls to pieces. And, as a bonus, you don’t care at all about any of this.” That was very important. She couldn’t care less. She got paid a huge amount of money to come to Nowhereville, Indiana and take over the campaign of some rich, spoiled kid. And that was what was nice about setting her up as a foil for Leslie, because Leslie exclusively cares about Pawnee. She cares a little about Ben and a lot about Pawnee. So it was nice to introduce a character who was in the opposite camp, who could not have cared less about the details of anything that was going on at all. She was a pure mercenary. It makes it a difficult kind of person for Leslie to fight, because there’s no toehold you can get into Jen Barkley—she just doesn’t give a shit. Ultimately, there’s a tiny lesson Leslie can take from that, which is you have to be a little bit tough, and you have to approach things with a dash of Jen Barkley if you want to get things done in the world of politics.
AVC: Is the general M.O. for outsiders who come to Pawnee to completely dismiss the city?
MS: Certainly the Jen Barkley-types. The city mice who come to the country. In the finale, when they start the recount, she literally collapses onto a table and says, “I just want to go home.” There was some funny improvising Kathryn did in some of the takes after that where she was going, “I miss martinis. I miss traffic. I miss museums.” But it depends. Justin Theroux’s character in season two was a city mouse. Granted, the city was Indianapolis, but he was a more worldly human being. But he liked Pawnee. He liked the authenticity and the small-town flavor of it, and he was a little bit condescending in the way he liked it, but he still liked it. So there’s no kind of playbook we run—it just depends character to character.
AVC: The episode’s other big guest appearance comes courtesy of Carl Reiner. How did you go about getting him for the part of the most influential senior citizen in Pawnee?
MS: Dan Goor wrote and directed the episode, and he’s a huge Carl Reiner fan. But for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to us to try to get him. Literally, just one day when we were in the rewrite process, it was like, “Oh, the only person who should play this is Carl Reiner.” So I wrote Dan an email, and he got super-geeked about it. He and I were both witness to a truly amazing event that was not televised—I think it was the Writers’ Guild Awards many years ago. Carl Reiner came out to present an award, and he talked for like 15 minutes and just killed, at a level that any stand-up comedian working today would love to be able to say they killed this hard. In a tough room—a room full of writers who were jaded and bored, and had been sitting in tuxedos at 5:30 in the afternoon in some hotel ballroom for three hours. And it was like, “Holy shit, Carl Reiner is still that funny.” It made a very lasting impression on both Dan and me, and I think everybody else who was there that day who didn’t already know that Carl Reiner was still that funny and sharp. So it occurred to me—why don’t we get him? Adam Scott was so geeked out about it that he bought an original poster of The Jerk and had Reiner sign it for him. Which was kind of awesome.
AVC: In terms of the public-health “crisis” Ann and April tackle in this episode, can you recall the origin of the gag involving Pawneeans wrapping their whole mouths around water fountains?
MS: I remember Dan pitching it to me. He’s the No. 2 guy on the writing staff, so oftentimes if I’m editing or working on something, he’ll come in and pitch something that the room has been working on. When he pitched it to me, I was like, “I don’t get that.” I couldn’t see it, and he was very insistent that it was the right move. And I was like, “All right, you seem passionate about it, that seems fine.” But I didn’t fully get it or think it was funny until I actually saw it. Once I saw it, I was like, “Oh goddamn, that’s so weird and funny!”
We set it up well as a local quirk or custom. There’s a lot of things like that in America. Every city, every town, every region has these weird things—the way they pronounce words, or what they call soda, or how people drive. It’s a huge country, and there’s all these strange pockets of behavioral patterns that social anthropologists could spend lifetimes researching and reporting on. And no one knows how they started or where they come from, and no one knows why they exist, but they just do. And I love that aspect of it, it’s just a new little detail about this weird city that we’ve chosen to set our show in, that when people drink from water fountains, they put their mouths completely over the spouts. I think it’s really neat from a world-building point of view.
AVC: Have you done any research into the region the show is set in so, say, you know your characters are identifying soda correctly?
MS: With things like that, we do, yeah. People in Indiana call soda “pop,” which they do in a large part of the country. So in the “Sweet Sixteen” episode, when Leslie’s planning the party, April says, “The usual? Cake and pop?” And originally the way that had been written was “cake and soda,” and someone pointed out that people in Indiana don’t say “soda,” they say “pop.” It sounds very foreign to me, because I’m from Connecticut, where people say “soda.” Pawnee is supposed to be its own little universe, and we don’t want to stay too rigidly tied to regional specificity, especially because we like to sometimes make it up—like people putting their mouths over water fountains. But with general things, it’s supposed to be a real town; it’s supposed to really be in southwestern Indiana. Early on, I remember we had written in something about the DMV, and it turns out that in Indiana, they call it the MVD, or some other combination of letters. So we went, “Oh shit,” and went back and changed the props and stuff to match what the reality was. So we do care about stuff like that. We want to get little details like that right whenever we can.
“Lucky” (March 8, 2012)
A potentially embarrassing situation arises when Leslie gets drunk before a big interview with journalist Buddy Wood (Sean Hayes). Meanwhile, Ron and Chris compete for the affections of Andy’s women’s studies professor (Danielle Bisutti).
AVC: Nick Offerman wrote this episode. How often do you have members of the cast offering to write?
MS: Well, we went to Poehler about it in season two and said, “I think you should write an episode.” I had witnessed her act as a writer on Saturday Night Live for years, and knew how good she was. She’s now written three of the best episodes we’ve ever done. It’s very, very hard to write a TV script that’s good, and I can honestly say that if all she did was write, she would be a coveted writer for any comedy staff in town. Nick came to us before the season and said he wanted to try his hand at it, and I said [jokingly], “Over my dead body, you son of a bitch, get out of my office,” which is how I always respond to any request Nick makes.
I come from that SNL world, where writers and actors are essentially the same. Much more actors being writers than writers being actors—but even so, sometimes the writers perform on SNL. And that was obviously the way Greg Daniels envisioned The Office, with Mindy [Kaling] and B.J. [Novak] and Paul [Lieberstein] and even me, occasionally, acting on the show. It’s more fun when people get to do different things. And Nick is a true artistic Renaissance man. When he was in Chicago, he worked at Steppenwolf, and he would act in the plays, do the fight choreography—because he’s a trained fight choreographer—and he was a master set constructor. So he would build sets, and then act in plays, and then teach the other actors how to fight with swords. So I was very excited about the idea of Nick writing, and he wrote a really, really funny script, and I want there to be more of that in the future, if there can be. Amy directed this season, and hopefully other actors will start doing that too, because I think it’s really fun for them, and it’s fun for me to see how they interpret the show and how they give notes to other actors.
AVC: And Nick got to have an extra bit of fun, because he wrote himself a small victory in this episode.
MS: Yes, he sure did. It should be noted that, like every episode of the show, the story was broken by the room, and Nick came and helped us, came up with different leads for it, and acted like a writer the whole time—which is the whole point. The point of writing a script is to act like a writer. So that detail—that Ron ended up bedding the hot women’s-studies professor—came from the room. It wasn’t like Nick going, “Hey, I have an idea. I should have sex with that hot lady.” Although I think he enjoyed playing that scene.
AVC: There’s an indication in this episode that Leslie might not be able to conquer Bobby Newport. Was the purpose of the airport employees “accidentally” losing the footage of the drunken interview meant to indicate that the people of Pawnee are behind her, even if the poll numbers aren’t?
MS: That was the design of the story: To show that hard work is its own reward, but it has other hidden rewards. [Laughs.] Because she is the kind of person who works tirelessly and selflessly to help other government employees with their problems, there’s this secret society of Leslie Knope worshippers out there. And when she’s treated very badly by a very mean, jerky guy who’s not from Pawnee, and who disrespects her and acts like an ass, that secret army of Knope supporters will step in and help her out. It was important for us in this episode to show she did not know that was happening, because that’s not something she would have condoned, I don’t think. And it’s not something she would have been okay with, that kind of slightly fraudulent activity. But we figured as long as she had no idea that it happened, and she really just chalked it up to good luck and good fortune, it could be okay. But you know, the episode was called “Lucky,” and the idea was to show that what she thinks is getting lucky is actually the result of all of the good deeds and hard work she’s put into the government over the years. So it’s not actually luck—being who she is ended up helping her.