Showrunner Michael Schur on building Parks And Recreation’s fourth season (Part 5 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 parts one, two, three, and four, this section covers episodes 19 through 22, beginning with “Live Ammo” and ending with the season finale, “Win, Lose, Or Draw.”
“Live Ammo” (April 19, 2012)
It’s parks department versus adorable animals as fantasy governments collide: Leslie learns a valuable lesson about politics and priorities from a city councilman played by an alum of the Jed Bartlet administration.
The A.V. Club: So a walk-and-talk right at the top of the episode was pretty much a given, right?
Michael Schur: Well, there were certain things that, as a fan of The West Wing, I wanted to do in order to make this a true homage. I made a list of them, and I crossed off most of them. There would be a weird snake-eating-its-own-tail effect if you were watching our show, and you hadn’t watched The West Wing. You would end up thinking, “Well, this is not for me, this is for people who are in the”—I’m going to use another Venn diagram analogy—“who are in the Venn diagram intersection of Parks And Rec fans and West Wing fans.” I never wanted to do anything that would call attention to itself or alienate people who weren’t a fan of The West Wing. So the walk-and-talk was a very natural thing, and it wasn’t very disruptive to the story. It was perfectly in tune with that story: Leslie was trying to get this guy’s attention, and he was a busy person who had things to do.
The only other real allusion we made was the napkin on Councilman Pillner’s desk that says “Pillner for Pawnee”—which is obviously a reference to a famous episode of The West Wing where you see a flashback to how Leo McGarry first approached Jed Bartlet about running for president, and he wrote “Bartlet for America” on a napkin and stuck it to an easel. [Jokingly] Spoiler alert, if you are 14 years behind your West Wing viewing: It’s revealed that Bartlet had that napkin framed, and he presents it back to Leo and says, “That was a very nice thing you did for me.” And it’s a wonderful episode of television; it’s one of my favorite West Wings that they ever did. That moment was very meaningful to me—great, emotional storytelling. Everything else that we could have done—including having Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe interact with each other in some way—we decided not to do. I didn’t want to get anywhere near the old, hacky, [affects high-pitched voice] “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” kind of thing that happens in these situations. So it really was just two tiny little things, both of which, if you weren’t a West Wing fan, would fly right by you, and you wouldn’t think twice about. That was the extent of our indulgence, I would say.
AVC: This episode pivots into hyper-political material: There are so many negotiations to be had, concessions to be made, and consequences to be weighed. Was this a hard one to break?
MS: Yeah, it was very hard. You could say that the third allusion we made to The West Wing was that the entire episode is sort of crafted like a West Wing episode. [Laughs.] The thing that was so impressive about The West Wing, when it was firing on all cylinders, was the way it would take intricate matters of governing and make them not only palatable, but entertaining. I was very excited by that, as a viewer, and always thought that when they did it well, it was fascinating. It did really interesting stories about really dry stuff. So we’re a comedy show, and we had to do that in a funny way. But that was the idea: “Look, there are practical realities to governing small towns, and we should try to show the mechanics of how they work.” How do deals get made, how do ideas surface, can you make a scene about two people poring through a city budget entertaining? The best episodes of The West Wing that dealt with policy and stuff, in my opinion, were the ones where they were in the middle of a crisis, and they were trying to figure out how to solve problems. So that was our goal for this, in order to make it entertaining—which is, after all, our job: To make it be about problem-solving in real time, in the sense that there’s a real deadline on this stuff. All of these things are happening now, Leslie needs to make these decisions now. That gave it a forward momentum and kept her from getting into this arcane and very arid territory of, like, “how a bill becomes a law.” That was what we wanted to avoid.
AVC: At this point in the season, April steps in to help pick up the parks-department slack while Leslie is campaigning, learning some lessons on policy along the way. Is April’s attempt at making up for the budget shortfall with the pet-adoption drive a way to show her how hard Leslie works?
MS: Yeah, a little bit—and also it was a loose end that we needed to tie up, because after the episode where she solves the water-fountain problem, Ron said, “I need to you to step up. I need you to fill in, take up some of the slack.” It was just out there—are we going to see that or what? We wanted to show it, so this was the episode where we showed her first, tiny attempt to stick her toes into the water and actually try. We’d had this idea for a long time: April tries to do something. We originally broke it in an episode where April held a youth rally. Leslie had put her in charge of the youth vote, and she’d held a youth rally, and worked really, really hard to energize a kind of “Rock The Vote” movement for Leslie. It was going to fail miserably, and she was going to get discouraged, and Leslie was going to buck her up. But we never broke it, so we revisited that territory with this—a dovetail off of the A-story with what was going on in Leslie’s life—and had her work really hard and then fail. It was nice that Tom was the one who ended up pointing out to her why it’s better to try than not try. That was more effective because we know that’s how Leslie feels, but it was nice to hear it from Tom instead.
“The Debate” (April 26, 2012)
An episode written and directed by Amy Poehler revolves around the televised debate between Leslie, Bobby Newport, and their opponents in the city-council race: adult-film star (and Leslie Knope lookalike) Brandi Maxxxx (Mara Marini), Second Amendment champion Fester Trim (Brad Leland), and animal-rights advocate Manrico Della Rossa (Gary Carlos Cervantes).
AVC: During the production of an episode where the director, the credited writer, and the star are all the same person, does the showrunner have to step up his on-set duties?
MS: Well, someone does. [Laughs.] Knowing that we wanted Amy to write and direct the episode, we broke it a long time in advance. I mean, the idea of her debating Bobby was around for a long time. We gave her a lot of time to both write it and also prep as a director. And so she did; she spent a lot of time walking the sets and making sure she had everything down, and we had the script in really good shape with a much longer lead time than we usually have, because we knew it was going to be difficult for her. We have a guy on our staff, Dean Holland, who started out as an editor and has become our sort of go-to director—he’s directed a ton of episodes, and he’s sort of an on-set producer. He always works with the new directors, so Dean did a lot of work with Amy on the set. Obviously, you can’t act in a scene and also watch the monitors, so Dean spent a lot of time behind the monitors with her and helped her figure out how to solve different problems that came up. It’s an incredibly complicated episode: There were six cameras and 500 extras, almost the entire thing was shot on location, there was a technocrane, and Ron climbed a telephone pole. It was really trial by fire for Amy as a first-time director—in TV at least—to take that episode on. And she nailed it, because she nails everything she does.
AVC: Did you ever feel like, “Maybe this isn’t the right one for Amy to try her hand at directing”—
MS: Oh, definitely. I got very scared that I had just thrown her to the wolves. [Laughs.] I got scared occasionally because I felt like if I had to direct this episode, I would be screwed. But I was like, “You know what, she’s fucking Poehler; she’ll figure it out.” A lot of the credit, by the way, goes to the other actors and Dean, who did a great job, but at the end of the day, I just felt that Poehler wouldn’t screw it up, because she doesn’t screw anything up.
AVC: Did she have Leslie’s speech from the end of the episode prepared when she arrived on-set?
MS: That was literally in her first draft of the script. We never changed one word of that speech. And it was kind of shitty on my and the writers’ part, because when we broke the episode, and we were going over the outline with her, we were like, “So, anyway, Bobby does this thing, and it’s a big shock, and he’s going to move Sweetums to Mexico, and she talks to Ben, and Ben says ‘Go for it,’ and then Leslie gives this really inspiring and amazing speech that makes everybody change their minds. Okay, go!” [Laughs.] Like, that’s all we had. We were never like, “Here’s the tone of it; here’s an idea for it.” That’s what we gave her, and that was the speech she wrote, and that’s why she’s awesome. She wrote that and delivered it perfectly. It’s things like that that made me sleep well, even though I knew it was a really complicated episode to direct.
AVC: So this episode is definitely in the show’s Emmy submission package this season, right?
MS: Yes, no question. I told Amy I thought it should be her personal Emmy submission, in my opinion. I don’t know what she ended up going with, but I don’t think you can beat it. I mean, maybe the finale. She could submit two. No part of me was thinking, “I want to give Amy this episode to write and direct because I want her to win an Emmy,” but if she doesn’t win an Emmy, I’m going to be furious. [Laughs.] I don’t know what else she has to do, frankly. It would be very silly of the TV academy not to recognize her accomplishments.
AVC: While Ron’s trying to fix the cable so the debate can be watched at a party for Leslie’s supporters, Andy entertains the partygoers by reenacting movies. How much additional footage of Chris Pratt acting out action flicks from the ’80s exists? Or is it all in the episode?
MS: It’s pretty much all in the episode, because we ended up making the Rambo one the tag. He did that as an alt for that scene, but we liked it so much that we made that the tag. There’s certainly other takes of it, but they’re all similar. Amy went to him and said, “There’s this beat in this where you reenact a movie, what movie do you think Andy would reenact?” And before she finished the sentence, he said, “Road House.” She started writing it and—this is another awesome thing she did as the writer of the episode—she watched the movie, and then she was like, “This is ridiculous. I’m doing this all wrong.” She went to Pratt and said, “Tell me about the end of Road House,” and she essentially transcribed what he said, and it was in much better and funnier language than you could ever write.
That whole sequence is like a cadenza in a piano concerto. Here’s the setup: Chris Pratt, reenacting the end of Road House. Aim two cameras at him, and have him do it 10 times. Some of the funniest things in that were things that he improvised only in that take. Pratt never does the same thing twice. In the take we used, the thing where he was like, “Swayze’s like, ‘Not this time, bro!’” that subtext—“He doesn’t actually say that”—that moment was improvised. And the moment where he says, “Tears out the esophagus. You can’t eat. You’ll starve to death.” [Laughs.] This year, Chris Pratt staked his claim to being one of the funniest people on television. I’m clearly biased, but he is one of the funniest people on TV. Week after week after week, everything that guy does is funny. I think he’s destined to be like an enormous, enormous movie star. That’s my prediction. You heard it here first. Or maybe like 50th, if you’ve heard other people saying that.
AVC: That bit is really assisted by the sequencing of the episode, because when it cuts back to the party, if you’re at all familiar with Road House, “Is Andy performing a one-man version of Road House?” is the first thought that pops into your head.
MS: [Laughs.] Yeah, I agree: For people who saw that movie once instead of 3,000 times—which is how many [times] Pratt has seen it—it takes you a while to figure out. I was like, “What movie? Oh, yeah, Road House, that’s right, that’s when he tears the guy’s esophagus out.” It’s a pretty great little performance piece for him.
“Bus Tour” (May 3, 2012)
Following Leslie’s undisputed victory in the debate, a late-campaign gaffe turns a victory lap into an apology tour—and that’s before a bus bearing Leslie’s face runs over a portrait of the late Nick Newport. In other auto-related happenings, Ron, Tom, and Donna each try their personal negotiating strategy to secure a fleet of vans to transport voters on Election Day.
MS: We wanted an 11th-hour surprise. In national elections, you call it the October surprise. We’d already dealt so much with scandal in the season, we didn’t want it to be anything scandalous. So we just decided that it would be appropriate for an accident to happen where Bobby’s dad dies, and Leslie says, “The truth about Nick Newport…” not knowing that he’s dead. So it was important to us that it be accidental and not another thing about Leslie and Ben or about Bobby Newport and some hooker or something. We felt like we had just been over that territory so much this season, so we went in the other direction.
AVC: So the incident with the bus and the portrait adds insult to injury?
MS: Yes, exactly. It was a pretty literal metaphor. [Laughs.] Someone said it was “Chekhov’s giant-portrait rule,” where if you see a giant portrait of someone, that portrait has to be destroyed by a bus later in the episode. There’s a conspicuous shot of it right before the bus hits it. It’s like, “Here’s a thing, and now the bus is running over that thing.”
AVC: It’s a master class in comedic expectations.
MS: It is, it’s Aristotelian. It’s a very ancient—I don’t know what the hell I’m saying. But yeah, it’s nice to me that the 11th-hour surprise in this campaign was not—there’s nothing malicious about it from anyone’s point of view. It was an unfortunate happenstance that almost derailed the entire campaign.
AVC: Where is the mansion that was used for the Newport estate located? And how did you find it?
MS: It’s in Beverly Hills, and I believe it’s the largest private residence in Beverly Hills at least. It’s the biggest thing you’ve ever seen. It’s like the size of the Grand Canyon. It has a floor in the dining room that’s glass that looks down onto the indoor swimming pool. All of the stuff we showed is really in it: There’s a bowling alley, there’s anything you can imagine. Our biggest problem with shooting in it was they have like $100 million worth of art, very famous art, on the wall—Picassos and Malevich and stuff like that—and we had to digitally remove a lot of art and digitally modify a lot of art because you have to pay rights if you shoot those things on camera. These are multimillion-dollar paintings—you can’t just rip them off the walls and throw them in a closet—so we had to shoot around a lot of it and also digitally modify or erase a lot of it.
AVC: In writing the summit between Bobby and Leslie, what was the emotion or the sense that you were hoping to achieve?
MS: It was a little bit humanizing for Bobby, and he hadn’t been on camera that much at that point. He’d only been in the one episode earlier in the season, and then he was in “The Debate”—but he was only in “The Debate” in the context of the debate. You’ve had a decent glimpse into his psychology because he said stuff about how his friends were making fun of him, and he’s trying to impress his dad, but it was important to do a scene where Paul Rudd got to really act and show that this is a real guy. He’s a goofball, but he’s a real guy, and he was doing this to impress his dad and his dad really didn’t care—and that sucks. So it was a bit of a humanizing thing for him, and story-wise, the important thing was that Leslie stops “the machine”—as they were referring to it—and has a real, genuine, one-on-one interaction with this guy and tries to relate to him and tries to see him as a human being instead of as a political opponent. And then Paul, I believe, improvised that line where he said, “Your mom and my dad are both dicks.” [Laughs.]
AVC: We didn’t see very much of Donna’s Mercedes Benz this season until it really counted: To solve the stalemate over the buses the campaign has rented for election day, she rams her prized possession into Mike O’Malley’s car.
MS: We write all our ideas on index cards, and we had one for this episode that said, “Donna’s ultimate sacrifice.” [Laughs.] There’s more to the Benz in the longer version of the episode. There was a scene where she talked more about how much she loved it—it’s set up a little more thoroughly. And we did that because there hadn’t been a lot of Benz talk at this point in the season, so we were trying to catch people up, but in the end we had to cut it for time. There was also a tag that we shot where she was sadly sitting in her ruined Mercedes while the tow truck was waiting to tow it away, and the tow truck driver’s like, “You have to get out of the car, ma’am.” And she says, “Everything’s going to be okay, Michael.” And then someone says, “Michael?” And she goes, “I named my car after Michael Fassbender, because they’re both German, and they’re both sexy as hell.” [Laughs.] We had to cut that for time, too, but there was a little more of the “love story,” and in that scene Leslie and Ron and everybody are watching the car being towed away, and Leslie says, “I will never forget what you did for me.” Everybody knew what a huge sacrifice it was. But it was nice to give Donna that moment, because everyone else had had a moment in the year where they did something big for Leslie. They made a big sacrifice or did something that was purely selfless and in the service of her dream. And this was, at the last possible minute, Donna’s chance to shine in that way.
“Win, Lose, Or Draw” (May 10, 2012)
It all comes down to this: In the highly emotional—but nonetheless very funny—season finale, the race for city council ends in a recount. Amid the polling fray, Ben has a horrifying encounter with some Scotch and fields an intriguing offer from Jennifer.
AVC: It was reported that you wrote two versions of “Win, Lose, Or Draw.” In one, Leslie wins; in the other, she loses. In the script where Leslie loses, does Ben still only write a victory speech?
MS: No, in the version where she loses, it was very, very similar all the way through the point where she got the results. And the way it was going to work was, we would have Ann walk in, and just say, “They just called the race.” And Leslie was going to say, “Oh God,” and grab Ben’s hand. And then we were just going to cut to her walking onstage and delivering a concession speech, and that was going to be the end of the episode. We would have cut the scenes with Ron and Chris talking about their future, we would have cut the balloon drop, we would have cut the—you know, we just would have mostly cut everything else in order to make the story make sense. But by the time we shot it, I was 99 percent sure we were going with the victory. Unless something radical had happened, we were going to go with the win. So we didn’t spend too much time working on or conceiving of alternate scenes or anything, because I thought that if I ended up going with the concession version, I knew how it would work in my brain, and that was enough. As long as we had the concession speech shot, then we could make it work. So it really was going to be very, very similar all the way through until the very end.
AVC: And if you had done that, you would have gone against your East Dillon-versus-West-Dillon plan, so—
MS: [Laughs.] I don’t know, it’s like once we committed to this Bad News Bears arc—it’s funny: In The Bad News Bears, they lose the final game. It’s really gutsy for a studio comedy to make that move. I love the movie for that reason. But it’s not how I wanted it to go. Once we committed to this arc, where her friends make these enormous sacrifices, you just wanted their fucking win. [Laughs.] Both versions have their pros and cons, but the pros of her winning are just so much greater. They so outweighed the pros of her not winning. And the main pro of it was it was going to be uplifting and happy and satisfying for viewers. There’s no artistic sacrifice that I felt we were making by having her win. If I thought her losing would have been a better ending, I would have done it. I just don’t think it was.
AVC: The last-second win is a cliché, but it’s also satisfying.
MS: Yeah, and goddamn exciting. I used to have this joke with a friend of mine about how you could make every sports movie really boring. Say you take Hoosiers: Hickory gets to the state finals against all odds, and they’re playing this much, much better team from the big city. [If] Hickory gets out to an early 12-5 lead, and they stay 7 to 12 points ahead for the entire game. [Laughs.] At halftime, it’s like 42-30, Hickory’s up, and then the other team makes a small 6-0 run, and gets within 7 points, but then Hickory pulls ahead, and then the last two minutes are full of fouls and free throws and Hickory ends up winning by 9. That would be a really boring sports movie. These things are clichés, but that’s because sports are inherently dramatic, and they have opportunities for crazy, last-second, frantic, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that happened” moments. That’s why we love sports. And this season was essentially a sports season for Leslie. It’s a competition: There are two teams, and her team is losing, and then they come back and squeak out a last-second victory.
AVC: You wrote and directed the finale. In the scene where Leslie goes into the polling booth to vote for herself, what was your direction to Amy Poehler in that scene?
MS: I gave her almost none. It was a very hard scene, and I gave her almost no direction in part because the entire scene was written in stage directions. There’s no dialogue. So I had written what I wanted to write, and I didn’t see any point to giving her a lot of direction. I think the only direction I gave for that entire scene, as many takes as we did, was about camera placement. It was for the operators and not for the actors. There was no need. I figured when I was writing it that, ordinarily, without anything going on in her personal life, this would be the most significant moment of Leslie’s life: walking into a voting booth and punching her own name on a ballot. That would be incredibly meaningful and emotional and complex and everything else. Add to it that right before she goes in, her boyfriend with whom she’s completely in love, tells her that he might be leaving her for six months to go work with this shark in Washington. I didn’t for one second think that Amy wouldn’t know how to do that. It’s the culmination of a lot of years of playing this character. It was that scene and the one where she finds out the results of the election from Ann—that’s the whole year! That’s the whole year, and that’s the whole character from the very beginning all the way to this point.
You know what was the greatest moment of the whole year for me? Paul Rudd was in the booth next to Amy, because he had to pop in and do that joke about how he didn’t know how to vote for himself, and there’s ink on his hands, and he had ripped the pen off the chain. And he came up to me privately and said, instead of someone yelling, “Action, Paul!” in the middle of the scene, was there a way that he could get a silent cue? He felt like the scene was really important and kind of intense for Amy, and he didn’t want to break the tension of it or screw her up by someone going, “Go, Paul! Go now!” And I said, “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea. As a director, I should have thought of that myself.” [Laughs.] It was just so lovely that he was thinking of her at that point instead of whether he was going to be funny. It spoke incredibly highly of him as a person and as an actor.
AVC: Setting up Ben’s six months in Washington, what challenges do you foresee in writing those stories for season five?
MS: We’re taking a huge main player and moving him to a location where he’s not going to be right in the middle of everything, which is challenging. We did it with Aziz [Ansari] with Entertainment 720, and we still found ways to work him into the main episodes. And I think that’ll be our goal for Ben, too—we’re not just going to put him off on an island where you don’t know anybody. We have to figure out how to keep him as the same, vital part of the cast that he’s been for the past two-and-a-half years. Also, we have to figure out how much this tries Ben and Leslie’s relationship. How serious of an issue is it? How much strain does it put on them? What are the consequences of these two lovebirds being apart for however many episodes we keep them apart? And how seriously should we play that struggle? We get back to work in about two weeks with the writers, and our main, headline-y issue is going to be sorting through that and figuring out how we should play it and for how long.
AVC: There are so many emotional highs and lows throughout this fourth season. When you’re breaking these stories, when you’re writing the scripts, when you’re working them out in the writers’ room, how do you balance the comedy with the big gut-punching moments?
MS: Well, it’s a comedy show, and if the show isn’t funny every single week, if it doesn’t have a lot of jokes and a lot of good jokes that are spoken by a lot of different people, then we’re failing. It’s a half-hour comedy, and in order to get an audience to tune in regularly, they have to tune in thinking they’re going to enjoy it and laugh at the comedy. That’s just a no-brainer.
We try to put emotional stories in all of our episodes. Sometimes they’re small emotional stories, like Tom realizing that April is having a bad day and showing up at her house to try to convince her that it’s not bad to try things and to work hard. That’s a small emotional story, but that’s an emotional story. Sometimes it’s a huge emotional story, like Leslie sacrificing her relationship for the sake of a dream that she’s had for her entire life, which is to run for office, or then un-sacrificing that in order to help her boyfriend achieve one of his dreams. Those are the huge things. But we try to put emotion into every story, whether it’s big or small, because that’s just how we prefer to create stories. It’s hard. You have to make room for those things, you have to elbow out room and cut jokes and eliminate funny scenes. Donna’s Benz being towed away was really, really funny, but at the end of the day, we just cut it because we didn’t have room for it.
It’s also like risky because—I think coolness is kind of the death of good television. I think if you’re too concerned with being cool or hip or liked, you can’t really make good TV because sincerity and coolness are opposites. And when you have main characters in your show crying, like, three times in an episode, I find it great, but it’s also not super-cool and ironic and arch and raised-eyebrow and hipster-y. I just far prefer it. If a show ever tries to be cool, then it’s going to be doing something wrong. It’s about committing to that as an idea, and as a model for what every episode should be. It should have genuine human emotion everywhere you look, even in an episode like “The Comeback Kid” or something that’s aimed at being purely comedic. In that episode, Tom wants to leave and go to the bar and let Leslie dangle by herself, and Ann says, “This is our mess. We made this mess and we’re going out there as a team,” and Ron says, “That’s right, we’re going out there as a team,” and he puts his hand in the middle. That’s Ron’s ultimate sacrifice: offering himself as being part of a team of any kind. It’s not always a gigantic thing, but I think all episodes of TV are better off if they have moments like that and have emotional stories between and among the characters. I believe in this very thoroughly. I believe in the importance of sincerity and emotion and honesty in TV, even when it’s goofy comedy. I’m not trying to say that I’m the only person who believes that. [Laughs.] This is not a controversial stance on my part, I’m not like, “I’m amazing! I think there should be emotion in television!” Obviously this is a gigantic school of thought that dates back to the earliest forms of entertainment. It’s just my personal preference.