Parks and Recreation E.P. Mike Schur on Community's Fans, Politics, and Equal Opportunity Satire
It's hard out there for a brilliant network comedy! You can be a widely acclaimed, landmark series with a stacked cast and a passionate fan base and still get summarily yanked from the air. Nowhere is an offbeat comedy's foundation so shaky as NBC Thursdays, as the network has perhaps never been more introspective about its own comedy slate than in this past year. Due in large part to the increasingly formidable comedy offerings at ABC and CBS, plus NBC's inability to find a successor to The Office's steadily fading star, the network has made it more than clear it's willing to clean house: First by toying with the idea of canceling Community and now considering rebooting The Office entirely. And the ongoing revolving time slot situation suggests we're a long way from the solid four-show block of Must-See TV yesteryear. Yep, NBC has no shortage of incredible comedies, but what they are short on is blockbusters and there are only so many fan-led campaigns to keep all the lower rated darlings on the air.
Which brings us to Parks and Recreation. It's one of the TV.com staff's current favorite shows, and we're not alone. This thing is truly great. Though it's never been less than hilarious, Season 4's current plotline involving Leslie Knope's run for City Council is the show at its best. Somehow managing to make incisive points about our political system without coming off as mean or overly partisan, Parks and Recreation has evolved from a charming workplace comedy into something more humanistic and even important. Oh, and it's still laugh-out-loud hilarious on the regular. One look at the basically ALL-STAR cast photo above should remind you why.
Anyway, last month I was fortunate enough to talk to Executive Producer Mike Schur about all kinds of things. (We talked so long, in fact, that I had to split the interview into two parts - Come back tomorrow for part 2!) But yeah, the man sometimes known as Mose Shrute is as funny and intelligent as you'd expect from the showrunner of Parks and Recreation!
So Parks & Recreation basically tagged out so that Community could tag back in.
Community's fans can be pretty intense. Are you at all worried that Parks & Rec fans are being a little too mellow with their support?
Oh no, God no. I mean, what Community has gone through in the last six months or three months or whatever it's been is sort of what we went through when we were moved to midseason in Season 3. And I think when a show that has a very intense fan base gets taken off the schedule for a while, it becomes a real rallying point. I mean, we've seen that before with a lot of different shows. Fans sending things to the network and all that sort of stuff. So I mean, Community's fans are very intense and they should be. It's a show that definitely rewards that kind of super loyal hardcore fan base. So I was very happy to see it happen for them because it's incredibly rewarding as a producer to see people care about your show that much and it was really nice to see how intensely their fans rallied to the cause. And it happened with us when we were moved off the schedule too. You know, it's funny because the fact that Community and Parks started around the same time and they've been on the same night on the same network means that there's this kind of weird, "Community is better than Parks," "No, Parks is better than Community" thing that happens on the internet, and I've always kind of felt like, "Hey, I like both shows. Can't we just like both shows? Is that okay, everybody?"
Yeah, it's a big country and it's a big night and I am a fan of that show and I think it's really impressive and creative and interesting and I've talked to a lot of people who have worked on that show and I have friends who work on that show and they like our show too and it always kind of feels like, "Hey, everybody should watch both shows, how about that? That can only help."
Maybe both groups of fans should join forces.
Yeah, exactly. Maybe we should do an hourlong thing where the first act of Community airs and the first act of our show airs and we shuffle them like a deck of cards over the course of an hour.
Both The Office and now Parks & Rec started as explorations of maybe problematic work places but evolved to seem like they might be fun places to work. I don't know if you agree with that, but if so, has that been an intentional thing?
Yeah, I think that's a case of just people getting to know the characters more and more. It takes a while for any show that's character-based for the audience to know who the characters are and why they're funny and what's interesting about them. And obviously the more you get to develop them and make them into three dimensional people the more rewarding it's going to be to follow them. But I think the themes of the two shows are very different. You know, the theme of The Office was sort of like these people are trapped here by this kind of goofy boss and they found little tiny ways to be able to cope with the boredom and the fluorescent lights and all that sort of stuff. And that was never the theme of Parks & Rec. The theme of Parks & Rec is much more about community and family and workplace-family but still family and how one kind of ever-burning incandescent bright light can kind of drag people into a fun atmosphere.
I think the reality of most peoples' workplaces, mine certainly excepted, is that they're not in and of themselves fun places to be, that's why they call it "work." So the challenge on both shows, even though the themes are very different, has been to say, "What makes work bearable? What is it about your workplace that can take it from being a place where you slog through eight hour days every day and turn it into something that's actually enjoyable?" And the shows took very different approaches to that, but it certainly is true—That's true of both shows that they both sort of attempted to explore that idea.
At least from an audience member's perspective, Parks & Rec reminds me a lot of, like, Cheers, where it's a pleasure to spend half an hour hanging out with these people. The characters are friends with each other and I get a positive vibe from it that I don't think was there from the very beginning.
Yeah, well that is a great compliment. I've said before that Cheers is my favorite comedy of all time. I don't think that situational comedy can be better than it was in Cheers' heyday. The theme of that show was obviously it was a place where everybody knows your name, and for me that's what made it so special and so great, that the people and characters on that show knew that there was a place where they could go and just escape the universe for a little while. And obviously it's not exactly the case on our show, but that was certainly the idea behind the tone that we wanted to create, was just happy nice people doing happy nice things. It sounds kind of Pollyanna-ish, and obviously to make any comedy you have to have conflict and you need to have villains and enemies and bad people and stuff but we really just— From the very early going with the casting and the writing of the pilot and the writing of the first few episodes, the idea was that these people are all going to be friends and they're all going to like each other and that's just the deal. We don't want to have the characters insulting each other constantly and cutting each other down and undermining each other. And that really came from the idea of Leslie, first and foremost, that she was just this person who would walk to the ends of the earth for any of her friends and what kind of effect that would have on people when they're kind of drawn into her little sphere.
Leslie's run for City Council this season has been a pretty clever way to satirize current American politics, but how do you explore that territory without offending huge swathes of viewership?
It's a good question. We've never said that Leslie is a Democrat or that Ron is a Republican or that anybody is anything. I mean, Ron calls himself a libertarian, but that's more just philosophy— Ron would have no use for actual politics. And so we try not to be specific in terms of the satire that we do. Aiming it at one side or the other. And whenever we do do that, we try to balance it by doing it in the other direction. Amy Poehler wrote and directed episode 420 which is the second one that we're going to air when we come back. And it's about the big debate between her and Paul Rudd's character. And there's five total candidates in the debate. There's Leslie and Bobby, who's Paul Rudd's character, and then there's Brandy Max who's a former adult film star who has appeared on the show before, she's running for City Council, and then there's two other characters. And the two other characters are kind of single-issue candidates, and one of them is extremely far to the right and one of them is extremely far to the left and they're both there essentially to point out the absurdity of the extreme poles of both parties. And we never say that one of them is a Republican and one of them is a Democrat, we just gave them each one issue that the extremes of both sides of the aisle have at times kind of represented. And so that's the idea, that we're not aiming to be partisan, we're not aiming to say, like, "This is our agenda, these are the soapboxes we want to stand on." And so when we do choose topics for political satire, we just try to be even-handed. That's the best way to do it, I think.
Do you intentionally keep the details small so that it never feels bigger than what would happen in Pawnee specifically?
Yeah, a little bit. Although obviously we did a whole episode earlier this season about Leslie and where she was born, which was obviously a comment on the Birther movement. Now, to me, the Birther movement was just plain and simple garbage. [Laughs] I wasn't trying to comment on specific people within the Birther movement, I just think that the idea that people cared so much about something that was repeatedly proven to be false and were so insistent that there was a giant conspiracy theory, that it was fun to take that idea and move it to the difference between being born in Pawnee or Eagleton, Indiana. So it was really just for comedy, but we were also very aware that it was kind of a partisan issue at some level and so we just really extremely localized it and made it about this town and what this town thinks about other towns, instead of— You know, if Leslie had been born in whatever, Kenya, or Canada or whatever, it wouldn't have mattered because she's not the President, so we couldn't try to do it as a direct parallel, we just used the idea that people care where someone is born as a way to do a little bit of satire.
Tomorrow: In Part 2 of this interview, Schur discusses this season's cavalcade of guest stars plus Parks and Recreation's chances for renewal!
Parks and Recreation returns to NBC this Thursday at 9:30 p.m.
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