(PART TWO) Parks and Recreation E.P. Mike Schur on Superstar Cameos, Sad Comedy, and Why Donna Is Amazing

After a five-week absence, one of NBC's finest shows returns tonight to finish out its triumphant fourth season. In Part 2 of my interview with Parks and Recreation executive producer Mike Schur (read Part 1 here), we discuss this season's cavalcade of guest stars (including Paul Rudd, Sean Hayes, Megan Mullally, Louis C.K., and Patricia Clarkson), the role of sadness in comedy, plus Schur's optimism about a possible Season 5.

Am I crazy or has the number of really recognizable guest stars increased a lot recently? I know there have always been some, but has there been a concerted effort to get more star power? Or are you just crossing off your wish list one by one?

It's much more the latter, I would say. What happened was, because the story of the year was Leslie's campaign, she was out and about a lot more. And that just sort of led to opportunities for larger guest-starring roles. And what really happened was we just decided—and I've talked about this before, but this came from way back in Season 2 when we were looking for a character of a police officer and his character description was that he was kind of a big hunky not-so-bright guy. And Amy said, "Let's get Louis C.K. to do it." And we were like, "Well, he doesn't totally fit the description," and she was like, "Who cares? He's really funny. He's like the funniest person in the world, let's just get him to do it." And it was a very compelling argument, and we did and it was awesome. It was so great to have him on the show repeatedly, and it became— In my head I now refer to it as the Poehler Doctrine, which is quite simply, whatever the part is, get the funniest person you know. And that's where Paul Rudd came from. We designed this character and we were just like, "Well, in a dream world it's Paul Rudd." And then we got Paul Rudd. When Nick Offerman wrote an episode, he had this part of this kind of fatuous, super cocky Indianapolis talk show host, and I think he actually said, "Oh, you know who'd be great at this, is Sean Hayes." And so we just called Sean Hayes and said, "Do you want to do it?" We've never done it for a ratings grab or anything like that. I'm not even sure that works anymore in this modern day.

Post-Will & Grace.

Yeah, post- a lot of things. Post-30 Rock. You know, 30 Rock had Oprah, Jennifer Aniston, and Megan Mullally on three straight weeks, and so it's not what it used to be in terms of like, "Oh my God, everybody has to tune in to see this particular person." For us, at least, it was just quite simply let's try to get the funniest person we can get. And sometimes that is not a famous person. In the episode where Leslie went bowling, there was a big, giant guest-star part and this actor named Kevin Dorff who was a longtime Conan writer, he was like the guy that we were like, "Yeah, he's perfect for this. Let's get him." And to our network's credit, they never try to force it on us. They'd never say, "Don't get Kevin Dorff, get Justin Bieber." That never happens. They are very, very good about letting us pursue the people that we want to pursue and it does certainly happen that— We have Bradley Whitford coming up in our first episode back and he is doing it in large part because it's a little bit of an homage to The West Wing, and so we were like, "Well, it would be cool if we could get someone from The West Wing to be on the show." So we just went after him. So we really do it based on who we want to play the role and whether that's someone who's a known quantity or not, our sole goal is to just get the funniest possible person for the part.

On that note, a lot of your lead characters are fan-favorites. Obviously everyone likes Ron Swanson and Andy, but are you surprised that even the smaller characters like Donna and Jerry have kind of developed followings of their own?

I'm not in the least surprised, frankly. At the very beginning of the show we didn't really have characters for Donna and Jerry. We just wanted to kind of populate the world with other actors who we liked. And we auditioned them with stuff that wasn't even in the pilot and we did a lot of improv exercises with them and we were like, "Well, these two people are funny, let's just put them on the show and we'll figure it out later. And the characters have really kind of blossomed and grown. A lot of it is because of the writing. Our writing staff did a really good job of finding really funny things for them. I mean, it wasn't until early in Season 2 that we figured out, "Oh, Jerry's a punching bag, that's what he is." [Laughs] And then once we figured that out, his character really came into focus. And I don't think Donna's character— All we knew about Donna was that she owned a $70,000 Mercedes-Benz SUV. And it was unclear for a long time whether or not she was in over her head or whether there was something else going on, and what we just decided around the same time is, the thing about Donna is she's a private person and she has a weird secret life that you are only going to catch glimpses of. And that's why you saw these little weird details. Like she invested in night club and she seems to have a lot of money even though she works in the Parks Department. And then we found out this year that Ginuwine is her cousin and she has a lake house. And I think the fun part of it to me is just getting these really sideways glimpses of Donna's life in little tiny doses and just kind of filling in very slowly just who she is and what she's all about.

So there's an intentional restraint in not over-exposing them?

Yeah, absolutely. And Retta is such a funny performer and she is incredibly restrained as a performer. She's very deadpan and very dry, which is very awesome. And the one time that we've really let her come out of her shell was in the episode where she and Tom have the "Treat Yo'self" day. And we basically just wound her up and turned her loose and she knocked it out of the park. And so I think it's really fun to have Donna's life filled in in these kind of small little sideways glances that just make her very intriguing person. She's always calling men on the phone and canceling dates [laughs] and when she does shots she does them two at a time. There's all these strange hedonistic details about her life, which is much more rewarding to kind of find out about her that way rather than if we just had her do a ten-minute monologue about who she is and what her life is like, you know?

In addition to The Office and Parks and Rec, you also worked on The Comeback, which is not only one of my favorite shows, but it's kind of one of the saddest comedies ever made. It seems to be kind of a recurring thing... for as fun and upbeat as Parks and Rec is, there's always an undercurrent of sadness. What is it about sad characters and situations that are so funny?

Well, I don't think I would say "sad." I think if there's a common theme among the three sitcoms that I've worked on, it's that they are purporting to be real people in real situations. And the reality of real people is that they are not happy all the time. Their lives aren't perfect. They have challenges and obstacles and their lives get screwed up by things and they have ups and downs. And I think that that— It's funny that it would read as sad because it's just real, I think, is the actual word. I think that sometimes on TV the point of TV for many years—and it's less so now than it used to be—was to kind of gloss over the sad parts, right? It was, Let's only show the really goofy, fun, happy things that happen and never have anybody have any real conflict and never have anybody grow and learn and change and never have people face obstacles in their lives, and it was a complete sort of escapism. And I think that is less interesting to me, personally at least, than kind of riding the rollercoaster of peoples' lives and seeing when they're happy and when they're sad, and when they have ups and downs, when their relationships end, when their jobs end. You know, that's just more interesting to me. I think it's a little bit of a coincidence that all of the shows I've worked on are like that, but the way it's not a coincidence is that the first show I worked on was The Office, and that was definitely the idea behind the office that's just sort of followed me as I moved forward.

What's the general vibe around the Parks and Rec office this time of year? How's everything looking with regard to coming back and all that stuff?

We wrapped our last episode a few weeks ago, so "the office" is really just me and the editors kind of milling around by ourselves. But we're all kind of optimistic. I think partly just because the alternative is being pessimistic and that's no fun. And, you know, Leslie would be optimistic, so we're going to follow her lead. And we don't really know, we may not know for another two months or something, or at least a month and a half. Or I could literally get a phone call in an hour that tells me what our fate is. But we're cautiously optimistic and that's in large part because we feel like we're really in a groove creatively and the cast is only going to get bigger and more popular. You know, they're all off shooting movies right now. And we feel like there's— Really, the reason to be optimistic is we all love this job so much that it's just impossible to imagine a world in which we don't get to come here every day [laughs], so we choose to ignore that possibility.

Parks and Recreation returns to NBC tonight at 9:30pm

Comments (4)
Sort: Latest | Popular
P&R is the best. I love all of the characters. They each get to shine and that's awesome!
This show makes me seriously consider a career in the government.

Great article! :)
Thanks for the inside look at one of my favourite shows Price!
Who came with the ideas for the murals in their building. I remember literally rolling on the floor laughing trying to explain it to a friend :)

Like TV.com on Facebook