The half-hour network sitcom may not be dead, but it’s been looking jaundiced and dehydrated. There’s one man, however, who’s been helping to keep the genre alive in recent years: showrunner Michael Schur, the co-creator of the beloved Parks and Recreation and the dynamic cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. In this writer-producer’s hands, both a small Indiana town with an obesity problem and a grungy Brooklyn police station feel like places you’d be happy to spend years of your life.
Both shows are cutting without being cynical; both pay as much attention to character development as punchlines; both are built around a likable star from Saturday Night Live (Amy Poehler on Parks and Rec, Andy Samberg on Brooklyn Nine-Nine) but surround them with a deep cast, who then get the chance to shine. In the past seven years of Parks, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, and Aziz Ansari have all become stars — while the one-time schlub Chris Pratt lapped them all last year by playing the lead in two movies that did over a billion dollars of business (Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie).
Schur previously wrote for SNL, The Comeback, and The Office (where he had a recurring role as Mose Schrute, the beet-farming cousin of Dwight). In addition, working under the pseudonym “Ken Tremendous,” he spent years skewering inane sports journalism on a genius blog called Fire Joe Morgan (which ended in 2008 without sportscaster Joe Morgan actually getting fired). We caught up with him in Los Angeles while he was on a break from editing the seventh and final season of Parks and Recreation, which premieres tonight.
Did you expect that the show would make it this far?
No. That’s an almost unequivocal no. We ended up making a 125 episodes and [originally] it looked pretty possible that the number would be six. We felt like we were going to get canceled, every second of every day.
What can you tell people about the final season?
The whole season takes place in the year 2017 — we did a time jump into the future at the end of last year. So there is a slight tinge of science fiction that permeates everything and a lot of fun jokes about how the world has changed in three years. The first half of the year is Leslie Knope’s last big project that she takes on; the second half of the year is wrapping up, tying up loose ends. And there’s a couple of interesting form-breaking episodes. I haven’t even begun editing the finale yet, but I believe and hope that the finale is one of the best episodes that we’ve ever done.
So what makes for a good finale?
We watched a bunch of other shows’ series finales in the writer’s room — we’d have lunch and watch the Cheers finale, or the Sopranos finale. It’s not like it’s a magic formula, but my favorite finales had two things. One was that you could imagine what happened to the characters after the show ended — you could extrapolate in your brain, and imagine them still alive and wandering the earth. The other thing was that they were episodes of the show that felt like episodes of the show: I recognize those characters, they’re talking the way that they usually talk and behaving the way that they usually behave.
What’s the weirdest side effect of Chris Pratt becoming a movie star?
It’s very hard to explain why [his character] Andy Dwyer now looks like a superhero. There’s a scene that we wrote for the premiere where it called for him to take his shirt off. We realized we couldn’t do it — [he’d] look ridiculous. Andy is not a guy who has a perfectly constructed human form with ripped abs and gigantic biceps. Chris Pratt himself has exactly the same happy-go-lucky attitude that he has always had. It’s utterly impossible to tell that a single thing in his life has changed.
Were there times on Parks where you felt like you’d written yourself into a corner?
Amy Poehler got pregnant in the middle of Season Two and she was due to give birth in September of Season Three, which would have made it impossible to make the show — you can’t have a baby and then come back to work the next day. So we talked to NBC in January and said, “If you know you want the show back next year, you kind of have to pick it up now. We can finish the second season and then shoot a bunch of episodes for the next season, which we will bank and start airing in September. After Amy has the baby, we’ll pick up where we left off.” So they picked us up and at the end of our 24 episode Season Two, we made six more episodes. Then the show was moved off the fall schedule to the midseason, so the whole thing was kind of for naught.
But because it felt like it could be going away, we had a new operating principle: Go for broke, accelerate everything, and don’t worry about stretching anything out over the course of nine years. So Andy and April, they just started dating, guess what? They’re getting married. When Greg Daniels and I were writing the pilot at the beginning, we felt like a fun story for the final year would be if Leslie runs for political office. No, that’s happening right now. We wrote as aggressively as we could — that meant we were intentionally writing ourselves into corners, but if it’s a good staff you’ll figure out ways to keep going and keep the world alive.
I believe that the finale is one of the best episodes that we’ve ever done.
Is there a reason my favorite Brooklyn Nine-Nine episodes are the holiday-themed ones?
[Laughs] Holiday episodes are fun to write. When you watch them, when you write them, you’re thinking about things that generally make you happy. I love that Jake Peralta [played by Andy Samberg] hates Thanksgiving, because I’m a huge anti-Thanksgiving guy. I was very happy that I got to vent my personal frustrations about Thanksgiving through that character.
Is there a different vibe in the Brooklyn writers’ room as opposed to the Parks room?
Every room and every show takes on its own vibe, but the thing that both shows have in common is that everyone is really nice. It’s a very fun job but it’s also a very difficult job: [working] long hours and no right or wrong answer to any problem. So my operating principle has always been to hire the nicest, funniest people. One thing Andy Samberg and Amy Poehler have in common is that they both really like it when other people are funny, which seems like a personality trait that every comedian should have — but many don’t. It can be really disheartening when people get annoyed that other people are on their show are funny.
It’s a little schizoid to have one show in its final days and one in its early days, isn’t it?
A little bit. It feels like you’re a senior in college and your best friends are the freshmen. And you remember feeling that the whole future stretches out in front of you and meanwhile, you’re packing up your dorm room and trying to arrange a car ride home. But the reason that you get sad about things ending is because they’re fun. So it’s nice to see the Brooklyn team experiencing the early stages of that.
In your opinion, who’s the greatest TV boss of all time?
Tony Soprano is one of the greatest characters of all time and he was a boss, but he was a horrible sociopath. For comedy, I still think Michael Scott is the funniest TV boss of all time, unless you count Sam Malone as a boss. He would give Michael Scott a run for his money. And I would nominate Leslie Knope, and maybe nominate Ron Swanson too. He was trying to destroy the thing that he was running, but he’s still a pretty good character.
Is there anything that unifies those characters?
Not really. Michael Scott was absolutely desperate for everyone to love him and admire him and Ron couldn’t care less. All good characters on all TV shows, the thing they have in common is that a great actor was playing them. That sounds reductive, but at a certain point the cliché about TV is correct: People just want to spend time with the characters.
If I say “an adorable 11 inch-tall translucent man who cannot play baseball very well,” do you know who I’m referring to?
Oh, sure, [former major-league shortstop] David Eckstein. In some weird way I feel like Fire Joe Morgan, a blog no one read, is my greatest accomplishment. That was literally just me and a couple of my friends goofing off. It was one of the most glorious and wonderful wastes of time that I have ever been involved in.
Does your sports fandom inform your comedy writing?
Possibly. At some level like all writing is about passion — you have to just care about the thing you’re writing about. And that was where Fire Joe Morgan came from, which was just this feeling of helplessness when we read or heard incredibly stupid things being said about sports. In order to write for a blog for several years that is so arcane and stupid and pointless you have to really care about the subject. And we really did. We didn’t particularly care if a single person ever read the blog, it was really just a way to express passionate feelings.
I was writing that blog right after I moved to Los Angeles with my wife. We didn’t have kids, we had just gotten married, and on a sunny Sunday afternoon she would say, “Let’s walk over and grab some lunch and see a movie.” And I’d say, “I just have to finish this essay on Tim McCarver.” If you’re writing a show that you don’t love or a movie you don’t love or a blog that you don’t love, it’s just not gonna be good. It has to be the thing that you care about most in the world at that moment. Whatever you’re writing, you have to have that feeling that you need to finish it because it’s burning a hole in your brain.