Thursday, September 17, 2009

Parks and Recreation: Talking with Mike Schur

NBC's "Parks and Recreation" has its second season premiere tonight at 8:30, and the two episodes I've seen so far feel very much of a piece with "Rock Show," the capper to the first season and by far the strongest episode of that uneven batch.

With a whole lot of shows to write about this week in general, and tonight ("The Office," "Fringe," "Community," etc.) in particular, I thought it would be more interesting and efficient for me to just ask the show's co-creator Mike Schur(*) for his take on the process that got the show to more solid creative footing.

(*) Also known as Ken Tremendous from the late, great Fire Joe Morgan, and part of a FJM reunion yesterday on Deadspin in which he contributed outstanding pieces like this.

(It's an e-mail interview, so several of my questions were written without knowing how Mike would respond to earlier ones. Also, I edited a couple of questions and answers to remove spoilers for these first two episodes)

Our Q&A comes after the jump, and feel free to use this post to discuss "Pawnee Zoo," the second season premiere, after it airs tonight...

From the outside looking in, it seemed as if the show came together a bit more quickly and with a few more bumps than the average show: there was an open question for a long time about whether you were giving Ben (Silverman) the spin-off he wanted or a new show, then you had to work around Amy's pregnancy, most of the parts (other than Amy, Rashida and Aziz) weren't even cast as of that January TCA, etc., etc. But on the inside, did it feel rushed? Or is it just that you had a higher profile than most new comedies because of Greg, and Amy, and because Ben kept talking about it?

We certainly had our share of obstacles, but they were good obstacles, if that’s possible. We had to work around Amy’s pregnancy, but only because we got Amy to be in the show. (I’ll take that trade-off any time.) And yes, it was high profile, because of Amy, Greg’s pedigree, and Ben’s vocal support, but it’s really hard to be upset about any of those things. In this day and age, I think every new show has a mountain to climb, and I’d never complain about the details of ours.

It didn’t feel rushed, to me, in terms of the preparation. The only thing I wish had been different was that we shot the pilot and had to shoot episode two a week later. Normally, you’d like to have the usual three months or so to sit back, look at what you made, draw conclusions, tinker, and rewrite. But NBC was very supportive the whole time, and gave really good notes.

Rushed or not, how satisfied were you with the six episodes that aired last spring? What did you and Greg recognize as the strengths and weaknesses? Were there things you realized you wanted to do less of, or more of?

Overall, I think we did a pretty good job of establishing the world. The show is about a diverse group of characters, from different walks of life, who are drawn together by a single project, so it took a while just to situate everyone. And it’s a character comedy, so the episodes are naturally going to get more interesting and fun the more people know the characters.

In general, the show seemed to work best when we found the right balance of personal and professional stories (like in “Rock Show”), so we’ve tried to emphasize that as well. We’re always trying to improve -- we’re our own harshest critics. If the show lasts for ten years, I’d hope we get better every episode right up until the series finale.

How solidly did you have a handle on Leslie in those early episodes? Because it felt like in the finale, and in the first two episodes of this year, she's more recognizably human than she was at the start - a little more self-aware, not always dialed up to 11, somebody you can understand Mark and Ann wanting to hang out with, even though she's still an easy butt of jokes for people like Tom and April.

I think that’s true, and it’s probably just the result of the writers learning how to write for Leslie (and all the characters, really). We got some feedback that Leslie came across as “ditzy” sometimes – that surprised us, because we didn’t intend that at all. I think what the writers intended as “takes her job too seriously” read to some people as “oblivious.” So we corrected a little for that this year in the scripts.

Early on we conceived of the “Canvassing” episode, wherein Leslie goes out on a limb by calling for a public hearing and then gets beaten up by the public, but hangs in and ends up like Rocky: beaten and bloodied, but on her feet. I like the way it turned out and I think Amy was fantastic, but in later episodes we found that it was more fun to watch the whole group moving toward a common goal. We don’t want people to feel like Leslie is on an island, in terms of her worldview. There are some nice moments in the first few episodes of this season where we see the other characters being more supportive of her.

How did you all arrive at this take on the character?

Trial and error, lots of discussions with Amy, lots of time in the writers’ room. In the end, we just felt that Amy is an enormously likable presence on screen, so as the season went on we just tried to create situations where that would shine through.

Greg likes to talk about how seeing 40 Year Old Virgin helped you guys recalibrate how you were writing for Steve; was there a similar eureka moment here?

Not really – it was more just watching her perform the character day after day. She improvised an interview segment in the “Boys’ Club” episode where, after accidentally shattering a bunch of beer bottles while trying to hang with the guys, she said, “I feel like I’m already in the Boys’ Club. Look at those bitches cleanin’ up after me.” That made us laugh, and we realized that Leslie can be a little bit cooler than we had originally thought. It was just a hundred little things like that.

Chris Pratt's been promoted to regular this year, even though Ann wants no part of Andy. Was this a case of him being so funny that you wanted to keep him no matter what the story dictated?

We originally conceived of Andy as a character who would fade away after the first six or so, but Chris was so great we had to make him full-time – and we decided that right after we cast him. It seemed like a waste to have him around for such a short time. This season Andy tries to get Ann to take him back, so his stories at the beginning are about making a play for her.

The first two episodes have storylines that play off of recent political events. Are you aiming to be more topical this year, and if so, why? Or is it just a coincidence that these are the first two episodes out of the gate this season?

Not a coincidence at all -- we want to be much more topical this year. It just makes sense for a show set in the world of government. In addition to the gay marriage debate, there are echoes of Skip Gates, Carrie Prejean, and Marc Sanford in our first batch. It’s fun to capitalize on the stories of the day, when we can.


Anonymous said...

I'm very much looking forward to Parks and Recreation season 2. I somewhat enjoyed the first season and Louis CK(favorite stand-up comedian) is going to be on this season. The show had a great cast, it just needed some great writing to go along with it.

Alden said...

Pratt's a regular this year? Great! He was the best part of the S1 episodes I'd seen, and it bugged me that he wasn't on full-time. Excellent!

After your recommendations, after liking (not loving) the first few S1 episodes, I'm thinking of catching myself up this season.

Rick said...

I have never laughed harder at anything on the internet than that Deadspin article.

That includes all videos of kittens dressed in people clothes.

Tyroc said...

Schur seems like a good guy. Makes me want to give the series a few more episodes to see how I feel about it. So much talent there that I hope it comes together.

BF said...

Mike/Ken is also (for the 3 people that don't know) Mose Schrute.

The world is a much sadder place without FireJoeMorgan around.

Fremulon Insurance Forever!

Hatfield said...

That Jeter article is amazing, and may be enough to get me to watch. Curious, Alan, if you're a mathhead or more of a traditionalist when it comes to baseball stats?

LA said...

OMG, I loved P&R tonight! Great script, and everyone hit their stride all at once. Bravo!

SR said...

I was really impressed by the season premiere, head and shoulders above what they did last year. Something's clicked*, and I hope they can keep it going.

*and I hate to say it, but I wonder if it isn't in part a more judicious use of Aziz Ansari. He's great on Human Giant, but last season he was often the one MAKING Leslie seem oblivious.

Anonymous said...

"I wish I could take them on a water slide! They might die...but it would be so cute!"

I think this basically sums up Leslie's entire approach to politics and life in general--it's also a pretty accurate glimpse of her character: flighty, but with a redeeming amount of lucidity.

bsangs said...

Simply awful. I'm really trying because I like Amy so much. I'll give it another go next week, but I'm beginning to think my 8:30-9:00 slot will be a dedicated reading half-hour soon...

Alex Garlick said...

Leslie's line thanking everyone at the Gay Bar for coming out even during the Colts game was priceless.

Jesse said...

Absolutely brilliant. Had I not read the interview, I may have been caught off-guard by the political aspect, but it worked really well without being preachy. Yes, it's obvious where Schur and Co's sympathies lie, but they did a good job of making out how one could approach the issue without being on either side.

And I'm with SR on the smarter use of AA. Similar to how Michael was toned down a little in S2 of "The Office," actually. If "P&R" can have a S2 even half as good as it's predecessor, this should be an unbroken 1.5-2 hrs of "must-see" TV on (or whatever else NBC is calling it) this year.

Linda said...

I very much liked it. I think the phone-in part was really telling; there's this streak of Leslie that's really nice, and then there's this streak of her that's really irritated that nobody appreciates her -- and that is absolutely right. You see her being really nice, but she's not exactly oblivious: she is determined to maintain her cheerful disposition in a job in which people dump on her constantly. I'm not sure she doesn't GET things as much as she IGNORES things.

Really liked it.

Lane said...

I liked it, Amy seemed much more comfortable in the role, her talents really shone through I thought.
Good move making her less Michael Scott-ish.

Scott said...

I want to like this show, but I just don't think it's very good. I'll give it a couple more chances since to see if it gets it's rhythm, but I don't know about it. It really seems like a generic Office with people who aren't funny

Anonymous said...

the gay penguins in their matching carseats is one of the funniest things i have ever seen on tv.

Anonymous said...

I gave it a second chance and I don't like the show. I don't think it's funny. Won't be watching it.

olucy said...

Still not loving this show, but for some reason I'm still hanging in there. It's getting better (by degrees) and I'm really happy to see that this week's ep wasn't about the park/hole in the ground. That was reeeaaally getting old.

There's a ton of issues that touch small municipal governments, and they'd be smart to start using them in storylines to let us see Leslie and cohorts in a variety of situations, like the gay marriage issue. Great topic, handled very well.

Steve said...

Dear Ken Tremendous,

More Aziz Ansari.