When Michael Schur was coming up with the idea for NBC’s Parks and Recreation with The Office’s Greg Daniels (Schur was a writer and occasional actor on the fellow NBC sitcom), the country was reeling from the financial crisis. Newly elected President Obama was set to implement his massive bailout plan, which would put the role of government under an even harsher spotlight.
“The financial crisis just hit and everybody was panicking and the government was trying to bail everybody out of a giant hole,” says Schur. That would turn out to be inspiration for Parks & Rec.
NBC’s critically adored but lightly viewed local government comedy shuts its doors this week. When the show ends Tuesday, so will too the final remnant of NBC’s “Must See” comedy block on Thursdays (Parks aired its first six seasons on Thursdays). The network, after scaling back comedies to just one hour in the fall, went all-drama on the night earlier this month when The Blacklist made its high-profile move to face off against ABC’s Scandal in the 9 p.m. slot.
Schur spoke with B&C associate editor Tim Baysinger about making Parks stand out from The Office and how much different the series would be if it premiered in 2015 instead of 2009.
The show was originally supposed to be a spinoff from The Office. Why did you and cocreator Greg Daniels abandon that plan?
The real idea was that [former NBC Entertainment co-chairman] Ben Silverman wanted Greg to do a new show, and he was like, “I think it should be a spinoff of The Office,” and Greg was like, “well, I’m happy to consider that, we’ll just think about what is the best show.”
What happened was, we sort of mulled over ideas, but when the deal was announced it sort of became part of the public consciousness somehow that it was going to be a spinoff. That’s what everybody was expecting, but we never went too far down that road. It was never really that close to being a spinoff, but at that point, it kind of doesn’t matter. Perception became reality.
There are a lot of similarities to The Office, most notably the mockumentary style and office setting. How did you guys set to differentiate show from The Office?
Part of it happened naturally. It’s a different cast and the themes of the show were different.
The Office was a show about the misery and drudgery of florescent lights and cubicle life and that just wasn’t what Parks & Recreation was about. The cast was its own thing. We learned how to write for them and they got better at playing the characters. Some of it was just the natural progression of being on TV for a while.
We set out to do a show about public service and that’s partly because of what was happening in the country at the time. The government was becoming very important in people’s lives, the financial crisis just hit and everybody was panicking and the government was trying to bail everybody out of a giant hole. The themes of the show were really about public service and how government can or can’t make a difference in peoples lives.
That is so far from what the theme of The Office was. By the time we got rolling, it just naturally differentiated itself.
With the current state of government, how much different would the show be if it was premiering in 2015?
That’s a very good question. I’m not entirely sure.
Every show at some level is sort of a product of its time. I’m sure we’d do things a little differently, but I can’t imagine how.
We were developing the show during the 2008 presidential campaign and because of the financial crisis and the central debate between the two candidates, it was very clear to us that government was going to be really important. It was going to be affecting people’s lives in a very significant way.
I think that’s still true. If the show were debuting now, some of it would remain exactly the same because the central issues are the same.
We’ve always attempted to take national issues and bring them down to the local levels. One of the first issues we tackled in that way was gay marriage. We did an episode [Season 2’s “Pawnee Zoo”] where Leslie Knope had a wedding for two penguins in the zoo and it turned out that both penguins were male penguins. If we were doing the show right now, we would probably still do that episode, because that issue is still very much in the public consciousness.
I’m sure that some of [the show] would be different, but I’d imagine a fairly large amount of it would play out exactly the same.
I don’t know what that says about our country. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
Of all the castmembers, Chris Pratt’s star has risen the most dramatically over the past year. Did you see that coming? What did you learn working with him that maybe foreshadowed this?
I don’t know if you would ever say you saw this coming, because its impossible to see something like this, but nobody is surprised. When he became this gigantic movie star the reaction of everyone on the show was like “yeah, that’s right.” In fact, most of the reactions were “what took you so long?”
I believe he’s one of the most purely talented human beings I’ve ever met. Beyond that, he’s incredibly nice, he’s incredibly charismatic and he works really hard. He takes his job extremely seriously and he works hard to get better at it.
When you combine that work ethic with just this insane natural charisma then you get a gigantic movie star. No one is surprised or shocked. It’s been a real fun little weird side journey for everyone, to watch America discover him in the way that we thought we were discovering him when he first started working here.
With the show never being a big ratings hit and perpetually on the chopping block, how did you approach each season knowing it could be the last?
By realizing that. Saying to ourselves we can’t control anything. Our mantra became: The only thing we can control is the show.
We tried to tune out all the other stuff that can soak up your time and energy and make you distracted and feel bad about yourself. We just said, “We’re going to make the best show we can as long as we can make it, and hopefully we’ll stick around.”
There were certain practical things we had to do. I really didn’t want to be in a situation where the show ended prematurely without feeling like I had written a proper ending. At the end of every season—when we didn’t know whether we were coming back—we would write an episode that felt like a series finale, so if that were the last one it was, “well at least we didn’t have it yanked out from under us.”
Largely, all we did was try to make the best show we could and hope that it lasted long enough to where we got to keep doing it as long as we wanted to. Fortunately, we had that opportunity. We consider ourselves extremely lucky in that regard that we got to do that.