In this week's issue, New York Magazine surveyed fourteen of the top TV showrunners about their process and craft. All during upfront week, we'll be running longer transcripts of these conversations: some will include extended answers to our questionnaire, some will break free altogether, but all will provide a revealing and insightful look into the minds of the people who make our appointment television. One of those people is Michael Schur, a longtime The Office writer who created Parks and Recreation, which has its finale tonight. We spoke with Schur about where Rob Lowe's delivery of "literally" comes from, his love of Cheers and The Wire, and the importance of Ron Swanson's passions.
I have a super-geek trivia question to start. The literally thing with Rob Lowe, how did that emerge?
Well, to be totally honest, Rob says literally a lot. And he pronounces it that way. And he’s aware that he does it. And it’s not an affectation — it’s a real way that he speaks. And when we were talking about the character early on, I was talking about how he’s just incredibly intense about all of his interests, physical fitness and health and nutrition, and everything else. And Rob in my office started improvising in the character, and kept saying literally in exactly that way. So we just started writing it in. It was such a perfect character detail for a guy who is that intense to use the word literally all the time, even when what he’s saying is absurd. It’s like an exclamation point.
So many of the characters on the show could be described as intense, albeit in different ways. Ron is very intense in his own way.
What’s nice about that character from a storytelling point of view, I think, is that he is just a man of passion. And it’s very hard to week in and week out dream up stories that are satisfying for all the different characters. But when he’s a man of such intense passion about things, even if those things are silly or seemingly trivial to people — like that he just loves steak so much — you can build an entire story just around his trip to a steakhouse. It’s been a very good lesson for me as a writer. Because part of the theme of The Office was just like, people are just trying to get through the day. And that leads to a certain kind of story and a certain kind of character. But this show has certainly broadened our ability to tell stories by having people who are super into things. No one on The Office is really into anything.
Ron’s feelings about breakfast — it’s hard not to respect that.
I agree! That is my personal view of breakfast. I would happily eat breakfast foods for all meals of every day if I could. If it were at all feasible as a human on Earth, I think I would eat nothing but breakfast food.
Sleep-fighting, on the other hand, is a little terrifying.
Sleep-fighting was invented by Amy Poehler. That just came out of nowhere. She wrote that episode, and that wasn’t in the outline or anything. That was her invention. If she were just a writer, she’d be the best writer on our staff. Her drafts are amazing, her acting is amazing, her comedy’s amazing. I think next year she’s going to direct an episode, too. Also, if you’ve seen the season two blooper reel, you know that Poehler can pretty much curse any of the dudes on the show under the table. She’s by far the filthiest and dirtiest of all the people on the show.
One of the greatest strengths of the show is how much heart there is to each of the characters, and yet it’s not treacly. It's like you figured out some magic formula to it where all these couples can get together and you’re rooting for them, and it's not cheesy.
I think that magic formula is largely just good casting. I really think that it becomes very easy to sell romances in an interesting and kind of fun and not-treacly way if the actors are just funny and compelling and good. So, I give them a lot of credit all the time for it. I mean, I think the April-Andy relationship is something that would not have been possible with two different actors. The actors presented us with the path and then we just kind of walked down the path, you know? How can you not follow that when you see how cute they are and funny they are together?
There is one exception to the general niceness of everyone on the show, though. And that's how people treat Jerry. There’s the Andy Samberg episode when he gets hurt, and it was the first time you’d seen Leslie have kind of a mean streak.
Yeah, we debated this a lot in the writers’ room. It does seem kind of mean. But on the other hand, this is the way offices function, I think. Everyone sort of fits into certain roles, and that’s the role that Jerry fits into. Our whole conception of Jerry was that he was just this nice guy who had a job that exactly matched his level of competence. And he just is happy. He’s married happily and he’s got two beautiful daughters that we’ve never met. And he just wants to retire. He’s the guy who got into government work because it’s steady and reliable. And what was important in that episode was to find out that he was okay with it, that he understood it. He knows that he sometimes screws up when he talks and that he is a little bit of a doof. And it’s like, we’ve had an episode idea pitched for a while — which I don’t think we’ll do anymore because that episode kind of replaced this idea. The basic idea was that Jerry was transferred to another department for a couple of weeks for some reason, and without him the entire office ceased to function. Because no one had an outlet for their frustrations, and everything kind of boiled over, and they went to him and were like, we need you, we really need you desperately to come back. I think it is true that people sort of fall into different roles, and they’re all important. And as long as the guy himself is okay with it, which we saw, then it’s like, well, all right, everything’s fine then.
Are there other stories you’ve been kicking around?
In Ron, I think my favorite one that we’ve never done, and who knows, we might someday, but I can still say it, is Ron has a, on his desk, has a Claymore landmine that is resting on a stand on his desk. And the front of it says point towards enemy and it’s pointed right towards his door. And we have always talked about — and Norm, a writer on the show, pitched one year that they come into the office in the morning and the mine wasn’t completely defused and blew up, and just blew a giant hole in the wall of his office. And no one was hurt obviously, but that one has been lingering around for a while, that the Claymore land mine would actually blow up overnight and cause Ron to be suspended or something.
What’s a show you really loved as a kid?
As far as prime-time shows go, it was mostly Cheers. Cheers was probably my favorite show of my childhood. I lived in Massachusetts briefly, and so the fact that they were all Red Sox fans and that Sam Malone had played for the Red Sox meant a lot to me. But then after that initial Trojan horse of getting me to like the show, I just, every single character on the show I thought was so funny.
Even Kirstie Alley?
I actually did like Kirstie Alley. She’s super-funny, and it was really a neat trick that they pulled to replace Diane with a woman who was at least at first completely immune to Sam’s charm. It led to really interesting stories with Sam where he began to confront the sadness of being a middle-aged playboy as opposed to a young playboy. And her rejection of him was funny.
Do you have other moments like that, where, from your position now, you really appreciated the showrunning involved. Like, you appreciate a twist as a matter of craft?
I think Vic Mackey shooting Terry Crowley in the pilot of The Shield was insane and great. It seemed like, this is going to be a really interesting cop show about a corrupt cop, and the guy who you assume in the pilot is the protagonist, the other cop who’s investigating Vic Mackey, that guy gets shown and killed in the pilot. That was insane. Having Tony Soprano kill Christopher in the final season of The Sopranos was shocking and stunning. And when it happened, I had the feeling of, first of all, I can’t believe this is happening, and also, I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming, which was like such a signal that it was a great story move, because it was at once inevitable and also shocking. And even though it’s more like personal to me, I think making Michael Scott like 20 percent more likable between seasons one and two of The Office was great. That was a combination of Greg Daniels and Steve Carell, really. Greg actively and Steve just by being Steve. That decision took the American Office from a show that comedy geeks would’ve really loved and thought was really cool and special into just a great show. It was the difference between probably being canceled after just ten episodes and lasting eight years.
How much do you care about what fans think?
I care a good deal about what they think. I mean, your job is to make them happy and if you’re not making them happy then you’re failing. But there’s two main dangers. You can’t allow anyone but yourself to dictate how the show unfolds and how it’s presented. And that includes anyone — forget about the fans, other writers, friends of yours who have opinions, it’s not going to work. A novelist wouldn’t dare to allow other people to just write sections of their novels for them, or to tell them how their characters should behave. TV is obviously more collaborative than a novel, but you just can’t let people dictate the way you operate.
So, do you think of yourself as a control freak or a collaborator?
I would like to think that I’m a collaborator in the writers’ room or on the stage with the actors, and a control freak in the edit bay. It’s like the showrunner equivalent of the Madonna-whore dichotomy. You spread yourself as a huge collaborator when you’re constructing the show and then once it’s in the can, then you just split every second into thirtieths and make it as perfect as you can make it.
You said there were two dangers, what's the second?
It's specific to the Internet, which is that the Internet is not at all a representative sampling of America, it just isn’t. If you care enough to comment on an Internet message board, you either really love the show or you really hate the show. And you’re not making the show for people who either really love it or really hate it. Those are the margins. And people who really love the show are great and you want to get more of them, but you can’t only do what they want you to do, because that is prohibiting you from welcoming new people into the fold. And you can’t listen to the people who really hate the show because, what do you care? They hate the show! You’re not going to win them over. I fully believe that my job is to entertain people. I don’t think that we’re operating in a vacuum. We write for a network TV show — like, our job is to make people happy and to entertain them and to give them something fun to watch. So if we’re really screwing up in some way, I’d like to know about it. But I don’t know that the way we’re going to find out that we’re screwing up in some way is by reading the Internet. I hope, that among me and the other writers, and producers, and cast members, that there’s enough checks and balances in the internal system, that we’ll know if we’re screwing up before the world will.
Do you read about the show on the Internet?
I commit the sin all the time of poking around the Internet and reading what people are writing about the show. I’m not in any way immune to that. I do it constantly. I wish I didn’t, but I do. I was once reading an Internet message board, and I saw this person had written a comment about Parks and Rec that said, "Why do you guys even watch this show? It’s terrible." And it was two weeks before the pilot premiered. And in a weird way, it really helped me. I was like, Okay, right. This is not thoughtful criticism of the show. I enjoy reading thoughtful criticism of something I work on. Something that someone has really taken care to kind of watch it and think about what the strengths and weaknesses are. I enjoy reading that, because it feels like a dialogue that we’re having with the country, but the immediacy of the Internet coupled with the fragile egos and the fragile minds of writers, it’s just a terrible mix. Ne’er the twain shall meet.
Do you have a show you wish you had made?
Yeah, The Wire. That’s an easy one for me.
And why’s that?
I think it’s the greatest show of all-time. I can’t think of what would beat it. It has something that I am consciously trying to emulate, even though my show’s a comedy and that obviously is not a comedy. They had just hundreds of characters and you knew all of them, and when they came onscreen you recognized all of them and you knew what was going on in their brains and you knew what kind of people they were. And they juggled them so expertly and so brilliantly that that’s been kind of my dream for Parks and Rec, as crazy as it might sound. That's part of the reason why the goal was to invent this whole town, because I wanted dozens and dozens and dozens of characters who could pop in and out and give you the sense that this is a real living place.
Other Showrunner Transcripts:
Community’s Dan Harmon
30 Rock's Robert Carlock
Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan
How I Met Your Mother’s Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King
Justified’s Graham Yost
Cougar Town’s Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel
Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes