For some people, last night’s season premiere of American Idol was hands-down this week’s big pop-culture event. That’s nice; we hope you enjoyed.Those of us around Vulture HQ, however, have been saving all our love for tonight’s (way-too-) long-delayed return of NBC’s brilliant Parks and Recreation, which finally returns at 9:30 after eight months off the air. (Not counting the special hiatus slideshows and video they did for Vulture.) To prepare for the homecoming, series co-creator Michael Schur talked to Vulture about what the never-ending hiatus was like for him as they continued to crank out shows even though no one was seeing them, what we can expect in the season ahead, and why he thinks Parks may finally be poised to break through this year. And after our grilling was done, he was nice enough to answer nearly two dozen questions submitted by Vulture readers. So let’s all get our Swanson on and dive into this in-depth, virtually unedited Vulture Transcript.
So when you heard you weren’t going to be on NBC’s fall schedule, was your response as caustic as Rob Lowe’s?
He cursed a lot more. It was certainly disappointing. We felt like we were really in a groove. We were firing on all cylinders, and were really excited to storm into Season 3. But Greg Daniels and I talked about it a lot with [managers and fellow exec producers] David Miner and Howard Klein, as well as Amy [Poehler] and everyone involved. And the more we sized up the situation, the more we realized: There’s no move here. This just is the way it is. We just have to put our heads down and do the show and hope for the best. So that’s what we did.
It wasn’t always easy to do that. We shot essentially all of Season 3 in this complete uncertainty of, “When is the show going to come back?,” “Is it going to come back?,” “What’s the plan?” And it wasn’t just not being on the schedule: There’s the NBC-Comcast merger and a whole new regime coming in theoretically — nobody really knows still. But we just love making the show. And we decided there was only one way to play this, which was to do a good job doing our job. That was our motto as a creative unit: Let’s not stress out over things we can’t control.
Did you get angry at NBC or its executives?
It sounds like a very Buddhist answer, but we tried to focus on the job we were doing and not worry about anything else.
So you didn’t curse the name of Jeff Zucker.
Jeff Zucker was running the entire massive NBC empire for years. I would imagine that his attention was on larger things other than what was on in a specific half-hour on one of 50 channels he was overseeing. There were certainly moments when I and other people were cursing the names of various people in the universe … but I don’t think anyone ever laid the blame specifically on anyone’s feet. I’m a pretty non-confrontational person: If someone cuts me off on the highway, I find myself apologizing to them in my head.
You’re not going to take my bait, are you?
Sorry to disappoint you!
The one downside of the uncertainty is that you couldn’t plan certain kinds of episodes. Specifically, holiday episodes.
Which was sad. I really love holiday episodes. The Thanksgiving episode of Cheers where they all got into a food fight is one of my favorite TV episodes of all time. It was a big letdown for us that we didn’t get to do that. It bummed me out a little. But we tried to build in big event episodes [instead] that were like holiday episodes in some ways. The seventh episode is the Harvest Festival; there’s an episode where they all go camping. We channeled our holiday energy into them.
So where is this season going? What is Season 3 about?
One of the things we learned in our first 30 episodes that carried over was that Leslie Knope is kind of a superhero. Part of our mythology about the character in the writers’ room is that she sleeps three and a half hours a night. So Season 3 begins with the government completely broke, their budget reduced to nothing. She makes this huge gamble in the first episode with this giant project, the Harvest Festival. If it works, then they’ll … be able to get their budget back. And if it doesn’t work, [they’ll all be gone]. So she’s going to try to lift the entire department up on her shoulders and try to save it.
And that led naturally — and I don’t want to spoil too much about the rest of the season — but it led to an idea of, okay, what happens if a low-rung bureaucrat in Indiana does something kind of high-profile? So if the second season was about her struggle to make the town fun and provide happiness to the town’s residents, there’s a new idea in Season 3 of what happens if she’s so successful that … her profile is raised and people know who she is.
So: Leslie Knope for Congress?
That may be going too far. But her profile is raised.
What else can you say about the season?
So the first half is about this giant project. That’s the work story going on in the background. But there’s a lot of relationship stuff. One of the best in the first half of the year is Rob and Rashida’s characters get romantically involved. Rashida Jones gets to show off her comedy chops, which we didn’t ask her to do a lot [last season]. She was sort of the straight person who entered this crazy world and was kind of the eyes of an audience. But nothing will throw a lady off her game more effectively than dating Rob Lowe. She finds herself in a position she isn’t often in, which is feeling vulnerable because a guy is so good-looking and ebullient. It’s really fun to watch her progression as she drinks the Kool-Aid.
The other big romantic arc of the season is whether Leslie and [Adam Scott’s character] Ben are going to get together. Adam has fit perfectly into the cast. He’s a guy who moved around a lot [and] he has this attitude that these towns are all the same. As time goes on, you see he really likes these people and this town … and his feelings for Leslie sort of emerge simultaneously.
How about April and Andy?
It moves forward significantly in the first six episodes. We’ve been developing that relationship for a long time. April is 21 years old and feels out of place in this town; her friends are all ironic and hip and sour. And Andy is this big happy golden retriever who is just very full of love and joy … and unapologetically. It was totally believable that this kind of guy could show this kind of girl there is a different way to go. You don’t have to be bitter and sad all the time about your place in life if you’re with the right person who makes you feel good and makes you feel happy. It doesn’t matter that you live in Pawnee, Indiana, instead of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Aubrey Plaza is certainly an unconventional actress for a love story. Is there a lot of Aubrey in April?
Oh, no question. I think there’s certain elements of all of the actors in the characters. I remember [when the show’s casting team] called me way back when we were writing the pilot and said, “I just met the weirdest girl. She’s so funny. You have to meet her.” So we immediately set up a meeting, and [Aubrey] sat in my office for an hour and just made me feel more uncomfortable and self-aware than I ever have felt in my life. As soon as she left, I said, “I don’t know how, but that girl’s going to be in this show.” I immediately sat down and wrote a scene between her and Leslie where she made Leslie feel the way she had just made me feel.
Word leaked out long ago about the guest stars this season: Will Forte, Parker Posey. Anyone else popping up?
Megan Mullally will be back in the fourth episode, and then she appears one other time in a surprise twist later in the year. Jason Mantzoukas [The League], who’s a super-funny guy, appears in the sixth episode. In the fifth episode, Nick Kroll and Matt Besser, who was one of the founding members of the UCB with Amy — they play a morning drive-time shock duo, and they’re hilarious. There’s hours of them improvising that’ll end up on a DVD.
So sum up what this season is about for each of the main characters, and the one episode for each that’s pivotal.
Sure. Well, I’m looking at pictures of all of them on my wall right now, so I’ll go in order.
For Leslie, it’s about taking a huge gamble and then seeing what happens to her life when it pays off. Her most important episode is the Harvest Festival, Episode 7. If this thing works, then she saves all her friends’ jobs. If it doesn’t, she’s doing something else with her life.
For Anne, it’s getting involved in a relationship where she’s not calling the shots and dealing with the aftermath. Her most important episode is probably the sixth, “Indianapolis,” where her relationship with Rob’s character comes to a head. It sets her on her path for the rest of the season.
For Tom it’s about summoning the courage to act on a feeling that he’s destined for greater things. There are a couple of episodes where Aziz puts on a crazy powerhouse comic performance. Episode 10, called “Soul Mates,” is basically just a giant showcase for Aziz Ansari’s comedic abilities. But the finale is probably the most important episode.
For April, the season’s about learning to forgive Andy for making a mistake [when she caught Anne kissing him], and making herself vulnerable to him. Her important episode is the fifth, called “Media Blitz.”
For Andy it’s about making up for that mistake and trying to mature a little bit as a person. His episode is the ninth, where Andy and April throw a dinner party for their friends even though they’ve been dating for two weeks.
For Ron, it’s about learning to accept the fact that he cares about people other than himself, that there’s room in a libertarian’s heart for friendships. The fourth episode of the season is called “Ron and Tammy, Part Two,” and some pretty significant things happen there.
For Ben, it’s about putting down roots. Episode 5 is big for him; so is Episode 14, “Road Trip.”
And for Chris, it’s about learning that the way he lives his life is not 100 percent fulfilling. His best episode is either the premiere or the finale.
Being on at 9:30, you finally have a great time slot, coming on after The Office. You’re going to get a four-month run. If it doesn’t work out, is it going to be hard to complain if NBC does the unthinkable? Is that the downside of the dream slot — that there’s even more pressure now?
There is no “con” as far as I’m concerned. NBC’s given us the best possible time slot for a half-hour comedy. I hope we perform well … and become a huge, giant, enormous hit. That’s what we want. As for as there being pressure on us: There’s no such thing as being safe in TV, unless you’re Big Bang Theory and just got a three-year pickup.
So will Parks make it to a Season 4?
I believe this show is very good and I believe that people who watch it will like it. And I’m excited for the audience to be bigger because we’re behind a big hit show like The Office. I’m not naive about the business end of television. I understand that you kind of have to perform. But our show has a lot to offer a lot of different people … it’s got a great cast, good writing, it’s good character comedy, there are good romances. I think we’re providing people with a lot of different reasons to like the show. So I’m cautiously optimistic, because that’s the only kind of optimistic you can be in this day and age, that if people sample the show, they’ll enjoy it and come back and keep watching it.
So you want to take a crack at the questions from our readers?
[We then gave Schur about two dozen of the best reader queries and asked him to answer five to ten. Instead, he answered almost all of them via e-mail.]
KRISHNAA: P & R is one of my favorite shows because of how sweet the relationships between characters are–everyone seems to genuinely care for each other. Plus, it’s one of the only shows I can watch with my mom that has multiple strip club scenes, which is a mean feat. How do you create that tone in a show? Also, how did you choose your writers, because they are all the greatest.
Thank you, Krishnaa. I think the tone of the show comes a lot from the actors, to tell you the truth. They’re all very nice people. With one glaring exception, who shall remain nameless (Amy Poehler).
As for the writers, I rescued them from an orphanage run by a very mean old dowager called Mrs. Nesbitt, who whipped them mercilessly with a length of rope. You’d think that would make them loyal to me, but they’re pretty apathetic about the job, frankly.
ARTIEFUFKIN: Hey Michael, first time/long time, I was wondering who you thought the worst baseball broadcaster is now that you got Joe Morgan fired. I’ll take my answer off the air.
It’s still Joe Morgan, when his games show up on ESPN Classic.
XXXXXXXXX: When do we get to hear the sweet saxophone stylings of Duke Silver? And can you please convince Larry Bird to guest star?? For Leslie’s sake.
You never know when The Duke will strike. And French Lick (Bird’s hometown) is not far from where we have placed Pawnee, which (along with my Celtics fandom) explains the multitude of Larry Bird references on the show. I think I can definitively say to Mr. Bird: If you’re reading this — and I know you are (he’s a huge Vulture guy) — you have an open invitation.
ADLIB19 has a few questions: Who paints the Pawnee City Hall murals for the show?
Our production designer Ian Phillips, who is a very talented and scarily hip guy with like a million ear piercings, works with the writers and does the sketches, and then after we approve them he contracts the actual painting work out to a very talented woman who is clearly creeped out by having to paint such horrifying scenes. But she does a great job.
Will Jean-Ralphio be back or will his duties at Lady Foot Locker prevent more appearances?
Jean-Ralphio always seems to turn up. He’s like a bad, douchey penny. He’ll be in at least a couple episodes this year. He and Tom have some truly misguided adventures together.
Does the Pawnee shutdown give Duke Silver the chance to hit the road with Mouse Rat? I’m thinking statewide tour.
I don’t think America could handle the power and raw masculinity that pairing would provide. That would be like the Rolling Stones touring with Thor.
RAYBLAY: I love Rashida Jones but it seems like her character is not as tightly wound into the cast as the rest of the characters (aside from being Leslie’s bff). Are there any plans, in addition to being Rob Lowe’s love interest, to add to her ‘relevance’ to the story?
Ann does indeed become more fully integrated into the show this year, via several different paths. Amy Poehler wrote an episode called “The Fight” that answers a lot of questions about Ann’s place in our world, which will air late in the season.
GRASON: Of all the actors working on the show, who shows the most heart, grit, or just overall scrappiness?
They’re all pretty scrappy. Aziz is the shortest male, so let’s call him the grittiest. Pratt has the most heart. Aubrey Plaza Gets the Most Out of Her Abilities. And Offerman has the most guts. (Sorry, people who didn’t read FJM and don’t understand that.)
PENNYWISE: Will we get to see other ex-wife Tammy and mom Tammy in the future?
Megan Mullally reprises her role as one of Earth’s Most Horrifying People, Tammy Swanson, in the fourth episode, and then appears again later in the season. We have ideas for Tammy No. 1, and Ma Tammy, but I don’t want to say too much …
Also, please describe Ron Swanson’s ideal breakfast.
In the third episode, “Time Capsule,” he quite literally tells us what his favorite breakfast is. I don’t want to ruin it for you.
YAWNY: Is Aziz Ansari a Muppet? I have fifty dollars bet that he is.
Aziz is fully human. But I would love to see an Aziz Ansari muppet. Get on that.
VDIGBY SWEATYDAVID: I remember thinking April’s sister’s appearance was funny. Will we see any more of her?
First of all, congratulations on having the all-time weirdest commenter handle in history. (And I mean that as a compliment.) Also, April’s sister Natalie appears twice this season; the first time in episode five (“Media Blitz”).
MEGP: Can we ever expect a D.J. Roomba-centric episode?
D.J. Roomba, murdered in cold blood by Jerry last year, is resurrected this season and appears in Episode 8. After that, he will be leaving our show to host his own morning show on ABC. We wish him the best.
FIZZINGWHIZBEE: Who do you think will replace your father-in-law?!?!
D.J. Roomba. I already told you.
SHAREDWINDOW: Will Louis C.K. ever return?
I think — and I am not alone — that Louis C.K. is the greatest living comedian. I would do anything to get him back, and hopefully he’ll be able to, but he is very busy doing his own show and being the greatest living comedian. If you don’t already, I urge all of you to watch his show Louie on FX, which is annoyingly brilliant.
GREENWELL39: If you could have one member of Avon Barksdale’s crew to guest star in an episode, who would you pick?
I’m tempted to say Wee-Bey, because I’d like to thank him for steering Namond to a more productive life. But I’ll go with Slim Charles, because everyone on our show is like five foot eight or shorter and it would be fun to watch him loom over everyone.
JCROCKSTEADY: How do we secure a three-season deal like they did for The Big Bang Theory? WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO?
Just pull the trigger, man! You run the network now! (Note: This comment only applicable if “JCROCKSTEADY” is the handle of new Comcast/NBC President Bob Greenblatt. Which I assume it is.)
STILLMANMEYER: What does Ron Swanson think of John Boehner and Sarah Palin?
I don’t think Ron cares much for career politicians of any party. I especially don’t think he would tolerate Boehner’s weird crying jags, nor Palin’s helicopter wolf hunts.
NAGADS: Not a question, just a request: Can we get more Ron & Andy? Like a mentor-y, older brother/younger brother thing going?
The second episode, “Flu Season,” features Ron and Andy having a male-bonding day. That episode, I believe, is the funniest and best one we have made to that point.
JTDIRTE13: How many hours a day do you spend admiring Nick Offerman’s mustache?
Not nearly enough.