The way Rob Lowe pronounces the word literally on Parks and Recreation is nothing short of magic. It’s not like when people say nuke-u-ler when they mean nuclear; that just makes us stabby. When Chris Traeger says LIT-ruh-lee, it takes on great importance, underscoring just how excited he is about literally everything. (“Every time I cleanse, I can literally feel the toxins leaving my body!”) So how did this signature word come to pass? We cornered Lowe during a recent visit to the Parks and Rec set to demand his origin story.
“I think I just leaned into that word really hard a couple of times and it made [showrunner Mike Schur] laugh,” said Lowe. “The next thing you know it just became one of Chris’s things, but it was never designed that way. It was merely a word in a sentence. I think I just took a really big, probably very embarrassing swing at it and it stuck.” And did he know specifically what he had done differently? That, in fact, he was ignoring the “e” entirely? “It’s funny, I have no idea what I’m doing when I’m doing it … But it’s very exciting to be so far down the road in this business and to finally have a catchphrase. It’s one thing I can tick off my career to-do list. I don’t think it’s as good as ‘What’chu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis,’ but it’s up there.” Lowe knows it’s made it into the lexicon because people won’t stop saying it to him. “They point at me and they say their full name. They say ‘Literally!’ They say ‘Ann Perkins!’” he said. “I dropped my son off at college back east this week and every person that came up to me, they didn’t want to talk about The West Wing or Austin Powers or Tommy Boy. Every single one wanted to talk about Chris Traeger. I figured out who’s watching Parks and they’re all in college. We own the campus.”
Of course he’s become a bit sensitive about using the word when he’s not in character. “I find myself going, ‘I’m telling you, that guy is li— … absolutely the worst person I’ve ever seen.’ I’ve tried to banish it from my personal vocabulary for a while,” he says. It seems to require some real effort. When we asked about his new Lifetime movie, this one about Casey Anthony, Lowe said: “It’s not what you expect. It is lit— … did you see what I did there? Did you? I’ve developed a mid-life stutter!”