If you’ve been a TV comedy fan within the past ten years, chances are that Mike Schur is behind one of your favorite shows. An original writer and producer on the American Office, Schur currently serves as co-creator of two major network comedies starring SNL alums with Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine and NBC’s Parks and Recreation, which kicks off its seventh and final season tonight. Ahead of the Parks season premiere, I talked with Schur about how he approached the end of the Amy Poehler-starring show, what he thinks of the future of major network sitcoms, and what separates a successful final season from the rest.
Parks and Recreation is about to embark on its final season. Looking back, what are the things you hoped it would bring to television that you maybe didn’t see as much before it premiered?
There were a couple things. I mean, I think you start out with any show just hoping that you can make it good and funny and that it’ll stick around. But there were certainly aspects and things I talked with Amy and Greg Daniels about while we were developing the show that were sort of part of our series objectives. One of them was just to do a show with a female point of view. Now, it’s not like there hadn’t been shows with female points of view before – there’d been hundreds if not thousands – but at the time, there was a kind of low-level/medium-level misogyny that seemed to be running through TV, and it was very annoying to me personally and I think to Greg and many people.
And so we just wanted to present a character, a female character, who was not just like…the word is always “strong,” which I think is a kind of lame word to describe good female characters on TV, so it wasn’t just a strong character but an interesting, nuanced woman who was smart and was very career-driven and goal-driven, but who also had normal human flaws. Sometimes the way that people try to counter a negative representation of a certain person or kind of people is just by making them kind of superheroes, but we didn’t think that was realistic. No one’s a superhero. We just wanted to present a person who had a lot of different kinds of characteristics and who was nuanced and multi-dimensional in the kind of ways that, much more typically, male characters get represented on TV. So that was one thing, and 95% of that goal was accomplished when Amy Poehler agreed to be in the show because that’s what kind of person she is in real life, and we knew that if she did the show we’d just have to put her onscreen every week and a lot of that work would be done for us.
And then there were a couple of other things, the biggest of which I think obviously is that at the time Greg and I were developing the show around the summer of 2008, the world economy was collapsing around us, the McCain/Obama campaign was in full swing, and it just became very clear that no matter what happened, the role of government was going to be very important in people’s lives. And the problem at the time was the government was being discussed in this extremely macro, kind of abstract way where it was about “Should Lehman Brothers be allowed to fail?” “Should the government be in the position of guaranteeing tranches of subprime mortgage loans from Fannie Mae?” It was just this incredibly complex thing, so our discussions of the situation resulted in us realizing that the way that people actually interact with their government is not through following the intricacies of the Federal Reserve and Ben Bernanke and stuff like that – not that that doesn’t affect people, of course it does, and in a serious way – but the actual way that people interact with their government is when they get a parking ticket, or when they need a new garbage can because the old one broke, or when they need a new stop sign put in, or when they need a swing fixed. So that just seemed like a way to say look, the world is very complicated, and the role of government is very complicated in people’s lives, and there might be a fun way to say “When push comes to shove, your local government is more important to you in many ways – not in all ways, but in many ways – than the national government is.” So that was sort of the genesis of the show – thinking about the different ways that people interact with the government and how the government affects them, then coupling that with the idea of presenting a character who believed you could actually affect change one person at a time, or one little moment at a time, through an optimistic worldview.
How did you approach writing this season knowing it’d likely be the final one? Were there certain series finales of the past you looked to for guidance?
As far as other shows go, the writing staff watched a lot of series finales over the course of this final season. We would have lunch and watch the Cheers finale, we watched the Six Feet Under finale, we watched the Breaking Bad finale and Sopranos finale, and part of the fun was discussing them and talking about what made them good and what we liked about them, what we didn’t like about them, or what made some of them more successful than other ones. And it’s no huge surprise that we really gleaned a lot from that process – I will say that it crystalized a few things for me personally. I realized that there’s a couple aspects to a perfect finale, and I guess in a larger sense a perfect final season, which is…I always forget who actually said this quote, but somebody said that the perfect ending is both “surprising and inevitable.” It takes you by surprise and you didn’t see it coming, but it also instantly feels like the only possible way it could’ve ended. Which is really a lovely idea, and I think that it’s true of finales and final seasons of really great shows. You get that sense, as a person who’s watching the show and is a fan of the show over many years, that you need to feel like it was a proper sendoff – that no one acted wildly out of character and that the storylines didn’t take you in some crazy direction that sort of undermined what you’d seen to that point. But you should also be a little bit surprised, and new things have to happen, and a basic element of all good storytelling is surprise, and I think the best finales have that.
The Cheers finale is a masterpiece. It’s not the most surprising thing in the world – like Sam heads off with Diane, they’re going to run away together, and then they have second thoughts – you probably knew if you were a fan of that show that they weren’t going to end with Sam and Diane flying off together. So it’s not really about surprise, but then the last 20 minutes of that finale is just the main cast sitting in the bar talking about their life philosophies. Cliff talks about how the secret to life is comfortable shoes, Carla talks about how the secret to life is her kids, and everybody just has these perfect final statements in character on the show. That’s really all we set out to do with both the final season and final episode – just to do something that felt like the appropriate final chapter of the lives of the characters, but also we tried to find ways to surprise people and to make them feel like they were seeing something they hadn’t seen before. And we did that in a lot of different ways – through the stories we chose, the casting and guest stars, and the decisions the characters make. I hope that that comes through.
Parks and Rec was the last remaining show on NBC’s Thursday night comedy block. What do you think this change means for the future of NBC comedies? I’m really sad the great Thursday night lineups are gone.
Yeah, I am too. I’m of two minds of this, because part of me just laments the passing of that era and it’s easy to rant and rave, but the reality is that the TV landscape is so fractured now that it’s really hard to capture a large audience for anything. How many comedies or shows in general that have come out on networks in the last ten years can rightly be considered big hits? It’s very few, and that’s largely because in the old days – and this is an old analogy I use all the time – when I was a kid I watched Empty Nest every week, and Empty Nest was about a bunch of retirees in Florida, and there was no reason for me to be watching Empty Nest except that I think it was the only comedy that happened to be on at that moment. And now you have so many choices and there are so many shows that are specifically geared toward, you know, women 18-24 or men 40-49 or teenagers or old people or whatever; whoever you are, there’s a whole channel with programming just for you, and that means that it’s really hard for any network or any kind of show to grab one big swath of the viewing audience for any specific show. So it is sad that that branded block of comedies on Thursday that was around essentially continuously for 30 years is gone, but it’s just sort of what happens in the landscape, you know? It’s very hard to maintain a tradition like that because it’s not like it used to be. And I don’t think any of the networks are done with comedies – people love comedies and love watching them – and if you make a smart show with good writing and good actors, people will watch it.
I think one wrinkle for comedy is that it often takes half a year or sometimes longer for those shows to find their voice and settle in and for the writers to figure out how to write and for the actors to figure out how to act and to figure out what the themes of the show are and how to make everybody funny, and in this day and age people bail so fast. [laughs] They watch something twice and if it doesn’t make them fully entertained they’ll just bail, because why shouldn’t they? There’s a million other options. It’s like eating the first four bites of food at a free buffet and then saying like “I don’t like this, but I’m gonna keep eating the same food for another year just to see if it gets better.” It’s a really hard sell for people. That is a true fact about comedy, and it’s true of almost every great comedy that’s ever been on the air. It’s true of Seinfeld and Cheers and even Friends to some extent – the shows where, if you watch the first six to ten episodes, are just not the same show as they became. So I don’t think it’s like the end of comedy on networks by any stretch – I do think the obstacle course that comedies have to run on major networks is a lot harder now. There are many more obstacles than in the past to sustainability than there used to be. So we’ll see. TV is very good at giving people entertainment. It’s a very good entertainment delivery system, and it also has a way of adapting. Sometimes it’s slow or gradual, but TV has a very good track record of adapting to national taste and the demands of its viewers. So I think that one way or another, comedies will stick around, and people will be able to watch them, and I believe that’s true of the major networks as well as cable networks and Amazon and Netflix and whatever else. People like comedy. I don’t think it’s an endangered species, I just think that the system by which it’s been manufactured and delivered is a little under duress right now.
Parks and Recreation’s farewell season premieres on NBC tonight at 8:00pm.