This article originally ran on September 11, 2015.
When Vulture spoke with Mike Schur, the plan was to discuss an SNL sketch he wrote in 2002 featuring host John McCain impersonating then–attorney general John Ashcroft on a typically unhinged parody of Hardball With Chris Matthews about detaining suspected terrorists. Aside from getting a Republican senator to joke about throwing every American in jail, Schur said the sketch was tough to write because it represented a larger issue: how to make the post-9/11 world funny. The interview turned into a broader discussion of SNL’s handling of that difficult subject as well as how it affected Schur’s later work on The Office and Parks and Recreation. Here are his remarks, as told to Dan Reilly, edited and condensed for length and clarity.
I started producing “Weekend Update,” and my first show was the first episode after 9/11. I thought I had this really fun job writing fake news, and then all of a sudden the world ended.
To me, when the definitive history of SNL is written, that period will be seen as Lorne’s greatest triumph. When the towers came down, no one had any idea what to do. Everyone was completely paralyzed, and he very steadily figured out the right path. Like, in my opinion, the best moment in the history of the show is Rudy Giuliani in that first episode back giving a very beautiful speech with the assembled firemen, police officers, and MTA employees behind him, saying, “What you do is great for the city, and we need you to get going again,” then Lorne saying, “Can we be funny?” and Giuliani saying, “Why start now?” That moment made me feel like the Earth was still spinning.
Lorne’s attitude was “This is the world now, and we make jokes about this world. We don’t shy away from it, we don’t gloss over it.” Obviously you don’t make insensitive, horrifying jokes about people dying, but you make jokes about what’s going on, so the very first joke that ever aired on a “Weekend Update” segment I was working on was Jimmy Fallon saying, “The search for Osama bin Laden is continuing, and authorities believe he may be hiding in a small, dark place, completely alone.” The punch line was “The CIA is now investigating theaters showing the movie Glitter,” the Mariah Carey movie that unfortunately came out a couple of weeks earlier. We turn the most horrifying thing that any of us ever experienced into jokes about bad Mariah Carey movies. That’s how we’re going to go about our business. There was no delay.
Whether it was “Update” or sketches, things involving the political climate at the time were always so hard because it was so unfunny. The hardest sketch I ever had to write was a Hardball parody. Daryl Hammond did a great Chris Matthews, and we had already done a bunch of Hardballs, but this episode, John McCain was hosting. Having a sitting United States senator and a famous military veteran in that climate made it like, Oh boy, this is a real doozy.
To me, this was the moment when we finally figured out how Hardball should go: “Make fun of someone on the right, make fun of someone on the left, and then have a third person who just says crazy stuff.” We had no idea what the relationship was between McCain and John Ashcroft before we asked him. I thought, This could be really bad. He could be furious. But from moment one when we pitched it to him, he said, “That will be really funny.” He’s a bit of an iconoclast, and he enjoyed poking fun at someone who was ostensibly on his team. When you have a politician hosting the show, you never know — they’re usually doing it because they think it’ll make them look cool and hip, and sometimes that isn’t always the case. But in his case, he was 100 percent fine playing Ashcroft, and we gave him some pretty tough lines. We turned Ashcroft into a guy who wanted everyone to live in an Orwellian observation state. My favorite line was “We’ve been able to detain tens of thousands of potential American terrorists for months at a time, for little or no reason, just like the Founding Fathers dreamed!” which is a pretty intense thing to say if you’re a U.S. senator in character as the attorney general. He was totally happy to do that.
Lorne’s directive when I started producing “Weekend Update” was “This show does not have a political point of view. We’re skeptical of power and authority, so whoever is in power, you make fun of them.” That’s just the deal. Lorne always feels that the show is at its best when people feel like they’re not getting a skewed opinion, so that’s the reason this sketch stood out to me. We hit the right really hard, but we also had an equally tough view of the left. We had Rachel Dratch playing a made-up spokesperson for the ACLU who’s saying that the terrorists should be allowed to police the police. That was born out of that worldview of You’re skeptical of everybody. Everybody’s opinions, especially extreme opinions, are fair game.
The McCain sketch was about a year later, as 9/11 dominated both the sketches and “Update” for years. When someone would write a great sketch or joke about something so scary and mystifying, there was a real cathartic laugh that you would get from the audience. Will Ferrell in the American flag thong was a perfect example, because he took something that was in the culture, this completely understandable but also widely out-of-proportion jingoism, and turned it into a great, ridiculous sketch idea. I remember it from the table read, because Will put on that thong, stripped down, and stood there in all his Will Ferrell glory. You watch that sketch and it’s just rolling laughter.
Then you look a few years later, and The Office was really about a place and time, a specific business and city standing in for corporate culture. So we would do jokes occasionally about Michael Scott being racially insensitive. There was one episode where there was this Sikh IT guy, and Michael was terrified because he had a turban on. It was this satire of how ignorant people can be about ethnicities they’ve only seen glancing pictures of on television in the post-9/11 world, but that was purely to comment on Michael Scott. It wasn’t any comment on the world at large other than that.
By the time Greg Daniels and I were writing the pilot to Parks and Recreation, it was 2008 and the political climate had in some ways worsened terribly and in some ways gotten a lot better. The world seemed safer. The biggest problem wasn’t terrorism, it was our financial institutions. The discussion leading up to the Obama-McCain election was “Can the government save us?” We had a main character who believed that government can help people and that her job was to make other peoples’ lives better. In the Lorne Michaels way of not feeling like people are being preached to, we also needed a counterpoint, so we set out to show a libertarian in Ron Swanson — an actual, authentic libertarian who walks the walk, who isn’t just using libertarianism to get rich or improve his own lot in life. That’s why when Ron goes to the gay bar in town, the Bulge, he just goes about his business. He couldn’t care less what these people are doing. He doesn’t care whether they’re straight or gay. He doesn’t have an opinion on gay people getting married except that he believes nobody should have an opinion about it. We wanted to make him a good person, a sympathetic person, who had something to offer the discussion. He was going to be right and Leslie was going to be wrong sometimes, so that was the genesis of it all.
The thing is people who argue issues often seem ridiculous because they often are ridiculous. It’s fun to make fun of them, but also that’s the joy of this country: You get to say it. If people who hold extreme positions didn’t get to stand up in a public forum and express themselves, then this country isn’t functioning properly. It’s really annoying when someone willfully misreads a Stephen Colbert tweet and turns it into a way to sort of further a specific agenda, but it’s America. You get to do that. And it’s great for comedy writers. The American ideal that everyone gets to say what they want whenever they want to is essentially the engine that keeps American comedy running. I’m guessing there’s far less comedy in North Korea.