Mike Schur on How Following the Rules Led Him to The Good Place

Mike Schur (left) on set on The Good Place. Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

It’s far too soon to declare NBC’s The Good Place a hit, but the new Kristen Bell/Ted Danson comedy from Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-creator Mike Schur is certainly off to a good start. Top critics have awarded mostly heavenly reviews to the show, and the Peacock’s bold decision to roll out three episodes during premiere week was rewarded with solid sampling by viewers, no small feat given Good’s quirky, sci-fi-tinged premise (a morally compromised woman dies and ends up somewhere she seemingly doesn’t belong). Earlier this month, Vulture spent an hour on the phone with Schur talking about why he decided to go in such a different direction with his latest project, what it’s like overseeing a small comedy empire (he’s also an executive producer of Netflix’s Emmy-winning Master of None), being a rule-follower in an industry known for rule-breakers, and why he’s so terrified of a Donald Trump presidency.

In preparing for our chat, I rediscovered the story of you, your wife, and the man who became known as the Saab Guy. When you were just a writer on The Office, you and she were involved in a very minor car accident, one which led you to publicly, if anonymously, shame the driver of the other car for insisting on filing an insurance claim over next-to-nothing. The twist was that you soon came to question your own reaction, and had your own sort of philosophical crisis as a result. The New Yorker even wrote about the whole thing. It seems like Saab Guy is, at least to some degree, part of the origin story for The Good Place.
Probably at some level. I stumbled into a situation where I thought I was definitely doing something that was right or good. Then I pretty quickly started to get a weird sinking feeling in my gut, and I was like, “Wait, is this good?” I felt like I had an ethical itch that I couldn’t quite scratch. I started talking to people about it — like cold-called a bunch of ethics professors — and I explained the situation and got a variety of interesting viewpoints, and came to the conclusion that I was screwing up. I became significantly less confident of my own righteousness and reversed course and tried to make up for it. The idea for the show didn’t come directly out of that, but certainly that was a good example of a situation where I began to ask myself some questions about whether something I was doing was good or bad. In your world [of journalism], I would say that event was creative deep background for this larger show idea.

You seem unusually self-aware as a writer in Hollywood. You certainly don’t fit the godless, immoral Hollywood types that everyone wants to make you out to be. How did you get to be so concerned about such issues? Did you think you should be a philosopher in another life?
Maybe in another life, sure. I don’t think I understand philosophy and the truly complex deep ideas nearly as well as people who do it for a living. I’ve always been an extreme rule-follower. When I was a kid, I would learn rules and I would just say, “Okay, that’s the rule,” and I would just do that. I’m very nervous about playing music too loud in our house, if we’re having a barbecue or something, because I become concerned that our neighbors are going to get annoyed. I don’t like to jaywalk. I don’t like to drive over the speed limit. When I learned to drive, I was told to keep my hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, and to this day when I drive, I keep my hands at 10 and 2. It’s something I get made fun of a lot for by my wife and most people who know me.

When I’m in a situation where I feel like I’m screwing up, or I’m doing something that is making someone else sad or unhappy or uncomfortable or embarrassed, I get a really uneasy feeling in my gut. That’s what happened in that Saab situation. It happens a lot. I’ll give one example. I took my kids and a friend’s kids to see a kids’ movie fairly recently, and in the lobby of the theater there was a display where you could get your pictures taken with the characters from the movie. My kids saw it and got really excited, and they ran over and jumped into the display, and I was like, “Oh, yeah,” and came over and I started taking a picture. Then this guy looked at me, who I hadn’t seen until that point, and was like, “Hey, there’s a line!” I looked over to my right, and there was a line. Not a long line, but four families who were waiting to do the thing. I felt terrible. I felt like, “Oh God, I just disrupted the social order.” [Laughs.] A line is the most basic way that society has decided to try to maintain order and stave off chaos and anarchy and fighting. I had to get the kids out of there, and we got in the back of the line and we waited. Obviously, it was an accident, and they’re kids. It’s not their fault. But I get very embarrassed when I do something that’s against the rules. That’s probably where this show really came from, at some level. [It] was just a feeling of wanting to say, ‘Everybody should play by the rules … because if you don’t, then the whole thing falls apart.”

Does that make you something of an outlier, as someone in the creative community? We often think of successful Hollywood types such as yourself as “rule breakers.” Or is that an oversimplification of creative people in show business?
I think it is a little. But I’d also say, more importantly, that I find there to be zero overlap in terms of your personal — my personal —  ethical outlook on society, and a creative endeavor. I think they have nothing to do with each other. I don’t ever think about the idea of coloring inside the lines or outside the lines when I’m thinking creatively. I don’t think what is required to be a creative person is a sense of “anything goes” anarchy. They’re two separate parts of the portfolio. I know creative people who are very much like me in terms of our feelings about our place in our society, and I also know plenty of people who are the complete opposite — who believe “anything goes” is a perfectly reasonable way to live. It’s not compartmentalization. Truly, they’re unrelated. They’re two non-intersecting planes in any one journey through the universe.

This makes sense. I may have been simplifying too much.
I don’t think it’s simplistic. Not to use too many driving analogies, but people always say, “You drive like you live,” which I’ve found to be fairly accurate. People who are crazy, insane, reckless drivers are very frequently crazy, insane, reckless, and vice versa. People who tend to be 10 and 2, like me, tend to be more conservative people in the terms of the way we live and go about our lives. I don’t think it’s a crazy leap to suggest that. Also, if you take SNL as your starting point, there are many, many, many stories of people who came through there who had a kind of anarchic approach to life, right? The John Belushi model, the Chris Farley model. There are plenty of people like that who found a home, a happy home, at SNL because SNL was a rebellious, rule-breaking show that celebrated the ways in which it was different from other TV shows. And certainly, there’s a correlation between the show and the people who work there in many respects. But I don’t think it’s causality. I don’t think you have to be that kind of person to work there or be happy there.

So if Saab guy was part of the subtext behind The Good Place, what’s the actual origin story for the show? What were your specific inspirations?  
Well, a couple things. One is, imagine the kind of person I’m describing, the 10 and 2 driver. There’s myriad bad behavior constantly being exhibited on the streets of Los Angeles. [And] there are two things I remember being starting points. One of them was seeing someone pull onto the shoulder of the 101 [freeway] in traffic and zip past a thousand cars that were stuck in this slow-moving crawl — and then try to jam its way back in. I get so upset when I see that, because it’s like, “You’re not special. You don’t get to do that.” Everyone could do that, but we’re all not doing that because we’re acknowledging that we’re part of this larger system where we have to follow the rules so everybody is equal. That kind of selfish behavior really bums me out, along with people [who] zip through yellow lights way after they’ve turned red. I started, in my head, assigning negative point values to their actions and saying, “That’s  minus 7 points, that’s minus 12 points.” I had the joking thought that maybe, this is all a big video game, and we’re all just playing the video game, and they’re going to have a point total at the end of the day. Then that point total will amount to something, good or bad.

The other place it came from was, I go to this Starbucks near my house. I buy coffee, and it’s like $1.70. And I always toss the 30 cents into the tip jar. I realized about myself a while ago that I was doing that thing where you’re waiting for the barista to turn around so they would see that you put the 30 cents into the tip jar. It’s so silly. It’s 30 cents. It’s not like I’m giving a billion dollars to the Gates Foundation. But I realized I wanted the credit. A truly good person wouldn’t wait to get the credit. They would just do it because it’s the silly, tiny, right thing to do. I was poking around the internet, and I found an episode of Seinfeld that had a similar storyline. And it was like, “Oh, I’m on to something here. There’s something about this character trait.” I did a lot of research about charitable giving, and about how the highest form of charitable giving obviously is anonymous because you are not doing it to get credit.

The combination of those two things is what started me thinking about the show. Then, on a more fundamental level, I was at a point where Parks and Rec was over and Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been sailing along. And I had this realization that from 2004 to 2015, I had been writing some version of the same idea, which was just a collection of people in an office setting with a single-camera, handheld style. I felt that I should do something different, and try something new. Those three things were the perfect storm that caused me to pursue this idea.

I’ve read in some of your other recent interviews that you ran the idea for The Good Place by [The Leftovers and Lost co-creator] Damon Lindelof before you pitched it to NBC. What led you to him?
In the past, I’ve always had a partner. I did Parks and Rec with Greg [Daniels]. He’s my mentor and taught me how to do it, so I didn’t need to talk to anybody else. I did Brooklyn with Dan Goor. [The Good Place] could reasonably be categorized as science fiction, which is not a genre I had any experience in except for being a fan of it. I felt like I needed, at a fairly early stage, to ask someone some questions. I knew Damon a little bit. I also saw every episode of Lost as it aired, and I am such a huge fan of The Leftovers. We had maybe had lunch one time simply because I got in touch with him and said, “I’m a fan of yours. Can I take you to lunch and chat?” Then I had this idea, and I realized I didn’t have any experience in the genre. I felt I needed someone to help me a little bit. I called him and said, “I’m going to take you out to lunch again, and I need your help.”

How did the lunch go? What was his advice?
I told him we were going to play a game called, “Is this anything?” And the way that you play that game is, I pitch you an idea for a TV show, and you tell me if it’s anything. I needed to have someone who knew what he was talking about tell me whether I was barking up the wrong tree. I pitched him the idea, and he was incredibly helpful. He said, “Yes, this is something, and here in my opinion are some potential pitfalls you’re going to hit, and here are some things you should think about.” He gave me this really nice, wind-in-sails boost. It was a very formative thing for me because I admire him so much as a writer, as a thinker. If he was positive about the idea, that was a big hurdle for me to get over — just having Damon say he thought the idea was viable [Laughs].

Has he stayed involved in the development process since then?
I sent him the pilot to read, as a friend, when I was done with it. I showed him a cut of the pilot after we finished it. He’s been very nice and supportive, and I owe him a great deal of gratitude.

Hopefully his agent hasn’t come to you asking for a credit on the show!
Well, there is a Leftovers Easter egg in tribute to Damon’s very kind help in the pilot. I won’t say what it is. But if you find it, kudos to you.

In addition to being a departure from the kinds of shows you’ve done the past decade or so, The Good Place is also pretty left-field for NBC these days. It’s high-concept-ish, and as you noted, it has sci-fi underpinnings. When I watched the pilot, I immediately thought, “Oh, hey, look what Will Forte and Last Man on Earth have made possible.” Was that show an inspiration at all?
Definitely. Forte’s show, which I love, let me really believe that it was possible to succeed. It’s really, intensely high-concept. It has succeeded, and it’s gotten critical acclaim, and he’s been nominated for an Emmy twice in a row. The show’s structure has held up, and it’s really funny. So it was an inspiration in the sense that I think we’re all always asking ourselves where audiences will go, and for what reasons. Are these shows only possible on streaming services? Does it have to be on a super-niche cable network? Is this a network idea?  When Last Man worked, I felt there was a possibility that this could live on a network, too. It made me feel like, “Oh, if Will can do it, then it can be done.”

After the many years of Parks and Rec struggling to find a big audience on NBC, and the couple of years early on when it was hardly a given the show would be renewed, I was thinking your next project would be outside the broadcast ecosystem. Why are you still doing network TV under a deal with a big, broadcast-oriented company such as Universal Television?
No part of me is sad to be where I am. I really like Universal Television. I have never felt inhibited by being here. When Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari came to me with the idea for Master of None, that was not a show that would’ve worked on network TV, so we went to Universal and we said, “Here’s the idea.” The response [from the studio] was, “Okay, great. Then we should go to Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and see if they want to do it.” I believe there are very good things about the network model, creatively. Make no mistake, I think it’s a bummer in many ways that the episodes have to be exactly the same length. It’s kind of a bummer that the credits roll over the last 30 seconds of every episode and disrupt the experience that the viewer has. I think it’s a bummer that they have giant moving, glowing advertisements for other shows while you’re watching the show you want to be watching. It’s not good for the experience of watching TV; it really isn’t. There are many things about the network experience where if you compare it to the experience of watching a show as a viewer on HBO or on Netflix, it’s worse. It’s just straight-up worse.

But on the other hand, comedy works really well when there are obstacles. If you don’t have obstacles, and you’re creating a comedy show, you can get really lazy and sloppy. The fact that every episode has to be 21 minutes and 30 seconds really forces you to hone them down. Every episode becomes a Darwinian exercise in, “Eliminate everything except for the best 21 minutes and 30 seconds.” And that keeps you sharp. There are some [half-hour] shows that I’ve watched on streaming services or on premium cable, and I felt like the episodes would’ve been better if they’d gone in and taken another minute out, and honed it down a little more. So it’s pros and cons. There are things about writing for network TV that frustrate me, and there are other things I would never trade. You sacrifice things you like, but at the end, the viewer gets an experience that is crafted in a way that is good for comedy and keeps things funny and fresh.

So you never thought of shopping Good Place to another network?
The plan was always NBC, from the very beginning. It’s the only place we went to, and that was the end of the discussion. And I think it’s turned out really well.

You’re on record — right here at Vulture— of being something of a Cheers superfan. What was it like to pursue Ted Danson for the show?
I felt like he was the right guy for the part, and we arranged a meeting so I could pitch him the show. Before I did that, I had not only the pilot story worked out, but I had pretty much the entire first season worked out. I felt that if I were Ted Danson, before I signed on to anything, I would want to know what’s going to happen. It’s a huge leap of faith to sign on to any show with any creator for any reason. I thought my best chance was going to be able to give him as much information as I could possibly give him. It took probably 45 minutes to an hour to give him the broad strokes of the whole first season, and he listened very intently and said, “This is really cool. Can I ask a few questions?” And I said, “Of course.”

He then asked me eight or ten of the most incisive and beautifully crafted questions that anyone has ever asked me about anything I’ve ever conceived of or written. It was exciting because it felt like not only had he listened, but he was thinking and processing and projecting and extrapolating. His questions were so good that they actually kind of changed the way I ended up writing the character.  The fundamental stuff didn’t change, but there were ways in which he was saying, “Well, if this happens to me in the pilot, then wouldn’t in the next episode I be feeling this way?” And I was like, “Yah, that’s a good point, Ted Danson.” It felt like the best version of how you would want to relate to a person for whom you’re writing, which is to say it felt collaborative and fun and exciting and creative.

That sort of continued throughout the whole 13 episodes we shot. It seems like maybe not that big of a deal when you say it out loud, but you don’t always get that kind of relationship with people you’re writing for. Sometimes it’s like, “Eh, it’s just a job.” Or sometimes people don’t really put their heart and soul into it. But even now, long past the point where [Danson] has anything to prove, he’s still trying to prove himself. That is part of what makes him such a wonderful performer — he’s constantly self-evaluating and thinking and not taking things for granted. The most fun part of the job [has been] working with him and Kristen, who’s the same way — a complete dream to work with. Those two actors are exactly the actors that were required.

Before that first pitch meeting, had you met Mr. Danson before?
I had not, and I was freaking out. The drive on the way to the office was very nerve-wracking. I started to get the feeling that you get when you have to do public speaking. I’m nervous about a lot of things, but I’ve never been nervous to speak in public or to give a speech at a wedding or anything like that. For whatever reason, I started to have a palpitation, and the reason was obvious. Sam Malone and Cheers are basically the reason I wanted to be a writer. That show, for me, is so fundamental. That character, that actor, that performance are so deeply ingrained in my psyche that it was the feeling when you meet a hero. I had to take a few deep breaths.

During that meeting, or since then, has there been a temptation to just ask him every possible question about Cheers?
I’m just now, because of your question, thinking about the fact that I asked him far fewer Cheers questions than maybe I might have. Partly that’s because you want to keep your eyes on the prize and focus on the thing you’re actually doing now, as opposed to the thing he did 30 years ago. But also, there’s another thing that happened, which was so fun. The main thing that I associate with Ted Danson and with Sam Malone and with Cheers is the concept of comedic timing. There’s a small handful of people who, in the way that a musician might have perfect pitch, have perfect timing — who know exactly, somehow magically, the rhythm of joke and the way to deliver the joke and the length of a pause. They can peer into the universe and see into another dimension that the rest of us mortals can’t see, and they can sense the exact right way to deliver a line. Ted is that guy to me.

And you’ve seen this during production of the show.
There’s a moment in the pilot where he’s showing Kristen around and saying, “This is how it works.”  There are neighborhoods, and each neighborhood is exactly 322 people, and the neighborhoods are all unique. And while he’s doing this, Kristen is looking around and she sees there’s a bunch of frozen-yogurt places right where she’s standing. And she says, “There’s a lot of frozen-yogurt places.” The line that we wrote for Ted was, “Yeah, that’s the one thing we put in every neighborhood. People love frozen yogurt. I don’t know what to tell ya.” Then he pauses, “Listen, you’re going to have a million questions but for now, go take a seat.” When I wrote that line I imagined him doing it with his specific Ted Danson comedic timing, and I imagined that it would be really funny. And then he did it, and he did it in exactly the way I imagined: It’s a perfect pause. It’s a perfect, wistful pause — and then he shakes it off and he goes into his next line. It’s not the biggest joke in the pilot. It’s not the thing that will make America tweet. But he just has perfect timing.

So in addition to The Good Place creator, there’s also the side of you that’s a Dick Wolf–like comedy overlord. Master of None just picked up an Emmy. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is still going strong. How does that part of what you do fit into your overall life right now?
That part of what I do is so fun. Dan Goor and I created Brooklyn together, and we sort of ran it together for the first season. He now runs it pretty much by himself. Then Master of None was Aziz and Alan Yang. Aziz signed on to Parks and Rec before we had an idea. Greg and I met with him and we said, “We’re going to do a new show. Will you be a part of it, whatever it is?” He was like, “Yeah, sounds great.” And Alan was a staff writer on Parks, then became, by the time show ended, the number-two guy on the show. He’s an amazing writer. So when they say, “Hey, we have this idea. Can you help us?” It’s like, “Of course I can!” How would I not? My role on that show was different than my role on Brooklyn. Aziz and Alan created that show by themselves, and I was around to pitch in and help them with writing or editing if they needed it. The common link in all these things is that they seem like they’ll be fun. It’s like working with my friends, making stuff that I think is good and interesting. It’s fun in a very different way from creating a show. Creating a show is like you’re throwing your back into it, your whole world is absorbed, and you have this feeling of extreme responsibility to the cast and crew and to the idea itself, and to the people who are paying you. That’s also fun, but in a different way. I’m very lucky that I’m at this point now where I get to do both things. I get to hang out with my friends who have their ideas and see if I can help them. And then I get to do my own stuff. I wouldn’t ever give up either of them.

Anyone who follows your Twitter feed knows you’re not much of a fan of Donald Trump. Like many progressives, you sometimes seem frightened by the prospect of his election. Does working on The Good Place make for a good distraction?
I don’t know. I think to some extent, having a new show helps because it keeps me from doing nothing but think about it. I still think about it a great deal. If I weren’t working on a show, I think I would do nothing but think about it. It’s also very interesting to be doing a show which is largely about ethical questions as a candidate for president is showing that he not only doesn’t have any ethical center, but that he doesn’t even know the concept of an ethical center. He doesn’t really act or behave in a way that gives me any indication that he’s considered or thought about good and bad, right or wrong, at any point in his entire life. So that’s interesting. It’s putting the show into high relief for me.

What does it say about America if Donald Trump is elected?
Well, it would say several things. It would say that the country as a whole is very angry and afraid. Because his singular approach to this campaign has been to prey on people’s fear and anger. It would also represent a very troubling sense that we haven’t made as much progress as a country as I thought we had. I thought we had taken a step forward in the last eight or ten years in terms of the way we view our place in the world, and the amount of empathy we have for the situation in the world. It would also say that the country is pretty gullible. But the number-one thing it would say is probably that the country doesn’t like politicians. His main appeal, for a lot people who are otherwise reasonably intelligent and thoughtful, and who really try to take in the world around them and make reasonable judgments — that group of people, is just, “I know he’s lying. I know he’s full of it. But I just don’t like politicians, and he’s not a politician.” He’s done so many things that [would] ordinarily automatically disqualify him. The fact that he’s not only not disqualified himself, but has a fighting chance at being elected, is very troubling.

The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC. Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs Tuesdays at 8 on Fox. The first season of Master of None is streaming now on Netflix. 

Mike Schur on Following the Rules, Good Place