Last November, The Good Place creator Michael Schur and The Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof spoke with our West Coast editor Josef Adalian at Vulture Festival L.A. During the hour-long conversation, they discussed everything from their shows, TV twists, and fan theories to the #MeToo movement, Twitter, and President Trump. The transcript below has been edited and condensed.
We asked you guys to appear together, even though you’ve never officially worked together on a project. But you’ve had a semi-public bromance over the last few months, and that’s mostly because of The Good Place.
Michael Schur: It predates The Good Place. I believe it’s because I watched the first season of The Leftovers. My wife and I would watch the show together and we would, like, cry.
Damon Lindelof: What is this!?
MS: This is me trying to explain what happened to my soul when I watched your TV show. It just seemed like such an impressive feat of writing, and I wrote an email to my agent and said, “I would like you, a grown man, to set me, a grown man, up on a playdate with Damon Lindelof, ostensibly a grown man, because I am just a fan.” It was like an arranged date.
DL: And then we went to Jinky’s and had waffles.
MS: I was a fan of his writing and I had watched every episode of Lost live, as it happened, and I just wanted to meet the man. So then the strengthener in the friendship, I would say, was that when I had the idea for The Good Place, I felt very strongly that I was out of my depth and needed to talk to someone, and so I called Damon and said, “Will you meet me for breakfast again?” and “We’re gonna play a game called ‘Is this anything?’ where I tell you an idea for a TV show and you tell me whether it’s anything.”
And that’s what we did. Damon Lindelof saying, “This is something” is the reason that show exists. So thank him, if you like it.
DL: It didn’t, from my vantage point, require any degree of special creative skill, because the premise of the show was undeniably great. It’s very flattering for you to say that, but I think anybody in this room who had heard your initial pitch … it was very baked. I mean, I was sort of expecting a sentence or two, but you had worked out a lot of the fundamental characters and the premise of the show.
Did you know the twist?
DL: In the very first meeting.
MS: But, but, but. The thing that Damon did for me, which I was very grateful for, the greatest thing anyone any writer can do for another writer, which is to say, “Here are, like, 12 pitfalls you’re about to fall into,” which is exactly what I needed. I needed a person who is conversant in the language of science fiction or genre writing, which I am not, to say to me, “Here are some things that are gonna happen that are dangerous. Here’s what’s gonna happen, here’s how to avoid it.” So that was a huge part of how I operated going forward.
There’s a Leftovers Easter egg in the pilot, correct?
MS: There’s a few.
Have people figured them out?
MS: I don’t know. There’s a few thank-yous to Damon in the first season and there’s more in the second season, but one of them is in the pilot: There’s a picture on the wall of a stoner from Calgary, who is the human who has come the closest to guessing what the afterlife is like, Doug Forcett. He’s sort of famous in the afterlife, because he took a bunch of mushrooms and was like, “Here’s what I think it is,” and he got the closest. The date on the picture, the date of his guess, is October 14, 1972. October 14th is the date of the departure in The Leftovers. Also, at the end of the first season, Eleanor gets a new soul mate and that new soul mate is a jacked idiot from Teaneck, New Jersey. Teaneck is Damon’s hometown.
DL: And I, of course, am a jacked idiot.
MS: We said, “Get me a Lindelof type.”
DL: Right. I did catch that one and I emailed you and I was like, “I don’t want to be presumptuous, but is this a compliment?”
MS: Yeah. There’s one, and I won’t give it away, it’s the best one that we’ve done and I don’t think it’s gonna make the final cut, sadly. After the finale of season two airs, I’ll put it online or something. It’s my favorite. It’s just such a deep cut, it’s insane. You have to be as insane a Leftovers fan as I am to even [recognize it], but I was very proud of it for several reasons.
DL: What I will say about Watchmen, and I can’t say anything about it, is it’s just gonna be wall-to-wall Good Place Easter eggs. That’s it. Like, if you don’t watch The Good Place, Watchmen is gonna make no sense to you. Zero.
Mike, when the New York Times broke the story about Louis C.K. you took to Twitter and offered an apology of sorts because he guest starred on Parks and Recreation multiple times. You said in the tweet that you might have heard the rumors. Why did you feel the need to talk about this, and would you elaborate a little bit more about your reaction?
MS: I wrote that because that’s how I felt. The biggest problem is the weird, creepy, disgusting, illegal, awful behavior. But one of the contributing problems is that no one talks about it, and there are these people out there.
I mean, if you think that everybody knew about Louis … everyone knew about Kevin Spacey. I was on SNL from ’89 to 2004 and I don’t remember when he hosted, but I remember very distinctly being like, “He’s hitting on the pages. He’s hitting on the young men in the talent department.” It’s the most open secret that’s ever existed. I didn’t know the extent to which the behavior was predatory certainly, but no one didn’t know. Anyone who had ever worked with that guy knew that.
I honestly don’t remember when I first heard the rumors, but I knew for a fact that I had heard them before the last time [Louis C.K.] came on the show. And so, in my own reckoning of my own behavior and my own past, I thought, “Well, I didn’t say anything. I’m complicit just like anyone else is.” So I felt like that sucked and I wanted to say that I was sorry for whatever that amounts to, which isn’t much.
But honestly, the larger issue was and continues to be that we just don’t talk about this stuff. That women and men to whom the behavior is being done, to whom it’s affecting, are scared. They feel that they can’t talk about it, they don’t know who to talk to. In certain situations, they’re in scenarios where there are very few other women even around in their environment that they feel that even if they wanted to say something, they wouldn’t even know where to go. In many cases when they did something, nothing happened. It either never happens because the person is too afraid to say anything, or it starts to go up a chain and then it just reaches a terminus point and it stops and everybody’s attitude is, “This would be better if we didn’t talk about this.” And that, going forward, is obviously something that has to change.
So, what can you do? Each one of your shows is a business. You guys are the CEOs on your sets, even if you’re not always on set. What do you do to make sure that everyone on your staff is safe? Has this changed your thinking about how proactive you have to be?
DL: First off, I want to echo what Mike just said, and I also want to say that I’m grateful to you for asking the question. We’re all here to talk about our television shows and have fun, and it is uncomfortable to talk about this, but it’s absolutely and totally necessary. I think that the real hard, deep dive that we all have to do is that I think that a lot of men — particularly white men in positions of power — in our business, look at themselves as the exception to the rule. “I’m one of the good ones. I’m well-intentioned. I’m liberal. I’m not a part of the problem, I’m part of the solution.” But it starts with a deep dive in yourself and an analysis of your past behavior. If you’re running a writers room, a lot of our shows have sexually explicit content on them. When are you making people uncomfortable? How conscious are you of whether everybody is laughing at the joke because you’re the boss, or if you’re actually looking at people’s faces, are they uncomfortable?
I think that there’s a self-censoring that is completely and totally required. Start with the premise that you are part of the problem because we are in this culture. To answer your other question, not to be overly simplistic about it, but build a culture through representation. Don’t have a writers room that’s dominated by white dudes. Create parity. Empower other executive producers. On The Leftovers, it was Mimi Leder who had a tremendous amount of autonomy. Essentially, if you put women in positions of power and the traditionally disempowered people of color in positions of power, you start to build a culture where that shit is not gonna happen anymore. All I can say is, I used to be really bad at it, I’m getting better at it. I can still be much better at it, but it’s a work in progress. We have to start with ourselves, though.
You guys are both die-hard TV fans. Do you have any bizarre or interesting fan theories about anyone else’s shows?
DL: I’m certainly doing that on The Good Place. One of the thrilling things about the first season was that I sort of knew what was ahead. I was experiencing the show for the first time, so there was a lot of discovery there. I didn’t know all the ins and outs, but it did get to the point where Mike and I actually had lunch the day before the finale of The Good Place aired, and I said, “Are you still doing it? And are you doing it for the finale of season one?” Because he had hid the ball so effectively, I felt that he might have had second thoughts or he was gonna hold the reveal. He was like, “Oh, no, we’re doing it.” But now in season two, I’m completely and totally blind. I have no idea what’s gonna happen and I am actually emailing Mike some theories that I have, and his response is terse and polite, and nonresponsive. [Audience laughs.]
MS: His theory was that they were dead the whole time, and I’m like, “You know, that’s true.” [Audience laughs.] He’s not watching the show very closely.
DL: What if they were alive the whole time?
MS: [Laughs.] I used to do it with Mad Men. You couldn’t do it with, “They’re dead the whole time,” but that show was written in a really specific way and it was very, I don’t know what the right word is … it was very flashy writing, even though the show was not really flashy. They would do this thing where a character who had like four lines would say something in the C story that would be the key that unlocked the psychological underpinnings of the A story. It was like homework. It was like fun homework, where you had to really study it and try to figure out what was happening.
There was an episode … [laughs.] This is a story about the late Harris Wittels. Harris was a writer on Parks and Rec who passed away many years ago now, and one of my favorite Harris exchanges was, I came in to work one day and I was complaining about Mad Men, even though I loved it. What I was complaining about was just how dense the metaphors were and everything was layered with like 11 layers of shellac, of meaning on every line and every moment. And it was the episode where Don had a toothache. I was like, “Goddamnit, every episode, it’s painful. It feels like you’re running a marathon. Like, Don has a toothache. He’s ignoring it and that’s because there’s psychologically this thing he hasn’t taken care of and it’s rotting and the dentist says, he used this word, he said, ‘decaying’ not ‘rotting.’ Maybe that’s something?” I went on this whole rant and then Harris went, “I just thought it was a funny story to do about a toothache.” And I was like, “Did you enjoy the show?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I loved it. It was great. It’s Mad Men. It’s great. Guy had a toothache. It was funny.” I don’t say this to disparage the dead, but it was a good reminder to me that people watch TV for different reasons, and if you don’t know that, if you don’t understand that, if you write only to the rafters, if you write only for the critics or the superfans of the world, then you’re probably missing a lot.
When we talked right before The Good Place premiered, you told me about how excited you were to be working with Ted Danson. Any Ted Danson stories, or are you still pinching yourself that you’re working with him?
MS: He calls me sometimes on my cell phone and when it says “Ted Danson” on the screen, I think it’s a joke. That my phone is pranking me.
He also is, like … talk about a guy with nothing to prove, right? There’s been a lot of terrible behavior on the part of Hollywood actors for years, not just this current spate of deeply awful creepy behavior, but run-of-the-mill “I’m a jerk” behavior. If you are a person who has worked for a long time and made a lot of people a lot of money, you can generally get away with being a jerk. You can treat people badly, you can be rude, you can be obnoxious, you can sort of do whatever you want. And Ted Danson calls me very frequently on the phone just to tell me that he had a fun time at work today. He’ll just say, like, “What fun, and the things I get to do, and it’s so wonderful, and just, thank you so much.” It’s bizarre. It feels like you’re on a prank show.
One Watchmen question: Why did you decide to take it on?
DL: When my dad was a kid, he went to Boy Scout camp, a sleepaway, and while he was there his mom threw away his comic-book collection. He was a meticulous organizer, and he had catalogued every issue that he had and he vowed to his mom, “I’m going to reassemble my comic-book collection!” That was in the early 1950s he made that vow, and part of his collection were like the EC Comic books that had been basically banned by the Comics Code. So he used to bring me and my mom around to comic conventions all through my childhood, mostly in New York City and northern New Jersey, trying to reassemble it. And so, I had this huge love for comics and started reading them as a result of that experience. Then, in the mid-’80s, he gave me the first issue of Watchmen and said, “This is too mature for you — probably inappropriate for you — but I think you can handle it.” And it just crackled with electricity. It dealt with the psychological realism in the superhero genre that I had fallen in love with. It was too mature for me, but not, I think, completely and totally inappropriately.
MS: How old were you?
DL: I was 12. I think this is a conversation for another time, but our generation, we all tell these stories of, “Oh, I saw Poltergeist, I saw Jaws, I saw Porky’s, I saw things on HBO that were too inappropriate for me.” One way of looking at it was that it scarred us and it was completely and totally bad for us, but we talk about it in this very romantic way, like we were looking above our pay grade in terms of the material. And now there’s a spirit of parenting where we want to insulate our kids from seeing stuff that’s inappropriate for them, but they have this thing that we didn’t have, which is the internet. And that’s terrifying for us because we can’t regulate what’s on there. But Watchmen was dangerous, and I’m glad that we’re talking about it, and the reason I’m telling this story is that I feel like you can’t be dangerous for dangerous’s sake. The reason that I’m doing this is, these are dangerous times and we need dangerous shows and what we think about superheroes is wrong. I love the Marvel movies and we saw Justice League this morning, and I’m all for Wonder Woman and Batman — I grew up on these characters and I love these characters — but we should not trust people who put on masks and say that they are looking out for us. If you hide your face, you are up to no good. I think that’s an interesting thematic ideology. Alan Moore, the greatest writer in the history of comics, maybe one of the greatest writers of all time, most certainly doesn’t want us to be doing this and we’re trying to find a way to do it that honors him. But it is more timely now in 2018, 2019 — whenever this show actually airs, if it airs. And for a superhero junkie, I’ve never done a superhero movie or a superhero TV show. That’s why.
Damon, you’ve described this wonderful idyllic life you have off of Twitter. God bless you, one day you have to teach a course to the rest of us on how to get off Twitter.
DL: I can teach it right now: Delete your account!
Mike, you are on Twitter, and you spend a good chunk of your time talking about President Trump. Why is it so important for you to resist in that way?
MS: Why is it important for anyone to express how they feel about a current political climate? I shifted gears recently and have one predominant thought now about the president, which is, “It’s embarrassing.” I feel embarrassed for us, for the people of America, because the administration is so deeply stupid. He’s a very stupid person and all of the people who work for him are very stupid. They behave very stupidly and they do very stupid things all the time, and so, I have found that my current predominant feeling is just shame that we’re allowing ourselves to live under the rule of people this stupid. You know what I mean? It’s not a new observation, it just feels like it’s shifted from anger to, like, “Oh, I feel so sad that we allowed this to happen, and I don’t know how to cope with that.” Every day I wake up and I feel like the political climate has poured a syrup of ipecac into my mouth and if I don’t vomit up my thoughts on Twitter, I’m going to die. I feel like it’s a purge of anger and frustration and fear. If I can be a small microphone for actual action, like “call your senators,” “call your congressman,” “call whoever to fight back against whatever the issue of the day is,” I mean, this stuff occasionally has shown to work, right? I think occasionally, as feudal as it seems, it can actually have some effect. But sometimes, there’s nothing beyond just a feeling of, “I may be screaming into a void, but I’d rather scream right now than stay quiet.”
Damon, do you ever quietly go on Twitter?
DL: When The Leftovers finale aired, I did search on Twitter for “Leftovers” just to see what people were saying. It was like, “This is how you can like heat up your pizza,” “This is like how you can make a casserole with last night’s turkey.” It gave me some perspective and reminded me again that no one watches The Leftovers and that I shouldn’t be on Twitter. But you know, there have been many many incidences of tongue-biting and “ooh, I wish I was on Twitter,” like if I just thought of something clever to say, etcetera.
We’re now living in a post-nuclear age and we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I use that metaphor with some degree of intention because I’m not joking when I say we could literally be nuked because of Twitter, that’s how dangerous this medium is. I’ll just say one other thing about it: Make your own choice in what works for you, but in the history of my life experience, when anybody uses the word “addicted,” whatever it is they’re addicted to is not healthy for them. With the exception of say Robert Palmer saying he’s addicted to love — not the healthiest music video, I will say — if you say “I’m addicted to something,” that is something that you have an unhealthy relationship with. And a lot of people say “I am addicted to Twitter.”
MS: Technically, he was telling the woman that she was addicted to love.
DL: Oh, okay. Fair enough.
MS: So he may have been trying to intervene! He may have been on your side.