a long talk

The Co-Creators of Rutherford Falls On Sitting in the Mess of American History

Ed Helms and Jana Schmieding in Rutherford Falls. Photo: Colleen Hayes/Peacock

Rutherford Falls, which debuts today on Peacock, focuses on two friends who grew up together in the same part of America but have completely different views of American history. Nathan Rutherford, played by Ed Helms, is obsessively proud of his white ancestors who founded the town name-checked in the show’s title, so much so that he opposes moving a statue of one of those forebears. His pal Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding) oversees a modest cultural center devoted to the (fictional) Minishonka tribe and, as a Native American, has a much less charitable view of the white men who colonized the land.

The show wrestles with this culture clash, pushes back against stereotypical Native American portrayals — Michael Greyeyes also stars as Terry Thomas, a Minishonka casino operator trying to do right by his community — and highlights the societal blinders that many white people continue to wear. (In addition to Nathan, an NPR reporter played by Dustin Milligan proves to be less culturally astute than he initially appears.)

Tackling all those issues in a half-hour sitcom is a tall order. But Sierra Teller Ornelas, Mike Schur, and Helms, who co-created Rutherford Falls, made it happen while also building a writers’ room and cast in which Native voices are strongly represented. In a wide-ranging conversation over Zoom, Teller Ornelas, who previously wrote for Superstore and acts as Rutherford Falls showrunner, and Schur, the creator of Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, discussed how the pieces of Rutherford Falls came together. They also touched on such topics as Columbus Day, Twilight, and how Americans are, in Schur’s words, “piss-poor at trying to live in nuance.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Sierra, when you were growing up, I’m sure you watched a lot of television and movies. Do you remember having a moment where you realized that Native people either weren’t being represented or were being represented in a way that wasn’t authentic?

Sierra Teller Ornelas: When I was 4 my mom was a part of this thing called the Americans Festival. It was this huge thing that the British Museum put on. She’s a Navajo tapestry weaver. She’s sort of the LeBron James of Navajo weaving. When she was on her come-up, she demonstrated at the British Museum. My brother had just been born and we all lived up there for a couple of months.

We were invited to be in this movie called Revolution, which was an Al Pacino movie. We were extras. We were like the medicine man’s children, and my mom played one of his wives or something, and my brother was in a cradleboard. We got put into these Plains clothes, which are a tribe that I’m not a part of, and they dirtied up our faces, and they sat us in this Styrofoam cave. I remember just thinking, “Well, this is weird.”

I kind of always knew that the media was different from the reality that I grew up in. But I loved television so much and I really saw myself in all of these characters. I thought I was going to be Laverne and Shirley. I was like, I’m gonna move and I’m gonna have a cool roommate, and we’re going to have adventures. I remember The Dick Van Dyke Show and seeing Rosemary, and just being like, that’s my vibe. That’s probably who I’ll end up being.

In terms of representation, we’re not even in history books. So I mean, TV is almost the least of my concerns right now. There are so many places where Native people have been erased that that was always apparent. I was always as a kid expected to educate people about my existence and my culture.

Did that come up in school a lot, where people were asking you to explain the history because it wasn’t really being taught properly?

We had a lot of conversations about this in the writers’ room, about how on Columbus Day, I was always expected to raise my hand and be like, “This day is bullshit, and this guy was a murderer, and it was a genocide.” When I was 7, my dad’s zipping up my coat being like, “What’s today?” And I’m like, “It’s the day we celebrate Columbus, and he was a murderer.”

It was just this constant part of my life.

How did the idea for Rutherford Falls come about?

Mike Schur: Well, this is sort of a two-part question, if I can jump in.

Yeah, please. 

MS: So Ed [Helms] and I worked together on The Office and we’d always really liked each other and had one of those very vague, like, “We should figure out [something to work on] some day” kind of conversations. One day we decided to actually do it.

We ran into each other on the Universal lot and were like, “Let’s sit down and start thinking.” We designed this character of a well-intentioned, good-hearted soul who just had this enormous blind spot about stories that we tell ourselves and stories that we learn in school. We kept talking about how, in our minds, America was uniquely terrible at grappling with its own story. We thought it’d be interesting to do a character study of a guy who is just very, very secure in a certain narrative about himself and his own family, which then can unravel.

We started talking about there being a statue of his ancestor in the town where he lived — this is all pre-statue mania — and eventually what we realized is that if that was the story we were telling, about a guy who was deeply invested in this narrative of his family that stretched back to the Europeans arriving in America, that it would eventually collide with Native American history. So that’s when we were like, “Okay, we need some help here.” Sierra had worked on Brooklyn Nine-Nine for a season and she had coincidentally developed a show with Ed. So we were like, “Let’s talk to Sierra and see if she likes what we’re talking about and is interested in it.”

STO: At the time I had been working on a show called Superstore. I had a three-year contract and I decided to take a break and had a baby. I’d worked in television as a writer, at that point, for almost ten years. I was really wanting to write something from a Native perspective, something that was personal. I got this call saying that Mike and Ed wanted to meet with me, and I was like, “Oh, that’s awesome.” I loved working with both of them. Once they told me the idea and the world and some of the themes, it was very close to things that I had been thinking about and wanting to work on. Coming from a museum background, my mom having worked in so many museums, and then I worked at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for many years, it was just a really great conversion of certain elements from my life.

Tell me more about working at the National Museum of the American Indian.

STO: It was life-changing. The museum had just opened when I started as an intern. It was back in the old days when internships turned into jobs that paid, and they paid for my housing, and it was the first time I had lived in a big city with a transit system. I had always known about my own culture and my own personal family history and Navajo weaving — I’m a sixth-generation Navajo tapestry weaver, so very proud of my heritage. But the National Museum of the American Indian represents Indigenous people throughout the Western hemisphere. I remember the first week I was there, just crying all the time because it was so emotional, just seeing this building that we had created as a Native space on the Mall. I loved the job, but it slowly became a government job, unfortunately. The ’08 crash happened and there was talk of furloughs, and I had always really dreamed about working in film and television. So that’s sort of why I left.

MS: I can’t believe you’re not telling the story that I make you tell every time you talk about this.

STO: I know, I know, it’s your favorite story. I’m working on the fifth floor in a half cubicle doing my job and we get this call from the visitors’ center, and they were saying, “We have a problem and we need your help.” We’re like, “What? Why would the film department need to come down and help?” It was in the mid-2000s, so it was just a swath of teenage girls wanting to know about the Quileute Nation. They wanted to know how they could turn into a wolf, what wolf ceremonies were available, all of the information on these wolf packs or whatever. We had no idea what they were talking about. Finally one of the docents was like, “It’s Twilight. They’re talking about Twilight.” And I was like, “What?” Because I had only been watching like, Indigenous Brazilian documentaries. I was in my little space.

We realized that the woman who wrote the books apparently had tried to find a place in America with the least amount of sunlight, and she just noticed on the map nearby there was the Quileute Nation. She was like, “Oh, I’ll just put that in.” That flick of a pen completely affected not only our museum but that actual nation. There were tour buses that showed up and all kinds of crazy, awful stuff that happened there. It was very apparent to us the impact that movies have on non-Native people’s awareness of Native people. It’s really intense and it really informed, I think, a lot of the decisions that we made on the show.

That goes back to what you were saying before about erasure. When there’s erasure of a culture, then whatever people see first is what they decide that culture is. If it’s Twilight, then all of a sudden that explains all Native life, which is ridiculous.

STO: I remember when I was a kid and I would say grace before I eat. One of my friend’s moms was like, “You’re just like such-and-such from Dances With Wolves, when he’s praying over the buffalo heart.” And I was like, “Yeah, this is a danish, but … maybe?” It’s crazy, people’s assumptions. But it has a real negative impact. That’s why I think we were so excited to just show Native people as human beings. You know, Chris Rock has a bit where he says, “You never see six Native Americans just chilling at Red Lobster.” Whenever we’re at Red Lobster, we bring up that joke, because my family does go to Red Lobster. That’s why it was very important to not have Native people on the show be mystical creatures or perfect people, or just flattened people.

Schur and Teller Ornelas Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos Courtesy of Peacock

You have five Native writers on the staff of Rutherford Falls. How did you go about finding those writers? In the past, whenever someone would say, “Why don’t you have a more diverse writers’ room?” the answer was often, “Well, the writers just aren’t out there,” which is —

STO: — a lie. It’s not true. When you are in a writers’ room for ten years, you’re always clocking how people staffed. I remember when I was staffed on my first show, Happy Endings, the showrunner, Jonathan Groff, was incredible. He was like, “Okay, so you’re like a teacher’s pet, and you’re gonna tamper down all the improvisers, this person will want to mentor you but this person won’t” — he was Beautiful Mind-ing in his head this sort of baseball team. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is so awesome, because he also just told me what I’m supposed to do.” I’d also seen it kinda not happen that way, where it’s like you’re in a room with eight people who are exactly like you and there’s not a real diversity of voices.

The WGA [Writers Guild of America] had its own thing that you could submit to and get samples from, so we got a bunch from there. I had a bunch of friends that I knew, “Oh, if I ever get a show, I would want to staff these few people.” Then, we just went out to Indian country. We had the Sundance Institute, Skins Fest, there were all these programs that had people who had been cultivated and had samples created specifically to try to staff on shows. So we reached out to a lot of them. I met a bunch of people on Instagram, like Bobby Wilson, who is an incredibly funny writer who plays Wayne on the show. I was looking for writers and had this database going, and I was always laughing on Instagram. My husband was like, “Why are you laughing?” And I was like, “Bobby just posted this thing.” And he goes, “You should reach out to him because he makes you laugh once a day.”

We met with many more Native writers than we staffed. There were so many. You hear, “Oh, there aren’t that many out there,” but there really are. There were some people who weren’t great fits for the show but who I suggested, “This person should be on a CW show,” or “This person’s incredibly funny for this.” So that was also really nice. We have this list now that we can give to people.

Once you got in the writers’ room, Sierra, how did you feel personally to have a room with that many Native people in it?

STO: All of the time that was saved —like, it was a shorthand that we all had. There’s this thing called Indians 101, where often, in any job, as a Native person, you’ll have to be like, “Well, okay, to explain this, I need to tell you these seven other things before we can even have this initial conversation about why such-and-such is happening.” Because we didn’t have to do that, we could just immediately start talking about certain things, and having discussions and then people would join in and they would be like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know this,” and we’d be like, “Oh,” and explain it to them quickly. It almost felt like you were The Flash or something, because you just didn’t have to waste time explaining things. Then as we broadened out the stories, we had writers who were Black, writers who were Asian, writers who were from Boston who were like, “We have a version of that.” But that specificity, I feel like we were really able to land on in many cases because we had this room of Native writers. It was incredible.

MS: As soon as you explained to all of us that none of you could turn into a wolf, we really hit the ground running.

STO: [Laughs.] Yeah, once all the wolf-based questions—

MS: There was like two hours of: “None of you is a wolf? What about vampires?”

STO: After the seventh, “Are you sure?” I feel like that’s when it started to really cook.

In seriousness though, was there ever any awkwardness in the room?

STO: In a comedy room, you’re always teasing people for different things, right? Like, we shamed a guy for wearing shorts one time at a room that I was in, until he went and changed his clothes. [Laughs.] You always hear in writers’ rooms, “Everyone should be free to say what they want to say.” And I’ve been in a lot of rooms where it’s like, no, it’s usually the upper-level white guys who are free to say what they want to say and then everyone else kinda has to chill. But in our room, everybody got to say what they wanted to say. I think that it just made for better storytelling, it made for funnier stories, it just made for a better room.

Was it tricky to write the Nathan character and make him likable while still highlighting how oblivious he is?

MS: Yeah, that was very tricky. We talked endlessly about it. Part of the work that we did was designing what the actual narrative is that he has swallowed whole. Like a pelican just eating a fish in one bite, he has swallowed his family’s narrative entirely and cares about it and sees himself as the steward of this legacy. It’s hard to do that, frankly, and make the person likable and not just a willful ignoramus. Because any narrative of any family in this country, you go back far enough, and you’re not gonna like what you see, right? Which is what his brother says to him in the pilot, like, “Just leave those stones unturned if you want to live a life of peace and ignorance.” And he doesn’t. So a lot of the work that we did was in trying to crack the narrative that he could swallow whole and still be a good person. In his mind, what happened was his ancestors showed up in this town, and, as the story goes, brokered a fair and honest deal with the local Native tribe. He takes pride in the idea that his family are the good ones.

The way that you know he’s good-hearted is that he doesn’t stop looking, he doesn’t stop searching. This is what caused Ed and me to start talking about this to begin with, is just how bad we are in this country at doing this. We are uniquely terrible at grappling with history. We’re piss-poor, frankly, at trying to live in nuance and hold two things in our hands at the same time.

We want to think of ourselves as the people who beat Hitler, and that’s fine. We should take some pride in the fact that we helped to beat Hitler. But no one wants to go, “Also, we rounded up every Japanese citizen who lived in this country and put them in a camp.” In order to actually understand and grapple with history, you’ve got to hold both of those things at the same time. You just have to, because if you ignore one or the other, you’re ignoring literally half of the history of that era. So that was a big deal for us. We just wanted to show a guy who’s been exactly as bad, or maybe worse, than all of us at grappling with history and take him by the hand and lead him on a tour of that history through a different lens. If you want to break down in essence what the show is, besides a funny comedy with Ed Helms in it, that’s the big picture.

STO: When we say Americans, we’re acknowledging that part of the country is [ignoring parts of history] and there’s another part of the country that is constantly being forced to reconcile with their history on a daily basis.

There are stereotypes that Native people are exhausted by dealing with that white people aren’t even aware exist. So that kind of discrepancy in information and that discrepancy in reconciling is what creates a lot of the storytelling, but also focusing it on these two friends and how it affects their interpersonal relationship. Americans really love a clean narrative. They love a white half, black half. And that’s just not how it works.

MS: A good definition of white privilege is that no one has ever read a single book and thought that I could turn into a wolf.

There’s a scene in episode four that flashes back to when Terry was younger and he’s selling lemonade in front of a bakery, and the owner of the bakery takes a big portion of what Terry earns because he says he was there first. What was the conversation around that scene in the writers’ room?

STO: The thing with the baker, that was based on something that happened to me as a kid. That was very personal. We would work at these luxury hotels in Tucson. My mom would demonstrate her artwork and I would sell jewelry. I was really, really good at it. I just loved selling and I was very personable, so this guy who ran the program started selling stuff on our table. He was like, “I’ll give you 10 percent of whatever we make,” and there was this hand drum, and it was $200, and I remember being like, “I’m going to sell that drum.” The whole summer, I was just like, I’m going to figure this out.

I sold it to this woman from the Midwest and I remember really zoning in on her and doing everything I knew to get her to buy it, and he started helping me a little bit with some actual information about the work. At the end of the night when I was counting my money, there was no $20. It was only $5 or something. I remember being like, “I sold that drum.” And he was like, “No, I sold that drum. You didn’t do anything.” It wasn’t about the money. It was about the credit. It was about him saying I hadn’t done the thing that I had done and just really not being seen. Anyway, my mom never worked for him again. She was just like “a plague on his house,” and we never went back. But I remember that feeling of, “Oh, if I just work hard enough, and if I just play by the rules, it’ll all work out.”

I don’t know why I’m even telling this story, but I think on most shows, the Terry character would be a villain. He’d probably be a criminal, and he wouldn’t have had a family. He wouldn’t have had a real calling to help his people in the way that he thinks is best. We wanted to make sure that you really got to see him as a person, with wants and needs and anxieties and insecurities.

I like that in the episode prior you see [NPR reporter] Josh as this wonderful counterpart to Reagan and he seems like a good guy, and then in [episode] five, he’s not above having a huge blind spot. He’s just as ignorant as I think other people who are written off as ignorant would be. Because of his station, you would assume he’s very woke and very aware. Depending on the episode, the character that you like can be revealed to have these blind spots because that is sort of just how the world works.

This stuff is so messy. Sitting in that mess a little bit, I think would be beneficial. Because some of us have to all the time.

MS: We were at one point breaking a story, and I remember talking: “Maybe what happens is this person says this and then basically his attitude is just sit back and wait until” — and I stopped myself. The words out of my mouth were going to be, “Wait until the cavalry arrives.” And I was like, “That’s probably racist, right? Yeah, that’s racist.” That moment was very illuminating for me. First of all, I was happy that I stopped before I said it, but also, there are things that have never been questioned, and no one ever thinks, “Where’d that come from?” that are just not okay.

Not to drift off into a tangent here, but the thing that’s so infuriating about this country right now to me is — I’ve explicitly written whole episodes of TV about this phenomenon — but it’s the people who are like, “Well, this is the way it’s always been done, so we’re not going to change it. You can’t tell me I can’t say that anymore because I’ve always said it.” And it’s like, “Well, it sucks, though. So stop saying it.” It’s this reticence that people have, not only to grapple with history, but to make the smallest change in the way that they do anything they want to do. That’s not a good way to live, man.

STO: I personally think it’s that we don’t want to live in discomfort. There’s a group of us who are forced to live in discomfort, and there are people who will do anything to avoid it. It’s really fascinating.

Out of curiosity, I was wondering if either of you have watched Exterminate All the Brutes?

MS: I haven’t. I’ve been told to by like a hundred people.

STO: Yeah. Same.

In very different ways, both of these shows are directly talking about colonization. As we’ve just been discussing, the conversation about these things is very fraught but it does seem like we’re having, in pop culture anyway, more conversations about those issues. Do you feel like there’s more of an opening for that now?

MS: I think so.

STO: Yeah, I hope so.

MS: They’re extremely fraught, but like, what’s the alternative? Don’t have them? That’s what we’ve been doing, and it doesn’t seem to have worked.

STO: We are dealing with huge swaths of change, and that’s always going to be messy. It’s always been messy. And it’s always going to be.

Rutherford Falls’ Co-Creators On America’s Messy History