a long talk

Mike Schur Talks Morality and Ethics in The Good Place — and Everywhere Else

“Intention does matter … but it’s not the only thing that matters.”

Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

When The Good Place creator Mike Schur called recently to discuss his dearly departed series, which is currently nominated for six Emmy Awards, I expected to have a 20- or 30-minute conversation about the series’s final episode and how it ushered each of its main characters into a more permanent version of the hereafter.

We did talk about that. But that 30-minute conversation turned into a 90-minute dialogue about a whole bunch of things: how Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which Schur executive-produces, is shifting its approach to telling stories about police; the controversy over offensive tweets that Good Place writer Megan Amram sent in the early 2010s and recently apologized for; the removal of blackface episodes from streaming services; and the reasons why some Americans won’t wear masks in public in the middle of a pandemic.

It got philosophical. I suppose I should have expected nothing less from the man who created the most philosophically engaged sitcom in recent history, if not ever.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Good Place finale feels like it aired 100 years ago. You finished shooting it almost a year ago, right?
Yeah, it’s been almost a year since we wrapped shooting. I didn’t finish editing it until January because I took my own sweet time. It does feel like a million years ago. I mean, everything feels like a million years ago.

The four main Good Place characters didn’t get to decide how they died on Earth, but they all get some measure of choice in the finale, as far as when they pass through the door. Was giving them a choice at the end something that you and the writers talked about?
Yes and no. Given that we were basically saying, “These people’s journeys are ending, and now they’re going into an actual great unknown,” we wanted to make sure that it felt like it was their choice, but we also wanted to make it seem like it was a matter of achieving some kind of fulfillment. You were choosing, you could do whatever you wanted to, but also the universe would let you know when it was the right time. To me, that is the dream of what life on Earth would really be like if you could call your own shots but you were calling them because you had this really calm feeling, like there was nothing left for you to do. It has to be a choice. If it’s not a choice, it’s not better than Earth.

Toward the end of his journey on the series, Jason plays the perfect Madden game, Tahani decides to become an architect, and everybody goes on a different path to fulfillment. Did you and the writers talk about other options for what those paths might be?
I’m sure we did. But the approach to it was starting from a place of, “We ought to be telling a story for each of these four people that suggests that the last thing they had to overcome was their central flaw.” In broad strokes, you could say there was a reason that each of them ended up in a bad place to begin with. Eleanor was selfish, Tahani was badly motivated, Jason had impulse-control issues that made him do all sorts of stupid stuff, and Chidi was so indecisive he drove everybody crazy.

Playing the perfect Madden game was a silly way to say Jason has completed his journey. But really, he doesn’t complete his journey until he gets to the door, realizes that he forgot the necklace he was going to give Janet, and decides to wait. The guy who at a moment’s notice would huck a Molotov cocktail at anyone, anywhere, was like, “I’ll just wait for her.” And he waited for some untold number of hundreds or thousands of years peacefully and silently and quietly because he wanted to do this one last thing.

Correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I believe you didn’t know exactly how you were going to end The Good Place until you got to the last season and were breaking that story. Is that right?
I didn’t know every detail of the finale until the final season when we actually broke it. But the writers and I talked a lot about how the show would end, especially over the course of season three but as early as the end of season two. We knew they were going to fix the afterlife, they were going to get to live there for some amount of time and then they were going to truly move on. The actual real details of it we didn’t really get into until we were breaking it, which was at the beginning of season four. But it was really great because — knowing as early as the end of season two that there were going to be four seasons unless something really weird happened — we got the chance to slowly keep adding ingredients to the pot.

When did the light bulb go on for having the last moment be Michael’s “Take it sleazy” line?
In the original conception, it was slightly different. I think he was buying a cup of coffee and the barista misspelled his name on the coffee cup, and that made him really happy. The barista misinterpreted that as making fun of him, there was a brief argument, and then the barista apologized and Michael said, “Don’t worry about it. Mistakes happen. It’s part of being human.” And then on his way out, he said, “Hey, take it sleazy,” and the barista laughed. We changed the little details in the margins, but we knew for at least a year that the show was going to end with Michael finally getting to say “Take it sleazy.” It just seemed like the perfect amount of meaningful because he had said in season one that he always wanted to do that, and also just ridiculous and silly and lighthearted because it’s a bizarre way to end the show.

Mary Steenburgen has a cameo as Michael’s guitar instructor. This whole time, were you like, “When can we get Mary Steenburgen in here”?
It came pretty organically out of the idea that one of the themes of the show is you don’t figure this stuff out by yourself. We owe our growth and our understanding of the world to our relationships with other people. There’s a line in Aristotle that Chidi quotes in season one: Aristotle compares getting better to playing the flute. The more you play it, the better you get. And so we were like, “Maybe we should design this thing for Michael where he’s trying to do something by himself,” and then when he gets to Earth, it’s like, “Oh, you can ask people for help.”

Once we had that idea, I was like, “Well, then it’s got to be Mary.” It’s too lovely an idea, because the way Ted [Danson] talks about Mary is that she is, for him, the person who unlocked the world and made him understand things he didn’t understand before. They have a beautiful, incredible marriage that is full of togetherness and joy and happiness and mutual respect and love and understanding.

On another subject, I know that with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the writers have pumped the brakes a little bit and asked themselves, “How should we be approaching the subject of a police show?” What can you say at this point about where you all are with that?
Well, the most important thing to say is that it’s Dan Goor’s show. I haven’t really worked on it on a day-to-day basis in a long time, certainly since the beginning of The Good Place. We’ve had a bunch of conversations about it. I know that it has been, I would say, all-consuming for him and his writing staff. How could it not be? It’s not very frequent that you’re making a TV show and then the exact subject of your TV show becomes the dominant national conversation everyone is talking about.

I don’t 100 percent know what they’re planning to do. I know they’re being incredibly thoughtful about it. It’s a tricky thing. They want to address it more than anything, and they’re going to. But also the show has a very specific tone and it’s very silly and fun, and you can’t just turn on a dime and make the show into something it isn’t. The show is not designed to be a vehicle for the intense and drama-filled discussion of social justice. So if you suddenly make it that, it’s not going to work. Whatever message you’re trying to get across won’t be received, because people will be like, “What the hell is this? This isn’t the show that I know.” At the same time, if you don’t address it at all, then it’s absurd — you’re doing a show about police officers in New York City who are completely, utterly failing to address the dominant issue of the day that has to do exactly with them and their behavior. So it’s a really dicey thing.

I also want to ask you about something I feel is very relevant to The Good Place: Megan Amram’s old tweets and her response to those being unearthed, which involved her talking about working on being a better person. It feels very thematically relevant to what the whole show is about.
Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? I’ve talked to her multiple times because I love her, and it’s sad when your friend is going through something painful. It is thematic, certainly. The theme of the show is, “Look, you’re going to blow it sometimes. You’re going to make mistakes. Everybody does.” So the question isn’t how to avoid making mistakes. The question is, once you make mistakes, how do you go about improving yourself?

In this case, those things she tweeted were, I don’t know, eight, nine years ago. So I knew her not as that person but the person who came after that. And that person has spent pretty much every waking moment of her life fighting for LGBTQ rights and radical equality among all people in the world, especially marginalized people, women, and gay people. So when it came out, it was like, “Well, the advice that I would give you is the advice that you’ve not only already taken but have actually been acting on for the last nine years, which is to be a better person than that.”

The awful thing about bad choices is that they often continue to ripple out and affect other people in ways you can’t even anticipate. It’s obvious that if you tweet an offensive joke about East Asian people, East Asian people are going to be sad and hurt. But then there’s this second-level thing where I saw that someone on Twitter — and I don’t remember who, I apologize — said, “You know what bums me out about this is I wonder whether if I express my feelings I am hurting my chances of getting a job in Hollywood.” Because Megan is a fairly well-known writer, and she works with a lot of other fairly well-known writers on projects that are getting a lot of attention.

That was like, “Oh shit, I didn’t even think about that.” Because I’m not in a position of having to think about that automatically. And that’s awful. That’s a horrible thing, that not only does it hurt to read jokes like that written about you, but also you wonder whether just saying out loud that they hurt you might hurt you in a different way. Through the Vulture website, I can say to that person: That’s not the way I personally would ever operate. That’s not the way that anybody I know would ever operate.

It seems like there isn’t as much latitude for people to do what you’re describing, to try to do better. Not to make this sound like it’s about cancel culture, because some people should be canceled. I think people are often frustrated with that not happening for good reasons.
We’re having the same debate now about stuff like this that we were having a couple of years ago about Me Too, where people were like, “This is an overcorrection.” My attitude was like, “Yeah, it is. Sorry. I don’t know what to tell you.” For the entirety of human existence, in every power structure that existed, certainly in this country, there was no correction. Men generally treated women however they wanted to with no repercussion, with no punishment, and without any fear of reprisal or of losing their jobs. That’s the way it was for the entirety of American history until like five years ago. So if there’s an overcorrection, yeah, I don’t know what to tell you.

The same thing is happening with regards to marginalized communities, ranging from ethnic minorities to women to LGBTQ people to every kind of person that basically isn’t the white dude. People are having the same reaction, which is like, “Well, now I’m walking on eggshells.” You don’t have to walk on eggshells. You just have to treat people with a baseline of dignity and respect and compassion. The people who tweeted or said or otherwise disseminated disrespectful language are now being called out for it. And I just don’t see why that’s bad. The national conversation about this stuff will settle, and we’ll begin to be able to discern nuance and gradation and shading and intention.

I’ve spent five years on this show about moral philosophy, so I learned a lot about intention. Intention does matter. There’s a difference between someone intending to hurt someone and someone intending to be funny and make a joke and it going horribly wrong and miscalculating. But we have to be better at understanding that the things we say, regardless of their intention, can be really hurtful and can contribute to this ongoing problem of people feeling disrespected and less than and everything else. Tina Fey’s statement when she asked for the blackface episodes of 30 Rock to be pulled off of streaming, I thought her statement was really good. Because what she said was, “It wasn’t our intention. Our intentions were very specifically to comment on how dumb people are when they do things like engage in this kind of behavior.” But intention isn’t the only thing that matters. The other thing that matters is the image of a white person in blackface. Some images are hurtful and awful to the point where they block out the sun. If you’re using that imagery, you’re going to cause people pain, and I don’t want to cause people pain so let’s just get rid of it.

We’re in the moment where it’s like, let’s just stop all that behavior. The people who were screaming about freedom and liberty and a robust exchange of ideas and all of those terms that fly around the internet and appear in letters from Harper’s Magazine — it’s like, we’re not asking very much here. We really aren’t. There’s, like, 50 words that you shouldn’t use in the English language, and there’s 250,000 that are fine. Let’s not use the 50 that cause people true pain and anguish. Let’s put those aside.

You’re trampling on my liberties, Mike, by asking me to do that.
[Laughs.] You know what? This is an impossibly huge discussion we’re having, but there is a direct connection between that mindset and the mask thing, where it’s like, “The tiniest impingement upon my absolute, pure, uncut, grade-A-heroin level of freedom is unacceptable.” Like, “You can’t tell me I can’t use these 50 words, and you can’t tell me I have to wear a mask.” It’s the thing that just wounds my soul so deeply. The gain of putting a $3 mask on your face when you go outside is that society returns to normal and no one gets sick and dies. That’s an enormous payoff for an incredibly small price. The big gain of not using 50 or so words in the English language to talk about other people is that all people feel a greater sense of meaning in their lives and have respect and have dignity. I don’t understand why anyone in the world doesn’t make that trade. It’s a tiny, tiny, tiny request to just not be a total asshole. I guess when no one ever tells you that you can’t do something, the tiniest request feels like oppression.

Well, it’s that. But I also think there’s a common denominator in all these things. People aren’t wearing their masks because they don’t believe the virus is as much of a threat as it actually is. They don’t care about whether they’re offending Black people, Asian people, or LGBTQ people because they don’t believe that they have anything to be offended about. There’s a denial of the payoff that you’re describing.
That’s a good point. With the mask thing, also swirled into it is the problem of a now 40-year assault on science and reason as a guiding principle for how we ought to live our lives. This is the result of that.

It’s not quite as simple as I laid it out, obviously. In fact, it’s not nearly as simple. But at the same time, underpinning all of it, there is this very simple exchange, which is give up the tiniest imaginable amount of your absolute, pure freedom to do whatever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want to do it and you will contribute to this enormous benefit for everybody on the other side. It breaks my heart that more people aren’t willing to make that deal.

I want to circle back to what you said about Tina Fey. I agree that it was a great statement, but I’m not sure the 30 Rock episodes should be taken down. I feel like it’s erasing the fact that they ever happened. Part of what we should be doing right now is talking about this stuff, and we can’t talk about it if we don’t leave it out there.
I know a lot of people who feel that way, and I think there’s a lot of validity to that argument. To be totally honest, I don’t quite know how I feel. Part of me feels like, look, those episodes of 30 Rock, like the one [where] Tracy was saying it was harder to be a Black person than a woman, and Jenna was saying it was harder to be a woman than a Black person — they were two complete morons, so the solution they came up with was they would live like the other person for a day. The show is very obviously, plainly, not using blackface the way blackface had been used in minstrel shows and in systemic, oppressive ways in this country for hundreds and hundreds of years. It was making a very, very specific point, and it was doing it through the lens of two total dopes. It’s obvious the show is not saying in any way, shape, or form that blackface is acceptable.

So there’s a way in which you would leave it up and put context around it, the way HBO Max did with Gone With the Wind. Have a little disclaimer at the beginning, or have an explainer, have a filmed thing with Tracy and Tina at the beginning of the episode, like, “Hey, here’s what we were going for.” That would certainly be one option. I think there’s a lot of validity to that, but I also see the point where, in the aftermath of George Floyd, at this moment when this conversation is being had in earnest maybe for the first time on a national level, I also totally understand the impulse to say, “You know what? It doesn’t really matter.” This is what [Fey] was saying. It doesn’t matter what our intention was, because when you watch this episode, you see a white person in blackface makeup. The ability to have a thoughtful and considered discussion about our intention and about the world we live in and the entire history of minstrels in America, it’s just not what anyone is really interested in right now. So I just want to get rid of it.

I see both sides of that point. I think there’s probably, long-term, more benefit to that episode still being up and to people being able to watch it and think about it, but only if there is some kind of context provided. In things like this, there are no easy answers. Everybody is just fumbling around trying as hard as we can to try to do better.

The last thing I’ll say is that you want to feel like the people making the decisions are really thinking hard about them. No one is solving racism or police brutality or white supremacy through a TV show. That’s not the way the world works. The best you can hope for is a sense that the people who were in charge are taking it seriously and really considering it. That’s why I love Tina’s statement. She was like, “Look, I thought really hard about this, and this is the conclusion I came to. I don’t know if it’s right, but this is what I think is best.” That’s about as good as you can do with something that’s thorny and complicated and full of pain and anguish.

It’s funny that we’re having this conversation and the ostensible purpose of this phone call was, “Let’s talk about the end of The Good Place.”

It’s impossible to have a conversation about even innocuous things right now. Especially with a show that deals with ethics.
The show ended when it did, but if it hadn’t, I don’t know what we’d be doing, because suddenly the whole world is talking about morality and ethics. Maybe that would have been good, I don’t know. Our ratings would have been higher.

Mike Schur on Morality in The Good Place and Everywhere Else