'Parks and Recreation' Co-Creator Talks Leslie, Ron, Tammy's Return and All Things Pawnee
by Maureen Ryan, posted Feb 23rd 2011 4:00PM
Savor Thursday's 'Parks and Recreation' outing, because after that episode, which has the gang traveling to Indianapolis, the show will be on a break until March 17.
That's the bad news, but the good news is there's lots of Pawnee enjoyment to come this spring. The March 17 'Harvest Festival' episode exemplifies the warm spirit, sharp writing and terrific acting that define this sterling NBC comedy about parks bureaucrat Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her goofy, amusing co-workers.
Ron Swanson fans, be on the alert: In the show's season 3 finale, Megan Mullally will return as Tammy, the evil ex-wife of the parks department boss. And some time before that event, Parker Posey will guest star as "Leslie's counterpart in the town of Eagleton, which is the snotty rich town next door to Pawnee," 'Parks and Recreation' executive producer Michael Schur said in a recent interview.
[The next paragraph contains some information about the Eagleton episode.]
Posey's character "used to work with Leslie in Pawnee and there was a little bit of jockeying [between them] for this job in Eagleton, and she ended up taking it and basically their friendship ended and they're bitter archrivals," Schur explained. "This thing happens on the border of the two towns, so it's a little bit of a border-war story, where she does this thing to Pawnee that Leslie gets very angry about, and she has to go seek out her old friend and try to make her reconsider her decision."
Leslie certainly has a lot on her plate: She's not only trying to save her department via the Harvest Festival, but she and the rest of the 'Parks' crew are dealing with the arrival of Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), two budget cutters looking for reasons to shut down the parks department for good. Not surprisingly, both men find Pawnee more dementedly charming than they thought possible.
Seeing the town anew through those characters' eyes has been a treat, and as I said in my season 3 review, 'Parks and Recreation,' which was already good, is firing on all cylinders this season. The show was wise to make both actors series regulars. The low-key but winning Scott was born to play former teen mayor Ben, and Lowe exudes a form of comedic caffeine in his energetic portrayal of Chris.
Back in January, I spoke to Schur at length about the show's third season, and now that most of the episodes we discussed have aired, it seemed like a good time to post a transcript of our chat.
A few notes: There are no spoilers below (there's one semi-spoilery bit at the end of the interview, but you'll get a warning before that section). Also, a couple of sections of this interview don't appear below because they can be found elsewhere. In this video clip, Schur talked about the magical allure of Ron Swanson, and in the video clip here, the 'Parks and Recreation' co-creator discussed the various romances on the show. For a series of video interviews with Nick Offerman, who plays Swanson, and for Joel Keller's weekly reviews of the show, look here.
This interview has been edited and slightly condensed.
Maureen Ryan: In watching those first seven episodes [of season 3], one thing that came out to me strongly was, this is a show that doesn't condescend to its characters or to the audience. The humor on some shows can come from anger or rage or sarcasm and that can be great, but there's a gentleness to this show and yet it's really razor sharp. Is it hard to find that balance?
Michael Schur: Yeah, it is. I would say that the main attribute of Leslie Knope as a character is that she's optimistic. She believes that if you work hard enough and you strive for what you want, you can get [things] accomplished. That kind of optimism, which is like the guiding principle of the character and of the show when we were developing it, means that not a lot of the humor is mean-spirited, because when your main character has that attribute, then you're generally following a bright and sunny and shiny person.
And you know, comedy isn't generally about nice things, so we have our share of hard-edged characters too. Ron Swanson is a Libertarian and basically believes that everyone should fend for him or herself. Tom Haverford, his character is very selfish and kind of narcissistic. Bu I think what's nice about the blend of the characters is they [are] very different characters, but the core of the show is Leslie, and Leslie is a nice person, is an optimistic person. She probably casts a kind of nice, warm glow over the show.
As the season got going, you really seemed to be having fun with different character combinations.
Is that still something you're very much playing around with?
Absolutely. It's a big cast and it got bigger when we added Adam Scott and Rob Lowe. And there's an exercise we do periodically where I'll pick two names of characters at random and send a writer into their office and say, "Go think of stories for Jerry and Tom for an hour." And a lot of good stuff comes of that, because in the ordinary course of [coming up with] stories, you might not just randomly throw two characters into a room together.
After Adam and Rob joined the show, you know, [Rob's character, Chris] gets paired up with Ann very quickly and a lot of their stories are together because it's a romance. Ben, Adam Scott's character, he sort of has a maybe burgeoning romance with Leslie, but you know, we just wanted [to give him a chance] to be funny too because he's incredibly funny as an actor.
And so we designed a bunch of stories for him and Tom and they're a really funny, weird comedy duo. We might not have stumbled on that if we hadn't done the mental exercise of, "What would happen if these two people were in a story together?" There are a lot of permutations and combinations that we can make because everyone in the cast is so great.
You're developing a little bit of a tradition with the yearly Ron and Tammy episodes. It's like, once a year, Tammy emerges from her chrysalis and devours Ron's brain...
Well, Nick Offerman has so completely owned the role of Ron Swanson that we would have cast him no matter what his marital situation was, but when we found out that he happened to be married to one of the great comedic legends of modern times, it was a no-brainer to ask her to do the show.
And then that first episode was so fun and was so formative in a lot of ways for the writers, in terms of learning Nick's range and for Ron and Leslie's relationship and a lot of stuff, that we were just like, it's a no-brainer to bring her back. So we bring her back this year. She actually, I won't give away anything, but she actually appears twice [in season 3].
Ron seems like the kind of guy who could command an army of followers, if he chose to.
Oh, no question. Yeah, he has the charisma to rally troops and he has the know-how to forage and harvest and hunt and sail us all to safety on one of his canoes.
It's funny that he is so anti-government because he is the kind of person that people respond to on this instinctual level. I mean, you can almost see him running for office or establishing some kind of weird commune or End Times compound or something.
If you're that kind of person, you can go it a number of different ways. You could become a weird cult leader and ruin people's lives. And in his case, he doesn't have any interest in anything other than living out his philosophy and kind of being an authentic guy.
Part of the journey in season 2, for us as writers, was figuring out the places where we could show the cracks in the facade a little bit and show, like in that Ron and Tammy episode [that he needs help once in a while]. It ends with him and Leslie in his office clinking a glass of whisky and he's very grateful to her for having helped him avoid that awful fate.
Well, every great leader has some incredible flaw.
Some Achilles' heel, and Tammy is his. But it's been really fun to explore how to show that Ron is interested and legitimately cares about the people he works with without compromising his character.
That's why we made April his assistant, because April, through her indifference and her sour nature, keeps people away from his desk, which is great for him. But also you see in [the Feb. 17 episode, 'Media Blitz'], when there's an issue with April and Andy's relationship, Ron is the one who kind of gives her the advice that really matters the most.
It's really fun to find those ways where we can keep the character consistent, but also show that he secretly does kind of care about the people he works with.
Well, he's kind of become a father figure. That seems like a natural fit for who he is.
Yeah, Ron's the dad and Leslie's the mom, I think is the simplest way to put it.
All of the characters have gotten these nuances and details that I think are really humanizing and funny. Because April could have been a one-note, bratty, post-teenager. Andy -- he's like a dog...
He's been called the big Golden Retriever.
Exactly. I just love the fact that you are able to give all of them so many nuances, but is that harder the bigger your cast gets?
I would actually say it's easier. Those two characters you just cited, I think a huge stage of their evolution was pairing them up in a story.
[It began in season 2 when] the whole crew went hunting and they stayed behind. At the time Andy was kind of mooning over Ann and April was just being April. The story was April was on hold the entire episode and Andy ended up hanging out with her and it was sort of the beginning of their romance. It was the first time that you saw that April was interested in him, or might be interested in him.
We shot that entire [April-Andy] story in one day. Chris Pratt [who plays Andy] said to Dan Gore, the producer of the episode, and [co-creator and executive producer] Greg Daniels, who was directing it, "Watch this, I'm going to get something out of her. I'm going to work on her and by the end of this, she's gonna be in love with me."
And he totally did. He like turned on the Chris Pratt charm, which is considerable, and [the relationship possibilities] exploded. We didn't know that there was doing to be a long-term romance between those two characters. It was that day of shooting and those two actors in the same room and Chris Pratt being goofy and funny and like a big goofy dog, and seeing the effect it had on April. It was like, "Oh, this is how the flower blooms." And is arguably the most significant relationship story we've had on the show -- Andy and April.
Is that the fun of making TV -- seeing these things just bubble up?
Oh, absolutely. To me it is, I would say. I assume it's like this on other shows too, but so many story lines on this show have come out of real things from actors' lives or from scenes... from little tiny scenes that we dropped in or little jokes that we dropped in that we then explore further. Or the actor who plays [a small role] is really funny and we bring them back and then suddenly they're part of the world.
Mo Collins, who plays Joan Callamezzo, the local access news show host, was supposed to be a one-time thing. She was really funny, and now every time someone needs to go on TV, they're interviewed by Joan Callamezzo. She has been in a dozen episodes and she'll be in as many more as we can think of.
Also Perd [Hapley, another local news anchor].
Of course, Perd. That's probably the ultimate example of this, because his [first] appearance on the show was in a monitor. He was a news reporter [on a TV screen] and Harris Wittels, who wrote that episode, gave him this line to read, one of those stilted news anchor lines, like, "Yet another twist in a story that won't stop unfolding" or something like that. Something kind of awkward.
The actor, Jay Jackson, was so funny that we were just like, "Oh, now we're going to use him more" and his game is that he speaks in that overly [complicated way, and Schur gave an example from 'Harvest Festival, the show's March 17 episode]. That was just a tiny joke and an actor that we liked and now there's a show called, 'Ya Heard with Perd,' a newsmagazine show.
To me, that's the real joy of this -- creating this fake town and populating it with all of these characters that we can bring back and really flesh out.
Yeah, and bringing in Adam and Rob injected this new energy to everything.
Did you always have the idea to expand the show that way, or midway through season 2, did you just say, "We really need to bring some outsiders to this mix and shake it up a little bit"?
I don't think we consciously said that exactly. That is absolutely what has happened. It was more about, we wanted to bring in these kind of scary, outside authority figures and when we got those two actors, we wanted to try to make them stay.
We always likened it to [that moment in] the cop movie when the FBI shows up and takes over jurisdiction and all the cops are kind of sad, because they've had their case taken away from them. That was the idea behind the two characters. But what it's done is, if you don't know what this town is like, you can get to know it along with these characters who we're getting to know at the same time.
It seems like you've had fun exploring different places for Ben to go as a character.
I am such a fan of his in so many ways. His range is... he's like if there were a Hall of Fame for actors and there were a range category he would be the first [round of voting as a] Hall of Famer. I don't know that there are many people who can do both what we do and what 'Party Down' did, and can also pull off the character he played in 'Step Brothers.' We designed the character for him, and before I met him, I felt very strongly in my gut that a day after he got here, it would feel like he's always been here. And that was absolutely the case.
Obviously we get to see the town through Ben's eyes, but was it also important to give Leslie a realistic long-term love interest? Or were those just a couple of 20 options you had with him?
That was one of 20 things, but you know, [the romance possibility] was important.
One of the things that we did in season 1 that we wanted to correct in season 2 [had to do with Leslie and her romantic life]. We reintroduced this idea that she had a one-night stand with Paul Schneider's character, Mark Brendanawicz, and then had been kind of hung up on him for six years.
Our intention at the time was not to say that Leslie hasn't dated anybody in those six years, [but that they had both dated other people and despite that, Mark was still special to her]. I do not fault the audience for this at all, but it came across as, "Six years ago she slept with this guy and has been following him around like a puppy dog ever since," which was not our intention.
And so in season 2, we wanted to [have her] date a bunch of people, because we always felt like she was a person who had a healthy self-image and lot of self-esteem
We felt like maybe if the show lasted for 10 years that she would date a lot of different kinds of guys until she found one that was right for her. Then as soon as we designed this character for Adam, we felt like, "Oh, I think this is the right kind of guy for her." Their burgeoning romance is like kind of the main story line of Season Three.
It seems like it's a slow burn though.
It is. It's a very slow burn, in part because Leslie is a little bit married to her work, and her focus, her singular focus for the first half of the year is on this giant project, so she probably misses a few signs that he is putting out there that he is interested. Luckily though, I think that they're pretty similar in some ways and her work ethic is very endearing to him, and very meaningful to him as a guy who is himself a very hard-worker and, deep down, [is] an optimist in that way we were talking about. So he doesn't give up.
My take on it had been, it's taking him a while to come out of his shell, because as you said, he's been purposely kind of hiding himself and going from town to town and living in hotels. It's probably better that he has to do the pursuing.
Yes, I agree. And you know, he had this kind of traumatic thing happen to him when he was 18.
Yeah, Ice Town. He became a mayor [at 18] and he designed this giant public works project and it bankrupted the city. A very, very important moment in [Ben and Leslie's] relationship is in [the Feb. 17 episode, 'Media Blitz']. Various reporters in the town found out about this past of his and just start ridiculing him and he just doesn't handle it very well. He kinds of turns to jelly.
It's a real great showcase for the actor because he isn't given a lot of opportunities in the first three episodes to be actively that funny. We wrote this series of nervous breakdowns for him and he just completely knocked it out of the park.
But it's a very important moment for his relationship with Leslie. Leslie is the one who helps him, she is the one who says, "All right, you're going to get over this, we're going to work through this. You can't live your life being so scared of this thing that happened."
[The following section contains information about where the season as a whole goes. It doesn't contain specific plot points but Schur discusses where the season is heading for Leslie.]
When you approach a season, do you think about sending Leslie on a particular journey, or do you not think of it in terms of a season-long arc?
I think my job is to do nothing but think of long-term goals for the characters. There's certain things we knew about Leslie when we were writing the pilot, there were places that we wanted her character to go and obviously they could all change at any moment and you follow what's working and you abandon what isn't. At the beginning of this season, we knew it was going to be about her taking on a huge project, literally lifting the entire department upon her shoulders and bearing that burden and risking everything. And we knew that the second half of the year was going to be about the aftermath of that project.
There is a story turn, very, very late in the season, like, in the final episode, that is the sort of cliffhanger for season 3. It's something Greg and I talked about doing as early as season 1. At the time, it was too early, so we put it on the shelf, but then when we were thinking about the second half of the year, it was like, "Oh, this could be the thing we write towards," and that ended up being what we did.
The same is true with Tom's character, for example. Tom is a striver and a mover and a shaker but he's in a midsized town in Indiana, and we've always felt like at some point he's going to want to change his life. And this season for him is partially about, "Do I need to change my life? Am I in the wrong business?"
Is it the sort of thing where Leslie runs for a higher office?
I don't want to say what happens, but I think it's safe to say her profile increases after this project. She has gone from someone who was second-in-command of one department in the city government, but because she takes this humungous risk and because she's Leslie and she works really hard an does a good job, she ends up getting put on people's radar in a way that maybe she wasn't before. She's not suddenly tapped to become a U.S. senator or anything.
It's just that, it's [normal] for anyone in any job to get recognized and to move up the ladder. It certainly isn't the reason she did it. She did it to save her friend's jobs and try to help her town, but the consequence of it is that certain people who are a little more powerful then she is start noticing her.
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