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'Parks and Recreation': On the set for the last day of filming

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NBC

The last day begins as it will end—with a crateload of Kleenex.

After seven seasons, 125 episodes, 271 scowly eye rolls, 593 binders, 864 can-miss business ideas, and 2,038 bacon-wrapped shrimp, we have arrived at the final day of shooting on the perky, quirky small-town-government comedy Parks and Recreation. Here on the City Hall set, tucked away on a soundstage in Studio City, Calif., Amy Poehler, aka optimist-in-chief Leslie Knope, is filming the opening frames of the finale with Adam Scott as Leslie’s levelheaded other half, Ben. “I have to savor every moment we have left,” Leslie tells Ben. “We’ve got comfort food, scrapbooks, and plenty of tissues.” The camera pans over to a pallet of Kleenex.  (This moment will ultimately be trimmed from the broadcast version of the finale but will open the longer Producer’s Cut on NBC.com.)

Poehler is in fine spirits on this rainy December morning, grooving and chanting, “Here we go, Parks! Here we go, team!” When a crew member takes Leslie’s high-tech ID, Poehler asks, “Can I keep that? Oh, can I keep everything, too? All this”—she motions around the hallway—”and all the murals?” Just off-camera, a crowd of staffers is starting to grow. Teary-eyed crew members relive fuzzy memories and sign each other’s Pawnee High yearbooks. (Poehler won Best Laugh, FYI, while Nick Offerman claimed Mr. Congeniality.) Several of the actors cluster around series co-creator Greg Daniels—who directed an episode earlier this year—before heading in to shoot the last all-group scene, which will serve as the beginning of the emotional, time-jumping hourlong finale.

A somewhat familiar-looking elderly man wanders over to the set. It takes a second to place him. It’s Billy Eichner, who plays Pawnee parks department administrator and reforming rageaholic Craig. He’s shooting a scene in a futuristic aircraft on a nearby stage, and is still wearing his age makeup. “Wow, I didn’t recognize you,” Scott marvels to him.

For a final act of Jerry/Garry buffoonery, O’Heir has been absurdly outfitted as a giant coffee pot. And right now he’s kind of overheating, so a crew member cools him off with a fan. “It’s fitting this is how it should end,” he deadpans. Series co-creator Michael Schur—who is directing this episode, which he co-wrote with Poehler—walks O’Heir through his entrance and musical number. “Oh my god, that’s funny! Yes, yes, yes!” spouts the human coffee pot.

Soon it’s time for the cast to pour back into the Parks department bullpen and rehearse today’s big scene, which involves a Pawnee resident played by Jon Daly—yes, the drunk dude in the first episode that Leslie had to remove from the slide—asking the Parks department to fix a swing in the park. “There’s a whole other show from his point of view,” Schur quips to Daniels.

Retta (Donna) walks by a cluster of her castmates at the side of the stage and says breezily: “It’s our last day. Don’t know if you noticed. That’s the word on the street.” The mood remains loose and light, as if a stream of jokes will keep the tears at bay. Offerman mock-pummels O’Heir. Before one take, Scott asks Schur: “Want me to blast one down the barrel?” a reference to his signature look-to-camera move. “I’m not going to miss Adam,” Poehler deadpans to the room.

The scene also calls for Ron—hands tucked down the front of his pants—to shake the hand of April. They improv an exchange:  “We met on the level…” “We parted on the square.” When the cameras stop, Poehler announces: “I like how Ron takes his hands out of his pants to shake and no one flinches.”

Before another take, O’Heir struggles to wiggle through the doorframe in his coffee costume and return to his starting position. “It’s the ultimate indignity,” Retta tells him, laughing. “You can’ t even get through the f—in’ door.”

Meanwhile, Chris Pratt, as Andy, experiments with increasingly nonsensical adlibs on the hammed-up heroic line “Anything is possible if you put your mind to it—Johnny Karate,” such as: “In the world of Johnny Karate… anything is impossible with the right direction… as eagles fly.”

And as Poehler and Retta get ready to film Donna’s flashforward-triggering hug (that’s in the script), they sing “Memories…” (that’s not). Eichner—the current-day version of him—then joins the gang for part of the scene. At one point, Poehler messes up an exchange with him and apologizes: “I jumped on your line.” Eichner quips: “You’re a nightmare to the bitter end, Amy!

Before the final portion of the scene is shot, the cast members are ushered into City Hall chambers, where co-producer Tom Ragazzo introduced a surprise he’d assembled: “What we’re about to see is everybody’s first scene and their very first take,” he says. “The first time we rolled camera officially on the show with all of you.”  Or as Retta jokes to the room, “This is the stuff that everybody hated.” It’s a (time)trip watching a younger Aziz Ansari doing his first talk-to-the-camera moment as Tom and breaking character for a second to ask: “I drive a, uh…(to himself) what kind of car would Tom drive?… I drive a Mazda Miada, um, it’s a convertible and it’s also small and sporty, and gets good gas mileage.” As the presentation wraps up, executive producer Morgan Sackett, who helped plan the surprise, wonders if the cast will now be too nostalgically weepy for the last stretch of filming. Then again, as he notes, “We’ve got a pallet of Kleenex if anybody needs it.”

It’s back to action, and the air is thickening with awareness that the actors are down to their final few minutes as these characters. Offerman and Ansari have realized that they actually said their last lines of dialogue as Ron and Tom yesterday, so when Andy and April run out of the room, trailed by Leslie, they start shouting “Bye!,” just to get in one more word.

The gaggle of folks behind the camera has continued to expand: Dan Goor, a former Parks writer-producer who created Brooklyn Nine-Nine with Schur, stops by and gives a supportive embrace. “Daddies are hugging,” jokes someone. Hugs and photos are spreading fast across the set.

Schur then gives the greenlight to the cast to do a “fun run,” which is the term given to the last take of a scene that is heavily improvised. The actors stretch out the scene as long as they can, deviating wildly and weirdly from the script. “If we never stop the fun run, we never have to end the show,” notes Poehler. Pratt says goodbye to Andy in his own fitting way while the cameras roll: “You know what I’m going to miss? Dumping desks over,” he says in character, before loudly upending one.

Schur calls “Cut!” for the last time, and gathers everyone for an announcement: “Everybody file in! Ladies and gentlemen, cast and crew of Parks and Recreation, that is a series wrap on Jim O’Heir!” Big applause. “Also, a series wrap on Retta!” The cheering continues as he reels of the actors names. “That’s a series wrap on Aziz Ansari… That’s also a series wrap on Adam Scott!… That’s also a series wrap on Chris Pratt!… That is also a series wrap on Aubrey Plaza! ….Nick and Amy have seven more weeks of shooting—then we’re totally done! Thank you all very much! (Turns out, Offerman and Poehler do have to shoot a pick-up moment from a different episode after lunch.)

And so the celebration begins. A teary Poehler takes a tissue and keeps exclaiming, “Whewwwww!” as if 125 episodes of emotion are draining out of her. How do you feel, Amy? “Overwhelmed,” she says. “Like a dream, like a beautiful dream.” In the sea of chaos, Schur tries to explain the whirl of emotion: “It’s like the feeling you have like when you get married or one of your kids is born. I can intellectualize it but it’s not going to actually mean anything for about a week, and then I’ll go, ‘Oh no!’ A week from today, I’m going to wake up in a cold sweat.”

“It’s weird—this will all be gone next week.” says an emotional O’Heir, looking around City Hall, which will be disassembled, and in its place, The Biggest Loser will move in to shoot its finale. “It’s sad but amazing. One hundred twenty-five episodes, that’s a gift… There’s no downside…”—his tears are starting again—”other than leaving these people.”

A choked-up Plaza, who’s also been under the weather, heads outside, where the rain has stopped and the skies are turning sunny and blue again. She is comforted by Offerman, who lends a shoulder, and then by a kneeling Pratt on her trailer steps. Minutes later, when you approach respectfully, she quips meekly: “So, now what happens?”

Sitting in her trailer she looks drained—almost defeated—as she tries to describe what it was like to finish her last scene as a cast member of Parks and Recreation. “It was really trippy and way sadder than I thought it would be,” says Plaza. “It was really sad. It was just really weird how there’s such an actual moment where it’s just like… It’s really heartbreaking… And I’m not usually a crier. I usually wait until I’m alone and I cry. I can’t help it, it’s just really hitting me, which I’m happy about, because it’s good to be present and really experience what’s happening.”

Meanwhile, Scott sits in his trailer in an almost subdued shock, his floor cluttered with gifts from the cast, who did their final gift exchange today. (“Pratt gave me a self-defense flashlight, which I’m still trying to figure out what that means?” he says/asks. “It’s a flashlight that I guess you can, like, jam in someone’s eye if they start f—ing with you.”) He also shows off the placard he took as keepsake: Ben Wyatt, City Manager. “That was really intense in there,” he says. “It was just, like, mowing ‘em down. It was really intense and emotional. But it had to happen… But yeah, that was crazy…. That was crazy. It’s over. It’s really weird. Really weird. “

He looks back on the hardwon journey of Parks and Recreation—the show that survived all kinds of low ratings, time slot moves, and cancellation close-calls all while growing into one of the finest, most charming and beloved comedies over the last decade. Asked to choose the perfect metaphor for it all, he considers several options before settling on something of which Ben would approve: Star Wars. “I mean, Luke Skywalker is just a farm boy from Tatooine. And he takes down the Empire, you know? And he doesn’t give up. He and his friends put their heads together and figure it out. I mean, the obstacles are insanely huge—and they made it. And now they’re getting a sequel 30 years later so maybe that means in the future [Parks] will be a Netflix orb that just floats in front of your face at all times. In 30 years, we’ll do six more episodes.”

A few minutes later, he and the rest of the cast were called back to set (minus this journalist) to watch Offerman and Poehler shoot the quick pick-up scene and celebrate some more. Poehler’s very final task was to record a voice-over line for an earlier episode about a presidential landmark. By chance, the last thing she uttered as Leslie Knope was “What great historical moments took place within these hallowed halls?” 

For those who watched Parks and Recreation, they would argue that there too many to count. But Offerman was determined to relive as many of them as possible. Later that night, after the hubbub died down, he couldn’t bring himself to drive off the studio lot just yet—because then it would be over—so he wandered down to the stage and sat there for awhile by himself on a City Hall bench in the dark.  “I just remembered a string of moments,” he later recalled of that alone time. “I remembered the first time I sat in Ron’s office and did this page long monologue with Greg Daniels, directing me from next to the camera, and it was this monologue that ended with Bobby Knight. And I remembered I had such a profound feeling of affection for Aubrey, because of the relationship that no one expected that sort of blossomed between Ron and April. And how in the first few seasons we had a sort of workplace love affair of curmudgeons where we were like, ‘You hate everybody? Holy s—! I hate everybody. We’re sticking together.’ And I thought about that episode where Ron has a hernia and he doesn’t want to let anybody know, but April figures it out. And I thought about… all the scenes where [Amy] and I sat in my office and she ran me through the encyclopedia of her comedy tools, and I was paid good money to simply try and not laugh—I mean, to be handed that as a job is a privilege that I take so very seriously. The richness of the stories I got to play with her just leave me breathless… It’s funny, I ran through each cast member, Including Rob [Lowe] and Rashida [Jones], and even Paul Schneider. And I thought about Ben Schwartz putting his mouth all over me in that room.” He pauses. “That room… is like the Hall of Justice.”

 

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