'Parks and Recreation': Inside 'The Debate'
Back in June, when EW.com asked Parks and Recreation EP Michael Schur what episode Emmy voters should revisit before filling out their nomination ballots, he answered “The Debate.” Written and directed by Amy Poehler, it encapsulates the show’s signature combination of humor and heart. Here, in excerpts from that original interview, he takes us inside that half hour. For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012: Behind the Scenes coverage.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why is “The Debate” an episode people should revisit?
MICHAEL SCHUR: The main reason obviously is that it was a true Amy Poehler joint. She wrote it, directed it, and obviously starred in it. We put a tremendous amount of pressure on the episode. [Laughs] We knew we had Paul Rudd in the middle and then we were gonna get him for a couple at the end, so in order to increase the anticipation of his return, Leslie said to his campaign manager, played by Kathryn Hahn, “We’re gonna have a debate soon, and when we do, I’m gonna kick your opponent’s ass.” A huge setup, generally speaking, isn’t really a good idea because it means you really have to deliver something special if you call out how big a deal the episode is gonna be. But we did that. And it was her directorial debut. It was the biggest production we did all year. There were 400 extras, six cameras, crane shots, night shoots, and stunts — Ron Swanson climbed a telephone pole. It was a massive production and like everything she does, she pulled it off effortlessly. She prepped super hard. She watched that documentary The War Room about the Clinton campaign. We broke the story as a group, as we always do. In the outline, it was like, “So the debate is going well, and then this thing happens and this thing happens, and at the end, Leslie makes a big speech and it really moves everybody to tears emotionally and she saves the day.” Okay, go! [Laughs] There wasn’t a single pitch about what the content of that speech should be. That speech that Leslie gives at the end of the debate in that incredibly high-pressure moment is exactly Amy’s first draft. We did not change a single word of it from the moment she wrote it to the moment it aired, which is extremely rare in TV. You rewrite everything.
And Paul Rudd’s reaction to her speech is priceless.
That’s another reason why I would love people to watch it again. Paul gives such an amazing performance. There’s no scene of him behind-the-scenes. He’s only able to convey what’s going on in his character’s weird little brain in the context of the debate. He does such a great job of conveying a guy who is out of his depth, but is kinda trying hard, and has been drilled really hard by his people but he doesn’t fully understand what he’s saying. [Laughs] At the very end, it made us laugh so hard that he comes up and celebrates with Leslie as if this is something they accomplished together. And then he runs off the stage awkwardly in a way that indicates that he’s not even smart enough to understand how exits work.
I’ve watched Amy’s director’s cut on Hulu, and there is footage of Bobby (Rudd) behind-the-scenes. Leslie and Ben go to find him and get in his head and he’s on the floor in the fetal position.
We shot that, for exactly that reason, to be able to show that this guy’s in big trouble. But the episode had so much good stuff in it, we had to cut like nine minutes or something, and that was one of the casualties. One of the biggest reasons I think it’s maybe our best episode of the season is it gives everyone in the cast a chance to shine. Everyone has a big moment. Andy reenacts the movies for people. Nick Offerman sings “Wichita Lineman” at the top of a telephone pole. Aziz Ansari, Rob Lowe, and Rashida Jones have their story line where Tom makes a huge play for Ann. I think that’s when our show is best, when everyone in our large cast gets a chance to stand out.
Let’s talk about Andy’s movie reenactments. How did those come about?
We came up with the idea that Andy didn’t pay the cable bill, so when they tried to watch the debate on TV, there was no TV. I can’t remember who pitched the idea, but it was that he was trying to entertain people and distract them by reenacting his favorite movies. Again, this is like a perfect storm of goodness from our show: Amy went to Pratt and said, “If Andy were going to reenact a movie for people, what would it be?” And he said, Road House immediately. So she then went and watched Road House and like started to write Andy’s recap. Then she said to herself, “Why am I doing this? Pratt said Road House so quickly, that I’m sure all I have to do is go record him actually doing it, and then I’ll get the perfect Andy reenactment.” So she did that and essentially transcribed what Pratt really said in their dressing room. Which is a genius move as a writer — if you have the actor to write your scene for you, by all means do it. And then, even better was that Pratt, when he was reenacting it that day, he then added four or five things that were even funnier than what he said originally. Like there’s a moment when he clarifies what is subtext and what is not subtext. And then we always like to get a lot of alternatives for the jokes, so Amy asked him on set for one more movie Andy would do, and he said, “I would do Rambo.” But like the most recent Rambo, which Chris Pratt vehemently insists is the best Rambo movie. It’s very important for him to tell people that that’s actually the best Rambo movie. So it was the perfect mix of writer/director Amy knowing exactly how to use this amazing comedy machine that is Chris Pratt, and then Pratt turning that machine up to 11.
I kinda wanted to see him do more of Babe.
I had the same feeling. There was no more of it. That was the actual scripted line, that when you come back to him, he’s just finished Babe. But I thought, Ah, I really want to see how Andy would emotionally relate Babe to me. Which I think is a good sign, right? Leave people wanting more.
NEXT: Why Nick Offerman and Adam Scott are awesome
In addition to Amy, Chris, and Aziz Ansari (read that interview), Nick Offerman also made our critic’s Emmy Wish List. When I chatted with Nick, he told me you have this wonderful way of making him cry. He said he cried when you handed him the script that included the Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness. Should I believe him?
I believe that’s true. I believe I’ve seen him cry several times. Nick is like a writer and showrunner’s dream. First of all, he’s just a wonderful human being. He also is just incredibly grateful for being able to play this role. He’s been a little bit of a square peg in a lot of different round holes. This part was obviously designed for him, and he settled into it immediately. He’s so happy playing the part and being a part of the team that he will just come and hang out in the writers’ room or on the set when he’s not even shooting. That’s a very rare thing anywhere, a person who loves his or her job so much that he or she goes to that job when he or she doesn’t have to. I remember he got very emotional and weepy on the night our series premiere aired because it was suddenly real. Sometimes he’ll call me and leave me a voice mail that’s just two minutes of him telling me happy how he is, and how great he thinks the show is, and how grateful he is to be a part of this. I play them for my wife, who’s also a writer, and she thinks it’s a bit or something. She can’t believe that it’s real, that someone would be that sincere and grateful and humble and emotional. It’s really who he is, and it’s amazing.
One moment I’ve always wanted to talk to you about is actually from last season, when Ben first told Andy that he has feelings for Leslie and Andy’s response is “You’ve chosen well.” That’s not what one of Liz Lemon’s coworkers would have said about her. I just love that Leslie is actually appreciated.
We take great pains in all the episodes to show how much her friends’ happiness means to her and the crazy lengths that she’ll go to to help her friends when they’re in trouble. Like when Ron is in trouble with his ex-wives, she’ll throw herself on a number of different grenades for him. In the first ever Ron and Tammy episode, Ron saw that happen and it really affected him. It laid the foundation for the rest of their relationship. Part of the theme of the show is if you’re that kind of person, that will come back and help you. That was the whole design of last season for us: When she was in a crisis and her campaign managers pulled out, her friends said, “Screw it, we’ll help you.” That’s the essence of who the character is and the world she inhabits: She’s a person who is so genuinely mindful of the people around her and wants so badly to help them succeed and achieve their goals and dreams that she’s now in a situation where there’s no length to which her friends will not go for her. It’s a little bit of a friend fantasy. [Laughs] She’s what everyone wishes their best friend could be like.
Last but not least, let’s talk about Leslie’s relationship with Ben. I’ll find myself rewinding scenes, like the one in the finale when he tells Leslie he never wrote her a concession speech, just because a smile on Adam Scott’s face looked so genuine. You believe Ben loves Leslie, and there’s no question that she deserves that love — which feels rare for a female on a sitcom.
He’s a very intuitive performer, and I think he very early on figured out what kind of guy this was and what kind of lady Leslie was, and how it would be that he would fall for her. My favorite line, it’s a tiny moment that probably flew right by most people, is in the Valentine’s Day episode. Leslie has set up this insane scavenger hunt for him that has like 25 clues spread all over the city that are incredibly difficult to decipher, and Ben’s rushing around with Andy and Ron trying desperately to solve this incredible Leslie puzzle before he’s supposed to meet her for dinner. When they get to JJ’s Diner, the end of the clue says like “Only 22 clues left to go.” Ben says, “22? God. Come on, Leslie, give me break.” Then he says to no one, “Well, this is the woman I have chosen to love.” Her insanity and her intensity is what he loves about her. It’s why he’ll do things like the scavenger hunt, which is important to her.