Treat yo' self to a look at the roundtable with Poehler, co-creator Michael Schur, and others from the beloved NBC sitcom's creative team on EW's new Sundance Channel series, ''The Writers' Room''
On the show’s premise
Michael Schur (Co-Creator/Exec Producer) We were big West Wing fans, and the way we pitched the show originally was: It’s the comedy West Wing. On The West Wing, the stakes of an episode are Russia and China are fighting over Kazakhstan, and on this show the stakes are a boy soccer team and a girl soccer team both rented the same soccer field. That is most people’s experience with the government. You can watch the news and you can read all the stuff about the world and you know that it’s happening and it can concern you and you can be interested in it, but ultimately when you wake up in the morning, your life is not affected by those decisions in a tangible way…. Most people wake up and if they have a problem with the government, it’s that they got a parking ticket and they wanna contest it. So that’s what we wanted to get into.
Dan Goor (Writer/Exec Producer) We also thought it would be a fun way to talk about issues that are bigger issues. So one of our first ”issue” episodes was when Leslie decides to have a cute little ceremony at the zoo where two penguins get married and then it turns out that they’re both male penguins, and it’s a gay marriage…
Amy Poehler (Star/Writer/Producer) …a gay penguin marriage. Which we can all agree on.
Joe Mande (Writer) They’re always in formal wear.
Goor It’s both the idea of bringing big stakes to little things, like a parking ticket or arguing over a soccer field, and also finding a small-stakes way to do a big-stakes story.
On how much of Parks and Rec is improvised
Schur We do a thing that we call the ”fun run,” which is, after we’ve shot every scene, we literally just say, ”Go do whatever you want. Change the scene, say anything you want.” And we just roll the cameras for seven minutes.
Poehler It’s awesome because when you know you have the scene, then you get this reward, which is that you get to improvise and you know you [already] have the scene. And the scene is what you usually use…. Because here’s the thing about improvising: It’s usually longer and less funny than what’s written. That’s the reality. And it’s a huge compliment to our show that people think things are improvised more than they are, because very little improv is actually used on our show because the scripts are in such good shape. But if you know you’ve got the scene and then you’re told that you can fool around, it’s really fun because you make the crew laugh. It’s important for momentum on a comedy show to make people laugh in a room. And sometimes you discover little things about your character that you can use later. And every once in a while something is used.
Goor In the early seasons, while we were still trying to figure out how to write it, the improvs were much more meandering and they were much longer. And it was because we hadn’t written tight, good scenes. As we became better writers for the actors, who were already way ahead of us in terms of knowing who their characters were, the improvs became these focused laser beams.
Mande When you’re a writer on set and you’re observing the improv, the ”fun runs,” there are nuggets that you’ll be like, ”Oh, I’m going to pitch that later.” You’ll be like, ”Do you remember when you said that? We can use that in this next scene.” It’s really helpful for everyone.
On a story idea that never made it to air
Schur We did have an idea for an episode that we never got close to breaking in season 2, which was that Leslie would get very frustrated by not being able to do what she wanted in the parks department and that she would get an offer from a member of the Qatari royal family to come to the Middle East and design, like, a $19 billion gigantic park…. And [she] would have to seriously consider moving to Qatar.
On how Jerry (Jim O’Heir) became the office’s whipping boy
Schur We cast Jim O’Heir without a character in mind. He had auditioned for Ron Swanson, and we just liked him. We liked the way he looked, and he seemed like a pleasant guy…. And then we were doing an episode early in season 2 where everyone was trying to dig up dirt on each other, and we wrote this joke — a character comes to him and says, ”I found something out about you, which is that your adoptive mother was arrested for marijuana possession.” And he gets this ashen look on his face, and they go, ”Oh, you didn’t know that, huh?” And he says, ”I didn’t know I was adopted.” And when that joke was written, it was like: That’s who he is, he’s a punching bag. And then what happened was in the next nine scripts there were 40 Jerry jokes per script of just pounding on him, just mercilessly to the point where we had to go, like, ”Oh, guys!” [Last season] he had a heart attack and farted throughout the heart attack, and Tom [Aziz Ansari] was making fun of him for farting while he was dying…. I kept saying, ”Are we sure about the fart attack? Are we sure?” And all the writers were like, ”Yes. Shut up.”
Mande I was staying up at night hoping you wouldn’t take it out.
Goor I went on WebMD to see if that was an actual symptom of a heart attack, and it is.
Schur It’s medically sound, that episode.