Colleen Hayes/NBC

The Good Bye: The Good Place creator Mike Schur looks back on four seasons of magic and morality

January 30, 2020

A heaven-sent comedy is ending a hell of a journey. The Good Place took the Soul Squad on the ride of their (after)life — and it proved to be enlightening for all. “Part of the pitch was ‘We’re not going to have philosophy in the margins,'” explains creator Mike Schur. “It’s the core of the show, and people are going to talk about books. We also have to tell a bunch of jokes and do a bunch of emotional stories, but it’s the thing that’s going to make the show special, if it works.” That Kant-do spirit paid off richly for the heady, brainy, loopy series, which followed Team Cockroach on adventures far and wide, from death to life to death, through time knives and Interdimensional Holes of Pancakes, and from places Good, Medium, and Bad. Along the winding way, the ambitious series earned a cult following, a Peabody Award, and seven Emmy nominations, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series. Here, Schur takes you inside the margins of the magic before The Good Place disappears for eternity with the unveiling of the one-hour series finale (airing Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on NBC).

The philosopher whom the writers spent the most time discussing

Schur considers it a toss-up between ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle or American philosopher/recently retired Harvard professor Tim Scanlon, who wrote the oft-referenced tome What We Owe to Each Other, which pops up on the show in several occasions. “In season 2, the show’s official position on ethics was most closely aligned with Aristotle,” he explains. “Aristotle was the philosopher who had a certain practice-makes-perfect thing. The way you get better at being ethical is by doing good things over and over. Scanlon talked about your happiness [being] entirely dependent on your ability to make peace with those around you. His What We Owe to Each Other is a book about, ‘If you’re coming up with rules, you have to come up with rules that other people won’t reject. That’s the way you know it’s a good rule.'” Schur pays third-place props to 18th-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant “because Chidi was a Kantian. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what Kant would say about human behavior, and mostly what he would say is, ‘You’re all doing it wrong, and you’re all terrible.'”

The most impenetrable work of philosophy you tackled

That honor is awarded to On What Matters by British philosopher Derek Parfitt, who was much smarter and more formed than that other Derek. “Parfitt died fairly recently and this book was his masterpiece,” says Schur. “It’s in two volumes. And volume 2 is twice the length of volume 1, which infuriates me [laughs]. I wasn’t remotely close to reading all of it. It’s trying to propose a grand unified theory of all ethical theories. I’m staring at it right now; it’s taunting me from my shelf — and it is literally the reason that we made Chidi’s masterwork 4,000 pages long.”

The biggest ethical quandary that you faced

Oh, there was a whopper, indeed. Wanting to keep the season 1 finale’s game-changing twist that the Good Place was actually the Bad Place a secret, Schur decided to keep the circle of knowledge so tight, it didn’t include NBC executives at first, or even most of the cast. “We were lying to them every day,” he laments. “Kant would say, ‘Bad job, guys! You blew it.’ Ted [Danson] and Kristen [Bell] knew, but the other four didn’t; none of the directors and a lot of the crew didn’t know. We were basically keeping this very big secret from the people that we were the most closely intertwined in this creative endeavor. It felt bad all the time. It was an enormous relief when we finally got to tell them.”

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The most difficult story line to bring to life

Schur points to the pair of episodes that kicked off season 3, with the Soul Squad getting a do-over on Earth. ‘The end of season 2 was, ‘Oh, Michael has an idea. We un-kill them, go into a different timeline and have them all be on Earth,'” he explains. “But now I need a way to get them all together. So it was a very, very complicated mechanism where he and Janet [D’Arcy Carden] were spying on them and he figured out how to get Eleanor [Kristen Bell] and Chidi [William Jackson Harper] together — he went down and posed the bartender and he planted the idea in our brain and then that led her to a YouTube video and then she flew to Australia.”

Of course, then he had to figure out how Michael could bring Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) into the mix without repeating the tactic. “He had to first have Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Chidi come to the idea of doing a study on people who’d had near death experiences and put that out into the world,” continues Schur. “There’s a passing reference —Tahani says, ‘How did you find me?’ And Chidi says, ‘I got an email from a professor I’ve never heard of named Charles Brainman who recommended you.’ [Laughs] So just the Swiss watch mechanism of all of the ways that he had to appear in different places and go back through the portal and use his old paperwork to sneak through the door again and get down and plant the idea in Tahani’s head — that took forever to figure out a way that he could do it that was reasonable and possible.  In our pre-production, we fell behind by a couple of weeks because it just took a really long time to work out exactly how that trap would be sprung by him.”

The special effect that was hardest to pull off

Of course, season 3’s “Janet(s)” episode was a chainsaw bear to pull off, given that almost everything in that episode is an effects shot, with Carden playing different versions of herself. But another episode in season 3 takes the (pan)cake: specifically the one involving the Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes, the extremely dangerous crossroads hub for all dimensions. “They’re just standing in an empty room and [visual effects producer] David Niednagel is doing literally every frame of that sequence,” says Schur. “The judge [Maya Rudolph] casually appears and walks across the room, but the room isn’t the room, it’s a swirling phantasmagoric display of weird, pancake-looking universe-y things. We were like, ‘Oh s—, how does she get there?’ And then we had the idea that as she takes steps, these mini-pancakes fly up underneath her and provide a little pathway. It was the kind of idea that you have and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’ll be really cool!’ And then David Niednagle’s head explodes because that’s going to take a lot of time — and computing power.

The place that you wanted to show viewers but were unable to do so

Call the Good Place subjective; one person’s ideal of paradise is another’s personal hell. So when Eleanor asks Michael if all neighborhoods were like 12358W, the architect explains that each neighborhood is different, from geography to population to climate. And Schur wanted to show one of these alt-heavens through a certain/only Medium Place resident. “We kept trying to figure out a way that Mindy St. Claire [Maribeth Monroe] could visit another neighborhood that was distinctly different,” says Schur. “Eventually we abandoned it because the logic of it was too difficult to fit into the show, given the fact that she wasn’t actually in the Good Place…. That bummed me out. I thought it would be fun to go to see another neighborhood filled with, I dunno, ninth-century Vikings and just see them living it up in there in their personal paradise.”

The guest star whose role expanded beyond the original plan

Do you hear wind chimes ringing from an R-rated place? That can only mean the arrival of Janet’s cheery, glitchy, deformed creation Derek, played by Jason Mantzoukas. “Anytime Jason Mantzoukas is on the show, you know exactly what he’s going to do, which is be the world’s funniest living person,” praises Schur. “We brought Derek back more times than we would have if any other actor had played him. It became really enjoyable to know that there’s this insane, free-floating bizarro quasi-Janet in her universe. We were originally going to have him die at the end of his episode, but we decided to basically put him on ice, knowing even at the time that we’d figure out a way to bring him back. And then it was incredibly useful, because in that same episode where Jason and Michael went down to rescue Janet, in the logic of the world, someone’s got to be running this neighborhood. And it’s like, ‘Well, there is Derek. Maybe Derek can handle it.'”

The Jason joke that was simply too dumb to include

Jason Mendoza is the deliriously delightful dense deejay who wound up landing some of the show’s biggest laughs. (“Yo, you should listen to me. I came up with hundreds of plans in my life and only one of them got me killed.”) But as the writers brainstormed the depths of Jason’s dopiness, was there one punchline that felt too punchdrunk? “I was doing a rewrite of someone’s script and someone mentioned the word farm, and I wrote in a joke for Jason where he said, “What’s a farm?,” recalls Schur. “When we were going through the script, I was like, ‘Obviously we have to change this. This is insane.’ And the [writers] were like, “No! What are you doing? That’s hilarious!” And I was like, “I know he’s a total bonehead, but we can’t say he doesn’t know what a farm is. That’s not a person who’s uneducated or unworldly — that’s a person missing 12 years of his life because he has some disease.” But the room decided, against my will, that it was canon — even if it never got on the show — that Jason doesn’t know what a farm is. And just to troll me, every time someone wrote a script, they would write in a line where Jason expressed the fact that he didn’t know what a farm was. It drove me so crazy.”

The Tahani name drop that was too obscure to use

Schur has an answer to this question — but he decided to throw caution to the wind and put it in the show as the final absurd word on this joke paradigm. “There’s been this running joke forever of half of the people she mentions are her godfather — or godmother,” he says. “There was a joke that I always wanted to work in, but I was like, “It’s just too crazy, it’s too crazy, it’s too crazy.” But we finally did it in the second-to-last episode. The joke is they hear a chime and she says, ‘That chime is so soothing. It’s the most incredible chime I’ve ever heard. And that’s coming from someone whose godfather is the most famous clock in the world.’ At which point Chidi says, ‘Is Big Ben somehow your godfather?’ And then we just move on. That is the official capper to that name-dropping game: somehow or another, one of her godparents is actually Big Ben.”

The guest star that was a must-have

There were two actors in particular that Schur targeted from the beginning of the show, and both appeared in the final season. First up: Timothy Olyphant. “We were designing an episode where they really needed the Judge to pay attention to something and the Judge was refusing,” he recalls. “The pitch was always that Janet makes a Timothy Olyphant while the judge is in a real Timothy Olyphant phase. She’s bingeing Justified and she’s just watched Deadwood. So in the premiere of season 4, we laid in a thing where she mentioned that she’s finally watching Deadwood and she’s really excited about it. And then a little later we lay in a thing where she’s watching Justified. So at a key moment, they’re like, ‘We need her to pay attention to us, and the way they achieve it is by conjuring a Timothy Olyphant.’ So I called him and said, ‘Do you want to play yourself as a piece of eye candy for the judge?’ And he was like, ‘Absolutely.'”

The other idea for a guest spot — Lisa Kudrow — winked at a run of jokes laid into the first season. “There was a joke in the ‘What We Owe to Each Other,’ where Michael is talking about being a human and he says he’s really happy to have a friend,” says Schur. “He’s even watched all of the episodes of Friends. And he keeps making Friends references and asking, ‘How do they afford that apartment?’ So I was like, ‘You know who would be perfect to be on the show? Lisa Kudrow.’ And we just never found the right thing for her to do.” That is, until the second-to-last episode, when he asked her to appear as pleasure zombie Hypatia of Alexandria. “I asked her early on in this season if she could be on the show, and she said yes,” he says. “So we put in a bunch of other Friends references over the course of the season.”

The Parks and Recreation character that would be the most intriguing to bring into this world

Schur has intrigued fans by occasionally hinting that the world of The Good Place was intertwined with a previous creation of his, Parks and Recreation(Oh, hello, Lil’ Sebastian!) Despite all of the Parks winks, no Pawnee character was ever spotted in the afterlife. Which prompts the question: Who would have been best suited for a cross-over moment? “Of all the characters on that show, Ron [Nick Offerman] had the most intense moral code,” opines Schur. “He was the most philosophical, even though he would’ve never wanted to admit that. Although an argument can be made for Eagleton Ron, played by Sam Elliott. It might’ve been fun to see how Ron would navigate the afterlife. But it’s hard not to say Leslie [Amy Poehler], because Leslie was the most intense of all the characters in trying to figure out the right solution to whatever problem was thrown her way. She also was a huge believer in the power of community and friendship, and that’s a huge aspect of the show.” And in case you were believing in a Dwyer power, here are Schur’s bittersweet thoughts: “It wouldn’t have been that interesting to bring in Andy [Chris Pratt] because Jason is already here. But the two of them would have been very good friends. Like, they would have totally hit it off.”

The Easter egg that fans missed

Schur didn’t just drop in pops of Parks; all sorts of value-added laughs lurked in the details. What was a big small laugh that viewers didn’t seem to find? “The last we saw of Adam Scott’s character, he was on the bridge with the judge,” says Schur. “Trevor tries to suck up to her, and she flicks her finger and he explodes backwards and disappears into the void. Once or twice since, in a scene where the crew was walking on a bridge or someone was on one of those bridges in the interdimensional doorway system, we put him in the distant background, flying through frame. He’s very small, but you hear his voice going, ‘Whoaaa!’ like he’s been flying backwards for 10,000 Bearimies. No one has said to me ever, ‘Oh, that was really funny when you did that,’ which makes me think that far fewer people saw it then than I thought they would.”

The story line you’re proudest of

Schur makes mention of season 2’s “The Trolly Problem” (“it’s so visual and fun”) and season 3’s “Janet(s)” (“the idea of Darcy playing every character was floating around in my brain for a really long time”). But what holds special meaning to him is the saga of Eleanor in the season 2 finale, “Somewhere Else”; after her near-death experience, Eleanor resolves to become a better person, and slowly, her new zest for life weakens as her good acts on Earth are not immediately rewarded. “It’s just the struggle that she feels, as the world kicks her around,” he explains. “She’s complaining to a friendly bartender at her friendly neighborhood bar, and saying, ‘I’ve been good for eight months. What the hell, man? Why does all this bad stuff keep happening to me?’ And he says, ‘Well, this is moral dessert. You’re saying that if you do good things, you should get a reward. That’s not the way the world works. You don’t do good things because you’re going to get a reward. You do good things because that’s better than doing bad things.’ And that idea is so hard for me, and I think everyone, to hold in your head all the time. You shouldn’t get a cookie or a little prize for just being a nice person. That can’t be the way this works. I’ll speak for myself — it is very hard for me to think that way because you’re trained in various other aspects of your daily life that when you do good at a good job at something, you get a prize. Ethics and morality don’t work that way. That can’t be the reason that we are good because that’s a twisted incentive system, right? If it were the case that the person who did the best ethics got $1,000, then everyone would be doing it for the wrong reasons. It’s a corrupt motivation.

“I really liked the way that we broke that episode and executed that episode because Eleanor’s attitude towards ethics in general is basically mine,” he continues. “This stuff is hard. It’s hard to read. It’s hard for it to penetrate your brain. In that episode specifically, I related to her attitude, which is, ‘What happens if you do everything right and you still get kicked around what then? Then why should I keep doing it?’ And I’m with her. [Laughs] I feel that argument. I think that it’s not the flashiest episode we ever did, and it wasn’t the one that people will probably think of when they think of the show, but I really liked that story.

Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The most important ad-lib that made it into the show

Compared with Schur’s other shows, The Good Place featured little ad-libbing from the cast during filming. (Aside from Mantzoukas, that is. “We were just like, ‘Go nuts, man.’ We would write all his lines and then he would do his thing, which is goof around and say crazy stuff.”) But one burst of improv in the show’s most important scene — that season 1 finale reveal in which Michael confirmed Eleanor’s Bad Place hunch — became arguably the show’s signature moment. “Ted is a weirdly good improviser, and he would occasionally say things that were very much in the spirit of what he was supposed to say, but he had altered them,” says Schur. “I consider his evil giggle an ad-lib because it wasn’t written that way at all, and he just did it and it was amazing. It was written as a long beat and he just throws a temper tantrum. He yells at Eleanor and says, ‘You’re the worst. I hate you. Goddammit, you ruin everything.’ We did it eight or nine times that way, and it was always great and funny. I didn’t in any way suggest he try anything else, but I was just checking in with him, like, ‘How do you feel?’ And he said, ‘Can I just try something totally different?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ And then the camera pushed in, he did that giggle, and it was a billion times better. So I was like, ‘All right, everything we just did is unusable. We have to do this eight times.’ [Laughs] So we did. But the take we used was the very first one he did. It was the original and best.”

The smallest most important joke that made it into the show

If you yelled “Bortles!” as you heaved a football or molotov cocktail, you’re correct. Schur credits Good Place writer-producer Joe Mande with bringing that gag to life — and keeping it alive. “Joe told Manny to do that in the first episode that he had a flashback in when he threw the Molotov cocktail at the speedboat,” recalls Schur. “It’s basically a voiceover because he’s saying it as the thing is flying through the air. I cut it, and Mande was like, ‘You can’t cut that. That’s so funny that he is saying ‘Bortles!’ the way people say ‘Kobe!’ when they take crazy basketball shots on the playground.’ And I was like, ‘I’m a pretty big sports fan, and I know who he is, but the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback is not a person who should be referenced.’ And he was like, ‘Look, it sounds like a nonsense word. So people hear it and if they know who Blake Bortles is, they’ll love it. And if they don’t, they’ll just think he’s yelling something incomprehensible. It’ll fly right by.’ And I was like, ‘Joe Mande is a great writer. If he really wants this, I’m going to let him have it.’ And thank God I put it in, because then we got 50 other jokes out of it over the course of four years. Like him yelling ‘Portals!’ when he went through a portal.”

The pun that was simply too beautifully belabored to use

A clever pun is heaven for some, which may explain why the Good Place hosted prime time’s best wordplays. (Food establishments included Beignets and the Jets, Lasagna Come Out Tomorrow, and From Schmear to Eternity.) But during the creation process, some bon mots were just too good for this world, and died nobly on the cutting room floor. Schur punts this question to Good Place writer-producer Megan Amram, who was considered the show’s premiere punmaster. “That one is probably Salmon Bowl Lecter,” says Amram, “because it doesn’t sound that much like Hannibal and it’s also predicated on a thing called a salmon bowl, which is not a super relatable food that is available in every single place. So I feel like it’s a false premise for a pun, but I was very attached to it.” (Her other personal favorites that didn’t make the cut were Willy Lo Mein, We Ciabatta Zoo, and Udon Own Me.)

Did Amram feel pressure to one-up her word game as the seasons and puns piled up? “I hate puns and I don’t think they’re funny, but I do obsessively make them — like, pathologically make them,” she quips. “The reason that I pitched so many puns on this show is inextricably tied to Mike, rather than trying to do a good job at my job. For the amount of puns that he put into the show, his response to me saying them would always be some sort of sigh or angry look on his face. So I really mostly focused on trying to be an agent of chaos in the writers’ room and to elicit an annoyed look from my boss. But there are some other incredible wordplay people in the Good Place writers’ room, and I did feel like when we’d all be pitching on a pun name that there was some pressure on me that I really needed to perform, because that’s kind of all I was bringing to the table.” While that’s not true — she penned seven episodes of the series — check out this smorgasbord of options that Amram did bring to the table.

The most Ted Danson thing that ever happened on the set

It happened when the cameras weren’t rolling, it actually happened several times, and it involved… mariachi. “I don’t know why this summarizes him perfectly, but it does,” says Schur. “So, usually on a set, on Friday, the director or the writer will get a special food truck or a coffee truck to make specialty coffee drinks for the crew. It happens sometimes when there’s late-night shoots too. It’s a little treat to say thank you to the crew for working so hard all week. And in the season 1 finale, he was like, ‘Hey, for lunch today I’m having a mariachi band come.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ [Laughs] And he’s like, ‘Ah, it’s a fun thing. I have a mariachi band come and they play music while the crew eats lunch.’ And I was like, ‘All right, man, you’re Ted Danson, do whatever you want.’ And this mariachi band came — and it was utterly delightful. It was just so fun. The whole crew eats lunch at the giant tables in this cafeteria and there’s a mariachi band playing and it’s so fun and festive. And everyone was like, ‘That was so cool! What in the world inspired you to get a mariachi band?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know. I just started doing it a while ago and I just really love the music and it just seems to make everybody happy.’ So then it became this annual tradition, where at the last crew lunch of every season, he had a mariachi band come, and it became this thing that everybody looked forward to so much.”

Schur also makes note of a different impact that Danson — a champion of environmental issues and an Oceana spokesman — had on the show. “We commissioned an environmental report of our show, and in season 3 we were almost always on location,” he explains. “As a result, we used 30,000 bottles of water. It was heartbreaking to see that number. And Oceana’s main thing is, ‘We’ve got to get rid of plastic in the ocean. We can’t use plastic anymore.’ So we completely revamped our craft services and the way that we served water. We gave everybody these reusable bottles and we went from 30,000 bottles in season 3 to as close to zero is as a group of 150 people working for four months can possibly get. Ted didn’t ask for that. It was just his presence and his work with that cause that made us do the review of how much plastic we were using.”

The most Kristen Bell thing that ever happened on the set

The answer to that lies in the very last episode of the show. “There are several extremely emotional scenes in the finale,” says Schur. “There’s one that’s the most emotional, and she said, ‘I really want to have my kids here for that.’ And I said, ‘Are you sure? It’s going to be a pretty rough day,’ and she’s like, ‘No, that’s why I want them here.’ So her kids came in. We were setting up for this really emotional scene and she was sitting on the set and playing with their kids. I was just at a distance, watching them set up the lights, and then to my right was just Kristen and her kids. There was no one else around and they were just goofing around and being really silly and her daughters are adorable and they were just frolicking. And I was like, ‘Man, I don’t understand how she can do this. If I were an actor and I had to prepare for a scene that’s like this, the last thing in the world I would want is for my kids to be around, distracting me and jumping on me and attacking me.’ And I was like, ‘Well, she knows what she’s doing.’ Then she did the scene, and she was incredible, as she always is. And I was talking to her the next day and saying, ‘I was surprised and delighted to see that’s how you approach that.’ And she said that she found that the more emotional or intense a scene was — as long as it’s not dark; I don’t think she would have done this if it were Deadwood — her method of preparation is to goof around with her kids. And that is the weirdly perfect way to explain what kind of person she is — and what kind of actress she is.”

The feeling you want to leave viewers with when the credits roll on the series finale

Schur prefers to let the finale speak for itself for a while — as he has done after every season finale — but he notes that he wants viewers to feel like their four-season investment in the Good Place was rewarded with a satisfying conclusion, and one rooted in the message of the series. “There’s a theme of this show of hopefulness,” he says. “The show was about four people who were trapped in hell together, and time after time after time, either collectively or individually, they encountered an enormous obstacle and we’re faced with a decision: ‘Do we give up or keep trying?’ And that ultimately became the thing we were arguing for. We were arguing for trying. [As you set out to] achieve ethical or moral perfection in your life, you’re gonna screw up a million times, and when you die, you’ll look back and say, ‘Yeah, I was screwing up until the very end.’ But this show is arguing that that doesn’t mean you don’t try to do the right thing. In fact, that means you try harder. You really have to just hope and believe that it’s worth doing, that it’s worth putting in the work.”

Whether his own points went up or down while working on this show

Funny, that concept is actually something with which he recently wrestled. “I did an event with Will Harper at WBUR in Boston,” says Schur, “and someone asked me a question that I’d never gotten before: ‘Do you think that in creating a TV show where you’re essentially putting a point value on and thus judging people’s ethical behavior, did that judginess cause your point total to go down?’ And that really melted my brain. I had never considered that. I totally think it’s a possibility — in the world where there are points systems. First of all, even daring to guess at the way the universe works is probably a bad idea, morally speaking, but also just the idea that I’m saying what I think or the show thinks is good or bad moral behavior, that’s pretty judge-y. That might mean that if you looked at my points graph over my lifetime, maybe I took a huge hit about four years ago.” He laughs, then adds: “I hope that’s not the case. I hope that the universe sees that I’m merely asking questions and arguing for better answers, and not actually trying to come up with my own.”

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  • TV Show
seasons
  • 4
episodes
  • 53
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  • 09/19/16-01/30/20
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