"What was abundantly clear based on this experience is that the bat signal can go up for this group of people and they will answer the call," says Schur of the special, which raises money for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

By Dan Snierson
May 01, 2020 at 01:24 PM EDT
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“But when is this group of people ever going to be all together again? That’s all I want. All of these people, in the same place, at the same time.”

So spoke Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) to husband Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) in “One Last Ride,” Parks and Recreation’s stellar series finale, as the gang readied for new adventures that would take them in different directions. Near the end of the revered local-government comedy’s final episode, way back in 2015, Ben delivered to Leslie her dream scenario at Pawnee City Hall: “Everyone in the same room, at the same time.”

Five years later, Parks and Recreation re-granted that wish — and this time, everyone was in the same Zoom, at the same time. (Technically, they were in the same Gryzzl, but we couldn’t pass up the rhyme.) Co-creator/showrunner Mike Schur reconvened the show’s writers and penned a heartening half-hour special that reunited the entire cast via video — in character! — for, well, let's call it one more ride. The cause for this new scripted adventure was more than just: “A Parks and Recreation Special” is designed to raise money for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund, which aids food banks across the nation. You can donate right here through May 21, and $500,000 in matching donations will be made by State Farm, Subaru of America, NBCUniversal, and the Parks team. (As of Friday afternoon, the special has already raised $2.8 million.)

For 30 minutes, in the middle of an unrelenting, unnerving quarantine, viewers caught up with Leslie & Co. in 2020 — a year that wasn’t explored in the finale’s flash-forwards. Department of the Interior deputy director Leslie Knope was keeping busy in her office during the park closures, running a phone tree to check in on her sheltering-at-home friends. Congressman Ben was homeschooling their triplets and formulating an idea for a Cones of Dunshire claymation movie. Longtime social distancer Ron (Nick Offerman) was holed up at his cabin, producing way too much venison jerky and fending off Tammy 2 (Megan Mullally). April (Aubrey Plaza) played a sartorial grab-bag game while husband Andy (Chris Pratt) tried to figure out how to Burt Macklin himself out of their locked shed. Ann (Rashida Jones) had been doing outpatient care as a nurse, and Chris (Rob Lowe) was doing his part by donating blood four times a week. Tom (Aziz Ansari) cycled through flawed quarantine business ideas (protective masks with other people’s teeth printed on it). The ever-charitable Donna (Retta) bought Joe (Keegan Michael-Key) a Mercedes that matched hers. And the man with whom no one wanted to connect — Pawnee Mayor Jerry/Garry (Jim O’Heir) — found new self-defeat in biffing his video-chat settings.

Plenty of other Pawnee players popped up: Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) opened the special (and hadn't heard about the pandemic); Ben and Leslie appeared on At Home with Joan with Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins) and her frightening doll friends, as well as Ya Heard with Perd with Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson). And during those shows' commercial breaks, Dennis Feinstein (Jason Mantzoukas) pitched a Miracle Cure scent (“the cologne proven to kill anything it comes in contact with”), Jeremy Jamm (Jon Glaser) promoted a chilling self-dentistry service, and Porsche-damaged Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) hawked his 930-1-Ralphio line.

After an anti-pep talk to younger audiences by Andy’s Johnny Karate (which ended when he “pulled something in [his] butthole"), things went full-heartfelt as Leslie received that present she always wants: complete connection. In the special's loveliest moment, the gang sang along as Andy performed the Lil’ Sebastian tribute anthem, “5,000 Candles in the Wind.” Ron then offered up sturdy advice to the indefatigable Leslie, who served as his more-than-workplace proximity acquaintance for seven seasons: “Don’t spend all your time looking after other people — look after yourself once in a while.” “That’s good advice. I’ll call you tomorrow," responded Leslie. "I'm sure you will," returned Ron.

While you wait for the phone to ring from the Leslie, Ron, Ben, Tom, Donna, April, Andy, Chris, Ann, Garry, or [shudders] Jamm in your life, let's Zoom in Parks overlord Mike Schur, who'll take you behind the scenes of this winning special. Spread your wings and fly into the Q&A below.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Parks and Rec ended in 2015, did you ever think, "The only way we’ll ever do a reunion special is if we need to raise money for charity during a global pandemic?"

MIKE SCHUR: That was our first thought. We said, “Obviously, if there’s a global pandemic, we'll get back together. But other than that, forget it.” I really honestly didn't ever think it was going to happen. Even as the reboot craze and the reunion craze struck and those things were floating around in the ether, I still was like, “I don't think so. I don't see why.” Amy and I and the whole crew had the same feeling, which was: That show had a very specific point to make and we felt like we made the point and then we ended the show and we moved on. I always felt like if there wasn't a really compelling reason, there'd be no point in just getting back together just to get back together — as fun as it wasn't as much as we all loved each other.

But when this thing happened, it was kind of a different story. Because now you're thinking with a different calculator and you're thinking to yourself, “Well, there are a tremendous number of people who need help, and there's a tremendous amount of potential energy in the idea of this group of people getting back together. And if you could combine those two things and use the ‘one-time reunion’ as a way to be noisy and to try to get people happy for half an hour and maybe to throw 25 bucks at a website — that’s something worth doing. If we could pull it off, it would be worth it.” So the joy of making this project and this little special is that I had this whole argument of why we should do it prepared, and I never had to make the argument because the second that I suggested it to everybody, they all said yes! [Laughs] So it came together very quickly.

When NBC approached you about organizing a script read of an episode, you suggested a scripted in-character special instead. It’s more thrilling for fans this way, of course, but did the idea of re-opening the story and trying to capture the old magic come with butterflies?

Oh, god, yes! I think I would have more butterflies if we were doing it for no reason. The fact that we did it as a special and we're doing it for charity takes a lot of the creative pressure off it because the point of it isn't, “Let's try to do something that's going to make people so invested in it, and it'll get such a high rating that we’ll get picked up for another season.” It's purely and simply a way to try to make a half-hour of happy entertainment that makes people feel warm and fuzzy during a time of not a lot of warm and fuzziness.

The objective of a TV show normally is one thing, and the objective of this is very different. But even given that, I really want people to enjoy it. I don't want it to simply be a novelty or anything like that. I hope we made something that does really remind people of the show and makes them happy in the way that the show used to make them happy — if in fact the show did make them happy. [Laughs] If they weren’t fans of it, they won’t suddenly start liking it now.

Was it fairly easy to get back into the groove of writing these characters for this special?

It wasn't that hard, in part because one of the first things I did after the cast said that they would do it is I emailed the six writers who worked on it with me, who were six people who were very much involved with the show for a long period of time. Because I knew very clearly that this was not something I could do myself. Much like the show always was, it needed to be a giant collaborative team effort. So once Megan [Amram] and Joe [Mande] and Jen [Statsky] and Aisha [Muharrar] and Dave [King], and Matt [Murray] all signed on, I relaxed a lot because I knew that it was (a) possible and (b) would go a lot more smoothly.

We didn't have a lot of time at all to do it. We conceived of and wrote the script very quickly as a group over about three-and-a-half days. If I had been doing it alone, I would've had a panic attack. But knowing I had six excellent writers who were very familiar with the show working on it with me, that helped me relax a lot. In fact, Aisha, who was on the show almost the entire time, when I asked her to do it, she said, “Sure!” and then that night she emailed a giant chunk of dialogue. She was like, “I was just thinking about it and I wrote this.” And I was like, “Oh, this is amazing! It's already happening! People are writing things!” The difference between it happening and not happening is people like Aisha Muharrar who just cared about the show and thought it sounded fun to write to those characters again.

Leslie — someone who preaches teamwork, hard work, connection, and public service — is the first person you'd want on your side during times like these. She would have 30 binders prepared just for the pandemic. This show's characters seem primed to tackle this topic. Did that feel like a value-added advantage for you, that the pulling-together ethos and heart of the show lined up with the special that you aimed to create?

Yeah. The No. 1 reason to write something new instead of doing a table read of an old episode was if the cast is going to get together — I felt like we owed it to them to write something new instead of just going over territory we had already gone over, which seemed like kind of a waste. But the other reason to do it is because the themes of the world right now are very much in line with the themes of the show. Leslie was a person who believed wholeheartedly in the power of interpersonal connection and in the power of structures to provide comfort and service in times of crisis. She believed in helping people and she believed in keeping her friends together, and she believed in fighting through Ron Swanson's grumpiness to try to remind him that she cares about him and that they're friends.

It was very easy to line up the kind of subject matter of the day with the characters on the show. And then there were all these weird things, like Ann was a nurse. Well, that's pretty relevant! Ron talks all the time about how much he likes to be alone, and that's kind of relevant. While we were writing it, you'd see an article, “Should the national parks reopen?” And I was like, “Well, that’s what Leslie would be fighting for, right?” There's a weird sort of kismet about the fact that it was a show about local government, and every story in every newspaper right now is about the role of local government in people's lives and the decisions they're making. So it all lined up in some weird way. If the show had been about a bunch of people who worked on an oil derrick or something, I don't know that it would have been such a no-brainer to do another episode [laughs], but their jobs and the worldview of the show and the themes of the show were obviously very relevant to what's going on.

You mentioned that while this special is canon, you didn’t reverse-engineer any Easter eggs that point toward the finale. How much time over those few days of writing did you spend charting courses for these characters that specifically lined up with the flash-forward bursts in the finale, just to make sure that the logic tracked?

We did have to do a fair amount of that, just first to remember where the hell everybody would’ve been in 2020 and what their jobs were. Then there were a couple little aspects of the timeline that we just kind of fudged a little bit. I'm not sure Tom Haverford would have exactly been about to go on this book tour at this moment or not. It’s a little hard to tell because it wasn't a 100-percent clear in the timeline of the show as it was explained to the audience exactly when he wrote that book and when his book tour would have been. But generally speaking, Ben's a Congressman and Leslie's working at national parks in the Department of Interior, and Ann and Chris are in Michigan, and April and Andy are in Washington. We were able to try to figure out where everyone would be and we didn't want to just blow everything up that we had done in the finale. We wanted this to be considered canon in the world of the show — to whatever extent that matters.

It matters! What was the biggest creative challenge in bringing this story to life? Explaining why the couples weren’t together in quarantine would seem to be one. On the other hand, real life created an advantage for you when it came to Nick and Megan.

That was the fun part. We were like, “Well, what do we have?” Remember in The Princess Bride when Westley wakes up and he says, “What are our assets and what are our liabilities?” That's basically what we did. We were like, “Well, what are our liabilities? Those are clear. None of these people can be in the same place at the same time. They have to all shoot from home. We can't be with them when they're shooting. They have to do their own hair and makeup and lighting and directing and camera-operating and everything else. Those are some pretty goddamn significant liabilities when it comes to making it an episode of television.” And then we were like, “Well, what are our assets?” And there aren’t many, but one of them was, “Well, Nick and Megan live together!” [Laughs] So we can use that.

A big thing that we were trying to accomplish was to not make it just seem like a Zoom call because everything looks like a Zoom call right now; every reality show and every news show and everything is just the same exact thing. It's people in their own houses sitting at their own desks, looking directly into a computer. Obviously, a gigantic chunk of this was going to have to be the same thing, but wherever we could — I don't remember who actually pitched the fake commercials idea, but that was very much from the world of the show. And it was like, “Oh, that's perfect! Because that's how we get Jon Glaser! And that's how we get Ben Schwartz. And that's how we get Jason Mantzoukas.” That came on the heels of having the idea to have Leslie and Ben be doing a little media blitz, and that's what allowed us to get Perd Hapley and Joan Callamezzo. So we just kept thinking, "What are our assets, if any?" And we made use of as many of them as we could.

What was the biggest hurdle on the production side? It must have been a difficult task to coordinate all this footage, and you must have had to send a lot of iPhones out into the world.

Yeah, it was intense. The majority of the credit goes to [executive producer] Morgan Sackett, who directed it and also produced it. He was on that part of it from the beginning. He was like, “There's only one way to do this. We make these little rigs. There’s a little tripod with an iPhone mounted in it, and we load in this app that allows people to shoot at the right frame rate. And there's a little lighting rig and the light is attached to it so that they don't look terrible and they're not backlit from the window.” And he just arranged to get those rigs into the hands of all of the actors after having been properly wiped down and de-virusified for safety. Morgan and a couple other people who used to work on the show just drove all over the city of Los Angeles, delivering these things. Aziz is in England, so we FedExed him one.

Paul Rudd was a very late addition to the show. Originally we shot Amy and Nick doing that intro where they explained that this is a fundraiser. And it was lovely and great, but the problem was that it was kind of a bummer to see, “Hi, I'm Amy Poehler.” “Hi, I'm Nick Offerman.” And then you dip to black and you come up and they're there again, but they're playing characters instead of themselves. So we were like, “Well, who else could we get that would be really fun to see?,” and very quickly thought of Paul — and very quickly shot him the joke that he just has no idea what's going on. [Laughs]

We texted him and said like, “Hey, would you be up for this?” And he said, Sure!” But he's on the East Coast, he's not here. So we were like, “Okay, we only have a day to do this, so we can FedEx you this rig and then you would get it tomorrow.” And he's like, “I have an iPhone! I have a little microphone. Let me just do it and see if it's okay.” I wrote a script for him, I emailed it to him, and then an hour later, he was like, “Here!” He had just done it. And it was incredible. So, the logistics were bananas, but also this group of people is so chill and so game for anything and so happy to do stuff like this that it ended up being about as smooth as it could possibly have been.

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Parks has one of the deepest, richest, and funniest rosters of tertiary characters milling about Pawnee, reminiscent of Springfield and The Simpsons. How did you go about deciding who could fit into the special? And did any scheduling issues prevent you from getting someone you wanted?

A lot of it was like, “Look, we're doing a COVID-19 episode.” So that means there is only a certain amount of deeply insane people that you can have. We really wanted Mantzoukas (as Dennis Feinstein) because we came up with the joke that he invented a cologne that he was advertising as a virus-killing cologne. That, by the way, was written two weeks before the president had made that suggestion—

That was my next question! Given the timing on when this was filmed, I wondered if it was just one of those weird Parks-predicts-the-future jokes.

It was absolutely that. I mean, we wrote it because even at the time, it was more a reference to hydroxychloroquine, where it was like, “We have a new drug! Great! Everyone take this drug!” And then doctors being like, “Well, shouldn't we maybe just check out what happens when you take it?” And people are going, “No, no, no! It's great! Take it! Everyone eat this drug!” That's what that was in reference to. But it's obviously a much more direct analog to “inject bleach into your lungs.” So that was wild.

We knew we wanted Mantzoukas. We really wanted Mo Collins and Jay Jackson because we had that whole media thing. There were other people that we talked about potentially, but we basically only reached out to the people who were in it because those were the first people that we thought fit. And at the end of the day, there's 50 other people that I wish could have been in it. I wish we'd had an idea for Billy Eichner [a.k.a. Crag Middlebrooks] and Henry Winkler [Dr. Sapperstein] and so many other people who are a part of the show. It’s already three-and-a-half minutes longer than the average episode was, so there were only so many people we could wedge in there.

The Pawny Popsicle Lick-N-Pass being canceled is a glorious wink at the bizarro water-fountain-sucking ways of this town and its questionable hygiene. I am curious about all the pitches for that joke. Did you have a great run of alts to choose from?

No, honestly, there were none. And part of the reason there were none is because our original idea was that they would say, “How is Pawnee doing?” And then Jerry/Garry/Larry would say, “Not so great. Um, as you may remember, people in Pawnee don't have the best hygiene habits.” And then we were just going to slice in that actual scene from that episode as just a little reminder of how hard it would be to be the mayor of a town during a global viral pandemic when that's how people treat water fountains. So that's how we wrote it originally. But then it was like, “We've seen that already. That's not an interesting or surprising, so we ought to write a new joke.” And someone immediately pitched the Pawnee Popsicle Lick-N-Pass, and it was like, “Yep, that's it! Let’s not question it. Just keep going.” [Laughs]

The special’s most emotional and joyous moment is when the whole gang sings “5,000 Candles in the Wind.” You got files from each actor singing the song. Who sang it best?

They all had to sing it individually, and then our editor, Matt Freund, had to make it all line up, which was a heroic feat. Some of them had earpieces and were listening to the track to give them a sense of timing. And then others were doing it by memory or would listen to the track just to feel it for a second and then hit record and then record themselves singing it.

Rashida and Retta have the best voices in the cast, I would say. At various times they’ve both been professional singers, so it stands to reason. Amy's voice is great. She doesn't think of herself as a singer, but I think her voice is lovely. Pratt’s incredibly good at faking a rockstar voice, you know? He embodies a rock star. I feel like there's A Star is Born-type movie in his future because I don't think he has any vocal training at all, but he just understands how to sing somehow or how to like act like a singer. That’s really him singing and he sounded really good. He sounds gravelly and smoky and cool. They're all good. They're all super talented. When people are deeply talented, you can ask them to do anything and they'll just be able to do it. I feel like if I took three oranges and just threw them at Aubrey Plaza and said, “Juggle these,” she would just start juggling.

I'd like to see that. Did you realize early on in the process that this would be the crowd-pleasing moment to end on, giving the special a feel-good, we’re-all-in-this-together uplift?

That was exactly it. We also thought, there's not a huge story in the episode. But what story there is is just Leslie’s frustration at not feeling connected to her giant group of friends because she can't see them and she can talk to them, but only one at a time. And everything's herky-jerky and you're constantly getting pulled away. So the natural conclusion for that story is that everybody gets together, and once they all get together, that just seemed like the right thing for them to do. I think I was inspired a little bit by some other things I've seen in the last six weeks. The thing that John Krasinski did on his Some Good News Show with having the whole cast of Hamilton sing that song to that girl. It's more fun to do something like share in a song together than it is to just all be on a screen yelling at each other, cross-talking and stuff. That was a thing that we had very early in the writing stage — at the end, they all get together, they all sing the song.

What's the one joke that pained you to cut from the special?

We had a joke that Jamm was bragging about how much money he had made because right before everything went sideways, he sold his Porsche. And then right after that comes Jean-Ralphio’s ad and he says that he got hit by a Porsche. So it was utterly irrelevant, but it was always really fun to me to Jamm sold this Porsche and somehow that's the guy that hit Jean-Ralphio. [Laughs] Just a complete coincidence. When we watched it, it seemed like, “Is this misleading or is this confusing somehow? Do you think that Jamm hit him?” It didn't quite work, because it was a nonsense joke. It didn't mean anything and it wasn’t actually a part of any story, but it was just a funny thing that Matt Murray pitched, that Jamm should have just sold the Porsche that hit Jean-Ralphio. So Jamm made money by selling his Porsche and then Jean-Ralphio got money from being hit by the Porsche that was sold.

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What do you think it would've been like to continue writing Parks through this very ugly political landscape and right into where we are today? The show was always such a force of hopefulness and  believing in the power of government and community for good...

It's not like the political landscape wasn’t ugly from 2008 to 2015. It was more traditionally ugly than it is now. Now it's a whole new kind of ugly. But part of the point of the show is that the experience of working in government is you get it from all sides. You get it from people who work within the government and want to destroy it. You get it from people who work within the government and are corrupt and they're cheating people out of resources and everything else. And you get it from citizens who were displeased with you for one reason, and citizens who were displeased with you for the entirely opposite reason. The point of the show was that the only answer was to put your head down and do your job and try to make people's lives better. So I don't know what it would have been like. I don't think it would have been very fun, honestly. If Parks and Rec was the right show for the era in which it was born and then played out, that probably means it would not be the right show for this time. Because it is a very different time. It's still ugly — it’s just ugly in a very different way than it used to be.

Barring another pandemic, can you say that this special was the last time we'll see these actors as these characters, reading words that you wrote?

[Laughs] Well, I guess I'll say what I said last time, which was: I'll never say never. Again, I really didn't think it was ever going to happen. But also suddenly it became a fun and neat thing to do. I have no idea. What was delightful and abundantly clear based on this experience is that the bat signal can go up for this group of people and they will answer the call. So, if there is another compelling reason to do this at some point down the road, then maybe it'll happen again.

Speaking of charity, you're also growing your Mose beard and pledging to wear this Jeter jersey to raise money for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. [Schur matched all donations up to $50,000.]

I am.

What adjectives would you use to describe the state of the beard at this very moment, and is “mangy” one of them?

“Mangy” is up there. “Patchy,” “awful,” “misery-creating.” “Sleep- depriving.” I find it hard to sleep because it itches so much. “Unattractive, “unappealing,” ummm, “marriage-threatening.” And “gross.” And “Brillo pad-dy.” And “virus-grabbing.” [Laughs] “Matted” would be one. “Food-catching.” And “slimy.” And “damp.” And “unpleasant.”

Wow, that was amazing. By the way, how's the Good Place reunion special coming along?

It's almost done. It’s just Derek [Mantzoukas] and Mindy St. Claire [Maribeth Monroe], in what amounts to their own self-quarantine in the Medium Place — for eternity. [Laughs]

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