Get the stories behind 18 minor but memorable Parks and Recreation characters
The Rec-ing Crew
Pawnee, Ind. Depending on the year, it might be the “home of the world-famous Julia Roberts lawsuit” or “the factory fire capital of America.” It's the home of JJ's Diner, Paunch Burger, the dinosaur-themed Jurassic Fork, and, well, a lot more food destinations. But tourists will also find an interesting crop of people beyond overly enthusiastic Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the "lively and colorful" April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), and deadpan Parks Department head Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman).
Viewers spent seven seasons of Parks and Recreation getting to know these kooky characters, but on the 10th anniversary of the show's 2009 premiere, EW turns the spotlight on some of Pawnee's lesser-known but still noteworthy citizens.
Played by Mo Collins
There was no taming self-proclaimed "legendary newswoman" Joan Callamezzo. Even when she passed out drunk on the air, her crew knew better than to turn off the cameras. Similarly, when Mo Collins was on set, Poehler would say, "Mo's here, just let the camera roll."
“One thing that happens when you get Mo Collins on set, I tend to improv,” Collins tells EW. “Until somebody says cut, I keep going.”
Example: The scene where Joan passes out on air in front of Ron, forcing him to answer viewer calls. Director Dean Holland told Collins to keep shifting into a different passed-out position every time Ron took a call. “I got ridiculous with it. I was planking!” Collins remembers. “I was thinking at the time, ‘None of that will be usable.’” Turns out, all of it was.
Joan was initially described in the casting call as “not a very good show host — small-town and just not very skilled,” according to the Mad TV alum. “Look at where Joan landed!” she says. “She’s a pill-poppin’ crazy person.”
Collins formulated Joan by thinking back to her days living in Minnesota, “where you’d catch those crazy cable access shows.” But she never forgot what the casting director was looking for in her first audition. “Even if you watch Joan in all her insanity towards the latter years,” she says, “I would always still try to have that green[ness] somewhere in there.”
Played by Jay Jackson
The subject of this story is a different person, Pawnee television anchor Perd Hapley.
If you’re a fan of Jay Jackson’s take on Pawnee’s newsman, you have writer-producer Alan Yang to thank. “He was the one who is really responsible for Perd Hapley because he wrote all of those crazy lines,” Jackson, who worked as a reporter for a CBS station in Los Angeles before landing the role, tells EW. “It was Alan who took it and ran with it as far as writing and pitching and producing and putting me in episodes. Eventually all the other writers liked to write for Perd.”
Now, Perd is a Parks and Rec staple, with Pawnee TV shows like Ya Heard? With Perd!, The Final Word With Perd, and his movie review program Lights, Camera, Perd! (“It’s a heartwarming story, but it’s just not believable, which is why I give E.T. 1 1/2 stars.”) Jackson remembers, “There was another show that they were going to develop and I don't think it happened. It was called Making It Happen With Perd because we had shot some prop stuff, pictures for cups and stock photos.”
Jackson switched from news reporting to acting after Parks and Rec took off, but he still occasionally helps aspiring TV anchors develop their demo reels. “I was the cameraman for the class, and I would go on those red carpets [with the students],” he says. “All the different other reporters and their camerapeople would come out, ‘Are you shooting something for Parks and Rec? Is this a skit?’” Nope, it's just Jay.
Played by Helen Slayton-Hughes
You'd never know it, but Ethel Beavers, the Pawnee courthouse’s deadpan stenographer, had a number of lovers throughout her life. None were more important than Bill Murray’s Mayor Gunderson.
“I had to give a speech about my ex-lover, but nobody told me who it was and the coffin where I was supposed to kiss my ex-lover was empty,” Helen Slayton-Hughes, who played Ethel, said of the season 7 episode “Two Funerals,” when the producers finally revealed Gunderson’s face.
“So it was just pretend and I thought that was the end of that scene, but a couple of days later they called me and said, ‘We need you very much to come in tomorrow and reshoot that scene.’ I felt terrible because I thought I must've done it very badly. Why would we have to reshoot a whole scene? And then I went in the next day and there was Bill Murray.”
Series creator Mike Schur and his team first tried to fill the role with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who turned it down because he was still serving as governor of California, and they weren’t sure if Murray would be able to do it.
“They explained to me that they couldn't shoot the whole scene until they knew he was available at the last minute. I was thrilled,” Slayton-Hughes says. “And then I got to be hugged by Bill Murray for a long long time.”
It seems Ethel also had a crush on Ron, based on this tidbit the actress offered: “I do remember at one time being kissed by Rob Lowe in between scenes. He got very passionate to be funny and kissed Ethel Beavers twice. Somebody said, 'How did that feel? Did you love that?' I remember saying, 'Oh, I wish it had been Ron Swanson.' It was only a commentary on the fact that Rob Lowe was much too young for me but Ron Swanson, he got a little closer to me in age.”
Played by Patton Oswalt
Garth is the “happy weirdo” of Pawnee, according to Patton Oswalt. He’s the staunch constitutionalist who has a major problem with Leslie Knope’s attempts to change the town charter, even if certain parts happen to be outdated.
To stop her, Garth executes what is now a defining moment for Parks and Recreation: a filibuster. For eight minutes, only a portion of which made it to the air, Garth lays out his idea for a three-franchise mash-up between Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Clash of the Titans.
“It just came out of they didn't yell cut and I just kept going,” Oswalt, a lover of all things geek, says. "It was on the spot, I wasn't thinking about it at all. I was just thinking about the scene. I didn't know that they weren't going to yell cut. So I wasn't thinking of doing an eight-minute monologue.”
Mona Lisa Saperstein
Played by Jenny Slate
With many of the featured guest stars, Joe Mande, a writer and actor on Parks and Rec, explained, “It’s usually through the discussion of, what's the funniest type of personality? And once we nailed that, the discussion became, what actor can portray that character trait the funniest or best?”
An example he gives is Monsa Lisa Saperstein, the sibling of Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) and worst nightmare of Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari).
“We always wanted people who could improvise because we wanted people to play around in the moment,” Mande says. “I had written one of the earlier Rent-A-Swag episodes and we needed a love interest for Tom Haverford. I think for the longest time, the story in the script was that Tom gets into a psychosexual relationship with an older woman who owns the store next door to his and it's like this competitor, but it was hot and heavy with this older woman.
"Then, for whatever reason," he continues, "we couldn't find an actor that made sense for the part and time was ticking. Out of nowhere, it became about, 'What if Jean-Ralphio had a sister?' Very quickly we landed on, ‘Okay, her name is Mona Lisa and she's just like Jean-Ralphio. Who could play that part?' And I threw out the name Jenny Slate and everyone was like, 'Perfect.' I'm friends with her so I texted her myself and asked her if she was available next Monday, perhaps. In my memory, that one [casting] was very frantic and it got down to a couple writers on the show trying to lock down an actor that we're friends with.”
Played by Mara Marini
Mara Marini didn’t get the role of “porn star with a heart of gold” Brandi Maxxxx the “correct” way.
“At the time I did not have great representation — they weren't getting me out at all — and I was like, ‘How do I get in front of people? I don't know what to do,’” Marini says. “You know how the [casting] breakdowns come out every day, and only agents and managers have access to that? What happened was, I was underground paying this actor, who was running this ring of allowing actors to see what's being cast and submit themselves.”
It was during this time she heard about a workshop hosted by Dorian Frankel, Parks and Recreation’s casting director. “I did a scene for her and she's like, 'Oh, you're really funny,' and it happened to be two days later this role comes out,” Marini remembers of the Brandi Maxxxx casting call.
“I submitted myself as the manager, and I made a fake email address and emailed [Frankel],” she adds. “'Oh, you met my client at this workshop, she'd be perfect for this role. You should bring her in.’ And she brought me in and I booked it.”
Marini, a naturally bright and bubbly personality, easily brought that energy to Brandi, the star of more than 200 adult films in her first year as a porn star. After Rob Lowe made a comment on set during the episode “Jerry’s Painting” how similar Marini looked to Poehler, it became a running gag on the show. (“Once again Brandi and Leslie are essentially the same person.”)
“I loved that she was this ever-positive businesswoman who really aligned with and admired Leslie,” Marini says. “For ‘The Debate,’ we kept that going. The writing's so great and lends itself to this well-rounded porn star.”
Played by Andy Forrest
If anyone was picked on more than Jim O’Heir’s Jerry Gergich, it was Kyle. “Jerry was the whipping boy for everyone in the office. Kyle was sort of the whipping boy for Andy Dwyer [Chris Pratt],” says Andy Forrest.
When Forrest first auditioned for the bit role, he notes “one of the original versions” of the script had Kyle as the head of Pawnee’s Department of Water and Power. “But that went away and it was never mentioned again." Instead, Kyle appeared as an attorney who constantly popped up at Andy's shoeshine stand.
“He was the deadpan guy, the understated guy," Forrest says. "Often times he was the observer. ‘What's going on here is kinda weird and I'm going to address it.’”
Like most of these smaller parts, Kyle was meant as a one-off role, for the episode “The Camel,” but the writers decided they needed someone at the shoeshine stand. “After that they started doing all these other bits with Kyle," Forrest says.
“I'm pretty sure the reason I kept coming back was Chris Pratt,” he adds. “Chris Pratt was so giving in his performance. He would do so much and he had such good energy. He helped me out as far as the character of Kyle.”
Played by Jason Schwartzman
Dennis, the kind cinephile behind Pawnee’s local video store, was in danger of losing his business until Leslie stepped in to petition the shop for historical landmark status. The plan backfired when Dennis took Leslie’s advice about giving his customers what they really want and turned the store into a one-stop porn shop.
Mande, who wrote that episode, says, “I know that the first iteration, I believe it was a music store and then we came back and re-read it at a table read and realized, ‘Oh no, it should be video store that turns into a porn thing.’”
Jason Schwartzman’s name came up “immediately” when talk turned to actually casting someone to fill the roll. “It's usually through the story that you start discussing who would be the funniest type of person for comedic effect,” Mande explains. “What's the funniest type of person to end up running a pornographic video store? A well-mannered guy like Dennis Lerpiss.”
Played by Jonathan Joss
There’s a reason Leslie says Ken Hotate, chief of the Wamapoke tribe in Pawnee, “plays white people like a fiddle.”
“When I saw that [line] in type, I said, ‘You know what? That's the perfect description of Ken,’” Jonathan Joss says. The actor wanted to bring someone “funny" and “smart" to the character of Ken, but not someone “cartoony.” “I already had the experience with John Redcorn,” he says of his King of the Hill voice role. “So I wanted to make [Ken] very strong, very aware of who he was and what he had. That’s why he played the white people like a fiddle.”
If you’ve seen the map of Pawnee with all the atrocities committed against the Native Americans over the years, then you know the Wamapoke don’t have the best relationship with everyone else. Joss was impressed with the way Ken was written in that “he was a businessman who was there to better the town.”
“In Hollywood, you don't have a lot of Native people writing for Native characters,” Joss says. "I think the writers developed the character and trusted me enough, because I am a Native person, to step in those shoes and be able to create this three-dimensional character.… He was essentially the best Native character on television.”
Played by Darlene Hunt
Forget One Million Moms, Leslie Knope couldn’t handle this one mom from the Society for Family Stability Foundation. Marcia Langman doesn’t like same-sex penguin weddings, paintings of bare-breasted centaur women, or senior citizen sex eduction.
“One of my best friends, Liz Feldman, who's also a showrunner, she's like, ‘What’s this character?’ and I was like, ’An uptight right-wing homophobe,’” actress Darlene Hunt, who also created The Big C, says of getting the role. "She was like, ‘You’re gonna book that.’ Obviously a joke, but she knew that was in my wheelhouse.”
Hunt considers “Pawnee Zoo,” the season 2 episode where Marcia called for Leslie to annul that same-sex penguin wedding she accidentally officiated, “a pretty defining moment” for the character. “I think there's a tiny part of me deep inside that's just a Type A rule follower,” she says. “So whenever I have to play something like that, I can tap into that piece of me — but that might be where the comparison stops.”
By the time the show’s writers gave Marcia a husband, Marshall Landgman, played by Todd Sherry, Hunt felt the part was more “dimensionalized.”
“It’s just comedians coming to play,” she said of the environment. “I just had fun working with Todd. I had a moment where I was like, ‘Wait a minute, is Todd gonna get more laughs than I am?’ And then we just had a bang-up time. It was just so fun to have a buddy and expand that character.”
Played by Eric Isenhower
“A really weird character, really strange, not a vampire.” That’s what Eric Isenhower remembers reading of Orin heading into the audition for Parks and Recreation, but the producers gave him the key to unlocking the enigma that is April Ludgate’s BFF and a macabre performance art enthusiast.
“The most interesting thing to me was they said he might talk a little bit like John Malkovich,” the actor recalls. “So I looked into that and John Malkovich has a light, soft voice and delivers this sing-songy [rhythm]. That clued me into this guy being very weird and a bit detached — sort of in this world but not of this world.”
That’s very much Orin, the guy determined to inflict existential crises on everyone around him.
“He speaks very little and when he does it's pretty cryptic, but for the audition, it was actually a pretty sizable amount of dialogue,” Isenhower says. “They wrote up a whole interaction between Orin and Tom and they said, 'He's never gonna talk this much, but we have to make sure that you really understand the essence of this guy.' … Basically, I overheard Tom crying in the bathroom and I was cornering him about his weaknesses and the meaninglessness of life and making him come face to face with his despair. And, of course, he eventually makes his escape from me. Typical Orin.”
Brett and Harris
Played by Colton Dunn and Harris Whittles
If two aspiring stoners watched Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and thought, “They’ve got it figured out, I’m gonna live my life like them,” that would be Brett and Harris, the two dunces who ran Pawnee’s Animal Control Department… until Chris Traeger [Rob Lowe] fired them after stepping on a loose bear trap.
The late Harris Whittles, a writer on Parks and Rec, played Harris, while Colton Dunn played Brett. But Dunn “always wondered if the part was originally written for [comedian] Brett Gelman,” given the character’s name.
Brett was described as an animal control officer who “was scared to touch the animal,” but Dunn says he and Whittles helped evolve the roles. “If you watch that episode, ‘The Possum,’ Brett is a dumb guy and by the end of the episode he becomes a stoner dumb guy — a little bit more flavor to him."
The actor remembers shooting extra material where Brett and Harris are in a Shark Tank scenario: “People are coming in and selling different products, and Harris and I come in and try to sell them on brooms, like this totally new product that we developed.
“I try to put myself in the mainframe of my early 20s and just applied that to Brett,” Dunn says. “He’s a super-stoned guy who wants to have fun but doesn't quite get it.”
Mel (a.k.a. the Red-Faced Man)
Played by Mel Cowan
Leslie can always count on Mel to be worked up about something, though often times it’s as simple as 5-year-old softball players “who suck.”
“It's not me yelling at them, it’s me going to a meeting still being mad complaining about how bad those softball players were,” says actor Mel Cown.
The character was credited as simply “The Red-Faced Man” until Poehler addressed Cowan by his first name during an improvised bit in the “Smallest Park” episode.
“They gave you five or six potential bits to come in and audition with and one of them was an over-the-top screaming guy, the Red-Faced Man,” Cowan recalls. “Apparently, I yelled better than everybody else. I guess that was enough. I didn't get the other [town hall parts], which were far more normal. I guess it counts as anger-management therapy.”
His first episode, involving a rant about hand dryers, set the tone for his future appearances on Parks and Rec. As an improv comic with the Upright Citizens Brigade, a group cofounded by Poehler, Cowan “took a swing” and started with an ad lib. “I did my bit, threw out one extra thing, and then Amy improvised back.… It just spiraled from there.”
Cowan quivers to think about what Mel’s Twitter account might look like. “My instincts are that he would be apolitical,” he thinks. “He would be so focused on the small things, like hand dryers and intramural children's softball games, complaining about the pH level in water fountains and just, all caps, THE BENCHES AT THE PARKS ARE TOO HARD!”
Played by Mike Scully
Schur had the idea to take Mike Scully, a writer and producer on the show, and actually give him a part to play as one of the annoying Pawnee residents complaining at a town hall meeting.
“I had never done any on-camera stuff before,” Scully says. "They sent me the scene and I noticed my character's name was Pearl, which I thought was a little odd. Then I realized that they wrote the part to be female and then Mike decided to ask me to do it, but also thought it was funny to not change the character's name.”
Pearl first appears in a town hall meeting about the fence Eagleton built to keep out Pawnee residents. The nerves Scully brought to his few lines about building a second fence around the first one were genuine.
“I do remember the first time I did it, I did my lines as scripted and then on the second take I said my line and Amy threw back a ‘Why?’” he recalls. "So I had to keep talking. I got so panicky I immediately retreated into a bad Johnny Carson impression.”
Played by Joe Mande
Mande got his chance to actually appear on the show, largely thanks to his thoughts on the internet. “Mike [Schur] and [writer-producer] Dan Goor both thought it was funny how upset I would get about just basic etiquette on the internet,” Mande says. “I was getting real worked up about social media. I think it became clear to Mike that if and when we needed a character to be the voice of the internet, a version of me would portray that part.”
The time came in season 5 when his character, Morris, confronted Donna [played by Retta] about her tweets on the Blood Lake movies. The actual scenario that inspired this scene is just as funny.
"I was complaining that [Retta] was doing this thing on Twitter where she was binge-watching True Blood or something and then live-tweeting it,” Mande says. “I was in the room saying like, 'No one could possibly be following this schedule. Everything's out of context.' Literally that rant that was going on in the room we put in the show with Morris criticizing Blood Lake and Donna's response was probably Retta's response.”
By season 6, Morris became part of the legacy of the Lerpisses, a family Schur quietly sprinkled throughout the show. Herman Lerpiss (a tattooed pawn shop owner), Bjorn Lerpiss (one of Paunch Burger’s best customers), and Dennis Lerpiss (Schwartzman’s video shop owner) are some of the more prominent members of that hidden dynasty.
“I thought my character added a new dimension to the Lerpiss family,” Mande says of Morris, who showed up as a roller rink worker terrified of his teenage boss. “There were times where things were slow where we would list everyone off and try to guess the shape of a family tree. There seemed to be some implication that there was some dark incestuous thing going on in Pawnee that we never wanted to fully address.… Looking back, I'm sure you can make a bunch of connections of Lerpisses.”
Played by Sarah Van Horn
Not much is known about Gretel beyond the fact that she showed up to a Sweetums town hall meeting one day and shared how she feels terrible after eating lasagna and muffins every day of her life. This small-town craziness came easily to Sarah Van Horn.
“I’m from Texas and my father was part of the company that put the lines under the rivers for the natural gas, so we moved every six months when I was a child,” she recalls. “I think I modeled [Gretel] off of my own stubbornness and the small-town people that I grew up with when we moved from town to town, and they were absolutely opinionated. A lot of their opinions were ludicrous, but they would not see anything accept what they think is true. I think that's still going on a bit in America.”
Gretel would pop in and out over the seasons of Parks and Rec to add more complaints to the docket. Her most memorable was a visit to Ron, sitting in a Chris Traeger swivel chair, to say: “There’s a sign in Ramsett Park that says ‘Do Not Drink the Sprinkler Water,’ so I made sun tea with it and now I have an infection.”
"They gave me only the first line and let me improvise the entire rest of the scene,” Horn recalls. “It was more me than [the writers]. I just thought, 'Well, I can get some of my jogging over with.' And so I just started jogging around.… I did one short [take] and I did the line about getting an infection. I did that a couple of times and then somebody said, 'Maybe if he makes the [chair] go around, you can try to follow ’em.’ They said, 'Just improvise it.' I did that in one take, and they kept it.”
Played by Paul Rudd
Bobby Newport is as wealthy as he is clueless. Heir to the Sweetums fortune, he ran for the city council seat against Leslie and nearly won the election, despite his raging incompetence and inability to string together intelligible statements. For a character so crucial to the fourth season, the producers cast Paul Rudd in the role.
“Paul Rudd was so hysterical,” Marini, who played off him in the episode “The Debate,” recalls. “Every single take, he'd run into the podium, he'd do all these hilarious physical things.”
Scully, who was on set for the Emmy-winning episode, recalls stepping on stage in between takes to give Rudd a new joke for the next shot. “On his podium he had a yellow legal pad, and I noticed on it there was a drawing of giant women's breasts and the Van Halen logo,” the writer says. “I saw it and I cracked up and I asked him what it was. He said, ‘’Cause I think this is what this guy would be thinking while he's doing a political debate.’ So it was a fun peek at an actor's process.”
Played by Jeffrey Markle
Chance Frenlm is always trying to rile up a crowd with chants of “Ham and mayonnaise!,” “Except for Turnip!,” and, a personal favorite of actor Jeffrey Markle, “Her daughter is an idiot!”
“That one still makes me laugh,” Markle says.
Chance made his first appearance in the “Sweetums” episode of season 2 to make the argument that corn is a fruit and syrup comes from a bush, so corn syrup is therefore healthy for you. From there, he quickly became known as the chanting guy.
Markle remembers, “They’d give us the script, which had my one line on it, and we'd do a couple takes and then one of the writers, they said, 'Hey, say this line too.’ That was the line about I think we should all eat ham-and-mayonnaise sandwiches.”
For context, Chance's ham-and-mayonnaise suggestion came as an alternative to Sweetums taking over the snacks in the town parks.
“The director thought that was so funny,” Markle continues. “We did another take. He said, 'Now get the audience behind you.' And so that was the whole thing with me starting to chant.”
“The third season is when my agent called and said, ‘You have a name, now but I think you're Swedish,’” Markle says. “They came up with the name Chance because of the chanting. The last name was Frenlm. I have no idea where that came from.”