Talking to Mike Schur About ‘Parks and Recreation’ and His New Show ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’
With the premiere of his new Fox show Brooklyn Nine-Nine set for the fall, Parks and Recreation showrunner and co-creator Mike Schur is poised to become one of the rare comedy writers with two shows on the air at once. Schur co-created Brooklyn Nine-Nine, an ensemble cop comedy that stars Andy Samberg, with his fellow Parks and Rec writer/producer Dan Goor, and it’s one of the most eagerly awaited new comedies of the fall season. I recently had the chance to talk to Schur about where the next season of Parks is headed, how Brooklyn Nine-Nine came together, and his comedy beginnings producing SNL‘s Weekend Update for Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey.
Congratulations on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Thank you very much. Very exciting.
Was this the second pilot you’ve ever sold?
I guess technically, yes it is. It’s not quite accurate to say that we sold the pilot for Parks and Rec because the way it happened was [NBC exec] Ben Silverman approached [The Office showrunner] Greg Daniels about doing another show and he said, “Do whatever you want and we’ll just put it on the air and give you a season.” We didn’t have to pitch it or anything. It was a really rare situation where because of the success of The Office and because of Greg Daniels’s stature, he was just officially given another show. We didn’t technically sell the pilot in the traditional sense, but it is the second pilot that I’ve written and been associated with.
Where’d the idea for the show come from?
In much the same way that Greg asked me to work on Parks and Rec with him, there’s been this guy Dan Goor who’s been the #2 guy on Parks and Rec since the beginning, and we wanted to do a show together. We started thinking of ideas and different areas and came up with a bunch of them. We just realized that there hadn’t been a network cop comedy show in a really long time, like Barney Miller long, and it just seemed like a fun world to set a comedy in. There’s been so, so, so, so many police dramas in the last 20 years. It’s not exactly police, but all of the CSI and the NCIS‘s of the world mixed with the Law & Orders of the world mixed with NYPD Blue and everything. There’s been like 20 straight years of really gritty, intense cop dramas or law enforcement dramas and there hasn’t been a [cop] comedy in a really long time. As soon as we realized that and we started talking about it, it seemed like a good idea so we just followed it.
There were a bunch of pilots for cop comedies in development this year. Did that scare you that a lot of people wanted to do this kind of show at the same time?
Not really. I was only vaguely aware of that. There’s so many channels doing so much programming now year-round that if you worry about your pilot being in a similar world as other pilots, then you’re just kind of dead. There’s 70 family shows and 45 shows set in the ’90s or ’80s and there’s 172 medical dramas. All of these things are about execution. I don’t think it really matters what the setting of your show is or whether there’s other shows that have the same setting or anything, it’s just about how you execute it, so we just focused on that … There’s two shows on the air about fairy tales. There’s nothing you can do to get away from other shows set in similar places, so it’s something you shouldn’t worry about, I think.
Can you tell me a little about the cast you assembled for the show?
Yeah, it’s awesome. Andre Braugher plays the new captain of Andy Samberg’s precinct, which is a super huge thrill for me because I was a huge Homicide fan and Frank Pembleton was very important to me as a young adult. I loved that show, and I loved that character in particular. The part is written as the guy who whips Samberg into shape a little bit, and he seemed like the exact right man for the job. What’s great about him is he has an enormous amount of gravitas. The word “gravitas” leaps out of people’s mouths when they talk about Andre Braugher, like everyone always uses the word “gravitas.” But what’s great about him – and I think he showed it in Men of a Certain Age, which is another great show – he has a very light comedic touch, which is a very difficult thing to pull off. To be that serious and kind of weighty and great at acting but also be deft at comedy is a very rare combination, so he was a real coup for us.
Very early on, we met with Terry Crews and really designed his part for him. The part didn’t really exist until we met Terry, and then we just crafted a part for him of a guy who looks like a superhero and is very gun shy, literally. In the pilot, he was a super tough cop, and then he had twin baby girls and now he’s so afraid of getting hurt or something bad happening to him that he just is afraid to even go out on the street. So, it’s like a reversal. He’s a gigantic musclebound guy who is terrified about getting hurt. And then, Joe Lo Truglio is an actor we just loved, and he’s been in a lot of great comedy stuff. He was a guy that we pegged early on as a possibility for the show just ’cause he looks like a police officer but he’s just one of the funniest dudes you’ll ever meet.
And then the ladies, Chelsea Peretti was a writer on Parks and Rec and a great stand-up, and we designed her part for her, as well. We wanted one part in the pilot to be a civilian. The reality of police precincts in New York is there’s a lot of civilians who work in them as administrators and office managers. So, we wanted there to be one person who fit that bill, and Chelsea is the perfect person to just be in the police business and constantly gossiping. This isn’t really in the pilot [but] her character’s greatest dream is to become a Brooklyn Nets dancer. That comes right from Chelsea’s real life love of dancing and being insane. The other two ladies are pretty new to the scene. There’s a woman named Stephanie Beatriz. The part called for a very capable and intimidating, hard-to-read woman whose complete stoney-facedness has captured Joe Lo Truglio’s interest. She just came in and blew the audition wide open. It was one of the most obvious casting choices that you could ever have to make. She was so great. And then, Melissa Fumero is sort of Andy’s love interest counterpart. She was like a soap opera actress, and she kind of came out of nowhere and did an awesome audition.
Have you started assembling the writing staff for the show yet?
Yeah, we’ve just now started. It’s such a weird process because everybody writes all their pilots and they’re all picked up within 72 hours of each other, and then, the entire town scrambles to hire the same writers. So, it’s a little dicey, and there’s thousands of meetings and phone calls and negotiations and you have to kind of grab people when you can, but we were really aggressive in going after the people who we wanted to go after and we’ve gotten a lot of them and it’s really exciting. There’s a couple writers from Happy Endings who we snagged. There’s a guy from 30 Rock. There’s a lot of cool people on the writing staff, and we’re still going. We have to hire more people too, but I think it’s gonna be a really great staff.
Tina Fey has said she looks to hire different types of people as writers. Do you have a strategy like that or do you just go with whoever has the best writing samples?
I think it’s a little of both. It’s based on samples and just humor, but I’ve hired people for Parks and Rec… I hired Megan Amram because of her Twitter feed. She was so funny on Twitter that I was like, ‘Any brain that can come up with this many great, funny jokes every day is worth having on your writing staff.’ And I hired Chelsea from her stand-up and from meeting her in person and realizing that she’s a crazy person who’s funny. It’s not always a specific sample. Sometimes, it’s a sample or sometimes it’s a meeting or sometimes it’s a piece of material or whatever, but I think there’s a tremendous value to having lots of different kinds of people on your staff, especially for a show set in New York City. There’s a lot of different kinds of people in New York. If you had nine stand-ups who lived in LA, you’d be doing yourself a disservice. We’re definitely aiming for diversity, not just of racial diversity but just of life experience. People from different parts of the country who came to LA from different places, different paths, and different kinds of stories and stuff. I think that’s incredibly valuable.
Are you going to be showrunning Brooklyn Nine-Nine next year or will you be splitting your time between the show and Parks and Rec?
I’m gonna sort of float back and forth. Dan Goor is gonna run it full time. I’m gonna supervise it, and I’ll split my time a little bit with Parks and Rec.
Are you gonna be running Parks full-time?
I’ll be at both places. We’re hopefully gonna find a place that’s right near Parks to do it, and that way, it’ll make it a lot easier, but Dan is an extremely capable showrunner-y -type guy, and I don’t think he’s gonna need a ton of supervision or anything. I’m invested in the show obviously, and I want to be there and help it work, but I also love Parks and Rec, so I’m gonna divide it up and I’ll go wherever I feel like I’m needed.
What can people expect from the new season of Parks and Rec?
Well, a lot of stuff was set up in the finale, like Ron Swanson’s girlfriend Diane, played by Lucy Lawless, is pregnant, so there’s a “Ron Swanson is gonna be a dad” situation. In the finale, Tom Haverford – some mysterious businessman was asking to buy his business and he turned it down, and now, that guy’s gonna start a competing business, so that’ll be a big storyline next year. And obviously, the biggest thing is there’s an effort to recall Leslie Knope from office, so Leslie’s future in politics is very much up in the air. So, those are all things that are gonna dominate the first half of the season. We’re actually having our first writers’ meeting tomorrow. We’re gonna have lunch and talk about the new season and stuff and start brainstorming. There’s a lot of threads out there. April got into veterinary school and has to decide whether to go. There’s a lot of fun stuff that we have to play with that we need to sort out and figure out how to manage and stuff, but there’s a lot of juicy storylines going forward.
And you guys are losing Chris Pratt for part of the season?
Yeah, sadly, Chris Pratt is gonna go be a Marvel tentpole movie star. [Laughs] I think we worked it out. He’s gonna miss a few episodes in the first half of the year, but he’s gonna be in the premiere, and he’s gonna be in other episodes that are scattered along through the first 8 or 9 or 10, whatever it is. We’re gonna have to explain his absence for a few episodes, but hopefully, it won’t be that disruptive. I mean, the guy is a massive comedy force and he’s a gigantic part of our show, and it’s very sad to contemplate writing even a single episode without him. But on the other hand, it’s a huge career opportunity for him, and everyone’s happy for him that he’s gonna get to go be a superhero.
It’s gonna be a little hard to explain why Andy Dwyer is suddenly incredibly buff. He’s gonna look ridiculous. Over the course of the show, it’s funny ’cause he’s gone from big chubby, goofy Andy to Zero Dark Thirty Andy and then back again, and now, he’s gonna be superhero Andy. He’s had a lot of body shape changes over the five years that we’ve been on the air. This will be probably be, I’m guessing, the most extreme. Even towards the end of last season, he was starting to get into crazy good shape. He did not resemble the Andy who lived in the pit in Season 2 of our show when he was a big goofball. So, we’ll have to explain that or maybe we just won’t. Maybe we’ll say the stress has made him exercise a lot or something.
On Parks, you guys have set up kind of a Springfield-esque cast of minor characters. Who are some of your favorite characters like that?
Oh, there’s many. I’m a gigantic Jean-Ralphio fan, and I think adding Jenny Slate as his sister Mona-Lisa was a real master stroke. Casting Jenny Slate as Ben Schwartz’s sister is like my favorite casting we’ve ever done. I think they’re both so funny. I also love – Mo Collins plays Joan Callamezzo, who’s the local Oprah figure in the town. Everything she does makes me laugh. There’s a lot. Perd Hapley is another crazy newscaster who speaks in very odd ways. It was a complete throwaway. Jay Jackson is his name. We hired him to do a news report in one episode, and we just loved him so much and he had such a funny newscaster’s delivery and we just kept using him, and now he’s been in 25 episodes or something.
That’s the real joy of having a whole town to play with. You get to introduce someone. We did an episode with Jason Schwartzman this year. And then in the finale, the point of the finale in part was everybody was complaining about all the stuff that Leslie had done. It was sort of a review of the entire year. And we just called Jason Schwartzman and said, “Hey, are you free on Wednesday? Do you wanna come by?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure.” So, you build up this stable of people in the town and you know who the business owners are and the media figures and the newspaper reporters – whoever -the librarians. You get to just bring them in from time to time. It really, I think, lends a sense of this is a real place.
I’m from a town that’s roughly the size of Pawnee in Connecticut, called West Hartford. You know who the people were. You would recognize people; you would see them all over the place. It’s not like Los Angeles or New York or Chicago where there’s millions and millions of people. If you’re from a town of 60,000 people, you know who the principal of the high school is and you know who the guy who owns the gas station is. I think that’s one of the most fun things about the show is getting to see the same people come back and float in and out of the world.
You’ve said in the past you’d like to bring the character Mark Brendanawicz back in a different career. Do you still plan on doing that?
Yeah, we’ve still talked about it. It’s interesting because we definitely planned on doing it after he left. Then, a lot of things happened right after Season 2. We got moved to midseason and our [episode] order got cut. The show kind of, as a result, took a different turn, like in terms of the plot, than we thought it would. The show changes and evolves over time. Now, if we did it, we would want to do it a way that it doesn’t seem like we were just doing it to do it. It would have to be organic and meaningful to the show. It’s certainly out there as a move we could make.
Is having that cast of minor characters something you’re gonna try to keep going with Brooklyn Nine-Nine?
Well, that show takes place in a neighborhood in Brooklyn and it is New York and it’s not quite as confined as Pawnee, Indiana, but a police precinct represents a certain neighborhood and we definitely want to do a little world-building and have people that recur. In a police precinct, those people would probably be defense attorneys and judges and local activists or local concerned citizens. Night watch patrol organizers, that kind of thing. There’s certainly an opportunity to do that in a neighborhood, even if that neighborhood is in a gigantic place like New York City. So yeah, I find that to be really fun. I remember when I used to watch Cheers, any time Harry the Hat showed up or Gary’s Old Town Tavern, it made it feel like the world was bigger than the bar you were watching every night. And obviously, when you’re doing a single-camera show that’s about an entire town or about a neighborhood in Brooklyn, you have more opportunities to introduce characters who interact with the main cast. So, I see no reason not to. It’s really fun.
Also, we know so many funny people. Every single one of Andy Samberg’s friends is funny. And the same is true of Poehler, and the same is true of a lot of people in our show. They come out of the UCB world or the SNL world. There are so many people in the real lives of the cast and the writers, it’s not like why not use those people? If you have a guest spot, why not try to get the funniest people you possibly can? And that’s how Louis C.K. ended up on our show and Patton Oswalt and all these people. It’s like, well, we know them. We can just e-mail them. “Wanna come by?” It would be crazy not to try to take advantage of all of our funny friends – and Andy Samberg’s funny friends, for that matter.
Like, Fred Armisen is in the pilot. We have a sequence where they’re knocking on doors and just talking to people about this crime that was committed. Two of the people we just cast. We had auditions and stuff. Then, there was a third guy, and we were just like, “Hey, I wonder if Fred Armisen would do it?” And we just called him and said, “Are you in town? Do you want to do this?” He was like, “Yeah, that sounds good.” He literally just came to the set for an hour, and he did this crazy part. There’s probably 45 minutes of Fred improvising insane things that we can put on the DVD. It’s so great. It just makes it so fun to see him when he pops up in the pilot.
On The Office this past season, they introduced the camera crew. Is that something you guys would ever do on Parks and Rec, or do you just plan to never acknowledge the documentary element?
Well, we never really talk about it. That idea was brought up at The Office a long time ago as a possible way to end the show. That’s something that Greg had in his head for a really long time. I think probably because of that, we haven’t really discussed it on the show. I don’t think it’s anything we would ever do, in part now because The Office, which was our spiritual forebear, did it so significantly. Like, it wasn’t one little moment where they did it. They really wrote it into the plot of their last season. I don’t think we would ever do it, but I could be wrong. I certainly have no plans to.
When did you decide you wanted to be a comedy writer?
I think it’s probably sometime in college or right after college. I didn’t know, like most people don’t know, that there was such a thing as comedy writers until I really started watching SNL and Letterman in middle school and high school. I got really, really into Letterman’s show and really into SNL. At the end, when I would watch the credits, you would see like “Written By” and then a long list of names and it slowly kind of sunk in. I think most people, when they first see SNL, assume the actors are writing everything. They don’t understand that there’s a writing staff. And as I sort of began to realize that, it’s not like I instantly was like, “Oh, that’s what I want to do.” I just liked it, and I knew there was a possibility and I got to college and I wrote for The Harvard Lampoon and there were a lot of, obviously, people who had written for The Lampoon who had gone on to be comedy writers professionally. At the time I was there, Conan had just gotten a show. My eyes opened to the real possibility of that being a career. I tried not to think about it in college because I just wanted to enjoy college … So, I waited until after I graduated and I decided to just give myself a year to see if I could make it work, and before the year was up, I got hired at SNL and just kept doing it.
What was your submission packet like for SNL?
I think it was five sketches and one commercial parody. I’m sure they were solidly mediocre. [Laughs] In my memory, they were really professionally mediocre, that’s what I would guess. But I guess good enough to get interviewed. I got interviewed for SNL. You walked around meeting with all these producers in pairs, and I was paired with Tina Fey. I distinctly remember feeling that there was no way I was gonna get hired because she was way funnier than I was. In our awkward casual conversation, she was being funny in a way that I couldn’t comprehend, and I was totally right and she got hired and I did not. But then, half a year later, they just called me up. In classic SNL fashion, they called me on a Friday and said “You start Monday.” I just showed up and started working there, and I was there for six and a half years.
If you feel like your packet was mediocre, it must have been better than you think it is, right?
When I say “mediocre,” I mean by the standards of the show. Sketch writing is really hard. It’s weird and strange and it has its own rhythms and it has its own rules. I think that it was probably competent in a way that made them think that I could get a lot better, which I did and which everybody does. When you first start at SNL, you kind of suck for a while with few exceptions [like] Adam McKay and Tina Fey and people like that who are, first of all, naturally very genius-y people but have also come out of Second City or The Groundlings or a place where you’re writing sketches every day … Those people tend to hit the ground running. For people who haven’t come out of that sketch writing world, there’s just a learning curve. It just takes a while to figure it out, to figure out what makes a good sketch and how to start it, how to develop it, how to twist it, how to make it land funny. Especially, writing for performance is not something I’d ever done really. You can have a great, intellectual idea, but the actual execution of it and putting it into the hands of a talented performer is a completely different thing.
It just takes a while to figure all that stuff out, so I think one of the wonderful things about Lorne Michaels and the way he runs that show is he gives you a year to suck. If I had sucked as badly on The Office as I did on SNL, I would have been fired. Lorne just knows and SNL knows that it’s a very strange, five-legged chair of a show, and they give you a year to figure it out. They really do. In most cases – I mean, not always, obviously – they tend to want to give you time to get settled in, to observe, to figure things out, to pick up on the rhythms and specificity of the show and learn how to write it. He gave me that year, and I needed it. [Laughs] I needed it very badly because I didn’t get a single sketch on the air for like my first nine or 10 shows or something. I maybe contributed some stuff to other people’s sketches, but I didn’t get anything on the air for a long time because it’s very weird and I was not good at it. Then, slowly but surely, your sort of pick up and figure it out and get better.
How many total sketches did you get on the air your first year?
Oh, I have no idea. This is another great thing about that show is it keeps your ego in check. Even the greatest sketch writers – even the top-of-the-line Jack Handey, Tina Fey, Adam McKay, people like that – you would have a week where you’ve got two or sometimes even three sketches on the air, and you’d just think to yourself, “I figured this out. I’ve solved the problem of SNL. I’ve cracked the code. I am the king. I will never be defeated again.” Then, the next week, everything you write tanks in the readthrough and you totally bomb and you’re totally shut out. It just keeps you from getting a big head.
Even the funniest people in the world and the sketch writers and the best actors can get completely shut out in a week. That’s the nature of it. You start on Monday with nothing, and you do a live show. It’s an hour-and-a-half long. It’s Saturday at 11:30. Sometimes, that means that your ideas that week weren’t any good or they didn’t work. It’s very humbling in a very good way. It’s a great ego check, and it’s a reason that people who come out of SNL specifically, and I’m sure other places like it, tend to be really nice and humble and normal people. Because they’re the opposite of Justin Bieber. Justin Bieber was world famous when he was six years old or whatever. That guy didn’t have a chance. People were screaming his name and calling him a magical genius god when he was 11 or whatever. The chances of having a normal life and being a normal person are very slim in that case, and SNL‘s sort of the opposite of that. It creates anti-Biebers.
What are some sketches people might be familiar with that you wrote there?
After two and half years, I started producing Weekend Update. I sort of shifted from being a full-time sketch writer to producing that segment when Tina [Fey] and Jimmy [Fallon] were the hosts. So, I wrote far fewer sketches than the average person who worked there for six-and-a-half years would have done. I used to write the Hardball with Chris Matthews sketches. I don’t know if you remember those, but Darrell Hammond would be Chris Matthews. Those were really fun.
Probably the most-watched thing I ever wrote was in the 2000 election. The first show after the election when the election mess was happening, I wrote the cold open of that show, which was George Bush, played by Will Ferrell, and Al Gore, played by Darrell Hammond, made a joint announcement that they were gonna run the presidency together. And then it was sort of an Odd Couple parody where George Bush was the slovenly goofball and Al Gore was the cleanly taskmaster. It was one of those deals where the whole country was in chaos. At times like that, people tend to turn to SNL to see what SNL‘s take on things is. That sketch was just played everywhere. At the height of the madness, that sketch was on every morning show. It was not pre-internet, but it was pre-Youtube certainly, so it wasn’t on the internet as much. But everywhere you turned, I was watching that sketch. My mom was very proud because I had come up with that sketch idea, which isn’t by the way that amazing. It’s like a pretty obvious sketch idea for George Bush and Al Gore in the year 2000, but that was probably the most famous thing I ever wrote.
What was producing Weekend Update like?
It was really fun. It’s a very fun job. Weekend Update is sort of its own little fiefdom within the show. It’s got its own writing staff, which is usually just two or three writers. Obviously, it’s the most high-profile segment on the show. It’s a very famous thing … It was getting a lot harder when I was doing it because when the show started in the ’70s, the idea of parodying the news was a massive mind-blowing breakthrough idea. By the time it was 2002 or whatever, we were fighting The Daily Show and, later, The Colbert Report and all these other shows. Suddenly, there were whole shows that were nothing but essentially long Weekend Updates. There were so many late night shows. You’d have to watch Leno and Letterman and later, Kimmel and Craig Ferguson and all these shows to make sure you weren’t doing the same jokes. Because by the time you got to Saturday, the entire week’s news had been chewed up and spit out by 50 other people. So, it was getting very challenging when I was there, but what made it a lot easier was Tina and Jimmy, who were singular talents who were incredibly good at what they did. We had a lot of fun. We were in our own little world. It was a tremendous amount of fun. It was my favorite part of working at that show by far.
Did you write a lot of those set-up/punchline jokes for Update?
No … I wrote a few of them, but there was a very good writing staff. This guy Charlie Grandy, who later came out to work on The Office with me. He created the show Guys with Kids last year. One of the writers, this guy Doug Abeles, I think he’s still there. There were a lot of faxers who send in jokes, like this guy, Alex Baze, who was incredibly funny and became a full-time writer later. They did most of the heavy-lifting of just turning out jokes and they were very good at it. Mostly what I did is I would write some of my own, and I would edit their jokes and sort of change stuff around. I would work with the actors when the actors would do features, I would sort of produce the features and help them write those and edit them down and stuff. I was sort of in charge of the whole segment, all the graphics and putting the whole thing together, but most of the joke writing was done by people who are far better at joke writing than I was.
Do you have a favorite character desk piece that you worked on?
Oh, there’s a bunch of ’em. The weirdest one, Fred Armisen and Will Forte did this bit. To this day, I still hum the song. The premise of it was they were playing accountants. I think it was early April probably. This will not sounds funny to you at all if you haven’t seen it. They announced there’s been a lot of changes to the tax code, and it can get very confusing. As a public service, they’ve written a little song – a little ditty – to help people figure out how to do their taxes. Then, they sang a song that had no words at all. It was just Will Forte making really weird noises and Fred Armisen making weird noises and then it ended. It was completely just dada art. Completely just experimental, weird comedy art. If you look it up, I’ll bet you can find it somewhere. It’s called “The Tax Code Song.”
Editor’s note: Forte and Armisen performing a similar bit as the same characters on Weekend Update. The one Schur references is not online.
There were others. Poehler used to play Avril Lavigne and she would just run on and just stand behind Tina and Jimmy and scream and yell. That always made me laugh. I mean, there’s a million of ’em. There’s so many things we did that I really love.
Do you miss sketch writing at all or do you prefer sitcoms?
Well, I wouldn’t say I miss sketch writing ’cause it’s really hard, and I really like writing longform material. I like writing characters who are three-dimensional and whose lives change and grow over time. I think writing for the cast of The Office and for Parks and Rec has been so wonderful and amazing, and the chance to take characters and develop them over many years is a very rare and wonderful thing. There are certain aspects of SNL that I do miss, if only because it’s really about being young in New York City, and being young in New York City is awesome. Being 24 and working at SNL is something that I’ll treasure forever. It’s such an awesome place, and it’s so fun. You’re in a room with 50 incredibly funny people all the time, and that’s your life. I certainly miss SNL, and it was a very huge part of my life. I’m 37, and I have two kids and the idea of working at SNL right now sounds really hard.