Talking to Mike Schur About ‘Parks and Rec’, ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’, and Writing with Bill Murray
Few writers in the TV world pull off creating two shows that are on the air at the same time, but Mike Schur just became part of that club. The Parks and Recreation co-creator’s new series, the Andy Samberg cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, premieres tonight on Fox. Schur co-created the ensemble show with longtime Parks writer Dan Goor, and it’s one of the most promising comedies of the new TV season. I had the chance to talk to Mike Schur last week about what to expect from Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine this season, why he hated playing Mose on The Office, adapting Infinite Jest into a movie, and getting to write a sketch with Bill Murray while at SNL.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine has an incredibly diverse cast for a network show. How did that group come together and was the diversity an intentional choice?
We sort of did race blind casting. We got Andy onboard, and then, we got Andre Braugher onboard as the captain, but we’d already met with Terry Crews. We essentially just designed that part for Terry. Like, the character’s name in the script was Terry ’cause he was kind of the only person we wanted to play the role. And then after that, the other four cast members, we had very generic names for them. Their names were like Amy and Megan and Bill or something. Allison Jones is our casting director, who’s like the greatest casting director of all time, and we told her we don’t care. “Age, size, weight, height, anything, ethnicity. Just find funny people.” So she brought in Joe Lo Truglio, who she had loved for a long time and cast in a bunch of stuff and who we knew. Then, she found Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz. She knew Stephanie really well, and Stephanie had been on Modern Family a couple times. And then, Chelsea Peretti was a writer on Parks and Rec for us. We just really wanted to design a part for her too. At the end of the day, it sort of just shook out the way it shook out. We ended up with two Latina actresses, one Italian guy, one half-Italian half-Jewish lady, two African American guys, and Andy Samberg.
I feel it’s just rare to see a cast like that. Most sitcoms just have one token non-white person and that’s it.
Yeah, well, different shows do it differently. Some shows are like family shows, right? And the family is generally speaking the same ethnicity. And there are workplace shows that are set in parts of the world where you try to represent the general population of that part of the world or whatever. But if you’re gonna set a show in New York City, it would seem silly if everybody was a white dude. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
Did you and Dan write the main part for Andy Samberg, or did the character exist before he came onboard?
It was actually a little bit of both. We came up with the character, and we had the whole pitch worked out and stuff. We had this character description who’s like 32 and kind of a wise-ass and copes with the stress of his job by making jokes and didn’t take stuff that seriously when he should probably take it a little more seriously. We heard that Andy was leaving SNL and went to Fox and were like, “Hey, if Andy Samberg were interested…” and they were like, “Yeah yeah yeah. Go go go.” The character existed, and once Andy signed on, we tailored it a little bit to him, but it was already pretty much right in his wheelhouse. In terms of his character traits and his age and his outlook on life, it was pretty similar to what Andy already is. The model in our heads at the beginning was Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H. Hawkeye made a lot of jokes and did a lot of funny stuff, but he was salvaged as a character because he was a great surgeon and a good person. We sort of felt like, if we make this guy a good cop and fundamentally a nice person, then he can goof around and wise off and you won’t get angry with him for not doing his job well …
The trick is — 10 years later, it’s impossible to imagine anyone playing Michael Scott except for Steve Carell and it’s impossible to imagine anyone playing Leslie Knope except for Amy Poehler. I think it’s already getting very hard to imagine anyone playing Jake Peralta other than Andy Samberg, and it’s just because after a while, you just learn the rhythms of the actors’s voice and you learn how to write better jokes for them. The character and the actor merge at some point. It’s hard to say exactly when that happens, but the characters and actors, as time goes on, merge into one big conglomerate that makes it so it’s impossible to imagine anybody else doing it.
That’s great that’s already starting to happen with Andy Samberg on the show.
Yeah, I think it is. We’re shooting episode six right now, and it’s really fun — it’s the whole cast, really. The whole cast is really great, and they’re really strong. They just kind of hit the ground running, which makes our lives so much easier as writers. They’re just so talented that it takes some of the pressure off.
Chelsea Peretti has written for Parks before. Did you guys encourage her to get in front of the camera or was that something she wanted to do?
Well, she wrote for us for one year and then she left because she is a standup and a performer. She really wanted to focus on her performing career. Dan Goor and I knew her to be an insanely talented and funny person, so when we were deciding this show, it sort of felt like we’d be crazy not to try to grab her. Her character wasn’t in the very first concept of the script that we came up with, and then when we realized we had a chance to grab her, we sort of just designed a part for her. She’s a civilian administrator. She’s basically an office secretary. We realized, after coming up with the first story and laying out the characters, that it would be a good idea to have one character who wasn’t a police officer, who wasn’t a detective, just to give another dimension to the ensemble. When we came up with that idea, it was like, ‘Oh, she’s the perfect person.’ She’s just a great shit-stirrer. The idea behind her character is that she’s a civilian. She’s kind of punching a clock. She has no interest in the police work. She doesn’t think of them as heroes or New York’s finest. She’s not particularly impressed by anything they do, which is a very fun dynamic to play as they’re going about their very high pressure jobs.
It seems like on your shows, you tend to have a lot of writers who cross over into acting or who happen to be talented performers themselves, whether it be Harris Wittels or Joe Mande or Katie Dippold. Is that just a coincidence?
No, it’s not. It’s very intentional. I think it really ultimately comes from SNL because on SNL, the line between writer and performer is very blurry and the performers write a lot of their own sketches. Sometimes, the writers appear on the show. In general, the collaboration is very intense between writers and performers. A lot of the writers are also performing at UCB every week and doing improv and stuff like that. That spirit was taken to The Office. That was an explicit idea that Greg Daniels had for The Office was that there would be crossover. That’s why he hired Mindy as a writer-performer; he hired BJ Novak that way; he basically held Paul Lieberstein down and forced him to be in the show against Paul’s will; and I played Mose.
Pretty much every writer at some point appeared on the show in some way. That was so fun. It was really fun to feel like there was no division between the writers and the actors, which sometimes happens on TV shows. Sometimes on TV shows, the writing is done in LA and the shooting is in New York and the cast and the writers never even really meet. Greg explicitly wanted to remove that barrier, and we sort of took that spirit over to Parks and Rec. A number of writers have appeared on the show, sometimes in speaking roles like Harris and Joe Mande. Ali Rushfield was on the show last year, and Alan Yang is one of the members of Andy Dwyer’s band, Mouse Rat. It’s a fun aspect of the show that we cram writers into the cast whenever we can.
Were you reluctant to play Mose on The Office, and what was your performing background before that?
I am a terrible actor. I swore off acting for good when I was in college. My feeling was that I always knew how words should sound coming out of my mouth; I could just never make them sound that way. And I finally after being in another play where I felt like I was a solid B minus, it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to do this anymore. I can write the words and have more talented people say them.’ I just completely switched over to becoming a writer and a director, which was a very good call on my part. Mose was just basically a sight gag. I was probably on the show a dozen times; I think I’d said a total of eleven words. Thankfully, I did a part that did not require me to have any actual acting skill.
After you started running Parks and Rec, was it a hassle have to go back and play Mose just for a two-second scene?
Oh yeah, it was miserable. I despised it because it was always like I’d have to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and drive to someplace deep in the Simi Valley, where it was 138 degrees, and put on wool clothes and run around and do something embarrassing with a neck beard on. And it would take seven hours and then I would end up appearing in the show for four seconds. [Laughs] It was a huge pain in the butt, but I was sort of weirdly flattered and honored that in the finale, Mose actually had an important role in the plot. There’s an actual storyline for him, which was exciting.
Is there a piece of advice or something that stands out that you’ve learned from an older writer on a show you’ve written for?
Oh, there’s a million. Yeah, I mean, the only real way you can learn how to write and produce TV is by watching people who are better than you do it. My career has been this insanely fortunate sequence of events, starting at SNL where Lorne Michaels, who’s arguably the greatest television producer, was my boss. Then, the other bosses I had there were people like Steve Higgins, who’s now Jimmy Fallon’s sidekick/announcer guy of his show, Tim Herlihy who writes Adam Sandler movies, and Mike Shoemaker, who is on Jimmy Fallon’s show and is gonna produce Seth Meyers’s show. Those are the guys who were producing the show and my bosses. Most of what I learned early on was just by watching them and learning from them. Then, I got plucked out of SNL and put on The Office with Greg Daniels, who is a master of half-an-hour television comedy, so I got to apprentice to him for four years. Then, he and I built this show together. A certain amount of TV production and writing is instinct and practice, and a lot of it is just osmosis. You just hang out with people who are good at it and learn everything that they do. I don’t know that there are little pithy aphorisms or anything that I can point to about how to magically make great television. It comes from kind of grinding it out day after day after day with people who know what they’re doing.
When you were moving from SNL to The Office, did you have to send a writing sample over to The Office?
Yeah, the way it works is you write a spec script. You pick a show that you like and you write a sample episode of that show, or ultimately, you can write an original pilot or something or a movie. Different people want to read different things. I wrote a Curb Your Enthusiasm spec script in 2003, and Greg Daniels read it and hired me off of that.
As far as what you guys are looking for from writer submissions on your shows, do you prefer to read pilots or specs of existing shows?
It’s personal preference, and different people look for different things. I prefer reading the original material because I find it hard to judge — if someone’s written an episode of Big Bang Theory, I sometimes find it hard to know whether they are really funny and a good writer or whether they’re really good at mimicking the style of an existing show. I prefer to read original material, but I’ll read anything. I’ve hired people from their Twitter feeds, I’ve hired people off of movies, off of short stories. Rachel Axler is a writer that I really liked who I hired just based off of a short story she had written. Megan Amram was hired here because of her Twitter feed.
Did she send a writing sample over or was it purely off her Twitter feed?
No, I was such a fan of hers off Twitter and I met with her for like an hour and just could tell that her comedy brain was operating at an extremely high level so I just really hired her off that.
It’s interesting how technology is changing things.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, that’s the perfect example. There are many, many more ways for young writers and performers to be seen. You can make a short with your friends, you can have a blog, you can have a Twitter feed, you can do Funny or Die shorts. There’s just a million ways now that didn’t exist even ten years ago for people to get their name out there. One of Amy Poehler’s proudest accomplishments, I would say, is co-founding the UCB Theatre. Now, there’s this incredible biomass of comedians that are gathered in one place every day, and people can do shows and they can use it to get their names out there. They can keep their skills sharp after they’ve already gotten on TV or into a movie or whatever. The level of comedy that you can see at the UCB Theatre in LA or New York on any given day is remarkable. Back when I started coming up, there was The Groundlings and there was Second City. Then, there were little smaller shops like Improv Olympic or places like that. Now, there’s just a million venues for people. It’s really great. There’s a comedy boom happening right now, and I think a lot of it is because of the internet, because of the way that technology is changing things.
How has balancing Parks and Brooklyn Nine-Nine been going so far?
It’s been a little hard, but it’s fun. They’re produced on the same lot, so I kinda go back and forth. I split my time. Some days, I’ll spend whole days at one place or the other. Some days, I’ll split my time. There’s a lot of extremely talented people who are also working on both shows. Dan Goor is running Brooklyn full time. He’s there every minute of every day. We have a lot of great writers at Parks and Rec — some of whom have been here from the beginning, some were just brought in recently. They’re doing a really great job in moving the ball forward and stuff. So far, it’s been pretty manageable. It’s a little more stressful ’cause there’s two different sets of stuff to keep in my brain, but so far so good, I would say.
You have a lot of great guest stars lined up on Parks and Rec this season. Do you have a dream guest star you haven’t been able to land yet?
Well, we’ve said it before, but our dream guest star is still Bill Murray. The mayor of the town has been mentioned a number of times, but we’ve never seen him. I don’t know if we ever will, but we really want Bill Murray to play the mayor, so if somehow Bill Murray’s reading this, call me.
[Laughs] Have you made attempts to get him on the show? I know he has that toll-free voicemail line that producers and directors offer him parts on.
He’s sort of ascended above the atmosphere of the actual tangible comedy world. He doesn’t exist in reality to me anymore; he’s like an idea. You know, he pops up in weird places and plays celebrity golf tournaments and then he’ll like pop up at some guy’s karaoke party. It’s like he lives in the internet or something. He’s ascended to a higher plane of being. So I have no actual allusions that he’s going to decide to pop in and be on our show, but it would still be awesome if it happened.
Have you ever interacted with him? Did you cross paths if maybe he came by SNL when you were working there?
Yeah, he hosted when I was there, and it was awesome. I wrote a sketch that he was in, and it was like a career highlight for me.
What sketch was it?
I don’t think it actually aired. I co-wrote it with a guy named Scott Wainio, and I believe it was Scott’s idea. I should fully attribute the idea. It was an E! entertainment news celebrity gossip show that took place at an insane asylum, so it was just three crazy people in straightjackets just giving celebrity gossip that was complete nonsense. It was a crazy sketch, but for whatever reason, he really liked it, which meant the world to us. I think it got cut after dress rehearsal, but just being able to rehearse a sketch with Bill Murray in it was amazing. Like I said, it was a career highlight to just be in the same room as him. And at one point, I think he wanted to do a rewrite of the sketch, and Scott and I sat in his dressing room for like an hour and just went line by line.
That’s got to be a crazy experience, especially for being new on the show at the time.
Yeah, exactly, This was like my dream. It was literally a dream. He had always been my favorite of those early years guys. He was always my favorite. There was something about him that I found so compelling and silly and great. If we had sat in his dressing room in silence for five minutes, it would have been amazing, but to actually work on a sketch with him was incredibly cool.
So with Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones leaving Parks and Rec, do you have any plans to introduce new cast members, or are you just going to focus more on everyone that you already have?
I don’t think we’re going to be adding anyone permanently. We have a lot of fun guest stars in the beginning of the year, in part because we’re absent Chris Pratt for a number of episodes because he’s off shooting that Guardians of the Galaxy movie. You may have seen it, but we brought in Sam Elliott and June Raphael and Billy Eichner and Kristen Bell is doing a guest spot and we have Lucy Lawless back for two episodes. But I think that when the dust settles — Rob and Rashida head out after episode 13 — I don’t think we have any specific plans at this point to really replace them. It’s not about replacing them, as much as it is reshuffling a little bit and then focusing on the core characters that we have left. And who knows? That could change down the line. The one thing I know is, for example, Ann Perkins is Leslie Knope’s best friend in the world, and their relationship will have been 103 episodes long. You can’t just magically switch her out and bring in a new person and now say, “Oh, this is now Leslie’s best friend.” That would [feel] very false to me, so it won’t be anything close to that if we do get new cast members.
Have you thought about how much longer the show’s lifespan might be?
Not recently. I mean, we’ve had an attitude on the show almost from the very beginning, which was you never know how much time you have left really, with very few exceptions. With monstrous hit shows, they might have some idea of how many episodes they have left or they can see five years into the future. Not having that luxury, we sort of treat every season like we’re gonna tell every story we want to tell. We’re not gonna hold anything back.
The characters are very aggressive in the way that they want to change their lives. People get married and they have kids and they change jobs. They’re very sort of forward-thinking. Largely, that’s just part of who they are. Leslie Knope isn’t the kind of person who’s ever really satisfied. She’s a very goal-oriented person, so it would also ring false if she just were completely satisfied with just being the Deputy Director of the Parks and Recreation Department forever, so it sort of dovetailed nicely that our feeling is that we should be very aggressive in our storytelling and not leave anything in reserve or on the table. We’ll just sort of continue to do that as long as they let us make episodes.
Do you remember the first time you ever saw Nick Offerman perform?
Yeah, I do very well. The reason he’s on this show is I wrote an episode of The Office in season two, where Michael Scott went to New York and met a bunch of the managers from the other Dunder Mifflin branches — from the Albany branch and the Buffalo branch and stuff. There was a role in the episode for one of the branch managers, and the idea was that this guy was a bigger buffoon than Michael Scott. The idea was that it would go a long way towards explaining how it is that Michael Scott still has his job. There are other people who are way worse than he is out there. Nick auditioned for it and was just great. He was so funny and so great and so interesting as a performer. We tried to book him, but he had booked a Will & Grace episode that same week, and he couldn’t do it. I wrote the words “Nick Offerman” down on a Post-it note and stuck it to me computer just as a reminder to myself that there was this guy out there who I thought was really great and talented. And then, when Greg and I were writing the pilot for Parks and Rec, he was like, “Oh yeah, there’s that guy.” I still have that Post-it note, and I gave it Nick as a present at the end of last season.
Was the episode of Parks and Rec last season with all the Infinite Jest references something that you had wanted to do for a little while, or did that just come up spontaneously?
It wasn’t like I set out to do it or anything. As a little Infinite Jest reference when we introduced Ben Wyatt as a character … there’s a character in Infinite Jest named Ortho Stice who’s from Partridge, Kansas, so we just made up Partridge, Minnesota, as his hometown. We knew we wanted to do this episode where he went back to his hometown, and Dave King, who wrote the episode, is also a fan of Infinite Jest, so we sort of just said, “Well, as long as we’re visiting Partridge, which is itself a reference, we might as well make everything in the episode a reference to Infinite Jest.” So we just loaded it up. It also just so happened that the B-story of that episode was that Ron was being sued by Councilman Jamm for punching him in the face at Leslie’s wedding. It was like, we have to see a law firm and a law firm is just a collection of names, so every name in the law firm was a character from the book. Every time you saw a building, the name of the building was a character’s name from Infinite Jest. It’s not like I always wanted to do that. It just sort of occurred naturally because we set the episode in a place that was a reference to the book.
And you own the film rights to Infinite Jest, right?
I do. Yeah.
Do you ever intend to do something with that, or is that more just to prevent someone from making the movie and ruining it?
I wouldn’t have optioned them if I didn’t have any plans to try to do something with it. It’s obviously an incredibly challenging piece of work, and I’m not sure exactly what the end result will be, but it’s certainly on my mind as something I’d like to try to do someday.
Have you worked on it at all?
No, it’s gonna be a long slow development process if I can pull it off. It’s gonna take some time to figure out what the right place is to do it and how to do it and all that sort of stuff. You’re not gonna see Infinite Jest next month, the movie.
You’ve been very successful at television. Do you have any desire to start writing and directing films at some point?
I like new challenges. That was part of what made taking on a new show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine exciting is that it’s a new thing; it’s a new challenge. But you can also stretch yourself too thin. I met Mike White a long time ago, and he said something kind of smart and beautiful, which was, “The goal of a writer in Hollywood isn’t to make things. It’s to make good things.” I think there’s a little bit of a balance you have to strike between trying to do everything in the world that you have the barest inkling of doing and making sure the actual things that you’re doing are good. I think that was really good advice that he had for me a long time ago. I think it’s always good to try to stretch yourself and do different kinds of things and take new challenges and stuff like that, but I don’t think you want to do that at the expense of having any of them actually be interesting and entertaining.
That makes sense. You were writing a vehicle for Will Arnett a few years ago, weren’t you?
Yeah, many years ago. We sold a movie together. A long time ago now. That’s probably eight years ago now.
What was the movie about?
It was a movie called The Ambassador, and basically, he was the son of the Vice President or the former Vice President who’s just a spoiled rich kid disaster human being. There’s some high-up people in the government who wanted to piss off all of Europe and get them out of an international treaty, so as an ambassador to the European Union, they sent Will’s character. He was a stooge; they wanted him intentionally to screw everything up, which he very successfully did for a good part of the movie until he finally figured out their evil plot and tried to undo it. Like many things in Hollywood, it sort of stalled out, but it was really funny. I love Will. I think he’s so funny. I’m rooting for his new show. I hope it really is great and it works well.
Who are some of your favorite writers or directors right now?
Oh God, there’s a million of ’em. In comedy, honestly, one of my favorite writers in the world is Seth Meyers. I think he’s a truly great writer. I love Joss Whedon, I love Aaron Sorkin, I love Vince Gilligan. I mean, most of the shows that I watch on TV are dramas, weirdly. I think it’s ’cause when you work in comedy, it’s hard to watch comedy at home. It’s just like, “Enough already.” There’s so much good writing on TV that it’s almost scary. There’s so many great shows, so many incredibly well-written shows. Probably because we have more outlets then ever that’re actually making them. I’m currently in a state of existential despair over the fact that there’s only three episodes of Breaking Bad left. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with myself. It’s incredibly sad.