As with Sunday night's “Lost” panel, I stepped in to do a little TV duty this week and attended tonight's “Parks and Recreation” panel at the PaleyFest.
I'm not sure there's a group of characters that I like spending time with each week as much as the “Parks” group right now. Pawnee has taken its place right alongside Springfield as one of the most fully-realized comedy communities in TV history. Each year, we learn more about the people of Pawnee and we learn more about the main characters and we just plain dig deeper into the roiling cauldron of weird that is headed up by the great Leslie Knope, played by the also-great Amy Poehler.
After a very spirited round of interviews on the red carpet, I headed upstairs where they were just starting to screen this Thursday's new episode, “Galentine's Day.” After this, there are only six more episodes this year, and there was a fair amount of talk tonight on the carpet about how crazy the finale is going to be. Nick Offerman talked about trying to shoot a scene with Michelle Obama, but in the end honoring their mutual decision to always stay 250 feet away from each other so they don't make their respective spouses suspicious. Jim O'Heir talked about how he worked with Genuwine twice before learning that Genuwine is actually famous and not something made up for the show. It sounds like they've gone as big as they can, but week to week right now, I feel like they are just effortlessly knocking it out of the park. With characters this great and a cast this gifted, how can they do anything but make great TV?
After the episode, which features some great Andy/Ron scenes, always a good thing, the cast came out to take their places on the stage. Billy Eichner was first. He's new this year, playing the insane Craig, and he seemed to still be amazed that he's part of the show. Ben Schwartz was next, then Jim O'Heir, Retta, Adam Scott, Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Platt, and show-runner Mike Schur. Plaza flipped everyone off as she took her spot, and as Offerman walked out to thunderous applause, he shrugged off his suit jacket, sized up the crowd, then slowly put the jacket back on, soaking up the screams. If you've never been to the Dolby Theater, it's gargantuan, and when it's completely packed, the crowd makes a tremendous noise. It's a wall of powerful sound, and it was the same for each person as they walked out.
Finally, Patton Oswalt took his seat next to Mike Schur, and they jumped right into it. Patton started to ask about how Mike Schur put this remarkable comedy ensemble together, and he did the same thing I've done as a moderator in the past, using a whole lot of enthusiastic words to ask a fairly simple question, and Mike Schur didn't let him get away with it. He broke in with, “You're doing great, Patton. Really great. Just take a breath. We're going to get through this.”
Patton responded by getting more and more inarticulate on purpose until he was essentially grunting “How you get the show to be the show on the show I watch of your show?”
With questions like that being fired fast and furious on the stage, we ended up learning quite a bit of hard-hitting new information about “Parks and Recreation.” Here are the highlights.
1) Amy Poehler is a talent magnet.
Mike laughed as he answered. “A lot of the credit goes to Allison Jones and Nancy Perkins.” If you're not familiar with them, Jones is a legend. She cast “Family Ties,” which means she helped break Michael J. Fox. She also cast “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “Arrested Development,” Veep,” “The Office,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Spin City,” and “Undeclared.” She's also been a huge part of the landscape of modern movie comedy helping put together “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Superbad,” “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” “Superbad,” and “Bridesmaids,” among others.
“Additional credit goes to Amy Poehler,” Schur continued, “because when you have Amy Poehler on your show, other people want to do your show.” He said that Poehler and Rashida Jones were onboard first, and then they started meeting funny people. They saw Aziz performing and right away decided to write something for him. He gestured at Pratt, sitting next to him, and said, “This guy? No one was employing him. Look at him. He looks like this AND he does comedy? It's not fair.” He talked about feeling incredulous when he realized that no one had hired Nick Offerman or Aubrey Plaza and how they were immediately added to the cast when he met them.
2) Chris Pratt got hired because of “Grand Theft Auto”
Schur went on to detail Pratt's audition for the show. They gave him a scene where he was playing video games, both of his legs in casts, and he was trying to get Anne (Rashida Jones) to bring him something while she complained about how lazy he was. When they began the scene, Pratt started describing all the things going on in his imaginary game of “Grand Theft Auto,” and because of his ad-libs, they never actually got to the scene. “He would just say the most insane things. 'Hey, watch me drop this car on this hooker! I'm going to use this rocket launcher. Hold on.' We let him go for ten minutes.”
3) Amy Poehler gets very emotional when she talks about the show.
Patton talked a bit about Amy Poehler's past and her great early appearances on Conan O'Brien's show, where she'd pop up as Andy Richter's super-intense little sister, and before Amy could respond, she took a few moments to really take in the size of the crowd at the Dolby Theater. As she talked about playing Leslie, she got very emotional, and it's obvious this job and this show mean the world to her.
“I think that Leslie gets to take really big swings and play really grounded moments. It's an actor's dream. We get to really act on this show, which can be rare in comedy. Mike and I worked together at SNL, and he said something simple to me to pitch the show. 'You will really like the way we do this show, and it will be the best experience you'll ever have.' And it's true. This show became owned by the people who watch it and kept it alive, and all the people who are here tonight feel like they own a piece of it. The secret to every success is that it's collaborative, and I think that comes from the people here, and I'm going to cry. Retta and I are drinking wine. I don't remember your question.”
4) Adam Scott and Amy Poehler were genuinely nervous when they shot their big proposal scene.
Patton singled out the scene where Ben proposes to Leslie, pointing out that the Onion's A/V Club picked it as the scene of the year, and he asked them about the shooting of the scene. In particular, he was curious if they improvised as much in that moment as they do in many of the big comedy beats, and Poehler said they basically shot what was on the page. She called the day of the shoot “very special,” and then Adam Scott described the mood on-set.
“We knew it was coming, but in the days and weeks before it, we didn't talk much about it. Then on the actual day, we stayed in different parts of the house until it was time. We both had some very real nervous energy. Schur talked very quietly when he came on the set, which is not our way.”
Amy added, “There are so many moments on this show that are seared into my mind that I will think about when I am hopefully an old woman by the sea. And so many of them come out of the highs and lows of doing something like this. I remember that we were walking up these steps to do a scene with Joe Biden, and we had just found out we didn't get nominated for an Emmy. That's when Schur said, 'I'm going to go home and write the proposal scene,' and that got our energy right back up again.”
5) Ron and Leslie were designed to be your mom and dad.
While Amy described Ron and Leslie as having a “Mary and Lou Grant” relationship, Mike Schur had a different tension in mind when he created the characters. “There's an old adage that when people want a dad they vote Republican, and when they want a mom they vote Democrat. Republicans are all about money and Democrats are, like, poor people should have food and stuff like that. From the beginning, the main conception was there would be a mom and a dad in the office, but a stern and loving dad and a loving mom and that they were not romantic options for each other. We took that off the table right away.”
Amy started laughing and added, “I will say that every year for the gag reel, we do a scene where Ron and Leslie make out.”
She laughed even harder as Mike followed up, “And I never put it on the gag reel because it's too disturbing. It's like watching your parents go at it really hard.”
Schur sees the differences between Leslie and Ron as very important. “I think the cynicism in government now is worse than it's ever been, and we wanted to show how these people can have totally different opinions and still get along. They couldn't be more opposite, but they like each other fundamentally and care for each other. We thought it was going to be a background thing, but it very quickly became the center of the show. When she's spiraling, he puts his hand on her back and calms her down. When he's being a grump, she's the one who reminds him that these are his friends and he has to treat them better.”
6) No one saw April and Andy's relationship coming.
Well, almost no one. According to Aubrey, “I saw it. In a dream. In a fiery nightmare.”
Pratt said he was surprised by it, but that he never tries to suggest storylines or character ideas. “I don't talk to them about anything. That doesn't mean I don't inform them. I do it by singing and dancing and telling jokes, and they study me wearing lab coats and write things down and go back to the lab. We look back now and it seems so intentional, and the story has worked so well, but it's only looking back. Looking forward, it was these guys, being willing to write and re-write and polish and keep moving forward. When we did the hunting episode, I was so bummed because I was stuck in the office, and I'm the only real hunter in the cast. But April and I were both stuck in the office, and we had this magical day doing bits, and Greg Daniels directed the episode. He saw what was happening between them.”
7) No one cries on cue better than Retta.
Still talking about the hunting episode, Retta admitted, “I was very scared of Greg Daniels. I'm still scared by Greg Daniels. I can't wear heels, and I can't run, but I had to wear boots and run to my car. We started to do the scene, and it said, 'Donna has to cry because her car was shot,' but I was so scared for real that in the rehearsal, I lost my shit.”
Amy told her, “You're the best at crying on cue.”
Retta explained, “I've got a lot of shit going on. I cry myself to sleep every night. I was afraid I was going to get fired during this episode. I knew I could cry, but I was wailing. The crew behind the house was like, 'What the fuck is going on?' That episode was a mess. That's when we slammed the car door on Rashida's face. I'm going to cry thinking about it now.”
8) Jerry's family is his reward for putting up with his co-workers.
One of the things I've heard some viewers complain about is the constant cruelty heaped on Jerry Gergich, Jim O'Heir's character. There's plenty of that on-set, too, like the season-opening read-through the year they added both Retta and O'Heir to the opening credits. They showed the cast a mock-up of the new credit sequence. Retta's title card featured a shot of her, but the title card for O'Heir was just a box with a question mark in it and the caption “No Photo Available.”
Mike Schur said that the creation of Jerry's family life was the only way he could justify the way the character was treated otherwise. “As we started really making him a punching bag, we decided that the only way we could constantly have him falling and farting is if he has the best life of any of these people. And when the writers pitch doing something terrible like his wife should leave him, no. It's the only way I can deal with what we do to him.”
In other words, as long as Christie Brinkley's willing to return to play his wife, everyone's going to keep treating Jerry terribly.
9) Nick Offerman considers himself a nerd.
Patton turned to Nick and said, “Nick, you did full-frontal nudity on DEADWOOD.” He paused for a good four or five seconds, then added, “I just wanted to say that.”
Patton then brought up Nick's real-life fondness for wood-working and asked if that was something that the producers saw in real life and then added to the show. Nick explained that in the early days of talking to the producers, they would call him at his shop, not aware that he was working, and he'd tell them that he needed to turn off a table saw so he could hear. Eventually they asked him what he was talking about and when he explained, they loaded up all the writers for a field-trip.
“They sent the writers over on a bus. They got out, walked around, and eventually turned to me and said, 'You, sir, are a nerd.' And I guess they decided they could milk some comedy out of my nerd hobby.” Since then, he's made several things that have appeared on the show, like the boxes that were given to Chris and Anne when they left the show, and for the wrap present this year, he made the entire cast Pawnee baseball bats.
And if you want one, there's good news. “That shit's going on Ebay,” said Retta.
That's not his only real-life interest that made it into the show. When they approached Nick about the idea that they were going to have Ron moonlight as a jazz musician named Duke Silver, he replied, “Perfect. I play the saxophone.”
Jim O'Heir confirmed that all of them have had the real lives folded into the show at times, adding, “Remember when they had the doctor on the show tell everyone that Jerry had the biggest penis he'd ever seen?”
10) Chris Pratt knows a lot about “Roadhouse.”
Mike Schur talked about how they have evolved the language of the show over time, using these talking head/jump cut sequences to allow the actors to do these great runs of jokes, something they didn't initially plan. He said one of the earliest examples was just Andy listing off band names.
Amy described her favorite example of that kind of sequence. “Pratt had a fun run where he would explain movies. We wrote one for 'Roadhouse,' which came directly off of our conversation about 'Roadhouse.' After we got that one, we just started yelling out titles at him. We would just yell 'Do Rambo!' And Pratt would go, 'Okay,' and then do twenty minutes on Rambo.
Retta started laughing. “Oh, that's right. That's when he did a kick and kicked the TV and it flipped into the kitchen. We had to get a new TV.”
Pratt reminded her, “That's also when I did 'Babe: Pig In The City,' and I was like, 'I'm not going to tell you the rest, but it's amazing and you should see it.' And it cut to Retta, and she had tears streaming down her cheeks, and she was like, 'I just did.'”
Mike said the entire line in the script was “Andy talks about 'Roadhouse,'” which made him laugh anyway. But watching Pratt actually play that scene out blew his mind. “Right in the middle of it, he goes, 'Swayze says, not this time,' then stops and says, 'That's subtext. He doesn't really say that.' That's so great.”
11) Aubrey Plaza can be terrifying even if she's asking you to kiss her.
Anyone can throw a joke out during a scene, but the key to great improv is that you have to do it in character. Schur talked about an episode they shot where Ben and April were working in Washington DC, and there's a senator's kid who is terrible to Ben all week long before April finally snaps and tells him off. He said that Plaza was really intense as she tore the kid a new one, and at a crucial point in her rant, she very quietly leaned closer and said, “Kiss me.” The kid had no idea how to react, and she said it again, just loud enough for him to hear. “Kiss me.”
The kid looked terrified, unsure what to do. When the kid did finally make a slight move as it to kiss her, Plaza pulled back and loudly exclaimed, “DON'T GET NEAR ME.” She left him completely freaked out and unsure what was happening.
12) Change is the key to the show.
Most television shows, particularly comedies, are all about the status quo. Things don't change much, and that's one of the reasons audiences tune in. They know what they're getting from week to week. On “Parks and Recreation,” though, change has always been a big part of the show.
Amy talked about how her relationship with Ben might have been drawn out to several seasons on some shows, but here, they had a secret for one season, but they moved past that. They kissed. They fell in love. They got married. “It's the way life happens,” she said. “The writing on this show is so powerful and aggressive and active. It's so interesting to be on a show where people change.”
She hinted with a giggle that there are more big changes in store for the season finale, telling Schur, “I don't envy you having to make that work next year. Lots of changes.”
Jim O'Heir added, “I got chills when we got those final pages.”
Patton replied, “Well, that's because they were written on human skin, to be fair.”
13) Every “Parks and Recreation” fan turns into Andy when asking a question.
It was amazing to see how nervous and excited and enthusiastic every single fan was during the Q&A part of the event. One guy was so thrown by his own face on the Dolby Theater screen that he was reduced to simply exclaiming “Shit!” repeatedly for about a minute and a half. Pratt was watching that kid with the greatest smile on his face, filling it all away for later use. By the time he actually got his question out, Oswalt led a standing ovation for him from the entire cast.
One fan asked them to run down all of their favorite guest stars, and Offerman's answer earned him a high five from Patton. “I”ll take Meghan Mullally,” he said, adding after a pause, “In about 45 minutes.”
Billy Eichner talked about playing a scene with Henry Winkler, who dropped into the Fonz voice at one point, freaking out Ben Schwartz, Adam Scott, and Eichner, who hadn't asked him to do it. Patricia Clarkson got a shout-out, as did Louis CK, Brad Hall, and the great Jenny Slate. Offerman also mentioned Sam Elliott, and Aubrey added June Diane Raphael.
Mike talked about how often he'll see someone and just decide they need to build a role for them, mentioning Eichner specifically. “When I saw 'Billy On The Street' for the first time, I picked up the phone and called all of Hollywood and said, 'Find Billy Eichner.'”
Eichner seemed genuinely touched at the idea that they had wanted him on the show at all and said, “I'm just happy to be on the stage where John Travolta said 'Adele Dazeem.'”
Several people talked about how inspirational Leslie Knope is, which seemed to really please Amy. “I genuinely love her. I want her to do well and succeed. I love her exuberance. I'm a little lazier and more cynical and more checked out than she is, but the idea that the hero is someone who's all in is the coolest. There's nothing cool about her. She has no game. She has no tricks. Everything is face value. She tells everybody all the time what she's feeling. What's cool about her is that there's nothing cool about her. That's so much fun to play.”
14) “Cones Of Dunshire” is coming back.
One fan wanted to know if Ben would ever finish “Requiem For A Tuesday,” and while that doesn't appear to be in the works, Schur did reveal that “Cones Of Dunshire,” Ben's next unemployment project, will be making a return to the show soon.
15) The cast really truly loves these characters.
Asked what inspiration they draw from their characters, the cast started laughing. Retta was quick to replay, though. “She gets laid.”
Eichner seemed at a loss to find something inspirational about “Crazy Craig,” but eventually said that he likes that the character is 100% not repressed. Ben Schwartz was equally puzzled at the idea of finding some good in Jean-Ralphio. “He does exactly what he feels,” he finally said. “It gets him into trouble, and he follows the wrong parts of his personality, but he does exactly what he feels, and he loves life.”
O'Heir said that he loves the way Gary/Jerry/Larry just lets everything roll off his back because he knows how good his life is. Retta said that she loves the way Donna protects her friends, even if they drive her crazy.
Adam Scott said one of the earliest traits that they defined for Ben is what hooked him on the character. “From the outset, the thing I liked about him was that this terrible thing happened to him as a teenager, and the decision he made was just to put his head down and work hard and get out of this hole that he dug for himself. I think that's been a very consistent thing with the characters. He's a hard worker. He's always going towards something better, and he found her.”
Offerman said, “I am told at my job to eat a great deal of bacon and eggs and steak, and drink Scotch. A Lagaulin 16, to be specific, and I frequently am allowed to not say anything.”
Plaza said she loves that April can be a responsible smart woman, but that she can also drop all of that in a second to have fun or to screw something up for laughs. She also loves the way April simply looked at Andy, who she described as “the stupidest man,” and just decided to love him.
Pratt laughed. “Yeah. He is maybe the stupidest man. Knowledge is very dangerous. He's never eaten the apple from the tree of knowledge. He's just full of joy and bliss.”
It was Amy that summed it up best, though, and who really cut right to the heart of what makes “Parks and Recreation” more than just a silly comedy. “I'd like to think that when the show ends, and I hope it never does… growing up, I always liked characters when you could imagine them on the weekends. I don't even like to think about the ending. But it's coming. I love that her dreams are big and her power is small. She's met the love of her life. Sometimes that's enough.”
Week in and week out, the crazy, hilarious dreamers of Pawnee score the small victories, and any show that has the courage to suggest that's enough is worth championing.
“Parks and Recreation” airs Thursday nights on NBC.