How a ‘Parks and Recreation’ pitch becomes a joke, part 2

Senior Television Writer
09.29.11 3 Comments


Welcome to part 2 of How a “Parks and Recreation” Pitch Becomes a Joke. In part 1, I gave my account of an afternoon at the “Parks and Rec” writers room in early June, when Mike Schur and his staff were throwing out story and joke pitches for the start of season 4. Now it’s time for a follow-up discussion with Schur (minus the part about Leslie and Ben, which I published last week), in which he discusses which of those June pitches survived, which didn’t, why and why not, and what exactly that “Challenge Day” card was all about.

Spoiler warning: As I said in part 1, and as you’ll see if you keep reading, we discuss not only jokes and storylines from the season premiere, but ideas that are very much in play for other parts of this season (or, the Nielsen gods willing, future seasons). Don’t keep reading if you don’t want to know anything, but everything is fluid, and I think this glimpse of the writing process is interesting enough to merit breaking the usual spoiler rules. (And to protect anyone who chooses not to read, it is not okay to discuss any of this in individual episode reviews – at least, not until we get up to the episode featuring a particular joke or story discussed here.)

So let’s take these in order. I showed up as Dan (Goor) was pitching the idea that Leslie could wind up alienating all the old people in Pawnee and have to energize a new base.

That is very much a possibility for later in the season. It’s not one of the first episodes. We did a lot of research in talking to people who have run for election, and it turns out that the over-60 vote is basically the only one that matters in local elections. That’s still definitely on our radar for down the road.

Greg (Daniels) liked the idea of Pawnee having its own local version of “SNL,” and then the other writers pushed for bringing back Samberg, Forte and Armisen to play three of the castmembers.

I think the last moment we talked about that idea was literally that moment.

Any idea why?

I just think it faded away. The idea of getting real “SNL” people to play fake “SNL” people is probably funnier in theory than in practice.

But I’m curious if there’s some kind of larger measuring stick that helps determine when a pitch is just funny in the room and when it’s something you should keep working on.

I don’t know why things stick around and some fade away, except that they just do. Certain ideas just linger, and linger and linger until you finally figure out a way to break them. In my experience, this is how story breaking goes: someone will come up with an idea that’s just a funny index card, and you go, “Oh, it’s funny,” and then you forget about it, and it sits up on your board of index cards. And three months later, someone will pitch a story and you’ll go, “Oh, maybe we can use that idea for this!” And someone will say, “Oh, it doesn’t really work here,” and you’ll freak out again. The idea of a local “SNL” or a local troupe, because it made us all laugh, that will probably happen at some point if the show lasts long enough. Those ideas that make you laugh, you keep them in your brain or on your wall of ideas until someday they magically fit into a story or you magically figure out how to break them. For whatever reason, that one was never discussed again, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. If someone liked it, then someone will find a way to make it work at some point.

One of those cards up on the wall was called “Challenge Day,” and all anyone would tell me was that you spent hundreds of hours trying to break it before giving up.

That was an idea we had for season 2, I think. The original pitch was that Leslie and Ann were going to give a kind of self-esteem seminar to a bunch of high scholol girls – stuff about not being mean to each other and having a positive body image. Ann would do this because she’s a nurse, Leslie because the issue is important to her. This is based on real seminars that are done all over the country. The idea was that Leslie and Ann at that moment would have an issue that – at the time, because it was so long ago, she was dating Mark – had been simmering for some time, and over the course of this self-esteem seminar, they would start squabbling and fighting like high school kids, and the kids would be appalled by their childish behavior. And we thought, “Oh, that’s funny,” and we tried to break that story, and it didn’t work for some reason, and then we tried an alternate version, and it didn’t work. And we shelved it and waited for another issue that Leslie and Ann had, and we tried to break it again. We would send rooms of people to work on it, and they would come back and be frustrated and annoyed. For whatever reason, we can’t break it, so as a joke, we put the Challenge Day index card way up in a corner of the room, way up above a door, very far away from the other index cards that haven’t caused us misery and agony. The funny thing was, the office painted in the summer, and they took all the cards down, and after they painted the walls, they put the Challenge Day card back up where it had been. It was like somehow they wanted to taunt us too. If they had left it down, the nightmare would have been over, but instead, it’s back up on the wall, still taunting us.

I remember there were ideas from “The Office.” where that was also true. “Weight Loss,” we’d had that idea at the beginning of season 2, and we just spent hours and hours and hours trying to break it, and we could never break it until we realized the way you have to tell a weight loss story is over a long period of time. We knew it had to be at the very end of a season or the very beginning. It wasn’t until we spread the story over the summer. Maybe that’ll happen with Challenge Day, but until then, it’s going to taunt us.

Another thing that you guys debated that day was whether to take a kind of “Quantum Leap” approach to the season premiere and just keep jumping through different moments that summer.

We thought about doing that this time, too, and there is a time jump within the premiere. The first scene picks up right where season 3 left off, and then we jump ahead about a month. And the rest of it plays out about a month later. For a while, we were contemplating this idea where we would keep jumping ahead, while Leslie is trying to figure out what to do about running for office and Ben. The story is really about her delaying the decision-making as long as she can. We thought it would be funny to keep jumping forward week after week. And the benefit is that parks and recreation departments are most active in the summer, and we don’t get to show that. It would be fun to show a 4th of July fireworks display, a public pool scene, and we ended up not doing it because that wasn’t the way the story broke out. It just didn’t work out that way.

Dan told me that all your stories are either based on “The Contender” or “The Remains of the Day,” and I couldn’t quite tell if he was joking.

I wouldn’t say that all our stories are based on “The Contender” or “The Remains of the Day,” exactly. But “Remains of the Day” became a touchstone, because the romantic story is this very repressed romantic story about two people who are forced by a kind of rigid system of manners into not expressing their feelings for each other. And modern-day local government is not unlike a rigid system of manners in early 20th century England, in that there’s all these rules and regulations, and things you can and cannot do that are and are not kosher behaviors. It’s a very oppressive system in which love can flourish. We casually refer to Leslie and Ben’s situation as a “Remains of the Day” situation. It wasn’t that the stories are based on “Remains of the Day,” but the difficulty of them staying together while being in government was the idea. As for “The Contender,” that’s kind of a joke, because I’ve never actually seen “The Contender.” But it’s about a female politician who is wrongly accused of something. She has very high ethical standards and a high sense of integrity, which is very much like Leslie Knope. “The Contender” gets referenced, we ask about how you tell comedy stories about a woman who is very strong and capable and has high moral standards. It’s hard to take that character and be funny with her, and fortunately Amy is a very funny person and we’ve come up with ways to show other comic flaws. We’ve just ended up referencing “The Contender” a lot, because the situation Joan Allen is in – I believe, again, I haven’t seen it – is that of a female politician who is under scrutiny and trying to make her way in a man’s world, which is a major idea in our show.

So this is a relatively recent development. It’s not like it goes back to the DNA of the show.

No. I think it started around the time of the episode “Leslie’s House,” which Dan wrote, wherein Leslie, in order to throw a nice dinner party for herself, made illicit use of the teachers, and got called on it by an ethics investigation.

Okay, other story pitches that may or may not be alive: “Leslie gets blackmailed.”

That is still on the table. Not one of the first few episodes – if not blackmail, at least threatened with something. That would be down the road a little bit.

“Chris throws a housewarming party.”

That we very nearly did, and in fact worked on a long time, and half-broke that story. We decided not to do it. We went with a different episode for that. That was going to be episode 9, I think, and we came up with a different idea for how to tell the same story. But we still like the idea of Chris having an official housewarming party, so we may still do that story in the second half of the year.

“The Pawnee Scouts.”

We did do that. That is episode 4. We changed it to the Pawnee Rangers, because Boy and Girl Scouts of America so owns the name that me saying “Scouts” on the phone means I owe them 50 dollars.

“Leslie sets a record for the world’s smallest park, and then that park is stolen.

Leslie builds the world’s smallest park is an episode, it’s episode 8. We’re shooting episode 7 and rewriting 8, and as of now, it being stolen is not a part of it. It’s now Indiana’s smallest park.

Why the change?

The smallest park in America is in Oregon. The park in Oregon is essentially a small circle, about 2 feet in diameter, there’s a single plant in it. It’s on a median in a street. We wanted our park to be something that a human being could at least stand in – that Leslie could have designed it somehow. We found an Indiana state park, the smallest one is nowhere near that small, so we thought it was more appropriate anyway for Leslie to want to set an Indiana record than a national record.

“The Zorpies announce that the Rapture is going to happen.”

It’s episode 6. It’s the same thing, same story: they predict the end of the world. It’s not the Rapture in the Christian sense, but they predict the end of the world as written in their weird cult books. Cults are kind of scary things, there’s a lot of really unpleasant behaviors that go on in cults, and we wanted to make it clear that this is a harmless cult. No one takes them seriously, no one is scared of them, and everyone in the cult is like a 65-year-old dude. No children. It’s Pawnee-ified. They do show up in episode 6, and it’s an all-night vigil waiting for the end of the world. We got Robert Pine, who is the father of Chris Pine and was the sergeant on “Chips,” to play the main Zorpie.

That’s very different from Greg’s pitch at the time, which was Katt Williams.

We met with Katt Williams before we had an idea for the show; we just wanted to meet with people we found funny. We had a long meeting with Katt Williams, and it was really fun. And everything that’s happened since then has been kind of crazy for Katt Williams. Sometimes, Greg and I like to play a game where we imagine what would have happened if we’d built the show around Katt Williams instead of Amy Poehler.

There was some debate about how many, if any, of the regular characters should buy into the Zorpies’ story.

No one believes them or buys into them. There is one element sort of along those lines, which is that Chris thinks they’re ridiculous, but he reads their books, and finds they’re into reincarnation. As a guy who wants to live to be 150 years old, he finds it really interesting to think about reincarnation.

And there was a lot of discussion about trying to build the whole story around the Zorpies paying by check with funds they don’t have, because they assume the Rapture would prevent them from having to pay.

That survived as well, but simply as a joke. And it might get cut out by the time the episode’s done.

(UPDATE: One thing I forgot to include earlier is that I did this interview before I had actually seen the season premiere, and therefore didn’t realize that the Anthony Weiner discussion from that day in the writers room had turned into the Ann/Chris subplot in the premiere. I emailed Schur to ask how that idea evolved, and he wrote back the following.)

Short answer is, we wanted to do it and thought of many ways to have Leslie accidentally be the perpetrator (maybe she broke out in hives and took a pic for her doctor and her boob was visible?) and just gave up. Then we tried Dexhart, but he hasn’t been heard from in a while… Then we cracked it when we realized we could just burn Joe from Sewage, and have him do it unapologetically, which we liked. The issue of government scandals was out there for us and I wanted to do it; the key was figuring out a way to have it be a sideshow instead of the main event, which allowed us to tell the main story without getting Leslie sidetracked.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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