It’s very fitting that Parks and Recreation began as a show about a hole that needed to be filled. After seven seasons and 125 episodes, Leslie Knope and the lovable, bizarre and often crazy residents of the fictional town of Pawnee, Ind. are saying goodbye with a two-part finale on NBC. It will be hard for any other comedy to achieve what Parks and Recreation did, creating and developing characters that were both unique and absurd, but also some that felt like they were real enough to be our friends and family.
If you look back at the debut episode that aired on April 9, 2009, you might not even recognize Leslie, Ron Swanson, Tom Haverford and April Ludgate, as these characters have changed so much since the first season. In order to understand how Parks and Rec grew from a small cast of characters with opposing personalities into an entire city filled with so much heart, a little obesity and a lot of weirdos, we spoke to some of the people who were instrumental in shaping the show into a beloved-yet-underrated gem of American episodic storytelling.
The Show The Network Wanted And The One It Got
This was around the same time that Obama and Hilary were running and there was a lot of excitement and optimism about government.
With her run as Karen Filippelli mostly finished on The Office, Rashida Jones was an emerging star without a home. At the same time, NBC was looking to create a new Frasier by having The Office’s Executive Producer Greg Daniels (right) develop a spin-off, and what better way to tackle Jones’ availability and the need for ratings than by giving us the Stamford or Utica branches of Dunder Mifflin? Fortunately, Daniels wasn’t feeling a spin-off, so he teamed up with Michael Schur (left), a writer and producer for The Office, to create a different kind of mockumentary.
GREG DANIELS (Co-creator and Executive Producer): There was this push to do a spin-off of The Office, and it started with Season 3 when we came back with the Stamford branch and Ed Helms and Rashida Jones. (Former NBC co-chairman) Ben Silverman was like, “That could be its own show, that’s great. Why don’t you do that as a spin-off?” I was concerned about diluting The Office, so I resisted it for a long time. But eventually he was like, “I’m definitely going to need another show and you gotta do something.”
Mike Schur and I met every morning for like a year at Norm’s Diner on Sherman Way in Woodman. There were two ideas that were the frontrunners. One was this family show done as a mockumentary, and the other was this idea of a mockumentary version of The West Wing. Where The Office might have been the private sector, this would be the public sector.
MICHAEL SCHUR (Co-creator and Executive Producer): Greg and I were conceiving the show in 2008, and Obama/McCain was in full swing. Autonomy was collapsing. The general idea that we had was that whether positively or negatively or both, the government was going to play a big role in people’s lives. There was a gigantic bailout, and there was all this talk about this new Great Depression-era intervention in people’s lives. We sort of thought that the common version of that would be to focus on government involvement of people’s lives at a very micro level. Like the level of a local government where people’s problems aren’t the world economy collapsing, but we need a stop sign at this intersection.
DANIELS: We had all these character ideas in the abstract before we knew who was going to play any of the parts. I remember thinking, there are two different classic strains of humor about the government that I could tell. One of them was the hypocrite is running for office. The other is the bureaucrat who just makes everything impossible. You could go back 200 years and find comedy written about those characters, so we didn’t want to do exactly that. This was around the same time that Obama and Hilary were running and there was a lot of excitement and optimism about government.
SCHUR: The basic idea was to have the show be project-based. That meant instead of a typical situation comedy where you have, you know, all people who work in one office, or it’s all one family, or it’s all people who do the same exact thing, we would try to sort of pull at people from different walks of life.
DANIELS: We had a couple different versions of what could be the new show. We wanted it to be the mockumentary form because, number one, we loved how freeing it was comically. But we also felt it could be applied to other types of shows, not just a workplace show. I was just looking at that same old laptop over some of the notes from those initial things.
SCHUR: The idea was to say this is a really Byzantine world and it’s a really frustrating world, but it’s sort of famously convoluted and frustrating, and it would be fun to put a very optimistic kind of can-do spirit type person in the middle of that and show one person’s attempt to make a difference in this small-or-medium type town. So that was the design of Leslie Knope.
DANIELS: The reason we picked that idea was that Mike was already good friends with Amy Poehler from them working on Saturday Night Live together. He pitched her both ideas for the show, and she responded to the political one a lot. It was a great advantage to have Amy headline the show. We were very excited to get her. We also thought it was good because if it was going to be another mockumentary after The Office, we wanted to go in a fresh direction. Having a female lead would make it feel less like The Office.
AMY POEHLER (Leslie Knope and Producer, from her book, Yes Please): Mike called me as he stood on the balcony of his house chain-smoking… He told me about a character he and Greg had created called Leslie Knope. She was an extremely low-level Parks and Recreation Department employee who had big dreams… He sent me the script and it took me five minutes to realize Leslie Knope was the best character ever written for me.
SCHUR: It was obviously greatly augmented when Amy Poehler signed on to do it because she’s such a bright, sunny, cheery, positive, energetic person. So, the character and Amy merged when she signed on.
DANIELS: We had gone through every state and weighed its stereotype. We ended up with Indiana being it’s a Midwestern state that people don’t hear about much. Didn’t have a lot of stereotypes attached to it, we thought, nationally. Basically, we were trying to find a real backwater to contrast with her amazing ambition and optimism. The essence of the mockumentary is that the subjects are not being portrayed the way they think they are and there’s a contrast between the voice of the filmmaker and the subjects, and whether the filmmaker is catching the subject lying, or if the subject is unaware of how people see them. We incorporated a lot of that in the first season of Parks. Since she was such an optimistic person, we got a lot of jokes from the people around her undercutting that. Either they were more experienced and they would roll their eyes or they were actively working to take advantage of her. Like Tom was doing.
ALAN YANG (Writer): One of the great things Mike brought to the show in terms of writing was there could be comedy when characters generally got along and want to do the right thing. A lot of comedy seems negative and built on conflict and that stuff can be really funny, but if you look at some shows, sometimes the characters are just mean to each other. So, one of the challenges of Parks and Rec, that I hope we met, was that the characters were friends who had conflicts that were based on personality types and not based on zingers.
POEHLER (from her book, Yes Please): I started feeling my groove after a few episodes. I realized the cast was beyond talented and would eventually become like family. I constantly searched for Mike’s face when I was nervous. But the thing I do remember clearly is a small scene I did in the pilot episode. It’s raining and Leslie is standing and looking outside her office window. In voice-over, she speaks about how this park project is going to take a lot of work and last a long time, but it will be worth it.
Only As Funny As The Drones Around Her
I just met this really amazing weirdo from Delaware. She’s 23 years old and I think she’s really special.
While finding the right actors to complement Poehler was crucial, Aziz Ansari was actually the first actor that Daniels and Schur signed for their new project. Jones would take the role of concerned citizen Ann Perkins while Ansari would become Tom Haverford, and as a variety of actors auditioned for the role of Ron Swanson, Schur remembered a certain man who once turned down a role on The Office. The remaining roles were filled with unknown actors who were simply willing to take a chance.
NORM HISCOCK (Writer): In the beginning, we had ideas of what we wanted to do with the characters, but they morphed. After the first season we thought that Leslie was going to be more conniving and savvy about politics. But then we realized that just wasn’t a good color on Amy. It seemed better to have someone who was more into doing good with politics and wanting to be a good person in the government and that seemed more fun. That could get us more stories, and also I think the network thought, why can’t everybody work like her? We thought, yeah, why not? In the second season, we embraced that more. It was like a discovery period after the first six episodes. In the second season we just decided we would embrace that she’s a do-gooder, she loves her job and she wants to be the face of good government.
JIM O’HEIR (Jerry Gergich): The Leslie Knope character, people thought she was a little too much like Michael Scott from The Office. That wasn’t the intention. Leslie was a go-getter. And there’s no bigger fan of The Office than me, but Michael Scott was a dumbass who just wanted to impress and be lauded upon. Nobody works harder than Leslie. I loved when they made it where she wasn’t so goofy. She would screw up, but it was earnest, hard work. I think that was an amazing change for the series and it changed the tone of the show.
SCHUR: There were certain people who worked in Leslie’s office, like Tom Haverford, and we dreamed up that character for Aziz Ansari, who signed on very early as a sort of young striver who was in government to make contacts and develop his own business interests.
DANIELS: Part of it was a really scheming character that we came up with, sort of like a Blackadder type of character and, again, the first person hired for that show was Aziz Ansari before we really knew what the show was.
SCHUR: Aziz was just a person that we loved and thought was funny. Whatever idea we came up with, we would be able to find a place for a guy who is as funny as Aziz Ansari. Some of the other people, like Aubrey Plaza (were found via casting). Alison Jones and Nancy Perkins were casting the show and Alison called us and said, “I just met this really amazing weirdo from Delaware. She’s 23 years old and I think she’s really special.” By that point, we had had a draft of the pilot, but we just opened it up and wrote her part in because she was so interesting and cool, and we thought she’d be a funny addition.
DANIELS: You’ll see in the beginning of the show, Aziz is much more dark and scheming. He’s trying to put deals together with businessmen and make as much personal gain out of his job in the tiny parks department as he can. When you have a very creative writer who is also the actor, they keep coming up with bits and thinking about themselves and their own character. Aziz started coming in saying he wanted to do this peacocking. This thing that had been in that book The Game, a way to hit on women. He had some very funny things about that. His character kind of swerved away from being a sinister version of him, and he gradually became more of a metrosexual.
SCHUR: Nick Offerman had auditioned for a part on an episode of The Office I had written maybe three years earlier. And we had really wanted to cast him because he was super funny, but he already agreed to be on Will & Grace. Unbeknownst to me at the time, his wife was on Will & Grace and I was like, “Why is he choosing Will & Grace over The Office? What’s he doing?” And then I realized it was because his wife was there, and also because it was a great show. But I was really bummed out that he went to do Will & Grace instead. So, I just wrote his name down on a post-it note and stuck it to my computer and said, “Someday, I’m going to figure out what to do with that guy.”
DANIELS: Ron Swanson was supposed to be the foil to Leslie. Leslie is the most optimistic and energetic person. So Ron’s her boss and he’s the most obstructionist and anti-government person. We thought, wouldn’t it be funny if he were a libertarian and actually doesn’t believe in government? When we were doing our research and going to government meeting places, we went to Burbank to the city planner’s office to research what that was like. There was a woman in that office, and I said, “I want to try this character out on you, tell me if it’s at all believable. It’s a person who’s in the parks department, but he’s a libertarian. He doesn’t believe in the mission of having a parks department.” She laughed and said, “Yeah, I’m a libertarian, and I don’t actually think we should have a city planning department.”
DAN GOOR (Writer, seasons 1-5): Early on, we had a lot of trouble figuring out Ron. We knew that Nick Offerman was incredibly special, and the original idea that they had for Ron, which we stayed true to, was this genius thing of this guy who wanted to bring down the government, but also ran it. That’s such a smart and interesting thing that Greg and Mike came up with. But it was very hard to come up with stories for this boss. Generally, bosses provide the stakes for the stories, and when the boss wants the government to fail, it’s very hard to provide the stakes.
The only thing we could think of to do with Ron was make him a lazy boss. It was the easiest solution, and Greg kept coming into the room and saying, “That’s not who he is. He’s a guy with a philosophy. And it may be hard to figure out how that philosophy works and write those stories, but that’s the task.” Eventually, we figured out some really great stories for him, but it was a really difficult period.
SCHUR: We also thought that maybe the way that this show should kick off is having someone come to Leslie with a project from the outside. So, we developed this character for Rashida where she was just a citizen who was trying to come to the government with a problem, and the government would try to fix the problem. That would be an entry point for what would become a female friendship story. Then we had her boyfriend, Andy Dwyer, and we had all these disparate characters who would all come together with different points, within the government or as citizens to work on this single project.
That sort of branched out further. We thought, if we’re going to tell the story of a project, we should also include people in the media, newspaper and TV reporters, other politicians, restaurant and business owners, and community leaders. That was the beginning of building the entire town as sort of the focal point of the show.
The Right Lunatics Found The Show
The role that Louis CK played, we actually auditioned a lot of people for that role. None of them were anything like Louis CK.
While they weren’t necessarily main characters from the beginning, Jerry Gergich and Donna Meagle were on the front line of the supporting characters that would emerge as scene-stealers throughout the show’s run. A special thing about Parks and Rec is that all of the characters that needed just the right actors found them, almost as if it was divine intervention. Perhaps a more realistic explanation is that Schur was just the best at identifying the right actors.
DORIAN FRANKEL (Casting Director): There are people who became important parts of the world who had roles written for them, and there were people who came in because of auditions. My job was filling out the world of all the rest of the people like the Perd Hapleys, the Joan Callamezzos, Jessica Wicks, Barney the accountant – all the people who appear in one episode. A lot of those auditions were for one little scene in one episode. And then they just sort of worked in the world and they kept bringing people back.
SCHUR: As far as comedy actors go, we were marveling at our wrap party about how many deeply, truly funny people have been on the show, and how funny they’ve been on the show. Jenny Slate shot another episode or two this year as Mona-Lisa Saperstein and she’s just like a crazy force of nature. You wind her up and set her loose and she’s so funny. And Mo Collins, who plays Joan Callamezzo the talk show host, is so funny. And Jason Mantzoukas and Jason Schwartzman and Henry Winkler. All these people who are so deeply funny and great.
The thing that makes the world feel very rich is how many guest stars we had show up, come back and become part of the fabric of the town. Jon Glaser playing Councilman Jamm — the moronic, awful Councilman Jamm. Megan Mullally, Patricia Clarkson, all these people who kept popping up. One of my truly favorite things about the show is how many characters there were who were recognizable and who were floating around the world of the show.
FRANKEL: I was always looking for people who I felt would fit in the world. With each character, there were obviously different requirements. You read a script and get an idea of what the character is like. My job was basically to fulfill the vision of the creators of the show, and as time went on, hopefully develop a feel for the sensibility of the show and the tone, and find actors who have a natural affinity for that and are just really smart and funny. My job was to provide excellent options and Mike Schur, Greg Daniels and Amy Poehler have amazing taste and just really, when they watch auditions, I’m always happy with the person they pick. Because they make the final choice at the end.
DANIELS: A couple times we blew it. In the pilot, this guy Ian Roberts, who started UCB with Amy, we weren’t sure how many episodes we would ever get on this show, so we had him come in and be in the town. He’s a person where, if you would have thought about it longer, you would have saved him for a better role that could have been more of a recurring role than a crazy person in a town meeting. Because once you set someone up as a crazy person in a town meeting, you have to work with that in subsequent episodes.
SCHUR: We always wanted to have Bill Murray on the show, but it’s very hard to accomplish that. He’s a wandering spirit who just roams America looking for funny pictures to photo bomb. Louis CK was a dream of ours and he did the show, and Jon Hamm was a dream of ours and he did the show. Most of the people that we dreamed up ended up happening, which is really amazing. We consider ourselves to be really lucky in that regard. Paul Rudd was another one. We though like, oh, Paul Rudd would be perfect for this part. And he came in, did it and was perfect.
FRANKEL: Sometimes they write something for someone. Sometimes they have a character in mind and we come up with some ideas and see who’s available. The role that Louis CK played, we actually auditioned a lot of people for that role. None of them were anything like Louis CK. I believe that was Amy’s idea, and she was right. A lot of the actors I think were terrific, but he just brought something to it that was so unique and wonderful and beautiful to behold. I know with Patricia Clarkson that’s just something they offered to her. Same thing with Catherine Hahn.
YANG: We really lucked out. Retta and Jim O’Heir, Season 1, you notice them, they’re kind of in the background, but they’re just kind of lurking around that they seem to be nothing more than glorified extras. But it turns out they’re all really funny, talented actors. And to watch them grow into their roles, it’s amazing. Once we kind of stumbled on the game of Jerry being the butt of everyone’s jokes, it was great. Then when they’re fully fleshed out characters you can put them in a story. You wouldn’t believe how many times Jerry became useful in B-stories and A-stories and helping out with the rest of the cast. So, yeah. We were lucky.
Poor Jerry, Larry, Terry, Barry And Garry
He’s the office schmuck. The guy who doesn’t have a grasp on everything that’s going on.
No character on Parks and Rec was tormented as much on a regular basis as Jerry Gergich, and that all stems from one simple joke in “Practice Date,” the fourth episode of Season 2. Prior to that episode, Jerry didn’t really have much of a purpose, but he would soon become one of the more laughably inept characters on television. That is, until the writers decided that there needed to be more balance.
O’HEIR: When I started, my first audition was for the role of Ron Swanson, which can only really be played by Nick Offerman. I think most people in town auditioned for that role at one point or another. Ultimately, I think they always wanted Nick, but true to the network form, you have to see everybody. So, I went in as Ron Swanson, and it was about two weeks later when the agent called and said, “They want to bring you back for a different role, and would you want to do that?” I said, “Of course.” So I came back for the role of Jerry.
They were pretty honest and they didn’t know who Jerry really was and what was going to happen with this character, and when I got to the audition, it was a room full of different types of people who were also auditioning for the role. But then we played around a little in the room, a little improv stuff, and I think it was about a week after that my agent called and said, “They want to put you on Parks and Recreation.” My whole thought was, these were the guys who created The Office, and if what happened to those background characters would be what happened to this show, it seemed like a no-brainer for me. So I said, “Let’s get on board.”
SCHUR: We didn’t know who Jerry’s character was, we didn’t know that his name wasn’t Jerry. We didn’t know who Retta was. We didn’t know that she had expensive taste and that Ginuwine was her cousin and all that sort of stuff. That just came from, let’s pick these two people and we’ll put them in this office. They seem funny and we’ll get to it later. There was one moment, an episode early in the second season, the B-story was that everybody was talking about a politician scandal in the town and how nobody could really be elected because they all had skeletons in their closets. They dug up dirt on each other, and Mark Brendanawicz found out that Jerry’s adoptive parents were arrested for marijuana possession. Jerry kind of reacted and Mark said, “Ah, you didn’t know that, huh?” and Jerry said, “I didn’t know I was adopted.” That moment was like, he’s the office punching bag. From that moment on, the game was how do we humiliate this character more and more and more?
O’HEIR: That is when they realized that that’s who Jerry is. He’s the office schmuck. The guy who doesn’t have a grasp on everything that’s going on. I credit Dan Goor, one of the producers — he came up with that bit. And I just saw him at the wrap party the other night and said, “Dan, I am forever grateful.” Now maybe something else would have happened, and there would have been another angle for Jerry, but that was the angle that stuck. Because I really believe, if the character is just in the office and there’s nothing different about them, they’re not going to survive. There’s no reason to have them around. So, because of that, I give Dan Goor all the credit in the world.
KATIE DIPPOLD (Writer): I was always excited about a Jerry story. Maybe because his character was so mysterious for so long. God, I can’t even remember what his character’s real name is right now. But we would have big debates about what his home life was like. It always felt very important that everything there was good, so you could make his life miserable at work, but then feel okay about it knowing he was going home to his amazing wife. Sometimes someone would pitch a really funny joke for him, but it made that outside life too sad, so we’d have to cut it.
SCHUR: Once we started doing that we thought, well, this is going to get sad unless this guy has the best life out of anyone in the office. We said, “Okay, he’s married to Christie Brinkley, how about that?” And he’s got three of the most beautiful daughters anyone’s ever seen. And their family loves each other so much and they’re so happy and he’s got an enormous penis. Life couldn’t be better for that guy outside of the office. So once we did that, then it sort of balanced out how mean everybody was being to him at work and how much of a klutz he was, and how sometimes, he had a penchant for bending over and ripping his pants and farting at the same time.
O’HEIR: We did improvise a lot on set, but I gotta tell you, 95 percent of what you see is what was written. It’s the writers. We could pitch to the writers, but ultimately my trust was in their hands. Because what’s different about Parks – and everyone has a biased sort of view here, I’m a big sitcom guy, and I always have been – shows, after a certain amount of years, they can have a couple of rough seasons, creatively. I don’t think Parks and Recreation has ever failed creatively. I think every season, everything has gotten strong. That’s a big thing to say after seven seasons. So, for me, I just trust in the writers, they give me ideas of “listen, this is what we’re thinking, what do you think of that?” And I would be like, “Oh my God, that’s awesome.” There was never a time where I was like, “No, No, I don’t see that happening.”
Nothing Without Its Writers
We liked to chant, ‘Game of Thrones!’ a lot.
When we spoke to Daniels, he strongly recommended that we speak to the show’s first writer’s assistant Greg Levine, because he “was like the show’s historian.” We decided to focus on the writing of Parks and Rec because of how well-developed these characters were, and we wanted to know what went into the process of making them into who they became. What we learned is that this was, in fact, an extensive, time-consuming process, but the people who have been a part of the show had a blast every step of the way.
GREG LEVINE (Writer, and the first person hired for this show): I always explain the writing process in the room in three steps to people. The first step would take place in the story generation room, which was a circle of couches with bulletin boards and note cards and sharpies all thrown about, and this room is the generator. So, any conversation actually led to story ideas. You’d have an idea for an episode and the room would pitch any different way to go and would write down on cards different thoughts. For example, let’s say you’re talking about the Harvest Festival, anything from Li’l Sebastian lost in a corn maze to Andy or April saying, “I love you.” All these different cards get written, and you don’t worry about making it all work now. The thing that Mike Schur would always say is pitch contradictory beats. It was okay if what you were pitching was different from what someone else had pitched. Just get all the ideas out.
DIPPOLD: There was so much time spent on finding anything to do but actually writing. One of my favorite examples of this is when we were all sitting on the couches in the writer’s room looking at a photo album on the projection screen of us just sitting on the same couches the day before. Mike came back from editing and saw what we were doing and sighed and went into his office. It was quiet and then I think Alan said, “He doesn’t even know this is our second time looking at this album.”
LEVINE: Then it was fun to take that stack of cards, a story naturally developed, and you see what had to fall away and what takes hold. Sometimes cards would wind up coming back in later episodes. Or later on in the episode maybe, the story that you thought was really good kind of wasn’t as strong as you thought it was. So, “Oh, what about that other idea we had about Li’l Sebastian in the corn maze?” The story generating room was exciting because that’s where the skeleton of the episode was formed and from there is Step 2, where the writer who was assigned that episode took the bulletin board that had 50-60 cards on it and wrote an outline. The outline then got notes from the writers, and then they’re sent off to write the script.
DIPPOLD: Dan Goor once tried a science experiment, leaving a pencil or something in a cup of Coca-Cola over the long weekend to see what would happen. We had ants in the writer’s room for the rest of the year.
GOOR: I put a pencil in a glass of Red Bull, and it was before our two-week hiatus. When we got back, it wasn’t just an infestation. The ledge of my office window – it was like a four-inch deep ledge – was black, and I was like, why is my window ledge black? Then it started to move. Sheets of ants had invaded our office. You have never seen so many ants. It was like a David Attenborough film. It was crazy.
We had a similar infestation in our office at Brooklyn Nine-Nine and it led to a cold open where they were trying to freeze the ants out.
LEVINE: That script became the new skeleton, the framework for which the re-write happened, which is step three. They took the story and script to a second room, which was like a boring-looking conference room with a long table, a computer, and a bunch of monitors connected to that one computer. And then the re-write happened, where new jokes came or stories that you thought worked in the outline phase didn’t work once they were written, and you’d have to fix them there. Sometimes the script got so fat from like a 33-normal page script to a 50-page script with tons of different jokes. Tons of different alternate versions of scenes, and then the re-write took place over a week, and you had a table draft and then the cast had the table read. It took about, weirdly, two months from story idea to shooting draft.
DIPPOLD: I brought one of those fake blood capsules into work where you crush it with your teeth and blood comes out of your mouth. I did it first to the other writers while Mike was in editing and just a few drops came out and people looked weirded out, but it wasn’t a big deal. Then when Mike came back, I tried it again, but it worked way too well. Like blood was gushing from my mouth and he looked horrified. And I tried walking up to him to show him it was just a capsule, but I realize now that probably just looked like a horror movie. I kept trying to say, “I’m just joking,” but he didn’t understand why this woman who had blood coming out of her mouth kept repeating she’s just joking. It was a very intense and confusing minute for him.
LEVINE: TV writing is such a communal process, and I have much more experience being in a comedy room, and I know that comedy writing is such a communal experience that the writer of that episode definitely has a shape in that first draft, and first jokes and language of that script. But together the final version is a group effort. Always spearheaded by the showrunner, our showrunner being the amazing Mike Schur, who is the funniest, smartest, nicest man, or person, I’ve ever met in the industry. So he is the voice of Parks and Rec and together we all work with him to make that final voice.
DIPPOLD: We liked to chant, “Game of Thrones!” a lot.
LEVINE: We were a really tight, great group of people. We did a little bit of a celebratory dinner at the end of the season and people kept saying, this is amazing, this doesn’t happen too often where you work on a great show with amazing actors and amazing writers who you genuinely want to sit in the same room with and hang out with for 12 hours. And so I was thinking about that and I was cleaning up the room and we were all leaving and wanted to take some things and kind of remember it for as long as possible.
YANG: There’s a crazy thing that will sound unnecessarily self-indulgent, but for a long time the writer’s assistant Greg Levine, who became a writer in Season 7, he was an amazing writer’s assistant. And on his computer, he had a sound board where he would play sound almost like a morning radio DJ. And it got to the point where every writer on staff had their own theme song, so anytime you would say something or make a joke that was particularly representative of your character, he would play your theme song. It was unbelievably delightful. So, the whole work day became a sort of entertaining circus of people making jokes and then him playing sounds. Then you would hear your theme song. Some of the theme songs involved people getting up and dancing. It was just a really fun room to be around, so we always thank him for making the room so fun.
LEVINE: I always wanted to join in on the fun of the writers’ room, so I had an idea one day to give all of the writers and executives theme songs. The first theme song was given to our line producer Morgan Sackett, who is the nicest guy and the absolute best line producer. I thought it’d be funny to play the theme from the movie The Omen whenever he walked into the writers’ room. Once that was a hit, I was off to the races. I’d try to pick songs that perfectly matched that writer’s personality and attitude so that when you heard it you’d be like, “Yes, of course that’s their theme song.”
For example, Joe Mande’s was the NBA on NBC theme, Aisha Muharrar’s was a song called “Doggy Fun,” which was used in an early season of Project Runway, and Mike Scully’s was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run.” Though I’m probably most proud of the one I gave Chelsea Peretti which was a song called “Boyfriend” by South Korean pop group Girls’ Generation.
HISCOCK: My theme was a Cat Stevens song because I was the mellow guy. It kind of annoyed me because I get it, but I also like alt music, so it was like this thing of you could have picked something else that was contemporary and cooler. The song for Chelsea was always great. It was like real dance music. And Chelsea Peretti would always get up and dance to the song, but it depended on her mood sometimes too. Sometimes she would just sit in her seat and dance or sometimes she would go full hog and dance throughout the whole room, depending on how she was feeling that day.
FRANKEL: The writers are so good, and the characters are pretty well-realized when they appear in a script. Jay Jackson just had a particular way of being Perd Hapley. People will write for actors, but once the writers see a person and get to know a person, they get a feel for the actor. This happens on all shows, they start to write to their strengths. Like there was an episode where he did the worm. I’m not in the writer’s room so I don’t know how that came about. I didn’t know he could do the worm. Helen Slayton-Hughes played Ethel Beavers, she’s just a wonderful character and they kept adding her to things because… she was kind of that character from the beginning and she just brought it to life so beautifully that there continued to be a place in the world for that character.
Pawnee Hits Its Stride
It was fun to get this new character who could mention Star Trek and obsess over fan theories. It opened up a new world that we weren’t able to explore with the other characters.
Watching the first season of Parks and Rec followed by this seventh season is like deciding between Sue’s Salads and Paunch Burger. They’re day and night, and that’s obviously because of the evolution of the characters throughout each season. Just as Jerry became the department’s punching bag, Donna became the casual badass, Ron discovered new things like love, humor and patience, and Ann and April realized that they could become friends over an office rendition of “Time After Time.”
DANIELS: The fun part of working on a show is for the first couple years, it hits its stride almost every week. They increase by leaps and bounds, and the zoo episode, the first episode of Season 2, was a huge leap forward. I loved the episode that Fred Armisen was in with the Venezuelan sister city. That was one of my favorites. Another huge leap came with Adam Scott and Rob Lowe joining the show at the end of Season 2. That was probably the most transformative thing. A lot of fun stuff. A lot of great episodes that I loved.
MUHARRAR: The big game-changer was when we added Adam Scott and Rob Lowe. Those two were both so funny and they became great romantic partners for Leslie and Ann. I always love writing for Ben. I’m a nervous nerd in many areas of my life, and it was fun to get this new character who could mention Star Trek and obsess over fan theories. It opened up a new world that we weren’t able to explore with the other characters. Same with Rob. Chris Traeger was this incredibly unique character who was even more positive than Leslie. I wish we had done more stories with the two of them, but often when we tried we noticed it was just two super-happy, positive people and there was really no conflict between them.
HISCOCK: The second or third season, we knew the characters then and everybody on set was kind of in a groove, too. All of the actors kind of embraced it and knew who their characters were. And then I think that was the time – this is great, this is the show.
YANG: It’s a combination of just planning and serendipity. One example that we talk about a lot is we put the April and Andy characters together in a B-story in an episode called “Hunting Trip” and that was really more sort of good luck on our part. We didn’t consider it an A-story. The story was literally just them kind of messing around in the office and then we saw that they had this amazing chemistry and thought, “Maybe these two characters should develop a relationship.” That relationship is a good example of something fortuitous happening to us and then the writers sort of building from there.
GOOR: On “Hunting Trip,” an episode I wrote and Greg (Daniels) directed, an amazing thing happened. The intent of the story was to set Andy and April off on the course to romance, and it was pretty subtle in that script, because when you’re creating an arc for two characters, you’re never quite sure if their chemistry is going to work out. When we were shooting it, all of the other characters were off at the hunting lodge, so back at the studio it was just Chris and Aubrey.
Right before we started shooting it, Chris Pratt turned to Greg and me and said, “I’m gonna make her fall in love with me.” And he did, and they did. It was amazing. The characters immediately had this palpable chemistry. It was really intense and really neat to see.
MUHARRAR: I love romance and once we added Adam as Ben, it changed Leslie’s storylines and gave her this partner-in-crime who truly got her. Obviously, Ann was always there for her as were the other characters, but she and Ben really are soulmates. I love that we got to include that in the series.
DIPPOLD: Mike came in one day and basically said, “What if we married Andy and April off and skip all the will they/won’t they?” It seemed like something they would do. Then we all brainstormed what that wedding would look like, seeing Andy’s family and April’s weird friends, and what kind of ridiculous food they would serve. I can’t remember whose joke it was, but one of my favorite April and Andy moments was in a later episode when Ben pointed out that they only had one fork in their house that they shared when they ate meals.
YANG: One of the best things about the show is how we incorporated what the actors’ personalities were, what their interests were and how those are funny into the characters. The show was a wonderful example of collaborating between the writers, actors and producers. There are some obvious examples, like how Nick Offerman is into woodworking and whiskey, and how Aziz likes cool clothes and food. But as with any TV show, especially comedy, you’re finding the characters and defining them more clearly as you write. So I would say from Season 1 to Season 7 you reach a wonderful point halfway through where you have a good handle on them. Then it’s a joy to be able to write to those characters, as opposed to just a shot in the dark on what you think they might be.
O’HEIR: One of the greatest Parks episodes was Aziz and Retta doing “Treat Yo Self.” Because they’re very materialistic people who just love their stuff. The Chris Pratt character, I mean, he went from living in a pit to marrying April Ludgate and just being the kindest, sweetest man. Nick Offerman’s character, from this gruff libertarian who wanted nothing to do with anybody, to being married with children and adoring his family. Each character found a voice. What they’ve done with the finale, I’ve never seen in a sitcom — and I’m a sitcom watcher — is so awesome. Every character gets their due. I read the script and, as I tend to do the last couple weeks of Parks, I cried because I was not only happy, but proud of how these characters go out.
How Do You Write Jean-Ralphio?
It’s basically like Springfield.
The presence of the supporting characters, like Councilman Jeremy Jamm and Jean-Ralphio Saperstein among so many others, constantly made the main characters better, so when Parks and Rec finally clicked, everyone benefited from the weekly result. The safe assumption is that it was always a blessing to be able to write Tammy 2’s violent nudity or Perd Hapley’s simple-minded news delivery, but that wasn’t always the case.
GOOR: A lot of the early characters started as throwaways and jokes, like Ron says his first wife is named Tammy and his second wife is named Tammy, and then we find out his mother’s name is Tammy. Then we thought, hey, it might be fun to meet the Tammys, and Mike had talked at length about casting Megan Mullally. As the show became more established, our writers or Mike knew funny people that they wanted to work with. Like, he met with Ben Schwartz and came up with the idea of Jean-Ralphio.
LEVINE: I know that for everyone there’s always an easier voice or easier character to write for. Personally, when I had to sit down and write my second episode, “Ben’s Parents,” I saved all of the Tom and Jean-Ralphio scenes for the end because I was the most nervous to write those. I thought, I can nail Chris, Andy & April and Ann stories. I knew I had to switch my brain to get into the voice of Tom and Jean-Ralphio. So personally there are character voices that were a lot easier and some that were a lot harder. But I think, when it comes to story ideas, that’s fun to take from no matter the characters.
Jean-Ralphio is this horribly offensive but lovable person who says things that I would never ever say and has such a voice that is kind of different from where my brain normally goes. My comedy sense is more along the lines of Leslie and Ben and Chris and Andy and April, and I felt like I had to switch a little bit. It was just very tough for me to write for Jean-Ralphio. And I also think that Ben Schwartz, who plays Jean-Ralphio, is so incredibly funny and amazing that I wanted to write great jokes that he could say and I felt that pressure.
MUHARRAR: It’s great having unique characters. You never get bored. Though when any of us wrote woodworking storylines for Ron Swanson, we would put notes in the script like, “Ask Nick about this” or “Whatever Nick says is the best wood to use.” Kind of like how they write “medical medical” on doctor shows. But that didn’t make it harder for us to write Ron – it just revealed none of us were handy at all and Nick was always happy to help.
HISCOCK: It was always just, let’s have a good story for Leslie in the A-story, and then it was sort of like a Greg Daniels thing to throw from The Office that everybody works on everybody’s story. You’re not really sure which one you’ll be assigned. So it’s a team effort and trying to break the best story, then you get assigned to it and you end up writing it. It’s just the luck of the draw sometimes.
My favorite scenes to write for were the Ron and Leslie scenes. That’s my favorite relationship on the show and there was sort of a Mr. Grant/Mary Tyler-Moore feel to it. I just loved that they were sweet and they really respected one another, even though they were on opposite sides of the fence when it came to government issues.
YANG: Perd Hapley is my personal favorite. I believe his entire persona came out of the line, something like, “Coming up next we’ll hear more about this story that won’t stop developing.” We’re like, man, this a really robust comedy game where this guy just talks like a weird newscaster for every line and every line is so convoluted. We started building these really weird side characters.
We had amazing characters like Jean-Ralphio and Dennis Feinstein, but one of the writers’ favorite characters is this guy Herman Lerpiss who doesn’t appear till Season 5 or something, and he runs the pawn shop in town. He’s in a scene where they go to get a wedding ring, and he’s just this weird side character who is heavily tattooed. We tried to get him in every episode beyond that point. It’s basically like Springfield, in the sense where you get to build out the town, another one of the joys of writing for the show.
Happily Ever After
The odds of finding this connection with this group of people I think will be tough, if it ever happens at all.
The Season 6 finale, “Moving Up,” had all the makings of a perfect series ending until Parks and Rec unleashed a mighty curveball. Sending the seventh and final season three years into the future took a lot of guts for the cast and writers, because when “2017” picked up at the beginning of this season, the characters had changed so much. But just as all of the actors had previously fallen into all of the right roles, this chance also worked perfectly, and now the only thing left to do is send the characters into that beautiful Pawnee sunset.
YANG: We discussed jumping three years forward in the premiere for Season 7, and one of the reasons we wanted to do that was because it seemed very exciting. I think this is to his credit, Mike isn’t afraid of change in character forming, not in their personality, but in their growth. The show had done a lot of aggressive change, more so than is typical in a half-hour sitcom. And then we did the table read for “Moving Up” and it went really well, we were all really excited.
LEVINE: When I watch the Season 6 finale, where Leslie hangs up the picture of her officemates in her new office, I remember being like, well, that’s it. That’s the perfect series finale. How can it go anywhere else after that?
YANG: Lauren Anderson from NBC gave it really good notes. She said, “I love this script, I think the table read went amazing, the jokes are funny, the performances were good. It feels a little bit like a series finale.” And we were like, uh-oh, we should probably not make it feel like the show’s over. I think it was suggested in that meeting after the table read, what if we throw in a crazy curveball in the last meeting of this episode, and do it in the time zone that we were trying to save for next season at the end, to really get people excited for the last season? I think it worked. It’s just a weird jump forward – steady cam shots, Jon Hamm’s in there – and it’s meant to be intentionally disorienting. It got people talking, and frankly I think people are excited for the last season.
LEVINE: The real series finale was created and written and I think I was a fool for thinking that was the actual series finale. I have great hope for it based on the writing, the table read, and the shooting. I think it’s going to be truly wonderful and is in that perfect sweet spot that we have of tons of laughs, but super heartfelt moments. I love it so much.
O’HEIR: So many people have asked me, if you could write Jerry’s ending, what would it be? I know I’m giving you this answer without you seeing the ending, but they wrote the perfect Jerry ending. I literally could think of nothing better than what they shot for Jerry. I had heard rumblings of what was going to happen. Then they presented it to me to get my thoughts on it, and I was blown away. It’s just so respectful. Because Jerry is a goofball, but he also has a lot of great qualities. A beautiful family, his family loves him, and they just, for all of us, they have given Jerry a wonderful send-off, a wonderful finale.
SCHUR: We watched a lot of other series finales in the writers’ room over the course of the year, just to refresh our memories about what kinds of things people do. And it felt to me like the most satisfying of them were ones where you could really kind of project forward after the final credits rolled and you could imagine where everybody was and what happens to people. You could sort of extrapolate after the final scene.
DANIELS: I think emotionally it really does it justice to what was built up over the years, but I’m not going to say anything specific.
SCHUR: The episode is really about the characters saying goodbye to one another in some cases, and to the audience, obviously. More than that, the design of the story is to try to make you feel, as a fan, that you can imagine what everybody’s doing and what happens to everybody. I think if you identify with characters, and you love characters, you just want to know that they’re all going to be okay. Our main goal in constructing the story was to let everyone know that these people are going to be okay after they can’t watch them every week.
O’HEIR: Sadly, pictures have hit the internet of me crying. So I can’t deny. It was rough. We all knew it was coming. But in a way, I’m glad it was because it means that it meant so much to us. It wasn’t just another show that we did as actors and then we’ll move on to the next one. It was because it was so special that the thought of leaving was just horrific, but we got through it. We each got our own individual goodbye and it was tough. Then we had our wrap party and it was a blowout. Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman got on the guitar. Chris led all of us in the singing of “Bye Bye Little Sebastian,” which was just so awesome. Then Amy gave a speech, and Mike Schur gave a speech. It’s a special show we all said would never happen again. The odds of finding this connection with this group of people I think will be tough, if it ever happens at all.
SCHUR: It was very emotional. We arranged our schedule so that the last scenes were with the entire cast and they were on our set and not a location. We were able to all be together for the last moments of the show. It was very nice and felt very appropriate. The cast was very sad and the producers were very sad, everybody’s really sad. But sad in the best possible way. And we kept reminding ourselves that the fact that we got to be this sad means that we had a really great run. The worst thing in the world would be to shoot the final day of your show and then be like, “Get me the hell out of here.” That would have been a much sadder scenario. So it was all the good kind of sad. That’s an emotion you can deal with, when you realize that the reason you’re sad is because something great is ending.
We were scheduled to interview Harris Wittels on the day he passed away. Sadly, we never got the chance to speak with him. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of his friends, family and Parks and Recreation co-workers.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy these similar pieces we’ve done recently…