‘Parks and Recreation’ history, Part 1: Perd, Joan and the other Pawnee crazies

A few weeks ago, while working on my review of the “Parks and Recreation” episode “Save JJ”s,” I asked people on Twitter for the name of one of the show”s weirder recurring characters, the creepy, heavily-tattooed owner of Pawnee”s pawn shop. My followers identified him as Herman Lerpiss – and, better, pointed out that there have been a lot of characters named Lerpiss in Pawnee over the years, often with far more elaborate biographies than has ever been suggested on the show itself.

This made me realize that, while I have interviewed “Parks” co-creator Mike Schur many times over the years about major developments for Leslie, Ron, April, Andy, and the rest of the show”s main characters (you can read some of those interviews here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here and here), I”d barely scratched the surface of all the crazy background characters in the live-action Springfield that is Pawnee, Indiana.

So before the series ends on February 24 (and I”ll have much more to say about the show as a whole before then), I emailed Schur a lot of questions about the Lerpiss clan, Perd Hapley, Ethel Beavers, Mouserat, and other strange people, places and things of Pawnee, along with a few stray questions involving the major characters. The back-and-forth went on so long that the whole thing wound up being around 6,000 words, so I”m going to split it up into two parts; here’s the second.

We start off with a discussion of how the show tweaked its portrayal of Leslie Knope between season 1 and 2, which in turn gave the writers license to make the rest of Pawnee into the insane asylum we know and love.

My sense of how the show’s portrayal of Leslie evolved over that short first season and into the start of the second wasn’t that you changed a whole lot about what you were writing for Amy – though her scenes in “Rock Show” were tonally different from most of what she got to do earlier in that season – but a contextual thing. Leslie was still Leslie, but instead of April and Tom mocking her behind her back, now everybody admired her, but were also intimidated by her. So behavior that could have seemed delusional in the first couple of episodes now became evidence of her awesomeness. Is that how you guys were looking at it in those evolving early days?

Mike Schur: Yes – the initial concept was that she was a bright, ambitious, forward-thinking person who had no game. Greg and I thought of her as being like a golfer who knew everything about golf, and the theory and history of golf, and the ins and outs of club selection, but couldn”t play golf. (Where “golf” = “politics.”) When we tried to execute that idea in the early going, it seemed like we were saying she was just a goofball who had no idea what she was doing, and worse, was not taken seriously by her peers. So we changed the way people reacted to her, and made it clear that her problem was not intelligence, or acumen, but rather practical experience.

The tonal thing you bring up is apt, though – I remember shooting “Rock Show,” and after she has a disastrous quasi-blind-date (with a man she thought she was meeting to discuss wonky policy stuff), she is exiting the bar and Mark sees her and asks her where she is going. I can”t remember what the line was originally, but I remember talking about it to Amy and us settling on the line that we eventually used, which was: “Home. I”ve had a really crappy day.” It was a tiny thing, but the simple act of her speaking like a normal human being in a relatable situation, instead of trying to spin, or polish the crummy feeling she was experiencing – that went a long way towards just rounding out her character. We realized she should be eternally optimistic and dogged in her fight against cynicism, but also: she”s a human person on earth and it”s okay for her to say that sometimes she is in a crappy mood.

You can correct my memory if it’s wrong, but I recall Pawnee being relatively normal at the start – especially as compared to later seasons. (When we got to “Christmas Scandal,” for instance, the media over-reaction seemed much bigger and crazier than the town had seemed to me to that point.) I know you and Greg had always planned to make Pawnee this elaborate community akin to Springfield or Arlen, but at what point did you decide that the whole town would essentially be a lunatic asylum? Was there a scene or character in the early going whose success gave you permission to push more in that direction?

Mike Schur: That”s in a way the second part of the equation we used to calibrate Leslie. We were observing, back in 2008, a new all-time record high number of people getting angry while not understanding why they were angry. It”s understandable – “The Government” is a lot easier to get angry about than “Sub-prime mortgage bankers hiding junk bond tranches within higher-rated bonds and dumping them on unsuspecting investors.” The anger and outrage that should have been directed at banks and hedge funds was directed mostly at the federal government for trying to clean up the mess. That still boggles the mind. That whole morass reminded us that the government – for all its many flaws and infuriating bureaucratic inefficiencies — often serves as a catch-all target for citizen outrage.

Part of Leslie”s conception was that her dogged determination to improve people”s lives would constantly come into conflict with a populace who at best tolerated her, and her ideas, and usually flat-out distrusted her because of her job title. That meant we had license to make Pawneeans as bonkers as we wanted when they showed up to town meetings (though I would argue, based on our research, that the meetings themselves, and the attitudes of the people who spoke, were barely exaggerations.) Fortunately, the desire to satirize public outrage also dovetails nicely with the idea of creating a purely comedic setting for your comedy show. A happy marriage!

So let’s run through the origins of some of Pawnee’s strangest citizens. Perd Hapley, for instance, first appears reporting on Councilman Dexhart’s sex scandals, but at what point did you and the other writers really latch onto the character we would all know and quote?

Mike Schur: The first time Jay Jackson played Perd, We were shooting the scene where he reports on Dexhart”s scandal. He had an already- complicated line, and Harris Wittels, who was on set with me, pitched a silly introductory joke: “Yet another twist in a story that won”t stop unfolding.” It was just a joke about how newscasters always say overly official-sounding things. We gave it to Jay and he absolutely nailed it on the first take. From that point on, the joke wasn”t just that he was a newscaster-y newscaster, it was that he over-explained everything he ever said to an absurd degree, no matter the scenario. We had to cut one of my favorite Perd moments for time – in the Unity Concert episode, we began a scene between him and Craig with Perd reaching into a bowl of nuts and saying, out loud, to no one: “The story of these nuts is: they”re mixed.”

What was the original idea behind Joan, and how much was the character shaped by having Mo Collins play her?

Mike Schur: Early in season two we realized that the local media would be a good source of pressure for Leslie and her team; local TV figures are celebrities in cities like Pawnee, and hold a lot of sway with the public. The design of the character was basically “self-obsessed diva who dislikes Leslie.” I give Mo Collins the lion”s share of the credit for Joan – she attacked every line and every moment we gave her, and made them funnier than they were on paper. The character grew continuously because of her performance. I think she”s one of the funniest people ever to be on the show.

Who was the first character on the show to be named Lerpiss, and when did you decide on the idea that they were this stealth Pawnee dynasty?

Mike Schur: Honestly, I don”t remember. We named someone Lerpiss, and then someone else Lerpiss, and then everyone who needed a last name became Lerpiss. One day we saw that someone”s IMDBPro account had been left open on the writers” room computer, and we used it to make a bunch of character descriptions linking all of them in the family, and it just kept going. At one point an actual character in an actual script was named Lalyssa Melissa Kisseda Snurple Lerpiss. Writers will do almost anything to not work.

Excluding Jamm, who’s gotten a lot to do over the years, is one of the Pawnee city councilman the most fun to write for? With Howser, at least, I assume the challenge is more in the context than in what he’s doing.

Mike Schur: Milton was basically like Strom Thurmond at the end of his reign – an ancient doddering old Dixiecrat relic, who will get reelected until he dies based purely on name recognition and whom no one actually takes seriously. Dexhart was a maniac sex fiend, Jamm was a miserable, thoughtless creep…those are all pretty fun characters to write for. Howser existed because we wanted one decent, sane person who could provide some sense of decency in that rogue”s gallery.

Worse at his job: Sewage Joe or Harris from Animal Control? And were there people from other municipal departments you had more elaborate plans for that you never got around to?

Mike Schur: I don”t think anyone is worse at his/her job than Harris and Brett. Sewage Joe was a monster but at least he went to Sarah Lawrence, so he had to be pretty smart. The only municipal department we had any plans to explore that we never got around to was the Fire Department. They showed up in “The Camel” S2 and seemed like a pretty fun bunch of guys – we wrote more of them in the “Emergency Response” episode S5 but had to cut most of it for time.

I believe my first visit to your writers room happened before Jean-Ralphio’s first episode aired, but after you had filmed it, because you guys wouldn’t stop talking about ideas for how to insert him into upcoming episodes. Where did the idea for the character come from, and what did Ben bring to it that made you want to keep bringing him back?

Mike Schur: It came from just meeting Ben Schwartz. He came and hung out in my office for an hour, and was just a blur of energy and comedy, and it just seemed like, sure, yeah, that guy”ll work on the show somewhere. We were breaking the episode where Tom is trying to find Ron a new assistant and came up with the idea for Jean-Ralphio, who was described as basically a Hollywood agent wannabe (or: the last person Ron would ever want as his assistant). I went down to watch the scene and it was just very clear that Ben would be a part of the show as long as there was a show. (He actually does show up in the series finale, so I mean that literally.)

It makes perfect sense in hindsight that April would have a friend like Orin, but who actually came up with the idea for him, and how much pleasure did you guys take in finding strange ways to bring him back?

Mike Schur: Originally, if memory serves, it was a throwaway joke where Leslie just off-handedly brought up Orin to April and said, in a motherly way, that she didn”t like April hanging out with him. Aubrey then improvised, simply, “He”s a genius.” It was a tiny thing but we all got obsessed with Orin and kept referencing him, and then just decided to put the character on the show for real. It”s one of those little tiny nothing moments that you get to explore, if you”re fortunate enough to have the show stick around for a long time.

I always liked what an unpleasant person Ann”s boss Dr. Harris was. Was he inspired by a physician one of you had a bad experience with, and was there more to him – or to anyone else Ann worked with in her nursing gig – that you would like us to know about?

Mike Schur: He was based a little bit on a couple of doctors I have known, but was made real by Cooper Thornton, whose dead-pan, terrible bedside-manner is a thing of beauty.

Retta and Jim got promoted to regular status after season 2, and Rob and Adam showed up at the end of that season, but you never added any cast regulars after that. Were there any recurring Pawneeans whom you ever contemplated giving a bump – or even just using more frequently than you did – or do you think using most of them as occasional spices is what made them effective?

Mike Schur: It was already so hard to give the main cast their due – with a 21:30 running time, finding enough space for Amy, Aziz, Adam, Aubrey, Retta, Jim, Nick, Chris, Rob, and Rashida was essentially impossible. Then add to that all of the recurring characters we liked to work in – and there are literally dozens of them – and the idea of adding anyone else permanently just seemed silly. This cast was so deep, I really believe you could design an entire show around any of them.

What were some of the runner-up name combos to Crazy Ira and The Douche? Were they modeled on any particular morning zoo hosts, or just a general disdain for the genre? Similarly, was Derry Murbles patterned after anyone from public radio?

Mike Schur: I”m sure there were other possible name combos but that one stuck pretty solidly. And they”re not based on anyone in particular. What they really were was an excuse to get Matt Besser and Nick Kroll onto the show in a way that allowed them to go nuts. Besser co-founded UCB with Amy (and others) and is one of the greatest comedy improvisers alive, and Kroll is an absolute genius at characterization. Derry was conceived of in the writers” room just as an NPR type person, and then Dan Castellaneta sort of used Michael Silverblatt for inspiration, I think.

Another name combo question: how many tries did it take you to assemble the three component parts of Shauna Malwae-Tweep?

Mike Schur: A long time. That was very early on – “The Reporter” was the second episode we ever shot – and every story (and every name) seemed very important. I love that name so much, but if you think about it, what the hell is the deal there? She was married and hyphenated and then got divorced? I rationalized at one point that maybe her parents were sort-of hippies, hyphenated, and then gave their kids the hyphenated last name too. That”s the best I can do.

In those very early days when the show was thought of as an “Office” spin-off, what was the linkage between the shows going to be? Would Rashida have kept playing Karen? Would Leslie and Michael be distant cousins? Or did you pivot away from the idea of a spin-off so quickly that you never even made it to the brainstorming stage?

Mike Schur: It never even got very far. Right at the very beginning of the process, Greg and I tossed a few ideas around, for various characters, but honestly none even got past the level of like “Maybe Darryl could be a dad,” or “Maybe Andy (Bernard) could become a high school teacher,” or whatever.

When Paul Schneider left the show, you talked about bringing Mark back periodically as his career bounced back and forth between the public and private sectors, but that never happened. Why not?

Mike Schur: We had very real plans to try to get Paul back in season three. Then we were moved to midseason, and NBC ordered only 16 episodes, so we had to sort of re-think the season. It was the first time, of several, that we thought we were sort of in the end-game, so we decided to accelerate the Leslie-Ben relationship, and arc-out the Harvest Festival, and eventually have Leslie get approached about running for office. The show just kind of went in a different direction.

Where did the idea of Pawnee’s shameful history of atrocities against the Wamapoke come from? Was there ever a joke about that pitched that you felt took it too far, or does the whole thing fall under the “tragedy + time = comedy” equation?

Mike Schur: That just came from the stark reality of American history, which is that the West was “won” by kicking out a bunch of people who were already here, and then we all decided to not really talk about it that much. It”s not meant to be a huge political statement, or anything, but that aspect of our country”s past is just kind of glossed over, and the only place you tend to see it referenced, ironically, is in things like city hall murals. I have a friend who was married in a municipal building in North Dakota, and they had to have the murals covered because the atrocities they depicted were far too horrifying for the occasion.

Was the Lerpiss family history the most time and thought you put into something that was never actually mentioned on the show, or are there tons of these elaborate backstories?

Mike Schur: There are a few. We talked a lot about Dr. Richard Nygard, the oft-referenced but never-seen therapist who helped Chris Traeger (and later, Craig) become a better, more balanced person. The writers” favorite theory was that he was totally made-up, in like a Tyler Durden “Fight Club” type situation, and that if you followed Chris Traeger to a therapy session he would just be sitting in front of a mirror. Aziz actually made Dr. Richard Nygard business cards that had a picture of Rob as Nygard and handed them out on Rob”s last day.

Coming tomorrow: Burt Macklin, Li”l Sebastian, DJ Roomba, Mayor Gunderson and a whole lot more.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com