‘Parks and Recreation’ history, Part 2: Bill Murray, Burt Macklin & more

Yesterday, I published the first half of a long email exchange with “Parks and Recreation” co-creator Mike Schur looking at the origins and evolutions of some of the show”s most memorable supporting characters and running gags. That discussion concludes today with talk of DJ Roomba (who came very close to never being a part of our lives), Li”l Sebastian, Burt Macklin and a lot more. But we start out with the first – and last – appearance of Pawnee”s greatest mystery man.

I know you had talked in the past about wanting to get Bill Murray to play the occasionally-mentioned but never-seen Mayor Gunderson. How did that actually come about? And if he had said no, was there a back-up Gunderson plan, or would he have simply remained a mystery forever?

Mike Schur: We wanted to do an episode in the final season where someone died. We settled on Gunderson, because it felt like the right “end of an era” kind of thing, and it wouldn”t be too sad because we”ve never seen him. We had wanted Bill to play Gunderson for six years, and we had one final thought – maybe he”ll do it if we literally just have him lying in a coffin. That seems like a fun thing to do, if you”re Bill Murray.

Aubrey and Amy deserve the lion”s share of the credit, as they actually know him and reached out a number of times. Rashida did too, I believe. It was a real long-term, multiple-front attack. Once he agreed to do it, we wrote a bunch of mini-talking heads, thinking that a brief beyond-the-grave video message would be easy to shoot as well. We wrote like twenty short little jokes just as samples, and he did every single one of them. The one we used was largely his own improvisation, which felt appropriate.

If he hadn”t done it, we would”ve just shown a closed coffin. We actually shot the whole sequence with a closed coffin, and plants strategically blocking “Farewell” posters with the face of a stand-in. It was Murray or Bust.

I know of your love of silly names. Do you have a favorite name from the show, whether a memorable character or someone in the background?

Mike Schur: There are so many. We named the guy who starts chants all the time at public forums “Chance,” and then his last name, for no reason, became “Frenlm.” Chance Frenlm. As much as I loved naming characters Tadnork Sprummith or Golm Bimbenders or Elise Yarktin or Harvey Spielyorm, some of my favorite names on the show are very simple. Greg Daniels came up with Ron Swanson, which is an amazing character name. I love April Ludgate, and “Pistol” Pete Dissellio, and a bunch of more traditional-ish ones.

My love of weird names is partly just my 11 year-old Monty Python-watching self giggling like a goon. But it”s also a legitimate feeling that characters have more depth and are more interesting when their names are not Hollywood-sounding. Personal preference, obviously, but to me, as a name, “Jack Bauer” is boring. “Jack Ryan” is boring. “Mike Ehrmantrout” is interesting.

Amy used to enjoy calling me out on the names. I named a reporter Eugene Pilogrimaldi, and when she was shooting the scene where he asked her questions, she would, in every take, say, “Well, Eugene Pilogrimaldi, the thing is…” She did the same thing when I named a reporter Trodd Frankensteip. “That”s a good question, Trodd Frankensteip. I would say…”

When you guys were working on “Greg Pikitis,” did you instantly know that Burt Macklin was an idea you would bring back? If not, how did he return to life after that one? And how did you want Janet Snakehole to complement Burt?

Mike Schur: Andy having a crime-fighting alter-ego seemed like it should be pretty fun, and then Pratt just went nuts with it, throwing his coffee mug and shattering an easel…then, when Pikitis”s “mother” said her line, “I”m going to report this to your [Dave the cop”s] boss, and your [Leslie”s] boss, and [to Andy] I don”t even know who you report to –” Pratt improvised: “The President of the United States of America.” That sealed the deal.

Janet Snakehole was a kind of throw-away joke in the episode when April and Andy are goofing around at the Snakehole lounge and April says that her parents own it – the name Janet Snakehole is her “evidence” of this. But that episode, and her alter-ego, became very important in terms of their relationship – we realized that it was one of the ways that April and Andy overlap. She likes to act out and be weird, and Andy is right there with her. An active, shame-free imagination is a big part of their Venn diagram overlap.

Where did the idea for Li’l Sebastian come from, and did you expect that joke to have the lifespan that it did?

Mike Schur: I don”t know who came up with it, but we were looking for things Leslie could find that would make the Harvest Festival really special. Poking around the internet, we found that animals, for some reason, are often big celebrities in small or medium-sized towns. Not all of them are famous around the country, like Punxsutawney Phil, but within the communities they live, they”re big deals. So we conceived of Li”l Sebastian, and then the cast delighted in the idea so much that when we brought the horse into that scene, they just collectively decided to make it the biggest deal ever. They are all so funny in that moment – Nick giggling and clasping his hands together, Aziz”s “Whaaaaat?”, Andy”s childlike disbelief, even Aubrey is visibly moved to be in his presence. It”s such great group comedic acting. And then Adam”s (very reasonable) outsider shrug put a fine point on how insular these towns can be.

That whole cocktail of acting and reacting I just loved – and it continued, later, when Leslie plays the Li”l Sebastian trump card to Joan and Joan curses in thrilled disbelief and stomps off. Dan Goor and Dean Holland (who directed about 30 episodes of the show) did such a perfect job of explaining Li”l Sebastian and making the (absurd) concept read to the audience. It”s the kind of comedy premise that – when executed as well as Dan and Dean executed it – tends to stick around.

I remember you showing the DJ Roomba scenes to me when I was visiting the writers office the week you were editing that episode, and I couldn’t believe there was a chance that it wouldn’t make the final cut. How close did you come to leaving DJ Roomba out of our lives? What convinced you to leave him in? And do you recall what had to be cut to make room for that?

Mike Schur: It was always a struggle – and I mean always – to cut these episodes down to time for broadcast. So many great actors, so little time. So what happens is, you look for things that can be lifted out without affecting the story, even if they”re funny. DJ Roomba was one of those, and so for a long time I had removed it from the cut. But sometimes you cut something and it just bothers you, like an itch you can”t reach, and it just keeps itching, until you realize: ok, it doesn”t move the story along, it isn”t a crucial, load-bearing wall for this episode, but screw it, it”s gotta go in.

Sometimes you know that from the beginning of the editing process, like the whole “Fri-fri chicky-chick” thing – that was like 60 seconds of just Aziz goofing around and saying crazy names for foods. No reason for that to exist, except that when we were writing it, and when Aziz read it at the table, it was everyone”s favorite thing. Sometimes when a joke, or a sequence, is everyone”s favorite thing, that means it just deserves to survive, short-episode-length be damned.

From whence came Ben’s calzone obsession?

Mike Schur: I think that was another kind of throw-away joke during the Harvest Festival run, where Ben casually suggested getting some calzones for a gathering, and everyone just jumped down his throat. We really wanted to highlight Ben”s outsider-ness in Pawnee, and see through his eyes the challenges of adapting to a place as specific as Pawnee (hence his confusion to the insider reaction to Li”l Sebastian). His backstory was that he had traveled from town to town, living in each for a few weeks, and was kind of rootless, and knowing he was going to end up staying, we thought it would be cool to see him at first being confused by Pawnee and all its quirks, then slowly being won over by them, even if he never became a 100% convert.

But again – broken record, I know – it”s really about how Adam and Amy and everyone played the scene. The more we made him suggest calzones, and the more we made everyone else hate them (and him, for suggesting it), the funnier it got.

Did Leslie and Ron’s love of breakfast food develop independently from one another, or was that something designed to link them together despite their many differences? And how much weight would Amy and/or Nick gain if they actually tried to eat like their characters?

Mike Schur: It”s more the latter – they are such different people, and we independently arrived at Leslie + waffles and Ron + bacon, so suddenly it seemed like a point of overlap. I always thought of it as hopeful. There is an old trick of diplomacy, where if you have two warring factions who agree to sit down at a table, you first choose something very simple and uncontroversial that they can agree on. You say, “What does everyone want to drink, water or motor oil?” When they all say water, you have begun the session with a point of mutual agreement. For Leslie and Ron, a 19th-century libertarian and a 21 st century progressive, that thing is breakfast food.

But to your point about how much they eat – we did a story with Ron and Chris Traeger where Chris asked Ron to help him break some bad news to people, and then Chris, delighted with finding a new person (post-Ben) who was willing to do his dirty work, asked Ron to lunch. Ron suddenly realizes it is a “friend” lunch and the script called for him to quickly stuff an entire hamburger in his mouth in an attempt to speed things up. When shooting it the director kept asking him to do different things – swallow it whole, don”t even chew the bun, etc. Finally Nick had to remind us that Nick is not Ron – that his capacity to consume food in real life does not match the superhero levels we had conceived of for Ron. It was easy to forget that, sometimes.

Duke Silver was introduced very early in season 2, but shortly after you had the “I’m Ron bleeping Swanson” breakthrough with that character in “The Stakeout.” How did you guys come up with the idea for Ron’s alter ego, was there any debate about whether this was too big a departure for him (especially that early), and how did you know when enough time had passed for you to use Duke again?

Mike Schur: Every show, in its infancy, paints its characters in necessarily broad strokes. That”s partly because you”ve only put them on display for a few minutes, and partly because you just don”t know how to write for them yet. You don”t know anything. What we did know is that Nick Offerman was a much more loveable and delightful person than Ron had been through six episodes, and we needed ways to show that, without sacrificing his essential role in the show, which was a staunchly anti-government obstacle for Leslie. Dan Goor pitched the story where he had a hernia – the first time Ron had been shown as a human with human weaknesses – which led nicely to the first April-Ron bonding moment. I can”t remember who pitched the idea of Duke Silver (though I remember that Dana Gould pitched the name, for which I am forever grateful), but both things were just a way to show that Ron had vulnerabilities, and that he was a more complicated person that the first six episodes may have been able to suggest.

Duke Silver was a very potent piece of character information, and we exercised extreme caution in bringing him back. Sort of like Treat Yo” Self – playing those cards too often, or too soon, would diffuse them of a lot of their power.

I know you said Pratt improvised most of the band names in the talking head from “Rock Show,” but who actually came up with the name Mouse Rat? Was there any thought given to frequently changing the name over the life of the show, or did you like that one too much?

Mike Schur: Some of those were written, and a lot were improvised. We had looked for ways early on to distinguish the shooting style from “The Office” – we introduced a second camera on talking heads, for example, that allowed us to make edits within takes. (“The Office” talking heads had to be all one perfect take – we almost never used B-roll to cover edits, or anything — which is bonkers.) In “The Reporter” episode, there is a scene where Leslie is talking to Shauna Malwae-Tweep, who has (a) slept with Mark and (b) gotten Mark, on the record, to say a lot of disparaging things about the possibility of Leslie building a small park on Lot 48. Amy had so many great reactions and improvs, that Dean Holland just edited them all together in one long string-out, for Greg and me to look at. Then we watched the string-out and thought it was really funny as-is. So, what the hell, let”s leave them all in.

From that point on, jump-cuts were a new toy to play with, and that band name sequence was the first time we explicitly created a scene meant to be jump-cut. I had Pratt change his physical stances, turn his head, do a lot of stuff to make it clear that we were jumping around. It worked really well. After we shot it, I had a pretty solid gut feeling that it was going to work, so when Scarecrow Boat finishes its last song and he says “Thank you Pawnee, we are Scarecrow Boat!” I had him add, “Naw, screw it – we are Mouse Rat!”

Leslie’s mom appeared a lot early in the series, but much less frequently as it went along, and not at all since the episode where we met Ben’s parents. Given what you said before about the difficulty in servicing just the main cast, did it simply get harder to incorporate her, or did you want to show Leslie being more adult, and therefore not needing her mom as much? (Or was Pamela Reed busy?)

Mike Schur: It was a little of everything. Pam is such a good actor, and I always liked how her toughness helped to explain Leslie”s emotional life. But as the show went on, Leslie”s actual life became more and more fleshed-out, and there was less of a need for delving into her origin story.

Of all the great Indiana Pacers, why Detlef Schrempf? Just the name?

Mike Schur: The name didn”t hurt. But really, it was because he wanted to do it. His son played for UCLA at the time and he was coming down here a lot to watch games, and we reached out and he said, “Sure!” That happened a lot with this show – we had a lot of moments where we would say, “You know who should play this part? Werner Herzog.” Then somehow Werner Herzog is both available and game. There were dozens of examples – Paul Rudd, Patricia Clarkson, Bo Burnham, JK Simmons, Martin Starr, Kathryn Hahn, Lucy Lawless, Blake Anderson…when you can actually get the Platonic ideal of a character to play that character, good things happen.

Speaking of Detlef, how much fun did you guys have just coming up with stupid things for Tom and Jean-Ralphio to be wasting their money on during the brief and glorious run of Entertainment 720?

Mike Schur: Oh man, so much. The design of E720 was: two wannabe players have a lot of money and no actual ideas for how to manage it. It was created to be an explosively terrible learning experience for Tom, that would help him mature down the road, so that business was pure id, and pure idiocy. I loved that era so much – the End of the World party is one of my favorite Tom/Jean-Ralphio set pieces we ever did.

Finally, two words: Ethel Beavers.

Mike Schur: I”ll say this: there is an entirely different show, covering a much longer period of time in Pawnee”s history, that could be told completely from Ethel Beavers” POV. Her life, her lovers, her job on the fourth floor. Maybe that”s the next project. That”s my “Better Call Saul.”

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com