The drawback of interviewing the writers and showrunners of a series as wonderful as Parks and Recreation right before it ended is that it leaves you with more questions. Specifically, one of the things I wanted to get into with Michael Schur and his amazing team of writers for our oral history was the creation of Li’l Sebastian, the miniature horse that captured even the finely-carved wooden heart of a man like Ron Swanson, but there just wasn’t enough time. Fortunately, former Parks and Rec writer and Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-creator Dan Goor was more than happy to answer my burning questions after the fact.
This was perfect considering Goor was the writer credited on the two most important episodes for any mini horse fans: “Harvest Festival” and “Li’l Sebastian.” Perhaps the biggest question I wanted to ask was why the decision was made to kill off Li’l Sebastian so shortly after we’d met him, but I started with a much more simple query: Whose idea was this anyway? Goor’s memory was a little fuzzy on Li’l Sebastian’s origins, so we called Greg Levine, the man that co-creator Greg Daniels referred to as the Parks and Rec historian, to help fill in the blanks.
The origins of Notre Dame’s equine alum are still a bit of a mystery, but the greatest takeaway is that this fictional horse was loved by the writers of Parks and Rec as much it was by the citizens of Pawnee.
GREG LEVINE, Writer’s Assistant and the first person hired for the series: I’m not positive who came up with the idea. I remember that when the Harvest Festival arc was being conceived, there was a lot of discussion on various types of hometown super heroes. Like, the famous celebrity who happens to live in small town, or that famous mascot for the high school, or that special critter who always pops-up at different people’s houses. Things like that. There was a lot of discussion on some kind of a mascot, some kind of a rallying point for the Harvest Festival. Someone brought up the story of another town’s small miniature horse, and we watched a video about it, and I think everyone watching it realized it would be a fantastic thing for a harvest festival; a miniature horse that everyone in town absolutely adores and is practically the most famous “person” in Pawnee.
DAN GOOR, Writer: Mike really latched onto the idea of this miniature horse. Like Punxatawnee Phil and other small town mythological creatures, Pawnee would have a creature like Li’l Sebastian that they all loved. It was an idea that Mike really championed, and it was immediately clear that this was a good idea.
LEVINE: One of our favorite videos to watch in the room around the time the Harvest Festival arc was being conceived was about a real life miniature horse named Einstein, dubbed “The Smallest Stallion.” At the same time, when discussing the Harvest Fest story, there was much discussion about how lots of these small towns have local heroes, famous mascots, important landmarks, etc., and that they’d be featured at such an event. Someone pitched the idea of a mini horse being the centerpiece of Harvest Festival. I cannot for the life of me remember who pitched the name Li’l Sebastian, but it was an instant winner.
The mad genius who conceived Li’l Sebastian might be unknown, but what matters is Schur and the writers made this glorious idea happen, starting with “Harvest Festival.” Next came the details regarding just how much Leslie Knope and her coworkers came to love this horse, and how one outsider would represent the rest of us by asking, “What the hell is the big deal with this mini horse?”
GOOR: A big turning point in breaking the story was realizing that everyone, including Ron, loved Li’l Sebastian. The moment of giddiness that Ron has in seeing Li’l Sebastian is such a fun moment with a wonderful payoff for his unflappable, inscrutable character. It’s almost the first time that you see him truly, nakedly emotional, and it’s because he gets to meet this miniature horse.
Another thing that was really fun in the breaking of the story was the idea that Ben, who is not from Pawnee, doesn’t get Li’l Sebastian. Mike has a really genius brain for these sorts of things, and he immediately saw that the arc for Ben would be finding or at least feigning love for Li’l Sebastian. It would mark his sort of descent into the madness of Pawnee by his relationship to Li’l Sebastian.
There’s a whole shot of the staff, minus Leslie and Ben, stuck on the Ferris wheel at the Harvest Festival, and Ron spots Li’l Sebastian, and he’s glowing in the corn maze. They cut to Ron, who says, “It took us four hours to solve that maze. It took the horse 15 minutes.” I love the way that Dean Holland shot it, with everyone on the wheel looking down at the glowing horse. It’s just a magical moment.
Of course, Li’l Sebastian’s fame, for us, was short lived. Nine episodes later, in the Season 3 finale, Leslie showed up to work with some awful news for everyone: Li’l Sebastian had passed away. In a series rich with hilarious and delightful secondary and tertiary characters, we just lost one of the most unusual and beloved in a matter of two months. Why, Parks and Rec? Why was Li’l Sebastian taken from us so soon (despite the fact that the character was so old and ill)?
LEVINE: It’s really horrible that we did that [laughs], but it was awesome. There were always discussions in the writer’s room about killing somebody off. One, because it’s a great generator for story and also feels very dramatic in the right way. And that story about Li’l Sebastian dying, I believe, if memory serves me correct, started with the discussion of other people dying in town. One of them being maybe Mayor Gunderson, which didn’t end up happening until the second-to-last episode. So, there was always a discussion about what if the finale surrounded a death in Pawnee that really shook everyone to the core? Then somebody in the room pitched, what if it were Li’l Sebastian? Again, it was one of those moments that was like, “Yeah, that’s great.”
GOOR: I think there were three options; one option was that the mayor died, one was that Li’l Sebastian was kidnapped, and one was that he died. You’ll see it in “Two Funerals” and “End of the World,” but Mike liked the idea of characters at funerals taking stock of their lives. In terms of a storytelling device, a funeral is an excellent way of having characters naturally look back and take stock of their lives. A thing that we did a number of times on Parks and Rec was to cut the sadness or seriousness of a situation, we would use an animal analog. The gay penguins getting married was a way to discuss gay marriage, but in a sillier way. “The Possum” was originally about the death sentence because they caught a possum and wanted to kill him. The idea of doing a funeral seemed sillier it were about a little horse.
LEVINE: One, he’s on everyone’s mind because we only introduced him eight episodes before that. It’s not like it’s someone you haven’t seen in a very long time or someone who’s not important. Also, there’s a certain level of storytelling that I think existed at Parks, which was don’t hit the nail directly on the head. By that I mean you’re able to have stories about big topics, but in a very Pawnee Parks and Recreation kind of way. You can tell a story about a gay wedding when you use two penguins. I think that’s another example of how we tell a story of loss and also some moment that affects a lot of people and is very sad, and killing a human character that people really loved. When someone pitched Li’l Sebastian it was that perfect moment of, yes, that’s what it is. The horse dies. He’s not a human, but someone who everyone loves, but will not make the episode truly sad.
GOOR: When we did “Li’l Sebastian,” the very first version, at the breaking stage, the outline and the first draft, the start of it had all of the flags at city hall at half-mast. Everybody was in mourning. The whole beginning of the episode was about how sad they were, and the joke of it, the reveal, was that it was Li’l Sebastian they were mourning. When Dean and I were shooting it, it was just legitimately sad. It was so weird to start an episode with this sadness, so on the set we huddled with all of the actors, we shot it the scripted way, and then we came up with this alternate version where Leslie comes in all cheery and says, “Hey guys, you all remember Li’l Sebastian?” And everyone’s like, “Yes! He’s the best!” Ron says, “I love him!” And she says, “Well, he died yesterday.” That’s what ended up in the episode because it was just a more fun energy.
The most ridiculous moment of Li’l Sebastian’s death was when the janitor entered the room, jamming out to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” while the Parks department was observing a moment of silence for their little friend who had taken off to horsey heaven. It turns out that this hilarious scene was based on something that actually happened in the writer’s room, right down to the song selection.
GOOR: Something happened in the room. There was this incredibly awkward thing or piece of bad news, I can’t remember exactly what it was…
(When I spoke to Goor, he was in his Brooklyn Nine-Nine office, so when he couldn’t remember the scenario, he yelled out to Norm Hiscock, who is also a part of the Parks and Rec/Brooklyn Nine-Nine connection.)
NORM HISCOCK, Writer: I don’t think it was tense, as much as we were trying to figure something out.
GOOR: It was 11:30 at night, and we were trying to break a story, and I think there had been a big argument. It was a tense and awkward moment, and then the janitor comes into the room — they always came in the middle of the night — exactly as you see in the show. Everyone shut up and it was this incredible thing. He went through the room without acknowledging us or understanding what was going on, and he was listening to Shania Twain. It was exactly that moment. Every person began cracking up to the point of weeping at his obliviousness to what was happening. We were immediately like, “That has to make it into a show.”
LEVINE: I have this horrible thing where I can’t stop laughing sometimes. I was crying. I had to leave the room. Some other people just had to leave the room because we were in such an intense moment of working and he was so in his own moment of doing his job and had no idea that what he would do was seeping into our universe. So that giggle fest that existed in the room stayed with us for a long time, and I remember that when that scene was being conceived, it was brought up that a moment like that should happen. Where a tense moment where everyone is thinking and concentrating on one thing, that a janitor should walk through. And because we all experienced it we knew it was excellent.
From Li’l Sebastian’s death, though, came something even greater for down the road. Ginuwine finally making a cameo as not only Donna Meagle’s cousin, but also to perform at the Pawnee/Eagleton Unity Concert. Naturally, for the sake of comedy, he dedicated his performance of “Pony” to the memory of Li’l Sebastian, and then during the event’s grand finale — a performance of “Bye Bye, Li’l Sebastian” by every band from Mouse Rat and Duke Silver to Bobby Knight Ranger and Letters to Cleo — we were introduced to the Li’l Sebastian hologram.
LEVINE: Once Ginuwine joined the concert performance storyline, it was perfect that we had Ginuwine in the world of Pawnee. We had the story of the miniature horse in the world of Pawnee and one of Ginuwine’s biggest hits is about (or quasi-about) a pony or a horse. It was one of those perfect moments, of course. Then, when you see it happen, it felt to me for a second, and I’m sure other people at home, like, why would that song be about anything else other than Li’l Sebastian? I don’t believe it was difficult [to get Ginuwine involved]. It was one of those moments where everyone was on board. Of course he should sing “Pony,” it was just really a perfect storm.