As the creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (and an early writer on the U.S. version of The Office, where he also occasionally played Dwight Schrute’s cousin, Mose), Michael Schur’s “brand” has always been represented by workplace comedies featuring versatile ensembles. But with NBC’s The Good Place, though, Schur is shaking things up a bit, leaving the office and the Earth to focus on the journey of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a recently deceased and not-so-great woman who finds herself in a sort of post-life paradise. The show, which co-stars Ted Danson as the eager-to-please and anxious architect of Bell’s new “neighborhood,” is high-concept, but there are still human interactions at the heart of it, and as cliche as it is to say, that’s where good comedy lives — in the heart.
We spoke to Schur about switching the challenges of crafting a comedy about the afterlife, broadening the focus to other characters beyond Eleanor, the possibility of seeing the Bad Place at some point, and of course, which Parks and Recreation characters would make the grade.
We haven’t seen a lot of comedic visions of the afterlife, Defending Your Life is a film that comes to mind. Tell me a little bit about the challenges that come from trying to tell a story based in the afterlife.
Michael Schur: Yeah, there’s a few. The first one is always that I think it’s very important in comedy that people understand the rules of the universe. Both literal rules and also tonal rules, and when you’re doing a show set in any kind of otherworldly place, especially early on, you’re having to balance making people feel like they understand how it works and then also, that’s usually not that funny… [Laughs.] to sort of, lay out this can’t happen and this can’t happen and this can’t happen.
That’s one big challenge: trying to get all that information out. And we had a lot more expository stuff in the first couple of episodes that we ended up cutting just because we felt like we were edging out comedy and that the people weren’t going to enjoy the show if they were getting nothing but rules and regulations. That was probably the biggest thing when you do a show… Like, Parks and Recreation, for example, there was some amount of work that had to be done to explain what local government is and how it functions and stuff, but ultimately it was a group of living human beings in an office setting and there was a certain shorthand that came with that. This is a little different. I would say that was probably the biggest challenge.
When you’re doing a show like this, how important is it to make it palatable for someone who has strong opinions about what the afterlife is?
Well, honestly, I did a lot of research into religious conceptions of the afterlife, they were actually weirdly similar. In many cases, they’re variations on a theme, but I made it very clear… Ted Danson says early on, that this is not any… no one religion got it right. If that upsets people that his or her particular conception of the afterlife, based on his or her particular religion, isn’t being accurately represented, there’s nothing I can do about it. But I felt like it was very important to say, “No actual religion, no organized religion nailed it.” This is its own thing and I think that the basic concept of my version of it, which is based on whether you were a good or bad person, is largely reflected in most religious points of view, right? That’s sort of a qualification for any admittance into “The Good Place.” Whatever your version is. I just thought it would be weird to say, you know who was right? The Presbyterians, they got the whole thing right. I tried to make it a more general concept of good and bad.
So much of what you’ve done — The Office, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine — has been rooted in having a strong ensemble cast. Are we going to learn a little bit more about some of the supporting characters, and are we going to see any of them get the chance to break out? Or is it mostly based on Kristen Bell’s character?
It becomes more and more ensemble-y as the show goes on. One of the tenets of the show is that you get flashbacks to people’s lives on Earth and in the beginning, those flashbacks are largely Kristen’s, but as the show goes on, you get flashbacks of other characters and you start to spend more time with them. I think by the end of the first season — really by the middle of the first season, but certainly by the end — you’ll feel like it’s more of an ensemble. We’re seeing the world through Kristen’s eyes largely at the beginning, so it was important to really establish her as the… She is the mistake, she was admitted to the Good Place by mistake and that’s the lever that is being pulled, that’s the fulcrum of the whole show. It focuses on her in the beginning and begins to broaden out pretty quickly.
You’ve worked on shows before like The Office and Parks and Recreation, where they evolved from the start. Are there any places where you feel like you see that this show is changing as it has moved forward?
I had the whole first season plotted out before I started writing, really. Before I started writing the pilot. And the reason for that was because this is such a different territory for me personally. I didn’t want to commit to writing it unless I knew where it went. I felt like I didn’t want to take the leap unless I knew where it was going to land, so I had the whole first season plotted out. There’s a little bit of danger in that, I would say, simply because you’re running the risk of cutting off good ideas that someone might pitch. Even though I felt like I knew where it was going, I also tried to stay open to suggestions that were better than what I’d come up with and certainly took more than one from the writing staff.
It’s a combination. At least story-wise, I wanted it to have a firm sense of where it was going, but not so firm that I wouldn’t be able to adjust on the fly. We did do that a number of times over the first season. When you have just character comedies like The Office or Parks and Rec or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, there’s a certain amount of joy that comes from letting the characters tell you what should happen. That sounds a little froofy or writerly or something, but the actors add something to the writing and the characters emerge and move in different ways and you start thinking, “Oh cool, maybe that character can do this kind of thing.” I still want to try to maintain that, but also because the show has a heavily serialized nature and it’s very tightly plotted, I felt like I kinda owed it to the actors and the production team and the other writers to have some idea of where we were headed. I think if we’re lucky enough to go forward, I think I’ll try to keep that same formula.
Obviously, we’re all flawed. Kristen’s character is very relatable because of that — though, Chidi’s (William Jackson Harper) aspirations are relatable too — but are we going to see other flawed people come through? Are there other glitches in the system that we might meet?
I don’t want to give anything away in particular, but part of Kristen’s argument is… In fact, her main argument, I would say is the system as it’s established kind of stinks. If you do the math, it’s about one in half a million people who would get entrance into The Good Place and everyone else is, “Sorry, you’re being tortured forever.” She has a belief that there should be a place for people like her, who weren’t serial killers or arsonists or anything, but also maybe weren’t quite good enough or nice enough or empathetic enough on Earth to justify getting into the best possible place. She believes there should be a middle place, and her belief that most people are flawed runs through the entire season, and you see how that plays out with other people and how other people bring their own expectations to things and stuff like that. Without being spoiler-y, that is certainly a main theme of the full first season.
Obviously, there are some really iconic characters in TV that have never been seen: Maris on Frasier is one that comes to mind. Are we going to have characters or places — a God-like character or “The Bad Place” — that are going to be talked about but probably never seen?
Well, what I will say is that what Ted Danson’s character explains at the beginning of the pilot is that this is one neighborhood of many. The way that the afterlife is broken up in the good place is that you’re in a neighborhood, and the neighborhood has 322 people in it, and this particular neighborhood is a particular sort of heaven-like place for those 322 people. They’re all different, all the neighborhoods are different. He is the sorta middle management guy in charge of this one particular neighborhood. What’s fun about that is that you get the sense that you’re seeing a very small piece of the puzzle, both in terms of Ted’s character and where he is in his own hierarchy of these otherworldly good place architects and designers. You’re also only seeing one tiny little neighborhood, there are many other neighborhoods.
You’re also, just by the fact that the show is called The Good Place, that means that somewhere, theoretically, there is The Bad Place. When we set out to break in the episodes, we have to figure out, which other things we wanted to see, which of them we only wanted to talk about or hint about. You will get to see and learn more about Ted’s character, where he fit into his, whatever his being’s world is — you get to see a little bit of that eventually. You get to see a little bit of what another neighborhood might look like, so the setup is basically… of the pilot is when it starts, it’s just a woman in one little tiny room and then you move outside, and then you slowly see more and more of this neighborhood, and then you get to pull back a little bit and ruminate on the concept of what other neighborhoods are like and all that kind of stuff. So it’s a slow build, but all of those were definitely things that we employed or at least thought about employing over the course of the first season.
Not to push, but one thing that I had in mind when I was watching the pilot is you really get a chance to deploy some visual effects with the large bugs, the flying shrimp, and the flying. I just couldn’t help but think, with that ability on this show where you can do anything, does that make you want to explore something like The Bad Place, just because it could be so much fun for you to explore and play with those tools in your kit?
Yeah. Although again, you have to do it sparingly. That sequence, the sequence [from the pilot] where Kristen’s presence… she’s not supposed to be in the Good Place, so her presence is sort of — she’s a bug. She’s a flaw in the matrix… is the way I thought of it. She’s a wrench in the works, a bug in the system, whatever you want to say. Her very presence there and the way that she behaves causes this very carefully controlled and planned universe to go haywire. That was a big problem that Drew Goddard, who directed the pilot, and I had to solve. How crazy should it go because if you give people who like science fiction — as we do, and also comedy writers, as we are — license to say the whole world goes crazy, things can get out of control real fast.
Things start to seem very off-putting for the average person who’s just watching the show. A lot of that stuff is through trial and error, where you try things that seem funny and crazy and you go, “Oh that’s insane.” In one point during that chaos sequence, we had a floating, talking octopus that floated in and talked to someone, then it was like, “Well wait a second, does that mean that all animals can talk now?” It was just sort of a crazy… We went too crazy and we reigned it in. It is exciting because it allows you to tell different stories and do things that you couldn’t do on a terrestrial show, but at the same time, you run the risk of flying off the handle a little bit, so we were very, very careful and very sparing in the way that we did that. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the kind of chaos and craziness of the pilot is probably the craziest sequence of this season in terms of special effects, visual effects, any of that kind of stuff.
Is Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) someone that would make it into The Good Place?
You know, it’s possible.
I think Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) a shoe-in.
Yeah, I feel like Leslie probably makes it. I think that Ron… Ron has an extremely sort of sense of duty and honor and ethical behavior. He never lied to anyone, he never cheated on anything, he was incredibly self-sufficient. I think it’s at least possible that he would make it in, yeah. The calculation is obviously extraordinarily complex and a lot of things go into it and it’s not… He was a very morally centered guy.
How about Mose?
Mose? [Laughs.] Maybe. Mose certainly never caused anybody any harm. He led a pretty solitary life. One of the characters in the show is obviously Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), who is a Buddhist monk who took a vow of silence when he was seven or eight years old, and I think that probably helps that character get in because the less that you interact with society, the less chance you have to really hurt somebody.
The Good Place premieres on Monday, September 19 on NBC at 10 p.m. before moving to its regular timeslot on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on September 22.