You Go Big Or You Go Home: An Oral History Of The Creation And Evolution Of ‘Parks And Recreation’

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

Parks and Rec oral history Michael Schur and Greg Daniels
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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.

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