The Story Behind ‘Challenge Day,’ The ‘Parks And Recreation’ Episode That Never Happened

One of the many episodes of Parks and Recreation that qualifies for the category of “The Best Episodes” is “The Fight,” the 13th episode of the third season. From Dennis Cooper’s hilarious public meltdown, which featured a number of offensive signs about his cheating wife’s STDs, to everyone getting wasted on Tom’s Snake Juice at the Snakehole Lounge, the episode had plenty of memorable moments and instant classic one-liners. Of course, the most important moment of them all was…

What was most notable about the episode was the fight between Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins, as it was the first time that the best friends got into it with each other. Leslie was disappointed in Ann for partying with the Douche instead of preparing for her city job interview, while Ann was pissed at Leslie because of her general bossiness and lofty expectations for everyone to live their lives according to her detailed master plans. In the end, though, the women made up with each other as they violently heaved a combination of Snake Juice and shame into the Pawnee City Hall toilets, and Ann would end up taking a part-time job as the new health department public relations director.

But that wasn’t supposed to be the story of a big fight between Leslie and Ann. As we learned from the creators and writers of Parks and Rec while putting together this week’s oral history of the series, the best friends were instead supposed to face off in an episode entitled “Challenge Day,” which would have been based on the middle and high school program that challenges kids to work together in understanding and accepting diversity. However, in Pawnee, that would have meant that Leslie and Ann, serving as the adult leaders, would have been at each other’s throats, presumably over something ridiculous.

MICHAEL SCHUR (Executive Producer and co-creator): The idea was that Leslie and Ann would sort of being doing a health class/self-esteem workshop with a group of middle school-aged girls, and they would be talking about the importance of self-esteem and not being mean to each other. And then the ending was they would have something they were in conflict over and they would start fighting and basically become 8th grade girls. We really tried to break it a million times. We tried so hard because we were convinced that there was a story there and we were just never able to quite do it.

GREG LEVINE (Writer and the first person hired on the series): Leslie and Ann are in some kind of a fight and they wind up, at the same time, helping out a youth girl’s group and use the group to act out their own problems in a kind of back-to-school special way. Like, girls are supposed to find their voice and learn good values, but Ann and Leslie are using them and these trust activities to fight with each other. That episode we worked on so much and so many different versions of it that that idea of “Challenge Day” didn’t happen, the fight wound up happening with Ann and Leslie at the Snakehole Lounge. But “Challenge Day” didn’t happen.

Executive Producer and co-creator Greg Daniels credits writer Katie Dippold, who has also been tasked with writing the screenplay for Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters film, with the idea for “Challenge Day”…

GREG DANIELS: I love “Challenge Day.” That was from a really good writer, Katie Dippold. I’m a big fan of her. She also wrote “Beauty Pageant,” and I really liked that. I don’t know why that never broke as an episode. Part of it is I think that was about Amy’s and Rashida’s relationship, and there was an aspect of conflict there in the notion of that episode. They became such good friends, I guess there wasn’t a place in the arc of the show for conflict for them.

But I remember that episode, it was very good. I always thought it was too bad that we couldn’t figure out a way to use that.

Dippold, however, said that the idea originally came from someone else before she added personal experience as the driving point.

KATIE DIPPOLD (Writer, “Beauty Pageant,” “April and Andy’s Fancy Party”): Someone else had pitched an episode where Leslie and Ann work with young girls and it’s an emotional day. And then I just remembered a real example of that. “Challenge Day” was this yearly event in my middle school where it was supposed to be a safe place where kids opened up and talked about bullying, and everyone would cry all day and hug. Lots of trust falls.

The next day everyone would feel real weird and I even remember getting made fun of for crying at Challenge Day. So it was not a safe place. But I don’t know why we couldn’t break that episode. We focused on Leslie and Ann and what was going on in their relationship, and we couldn’t really crack it. Ten years from now someone will do it and email the others.

Dan Goor was a writer on the series for the first five seasons, and he is the co-creator of Brooklyn Nine-Nine with Schur. He reached out to us to clarify the true identity of the person behind this seemingly agonizing story.

DAN GOOR (Writer, seasons 1-5): It was Greg Daniels’ idea, because his daughter had Challenge Day at her school, and he thought it was funny because a number of those students got into much bigger fights after the Challenge Day. He handed it off and Norm and I were assigned the story, so we had to go off four or five times during the course of the week with other writers, but it was primarily just the two of us trying to break it. We couldn’t for a variety of reasons.

So, what started as an idea for a simple episode then became something of a legend in the Parks and Rec writers’ room, as there was a rogue index card that will haunt them all well beyond last night’s series finale.

SCHUR: We write our ideas on index cards, as many shows do, and stick them up on a board so we could stare at them. We wrote “Challenge Day” and it was on this board forever. Eventually, when we admitted defeat and decided we couldn’t ever break that episode, we raised that card into the rafters of our writer’s room. We took it off the board and put it way up high on the wall, out of everyone’s reach. It had triumphed over us, and we had failed to break the story. So there were a couple like those that we just tried and tried and tried and we were just never able to do it. Usually you give up on a bad idea long before that happens. But that was one that really broke us.

GOOR: What actually happened is that we were so frustrated that we never wanted to work on it again. We realized that if I were to rip up the card, it would be bad form, so I put it up on the ceiling in the farthest corner of the room so that if I were ever asked if the card were still up, I could technically and legally say that it was still on the wall. But I think Mike, very lovingly, took it to mean that we had raised it to the rafters.

ALAN YANG (Writer, “Sister City,” “Pawnee Rangers”): There was almost a magical realism, in between seasons they often completely overhaul the office, and it’s a rental so a lot of people come in and come out. The “Challenge Day” card was wedged in the distant corner of the room above a doorway frame. And we came the next season and everything had changed, everything had been re-painted. There was new furniture, but that card was still there haunting that room like a ghost. It was still there. It was pretty amazing.

LEVINE: I don’t know who did it, but it was great. We all came back, and I get in early before all the writers to set up the room with the other assistants, and everything else had been taken down from the walls, but that card remained. I don’t know if the person who put it up, put it up again or if the painters knew that we had such a respect/disdain for that card that they kept it up for us.

GOOR: Whoever the painter was had this understanding that there was something horrible and wrong about that card, so it had to be preserved in that spot forever. It was painted underneath the card, too, so they had taken it down, painted the wall, and then put it back up.

YANG: There were a couple other cards that kind of hung around. None of them were as crazy or hung around as long as “Challenge Day.” There was one, “Historical House,” where they had to run a historical house and that ended up becoming that Patton Oswalt episode about his local reservation. There was another one called “Chris Housewarming” about his Chris Traeger having a housewarming party. And there was another one called “One Woman Show,” which was pretty early on involving Leslie putting on a one woman show. And it never got made. But I never wanted to even talk about “Challenge Day” after the six months we talked about it. I wanted no one to bring it up ever again.

LEVINE: I have the card now. I took a few keepsakes from the writer’s room that being one of them. I have a little box in my closet that has little random toys and keepsakes from the room that I want to – my long plan, which I guess I’m spoiling – slowly mail out to various writers throughout the course of the next year. As just like a “Hey, remember this joke?” And so I have “Challenge Day.” I don’t know what I’m going to do with it or who’s going to get it, but it’s in the box right now waiting to be used.

GOOR: I hope I’m not the target. He was the writer’s assistant at the time, so he probably took 50 to 100 pages of notes on that episode. It may be that nobody hates that story more than him, because all we had to do was sit there and idly talk while he had to type out every single one of our thoughts.

Maybe “Challenge Day” could have been as special as the writers and producers had hoped, or maybe, even if it had been made, it would have haunted them for not being as good as what they’d envisioned. Fortunately, while not actually based on this specific premise, “The Fight” was a spectacular episode that we can all remember with joy. Well, all of us except Jan Cooper.