An Interview with Michael Schur

[Sitcom Writer, Director, Producer]
“The system of network tv is creaking under its own weight right now.”
Ways in which reading David Foster Wallace affected Schur:
Rescrambled his brain
Punched him in the face
Made him want to tear out book pages and eat them

An Interview with Michael Schur

[Sitcom Writer, Director, Producer]
“The system of network tv is creaking under its own weight right now.”
Ways in which reading David Foster Wallace affected Schur:
Rescrambled his brain
Punched him in the face
Made him want to tear out book pages and eat them

An Interview with Michael Schur

Stephanie Palumbo
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Michael Schur wrote for Saturday Night Live and The Office before cocreating, writing, and producing Parks and Recreation and, most recently, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, two half-hour comedies that have won critical acclaim and loyal fans. His brand of humor contains an extraordinary amount of pathos while maintaining irreverence, and that complexity is embedded in Schur himself.

In 2005, Schur’s fiancée (now wife) was in a minor car accident. Despite the lack of visible damage to the other driver’s car, the driver she hit reported the accident to the police and later said the car’s bumper was “creased” and would cost more than eight hundred dollars to replace. Schur asked the driver (“Saab Guy,” as Schur called him) to let it go, since the nearly imperceptible scratch wouldn’t even show up in a photo and filing a claim would contribute to rising insurance rates, but the driver responded, “That’s not my problem.” Frustrated by Saab Guy’s callousness, Schur offered instead to donate the same sum to Hurricane Katrina relief if the driver would drop the claim, but Saab Guy was reluctant. So Schur asked his friends “to shame a petty Saab driver” by promising to donate to Katrina relief as well. If Saab Guy agreed to drop the claim, they would donate as planned, but if he refused, they’d be welcome to donate anyway, “in the name of, like, ‘Saab Guy is a Jerk,’” as Schur wrote in an email to his friends. He created a website to track the responses and received thirty thousand dollars in pledges in around twenty-four hours. But as satisfying as reprimanding someone stubborn and self-centered might appear to be, Schur blogged that he was “wrestling with some tough questions.” He couldn’t sleep; he asked his friends for advice and even called ethics professors at three universities. Ultimately, he and Saab Guy worked out a deal: Schur would cut him a check for the cost of repairs and Saab Guy would donate a portion to charity. More interesting than the compromise was Schur’s candor when blogging about the situation: “It just feels a little wrong, in retrospect… None of us, I would say, could hold up under the kind of scrutiny we have put Saab Guy under… This has been one of the most interesting and complicated events of my adult life. It has twisted us around, sparked a lot of heated debates, and made us feel everything from euphoria to despair. It contains dozens of ethical and moral questions, the details of which we might be unraveling for years.”

I wanted to interview Mike Schur because his work radiates optimism and a faith in humanity that feels like a radical break from the cynicism that dominates the network television landscape. Unlike the young people on other popular network sitcoms, Schur’s characters accurately reflect the reality of what it’s like to be alive, struggling, making mistakes, taking risks, and ultimately growing into better versions of themselves. But Schur is, perhaps above all else, a comedy writer, and he counterbalances the earnestness and vulnerability of his characters with slapstick gags, absurd situations, and sharp wit. We talked about his craft for ninety minutes on a Friday afternoon.

—Stephanie Palumbo

THE BELIEVER: What were your first experiences writing comedy?

MICHAEL SCHUR: In high school, my friend and I discovered that your cable-access station had to let you do whatever you wanted—it was like the Wild West. We made a couple weird things, like a tribute to the Zucker brothers, where we had a panel discussion about the Naked Gun movies. We wrote a script and made jokes that I’m sure were terrible and showed clips of The Naked Gun without permission. Then in college I got on to the Harvard Lampoon staff my freshman year. Once I graduated, I moved to New York, and got hired at Saturday Night Live that December.

BLVR: Your first year at SNL was the year Chris Farley and Phil Hartman died, right?

MS: Yeah, and Norm Macdonald got fired, which obviously pales in comparison, but it was a weird upheaval. My first show was the first show after Chris had died and Norm got fired. SNL is 100 percent sink or swim. The first day, I showed up and no one was there. Not one other person: no receptionist or interns or people at all. Honestly, I thought a prank had been pulled on me. So I just nervously sat down on a couch and stared straight ahead for an hour. People started to filter in, but I was too nervous to even say anything. Finally someone was like, “I think your office is over there,” and someone else was like, “We have a meeting now where you can pitch ideas to Samuel L. Jackson.” No one told me anything. That’s the way that place operates—they throw you into the fire. The nice thing is, they give you some time to figure it out. If you don’t get a sketch on for three or four shows, they don’t fire you, but it was a scary and jarring introduction to the world. Because of the shift, no one paid attention to me, which was nice, because I sucked at sketch writing for a pretty long time. If it hadn’t been for that upheaval at the show, it’s possible I would’ve come under greater scrutiny.

BLVR: Do you remember the first sketch you got on the air?

MS: The first joke I got on the air I remember clearly. Dennis McNicholas and Robert Carlock wrote a sketch where they were evacuating the Titanic, and the last two guys on the entire ship were the two black guys, Samuel L. Jackson and Tracy Morgan. So Will Ferrell was running back and forth, saying, “All first-class passengers get in the lifeboat. All second-class passengers and third-class passengers get in the lifeboat. Let’s get all the animals in the lifeboat. Let’s put all the empty luggage in the lifeboat.” It was very funny. And then the joke that I wrote, which was the first thing I ever wrote that was on TV, was “All empty lifeboats should now be placed in other lifeboats.” Even though 99.4 percent of the sketch was conceived of, written, and executed by other people, just seeing words I had written be performed on SNL, I felt like: I can quit now. If this is the last thing that ever happens in my professional writing career, I’m happy.

BLVR: You were also at SNL during September 11, right?

MS: Yes—in fact, my first show running “Weekend Update,” the goofy fake-news segment of SNL, was the first show after September 11. Yet another trial-by-fire situation. No one cared that I’d never done it before.

BLVR: Did you have an internal barometer for how to tell political jokes after September 11?

MS: In a weird way, it’s not different from any other kind of joke-telling. You make those calculations about jokes about celebrities: is this a fair hit or not? The stakes were higher because the whole world was crumbling around us, but in terms of joke-telling, it’s all about feel. Lorne Michaels has many excellent rules about comedy, and his rules for “Weekend Update” and topical-sketch writing were incredibly rational and well reasoned: don’t do a joke if the subject doesn’t deserve it. An ad hominem attack on someone might get you a cheap laugh, but it doesn’t earn you any long-term trust. The biggest rule was: you attack whoever’s in power. Don’t bring your personal bias to the table. This show was forged in the cauldron of Watergate, when the world became cynical and skeptical of politicians. Lorne’s thing was: it doesn’t matter what your political leanings are, you go after whoever is in power; you go after the power structure.

BLVR: After you left SNL, did you immediately start writing for The Office?

MS: I was at SNL for six and a half years, but my then girlfriend and now wife had moved to LA, and if we were gonna make a go of it, one of us had to move. I came out to LA and met with [producer] Greg Daniels, and he offered me a job on The Office. I thought, Well, this isn’t going to work. [Laughs] The show’s definitely going to get canceled. But this guy seems smart, and I’ll learn a lot from him. But then it lasted forever.

BLVR: Was there a turning point when you realized that The Office wasn’t just replicating the British version, that it had evolved into its own show?

MS: There were incremental shifts, but the biggest moment was when we got picked up for season two by the skin of our teeth, and Greg sat everybody down and said, “Listen, the British show is one of the greatest pieces of comedy and art that’s ever been made. But because it was twelve episodes long, they were able to present an incredibly bleak worldview and have their main character be downbeat and sad. We’re trying to make this last for much longer than twelve episodes, so we need to make adjustments if we want it to survive.” We were all grumbling, like, “You don’t get it, man! You’re going to ruin this amazing thing.” He let us whine and then he was like, “We’re going to make the endings of our shows optimistic. We’re going to make Michael Scott a more sympathetic character.” And he was 1 billion percent right. So we still maintained his inappropriateness, his blind spot for how people viewed him, his desperate desire to be loved and admired, but we just made everybody be 10 percent nicer to him, and built in a sense that he was actually good at his job instead of completely incompetent—and that made all the difference.

BLVR: That’s interesting, because Greg Daniels also wrote for The Simpsons, and I know James L. Brooks had a similar directive for that show—to give it heart.

MS: I think it’s true of basically any show. If you go back and look at the pilot of Cheers, there’s no one in the bar. It’s completely empty, kind of a dingy bar. The original conception was that no one goes to this bar except the regulars, and then they watched it and were like, “This looks like The Iceman Cometh. It’s incredibly sad and bleak, and it’ll have a happier tone if we put more people in the bar.” If you look at season five of Cheers, it’s packed to the gills, lively and fun. I think a lot of great shows start off presenting a downtrodden or bleak worldview, and the good ones are able to maintain what’s good about the show while brightening up the corners a little bit.

BLVR: I know you’re a David Foster Wallace fan, and to me the idea of battling alienation by being kind to other people is at the core of Infinite Jest. Do you think Infinite Jest has influenced your writing?

MS: It’s not a stretch to say that it’s influenced everything I’ve ever written. I didn’t so much read it as I almost ate it. It kind of rescrambled my brain. Not just that book—I read more of him and actually met and corresponded with him for a while. One of his deeply held convictions was that sincerity should triumph over irony. He loved the gamesmanship and wordplay of the postmodern kind of irony, but his point was that, ultimately, sincerity should win the day, and the problem is that sincerity, especially for young people, is the opposite of cool. There’s nothing less cool to a twenty-five-year-old fiction writer in Brooklyn than to simply and straightforwardly talk about your feelings. The scariest possible thing that you can engage in is this very basic human connection where you say, “I feel this way,” or “I am scared,” and his worldview was: that’s what has to win; that’s how people should write; and that’s how people should connect with each other. The first time I read those words from him—and he said them a lot more eloquently than I just did—it was like someone had punched me in the face. I instantly realized so much of what was wrong with me as a writer was that I was trying to be cool and impress people and not seem like I cared about anything. It’s very hard to wear your heart on your sleeve as a writer, because we live in a world where your work is being instantly analyzed and picked apart by a lot of people, and a lot of those people are very cool, and they have a cool-guy agenda, and it’s a real fight to do it and not worry about what people are going to think of you. I am eternally grateful to Amy Poehler, because without studying the works of David Foster Wallace, she had the worldview that you have to go out there and lay it all on the line and not worry about what people think. The creation of Leslie Knope would not have been possible without her, and I don’t think it would have been possible without me reading David Foster Wallace.

BLVR: You own the film rights to Infinite Jest, right?

MS: I optioned the book a while ago with the intention of working it into a film project in the near future. The challenges of adapting it are numerous, and while much of the book is very filmic, certain aspects, like the footnotes—and, more specifically, the effect the footnotes have on the reader as part of the experience of reading the book—are not, really. In Infinite Jest, he was literally trying to have a conversation with you. He was trying to say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on. Let’s investigate this together and talk about this,” which is, again, part and parcel of that larger worldview: we’re all in this together, man. We’re human beings; we’re all trying to figure it out; we all have problems. We love people who don’t love us back. We’ve failed at things we wish we’d succeeded at. We’re all doing this at the same time. It’s really confusing and it’s really hard.

BLVR: You’ve said that every episode of Cheers reflects within it the theme of the entire series, which is also the structure of Infinite Jest’s chapters. Is that true for Parks and Recreation, and if so, what’s the theme?

MS: I would say there are two main themes of the show. One of them, which is influenced by Wallace’s writing, is that optimism beats pessimism. In one of the first conversations Amy and I ever had about the show, she said what excited her about playing an aspiring politician was showing how hard it is to not fall into cynicism. She loved the idea of going through a series of challenges, and somehow getting right back up again and refusing to turn sour on the process. The other big theme is that no one achieves anything alone. Almost every story, no matter how small, has some element of that theme in it. The idea sort of reached its apotheosis when Leslie ran for office. The idea was that there would be a scandal that forced her slick campaign managers to drop her as a candidate. We referred to it in our writers’ room as “the It’s a Wonderful Life moment,” when the group of people that she was closest to stepped up and said, “We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’ll help you. We’ll figure it out together.” A ragtag bunch of misfits who had no idea what they were doing figured out how to run a political campaign, and then ultimately won. You can’t achieve anything entirely by yourself. There’s a support system that is a basic requirement of human existence. To be happy and successful on earth, you just have to have people that you rely on.

BLVR: Your new series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is the third workplace comedy you’ve produced. How did you choose a police precinct for this specific workplace?

MS: The last fifteen years of American television have been strewn with hour-long cop dramas—there have been, like, twelve Law & Orders and fourteen CSIs, all the way back to NYPD Blue. But the way a police precinct functions hasn’t really been used recently for comedy instead of drama. Setting that tone is hard—those shows are dramas because the stories tend to be horrifying. If you watch Law & Order: SVU, it’s like, “This man was sexually violated, and we found this thing shoved up his butt.” It’s disturbing. In order to feel the show would have legs, we had to make it seem like a real police precinct, with real crime investigations. We don’t show dead bodies with severed limbs in pools of blood, because there’s not much funny about that. Mostly we investigate robberies or fraud cases that don’t make you want to barf.

BLVR: You’ve said in the past that you consider mockumentaries ideal from a storytelling perspective, but Brooklyn isn’t a mockumentary.

MS: Mockumentary formats are great for a couple of things. One of them is delivering the toughest part of any sitcom episode, what writers call “pipe”—the nuts and bolts of the story where you explain what’s happening, the boring plot stuff. With mockumentaries, the conceit is that the characters are being interviewed, so you can start a scene and cut to a character looking at the camera and saying, “I’m working on this project,” instead of having to figure out ways for people to talk naturally about what they’re doing. You see this problem in pilots—people end up explaining things to each other that they’d never explain in real life. Someone says, “I’m quitting my job and moving away,” and the other person says, “Bill, you’ve been my best friend for twenty years. You were the best man at my wedding. I’ll miss you.” No one would ever remind someone that they were the best man at their wedding. Those interviews are a big weapon we don’t have at our disposal on Brooklyn. But we decided not to structure the show as a mockumentary because, conceptually, there’s no reason for it to be one.

BLVR: Nearly all of the characters on Brooklyn subvert expectations in some way—for example, one of the most intimidating cops, played by Terry Crews, loves farmers’ markets and Godard films. Did you deliberately plan to give every role contradictory attributes, or was that just a natural by-product of developing rich, three-dimensional characters?

MS: We use a lot of classic tropes—the apple-polishing overachiever, the tough-as-nails cop—so we’re not reinventing the wheel, but we try to make people interesting and layered. We like to tailor characters to specific actors, so when we met with Terry Crews early on, we asked about his background, and it turned out that he went to Interlochen Arts Camp and is a fine artist and accomplished painter. That’s the last thing you’d expect from a guy who looks like a superhero. So we conceived of a story line where the police sketch artist was out sick, and Terry would make a beautiful charcoal drawing of a suspect. No one is one thing.

BLVR: It’s rare for a sitcom to have as diverse a cast as Brooklyn, but I read that you cast race blind.

MS: We work with a great casting director, and our instructions were: we want it to look like a real precinct in New York City. It would have been crazy if we’d had six white guys and one black lady. But we didn’t really care which specific ethnicities were represented—we read people of probably six different ethnicities for at least three different parts. We ended up with two Hispanic women, one of them Cuban; two African American guys; an Italian guy; and a guy and a woman who are half-Italian and half-Jewish. But we could have picked South Korean or American Samoan actors—we just chose the people we thought were the best.

BLVR: I’ve noticed that on both Parks and Rec and Brooklyn, minor characters tend to have strange names—Gunch Merkwell, Steve Millerbund.

MS: [Laughs] I love crazy names. It comes right from Monty Python and Woody Allen—nothing in the world makes me giggle more than a funny name. It became a thing I started doing when I wrote. If a person came into a store and said, “How much is this apple?” that person would have an insane name. When I was writing on The Office, I wrote a character who literally didn’t have a line, but I made her name Gwendolyn Trundlebed. When I got to set to shoot the scene, I found out that the production team had run with it. They read her name and did their job—they imagined, What is the office of a woman whose name is Gwendolyn Trundlebed? The whole thing was pink, with unicorns everywhere. It looked like a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory set or something. I had to say, “Oh no, I’m really sorry. This is just a normal human woman, and she is named Gwendolyn Trundlebed because that’s a combination of two words that make me laugh.”

BLVR: What’s your hope for the continued success of Brooklyn Nine-Nine?

MS: The only thing you could ever hope about a show is that it survives. You just put it out for the world and hope people like it. That kind of collaborative spirit—that’s the essence of late night. It’s what informed The Office, Parks and Rec, and now Brooklyn. The fun part is getting together with your friends and making something. All you can ever hope for is the chance to keep making it.

BLVR: Parks and Rec is a critically acclaimed show with devoted fans, but it doesn’t get high ratings. Is there a problem with the system when millions of people watch the show, and that’s considered low?

MS: The system of network TV is creaking under its own weight right now. In the old days, the people who produced a show made as many episodes as they could, because they sold them to the networks and they needed money. When you watch an old episode of I Love Lucy, and Ricky comes home and slams the door, the entire set shakes because it was made of balsa wood—they were scrimping and saving. Over the years, people started demanding higher production values, and stars started demanding more money, so the producers started deficit spending. They would spend more on the show than they were actually making from the networks, because if they got to one hundred episodes, they could sell the show into syndication, and the syndication money would more than make up for that deficit. But then things got more expensive and harder to produce, and every story that you can tell in half an hour has been told a thousand times, which means people are bored. On top of all of that, you now have hundreds of cable channels producing original content. If you think of the possible audience for all of television as a giant column, in 1983 that column was split only five ways—CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, and weird cable access. Now imagine that column being spread over all of cable and satellite and Netflix and Hulu and iTunes and people’s phones and the bottom of their sneakers—I don’t even know how people watch TV anymore.

So the problem is that the networks are still making TV with the same I Love Lucy model. It’s still about making as many episodes as you can, they’re spending a ton of money on them, and the syndication market doesn’t even really exist anymore, because why would channels buy expensive shows in syndication when they can create their own shows and keep all the money they make from them? Everything about the distribution method of television has changed dramatically, but the networks’ mission statement is still the same, which is to make mass-market entertainment that appeals to a wide swath of people, to get ad money and sell light bulbs and Coke. Plus, every network owns cable stations, and those stations are robbing the network shows of their audience. And the system for measuring ratings is so out-of-date—it’s the technological equivalent of using Michael Douglas’s cell phone in Wall Street. Yet websites still report the ratings as if they mean something. It’s a confusing landscape.

There’s some kind of massive sea change that we’re in the middle of, and we can’t see what’s on either side of us. But I think in five years, there’s going to be a completely different system for TV distribution, for the way that people measure success in television, for the way ad sales are calculated.

There’s more good TV than there’s ever been before. There’s also more competition. When I was a kid, I watched Empty Nest all the time. I was a twelve-year-old kid in suburban Connecticut, watching—religiously watching—a sitcom about a sixty-eight-year-old retired doctor in Florida. There was no reason on earth that I would’ve watched Empty Nest, except it was the only comedy show on at that time. And now maybe the equivalent is Hot in Cleveland—no twelve-year-old is going to watch that. Why would he or she? There are ten thousand other things that are on TV. At any moment of any day, no matter who you are, there is an entire channel programming to you. If you’re a sixty-one-year-old harp-playing lesbian, there is a show tailor-made for you called, like, Harp Wars, where two lesbians play the harp and a live audience votes one of them off. With very few exceptions, there are no shared experiences anymore. The country is too big, and the choices too numerous. Whether our new system’s pros outweigh its cons remains to be seen.

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