After a long stint in Pawnee, Ind., Michael Schur is heading to a very different place — “The Good Place,” in fact.
The latest project from “Parks and Recreation” executive producer Schur is a straight-to-series 13-episode comedy starring Kristen Bell (“House of Lies,” “Veronica Mars”) and Ted Danson. The NBC comedy is about a New Jersey woman who realizes that she’s not actually a very good person and tries to change — if only she can figure out what positive changes look like.
Danson, most recently seen in FX’s “Fargo,” will play a man who helps Bell’s character, Eleanor, on her self-improvement path. In his first interview about the new show, Schur, who is also an executive producer on “Master of None” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” said that there is a third major character to be cast, as well as an ensemble of a few other series regulars, but the focus will largely be on Bell and Danson’s characters.
“When I met with [Danson], he said, ‘I’m really excited to be here’ in a really nice way,” said Schur, who admires all the actor’s work but who is an especially notable fan of “Cheers.” “I said, ‘I bet I’m more excited! I consider you to be the greatest actor in the history of the medium of television. I’m betting I’m more excited than you are right now.’ It’s still feel kind of crazy that he said yes, and I’m extremely grateful and scared.”
As for Bell, capping the first season was partly out of consideration for her potential scheduling issues, he said.
“It’s 13 kind of because that’s what I wanted for the first season. It’s a more manageable and more humane way to go,” Schur said. “Also, I was already sort of thinking about Ted and Kristen, and they both were on other TV shows. Kristen has it in her deal that if ‘House of Lies’ comes back, she gets to go back and do another season. Partly the idea of doing 13 was that that might be a condition of getting some of the people I wanted to get.”
Schur and his writers just began work this week, and he has been reading self-help books and books about religion and spirituality in preparation for writing about one woman’s moral transformation. The plan is to shoot a pilot in late March and early April, take a break to edit and assess that first episode, and then begin the remainder of production in late April for fall premiere.
Below, Schur talks about why he made the show with NBC, what it’s like to step away from doing workplace comedies, and where the idea for “Good Place” came from. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Variety: Your new show is called “The Good Place.” Can you talk a little about the idea behind it?
Schur: The way I pitched it was, I said it’s about what it means to be a good person. When we say, “He is a good person or she is a bad person,” what does that even really mean?
I was in the Starbucks near my house, and I go in there almost every day. I get a cup of coffee and it costs $1.75, and then I get a quarter back and I always throw the quarter into the tip jar. I realized one day that I kind of wait until the barista has turned around to see me [put the coin in the jar]. If I’m being honest with myself, which I was in that moment, I realized that I wanted it to count. You do a good deed and you want it to count.
I think there is something in Talmudic law that says the highest level of giving is anonymously. If you wanted to make the purest expression of “I want this to be a good act in the universe,” you would do it anonymously, and no one does. Very few people do. It’s the opposite of Donald Trump. Donald Trump splashes his name over anything he can get it on.
Those are the questions I started to poke around in. Is it better or worse to give to a charity if it says who’s giving this money? Does that lessen the value of what you’ve done, ethically speaking or morally speaking? How do you measure the moral worth of acts? And if you determine that maybe you haven’t been as good as you could be, or as pure ethically as you could be, and you decide to try to change that, what does that look like?
It’s both a very small and a very big idea, in a scary way for me. For 11 years, I’ve been writing about an ensemble that works together. They’ve been in an office and they have a boss and there are employees who have different roles, and the dynamics between and among the characters are workplace-based. This is not going to be that. It’s going to be a different thing. As a contestant on “The Bachelor” would say, I’m both nervous and excited.
How do you turn that idea into a TV show on a weekly basis?
The concept of it is pretty slippery and a little nebulous and hard to wrap your hands around, but the benefit of writing for TV is that it’s not a lecture course. It’s not like I have to describe it to everybody. It’s not a TED talk. It’s a comedy show with extraordinary performers who are going to be doing it and as long as we write funny stories, [it will be OK].
On “Parks and Rec,” every so often we would do one episode that took on an issue, like the corn syrup [lobby] or something like that. I always felt, whenever we did something like that, if you just lecture people about your point of view, no one will listen and also, you’ll sound like a blowhard. It has to be funny. It has to have a good story and a beginning and a middle and and end, and twists and turns and complications.
If I had to try to explain what this show is about, this is what I would say. It’s about the difference between the person [who zips through traffic breaking rules and inconveniencing others] — people who are like, “My commute is more important than everyone else’s commute, and I’m going to make my commute as short as possible” — and [the person who believes] “There are rules that have been established and the gossamer fabric of society will hold up better if we all just agree to follow the rules.”
It’s not quite as simple as just following rules, of course. But those are the categories of people you notice in your day. There are the people who are like, “I want to get an advantage in this system at any cost and I don’t have sense of embarrassment or shame for my actions,” versus people who think, “I’m going to do my best to abide by the rules that have been established and I’m not going to put myself into a category where I deem myself more important than anyone else.”
Why did you choose to go with NBC?
Well, I certainly had a good experience with them with the last show that I did. My deal is through Universal Television, and I like network writing. I think it’s weird and challenging and fun. And networks are now kind of the underdogs, which is a very weird result of the world we now live in. Networks are the ones who don’t win any awards or get any credit.
I think that the limitations that networks put on comedy are good for comedy. I think they make it crisp and clean. [But the thinking about what network comedies can be has evolved.] The ways in which other mediums are doing shows — the networks have seen the possibilities, I think. “Last Man on Earth” — that couldn’t have existed a few years ago. It’s a heavily serialized, high-concept comedy. There weren’t any of those, ever.
And why not NBC? I still care a great deal about the history of NBC comedy.
Are the two leads are really the center, or is it an ensemble piece?
It’s an ensemble piece to some extent. There is one other real main character who has yet to be cast. And then several other characters who will be recurring or [series regulars]. It’s not like “Louie” or something. There will be a [six or so people as] series regulars. Certainly the heaviest focus on Ted and Kristen. And then a couple other people surrounding them. But I like ensembles, they’re great. I love slightly larger casts.
What does this show allow you to do that other shows you worked on didn’t?
To some extent, it’s just the fact that it doesn’t take place in an office. You might think that’s a side issue, but it’s really a gigantic issue — whether your show takes place in a workplace or a home setting, that’s half of the deal of what your show is. That’s new for me.
At a bigger level, NBC very nicely said, “You can have a commitment to 13 episodes” [right away]. It’s not the typical situation where you’re writing a pilot and the pilot is a sales tool to interest them in the idea of making more. I just get 13 of them, which is great. So I felt like, given that opportunity which is rare and for which I am very grateful, I owe it to that [opportunity] to try something different than what I’ve done. It’s not suddenly going to be “Breaking Bad.” But it’ll have a different feeling to it.
“Parks and Rec” became its own thing, but at the beginning it was very much coming out of “The Office.” There is overlap and similarity on some fundamental DNA level when you do two workplace shows back to back. This won’t have anything [like that].
Are you going to develop other shows too?
I’m overseeing a couple pilots in various stages right now, one for Fox and one for NBC. And “Master of None” — we’re still trying to work that out, schedule-wise.
So a season 2 pickup is looking good “Master of None”?
The discussions are ongoing, but everyone is very hopeful. And Dan Goor has been running and will continue to run “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” I go to read-throughs and I chime in and we talk on the phone, but that’s really his gig.