‘Parks & Recreation’ Finale: Mike Schur on ‘Sopranos’ Inspirations, Easter Eggs and the White House Question

'Parks & Recreation' Finale: Mike Schur

It’s a tough task to end a series after seven much-loved seasons, but “Parks and Recreation” showrunner Mike Schur proved more than up to the job. He co-wrote tonight’s finale, “One Last Ride,” with series star Amy Poehler and also directed the flash forward-filled episode, a love letter to both the show’s crazy characters and devoted fans.

Variety spoke with Schur by phone a few hours before the finale aired on the East Coast — he’s in New York for an appearance with the “Parks” crew on tonight’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” He happily answered questions about his writing process with Poehler, which flash forwards didn’t make it into the final cut, whether or not we’ll ever see the Pawnee gang again, and, of course, the tantalizing tease of President Leslie Knope. He also dropped a hint about a Jean-Ralphio easter egg. (“Parks” fans, get on that.)

I have to get the obvious question out of the way first. Exactly what year is Leslie elected President?
[laughs] Well, here’s the deal. We knew we were going to be very explicit in terms of showing what happened to a lot of people. My strong feeling was there should be one thing we were intentionally ambiguous about. It’s a direct line for me to “The Sopranos” finale, which I loved and was shocked that anyone didn’t love. I loved the ambiguity of that finale, and even though ambiguity maybe works a little better in drama than in comedy I felt there was room for one big question mark.

We shot that and conceived it exactly as ambiguous as we wanted it to be. We didn’t have (the secret service agent) direct what he said to either of them. He didn’t use titles. If in fact Leslie and Ben are in the presence of some kind of official security force it’s unclear which of them, or both of them, requires that. She says in 2035 or whatever it is when she’s speaking and getting her honorary doctorate that an unknown challenge is awaiting her. And also Ben is a congressman. I wanted people to be able to fill in their own blanks and make up their own minds about what they think happened in the intervening years.

It’s a great choice. But we all knows it’s Leslie, so it’s totally cool.

You wrote the finale with Amy Poehler, what was the process like? Did you huddle in one place or trade drafts over email?
It was sort of impossible because she was shooting constantly. We had a million discussions about it and divided up scenes. She would write things and send them to me, and I would write things and send them to her. It was an ongoing collaboration. The writing at the show was always extremely collaborative even when it was just within the writers room. There was a lot of writing and re-writing. It didn’t feel markedly different from the usual process, we just had to work a little harder to find the time for her to do her work because she’s also an actor on the show. It was a little tricky but it wouldn’t have been right if she wasn’t a part of the writing of the last episode. It’s as much her show as it is anybody’s.

What was the most emotional ending to write? Did any of them make you tear up?
I can’t speak for Amy but I did, yeah. I had a real hard time writing the Leslie and Ron scene where she shows him what she’s done for him. The simple, “Thank you,” “You’re welcome” moment… It got extremely dusty in the office when I was working, I need to talk to someone about that. Like anyone else, I can’t speak for Amy but I will, it’s a very emotional thing to write the final words for a group of characters you’ve spent so much time with, thinking about and writing ideas for. It was tough — the good kind of tough, the fun kind of tough.

The Jean-Ralphio fake out with the funeral is really great. Did you want to play off the idea of, “Maybe we’ll kill off one of these characters”?
We thought it was really funny to have Leslie say, “I hope you live a long happy life” and then cut to his gravestone. If the show was a little darker I guess we might have said, “Yeah, he died.” We actually had a second possible ending. He says, “We’re off to run a casino in Tajikistan.” Someone pitched an idea that made me laugh so hard to smash cut from that to an unmarked grave in Tajikistan, like he moved there and what did you think would happen opening a casino in Tajikistan? But yeah Jean-Ralphio is an insane goofball and I would like to believe that he continued to be an insane goofball for a long time. In fact, I don’t want to say what it is, but there’s a tiny easter egg very deeply buried in the finale that I hope someone finds someday, that gives you a clue about what happens to Jean-Ralphio.

Why was there no specific flash forward for Chris and Ann? Is it because when we see them it’s already the future?
We tried. We considered it but we wanted it to be a surprise when they showed up, and when they showed up it was 2025 and everybody was having a big reunion. I think at that moment you just want to see them hang out with each other. If we had left them in 2025 and flashed forward into their lives it would’ve been so disorienting, like “What the hell?” It felt like the more important thing was that we get to see Ann and Leslie just casually talking about some new hair product for 18 seconds. We wanted to see Chris talk to Ben, Ann talk to April, Leslie talk to Chris. The way the structure of it worked it would’ve been unsatisfying once they showed up to leap through their lives.

Were there any flash forwards for other characters filmed that we didn’t see?
There were two that had to be cut for time and it really killed me because they were hilarious. They’re going to be on the producers cut that we’re putting out, I think tomorrow (on NBC.com). There’s a very brief but very funny councilman Jeremy Jamm flash forward and a Shauna Malwae-Tweep flash forward. Shauna was on the Leslie Knope beat for a very long time — and that brief scene (of Leslie and Shauna talking in the park) leads to a Shauna Malwae-Tweep flash forward that includes another character who I won’t spoil. It was so funny and so great and I held onto it for as long as I possibly could in the edit room, but the reality of our time limit meant it felt like we had to give as much time as we could to the main cast who have been on the show for seven years.

Was there anyone you wanted to bring back who you weren’t able to? We didn’t see Lucy Lawless as Diane all season.
Lucy was the big one. We tried to get her a couple times. We poked around and she was doing a play for awhile and some other stuff and she lives very far away. That was a huge bummer, the one we were most sad about. There were a couple other people here and there, but by and large it was an incredibly fortunate run that we had. (For the final season) we got Paul Rudd, Sam Elliott, Megan Mullally, Ben Schwartz and Jenny Slate, Henry Winkler, Bill Murray… One of the things I’m most proud of about the show is how many great and funny people we invited to be on the show and then just gave them the keys.

Did any of the actors have suggestions for their characters or did it all come from the writers?
They all have weighed in at some level. I had a long conversation with Aubrey (Plaza) four or five years ago about April and what she thought April’s future would be. It was in part because we had a discussion that day in the writers room that maybe the series would end with April moving into Leslie’s office and becoming the new Leslie. That was long before we decided to have Leslie run for office or join the National Parks Service — a million things happened between then and now. But at the time Aubrey was like, “I don’t think so, I don’t think that’s the way it goes for her.” That was her gut instinct, despite the fact that Leslie was becoming more of a mentor to her and helping her grow and mature in a lot of ways, she said, “I just don’t think public service is the way April ends her story.”

There were conversations like that over many years with a lot of different people, with Nick (Offerman), with Adam (Scott). We talked about at one point that maybe Ben would become the mayor of Pawnee. That seemed like bringing him full circle from his horrible embarrassing childhood. But we were like, “That’s not right either.” Which is why he had him get right to the point where he could have been the mayor and realizing he didn’t want to.

When you’re with the same people playing the same characters for as long as we were, very luckily, you have a lot of discussions about the characters, where they’re going and where they might end up. All of that stuff either explicitly or implicitly factored into how we wrote the finale.

I think people will be asking you this for the rest of your life, but it’s because we love the show. Any chance you’ll want to revisit “Parks and Recreation” in the future?
I honestly hadn’t thought about it at all. I don’t know why, I just hadn’t. When you’re writing an ending it’s probably not a good idea to have one foot out the door and think, “Well, maybe this isn’t the ending!” You need to appropriately, emotionally deal with the ending. But I don’t know. The cast is about to disperse and dominate Hollywood for the next 25 years. It’s unlikely they’ll ever have time at the same moment. But I’ll never say never. It’s the greatest job I’ve ever had, and maybe ever will have. I would never say no. If the opportunity presents itself and everybody’s interested, I’ll be right there with my old-timey typewriter ready to bang out another episode.