Eighteen months ago, one of the most politically engaged shows in recent TV history went off the air, and now the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” Michael Schur, is back with another NBC comedy, “The Good Place.”
“The Good Place” is also concerned with good and evil: It’s about a woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell) who dies and ends up in a subdivision of Heaven run by Michael (Ted Danson). The problem is: She’s not supposed to be there, given that she wasn’t a very nice person while she was alive.
One of the big differences between “Parks and Recreation” and “The Good Place” is that most scenes in the latter show are not set in a recognizable, Earth-bound reality. Both shows are primarily concerned with wringing laughs from their premises, of course, but the Pawnee of “Parks and Recs” had several major election storylines and often explored how those with diverging beliefs found ways to work together.
In an interview, Schur told Variety that about 20 percent of the new show would consist of flashbacks to characters’ pre-Heaven lives, but most of it would be set in the afterlife, which appears to be blessedly free of rabid raccoons and morally shady councilmen.
Given that “The Good Place” will soon wrap production on its 13-episode first season (it was picked up straight-to-series by NBC), it won’t be able to comment on this year’s presidential circus — at least not in obvious ways. But as Schur notes, “The Good Place,” which debuts Sept. 22, is still concerned with issues of ethical behavior and the need to take responsibility for one’s actions.
Here, Schur, who has also written for “Saturday Night Live,” talks to Variety about whether he misses having a show that could directly comment on current events (or if it was a relief not to).
How would “Parks and Rec’s” Ron Swanson vote in Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump?
If he had to vote for one of the two?
He had to vote for one of the two.
And he couldn’t abstain?
He couldn’t abstain.
I think he would go into the voting booth with a screwdriver and take off the back of it and dismantle it so he didn’t have to. He would refuse to, and if he were forced to, he would just say, I’m going to stand here and not do this until you give up. Like, I’ll outlast you.
There have been a couple of people who’ve tweeted things about how Ron would love Donald Trump and my immediate response is, You don’t know anything about Ron Swanson. He would dislike Hillary maybe not as much, but certainly a tremendous amount, because she’s a career politician and he had no interest in career politicians.
Not that Ron was in the military that we know of, but it seems like Trump having access to nuclear codes seems is where Ron would draw a line.
Yeah, although honestly, I think with him it would be more about a basic level of human decency. A baseline level of, “Don’t mock people with disabilities. Don’t mock people whose sons died in the service of the country.” I think if he literally had no choice, if he was being propelled towards a voting machine and his arm was going to flip a lever, and the only thing he controls is which lever to flip — which is the only way he would vote for either of them — I think he would make his arm vote for Hillary. But grudgingly.
You worked on a show that engaged with politics and commented on the compromises that occur in a functional society. “Parks and Recreation” was about the civic good, the differences in communities and how people regulate themselves. Are you glad you’re not making that kind of show right now? “The Good Place” is not taking place in the realm of reality.
There have certainly been many moments since “Parks and Rec” ended where I have had this sort of phantom instinct, like, “Oh, we should do a story [on that]. Oh no, we can’t, because it’s over.” But I feel like that show made its argument for public service, and for a certain way of treating other people and for a mode of interacting with your fellow man or woman, that felt complete to me. I feel like that argument was made. And this new show — it’s actually not a dissimilar argument. It’s a related arena. It’s more about individual behaviors than it is teamwork or group behavior or service to the public. But it’s not completely dissimilar, so I don’t feel like I’m missing anything, really.
“The Good Place” is also a show that’s concerned with how you behave morally and ethically, but in a different kind of context.
Right. “Parks and Rec” was much more about the practical everyday ways that you can kind of try to make your world better.
There are raccoons in the park.
That’s right. Two girls’ soccer teams signed up for the same field at the same time. How do you fix this little thing? How do you make people happy? How do you fix a broken swing? “The Good Place” is sort of the abstraction of that concept. [The question is] what is the composition of the person who has the instinct to do that, versus the person who says, “That’s somebody else’s problem.” “The Good Place” [revolves around] a philosophical abstraction of a concrete idea.
It must be hard to be a comedy writer right now, because Trump has kind of broken things. He’s just throwing so many grenades at all times that it all becomes a blur.
Yeah, it’s hard to keep up.
How does anyone even make comedy out of this?
It’s a new world. We’ve never experienced this before, and comedy writing is just one tiny corner of the world. But what’s interesting from a writing standpoint, and also just from a citizen standpoint, is that we’re about to have a referendum on what kind of country we are. That idea is brought up in every election. Are we the Democratic kind of country or the Republican kind of country? But now [it’s a different question].
Do we actually have a civil society of any kind?
That’s right. Are we actually going to allow a baseline appeal to fear, anger and misery to guide us? We’ve never experienced that before. Even when the most extreme Republican is running against the most extreme Democrat, we’ve never had this before.
Comedy writing can sometimes feel very important and it can sometimes feel very insignificant, and I don’t know which version it is right now. Sometimes when I watch John Oliver or Seth Meyers comment on the election, it feels very important. It feels like, “Oh, someone is taking this and crystallizing it.” And that feels very important to me.
But other times it’s sort of like … today a guy found an old tweet of Trump’s where he said that he thought that Robert Durst [of “The Jinx”] has been screwed over by his brother. It was something like, “If you ask me, Douglas Durst screwed over Robert, and Robert should be angry.” He’s running for president. He’s defending one of the most famous sociopaths of the last however many years. That’s a joke you couldn’t write. There was a New Yorker cartoon where someone is drawing a cartoon, and this woman comes in and says, “Stop that cartoon that you came up with about Trump. It’s already happened.” That’s where we are right now.
The media seems totally overwhelmed by all of this too. The way Trump operates, with a dozen outrageous things happening every day — it has just broken the mechanism, or further revealed flaws we knew were there. And maybe large chunks of the public are not listening anyway.
I think the last 20 years have seen calcification on both sides [of the political divide]. It’s two echo chambers running side by side. And the problem is that each side only trusts his or her own side. The real problem in my opinion is that the media in this country is a for-profit industry. The way to make more money is to only appeal to the people who are intently following you. So each side becomes more and more stringent and more and more echo chamber-y, which means there’s less and less of a chance of listening to the other side.
The argument would be that Trump is a product of this calcification. He didn’t just come out of nowhere. There’s a machine in place that has been catering to a specific vote in a specific way for 20 years. So it needs to be blown up and revamped, and it can’t be. And I don’t know what the answer is. No one does.