"‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ and ‘Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur On How To Build A Sitcom World"
Some sitcoms take place squarely within the four-odd walls of a house or apartment complex, a legacy of the multi-camera shooting style that limited shows to a finite number of sets. But some of the funniest shows on television inhabit their own, deeply developed worlds, from The Simpsons Springfield to the pillow forts of Greendale Community College in Community. And one of the richest and most hilarious is Parks and Recreation‘s fictionalized version of Pawnee, Indiana, which is full of recorder-playing cults, fast food addicts, competing tween rental clothing stores, and the most deranged Jewish family in the Midwest.
The man responsible for overseeing Pawnee’s development, Michael Schur, is tackling another challenge this fall, a riff on Brooklyn that starts in a police precinct: Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Schur and I chatted about the difference between a (somewhat) blank slate like Pawnee versus a national icon like Brooklyn, how to avoid stereotypes in crafting regional shows, and whether we’ll ever get to see Dean Winters as The Vulture, the scourge of the Brooklyn Nine-Nine detectives, again.
Obviously there’s a difference between setting a show in a town like Pawnee, which is real, but not somewhere a national television audience is familiar with, and Brooklyn, which is a cultural icon. But how do you approach building your version of each sort of place?
With Parks, the idea was to create an entire fictional town that was a sort of “Anytown, USA.” The composition of the town has been slow, deliberate, and painstaking, in terms of fleshing out the details — the citizenry, media personalities, geography, etc. It began as a blank slate, and took thousands of pitches and 100+ episodes to create. Brooklyn is the exact opposite — not just because it’s a bustling metropolis instead of a sleepy Anytown, but because it’s famous and specific and well-known, which is exactly why we chose it. We wanted to make use of Brooklyn’s scope and diversity (in every sense of the word) as a backdrop for police stories.
You just choose the location, and the specific amount of world-building, based on the themes of the show. What is the right place for these characters to live? Cops in Pawnee would not make a very exciting show, probably, and Leslie Knope in Brooklyn is an entirely different animal.
If location is a major part of a show, it’s possible to risk falling into regional stereotypes. Where do you try to draw the line, especially with something like the idea that Pawnee’s residents are fat middle Americans?
We chose Brooklyn precisely because every single kind of person, every shape, size, ethnicity, and personality type, can be found in great numbers. There’s no one “Brooklyn stereotype.” There are certain stereotypes about Anytown, USA — provincialism, obesity, etc., and employing those characteristics for Pawnee is something we think a lot about. The answer, I think, is to make sure Pawnee is not one thing. It has an obesity problem, because America has an obesity problem. It, like America, has liberals, and conservatives, and people who like Twilight, and amateur woodworkers, and hip-hop enthusiasts. These things only feel like “stereotypes” on the show if the characters who present those qualities are themselves stereotypes. As long as the characters (and the town) feel(s) three-dimensional, I feel like we’re avoiding that potential criticism.
What’s the balance between characters and institutions in creating a fictional setting? JJ’s Diner and various Indiana steakhouses are an indelible part of our idea of Pawnee now. Will we see competition between hipster cocktail confectionaries and long-established dive bars in Brooklyn, or similar institution-building outside of the precinct.
That’s certainly the goal, and again, that level of layering emerges from dozens of episodes over many years. Hopefully we’ll be that fortunate. Greg Daniels had a rule at The Office which boiled down to: at the end of every episode, we should know one new thing about the world of the show — a character detail, or a facet of Dunder Mifflin, or something. We followed that rule religiously, and it led to a very small corner of the fictional universe feeling very real and thick and explored.
And how do you work with costume and set designers to build place? I’ve been enjoying all of the rainbow motifs in Captain Holt’s office, and I love Leslie’s membership in the Sisterhood of the Traveling pantsuit.
A large part of that comes simply from hiring talented people and letting them be talented. Kirston Mann, the costumer for both shows, is the world’s greatest living human being, and she and her staff are supremely talented. The design, props, and graphic design teams on both shows are brilliant. When the writers conceive of a very specific item — say, the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness — we will oversee every detail. But often, in terms of costumes, decor, etc., my conversations with members of the production teams boils down to: go nuts.
Parks and Recreation has a big roster of recurring supporting characters, including the immortal stenographer Ethel Beavers, and it seemed like The Vulture could be Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s first recurring villain. Is building that tier of characters a deliberate strategy? Or is it a result of of one-offs that happen to click well? And what do you think tends to make those characters work?
We talked from the beginning of Brooklyn that we wanted to replicate certain things about the world-building from Parks, and at the top of the list was recurring characters. A police precinct has a lot of “regulars” — uniformed officers, defense lawyers, DAs, EMTs, and so on, and we’d be missing a huge opportunity if we didn’t try to build out the world in those directions. We have a rule on Parks I call the Poehler Doctrine, which is simply to find the funniest people around and design roles for them. It came from her suggestion that we hire Louis CK to play the police officer she had a romance with in Season Two — he didn’t fit our original conception of the character, and Amy’s point was: so what? He’s a Class-A comedy genius. So we cast him, and have made every casting decision since then based on the actor instead of the pre-conceived role.
Dean Winters is one of my favorite performers — Dan Goor and I met with him before we had a script just to tell him we loved him and wanted to get him into the show somehow, and The Vulture was a perfect role for him. We’re already trying to get him back. Actors make roles more than roles make actors. And great actors make for a rich world.