Michael Schur was trying to play down a sold-out Rio Theatre’s opening round of applause. And perhaps it’s easy to understand why.
Despite his status as a producer and writer for three successful American television series (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place), it isn’t cool, in the world of television, to take too much of the credit.
Nor is it, increasingly, possible to coast on a good pedigree. Schur, the Harvard Lampoon president circa 1997, an SNL alum, and the beneficiary of a mentorship line of succession mirrored in his shows’ workplace dynamics, wanted to show he’s a regular guy—who got lucky.
“There is a lot of extreme luck involved in this like anything else in life,” Schur said, speaking about his big break: creating Parks and Rec with Greg Daniels, then coming off the giant success of The Office.
“By him anointing me and developing the show with me, I got to skip 40 steps in the normal process of developing a show.”
For an hour and a half, which took place September 30, Schur was lightly guided through the three major entries in his TV career by Hollywood Reporter reviewer Tim Goodman—who preempted most of the excitement of the event by revealing some of their talking points were rehearsed: “Spoiler alert, we had dinner last night and so some of this stuff is fakery, we’ve already talked about it.”
A brief audience question period suggested there were other things on Vancouverites’ minds.
“How do you structure your writers room? What do you prize?” asked one woman.
Considering the event, billed as a Creator Talk at VIFF, was presenting the meeting of two key players in major North American TV industry, it’s surprising the work of making a show wasn’t more of a focus.
Schur, knowing the question was looking for how he—or anyone in TV—is addressing or ignoring systemic imbalances, sidestepped the obvious direction it was pointing toward, first saying he loves to work with people he’s worked with before, then explaining he doesn’t look for diversity in the way most people might expect.
“It’s new, interesting, weird, different people,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean necessarily ethnically diverse or whatever. One of the things I specifically set out to find in Season 1 [of The Good Place] for the people I hired was religious diversity. I thought it would be interesting to have people who had been raised in different religions, because the afterlife is a thing that people in religious households talk about.”
While Goodman emphasized the role of a show creator, describing it as if it were a job that oversees every mark a show hits, Schur was quick to give credit for his success to other collaborators, including casting director Allison Jones and writers Aisha Muharrar and Megan Amram. But it all came back to Greg Daniels.
“He used this term called ‘stuffing the sausage,’” Schur said. “The idea was: don’t be satisfied with a good story. Take things that could be entire stories and cram them into, like, one scene.”
Perhaps the unifying mark of his shows is this: they appear full. There’s the Twitter-stream-of-consciousness pop-culture references, the earnest belief in incrementalism, and the work-family mindset that Schur later described in these terms: “Generally speaking the core group like each other and then the threats are other people.”
“What makes shows special and interesting to me is when you dig in,” he added. “What’s the meaty centre of these actors and how are they like their characters, how are they not like their characters, what are the interesting honest truths about who they are?”
Any television show aiming for a long run is driven, in part, by how people talk about it—it needs an extra-text, in other words.
Parks and Rec still has its democracy fan-fiction, The Good Place has its twisty premise and moral philosophy, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine has something closest to the “honest truths” Schur alluded to.
In recent seasons the show has (somewhat clumsily) attempted to address racial profiling among police in an episode focused on Terry Crews’s character, and Rosa (played by Stephanie Beatriz) came out to her parents following Beatriz’s own coming out as bisexual on Twitter months earlier—the kind of moment TV has, usually cautiously, played host to since Ellen Degeneres did it two decades ago.
“Look, there’s plenty of successful shows that just skim right along the surface and if that’s what the creative team wants to do, that’s fine,” Schur said. “There’s no one way to do this. It’s just what interests me and the people that I’ve tended to work with.”
While Schur tried to distance his work from the days of television series like I Love Lucy (“now audiences are much more discerning and demanding”), even he had to admit that there is a limit on how personal, how introspective, and how esoteric any of his work can be.
“My show is a comedy, and I’m very conscious about the fact that we have a contract with our audience,” he said.
“The contract says, ‘If you tune in at this time on this network, you'll laugh.’ And so that puts a lid on the amount of serious meditation that we’re doing. [But] I’m really not interested in that. I want to throw these ideas up in the air and see if they’re of interest to anyone.”
Based on the self-selecting audience at the Rio, a lot of people agree.
In the most poignant moment of the afternoon, after a male audience member intercepted the Q&A mike, asking a lengthy question in the process, a woman got to have the final address to Schur.
“I just quickly want to say thank you for creating smart comedy,” she said. “I’ve just finished my degree in screenwriting and watching Parks and Recreation, that’s what started it for me.”More