parks and recreation

Parks and Recreation was originally intended to be a direct spinoff of The Office, but Schur and Greg Daniels had other plans

parks and recreation

Mike Schur and the cast celebrate the show's 100th episode

parks and recreation

Rob Lowe as Chris "Literally!" Traeger, who first appeared on the show in season two

Fill 1
Fill 1
April 08, 2024
Online Originals

Parks & Recreation at 15: Mike Schur on the Show NBC Wanted to Be an Office Spinoff (Exclusive)

The sitcom's co-creator looks back on key cast members and why Season 3 was almost the show's last. 

If any show in recent memory is about pure, unbridled optimism, it's NBC's Parks and Recreation.

A product of the Obama era, this fan-favorite sitcom about a municipal department in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana, eschewed cynicism for a belief that government can be good. It's an attitude that even show co-creator Michael Schur admits is dated. "It's very much of a time," he says of the show, which ran for seven seasons on NBC. "Work really hard and dig your heels in and make the world a tiny, tiny bit better today than it was yesterday. I think if you made the show now, it wouldn't make any sense. It would be like, 'What are you talking about? This is not the way the world works anymore.'"

Maybe not, but that's part of why people still watch it. Parks and Rec (as most fans refer to it) reminds us of a simpler time and, perhaps, a better one. In honor of 15 years since the show's premiere — on April 9, 2009 — Schur talked to us about the show's origins, its iconic cast, how it caught lightning in a bottle and its lasting legacy.

I'm curious about the show's origin. Wasn't it meant to be a spinoff of The Office?

Yes and no. [Co-creator] Greg Daniels was approached by NBC in 2007. What they really wanted at the time was a spinoff, because The Office was huge, and the cast was enormous. Greg was very wary of breaking up the lineup, so he came to me and asked if I wanted to develop it with him. I'm not an idiot, so I said yes. He said, if we can do a spinoff without hurting the mothership, great, and if not, we're just going to come up with the best idea. NBC said, "Sure, sounds good, but we really, really, really want a spinoff."

So how did that turn into Parks and Rec?

Ultimately, we realized that the government was going to be playing a bigger role in people's lives than it had been for a very long time. So we had this revelation that in the same way Greg had created this masterful satire of corporate culture, we could do the same thing for the public sector, but at a very micro level. So we set the show in a middling department of a middling government of a middling city in a middling state, and thought, "This can stand in for Anytown, USA." That just became the most exciting idea, even though NBC still wanted a spinoff. We were like, "Yeah, this is the best idea. We're going to pursue this." And to their credit, they let us do it.

In season two, the show had a pretty major shift. How did you realize that Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope works much better if everybody is on her side?

It actually happens in the last episode of season one. The idea for Leslie was that she is super smart and dedicated and interested in helping people and loves the idea of what government could do. She just has no game. So we wrote her in what we thought was that way, and we realized very quickly from the feedback we were getting that she was coming off ditzy. We were horrified, because that was the opposite of what we wanted. Greg made this really smart observation that all we had to do is change the way people reacted to her. So then you saw people acknowledging in very simple ways that she's better than them at everything. That simple adjustment changed the perception of her.

Another shift came with the addition of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe in the third season. What was behind that casting?

A long time before we wrote the pilot, we'd had the idea for one of the potential backstories for Leslie to be that she's one of those people who was elected mayor of her town at 18, then had been a disaster and the town had fallen apart under her leadership. That became Adam's character [Ben Wyatt]. At the same time, NBC said Rob Lowe was going to leave [the ABC series] Brothers and Sisters, and very nicely said, "This is a guy who moves the needle, and if you want him to be on the show, we would pay for him." I said, "I'll take him, but I also want this other guy." The show was working pretty well by that point, but we needed one little piece of the puzzle to put us over the top, and I think Adam and Rob were that piece.

Speaking of that, the strength of the cast is part of what set the show apart.

A lot of this is [casting director] Allison Jones just finding folks who are funny and good. You know, when Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy came out and it was this massive, gigantic hit, people asked me, "Can you believe that this is happening?" And my answer was, "Yeah, of course I can. I've been watching Chris Pratt on the set for five years. He's unbelievable." And in season two or three, someone asked me about Aubrey Plaza, and I was like, "Aubrey is gonna win an Oscar someday." We caught lightning in a bottle in so many ways. Nick Offerman was 40 years old and wasn't famous. I remember thinking, "How has someone this good slipped through the cracks to this point?" We had established people on the show at various times, like Amy and Rashida Jones and Rob — and to some extent, Adam, who is one of the greatest comedic straight men of all time. Then we had Retta and Jim O'Heir, and all these people who the audience didn't know, and we got to introduce them. Looking back on it now, it's hard to think of a better cast on a TV show.

In retrospect, it seems odd that you were always on the bubble of getting renewed.

When I think back on the story of the show, from a creative standpoint, it was the best thing that could have happened to us.

Really? How so?

Because season three, when we got moved to mid-season, we thought, "This is it. We're done." We had a retreat with the writers, and I said, "Look, this is probably it, so we're not saving anything. We're going to pack this season with as much energy and excitement and fun as we can muster." Then, when we got picked up, it was like, well, we should do that again. By the time we got to season seven, we said, "You know what? We've told [Leslie's] whole story. Let's call our shot and end it. Decide on our own terms when we're going to leave." Amy said, "I love that. Let's do it." When you look back on it, it feels like a bit of a miracle that it all happened that way.

What do you think is the show's legacy?

If it has any kind of lasting staying power, it's because of the actors and the writing.

The point all along was to create a bunch of characters and stories that had heart and warmth behind them. That's ultimately what makes people stick with shows over a long period of time. Parks had a mission, and the mission was to make people feel good. I think that's why my 14-year-old daughter watches the show. Because it makes her feel good.

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