An Interview with Michael Schur

The acclaimed writer and producer Michael Schur is well-known for his work on Saturday Night Live, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. His comedic style incorporates both irreverence and emotion, a complexity that is also seen in Schur himself.

In 2005, Schur’s then-fiancee (now wife) was involved in a minor car crash. Although the other driver’s car did not have any visible damage, they reported it to the police and claimed that the bumper needed to be replaced for a cost of more than eight hundred dollars.

Schur asked them to let it go, but they responded that it was not their problem. Consequently, Schur proposed to his friends that they would donate the same amount of money to Hurricane Katrina relief if the driver dropped the claim.

He also created a website to monitor responses, and within twenty-four hours, thirty thousand dollars had been pledged.

Despite the satisfaction of reprimanding someone who was being self-centered, Schur experienced inner turmoil and resorted to asking for advice from his friends and even ethics professors at three universities.

In the end, Schur and Saab Guy settled on a deal in which Schur would pay for the repairs and Saab Guy would give to charity.

Schur later wrote in his blog that the situation had caused a wide range of emotions and posed numerous ethical and moral questions that may take years to unravel.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Mike Schur for an interview due to his work showcasing an optimism and trust in humanity that is a stark contrast to the cynicism which is pervasive in network television.

His characters have a realism to them, realistically portraying what life is like, making mistakes, taking chances, and advancing.

Schur is, however, primarily a comedy writer, and his style is evident in the slapstick gags, quirky scenarios, and biting wit. Our conversation was a great ninety minute discussion on a Friday afternoon.

— Stephanie Palumbo

It is possible to eliminate any issues of plagiarism by transforming the structure of the text while still preserving the original context and meaning.

What was it like when you first started to write comedy?

Back in high school, me and a buddy of mine stumbled upon the fact that the local cable-access channel granted anybody freedom to say and do whatever.

We took advantage of this liberty and created a few peculiar projects, including a homage to the Zucker brothers which comprised of a discussion about the Naked Gun films with a script that most likely wasn’t good, plus we showed excerpts from The Naked Gun without authorization.

Eventually, I earned a spot on the Harvard Lampoon staff when I was a freshman at college. After graduation, I relocated to New York City and got a job at Saturday Night Live that December.

During your initial season at SNL, were you present when Chris Farley and Phil Hartman passed away?

MS recalled that their first show at SNL after Chris had passed and Norm had been let go was a sink-or-swim situation.

They arrived to find no one else present, and were left to just sit on a couch until someone eventually pointed out their office and mentioned a meeting with Samuel L. Jackson.

The newcomer was not given any guidance, and had to figure out the ropes on their own. It was a nerve-wracking start, but MS was thankful that they were given a grace period before anyone noticed their lack of skills in sketch writing.

They concluded that the upheaval at the show may have been what shielded them from greater scrutiny.

Do you have any recollection of the initial sketch that was broadcast?

MS: I vividly remember the first joke I saw on the air that I wrote. Dennis McNicholas and Robert Carlock wrote a sketch about people evacuating the Titanic , with Samuel L. Jackson and Tracy Morgan being the last two on the boat.

Will Ferrell was directing everyone to the lifeboats, saying “All first-class passengers in the lifeboat. All second-class passengers and third-class passengers in the lifeboat.

All animals in the lifeboat. Put all empty luggage in the lifeboat.” It was hilarious. The joke that I wrote and was the first thing I ever wrote that was on television was “All empty lifeboats should now be placed in other lifeboats.” Even if I didn’t create the majority of the sketch, just seeing something I wrote being performed on SNL was incredible. I felt like I could stop writing professionally right there and be content if that was the last thing to ever happen.

BLVR: Were you there on SNL on September 11th?

When I ran my first edition of “Weekend Update” on SNL , it happened to be the episode after 9/11, so I was thrown into the deep end without any prior experience. Nevertheless, I was given no leeway and was expected to perform as if I had done it before.

BLVR: After 9/11, did you develop a sense of how to craft political jokes?

In a peculiar way, crafting jokes about celebrities is not unlike any other kind of joke-telling. You have to make a decision about whether the joke is appropriate or not.

Even though the stakes felt higher at the time due to the state of the world, the general rules of comedy still apply.

Lorne Michaels has quite a few rules about comedy, and with “Weekend Update” and topical-sketch writing, he had a very logical approach: don’t beat up on people who don’t deserve it. An attack on someone might get a laugh, but it won’t help build up trust.

His main rule was to attack those in power, no matter what your personal beliefs are. This show was born out of the Watergate era when the public started to be more critical of the authorities.

The idea was that it didn’t matter what your political views were, you’d go after those in control; you’d challenge the power structure.

BLVR: After your departure from SNL, did you begin writing for The Office without any delay?

For six and a half years I was part of SNL, but when my then girlfriend, who is now my wife, shifted to Los Angeles, one of us had to make the move.

Consequently, I went out to LA and had a meeting with Greg Daniels, the producer, who gave me a job on The Office. I remember thinking, “This is not going to last, the show is surely going to be canceled.

But, he seemed to be an intelligent person so I figured I would gain some knowledge from him.” Yet, it went on for a long time.

At what moment did you realize that The Office had transitioned from merely copying the British version to developing into its own unique show?

MS: We made some minor changes, but the most significant point was when we were renewed for a second season. Greg then told us, “The British show was outstanding in its artistry, but its twelve episodes had a pessimistic approach to its main character. We need to adjust our show if it’s going to make it past twelve episodes.”

We were all protesting, saying he would ruin it, but he just let us express our grievances and then said, “We’re going to make our show endings more positive and Michael Scott will be more understanding of how people perceive him.

He will still be inappropriate and desperate for admiration, but he will be treated with more kindness and be seen as a successful boss.” That was the turning point for our show.

BLVR: It’s fascinating to note that Greg Daniels had also been part of the team behind The Simpsons and James L. Brooks had the same objective in mind with that show–to fill it with emotion.

MS argues that the pilot episode of Cheers was initially quite bleak and empty, but the producers decided to fill the bar with more people in order to give the show a happier tone.

The general concept of a lot of great shows is to begin with a less than cheery worldview, but the best ones are able to balance that with lightheartedness.

Have you found that your writing has been shaped by Infinite Jest, considering your appreciation for David Foster Wallace and the concept of combatting loneliness through kindness that is so integral to the novel?

Reading the works of David Foster Wallace had a profound impact on me, to the point where it was like my brain had been rewired.

His major belief was that sincerity should be more important than irony, which for a young writer in Brooklyn is the opposite of “cool”. To be open and honest about one’s feelings and not worry about what others think of you is very difficult in a world where one’s work is immediately under scrutiny from those who follow a “cool-guy agenda”.

I am grateful to Amy Poehler for her understanding of this concept and her ability to express it in her creation of Leslie Knope. Without her, and without my reading of David Foster Wallace, it would not have been possible.

BLVR: Is it correct to say that you possess the movie rights to Infinite Jest?

A while ago, I had acquired the rights to the book with the plan of making it into a motion picture in the near future.

There are many challenges with adapting the book, as much of it would translate well to the screen, but certain elements, such as the footnotes, are more difficult to bring across.

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace was trying to have a dialogue with readers, to explore these ideas and emotions together.

His writing reflects this idea of us all being in it together, as humans, attempting to make sense of our lives and the world around us. We all feel love for those who do not love us back, have failed in situations we wanted to succeed in and find it all very confusing and difficult.

BLVR: Is there a theme that Parks and Recreation shares with Cheers and Infinite Jest , and if so, what is it? You had mentioned that Cheers encapsulates the overarching idea of the entire series within each episode – is this the same for Infinite Jest in its chapters?

MS: Two main ideas drive the show. The first is inspired by Wallace’s work and is that an optimistic outlook can overcome pessimism.

In one of Amy and my early conversations, she said what excited her about playing an aspiring politician was to show how difficult it is to not become jaded. She loved the idea of facing challenges and still having the strength to resist becoming cynical.

The other salient theme is that no one can do anything alone; almost every story contains this lesson. It became most evident when Leslie ran for office and faced a scandal that caused her professional campaign managers to abandon her.

We in the writers’ room referred to it as the “It’s a Wonderful Life moment,” when her closest friends stepped up and said, “We don’t know what to do, but we’ll help you.

We’ll figure it out.” A mismatched group of people with no knowledge of how to run a political campaign managed to win. It’s clear that humans can’t achieve anything solo; we need to rely on others.

To be content and successful on earth, we just need people we can trust.

BLVR: With your new series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, being the third comedy you’ve produced in a workplace setting, what made you decide to make a police precinct the focus of this one?

In the last fifteen years, there have been a plethora of police-based dramas on American television, such as Law & Order and CSI.

However, the concept of a police precinct has not been used for a comedic show until recently. Setting the tone for this is difficult, as the stories of these dramas tend to be dark and distressing.

To make sure that our show would be successful, we made sure to make it seem as if it were a real police department, investigating real crimes.

We decided to avoid showing any gory details, such as dead bodies with severed limbs, as there is not much that is humorous about that. Instead, we typically focus on robberies or fraud cases that are not too graphic.

Previously, you have mentioned that you view mockumentaries as a perfect platform for storytelling, however, Brooklyn is not one.

MS: The mockumentary format has its uses in a sitcom, like when it comes to delivering the necessary story points, or what writers call “pipe”.

With this format, the characters can be interviewed, so the scene can start with a character looking at the camera and explaining the situation, rather than trying to figure out how to make them explain it in an organic way.

This problem is often seen in pilots, where characters have to explain their actions to each other in a way they wouldn’t in reality. On Brooklyn, however, the team decided not to go with a mockumentary style, as there was no need for it conceptually.

In Brooklyn, most of the characters defy what one might expect–such as a cop played by Terry Crews who has a fondness for Godard films and farmers’ markets.

Was that something you intentionally incorporated into the roles or was it a natural result of creating multifaceted personalities?

MS: We don’t strive to create something entirely new, but we attempt to make characters intriguing and complex.

We like to build characters around a certain actor, and when we met Terry Crews, we inquired about his past.

It was revealed that he attended Interlochen Arts Camp and is a proficient painter. It was surprising to find this out about someone who appears to be a superhero.

Therefore, we thought of a story line where the police sketch artist was absent and Terry would draw a portrait of the suspect in charcoal. People cannot be defined by one thing.

Very few sitcoms have a range of characters as varied as Brooklyn, however, I heard that you didn’t take the ethnicity of the actors into account when assembling the cast.

MS: We collaborated with a great casting director and instructed them to make the precinct look like it would in a real New York City.

It would have been outlandish to have six Caucasian men and a single African American woman. We didn’t necessarily focus on what particular ethnicities were represented–we auditioned individuals of around six different ethnicities for at least three characters.

We ended up selecting two Hispanic women, one Cuban; two African American men; an Italian man; and a male and female who are half Italian and half Jewish. Nonetheless, we could have gone for South Korean or American Samoan actors–we just picked the best people.

BLVR: It’s interesting that on Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the lesser characters are given odd monikers, such as Gunch Merkwell and Steve Millerbund.

MS: [ Laughs ] I really enjoy making up crazy names. It’s something I picked up from watching Monty Python and Woody Allen movies–nothing makes me laugh harder than a funny name.

Whenever I was writing, I used to give people ridiculous names if they said something like, “How much is this apple?”

So, when I was working on The Office , I wrote a character called Gwendolyn Trundlebed who didn’t have any lines.

The production team obviously took the name and ran with it, and when I went on set I saw that they’d gone all out and made the office look like something from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , with unicorns and everything.

I had to let them know that it was all a bit of a joke, and that this was just a normal woman named Gwendolyn Trundlebed because it made me chuckle.

BLVR: What aspirations do you have for Brooklyn Nine-Nine to keep thriving?

MS: The wish of every show creator is that their show will sustain. You can’t help but to let it out and pray that it will be appreciated.

That feeling of working together–this is the essence of late night television. It is what motivated such shows as The Office, Parks and Rec, and now Brooklyn.

The enjoyable part is collaborating with your colleagues and coming up with something. All you can truly hope for is the opportunity to keep creating it.

BLVR: Parks and Rec has been praised by critics and has a devoted following, but its ratings are low. Does the current system fail to reflect the show’s popularity when millions of viewers tune in yet it is still viewed as having a low amount of viewers?

MS: The present network TV structure is in a state of disrepair. In the old days, show producers created as many episodes as possible to get money from networks. Watching old I Love Lucy episodes, you can tell that the sets were cheaply made; production values and star salaries increased, so producers resorted to deficit spending.

Spending more than they got from networks was okay, because once they hit 100 episodes, syndication money would make up for it.

Unfortunately, production costs kept rising and original stories got harder to come by, leading to viewer boredom.

Now, there are hundreds of cable channels producing content, so the possible audience is split into many smaller pieces.

In 1983, the audience was only divided five ways, but now it’s spread across cable, satellite, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, phones, and more–it’s hard to keep track of how people consume TV nowadays.

The issue is that the networks are still using the same I Love Lucy production formula. A lot of money is still put into the making of the shows, yet there is no more syndication market since channels can now create their own and keep all the profits.

The way television is distributed has changed drastically, yet the mission statement remains the same: to make popular entertainment that appeals to a broad range of people while earning ad money and selling products.

Furthermore, cable stations owned by the networks are stealing the audience from the network shows.

The system for measuring ratings is outdated, yet websites still report them as though they are relevant. This is an unclear situation.

I believe we are in the midst of a tremendous transformation and do not yet have the full scope of what is to come.

Nonetheless, I am certain that in five years there will be a completely altered system for the delivery of television, the way ratings are gauged, and the methods of advertisement sales.

The number of TV shows available today is higher than ever before, and so is the competition among them. When I was a child, I used to watch Empty Nest religiously.

Despite being a twelve-year-old in Connecticut, I found myself drawn to the sitcom about a 68-year-old doctor in Florida. It was the only comedy show at that time, but now something like Hot in Cleveland wouldn’t have the same draw for a twelve-year-old.

There are now so many other TV shows to pick from that at any moment, there’s a channel that caters specifically to any demographic.

If you’re a 61-year-old harp-playing lesbian, there is even a show made especially for you called Harp Wars .

We no longer have any shared experiences when it comes to TV, as the country is too large and the options too numerous. It remains to be seen if the advantages of this new system outweigh the disadvantages.

Our writing staff is varied and passionate about arts, literature, film, travel, music, and entertainment.

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