When a sitcom bases much of its laughs on an unmarried lead character’s dating woes, it’s a tricky transition when that character gets engaged or married. It’s an old cliché that marriage and babies are “jump the shark” traps that sitcoms fall into and then start to go downhill. NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” took a risk by having its perpetually single main character Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) get engaged to Ben Wyatt (played by Adam Scott), but viewers are waiting to see if the couple will really get married. The show is now in its fourth season and has been renewed for a fifth season that will premiere in September 2013.
Leslie and Ben at least have something big in common: They work in government jobs. She is a mid-level bureaucrat for the parks department in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. Ben is a government official who had an unsuccessful stint as a mayor of another city. Together, they are a neurotic but amusing TV couple to watch. Poehler has been getting recognition for her role on the show, by garnering multiple Emmy nominations. At the 2013 Golden Globe Awards, Poehler is not only nominated for Best Actress in a TV Comedy but she’s also co-hosting the show with “30 Rock” star Tina Fey, who is nominated in the same category. Fey and Poehler are also nominated for Best Actress in a TV Comedy at the 2013 Screen Actors Guild Awards." Here is what Poehler, Scott and “Parks and Recreation” executive producer/writer Mike Schur said when they talked to journalists for a telephone conference-call interview.
What kind of research you do to stay so relevant? And what other stuff might be coming up in the rest of the season?
Schur: We spent a lot of time just poking around the Internet trying to see what issues governments are dealing with. And there are obviously large stories that sometimes there are local stories that take on national importance. I think Bloomberg's soda tax, that's obviously become a national story and other cities are following suit. So we just kind of try to anticipate what the things are that are going to be in peoples minds. And it's obviously a lot easier to do that in an election year because everything is so heightened and every tiny, minor controversy gets amped up.
There's nothing special we don't have a crystal but it's pretty easy to tell what issues are kind of capture the imagination of people across the country because often as with the soda tax, often it's about sodas in New York City but it's also individual liberties, which is a thing that is obviously on the national stage. And as far as what's coming up, we try to alternative in terms of what episodes deal with. We try to do some that are politically sort of focused and esoterical, and then we sort of back off that and go in a different direction. We try to pepper them in; we don't want to feel like the show is doing one kind of episode to often. So there will be more throughout the rest of the year but for the next couple episodes we focus more on the sort of personal lives on the characters.
And do you find when you look at this stuff that city government is inherently funny?
Schur: Yes, I hope so because it's not then we're in big trouble. I personally just think that government is funny. I am constantly amazed at how absurd the things are that come out of politicians’ mouths. So I don't think we're in any danger of running out of material.
What the vibe was on set that day that you shot the proposal scene? What you all were feeling as you were shooting that scene?
Poehler: When I read that scene I cried because I was so happy that I had my job at “Parks,” and then I got to do that scene with Adam and that Mike Schur wrote it because I knew it would be great. And it's very rare as an actor when you read a scene and you know it's going to be great, you can just kind of see it. And so when we were shooting the scene I was really excited that we were getting to do it because I had really just been looking forward to doing it. And I was really happy for Leslie, so I think the mood on set was a really kind of joyous one. I know even though it was kind of a sweet scene I know Adam and I were really just happy to have such a well written scene to get to do. And we care about our characters so we were kind of excited that this was happening for them.
Scott: Yes, I feel the same way. I also just kind of felt like this was a really big deal for all of us. We of course are well aware that these are fictional characters that we are playing on television. But I think we also want them to be happy and want them to be all right and we all care about them. I can say, speaking for myself that I care about them quite deeply and so knowing this scene was coming, I was maybe a little nervous about it but mostly just really happy about it. And happy to be able to do it and happy for the characters.
And so the day we were doing it, it was like Amy said very kind of joyous but also there's a real feeling that this was very special. And we wanted it to be special for the fans and for he characters. It was exciting. I thought it was really exciting, then when we did it. It was really fun and very happy.
How long did you know that there would be a proposal?
Poehler: When we were in D.C., right Mike? When we were in D.C. shooting stuff for the premiere, you writing that scene right?
Schur: Yes, we knew before we started shooting anything because when we were in the writer's room in pre-production, we broke out the first half dozen or so episodes that was encompassing the time that Ben was going to be in Washington. And what we realized was we wanted Ben to do a good job in Washington and what that meant was that he was going to get an opportunity to keep going with that job and with Jen Barkley, with Kathryn Hahn's character.
And so then it became an issue of all right well what causes a guy whose career is kind of moving in this cool direction to come back to tiny Pawnee, Indiana. And there's only one thing that would really do that and that's Leslie. So we just decided to sort of shape the episode around him just deciding, “Look, this is my priority, Leslie is my priority and that everything else is in second place.” So we knew before we even started the season that we were going to have him propose and come back when he was done with his arc, it was going to end with him proposing. So yes, I wrote the scene when we were in Washington.
Poehler: I remember we had dinner that night when we were in Washington, and Schur said, “I just wrote the scene where Ben proposed to you.”
Schur: Yes, that's right.
Scott: Yes I think it was really great writing that the episode before this one was the episode where Ben and April actually meet the candidate that they've been working for and it isn't exactly an inspiring it doesn't exactly lend itself to kind of an inspiring figure in Washington. And so the work that they've been doing there compared with Pawnee and sort of the relationships that Ben and April have there and the immediate results they see from hard work in a place like Pawnee. It makes the whole kind of idea of going back there a lot more attractive as well.
Amy, when did you discover you were funny?
Poehler: Gosh, I don't know about that. I don’t know. That may be a question for someone else other than me.
Schur: [He says jokingly] Frankly I'm still waiting to discover it.
Poehler: Yes, I was going to say. The jury may still be out on that one for many people. When I was trying dramatic, even when I was really young I was trying to be very dramatic I got a lot of laughs so I don't know what that tells about me.
You must have thought you were funny to audition for “Saturday Night Live.”
Poehler: Well at that point I had been doing sketch comedy and stuff so I was at least doing a good job of fooling myself. So yes, the combination of maybe naïvete and bravado maybe got me in the door there. [She says jokingly] And I was sleeping with Horatio Sanz, so that made it easier.
Scott: I remember the first time I got a laugh from like a joke, I doubt this question was for me in the first place but I'm going to answer.
Poehler: Oh God, please take it, please take it.
Scott: I just took a line from Mad magazine and just kind of inserted it into dinner conversation when I was like a really little kid and the whole place went … We had friends over or something like it was at our house and my parents friends were over. And I remember I said this really like, witty it was like a precarious thing a kid in a sitcom would say and I remember the whole place just went nuts. And it was a great, because then Mad magazine.
I think it was in a Don Martin thing. Someone said, "Waiter there's a fly in my soup" and the other and the waiter said, “Don't worry the spider in your salad will eat it.” So that's what I did and everyone went crazy.
Poehler: And you toured, you did like a mini-tour, like a mini comedy tour just on that one joke for like a whole year.
Scott: Yes, it was just called Adam Scott Flying Spider.
Mike, can you talk about the intricacies of the fart attack? The volume, the amounts, just how much fun and testing did you guys do with all that?
Schur: I'm not kidding, we probably spent in terms of like man-hours or person-hours we probably spent 10 or to 12 person hours working on the farts. The sound of them, the volume, the style. And that includes a lot of time in the edit bay getting it right and then in the sound mix we changed stuff. There were three different entire sort of fart overlays that we looked at.
We ended up going with version three, which is a hybrid of versions one and two. It was a very intensive work session and it's because it's a very important moment in the life of the show. You only get to do a fart attack once and we just wanted to make sure that we got everything done right.
You'd be surprised. There's a billion-dollar industry that's just fart sound effects out there. You have so much to choose from, and then of course there's a lot of things to consider. There's volume...
Poehler: If you guys are ever in Louisiana, you should check out the fart library. It's beautiful down there.
Scott: The library of Congress has their fart library in...
What can we expect now for Ben and Leslie? Are we going to see a wedding this season?
Schur: Well, the reason that the episode was called “Halloween Surprise” it's because as part of the show’s DNA to try to not telegraph where we're going. And there's a certain kind of playbook that you're told to run or that you've learned how to run from watching TV shows. And we try to just do things that are surprising. And it's very hard to do in this day and age because the moment that anybody does anything it's leaked under the Internet.
And so we've tried really hard to kind of be hard to pin down in terms of where we're going. So I don't want to give anything away at all but I will say that what we want to do, I think the essential element of both comedy and just good storytelling in general is surprise, whether it's comedy or drama. And so I would like to believe that the path that we're choosing to take will be satisfying but also surprising to people.
How are we going to see the proposal really impact the Parks department?
Poehler: Well, you know that no matter what, Leslie will involve and include everyone in her plans all the time. This engagement will be said of everybody's engagement.
Scott: America's engagement.
Poehler: Certainly, there's a upcoming [episode] where everyone's reacting to it in different ways and being included in different ways. And also how Leslie and Ben handle distance and jobs and what comes next. And the balance of what's going on in their professional life and their personal life, that's a lot of the stuff that's coming up in the short-term.
And do you think there's a potential to kind of see a little bit of a bridezilla emerge?
Scott: I think bridezilla, which is a term that I personally dislike, is a term that is a little bit … misogynistic. It’s like when every time two women are up for an award or something, it gets described as a catfight. And that is always very annoying to me. When two men are up for an award they don't say, “It's a penis fight” or something. And I think that bridezilla implies that it's a person who is incredibly self-centered and who wants to make everything all about her.
And I would say that one of the main characteristics of Leslie as a character is that she is very other-directed and she cares very deeply about her friends and the people who are around her. And that she would want her wedding to be as much a celebration of the people that she's friends with and the town that she's in as she would making it about herself. So not saying that there is going to be a wedding or anything but the whole idea of her character is that she will walk to the end of the earth for her friends and so she is not a person who is going to make it all about her.
Have you met with Tina Fey to discuss any ideas for what you're going to be doing for the Golden Globes?
Poehler: No, no. We’re really excited but we're both shooting now on our TV shows, and we're kind of used to “SNL” style, working a little closer to the date. So it's kind of a little too far out to start really planning because news and change and things happen closer to the thing. We've seen each other and talked about how we're excited but no we haven't planned anything yet.
Leslie's going to be meeting Ben's parents. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Poehler: How much do we talk about without spoilers? Well, we're really excited. We know who the actors are.
Scott: And they are so great.
Poehler: We have Glenne Headly, who is amazing.
Schur: And Jonathan Banks.
Poehler: Yes and Jonathan Banks and who plays...
Schur: Mike Ehrmantraut.
Poehler: Yes, who plays Ben's intimidating dad. And it's a great peek into kind of Ben's world and family and that dynamic. And so it's the kind of a combination of like a high-stress party combined with relatives, which always is a bad mix.
Schur: I love the idea of Ben's father being just a little terrifying. I think it fits in really well with kind of with the character of Ben. It's really funny and Jonathan Banks was hilarious.
Scott: Yes, they were both great. And Kulap Vilaysack, who plays Ben's dad's girlfriend is also great. It was a very contained episode. We basically wanted to put Leslie and Ben and Ben's parents who hate each other and Ben's dad's girlfriend into a pressure cooker and just leave them there to simmer for 20 minutes. So it turned out really, really well. There's some really just wonderful acting from everybody. And it's also by the way in a side note is the return of Jean-Ralphio Saperstein, who comes back to help Tom with his new business ideas. So there's a lot going on and we're very happy with the way it all turned out.
Wasn’t the box that he put the ring in the same box he used to give her the Knope 2012 pin?
Schur: You're right.
Poehler: You are being a total nerd and we love how much of a nerd you are that you noticed that because we are all total nerds as well.
Scott: It's the box that Ben put the Knope 2012 pin in and that Leslie then returned to him with the Washington Monument figurine in the season four finale. It's a very important box.
Poehler: At the end of the season, we're all going to jump into the box and then fly away.
Scott: The box is a time machine.
In a lot of sitcoms when we've had engagements or weddings or main characters sort of hooking up, the shows definitely changed after those things happened. When we look back at the history of this “Parks and Recreation,” is this going to be a before and after moment? Or is the idea more to just sort of work it into the body of the show as it already exits?
Schur: Starting next week it's an hour-long medical drama so it definitely is a before and after kind of a situation. No, I think it's a watershed for the characters certainly, but Ben showed up in Leslie's life a couple years ago, and it became pretty clear, pretty quickly that they were soul mates. And I've said this before but we had the intention over the life of the show of Leslie having a lot of different boyfriends who were good and bad in different ways and from whom she learned things about herself and about what she wanted in life and stuff.
And we had started doing that … And she was hung up on Paul Schneider's character for a while. And she dated Justin Theroux's character for a while and we were sort of moving in that direction, we wanted it to be a sort of a series of interesting relationships in the life of a self-possessed single lady. And then Adam Scott showed up and then it all went to hell because we realized that their two characters were just very good for each other. So we threw out that plan and followed what made sense, which was that they were kind of soul mates.
For that reason, I don't think that them getting married or getting engaged is changes that much about the way that the show is, it's official now and we get to do stories about them planning a wedding and sort of intertwining their lives officially in what that means for them and how it affects other people and stuff. But I don't think there's any massive sea change in the way that the show functions.
“Parks and Recreation” has the ability to mix the workplace comedy and bringing in the characters personal life but not having it overwhelm it. Is that something you are clearly conscious of trying to do or is just the way the show was developed over time?
Poehler: It's certainly something that Mike is very conscious and we are all conscious of that at the end of the day the show is about these characters and how they kind of wouldn't be friends in real life but they're all thrown together in a similar environment. And that we always return to the Parks Department all the time is a reminder of this is where this is where the comedy is and we kind of leave it and come back. And every time we leave and come back, it's different when it comes back.
The writers do such a good job of balancing letting big things happen and letting characters change so that each episode isn't a reset. It can be frustrating when you're watching something and no one learns anything, no changes, no one grows and every episode is the same thing. However, that being said, I think I can speak for Mike when I say that it's always really important that we stay true to what the show is, which is exactly that, a workplace comedy a character mixed comedy.
So how did you all keep the proposal a secret?
Schur: When we shot outside and you know, and there may paparazzi lurking around, we always would hide Leslie's engagement ring, although a couple shots of it did get snapped a while ago but. We titled the episode Halloween Surprise and then we built it around what you think is the surprise, which is that Leslie and Anne surprised Jerry and he has a devastating fart attack. So that was meant to sort of throw people off the scent …
We just tried not to telegraph in the storytelling where we were going. But the goal is that once it happens you think back and you think, “Oh yes, that makes perfect sense.” So it's just very meticulous writing and re-writing and story breaking and a lot of discussions with the actors about where we're going so that they know how to play different things and how to kind of give certain clues without giving everything away. And then just asking everybody on our production staff not to leak stuff to the Internet.
Poehler: And we have such great fans. I think some of them kind of found out or dug deep and they were kind of excited to know but they also I think were respectful and kind of like keep things like letting people know about spoilers and just kind of trying to keep it adrift because I think they were as excited as we were.
Schur: Yes, it's funny that you say that because I kind of snooped around yesterday before the episode aired and I saw that a lot of our fans had kind of called that it was actually maybe happening tonight. And but were really kind of keeping it to themselves and speaking in code to each other. They revealed that I'm digging a little deeper than I should be but it's really lovely and they were really cool about it and not trying to spread it around and just kind of talking to each other and not wanting to like spoil it for others. And I just kind of second that we have the greatest fans of any show. Wefeel very, very lucky.
Adam, we're really been enjoying Ben and April's evolving friendship this season. So can you talk a little bit about developing that relationship with Aubrey Plaza on camera?
Scott: Yes, it was really fun. Ben and April hadn't really had a lot of time together just one-on-one. They live in the same house but we haven't seen the two of them just kind of break off and spend time together. And I think it was great both for my character and for Aubrey's character to see her sort of, “All right, go to Washington and get serious about something.” And you get to see her enjoy herself …
But you see her actually starting a career of some sort and you can see her kind of out in the world a bit more than usual. And I thought that their relationship really evolved into this really nice friendship. And it was fun to be made of by April for several episodes.
Ron Swanson is dating Diane now, and she's not a candidate, so it kind of seems like his character is evolving a bit more. Could you maybe just talk a little bit about the direction this character's heading in?
Scott: Sure. We've had this idea for a really long time that Ron would at some time have a real relationship with a woman who sort of fit all of his criteria. From the sort of important criteria that she's like self-possessed and confident and strong and her personality to be superficial like that she has dark hair. The idea was give him a really great relationship possibility and then complicate it with two young girls. And this has been floating around for a while and for a couple years at least. And then Lucy Lawless became available and we sort of jumped on it.
And he's not a guy who's going to change a whole lot in terms of the ways he views the world or the way that he comports himself. But I think it was important for us to create an episode where he realized it was just as important in the world of manliness to apologize when you've done something wrong as it is to be able to chop wood or cook a steak or something. So that was the design of that story, and it sort of gets lost in the kind of giant story move of the proposal, but I thought that the scene where he apologized to Diane last night was maybe the best acting he's ever done on the show. I thought he was just fantastic.
And the plan is long-term that this is an important person in his life and that he needs to make a couple adjustments. He's a guy who hasn't made any adjustments in his life in probably 30 years in any meaningful way. And he's found a woman who is important enough to him that he needs to make a couple adjustments in terms of how he spends his time and what he cares about in order to make room in his sort of lone wolf heart for these two little girls and this woman who he cares about. We're going to follow that story for a while and it's very exciting to have Lucy around because she's really cool.
How much of an influence the supporting actors like Aziz Ansari or Retta have over their characters arc's because they kind of seem to get wilder as you go?
Schur: Retta has been doing this insane thing where she live tweets about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” We all find it hilarious. And so we just decided to work it into an episode. It's a common theme on this show that we take aspects of the actor's real life and kind of weave them into their characters and that seemed very much appropriate for Donna somehow.
I think we do that with all the characters but maybe Aziz and Retta and Nick I guess more than almost anybody else because they just do things in real life that we find funny … and then we try to find ways to work them in to their characters.
But everyone's character has some aspect I would say of their real life persona. And it just seems funny to have Donna live tweeting a terrible horror movie from 1986, so. It was also another extra in joke that the guy who complains to her about it was played by Joe Mande, who's one of our writers, who essentially lives on Twitter. So it was our little nod to the obsession with Twitter that exists on the writing staff right now.
How connected is your staff in general, because you seem to know a lot about the Internet?
Schur: Comparatively speaking, I'm about to turn 37 and there's a bunch of little whippersnappers on this writing staff and in the cast who are in their 20s. And I don't understand anything they do. There was a line that Leslie had in season two where she said the thing about youth culture is I don't understand it. And that came right out of my brain because I don't have any idea how these people, what they're doing with their time.
I don't understand it, it doesn't make sense to me, and I work out my own anxieties about the fact that I'm getting old by having young people do things that I don't understand and then having Ron Swanson scold them. So yes, they're incredibly connected. It is absurd, the level to which 25-year-olds have merged with their electronic devices.
Is the outlook for another season of “Parks and Recreation” is going have any affect on whether or not there's a wedding this season?
Schur: We learned a long time ago I would say that we shouldn't take anything for granted. And for that reason our motto has been just go for broke. Just tell every story you want to tell, don't worry about what comes next, don’t worry about the future. Just tell the story that you want to tell in the order you want to tell them and damn the torpedoes basically. And every time we get a piece of good news in the past about the next season pick up or something like that, Amy sends a text to me that says, Nice hustle.”
And that's the motto of the show, I think if there is one. It's like, “Let's just hustle, let's just go all out, run to first base, run to second base, run to third, come home, go full bore the whole time and let the chips fall where they may.” So we're not going to worry about next year or the year after or anything like that. We're just going to hustle and try to make the show as good and as interesting as it can be possibly be.
Were there ever any alternative ideas for Ben's proposals?
Poehler: I have to say before we get into that what I loved in watching it again last night is, I loved that the scene is about everything to come, you know. It's an empty room, which can be depressing in some respects for some people, but in this context it was all about hostility that nothing had filled that room. That that room was empty and open and ready to be filled with the future.
And it was really cool that Dean Holland, our director, and Mike Schur picked that it happened in front of the fireplace of the empty room, which is just really nice because it was like warm but, I don't know. I just loved that Leslie looked around to see what was around here and there was just this big empty room, which was like basically the idea it's basically what happens when you're thinking about committing to someone. It's just the future seems really wide and open and clean and so that ended up being what it was and I thought it was perfect. But were there other ideas?
Schur: The original idea was that he was going to sing “It's Not Unusual” by Tom Jones next to a white tiger.
Scott: Which I was lobbying for.
Schur: Yes, you were really into that. And then we kind of scaled it back, we decided, “Let's make it a little classier and kind of quieter.”
Poehler: We couldn't get the rights to the song.
Schur: We couldn't get the rights or the white tiger.
Scott: Mike, I told you I had a firm connection to both of those things. I totally could have made it happen.
Schur: If showing me pictures on the Internet of Siegfried and Roy's Vegas show does not mean you have a firm connection to anything.
Scott: That is exactly what that means.
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