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Michael Schur stands on a balancing board, shifting his 6-foot frame from side to side as he agonizes over the best way to kill a “Parks and Recreation” romance.
Dressed in Converse sneakers, jeans and a dark blue fleece jacket, the 34-year-old looks more like a laid-back dad on his way to a kids’ soccer game than the executive producer of one-quarter of NBC’s Thursday night comedy block.
It’s up to him and the half-dozen other writers in this room to solve their story problem. And they’re stuck.
As he drapes himself across a couch in this windowless room on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City, Calif., gazing up at the ceiling, Schur’s fellow writers stare at him in silence from their seated perches at a long wooden table. A “Rock Band” drum set is in one corner of the room, and half-eaten food lies scattered across the table, which is also strewn with white and purple note cards.
Executive producer Michael Schur
It’s 12:30 p.m. and Schur and his friends have already spent three hours figuring what the hell to write on those cards.
The white ones are usually Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler’s) story lines. If it’s an episode that involves a lot of intermingling, other characters’ stories will be on different colored cards. Today, that color is purple and it belongs to an as-yet-named mystery couple whose TV romance will be short-lived.
The goal is for these cards to join the other note cards that snake around the room in multicolor stripes, pinned to corkboards. When the snake has a head, midsection and tail, one writer will attempt to turn it into a script.
Co-creator Greg Daniels
But there’s still no tail in sight. Schur isn’t five words closer to tearing the lovebirds apart.
Dan Goor, another writer whose bubbly enthusiasm rivals that of Knope’s, looks vexed and pumps a plastic Nerf gun toward the ceiling.
“How do we make this funny?” he asks in a pained tone.
That’s a question Schur and co-creator Greg Daniels, (“The Office”) have been asking, and answering, with quirky gusto during the past year. Under their watchful eyes, the mockumentary-style comedy about small-town bureaucracy in Pawnee, Ind., saw a spike in laughs its second season after a bumpy run out of the gate, even if ratings have stayed the same since Season 1: An average of about 4 million viewers, and a 1.9/6 share in adults 18-49.
Fans can thank a top-notch writing pedigree for greasing “Parks and Rec’s” wheels.
The team’s collective resume includes gigs writing for “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “Hung,” “Mad TV,” “King of the Hill,” “The Office,” “South Park,” “The Daily Show” and “Human Giant.”
Not surprisingly, in person, the team comes across as quirky as the City of Pawnee’s staff.
Without anyone inquiring, Goor will proffer the nutritional info of his microwaved sweet potato; dapper Alan Yang will share stories of his late-night escapades as a single guy; and petite Katie Dippold will blurt out-of-nowhere prognostications like “There’s going to be an earthquake tonight,” earning her the title of “the weirdest person in the room” by her fellow scribes.
This is nearly the same team that penned Season 1, even though Season 2 feels so much sharper, a shift Schur and Daniels attribute to a writing hiatus — a luxury they did not enjoy between the pilot and the first five episodes — because of Poehler’s pregnancy.
This time, they won’t be so lucky: After delivering 24 episodes for Season 2, Schur has sent his team straight into Season 3 to work around Poehler’s second pregnancy. “She’s constantly pregnant,” he quips.
That means between late-April and early June, when the writers break, six episodes have to be buffed, polished and placed in the can. And today, they are still two episodes away from this milestone.
They continue to talk in circles, no one cracking either a joke or a smile. As time passes without progress, Schur has a brainwave: He strategically splits the team into two, sending a youthful trio of writers (Dippold, Emily Spivey, Aisha Muharrar) into one of the smaller offices, while Schur, Goor and Harris Wittels move to a conference table in another room.
“That’s the big picture room, and this is the rubber-meets-the-road room,” Schur says, taking his place at a table with nine computer screens — though with only one keyboard, at the end of the table, where he types as the words appear simultaneously on all the screens.
He talks about how just one little innocent query from one of the actors can eviscerate these words, and indeed an entire episode. Such was the case with “The Camel,” the ninth episode of Season 2, where, according to the original script, the Pawnee bread factory burned to the ground and the Parks and Rec department designed a memorial in honor of the tragedy.
“It was like this weird nightmare,” Schur recalls. “We suddenly were like, ‘Why is this happening?’ It just didn’t make any sense for these people to be doing what they were doing.” He and the writing team threw out 80% of the script and started over.
But right now, there’s no starting over.
By 1 p.m., they’re talking about food.
“Food is very important in a writers’ room,” says Daniels, a tall, pleasant-looking man with graying hair who’s notably slender. “Access to food; when it’s coming. Very important stuff.”
“Greg consumes, by my rough estimate, between 14,000 and 17,000 calories a day,” says Schur of his “skinny-guy” colleague. “He’s like a brown bear. He goes into the kitchen, paws a bunch of stuff, brings it back to the table and shoves it into his mouth.”
For a few moments, the thought of food gives the writers an escape. Then they’re right back to the script problems.
Schur leads the group into their usual debates: picking the right word for the right joke; getting character motivation to come across in 30 seconds or less; whether K-Fed is pop culturally passe, if anyone still dreams of marrying Cindy Crawford and whether any person on the planet has actually ever ordered a calzone.
Much of the banter becomes fodder for the Candy Bag, a frequently updated Word document where hidden gems go to live in limbo until shoots require a quick-grab solution to a dead-end joke. If time permits, actors shoot alternate versions of a scene, using bits plucked straight from the Candy Bag.
Worst-case scenario, they rely on the actors to bail them out. “The advantage of having the actors we have is that we can say, ‘Oh, Amy will save this,’ ” Schur admits.
Then, around 3 p.m., one of the actors steps into the room, perhaps to do just that.
Nick Offerman opens the door. He sits at the end of the round table, in front of a monitor, and digs into a cup of chili.
“Did the energy just get super weird in here?” Schur jokes.
Offerman shares an on-set anecdote from that morning’s shoot, when actor Chris Pratt managed to dent a Chrysler–along with his testicles–while attempting to slide across the car’s hood, “Dukes of Hazzard”-style.
The room erupts, but then Offerman leaves abruptly, and the problem still isn’t solved.
By early evening, Schur gathers the entire staff again in their windowless rec room to work on ending the love story.
The women writers present their suggestions, then the others start chiming in.
Schur and his team won’t leave tonight until the story is fully formed. There’s still a long way to go.
“Basically, you have to be perfect,” he says.
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