'Parks and Recreation's' Mike Schur Talks Surprise Cameo, Time Jumps, Series Finale

"The idea that we're nearing the end is part of what gave us the courage to do something like jumping ahead in time," the showrunner tells THR.
"Parks and Recreation"

[WARNING: Spoilers ahead from the season-six finale of NBC's Parks and Recreation]

NBC's Parks and Recreation delivered its most satisfying season finale yet, jumping ahead three years to find Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) working in her fancy new job -- from the newly restored third floor in Pawnee -- with hubby Ben (Adam Scott) decked out in his finest tux with their three children in tow.

The ending, which featured a surprise cameo from Mad Men star Jon Hamm, set up several questions for the previously announced seventh season of NBC's veteran comedy. What happens to the rest of the Parks Department following Leslie's departure to her new job? Is Larry Terry (Jim O'Heir) the only holdover still working for her? Why is Ben dressed so sharply? The Hollywood Reporter posed those questions and more to showrunner Mike Schur to get the scoop on what to expect next season.

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How did Jon Hamm guest-starring happen?

When we decided to do the time jump, I thought a fun way to reiterate in the middle of the chaos how long it had been would be to see someone huge and famous and have Leslie fire him right away (laughs). The implication being you just missed three years of having Jon Hamm on the show, which is funny to me. He was the first person that Amy and I thought of; he and Amy and Adam Scott have been friends forever. We sent him an email, "Hey, do you want to come do this crazy thing?" And he was like, "Sure." We were trying to keep it quiet and he said, "Don't put it through business affairs and make it official; just tell me when to show up." He just likes doing stuff like this and enjoys comedy and goofing around. He snuck in under cover of darkness, shot the scene and left and no one ever knew. We told NBC in a very vague way that it was happening but we kept it off the books in order to maintain the surprise.

Will he be back in flashbacks?

When he was here, we left open the possibility for him to return. I thought it would be really funny, given the fact that he's established as a very incompetent person, it would be funny during season seven to flash back to parts of his incompetence. It's obviously all subject to schedule availability. You might not know this but he's a pretty in-demand actor. (Laughs.)

This felt like it could have been a very satisfying series finale. Are you approaching season seven as the last one for Parks?

I think there will be an official announcement made at the upfront in a couple weeks. At the very least, I'd say that the finish line is in sight at this point. I don't want to say definitively but we've had a lot of internal discussions about it; we've talked to NBC a lot about it. The idea that we're nearing the end is part of what gave us the courage to do something like jumping ahead in time. We know we don't have to sustain it for five years. It's a move you do when you know that the show is nearing the end of its run.

Do you know an episode count yet?

I don't. There are a lot of factors involved in that and there's a lot of scheduling. We've been talking a lot with NBC over the last three months about what season seven will look like. There are a lot of different versions: There's the 30 Rock version where you do a 13-episode final season and then there's the Breaking Bad version where you break it up into chunks. The TV landscape is a lot more flexible now than it used to be. Seasons aren't all the same so knowing that, we've been having an ongoing discussion with NBC of what we wanted to do creatively. Right now, they're going to start looking at all their pilots, but we've talked to them about what we wanted to do. We'll make a final decision right before the upfront.

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If you could have it your way, how would you go out?

The only thing that's on my wish list is that everybody is on the same page. I don't want to get into a situation where we're saying, "We want to do X number of episodes" and they're saying, "Nope, it's Y" and there's no discussion about it, which is why we talked about it a long time ago. All I care about is that we make a creative decision and not a financial decision and that we get to figure out as best we can how the show should end -- both in terms of the subject matter and the number of episodes that we get to display that subject matter. To this point, it really is like a dream world in terms of our dealings with the network. They're so great and have been so supportive; their attitude has been like, "We want you guys to make next year the way you want to make it." That's a dream to hear as a writer. Whatever decision that is made will be completely mutual and came from a creative place instead of a business place. It's a rare and nice situation to be in.

Will the series be set in 2017 from here on out?

Yes; it's not a fake-out. We're not going to pick up next year and spend the entire year in regular time and then jump forward at the very end. We're committing to this. The main action of the season 100 percent is going to happen in 2017.

What kind of political landscape might we see? Hillary Clinton in office maybe?

That's a big question. We have a lot of questions to answer internally about how much or little we want to say about what the world is like. There's a new president in 2017 and there are new cabinet members and the pop culture and technology landscapes will be different. My main rule for the writing staff going forward was if we do this, no one is allowed to pitch that everybody has hover boards and jet packs. It's not going to suddenly become a weird futuristic dystopian Blade Runner landscape. It's going to be the same world that we recognize but with a bit of time-shifted difference.

What was the thinking in jumping the series ahead three years? How much of it was to skip over Leslie's pregnancy?

That was certainly a factor. We weren't that interested in seeing her pregnant or seeing her give birth. We'd done a lot of it with Ann already. The show isn't about Leslie's family; it never has been. It's about her whole life and focused on her professional life. We felt like we could fast-forward through a lot of tired stories about how it's hard to have an infant, or in this case three. We could zip through all that and jump into the middle of something, which is a very exciting place to be dropped into. We don't have to see her first day on the job, her getting to know her surroundings and blah, blah, blah. That stuff just takes too long and we'd frankly already done it, frankly, in the season where she was a city councilor. A lot of that season was about her adjusting to a new position and this is a way for us to skip a lot of stuff we've already shown on the show and get into some more juicy territory.

Why do the time jump in the finale versus at the start of next season? It already felt like such a perfect ending and what a lot may have thought was a series finale.

Partly why the reason to do it because without it, the show feels like everything is wrapped up: Leslie is starting her dream job but she's staying in Pawnee, Tom's restaurant is successful and so on. We really wanted to do something that made people excited about next year and that they didn't know what was going to happen and introduce a new world for the show to jump into. We had been working on this season and aiming toward these big wrap-upy moments, and when we had a discussion with NBC six or eight weeks before we shot the finale and were given very strong assurances that we were coming back -- which was then made official at TCA the next day -- that meant we had two choices. We could rebreak all the stories and change everything we had developed and liked and were on the way toward doing or we could conceive of a way where we could point toward a really exciting season seven -- and we decided to do that instead.

Leslie has her new job working for the National Parks Department. What happens to the rest of the Pawnee Parks Department team? Have you thought about Ben taking over Leslie's former job?

That's what we're going to deal with when we come back: Where is everybody? We only showed a certain number of people in that scene because we wanted to leave some mystery as to where people are. The people you didn't see -- Tom and Donna, who are both very strivery people who are very mobile in their lives and have big dreams and like to travel and do stuff -- and you didn't see Ron and that's a big question mark where he is. Is he still in the same job in the Parks Department or is he somewhere else? We wanted to leave a lot of open-ended questions about where people are, what they're doing and how they're going to get back into the world of the show. The No. 1 thing we're going to show when we come back for season seven is, where is everybody?

So everyone will be back as a regular next season?

Yes, the whole cast is coming back.

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Is Terry the only member of the team still working for Leslie?

I don't know that that's the case. You don't know what Andy and April are doing. In the scene, they're mostly babysitting but that doesn't necessarily discount having a job with Leslie in the National Parks Service nor does it discount anybody else -- Tom, Donna or Ron for having a job there, or Craig, or anybody we've seen. Terry is definitely working there in some kind of factotum administrative position like he always has. But that's the only definitive thing about what jobs people have in the future.

How many of the other National Parks Department people can we expect to have a role next season?

I think the possibility arises for us to add people theoretically: the people she works and interacts with on a daily basis. Her job is a lot bigger, it's a much bigger canvas she's painting on now. She very casually canceled a trip to South Dakota in the middle of the crazy action, so she's traveling a lot and zooming all over the place and she has to take trips to these parks all over the Midwest region. There's no shortage of opportunity for us to introduce new characters. But we haven't settled on which ones, if any, we will be introducing.

How much of next season will be told in flashbacks? Will that be a regular device?

I don't know. We want the ability to zoom back in time occasionally and pick up little pieces of the time we missed. I don't think the show is suddenly going to become like Lost where half the episode is taking place in real time and half the episode is telling a story about something that happened three years before. The majority of the action is going to be taking place in this new time zone we're in. Aside from that, all I really care about is that we reserve the right to dip back into the past to show little pieces and nuggets of how all the characters got to where they are.

I'd love to see April and Andy get divorced and remarried.

Or maybe they're still divorced, who knows. Maybe they got divorced and then forgot to get married again. (Laughs.)

Ben is all decked out. Did his Cones of Dunshire take off?

There are certainly a lot of hints dropped in about certain things, Cones of Dunshire being one of them. That game is beginning to find an underground audience and Barney the accountant, who is desperately in love with Ben, shows up and like a magical genie and presents him with the copyright for the game. That's out there floating along, and he was already the city manager of the town and three years from now he's attending some very important event in a tux. That will be one of the questions we have to answer in the premiere.

What can you say about Leslie's big crisis?

We mapped out some ideas for what it would be; we had a couple different paths we thought it could take but we haven't settled on one. We won't get back into the writers room for another month. That's the number one thing we're going to have to nail down: Which of the paths that we mapped out is the one we want to follow for her.

How will the merger of Pawnee and Eagleton, plus Leslie's new job, impact people like Jamm and the rest of the town's more inept citizens?

You can pretty much assume that the merger was a success and the naysayers -- the Councilman Jamms of the world -- have been shut up. I don't think his succession festival featuring maybe the bass player from a local Warrant cover band called Cherry Pie was going to be nearly as big of a success as the pro-merger concert that Leslie and her team threw. The intention is to say that that issue has been put to bed now. The town isn't falling apart and isn't under the same strain it was for a year after the merger kicked in. As far as the future of Leslie and Pawnee, that's not her job anymore. She has a bigger and ultimately more important job in terms of her responsibilities. It's not going to be the case that the main action in her life is about Pawnee anymore. She still lives there, and she says to Ron that even taking this job that she wishes she could stay and keep an eye on Pawnee, and it's safe to say that's what she's doing there now: Keeping an eye on it. That doesn't mean that other people aren't more actively involved and that the town and its various problems … her husband was, when we left him, was the city manger. So the town is still going to be a big part of the show but in terms of what Leslie does on a day-to-day basis, it will be much less about her trying to hold the town together.

So we're not done with Jamm?

I don't think there's anyone that we've ever met in the entire history of show who is ruled out from existing in the three-year flash-forward that we're about to do. Anybody and everybody is on the table.

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How has the time jump impacted the kind of series finale you'd like? When we chatted for the 100th episode, you mentioned you'd love for it to include Hillary Clinton, where she doesn't freak out the way she did with Michelle Obama in the season finale. Is that still the part of your plan?

That was almost more of a kind of mood I want to capture in the series finale. What it suggested is that Leslie, as she moves up the ladder in her responsibilities and meets every new challenge, gets less freaked out by things like meeting Joe Biden or Michelle Obama. If you look at the way she reacts with Michelle Obama and the way that she seems to be behaving in the flash-forward three years from now, she clearly has undergone a significant attitude change toward her work. She's barking out orders, she's very in control and very confident. It's safe to say that if we had Michelle Obama also in that flash-forward that the way she reacted around her would have been very different. That's part of the maturation of the character.

Does the time jump change what you had in mind before for the series finale?

I don't know. It's part of the nature of working on a show for this long that you're constantly thinking about how it should end. I still think about it all the time and have a bunch of different ideas, images, thoughts and conceptions. I think it would be a mistake to try to nail it down too early because then you get hemmed in by certain things. If I decided right now what I wanted the last scene of the series to be, then it might affect the way that we develop the next however many episodes. I'm going to let ideas rattle around in my brain for a bit and see what the writing staff comes up with. There's always a long preseason conversation with Amy about where she thinks things are going and what ideas she has. We had breakfast a few days ago and started talking about that character, the show and the world. I wouldn't want to make any decisions about the end of the series without making sure that I've talked to the very talented actors and writers who also work on it because very often their ideas are better than mine. It's a giant team effort. A lot of the best things on the show are things that came out of very lengthy discussions with a lot of people. I don't want to commit to anything and declare what we're doing before everybody has had the chance to weigh in. Our operating principle on the show is the best idea wins.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit