'Parks and Recreation': Exec producer Michael Schur on the finale's shocking last scene, that surprise cameo, and the future

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Did you and the writers sit down and plot out exactly where everyone is in 2017? Do you have a plan for every character, or has some of that not been worked out yet?
Our operating principle about any big story move like this is we don’t do it unless we first discuss possibilities. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to stick to them, and it doesn’t mean that we’ve decided one way or the other, but I need to know that we have paths that seem workable and exciting and interesting for what the big event suggests. So we had a very lengthy discussion — a series of discussions — about: “Okay, let’s say we jump ahead in time, three years. What are some things that could have happened to these characters that would be interesting?” And we went right down the line — everybody from Leslie all the way to Craig (Billy Eichner) and thought, “Okay, it could be this. It could be this. It could be this… ” And we came up with a forking path — two scenarios for each person that seemed like if we want to go success, it’s this path, and if we want to go failure, it’s this path. Once we had at least a general idea of how we could show off everybody’s future, then at that point, we fully committed to the idea of jumping forward.

Is the door open for Michelle Obama to return? And is she working on getting you her husband and the kids?
Our door is permanently opened to Michelle Obama to come back any time she would like. Really, anyone in the Obama family! If they’re around and they’re looking to make SAG minimum for a day’s work, they’re more than welcome…. Aziz did an event with the President a while ago and he told him that the family liked the show. Who knows what that actually means? We have heard from reliable sources that Sasha and Malia are fans of the show, and fans of Amy in particular, which, if you were a young woman, why would you not be a fan of Amy Poehler? Or really, if you’re just a human being on Earth, why wouldn’t you? The First Lady was really effusive and kind when we shot that scene in telling Amy how much her daughters liked the show, and that sent a very happy shiver up our spines when we just imagined that Sasha and Malia Obama were watching the program.

You got Joe Biden, and you got Michelle. So it does feel like he’s the get.
Yeah, and what a nice position to be in where the only person on Earth who would seem like a real get is the president of the United States. We’re on the case — we’re working on it.

There’s obviously this big move in the finale where you think Leslie will have to choose between taking the National Parks job and moving to Chicago or turning it down to stay in Pawnee. In the end, she has her cake and eats it. In trying to plan that out in the writers’ room, were you worried that having the NPS move their regional office from Chicago to Pawnee would seem implausible?
Well, we did a little research about it. The actual Midwest regional office of the National Parks Service is in Omaha, which is referenced in the episode. He says, “Four of your staff will be coming up from Omaha.” And Omaha, I’m sure is a lovely city, but it’s not so much more spectacular than Pawnee, Indiana.

Careful, Mike…
(Laughs) I just means it’s not like we’re opening a Wall Street training firm in Pawnee. One of the things we talked about with the merger storyline of the season was that one benefit would be that Pawnee would be on the map a little bit more. There was a line that we actually cut out of the finale when Ben is trying to sell Gryzzl on free WiFi [for] Pawnee and he says, “You know, we have over a hundred thousand people now. We merged with Eagleton.” They are a little bit of a bigger deal than they were before, so in talking to various people from the National Parks Service and from the administrative world of that wing of the Department of the Interior, when we laid out scenarios for what we were inventing, the reaction we got was that these are not at all implausible things. These offices are often, especially in a region like the Midwest, they’re in places like Omaha — it’s not in Chicago, it’s not in St. Louis. Some of it is about location — you want to be central in the region, which is why Tom says Pawnee is actually closer to a lot of the parks that Leslie would be covering.

Are there any other easter eggs that you planted in the future scene that people should be looking for?
I don’t want to tell people how to watch TV. (Laughs) We started planning this in many ways a long time ago, because the episode where John Middle Name Redacted Swanson is born, Ron wanders up to the third floor and discovers it’s a broken-down wasteland and begins to refurbish it. And when we conceived that storyline, that was when we were like, “Oh, this is how Leslie stays in Pawnee. Ron makes this entire third floor of this vast City Hall an inhabitable space, and Leslie will get the idea in the finale that she can maybe move the offices up there.” So the fact of the time jump is probably enough of a world-disrupting thing to focus on. Obviously there are details that are interesting — Andy’s arm is in a sling, and she’s got three kids now and she mentions a trip to South Dakota and there’s some group of people waiting for her and Ben’s in a tuxedo and she’s got bangs — we put a lot of that stuff in to just throw a bunch of questions up into the air that we will answer at the beginning of next season.

Can you give us one cryptic clue about the future that we’ll be seeing? Is it mildly dystopic? Is Jamm ruling the city like an evil overlord?
One thing I think you could assume is that the politics in the town as we’ve come to know them are not going to be essential to the show as they were in the first six seasons — especially in the Leslie era of City Council. The intention at least, at this point, is to move beyond the town a little bit. Obviously Leslie is still living there, but she’s playing on a much bigger stage now and it wouldn’t feel that logical if she were still battling it out with Jamm every week.

Did the Unity Concert turn out to be an even bigger deal than you initially planned with all those bands signing on?
Well, the actual execution of it was. When we got the bands to sign on, when Yo La Tengo amazingly agreed to do what amounts to a single joke, and learn how to play “Sister Christian” on the keyboards , and then when the Decemberists signed on and when Jeff Tweedy got involved, and Ginuwine and Letters to Cleo, at that point we internally upped the scale of what we were planning. The stage got a little bigger and the banners got a little bigger, and the number of extras we hired got a little bigger. It was a really insane shoot — we had five cameras going — one of them was on a crane, we put a sixth GoPro camera on a remote-control helicopter, which is that final shot you see when “5000 Candles in the Wind” ends and there’s that giant overhead pullback shot of the entire crowd. It was an enormous, enormous undertaking for the production team. So once those bands signed on and we knew it was like a real thing, then we were like, “All right, we’ve got to do this now. This has to be like a real rock concert.” And what was cool was that a lot of the bands said that it completely reminded them of actual events that they had played — college Spring Fling weekend-y kind of things where there’s just a random hodgepodge of different kinds of musicians and you’re playing in a giant open quad or a field for thousands of people in the middle of the day. Hearing [The Decemberists lead singer] Colin Meloy say that it felt a lot like events that they had played before made us feel like we were on the right track. … The coordination of it was massive — just flying in the bands and their instruments and getting them in and out and having them play — they each played the song they performed twice through and we shot it. We had five cameras and we shot it from probably 40 different angles.

Do you have enough footage to release a concert DVD?
It might just be on the Parks and Rec YouTube page, but we have full performances of all of the songs that were played. It’s a comedy show so we couldn’t linger too long in any one of the songs, but there is a full performance of Ginuwine singing “My Pony” with four backup dancers in front of a screaming crowd of 3,000 people — in front of, by the way, two gigantic little Sebastian banners. There’s a full performance of the giant finale, where everyone is singing “5000 Candles in the Wind.” My favorite part of the episode is in the verse of “5000 Candles in the Wind” where you just pop around and there’s Yo La Tengo, there’s Kay Hanley and Ginuwine, there’s Jeff Tweedy, there’s Colin Meloy, there’s the rest of the Decemberists. It’s like: What is this event? It’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen!

Having Ginuwine perform “Pony” was incredibly funny. Was he familiar with Li’l Sebastian? And what was his reaction when you pitched the idea?
Since he was mentioned on the show three years ago, he has gotten to know the show a lot. He knew all the characters on the show and had seen a bunch of episodes. When we pitched him his participation in the finale, we explained what Li’l Sebastian was to him and he immediately thought it was funny and was totally into the idea of it. To me the funniest part of that is the actual subject matter of the song is not a miniature horse, but it’s funny to imagine a revisionist history where the reason he wrote it was because of his love for Li’l Sebastian.

Looking back at the season, what episode or storyline are you most proud of?
I think the episode that I’m most proud of overall — I’m very proud of the finale, because it was a massive, humungous undertaking — I’m very proud of the episode “Flu Season 2,” when Leslie found out she was pregnant. That to me is sort of like a platonic ideal of a Parks and Rec episode, because it had these huge, amazing comedic performances from Amy and Pratt and Adam Scott and Nick (Offerman) and Aubrey (Plaza), and everybody was in the mix. Everybody seemed to be present and had a good storyline and had funny jokes. And then we also had Sam Elliott and Jeff Tweedy and all these cool, interesting guest stars. And it was an episode where a very significant thing happened to one of our main characters, and those episodes always feel the most satisfying to me — when you really cash in those big chips, where people get married or find out they’re pregnant — I find those to be very satisfying. But really, I find the show to be most satisfying creatively when it just feels like everybody’s involved, and that was what the first “Flu Season” was. That was the stated aim of doing another episode called “Flu Season.” Part of what made that episode so enjoyable was that it had just great contributions from everybody in the cast and that cast is so good and so multi-talented that when you get a chance to create an episode where Ben is a drunken mess and Ron squares off against Sam Elliott and Aubrey is drunkenly making a point that I personally feel very much about the wine industry — that all wine tastes the same and if it costs more than five dollars, you’re a moron — those kinds of big-group ensemble episodes are always my favorite.

On the flip side, what’s the one episode or storyline that you wish you could take back — or take another crack at?
It’s a writer’s lot in life to wish you could have everything back. Lorne Michaels used to say about SNL that the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready, it goes on because it’s 11:30. His point was, if you had more time to tinker, you’re just going to keep tinkering, and even if you tinker forever, when it airs, you’ll wish you could keep tinkering. So I wish I could go back and take every single episode we’ve ever done and comb through all of the footage and spend another week editing them and reshooting stuff and changing everything and improving everything that I now find disagreeable, but I really don’t regret anything from this season. It’s sort of counterproductive at some level to look back and ruminate on what you thought were writing mistakes or editing mistakes. Plus, the cast is so good they can pretty much paper over any problem we create for them.

You’ve said before that it would be natural if next season were the show’s last. Is this now very likely? Was the future scene the beginning of the end game?
It’s fairly likely that next year will be the last. The natural rhythm of the show and the big creative jump we take at the end of this season certainly suggests that we’re moving in that direction.

How much of the ending of this show have you already figured out at this point? Do you know what the final image or scene is?
Chunks of it are mapped out. We have signposts and stuff, but other parts are wide-open and are very much up in the air. I’m sure that some of the chunks that we felt are mapped out are going to change. We just have a general idea of what is going on in the world, and we have some general ideas for what happens to those people over the course of this future season, but until we really get back in the room, I’d really prefer not to try to commit to anything too soon. It just sort of like shuts up creativity. … I have an idea for the final image, the final scene and the final image of the show, and I have no idea whether that’ll be the final image or not.

And finally, when will you be making The Cones of Dunshire available for purchase?
Well, I’ll tell you this: Mayfair Games, which is like the biggest gaming company — they make The Settlers of Catan — they were basically consultants on every aspect of Cones of Dunshire for us, and they actually manufactured the game that you see in the finale. We have certainly had discussions with them about further ways to explore the completely impenetrably dense game Cones of Dunshire, and it remains to be seen if it will all come to fruition. But I just couldn’t be happier with how byzantine and dense that game is. It really delights me, so hopefully there will be more Cones of Dunshire in the future somewhere.

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