Unfairly maligned by critics when it first launched, NBC’s Parks and Recreation has truly come into its own with this writer considering it the best comedy on television right now.
Created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, best known for their strong work on The Office, Parks and Recreation follows the same mockumentary style mined by that popular NBC show, its focus not on a Scranton paper company but rather a Parks and Recreation department based in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Spearheaded by the marvelous Amy Poehler as deputy Parks and Recreation director Leslie Knope, the show has really found its groove, its tight ensemble meshing beautifully, balancing touching pathos with screwball frivolity. The welcome addition of new cast members Rob Lowe and Adam Scott as state auditors slashing the town’s budget adds yet another delicious layer to this highly entertaining show.
Poehler’s role as the ambitious and often clueless Leslie Knope has evolved from early episodes to a finely detailed and indelible character. The talented Rashida Jones plays Ann Perkins, perhaps the show’s most centered character, a modicum of pragmatism and restraint. As Leslie’s best friend, her attempts at keeping Leslie grounded and out of trouble are delights. A budding romantic arc between the dour office worker April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) and Pawnee City Hall shoe-shiner Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) doesn’t hit a false note, lending the perfect combination of laughs and awkwardness. Breakout star Aziz Ansari, who plays the role of the sarcastic self-professed “playboy” Tom Haverford, is a scene stealer while Nick Offerman, in his impressive deadpan portrayal of the stoic and perpetually bored Ron Swanson, is finally showing signs of humanity in surprising ways.
Recently, a Parks and Recreation event was held at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in North Hollywood, attended by cast and its show creators. Featuring the premiere of the season finale (“Freddy Spaghetti”) a day before its official air date, press, industry insiders and a coterie of devoted fans gathered to salute this remarkable show. After the screening, Saturday Night Live’s Seth Myers (Poehler’s former partner on “Weekend Update”) moderated an informative and often hilarious Q&A with the cast, show creators and editor Dean Holland. A key point was made during the panel discussion by series co-creator Greg Daniels addressing how the show’s come into its own since its inaugural slate of episodes. “The cast was great before the show was great. We had the scripts and the ideas before hand but then when someone comes along and brings so much life to the character, we try to incorporate it and it becomes much more alive. I think right now the character of Leslie is so much more cool and interesting because of the stuff that Amy brought to it. We’ve found out how to write with her personality.”
PopEntertainment.com contributing writer Ken Sharp spoke with the cast and here are highlights of those conversations…
AMY POEHLER (“Leslie Knope”)
Leslie has really evolved as a character since the beginning of the show. Now you’re really hitting your stride. You’ve created an indelible character.
We always intended for this character comedy to have moments of pathos and I think that Greg and Mike are especially good at that and that’s why I love their other work. We had such a small little kind of seasonette and the show evolved and I’m happy to hear that you think it evolved in the right way. But I know that we always wanted to try and make this character seem like a real person in absurd situations.
Initially, the show received unfair criticism from entertainment writers but it takes time for a show to come into its own. Now many of those same critics are now championing the show as the best comedy on television.
Well, that’s true; it does take time for a show to come into its own. It’s great to hear that the critics like it. We spent a lot of time in the beginning to tell people what we weren’t. We weren’t an Office spinoff. I wasn’t on SNL anymore. There was a lot of that. We spent three episodes reminding people that I wasn’t doing sketch comedy and that it wasn’t The Office. Once people started just watching the show for what it was and not looking for ways to compare it, I think both those things work.
What do you like best about your character?
Her optimism and her sense of duty and also that she’s kind hearted. It’s kind of fun to play someone who has no game. (laughs)
RASHIDA JONES (“Ann Perkins”)
Coming from a show like The Office with a similar vibe, how were you able to draw from that knowledge with your role on Parks and Rec?
Well, I think I was a probably a couple of steps ahead of the awkwardness of playing with the camera. When I first got the job on The Office it’s a weird thing because you’re trained your whole life to not look at the camera (laughs) and then all of a sudden you’re supposed to look at it and treat it as kind of a character. That put me a step ahead but everything else with this show gives it a life of its own. I got to be a part of it from the ground up which is great.
It was pretty ballsy of you to leave The Office as you were a popular character and doing well on the show. What made you want to make the jump to Parks and Rec?
I think my character had seen her final days on the show. It was always going to be a limited kind of thing; initially, I was slated to only be on six episodes so I was lucky for it to go that long. But I always kind of knew it would have an end. So when an opportunity came up to work with Greg and Mike, I didn’t even know what the show was, they hadn’t written it, but I just blindly said “whatever you guys want.”
One of my favorite moments of season two is last week’s episode (“The Master Plan”), in the scene where you were drunk and you were holding the plastic cup drunkenly moving your tongue back and forth trying desperately to find the straw..
(Laughs) That’s weirdly way harder that I thought it was gonna be. It’s hard to not catch a straw. But thank you, I’ve had a lot of practice on pretending to be drunk. (laughs)
Watching the show, it’s obvious that there’s a great chemistry that exists with the cast. Is that positivity conducive to pushing you even more on a creative level?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m sure there are scenarios where nobody gets along and you still make things funny this is definitely not the case. The first thing we think is think “how can we crack each other up?” and hopefully that extends beyond just the people that are around you and you get to make everybody laugh.
AZIZ ANSARI (“Tom Haverford”)
What’s the best part of the day for you on the set?
(Deadpan) I love our cast so much and we all get along so well so it’s hard to narrow it down. Maybe the thing I like best is when I get my paycheck. That’s what I do it for, I do it for the money, I’m not really here for the passion or the work, top me it’s just a paycheck.
How do you find balance in your character, who is often coarse but occasionally you see glimpses of vulnerability?
It’s hard to balance it. In real life I’m a way bigger dick and it’s so hard to tone it down because I’m really mean to people and I’ve got to tone it down. So it is tough. (laughs)
Yeah, it’s not that hard. You just pretend. That’s all acting is.
As a stand-up comedian, you’re well seasoned in improv. How much improv are you allowed to do on the show?
People always ask that. Most of the stuff you see is scripted. Every now and then there are certain scenes that lend itself more to improv and there are definitely things here and there that are improvised but most of what you see on the show is scripted by our amazingly talented writing staff.
What was your favorite episode this season?
I really have a few. I like “Sweetums.” I really like “The Telethon” episode that Amy wrote. I think that was one of my favorites. “Master Plan” also turned out really good and I really like the finale too. I really like the show even though I’m biased and I’m on it but even if I wasn’t I would really enjoy the show. I feel very privileged to be a part of it.
NICK OFFERMAN (“Ron Swanson”)
In one of this season two’s episodes, your character as musician is revealed. Do you really play saxophone?
I do in fact. I played it all through my youth and thought I was gonna become a saxophone player before I found out you could study theatre in college. I still play but not as regularly as I’d like to. I’ve got a gig coming up playing with a friend.
Who are your sax icons, “The Big Man”?
I was a big fan of Clarence Clemons but I’d have to say John Coltrane who I was obsessed with all through my youth. And even thought they’re a little corny I love Kenny G and David Sanborn.
On the surface, your character is shockingly blunt but as the season has progressed, you’ve softened a bit and shown glimpses of humanity like a tentative tap of reassurance on the shoulder of April offering some solace for her troubles.
That’s a lot of the fun about Ron Swanson. We’ve set him up as this edifice carved in granite. Once that’s been established then you can have a lot of fun with finding the cracks where a little bit of syrup might be squeezing out. Him giving begrudging affection is a really fun place to do that. I think he’s really grown fond of April, Aubrey Plaza’s character, in a paternal way. We’re seeing his relationship with Leslie develop as well along with Chris Pratt who plays Andy and whether it’s a spousal or sibling or parental feeling that he has, he’s like a gruff Dad. He wants to have an influence on these people because he cares about them but he does it in a sort of Clint Eastwood way.
When the doors are closed to his office does he actually do any work?
He really doesn’t do any work. (laughs) They say he’s like a machine. He arrives at 9:02 and leaves at 4:58 every day on the dot and there’s never anything on his desk.
“The Telethon” episode was classic, especially when you were demonstrating how to cane a chair. Do you really know how to do that in real life?
I do. I’ve built a couple of canoes. There was an episode when we went to my woodshop and that was my actual shop and at the end of the episode I give the character Mark Brendanawicz a canoe and I made that canoe. So the seats in the canoes are hand caned like an old wicker chair. It’s really gratifying doing it and it’s really not that difficult to do. If you go online and Google “chair caning” you get this web site and this pamphlet, you get everything you need. It’s like tying your shoes for a long time.
CHRIS PRATT (“Andy Dwyer”)
The show’s really found its center. Did you feel that way at the beginning where you needed time for the characters to find themselves?
It’s great to hear that critics think the show has gotten a lot better. I don’t think anyone had thought that it wasn’t good to begin with, I’m talking about cast members and writers, I just think that we knew the scripts were really funny and what we were shooting was really funny. I remember watching a few episodes and thinking they weren’t as good as the scripts but I think then something clicked in the execution. They’ve always been funny scripts and it’s always been fun to shoot and now it seems the synergy has caught up and the episodes have gotten better and better.
You were initially only slated to appear on six episodes.
Yeah, they were only obligated to pay me to be in six episodes contractually as a guest star. (laughs)
What turned the tide?
I think as we moved along they were finding funny scenarios to write between Rashida’s character and my character and things started clicking. Television’s such an evolutionary medium. You just have to kind of take what’s working and run with it and push it. The jokes that they were writing for my character were working and they picked me up and let me be on the show for good.
Who writes the songs you perform on the show?
All of the credits for all the songs except for one song, which I wrote, the “Ann” song, were all written by a guy named Mark Rivers. He’s a musician and a recording artist in LA and he creates the sound. He plays every instrument, he lets us listen to a temp track and the four band members play but we’re just copying the song that he’s created for us.
Where would you like to see you character go, would you like to see him finally hook up with April?
If it was let up to me to decide what my character did our show wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is. (laughs) I trust our writers. We really have superstar writers. I’d like to see Andy hook up with April and I’d like to see Andy hook up with Ann again. My idea would be an April, Ann and Andy threesome but that will probably not happen. (laughs)
JIM O’HEIR (“Jerry Gersich”)
Your character is kind of doormat, will there ever be a moment where he stands up for himself?
Personally for Jim O’Heir, I love it. I think it’s a great thing for my character. Offices have those kinds of people. The joke has always been that the last episode we ever shoot, Jerry walks in with a machine gun and just takes them all out. (laughs)
You had one of the funniest moments this season during the episode when your pants split.
It was in the script for the pants to split and we go to do the scene. Wardrobe has pre-split the pants but we don’t know how it’s gonna play out. I’m doing the scene, I bend over, the pants split and I turn around and they’re gone, the cast is hysterical. It’s a take that cannot be used because no one expected that. The pants split perfectly and I had the right underwear on, and everyone just lost it. I did the fart noise myself, I had a little bit of something. (laughs) We did that take eight or nine times and it was hysterical every time so it was a lot of fun to do.
RETTA SIRLEAF (“Donna”)
What’s the best part of your day on the set?
Shooting. Every day on the set is awesome. We have a lot of fun on the set every day. I love when they let us ad-lib. We get to do a little bit of improv. We shoot what’s on the script first and then afterwards we get a fun run and get to do what we want. They usually only give us a few takes where we get to go nuts and say whatever we want. Chances are it won’t make it on the air because what we usually say it s pretty obnoxious (laughs) but it’s fun. You’ll get to see some of those outtakes on the upcoming “Parks and Rec” season two DVD. I also love when we do our table reads. I love actually hearing the script for the first time. I crack up a lot because I actually won’t read the script before the table read because I prefer to hear the characters read them out loud. Aziz is the prankster on the set. I enjoy him a lot. He’s always cracking us up.
Where do you the shoot the park scenes?
CBS Radford Studios.
ADAM SCOTT (“Ben Wyatt”)
How much of the show is scripted and how much is improv?
Oh, it’s all scripted. Every scene we do a take where we screw around and improvise just for fun and sometimes they find bits in there that we can use. But on the whole the show is tightly scripted. The writers are just incredible so there’s no real need to improvise other than just to have fun, which we do. It’s such a well-written show.
Were you a fan of the show before you came onboard?
Oh yeah. I was a total Parks and Rec nerd. So it’s surreal coming in and knowing all the characters and sets and realizing that it’s all fake. It’s just a set. I was a little like a kid on a Universal Studios tour.
What’s the plan for your character?
Well, we’ll see. I think there’s a crossroads for the character where I’ll have to decide if I’m gonna continue on going from town to town being a state auditor or if I might stick around Pawnee and get a job there so that crossroads is coming up.
I really like the twist in the show where you reveal to Leslie that you were a teen mayor. She really seems to warm up to your character when that’s revealed.
Yeah, that’s true. It’s a really funny back-story point as well.
Do you think they recognize that sense of ambition in each other?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I think they’re slowly finding that they have a lot in common.