Parks and Recreation debuted this week 10 years ago and immediately took a place in all of our hearts. OK, fine, people were preeeeetty mixed on it until season 2, but then it took a place in all of our hearts.
Note: Spoiler warning for a 10-year-old TV show.
One of the most iconic moments in the show’s history was the funeral of town icon/miniature horse Li’l Sebastian — it perfectly summarized the show’s extremely earnest heart.
We interviewed star Amy Poehler, composer Mark Rivers, show co-creator Mike Schur, and writer Emma Fletcher about the enduring legacy of Li’l Sebastian — and the show. (You can also read our previous Parks and Recreation oral history on Galentine’s Day right here.)
HOW CHRIS PRATT’S ANDY DWYER MADE SUCH TERRIBLE BUT COMPETENT SONGS
Mark Rivers started playing in Boston rock bands, but ended up working as a comedy writer. He used his songwriting for shows like Mr. Show and Human Giant — where he met Aziz Ansari.
Rivers: When they did Parks and Recreation, he recommended me for that gig. They needed somebody to write all the silly Mouse Rat songs, and I had done a bunch of weird comedy music.
Schur: We said, they’re a bar band. They’re not incredible musicians. But, the joke here isn’t ‘this band is terrible’ — they should be competent songwriters.
Rivers: They were like, they should be bad, but not musically bad. They should be bad taste bad. It should be like s——- corporate rock.
Schur: I was sort of saying, it’s in the vein of late ’90s radio rock.
Rivers: So without listing any bands too specifically, we mentioned a handful of types of bands to get me in the right genre.
Schur: And then Mark said, “So is it sort of like, [singing] I know you’ve been changing, I’ve been changing toooo? And I was like, yes. Whatever you just did. That incredibly meaningless, boring line of Hootie and the Blowfish-style rock, just tumbled out of him.
ALL FIRST DRAFTS
Rivers: I discovered the best way to write those songs was to, as Andy Dwyer probably would have done, go with the first thing that came out. Don’t then go back and try to make it clever or good — just write them almost in real time. And try to resist all my songwriting impulses to go back — a cool, clever minor chord here would be nice — nope nope nope nope nope.
Schur: He decided that every single song that Andy wrote would be in the key of G, which is the most basic, straightforward key that you can play music in. Because the point of Andy’s band was that he just wanted to play good, basic rock songs that sounded good and made people happy.
Rivers: That’s just what he would do, you know? He likes the key of G, so, you know, that’s his key, so he just writes all his songs in G. So it was a lot of resisting my normal songwriting instincts, and doing the dumb thing.
Generally, they would include a few lyrics in a script. Like, I think they had the idea of “Sex Hair,” which was a song that didn’t really get much attention.
I rarely went into the writers room or anything, but they would give me the vibe, and maybe a few lines to work from, and then I would run with it. I did go in once where there was an episode where Andy had written a bunch of kids songs.
It was his [Johnny Karate] character. And I went in, and I just brought a guitar, and me and one or two of the writers sat around, and we just came up with a bunch of goofy ideas.
THE DEATH OF A MINIATURE HORSE
Schur: I left the room to go edit one day, and I came back, and Dan Goor and the writing staff said, “OK, we have this idea, that there’s a miniature horse named Li’l Sebastian.”
A big thing for us was, what are aspects of small town or medium-sized-town life that we can capitalize on? And one of them was, almost every town in America that you look into finds and uses some kind of claim to fame. If you drive around the country, you will see signs that say, “World’s Biggest Salt Shaker,” or “Home of the 50-Foot Paul Bunyan Sign.” These towns just do these things that become part of their identity.
And so, Li’l Sebastian was a perfect thing for Pawnee, Indiana. It was just like, yes, of course — for some reason, no one even really knows why, this little miniature horse just became this really, really important part of this town’s identity over the last 15, 20 years.
At the end of season 2, Li’l Sebastian died, proving to be the greatest tragedy in Pawnee history.
Rivers: They had the idea for Li’l Sebastian, and I think they gave me a first verse for it, and I fleshed it out from there.
I think it’s even a line. [See above.] Being a riff on the Elton John song, it had to be a big, emotional power ballad.
Poehler: Shooting those big episodes in front of the “town” were so fun, because you were performing for the camera and the assembled group at the same time. Plus I could usually hide my lines in a lecture somewhere, and that really helped me out with my bigger speeches.
Rivers: I remember the most fun of that was playing on that big stage, and everybody waving their candles. I mean, that was big, and dramatic, and silly.
Poehler: But I remember so little about stories that unfolded in the show. Whenever I catch an episode now I can remember shooting every scene. I can remember how I felt and how the people I worked with made me feel. But I usually don’t remember what is going to happen!
Rivers: A lot of those songs really rely on knowing the Andy Dwyer character. Like, if you didn’t know that, they would be like, “Well, these are kind of just crappy songs. They’re not really funny.” In that case, it’s really, totally an extension of his character — that’s entirely what makes them funny.
Schur: The story of Parks and Rec, a lot of it, is we just got incredibly lucky in a thousand different ways. And I think about it all the time. One of the ways that we got really lucky was we just found Mark Rivers, and turned over part of Andy’s personality to him, and he absolutely nailed it.
THE LEGACY OF A SMALL TOWN MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT
Poehler: I was aware that we were in the middle of something special, and I will be forever grateful that I allowed myself to be in the moment and truly appreciated the massive talent I was surrounded by. We laughed really hard every day and genuinely liked each other. And we were proud of the art we were making. That’s the jackpot, right there.
Rivers: The one relationship that I’ve retained, since Parks and Rec, is with Nick Offerman. We collaborate on writing songs for his live shows. He’s a really good, interesting, funny, but also compelling live performer. So he’ll come up with a handful of ideas, and we’ll explore them together. And I think he said he’s going back to Australia, so there might be some more jokes in there about New Zealanders.
Fletcher: It was my first writing job and also I think the pinnacle of my career. I should probably quit writing because it will never get better than getting to write for those characters.
Rivers: If you just look at the idea, it’s like, mmm, OK — it’s not a crazy high-concept show. It’s a very down to Earth, simple premise. But they just put together a great group of people. I think that’s key to anything, you know?
I would love to continue to work with any of those guys. It was pretty much a dream gig. I’ve worked on a lot of shows, good and bad, over the years, and that was really one of the best. I think it deserves to be remembered as the classic it seems to be remembered as.
Schur: It was such an important and formative thing in my life. I was so deeply absorbed into that show, running it for seven seasons, that it’s sort of always with me.
By the end of this show, it felt like we had really described a real place, with real people, because we kept bringing them back and reusing them, and swirling them into the giant stew that we were making.
Fletcher: It’s a great show. Rewatch it when you’re feeling down, it’ll help.
BONUS: HOW PASADENA CITY HALL BECAME PAWNEE CITY HALL
Schur: We looked around a little bit — we did a lot of research into what actual city hall buildings and municipal buildings look like in the Midwest. And it was interesting — they architecturally, back when a lot of them were built in the late 19th century — in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, places like that, Illinois — it was important that city hall buildings be impressive. Impressive by 19th century standards; not enormous, sprawling buildings — but it was a source of local civic pride.
And it’s interesting to look at cities, towns that you don’t think of as being big metropolises — they often have very lovely, architecturally interesting buildings as their city hall, because that was how a city declared itself as having meaning, especially along major railroad groups.
So we looked all around, and a lot of the buildings that are municipal buildings in Southern California are distinctly Spanish in architecture, or some of them are Spanish art deco or whatever, so a lot of them just didn’t work. But the Pasadena one, which does have a Spanish tile roof — which we had to replace digitally a lot of the time — but the facade of that building reminded us the most of a town in Indiana.
And it also has a really beautiful, open plan driveway/road situation out in front of it, which made shooting really easy. It has a big, impressive staircase leading up to it, which we just felt was cinematic, and it’s relatively close by. It fit the best architecturally, but it also, we just thought was the prettiest, and we just thought it would look nice on camera.
Note: Portions of this story have been edited for conciseness and clarity. Interviews with Mike Schur and Mark Rivers were conducted via phone; interviews with Amy Poehler and Emma Fletcher were conducted via email. Our interviews with Schur, Poehler, and Fletcher were done earlier this year, with portions used in our Galentine’s Day oral history.