The Case of Parks and Rec

Well, as we celebrated women’s history this month, we decided it was time to talk about one of the strongest female characters to ever grace our TV sets: Leslie Knope. That’s right, cassettes, this week we’re taking a trip to Pawnee, the greatest city in Indiana, probably the greatest city in America, possibly the greatest city in the world! 

In 2009, Parks and Recreation aired on NBC. It was a mockumentary-style show, similar to the intensely popular sitcom, The Office. It followed the parks department in the city of Pawnee over the course of seven seasons. Audiences fell in love with the remarkable ensemble cast, led by SNL veteran Amy Poehler, and featuring breakout stars like Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, and Aziz Ansari. 

This week, we’re diving into the history of this wonderfully heartwarming and hilarious show that birthed countless internet memes and made its mark as one of the greatest American television shows of all time. So it’s time to raise a glass of Snake Juice and “get on your feet,” because Parks and Rec is on. 

THE MOCKUMENTARY

  • Parks and Rec is a government satire mockumentary-style show. The idea of satire is not new, as it dates back to the Roman Empire. It’s a powerful tool that can paint some of the most mundane or troubling occurrences as something completely ridiculous. Satire can change minds, lift moods, and of course be entertaining as hell. 
  • The idea of presenting fiction as reality for entertainment purposes (ie. the mockumentary) is a far more recent occurrence. Some would consider Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast as one of the first mockumentaries, although it incited panic instead of laughs. Still, the concept of false news articles was on the rise. By the 1960’s, the rock documentary “A Hard Day’s Night” broke ground as it ventured into mockumentary territory with its coverage of Beatles hysteria. 
  • This film led to the king of all mock docs, Rob Reiner and Christopher Guests’ “This is Spinal Tap” in 1984. The genre has evolved since then, however this film is one of the most famous and will likely never be topped. 
  • In 2001, the UK sitcom “The Office” revolutionized the format and showed how it could work for TV. Of course, show creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant signed off on an American version, with Greg Daniels. The American Office took off, gaining an intense fan following and lasting 9 seasons. The characters addressed the camera directly, with interesting asides and funny glances. The format was based on the idea that there was an in-universe film crew creating a documentary about the employees of a Pennsylvania paper company. 
  • After a few incredibly successful seasons, NBC asked Greg Daniels to create another show, and gave him the creative freedom to do whatever he wanted. 

HOW THE SHOW GOT STARTED

  • When NBC asked Greg Daniels to produce another show, he turned to Michael Schur for help. Schur was a co-executive producer on The Office with Daniels, and had worked as a producer on SNL. 
    • Together, the two men created a pitch for a show that followed a dedicated person in local government, working with a group of apathetic people. One of their first ideas was to play on the format of The Office, creating a fictionalized version of a work setting. While The Office took place in the private sector, this show would follow characters in the public sector. 
    • They imagined the show as a comedy version of The West Wing. Instead of the high stakes of a federal government drama, this comedy would follow the low stakes and bureaucratic nonsense of local government. 
      • The show would specifically depict how people are affected by the actions of people in local government. 
    • They created a character named Leslie Knope, a strong, intelligent woman who is passionate about local government, but with no political know-how. At first, the audience didn’t receive the character the way the creators intended. Craig Daniels told The Guardian in 2019, “We didn’t do a great job at first. Instead of coming off as a smart, driven person with no political acumen, Leslie came off as a buffoon[…] We were blowing it because we were writing her as a stuffy politician and not a three-dimensional human being.” 
    • According to Greg Daniels, people had described her as a “bimbo.” He said, “That word was actually used, which was so horrifying because we pitched the show to NBC as like, this is a show about a strong willed, capable, feminist sort of forward thinking woman and her best friend who she makes in the pilot, […] and to hear the word “bimbo” applied to that character, it was–it was awful. It was truly awful.”
      • The creators made adjustments, altering the way other characters reacted to Leslie. Instead of rolling their eyes, everyone would agree that she was the best at what she did. Characters would keep their own agendas to create some conflicts, but they would all ultimately listen to Leslie in the end. 
      • The changes made an incredible difference. Leslie went from an awkward, yet well-meaning buffoon to a capable and strong female leader. 
    • Both creators knew that their main character needed to embody the essence of the show, and they needed a comedian with the chops to carry the role. Mike Schur had worked with Amy Poehler on SNL, and she seemed like a great choice for the lead.
      • NBC was on board, and they wanted to premiere the show after the Super Bowl. But, Poehler was 9 months pregnant and due to give birth when they would have had to film the pilot. They were so certain that Poehler was the only person that could nail the role, so they passed on one of the best time slots in TV to wait until after she gave birth.
    • The creators adopted the belief early on that relationships and characters are more important than premise. Michael Schur said “If you design a show around the idea, what happens often I think, is it makes for an amazing pilot. Because the pilot is a movie that has an incredible high premise and you get a great cliffhanger and whatever. And then the premises burns off and you’re left with not a lot of stuff because you haven’t made room for small, intimate character dynamics that are the things that are slow burning logs that keep the flame going for a long time.”
    • They wanted viewers to have an emotional connection to Parks and Rec. Schur and the other writers weren’t afraid to have moments where the show wasn’t “funny,” and show moments where characters acted to real-world emotion.

SYNOPSIS

Meet Leslie Knope. She’s the deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, IN. Ms. Knope may seem like just another civil servant, held back by red tape, but under her bubbly exterior there is a fierce woman, capable of anything. Leslie faces many challenges, some brought on by her Libertarian boss, Ron Swanson and the other apathetic or incompetant members of her department. Ultimately, her passion for government and the people of Pawnee inspires everyone around her. 

PRODUCTION

  • Parks and Rec had a long list of writers, including Greg Daniels, Michael Schur, Harris Wittels, Kate Dippold, and Amy Poehler. 
    • During the 100th episode Feature, Amy Poehler revealed that they had written 3300 pages of script by 31 writers. 
  • The show was shot by a crew of about 22 people each episode. The show had almost 40 different directors throughout its run, with producer Dean Holland directing the most episodes, according to IMDB. 
  • The crew would run through each scene at least twice. In the first run-through, actors would stick to the script. Then, they shot a “fun run” where the actors were encouraged to have fun with the scene and improvise lines. Because of this, hilarious improvisations are speckled all throughout the show, like when Rob Lowe stared intensely into the mirror and said, “Stop. Pooping” during the “Flu Season” episode. 
  • Amy Poehler said of production, “I love the way we shoot. We do seven, eight pages a day. There are a lot of quick setups. We do a lot of takes and get to improvise a lot. Her situations suggest things that we can try on the fly. Certainly, the form lends itself to that.” 
  • Each episode was about 23 minutes long. For some of their episodes, producers created an extended cut. When the show streamed on Netflix, the producer’s cuts were available to viewers. 
    • Michael Schur believed that the time constraints brought a better final result because the episodes were not bloated and had good pacing. One thing that really helped with that was having to work around commercials. This forced the writers to break the show into acts, allowing characters to have their own adventures and come together during a universal event. He believed network tv saved him from his worst instincts, and helped everyone tell a better story.
  • Location
    • Over the course of filming, Parks and Rec used hundreds of sets. The exterior shot of Pawnee’s city hall is actually Pasadena, California’s City Hall. Throughout the series only tight shots of the building were used since Pawnee is meant to be a small town. In the finale episode however the building was shown in all its magnificence. The interior of the building was located on a soundstage, including the “outside” courtyard shots. The crew would make it appear as if it were raining outside the offices along the courtyard, and would bring in pigeons to make it appear as if they were outside. 
      • Many of the other buildings used were also located within California. As of the 100th episode, the show had been filmed in 8 different cities across two continents. 
      • The infamous pit that is featured heavily in the first seasons, had to be created by the production crew. It was located on the Southeast corner of Hazeltine Avenue and Collins Street, in Van Nuys California. It did stay an empty lot for a long time but finally in 2015 construction began and it now is fully developed and no longer recognizable as Parks and Rec. Sadly it is not a park.
        • When they were getting ready to film, the showrunners visited the people that lived along the lot and asked them what they wanted it to be. They were all very accommodating people, especially the people that owned Ann’s house, which was used frequently in the first few seasons. 

STARRING

  • Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope
    • Amy Poehler is a comedy legend and founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, one of the most well-known improv comedy troupes in America. She has acted in films like Moxie, Baby Mama, and Inside Out.
    • Poehler wrote 5 episodes of Parks and Rec, and directed 3 episodes. 
    • Her favorite scene from the show was in the pilot episode, as Leslie stares out the window at the rain, thinking about the park project that starts the series. 
    • When asked in 2009 what she liked most about the character she said “There’s nothing cool about her. It’s fun to play someone who’s well-intentioned but doesn’t know the game. I enjoy competent but misguided characters. She’s an open-faced sandwich, and because of that, she doesn’t have anything savvy about her.”
  • Rashida Jones as Ann Perkins
    • She has been in Angie Tribecca, The Office, Celeste and Jesse Forever, The Social Network, and I Love You Man.
    • Amy Poehler loved the idea of a strong female friendship at the forefront of the show. That friendship was easy to act with Rashida Jones, as the two of them had already been friends for years. 
    • In an interview Amy and Rashida had this exchange:
      • Amy Poeler-Do you hate being asked what it is like being a woman in comedy?
      • Rashida Jones- Yes.
      • Amy-Is there an answer you wish you could say that you’ve never been able to?
      • Rashida- Ask me something else… That’s not stupid.
  • Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson
    • He has been in The Founder, Fargo, and Nick Offerman: American Ham (which is a live taping of one of his standups.)
    • Nick Offerman auditioned for The Office. Even though he was not cast, Mike Schur kept his name and called him for Parks and Rec. Originally he was thought of for a love interest role to Rashida Jones’ Ann Perkins. They felt the role of Leslie’s boss made more sense. 
    • While they were doing research for the show, Daniels and Schur actually came across a woman who was in government and a libertarian. This was an inspiration for Ron. 
    • Michael Schur said that some of his favorite scenes to write were the ones between Ron and Leslie because they work so well together. Leslie always reminds Ron that these people are his friends and Ron helps to keep Leslie grounded.
  • Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate
    • She has been in Safety Not Guaranteed, Dirty Grandpa, and Ingrid Goes West.
    • The character of April Ludgate was written for Aubrey because the casting director thought she was the weirdest person. When she went into an interview with Michael Schur she made him feel incredibly uncomfortable and old, mostly because she didn’t talk. After the meeting he immediately wrote a scene where Leslie is hiring a young intern and the intern makes her feel the exact same way.
    • Plaza is friends with Amy Poehler, and once greeted her at the airport dressed as an alien, to cheer her up during her divorce. 
    • During the 100th episode feature, she insisted on being interviewed in a tree, and refused to answer the questions. As you can see, many of these actors fit their characters super well.
  • Chris Pratt as Andy Dwyer
    • He is of course Starlord in the Marvel Universe, Owen in Jurassic World, and Emmet in The Lego Movie. 
    • Andy was not intended to be a regular character of the show. Showrunners planned for his arc to end after season 1, but they liked Pratt so much in the role that they brought him back.
    • His favorite Parks moment was when April and Andy drove to the Grand Canyon. He had not seen the Grand Canyon before, so his reaction was genuine. He felt it was just a very nice moment for April and Andy. 
    • In the season 2 episode, “Kaboom” Chris Pratt showed up to Ann’s house naked. He was supposed to wear nude underwear for the scene, but took them off to get a better reaction from Amy Poehler. He got an official reprimand for the stunt, which he reportedly framed. 
  • Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford
    • He has been in Master of None, Epic, 30 Minutes or Less, and Darryl in Bob’s Burgers.
    • A talented stand-up comedian, Aziz improvised a lot of lines as Tom Haverford. Tom was a breakout character on the show, and was heavily influenced by Aziz.
    • Aziz said that his favorite thing about the show was the news anchor Perd Hapley.
  • Jim O’heir as Jerry Gergich
    • He has been in Smothered by Mothers, Bad Times at the El Royale, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
    • O’heir actually auditioned for Ron Swanson, but the creators loved him so much, they made sure to find the right character for him to play. 
    • It’s a long running gag in the show that Jerry/Gary/Larry is hated by the department. This is especially funny to the showrunners because Jim O’heir is universally loved. 
  • Retta as Donna Meagle
    • Retta has been in Fracture, Good Boys, To the Bone, and her voice in the new Ducktales as Magic Harp.
    • Retta is a talented comedian and trained opera singer! She sings in the episode, “Leslie and Ben” as they get married in the office. 
    • Her favorite Parks moment was from season 2, when Chris Pratt fights a possum. She said that she saved it on her DVR for two years!
  • Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt
    • He has been in Step Brothers, Friends With Kids, and Torque.
    • He loved the episode “Media Blitz” where the show explores Ben’s past as a boy mayor. 
  • Rob Lowe literally as Chris Traeger
    • He was literally in St. Elmo’s Fire, The Outsiders, Tommy Boy, and Wayne’s World.
    • Rob had just bought into the Miramax Library when meeting with Michael Schur for the first time. When Schur asked him how he came about doing that, Rob began his story with Chris Traeger’s now well known catchphrase of “literally.” 
  • Paul Schnieder as Mark Brandanawicz
    • He has been in Lars and the Real Girl, Chance, and American Murderer
    • Paul Schnieder left the show after the second season, opening the door for the Ben and Chris characters. He later said he left because of creative differences. It was mostly because the show shifted its emotional focus after the first season, which worked for the other characters but didn’t seem to work as well for Mark. 
  • Jay Jackson as Perd Hapley
    • He was in Fast Five, Battleship, and Scandal. 
    • Perd Hapley always over-explains in the best way possible.
  • Ben Schwartz as Jean-Ralphio
    • He has been in Space Force, Sonic The Hedgehog (2020), and the new Ducktales.
    • When Ben Schwartz auditioned, he originally tried for the character Dave, a cop that Leslie has a relationship with. Because he felt too young to play that character, Louis CK won the role instead. Michael Schur liked Shwartz so much, he wrote another character for him to play, Jean-Ralphio. 
    • The character was meant to only have a couple lines, but was received so well, he went on to appear in 21 episodes of the show! 
  • Jenny Slate as Mona-Lisa
    • She has been in Obvious Child, Zootopia, Gifted, and Bob’s Burgers.
  • Billy Eichner as Craig Middlebrooks
    • He was in Billy on the Street, The Angry Birds Movie, and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. 
  • Harris Wittels as Harris
    • Michael Schur’s time on The Office and SNL inspired him to bring writers into the show as actors (a popular practice for both of the aforementioned shows). Many of the Parks writers appeared in the show, sometimes as recurring characters. Writer Harris Wittles appeared frequently as a stoned animal control worker. As co-executive producer, Wittles wrote 12 episodes of the show, making a profound impact on its success. 
    • Wittels was an incredibly gifted comedian that started writing for shows in his early 20’s. In January of 2015, Wittles passed away suddenly at the age of 30. The final frame of the Parks and Rec finale showed the word, “We love you, Harris.” 

RECEPTION/ IMPACT

  • When the show was on the air for the first year in 2009 the Parks and Recreation publication had an article about how those who worked in the field felt about the mockumentary. While there were varying thoughts, many agreed that it was humurous.
    • Jim Dumont from Walla Walla, Washington said ”As a politician once said, ‘ I don’t care what you report as long as you spell my name correctly.’ It sort of holds true here,..it does give our profession exposure. I am not really sure if it helps us or hurts us, but I am not really concerned about it because it is a sitcom and I hope those who watch it understand that (even though some of the stuff we deal with is pretty funny).”
  • In June 2015 it was People Magazine’s number three pick for what to see, hear, read, or download for the week.
  • The show was nominated for several emmys, but never won. It was also nominated three times for the Golden Globes and never won. Amy Poehler did win a Golden Globe for her performance as Leslie Knope. 
  • The 2020 reunion special aired last March and was a welcome relief during the ongoing pandemic. 

RUNNING GAGS/JOKES/ ETC.

  • Treat Yo’ Self
    • This was one of Aziz Ansari’s favorite bits on the show
  • Awkward run-ins with Councilman Howser
  • Jerry’s name change
  • Tom’s crazy ideas for businesses
  • Leslie’s amazing compliments towards her best friend Ann
  • A lot seemed to deal with food…
    • Leslie’s waffle obsession
    • Ben’s love of Calzones
    • Ron’s need for breakfast foods

FAVORITE EPISODES 

  • The Pilot
  • Ron and Tammy
    • Nick Offerman said this was his most memorable episode, as he got to work with his wife, performing ridiculous animalistic sexual behavior
  • Galentine’s Day
  • Telethon
  • The Master Plan
  • Flu Season
    • “You could have network connectivity problems” – Adam Scott referred to this improvised line as one of the best lines in comedy 
  • The Harvest Festival
  • April and Andy’s Fancy Party
  • The Fight
    • A peak Jean-Ralphio episode!
  • The Comeback Kid
  • Halloween Surprise
    • Michael Schur wrote the proposal scene just after finding out that the show wasn’t nominated for an emmy. Amy Poehler said it was one of her favorite show moments and they didn’t make any changes to his initial scene. 

Parks and Recreation is a comedic masterpiece. It holds one of the greatest ensemble casts American television has ever seen. It’s incredible that all of this talent somehow met together at the exact right time to make this show. 

It’s a perfect blend of heartwarming and hilarious, as comedic storylines always pause at the exact right moment to let the characters be *almost* real people. It’s a show about friendship, love, service, and respect. Leslie Knope is powerful. She inspires the other characters, and the people watching. She’s a goddess, a glorious female warrior; and she makes us all feel like we can do anything if we just make enough binders. 

So with that, I’m Robin HAPP-ley, and the thing about this case is…it’s closed! 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, and Linda.


SOURCES:

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