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THE SMALL SCREEN: The Writers of Parks and Recreation

Script sits down with the writers behind NBC’s hit show Parks and Recreation to talk about the collaborative effort that goes into each episode of the single-camera comedy.

Zack Gutin is a screenwriter, past intern at Script magazine, and works at Final Draft, Inc. Follow Zack on Twitter: @zackgutin.

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One of the best parts of writing for a television show is that you get the opportunity to reuse the same lovable (or hateable) characters week in and week out. You introduce them to new surroundings, other new characters and, most importantly, develop who they are and discover what makes them tick.

parks and recreation

Ironically though, those same fun aspects make writing for television terrifying.

"There’s still stuff being debated, like Jerry’s home life,” says Katie Dippold, regarding developing and fleshing out characters for the hit NBC show Parks and Recreation, which she joined as a writer at the start of season two.

 Guest star Will Arnett as Chris with Poehler Photo: Paul Drinkwater Courtesy: NBC Universal

Guest star Will Arnett as Chris with Poehler Photo: Paul Drinkwater Courtesy: NBC Universal

“It’s a lot of fun now that we know who the characters are. At first, we were still figuring it out.” For a character like Jerry, whose personal life outside of the Pawnee Parks Department is yet to be explored, there is still debate to be had. And the writers of Parks and Recreation must consider every angle. How will this exploration affect previous storylines and this character’s persona? What about future storylines that have yet to be revealed? Will this decision allow for enough material to keep the storylines afloat?

Fortunately for the writers of Parks and Recreation, these sort of decisions are a team effort. “It is deeply collaborative,” says Daniel J. Goor, a writer on the show since season one.

“We break stories together. We pitch together, and the group comes up with the best ones, cards them out, and figures out the beats.” To take this process a step further, ingeniously, the show’s creators Michael Schur and Greg Daniels don’t assign a writer to a specific episode until the group has completed the lion’s share of outlining. Goor explains, “We decide the story as a group, write a miniature treatment, and then outline. But often, [Schur and Daniels] won’t assign a writer until after the treatment, which is purposeful because they want everyone invested in each story. It’s almost like a fear tactic because you never know which one will be yours, so you want to work really hard on all of them.”

Tools of the Trade

This type of collaborative teamwork is challenging and can lead in one of two directions: a wild success only reached because of the work of the whole, or a massively implosive royal rumble among the creative staff. So, the producers carefully selected writers who were prepared to work as a team, featuring many top improvisers, including Goor and Dippold.

Goor’s journey began at Harvard University where he trained at improvisational comedy while studying biochemistry, then bypassed medical school to work on The Daily Show before later working on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and now Parks and Recreation. As Goor recalls, getting hired on The Daily Show was one of the most exciting moments of his life: “[I was] led back into the office of the executive producer and she said, ‘So, do you want to work here?’ I just remember feeling elated.”

Dippold rose through similar, but different, ranks. She attended Rutgers University and studied journalism before beginning training at the world-famous Upright Citizens Brigade, where she performed for many years.

She then was eventually hired to write for Mad TV and now Parks and Recreation. There is a prominent presence of improv and sketch comedy talent among the cast and crew. Actor Aziz Ansari broke through as a member of the MTV sketch-comedy show/ troupe Human Giant, formed at UCB. Amy Poehler, a Saturday Night Live alum, is also a founding member of the New York and L.A.-based comedy theatre, which now rivals programs like The Second City and The Groundlings. As Dippold explains, “UCB pushes people to be grounded and begin scenes from a real place and not start out crazy. If you start in a normal place and the first unusual thing is the funny thing, then you follow that pattern. In addition, the actors are trained to play it very real, see the funny thing about the scene—latch on and really heighten it and make it funnier.”

To which Goor adds, “We try to be conscious of that when we’re writing and on set. Some of the best things we’ve come up with feel like an improv game has developed.” The other advantage to having a group of people who come from similar comedy backgrounds and training is that there is a cohesive and natural rapport.

It’s very ensemble-based,” says Dippold. “It’s about setting someone else up to be funny, and the cast is really good at playing off of each other. They appreciate being funny more than being the star.”

 Paul Schneider as Mark, Ansari, Poehler, Jones, Nick Offerman as Ron, Aubrey Plaza as April, and Chris Pratt as Andy Photo: Mitchell Haaseth Courtesy: NBC Universal

Paul Schneider as Mark, Ansari, Poehler, Jones, Nick Offerman as Ron, Aubrey Plaza as April, and Chris Pratt as Andy Photo: Mitchell Haaseth Courtesy: NBC Universal

Style and Character Profile

Another noticeable trend in single-camera comedies is the use of documentary-style interviews with various characters or “talking heads,” as they’re commonly referred to. We’ve seen it on Schur and Daniels’ version of The Office, ABC’s Modern Family and, of course, Parks and Recreation. This tactic is very helpful if you understand how to use it properly. “It’s such a cool way to check in on the brain of the character,” says Goor. “[The show’s creators] Mike and Greg have compared the talkinghead scene to the bedroom scene in other shows. Like Homer talking to Marge on The Simpsons. It’s where your protagonist gives his take on the day’s events.” Goor stresses the importance of being creative with these scenes, as the characters do not necessarily need to be honest or open about how they are feeling. They can also hold back, which can say so much more about how they perceive themselves or how they want to be perceived. Goor gives an example from an episode where the grizzled Ron Swanson character is going on an annual hunting trip, normally reserved for all men, but Leslie tags along. Goor explains, “In the episode, Ron gives a toast, ‘To the hunt!’ But then Leslie adds to it, ‘To the hunters ... the only way to capture the beast is to be the beast.’ Then we get Ron as the talking head, ‘Generally, the toast is “To the hunt” and it’s done by me.’” His passive-aggressive interview segment reveals his character, who says nothing in the moment he’s upstaged and then never directly admits to feeling outdone. But we know, deep down, he’s crushed and aggravated by his pesky colleague.

Perhaps one of the strongest elements of the Parks and Recreation writing is the attention to the B and C storylines. It is easy to get just as invested in these subplots as the main adventure of the episode. For instance, in the episode “Sweetums,” the parks department is immersed in a moral debate over whether or not to let a sugary snack stand set up shop in the park. Meanwhile though, the Tom character, played by Aziz Ansari, cons his colleagues into helping him move, which brings two other characters, already slowly falling for one another, closer together. The plots are rich with content and usually find a way to equally involve every character. “We write long scripts,” says Goor. “Whereas you’d expect about 25 pages, we write in the mid-30s. One, because we’re really bad at cutting. And two, because we want to see how much we can get out of each story. A lot of the B stories could be A stories.”

 Poehler with guest star Andy Samberg as Carl Photo: Justin Lubin Courtesy: NBC Universal

Poehler with guest star Andy Samberg as Carl Photo: Justin Lubin Courtesy: NBC Universal

This approach has allowed the writers to truly explore the characters. The truth is, despite its success, Parks and Recreation has really just found its footing in the second season. “The reception this season, the critical response, has been really gratifying. But also it seems that people are really liking it, which feels great. We’re psyched about that,” says Goor, who recognizes that fleshing those characters out was a big part of the improved response.

“It’s a strange world; a parks department in a fictitious town. It took people, including us, some time to figure out what it all was. But if you look back at who the characters are now, the seeds and the intent to develop those characters were there,” explains Goor, who wrote the finale of the second season and created a launching pad for season three with the arrival of two new characters played by Rob Lowe and Adam Scott. At the time of this interview, the staff already had the first six episodes planned and two already written.

It’s Good to be a Writer

In addition to Parks and Recreation, both Dippold and Goor keep very busy. Dippold still performs at the UCB Theatre in Los Angeles and is writing a couple of studio features. Goor, who only recently moved to Los Angeles from New York, is working on a feature project for Warner Bros. and enjoying time with his young daughter.

Both writers have big futures, but are incredibly grounded and honest. Both recall the excitement they felt the first time they saw “Written By” on the screen, as opposed to being listed among a writing staff on their previous jobs. “That’s fun,” says Dippold. “A lot of my friends and family sent me screenshots of the ‘Written By’ of my first episode, which was really nice.”

And now that you’re all ready to get back to work so you can earn your first “Written By,” before you throw this magazine down and pull out your laptop, Goor offers some sound advice to take with you: “Put on your writer hat, take off your critic hat.” It’s something he admits he frequently needs to be reminded of—preventing ourselves from getting our ideas down because we second-guess our instincts. Write first, start over later.

*Originally published in Script magazine September/October 2010*

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