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Doing Time in ‘Pawnee’

We visit the set of Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation
It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and Pawnee is freezing. On the surface, this isn’t so strange: It’s mid-December, local windows are festooned with Christmas wreaths, and it’s not as if Indiana is known for its temperate winters. But Pawnee, for this day at least, is actually located in Van Nuys, a neighborhood in California’s San Fernando Valley better known for its panoply of porn studios than for its heartwarming sitcoms. And none of the West Coasters assembled to film exterior scenes for Parks and Recreation seems prepared for the unexpected frost.

And so the line is longer at the coffee urns than it is at the omelet truck parked in front of the municipal building that doubles as Pawnee’s City Hall. Assorted grips and grunts huddle together for warmth, talking shop and shooting shit. Rob Lowe is in the distance, speaking into a camera and holding a dog that may or may not be Champion, April and Andy’s recently acquired three-legged rescue mutt (who can do anything just as well as a four-limbed animal, except maybe dig). Standing in the middle of it all, proudly (or foolishly) coatless, is Parks showrunner Mike Schur. (Who, we should mention, is a Grantland contributor.) He’s directing this episode, the 16th of the show’s strong fourth season, and seems oblivious to both the pressures of the multi-million-dollar production that surrounds him and the existence of a high-powered gas heater blasting life-giving warmth just steps away from where we’re talking.

“I hate stasis,” he declares, and, as if to prove it, he begins dancing back and forth from one leg to the other to stamp out the chill. We’re discussing the progression of Parks and how, unlike other contemporary workplace sitcoms, the show is committed to constant change. Last season saw the much-maligned Parks Department rally against draconian budget cuts and save its jobs via a successful Harvest Festival. (The only casualties were Leslie Knope’s inappropriate office romance and Lil’ Sebastian, an inexplicably popular tiny horse.) This season has shifted gears again, backgrounding the inter-office shenanigans in favor of swoony romance (between Leslie and the suddenly unemployed Ben Wyatt, and between childish newlyweds April and Andy) and a straightforward political plot, as Leslie stumbles her way through an underdog campaign for City Council. Through it all, Parks has continued to expand and utilize a deep bench of supporting players, from the douchey Jean-Ralphio to cougary Joan Callamezzo, all of whom add color and depth to the show’s rapidly evolving universe. “I’ve said before that the greatest influence on this show is The Wire,” Schur says through blue lips. “We’d never have a season without Amy, of course,” he adds, referring to The Wire‘s mostly McNulty-free fourth season. “But killing homeless people? Sure. Why not?”

Before I can present a counterargument, Schur is hustled away and I find myself shivering in Video Village, seated between the blast heater and Norm Hiscock, the avuncular author of this particular episode. Titled “Sweet Sixteen,” the story revolves around office punching bag Jerry turning 64. (It finally airs tonight.) In keeping with his bad luck about nearly everything — outside of his lovely wife and daughter, his gift for oil painting, and his rapidly vesting pension — Jerry was born on February 29. Which means that in terms of actual, accumulated birthdays, he’s only just legally allowed to drive. As a respite from heavy campaigning, Leslie & Co. decide to throw him a tiara-filled celebration. The first scene of the day involves Leslie informing Ben that she’ll be shirking her campaign duties to throw a girly party for a senior citizen. While Poehler and Scott rehearse and wait until the last possible moment to remove weapons-grade jackets that look like the kind tossed around people rescued from Italian cruise-ship disasters, Hiscock and I chat about the magic of television. “This is day three of five shooting this episode,” he says. There’s a pause while Poehler and Scott giggle in the distance. “What’s that they say about war? Long periods of nothing and boredom punctuated by moments of extreme tension and anxiety?” His eyes drift toward the actors.

The scene is a short one. (And will eventually be cut before broadcast. “Television!” explains Schur some weeks later.) Ben sits alone on a park bench noodling with his iPad. Leslie arrives, talks over him, and leaves. The first few run-throughs are unmemorable, with polite laughter bubbling up from the crew at the appointed times. Schur seems as distractedly amused as everyone else — if he didn’t keep walking over to the actors and putting his arm around them conspiratorially it’d be nearly impossible to identify him as the director. It’s Hiscock who first draws my attention to the funniest aspect of the scene: how pathetic Adam Scott looks, sitting all alone on a wintry public bench. It’s clear Schur notices it, too: Subsequent takes linger longer on Scott’s lonely, birdlike frame; the dual documentary-style cameras pull back to take in the great swaths of nothing that surround him. After a word from Schur, Poehler also begins preying on Scott’s plight. On the next take she practically attacks him with moxie, causing him to drop his iPad. Papers scatter, faces are flustered, but the scene continues, even sillier thanks to the chaotic charge. Schur smiles. He found the funny but it barely seemed like work.

It’s only afterward, when the crew has begun breaking down equipment for the next shot, that Schur explodes. The culprit isn’t a blown line-reading or the news that Rob Lowe has gotten another haircut. He’s simply caught a glimpse of a headline in a PA’s copy of the Los Angeles Times. It reads “Peace Offering,” but Schur, who bleeds Boston sports, misread it as “Pierce Offering.” “This is all fine,” he says, gesturing vaguely around the shoot. But if the Celtics had traded Paul Pierce? “I would have shut down production immediately.”

Despite his temporary hoops freak-out, Schur’s laconic cool trickles down through every aspect of Parks and Recreation. Television set visits are usually an uncomfortable mix of apprehension and boredom for all involved, full of overworked professionals doing their very best to keep egos, tensions, and outright intramural hatreds in check and out of the press. But Parks in person seems much as it does onscreen: a pleasant gathering of grown-ups. The camaraderie is unforced, and much of the small talk revolves around familiar things: the kids at home and Homeland. Even Chris Pratt, who plays amiable lunkhead Andy Dwyer, seems more mature, dressed as he is in a downright preppie tie and button-down combination and carrying a … could it be? A book?

Not just any book, either. It’s The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright’s nearly 500-page opus about the origins of Al Qaeda. When I point out the incongruity of a character who believes that “windows are the eyes to the house” going deep on Arabian geopolitics, Pratt quickly sets me straight. “Oh, it’s not for reading. It’s for this.” He then proceeds to curl the book like a 10-pound dumbbell.

Pratt, of course, isn’t nearly as naïve as his character — that might be medically impossible — but he is no less polite. While Schur prepares another scene on the municipal building steps, Pratt welcomes me into the relative warmth of his trailer.

“Every once in a while on a job you have one or two people where you’re like, ‘Oh God, I have to deal with that asshole,’ you know? We don’t have anyone like that here,” he explains. “We’re really lucky. And it all starts with Amy. Whoever is number one on the call sheet sets the tone, and no one here is in a bad mood because she’s never in a bad mood.” I mention that Schur also seems bizarrely calm and balanced. Pratt agrees. “I feel like the whole set could be on fire and he’s the guy who would be like ‘OK, guys, let’s form a line and walk out slowly.’ And somehow no one would burn to death.”

Suddenly the door to the trailer swings open and Rashida Jones, or at least her ghost, swoops in. “Hi, Rashida!” Pratt exclaims before lowering his voice. Jones, dressed in all black, sunglasses glued to her face, Slurpee-sized coffee in her hand, looks tired. Actually, she looks as if tired hadn’t slept for a few days, then got in a bar fight with exhausted. “Is it OK if I just put my head down for a while?” she asks. “I’ll be quiet.” Then, by way of explanation, she adds, “I was at Watch the Throne last night.” Pratt and I mutter a few apologies and inquiries about the sold-out Staples Center show, but soon Jones is facedown on the trailer’s kitchen table, sunglasses smooshed against the wood.

Trying to keep my voice down, I ask about Andy Dwyer’s dazzling falls and how much of the physical humor originates with Pratt. “I wanted to be a stuntman growing up, actually,” he whispers. “Stuntman first, acting later. My brother and I would practice falling down the stairs, play-fighting, all that stuff. Around here it’s gotten to the point where the writers don’t actually specify what the stunt is anymore. They just write, ‘Andy takes a spectacular fall of some kind,’ and I get to create these things in the moment.” He pauses. Jones stirs slightly. “The truth is, I am definitely falling and hurting myself! But I never want to admit it.”

Outside again and the sun has finally emerged. When not busying themselves pulling cables, moving microphones, or shepherding reporters to and fro, the Parks crew take turns standing in the one patch of direct-hit sunlight in a driveway just behind the temporary set. The dozens of upturned, squinting faces suggest a religious revival or a particularly well-washed chapter of Occupy Van Nuys. Though he’s stuck in the shade, Schur is now at least wearing a puffy coat. “Here’s the proof that I never would have survived in the 1400s,” he jokes. “I refused to put on a jacket even though it was four feet away from me the entire time.” He confers with Aubrey Plaza, who listens between fervent blasts of text messaging. Amy Poehler, impossibly chipper, claps me on the back. “Hey, how’s it going? We treating you all right?” Before I can answer, she’s pulled back in front of the cameras.

I drift backward into the sunshine to talk to Adam Scott. It’s disconcerting speaking to him, if only because his understated friendliness in person is exactly as it appears onscreen. He tells me about the plans for shooting the Party Down movie in the summer, about his two kids, and how he initially auditioned for the part that ended up as Ron Swanson. The whole thing is so casual and pleasant that I barely remember to turn on my recorder. For Scott, the real joy of joining Parks has been the constant evolution of the characters. “I feel like there’s an amnesia about most sitcoms,” he says, where prior actions and relationships are always consequence-free. So he’s relishing the chance to play the straitlaced Ben Wyatt as the lead in Leslie’s own gushy rom-com. “I got choked up when I read the scene where they confess their love via court reporter,” he says. “I made my wife read it right away.”

There’s hubbub and Jones suddenly appears, looking 1,000 times peppier (with a coffee cup that’s about 1,000 times emptier). “You guys,” she cries, “Aziz is so famous.” It seems that the real-life Tom Haverford, her friend date at the Jay-Z/Kanye show last night (and, judging by her hangover and the existence of this bananas photo, early this morning, too), was mobbed like royalty by the floor-seat-having masses. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she raves. “But I guess it makes sense. That show is kind of the perfect Venn diagram of his fame. He’s basically the court jester of the Throne.” After she finishes explaining the appeal of seeing the same song performed 10 times in a row to an incredulous Scott, she and an unsmiling Aubrey Plaza talk about the slow growth of Parks and the chemistry it inspired.

“We had to push a rock up the mountain for the first couple of years,” Jones begins. “There was no security. And last year, when we taped almost the entire season without knowing if we were coming back or how people felt about us, it created a bond.” I turn to Aubrey for her thoughts. “Yeah,” she says, with perfectly withering April eyes. Then silence.

As the stillness stretches out and makes itself uncomfortable, there’s definitely a moment where I consider faking a seizure, anything to break up the super-intense vibe Plaza seems to have trademarked. But then a question appears in my mind like a lifesaving EpiPen: “Are you enjoying the opportunity to play sides of April other than snarky?” She doesn’t blink: “Yeah.” My heart falls. I’m doomed. I look to Jones for help. But then, mercifully, Plaza keeps talking. “It’s really fun. It’s nice to know the writers aren’t just writing jokes. They’re writing a whole person that can change.” Another pause. “Like normal people do.”

Jones appears so pleased at this relatively chatty outburst that she picks up the thread. “It may feel coincidental that this show is able to switch tones and be sweet and then be really funny, but it’s not. It was always really important to our writers, and Mike especially, to make a show that was not cynical and had a heart at the center of it.”

Plaza pipes up with her tongue, as ever, planted firmly in cheek. “The only thing that’s changed is Chris Pratt and his list of demands. He’s just an asshole now.” Jones adopts her own deadpan delivery. “Such an asshole.” Over her shoulder, I spy Pratt. He waves happily.

The last scene of the morning involves Leslie trying to keep her campaign business separate from her government work. She’s such a stickler about the divide that she attempts to carry on simultaneous meetings, one with April and one with Ben, on opposite sides of a doorway. Then April locks her out. It’s amusing but hardly memorable, with Poehler’s broad physicality doing the bulk of the humorous work.

But to Schur, it’s much more than a joke. He breaks into a nuanced and, quite frankly, fascinating description of the Hatch Act, a 73-year-old federal law that forbids employees of the executive branch from engaging in partisan political activity. “This is what I love about our show,” he says, visibly thrilled. “It’s funny, but mainly it’s an accurate celebration of an obscure law that was passed because Republicans were mad at FDR.” He rubs his hands gleefully (also, they’re most likely numb).

After Schur yells cut, lunch orders are taken and I prepare to leave. Amy Poehler, already being hustled off to film a talking head on the building’s front steps, squeezes my shoulder. Schur apologizes for the weather and for the fact that I never got to see any of Pawnee’s famous murals back on the lot in Studio City (including recent additions to the gallery “Cornfield Slaughter,” “Lament of the Buffalo,” “Needless Slaughter,” “Slaughter Gone Wrong,” “Eating the Reverend,” and “It’s Raining Blood and Death Everywhere”). “I’ve always wanted to do a political storyline like this,” Schur says, “but because of the Hatch Act almost the entire second half of the season takes place on nights and weekends, away from the office.” He then expresses some sympathy for NBC, but not due to the network’s faltering ratings and the difficulty of its upcoming decision on whether Parks, critically adored but audience-challenged, will get a fifth season. “I honestly wish we could use more of the beautiful $58 million studio they built for us,” he jokes, shrugging. “But it’d be against the law.”

Filed Under: Amy Poehler, Celebrities, Parks and Recreation, TV

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald