As the creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (and an early writer on the U.S. version of The Office, where he also occasionally played Dwight Schrute’s cousin, Mose), Michael Schur’s “brand” has always been represented by workplace comedies featuring versatile ensembles. But with NBC’s The Good Place, though, Schur is shaking things up a bit, leaving the office and the Earth to focus on the journey of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a recently deceased and not-so-great woman who finds herself in a sort of post-life paradise. The show, which co-stars Ted Danson as the eager-to-please and anxious architect of Bell’s new “neighborhood,” is high-concept, but there are still human interactions at the heart of it, and as cliche as it is to say, that’s where good comedy lives — in the heart.
We spoke to Schur about switching the challenges of crafting a comedy about the afterlife, broadening the focus to other characters beyond Eleanor, the possibility of seeing the Bad Place at some point, and of course, which Parks and Recreation characters would make the grade.
We haven’t seen a lot of comedic visions of the afterlife, Defending Your Life is a film that comes to mind. Tell me a little bit about the challenges that come from trying to tell a story based in the afterlife.
Michael Schur: Yeah, there’s a few. The first one is always that I think it’s very important in comedy that people understand the rules of the universe. Both literal rules and also tonal rules, and when you’re doing a show set in any kind of otherworldly place, especially early on, you’re having to balance making people feel like they understand how it works and then also, that’s usually not that funny… [Laughs.] to sort of, lay out this can’t happen and this can’t happen and this can’t happen.
That’s one big challenge: trying to get all that information out. And we had a lot more expository stuff in the first couple of episodes that we ended up cutting just because we felt like we were edging out comedy and that the people weren’t going to enjoy the show if they were getting nothing but rules and regulations. That was probably the biggest thing when you do a show… Like, Parks and Recreation, for example, there was some amount of work that had to be done to explain what local government is and how it functions and stuff, but ultimately it was a group of living human beings in an office setting and there was a certain shorthand that came with that. This is a little different. I would say that was probably the biggest challenge.
When you’re doing a show like this, how important is it to make it palatable for someone who has strong opinions about what the afterlife is?
Well, honestly, I did a lot of research into religious conceptions of the afterlife, they were actually weirdly similar. In many cases, they’re variations on a theme, but I made it very clear… Ted Danson says early on, that this is not any… no one religion got it right. If that upsets people that his or her particular conception of the afterlife, based on his or her particular religion, isn’t being accurately represented, there’s nothing I can do about it. But I felt like it was very important to say, “No actual religion, no organized religion nailed it.” This is its own thing and I think that the basic concept of my version of it, which is based on whether you were a good or bad person, is largely reflected in most religious points of view, right? That’s sort of a qualification for any admittance into “The Good Place.” Whatever your version is. I just thought it would be weird to say, you know who was right? The Presbyterians, they got the whole thing right. I tried to make it a more general concept of good and bad.