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Michael Schur on the trolley problem, "How To Be Perfect," the "Parks and Rec" reunion, post-COVID comedy, and reviving "Field of Dreams"

How to Be Perfect
Simon & Schuster
/
How to Be Perfect

In much of the TV he has written and created, Michael Schur’s characters strive and fail at being good people, often to hilarious effect. On shows like “Parks and Recreation,” “Hacks,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and, especially, “The Good Place,” you can track Schur’s own interest in concepts like rule-following, white lies, and the greater good.

Now Schur has published a new book that serves as something of a guide through moral philosophy, building on the big questions grappled with on “The Good Place.” The book is called “How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question.”

How's the book selling in Jacksonville?

I assume you're asking that question because Manny Jacinto’s character on the show, Jason Mendoza, was from Jacksonville. We spent four consecutive years making fun of Jacksonville as a municipality, right. I assume that's where this is coming from coming from?

That's right.

I'm not sure. I haven't been down there. I haven't looked at the sales numbers in the city. But you know, we heard from a lot of people in Jacksonville who actually really enjoyed the light ribbing that we gave this city over the course of the time the show was on the air. So maybe it's selling really well. Maybe we're doing great in Jacksonville. I have no idea.

I have big questions for you. But since we're speaking just after the Hall of Fame announced that David Ortiz will be inducted, and I know you were rooting for that outcome, I thought we could start there. What was your reaction to Big Papi’s induction?

I was thrilled. I mean, he's on the Mount Rushmore of Boston sports. I think he's my favorite athlete of all time. The Red Sox were a moribund franchise for eight or nine decades and always seemed to fail in the biggest moments and come up short and cause their fans pain and suffering. And he almost singlehandedly reversed that trend. He was the guy who delivered when the when the stakes were the highest and brought unending amounts of joy to me and my son and my friends and my dad and everybody else in my family. So I'm so happy for him. And I'm so happy for me, because I just really wanted it for him.

I've been a fan of yours going back to Fire Joe Morgan days. In fact, I was really happy to see you deconstruct a non apology apology by Ted Yoho in your book, which had echoes of Fire Joe Morgan for just a couple of pages. It occurs to me that the debate about the Hall of Fame is actually relevant to your book, because it seems to me that people like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens maybe are being held to a moral standard that others on the ballot aren't.

Yeah, that's certainly true. I mean, one of the reasons I loved writing the show and the book is because I had the realization, which I don't think is that interesting, frankly, but it was new to me that pretty much everything in the world that you encounter has some kind of ethical component to it, whether you choose to engage with it or not. And something like Hall of Fame voting. You know, there's a clause for the voters in baseball, which is they're supposed to take into account moral character or something like that.

What's ironic, of course, is that there are guys in the Hall of Fame who were virulent racists, or terrible people or did drugs of various kinds, PEDs and amphetamines or whatever. And then, only recently did we decide, or did the voters decide, that they were going to draw this kind of bright line and declare that no one who had you know, taken PEDs, at least in the modern era, was gonna get in. And it ignores a lot of context, right?

Something as ultimately sort of trivial as baseball is, baseball is an important thing and people care about it. But it's not the end all be all of existence or anything. But something as relatively trivial as Baseball Hall of Fame voting raises these big moral questions of like, well, you know, what, what did baseball do to stop the tide of PED use? Well, nothing, they did nothing. They kind of they turned the other cheek, they looked away, they closed their eyes, they enjoyed the fact that the players are hitting more home runs and that the pitchers were throwing harder than they ever had, because it was good for the game. And then suddenly, on the other side of it, everybody's getting very moralistic and saying, ‘Well, anyone who cheated shall not be enshrined in this sacred Hall.’ And the whole thing is, is kind of silly. But it's very interesting to track the ways in which people get more or less sort of morally aware, or intense about something, even something as kind of ultimately unimportant as the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Let's talk about you. You're obsessed with rule following. Where does that come from in your own life?

You know, it's a good question. I don't know. I have memories of being in kindergarten, and the teacher saying, OK, everybody line up and me immediately getting into line and then looking around at the other kids, like, what are you doing? Get in line. How dare you disobey an order? So I think it's always been there at some level. You know, Aristotle, who is one of the people I write about in the book, says that everybody is born with these sort of inclinations toward what he calls virtue, whether it's dutifulness, or generosity, or courage or whatever, like, we're all born with some of that stuff inherent in us. And then it's up to us over the course of our lives to develop it and practice it and try to find the right amounts and so forth.

So I think I was just born with some of that in me already. I just always remember being a kid who, if I was told to do my homework by a certain time, I did my homework by that time, because it just seemed like someone in authority had told me to do that. And, you know, as I've gotten older, obviously, I've tried to be a little more adult and grown up about how I go about that. Because obviously, and Aristotle says this, like anything else, if you follow rules too closely, if you never question why the rule is there in the first placer or think about the nature of rule following at all, if you just blindly follow all rules, well, a lot of bad things can happen. So Aristotle's whole approach is like this sort of constant checking in and searching and asking questions and trying to find the right amount of every quality that you have. And I'd like to think that I'm a little better at that now than I was when I was in kindergarten.

Obviously, you dealt with a lot of these questions through the several seasons of “The Good Place,” but you set out on a course of study for yourself afterwards. And the result of that is this book. I mean, you really dove into the literature, you consulted with experts and philosophers. Did something happen in your past that you are grappling with that led you on this path?

Yeah, well, and that delving into the literature and asking people for help understanding the literature, predated “The Good Place,” honestly. I knew when I wanted to write the show that I needed some significant help from people who knew what the hell they were talking about. So there's a professor of philosophy named Todd May who became a consultant on the show a woman named Pamela Hieronymi who teaches at UCLA, she became a consultant on the show. So we were always in the position in the writers room of having professionals, people who knew what they were talking about, to help us untangle some of the thornier issues.

But there were also incidents in my life. And I write about a couple of them in the book that led directly to me sort of having a more sophisticated, I guess, interest in this subject. One of them, I'm not sure if this is what you're referencing, but one of them was my wife was in a minor fender bender, back in 2005. And I got into this very intense negotiation with the person she had bumped into. There was almost no damage to his car, if you really strained you could see a little tiny crease on his bumper, and he wanted us to get to pay for the whole bumper to be replaced. It was during Hurricane Katrina, and I was horrified like everybody else was with what was happening.

And I made what I thought was an excellent moral argument on behalf of him not getting his car fixed, and said I would donate the cost of the bumper, which was 800 and something dollars to Hurricane Katrina relief at the Red Cross. And he was sort of like, well, I'll think it over, maybe that's a good solution, I don't know. And then I told all my friends about it, and they all started pledging more and more and more money, you know, thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of dollars, I got up to like, almost $30,000 at some point, without the guy knowing, of course, that any of this was happening. And then at a certain moment, my wife and I just started to feel sick to our stomachs and we didn't know why. And it was one of those really kind of formative moments where I was like, I'm blowing this and I don't know why. And that's the first thing that led me to start reading about ethics and philosophy and trying to figure out literally like, what's wrong about this? I couldn't name what was wrong about it. And I learned a lot about, you know, what Aristotle has to say about shame as a force for good and bad, and what other people would say. What Kant would say about the way that you negotiate with other people in moments of strife and trouble.

And eventually, I realized that I was just completely in the wrong, that the modern day term for what I was doing is I would say whataboutism, where he was saying, Hey, you bumped into my car and caused damage. And I was like, Well, what about Hurricane Katrina? Which has nothing to do with his car.

I came out of that experience, we paid for the damage and settled the whole thing, and I came clean to the guy. But what came out of that whole thing was this feeling, this really strong feeling like, you know, sometimes in life, you wander into these situations that you just have no experience with that are complicated, and thorny, and weird. And I think I would handle them a lot better than that one if I knew some actual theories about how you should behave in situations like that. And so that predates “The Good Place” by more than a decade. And so I think, from the time that that happened back in 2005, this has always been a subject that I really cared about and was interested in.

So if that occurred today, how would you handle things differently? What would you do now armed with all this knowledge?

Well, the first thing I would do is I would immediately pay the damage. I was upset about a number of things in that situation. One of them was, I had a friend who lived in New Orleans, his family had to evacuate. My wife and I had just been in New Orleans on a vacation, I had sort of fallen in love with the city. And I was really distressed by the destruction of that city. But I would understand that Hurricane Katrina has absolutely nothing to do with this minor car accident. And it's unfair to drag that into the equation. Because here's what here's what Kant said about situations like this. Kant says that you should act only in a way that you would will to be universal, which means whatever you're doing, would you want to live in a world where everyone did that? And if you if that world where everyone is doing what you're doing would be all screwed up and confusing and nonsensical, then you shouldn't do it. So it's pretty clear that if every single time there were a minor dispute between two people, that one of those people was allowed to drag into the equation something entirely unrelated, that was a much bigger and more important deal, well, then nothing would ever get settled. Because there's always something bigger than whatever's happening to you. And there's always a “better” way to spend your money than on whatever the thing is that you just the damage you just caused. So I would immediately say, like, OK, I think this stinks that there's that car repair is so expensive, and that insurance rates are so high, and blah blah blah blah blah, but this guy didn't do anything wrong. He didn't declare what the cost of a new bumper on a car is like, it's not his fault. He, it's his car, my wife did bump into him, or I bumped into him and this imaginary scenario. So yeah, I would just pay it. And I might do other things that attempted to make to be corrective measures in terms of how, you know, I might vote for a politician who vowed to change the way that car insurance rates are calculated or something I don't know. But I wouldn't take out my other feelings by other emotions about things that had nothing to do with him on him. That's the part that's entirely unfair in terms of what I did.

This particular example was also a time of early virality on the internet. I mean, you got a lot of attention for it. And I think that's where things started to turn in your own mind about what you were doing. It seems increasingly difficult to act ethically or morally, given the speed of the Internet and social media today, because the stuff that often does go viral is kind of mean spirited, it's often dunking on people and it's hard to get that horse back in the barn once it's taken off.

No question. I think it's harder than it's ever been in a couple of ways. It's harder because something hits the internet, it explodes, like you said, the horse is out of the barn before you can even blink. And ethics is a nuanced conversation. It's very rare that the answer of to any ethical question is black and white. And so the internet is not a place for nuance never has been and never will be. It's a place for immediacy and explosive, you know, hot take having. And so yeah, it's very hard. It's also hard because the internet allows us to know more and more and more stuff about more and more and more people that in the old days, meaning literally, you know, 2007, or something we didn't. We just didn't know as much about the world, we weren't constantly being told every single thing that's happening, every opinion everyone has ever had. People weren't going back 15, 20, 30 years and digging up articles that you wrote, or things that you did when you were 15, or whatever. So it's making it harder and harder, I think to have a good feeling about supporting anyone. Any person or thing or team owner or musician or artist or anything. They're all being exposed as low and behold flawed people because we are all flawed people. And the pendulum has swung very far in that direction. And now the question becomes, when this settles, how do we determine for ourselves what is forgivable and what isn't forgivable? And I think that's a really big question that we all have to answer. And it's a question that we're going to be grappling with for the rest of our lives.

In your life, that means figuring out what to do with all your Woody Allen DVDs.

That's right. Yes, I wrote about this in the book. And one of the chapters is about whether or not you can separate the art from the artist, essentially. And Woody Allen, for me, was an incredibly important figure. He was very, very formative, his sense of humor was very formative. And I, you know, then got to a point where I learned about and understood that he is a deeply flawed person. I went back and some of the movies he had written where, like “Manhattan,” for example, is a movie where he plays a 43-year-old guy who's in a intimate relationship with a 16-year-old and the 16-year-old is being played by Mariel Hemingway who was I believe, 16, or maybe 17 in real life. And suddenly, you're like, oh, boy, I don't….how did I ever think this was OK? Like, it's not. It's not okay that he wrote that story, that he acted that story, he kisses Mariel Hemingway in that movie. And in real life, it was the first time Mariel Hemingway had ever kissed another person. And it was with a 43-year-old, very famous Oscar-winning writer director. Like, that balance of power is not OK. And, you know, in the 1984, or whatever it was, people were sort of more OK with that than they are. Now if you did that now, I think people would be appropriately up in arms. And so I've had to grapple in my own life, not just with Woody Allen, but with a number of people who are really important to me, whose music and athletic achievements and art really helped form the person that I am. And I have to grapple every day as everyone does with how I feel about that. And what I do about that going forward is not an easy question. It's not a black and white question. It's very, very difficult, very tricky. And so that was honestly that was the hardest chapter to write in the book for me, because it's an ethical question we all face that has no obvious answer.

A lot of people use religion to frame their sense of right and wrong, and they feel that there's an omnipotent, you know, God sort of keeping score. Is it harder to think through these moral questions if you don't have faith in your mind?

I don't think it is, no. I mean, obviously, the insertion into your life of the promise of reward or punishment in the afterlife is a North Star, essentially, by which you can orient your own sense of ethics and morality. And I don't begrudge anyone that choice. I don't have that personally, I'm not part of any organized religion. And I think I probably care as much or more about my own behavior as just about anyone. So it's a little bit of a dealer's choice kind of a thing. Like I, I think if you care about your life on Earth, and you care about other people and you care about the way that you behave, you don't need something that's promised to you or is threatening you down the line. In order to be a good person, I think you just have to care about what you do and how you do it now. And I find that the judgments that are being made on me by the people around me are a pretty good motivator.

I want to be judged favorably and thought of favorably by my peers and my family and the people I work with, and anybody else a random person I encounter, you know, at a shopping mall in Los Angeles, I want all of the people that I interact with, to leave the interaction thinking that I'm a good person and that I care about other people. Is that achievable? No, of course not. I'm going to blow it all the time. I make mistakes constantly, I miscalculate. I cause pain and anguish and suffering in the same ways that everybody does in ways big and small. But my motivating factor is other people. It's not an omnipotent deity. And I that's just my personal choice. And again, I don't begrudge anybody having that stand in the place of, you know what I have, which is just the judgment of other people?

Is your approach unusual in Hollywood, which is sort of legendary for backstabbing and competition and so on?

You know, Hollywood gets a little bit of a bad rap, I think because is Hollywood full of backstabbing and terrible behavior? Of course, it is. It always has been, it probably always will be. But also so is every other industry. Like, I don't think that the, you know, the commercial banking industry is a bastion of generosity and kindness.

As you found out.

Yeah, that's right. So every you know, every industry has its problems. Hollywood is an industry that's centered around fame. And fame is its own particular animal when it comes to the way that people behave and what they value and how they go about their lives. And, and it can be very warping and very destructive. But again, it's not alone. Hollywood is the most famous industry that's like that. But that's only because you don't know the names of all of the senior executive vice presidents at Arthur Andersen Consulting in the same way that you know the names of famous actors and directors. I don't think my approach is unique. I think most of the people I've worked with care about being good people and want to be thought of that way and want to act in an ethical manner. It’s this just that you encounter a lot of very weird and warped behavior when so much money and fame and power is on the line as it is in Hollywood.

You were producing SNL’s Weekend Update right after September 11th. And I was wondering, given the prolonged, you know, national trauma that we've been through with COVID-19, what do you think the effect on comedy and comedy writing will be?

Well, it's hard to say I mean when September 11th happened, I was at SNL, and I had just taken over Weekend Update, like you say, and it was a real like, ‘Oh, man, like, what do we do here? How in the world are you supposed to make silly jokes about the news when the news is so scary?’ And the answer, you know, became, well, you just do what you've always done. Like you, you comb through the news, you look at the stories that are out there, you try to write jokes. Humor is a way that people can feel normal. Like if people can make jokes about something, you will feel like, OK, the world isn't ending. And I think you've seen a lot of the late night comedians and SNL just try to sort of make the best of it in moments of national strife, or trauma or pain. So I don't know, it's probably impossible to know, in the moment what the effect of something will be on comedy, you probably need to be five years clear of it, and then look back and understand it. Who knows? But I know that the goal is simply to sort of put one foot in front of the other and keep doing what you've been doing and make people who want to laugh a little bit feel like that's still possible. And I think that's what you've seen most of the shows and comedians doing over the last two years is like, alright, well, um, this, this stinks, but we're gonna we're going to try our best to just make jokes about it and let people feel a little better about their lives.

One of the few pandemic trends that I actually enjoyed was the Zoom reunion of beloved casts, including a special “Parks and Rec” reunion. Have you given any thought to possible future “Parks and Recreation” reunions of any type?

You know, we didn't ever think we would do anything like that. We sort of felt and by we, I really mean Amy and Nick Offerman and Aubrey Plaza and Rashida Jones and the whole cast, we were a very tight knit unit. We sort of had an unofficial rule on that show where everyone kind of got to vote for everything that we did. And if anybody felt like something wasn't the right thing to do, whatever that thing was, we sort of wouldn't do it. And you know, in conversations I had with Amy, especially Amy because she was the captain and I'm still is the captain, the de facto captain of the show, we always sort of felt like, you know, this show was of a time and place, it had a point to make about the way the world was between 2008 and 2014. And we felt like we sort of said our piece, and then we wrapped it up.

And I don't think that there was really ever any feeling that even as the world of reboots sort of took off, we never really felt like we were going to get back together and do a new round of shows or a new season or anything like that. It was only when NBC approached me and asked me if we would do something because suddenly they couldn't make anything and everything was shut down, and they didn't know what to do, that I thought like, Well, I would do this if it were a fundraiser for, in this case Feeding America, which is a nationwide series of food banks. I was like, well, I'll bet I'll bet everyone would get back together for that one more time. I was like, I don't know, but I'll ask and I, I sent out an email to the cast. And every single one of them responded within, I think, within 60 minutes. From all over the country, people were like, Yep, I'm in I'm in. So it took a very special and kind of unique situation for us to do something like that. My guess is that there won't be anything in the future. Because we just felt like we said what we wanted to say about the American political scene between 2008 and 2014.

I think if the show came back now it would have a very different feeling, it would have a very different mission, we wouldn't do it the same way. And once that's the case, well, then you start to think, what's the point of doing it. If it's a completely different show, with a different tone, a different mission statement, everything else? It's hard to see the reasoning behind actually executing it in a new way. So I'll never say never. And there may be other situations where it makes sense for us to do something again, but we don't have any immediate plans to do so. And I do think that the feeling amongst the cast and the writers was, we said what we wanted to say at the time we were saying it and now it's time for other shows to say whatever they want to say.

You're adapting “Field of Dreams” as a TV series, which seems pretty risky, because the movie is so beloved. So what's your vision for it? And why are you doing it?

Because Universal TV, where I've worked for almost 25 years now, came to me and asked me if I had any interest in it. I'm a huge baseball fan, I've never written about baseball, and I love that movie so much. I think it's a masterpiece. And I'm doing it in part because it sounded kind of hard. “The Good Place” was the was the first time I really had this line of thinking, which was like, Ooh, that's an interesting idea. But it sounds really hard. And the fact that it sounded hard made me want to do it, because it's like, well, that's exciting. And the challenge feels exciting and sort of thrilling to take on the same as “Field of Dreams.” Because it's such a great movie and because I love it so much, it feels scary. And so I took it on honestly for that reason, just because I admire it and respect it and revere it and because it sounds hard. So you know, I'm working on it. I've got a writers room up and running, and we are cracking all the episodes. And it won't be out until next year sometime in 2023. But I have very I have high hopes for it. I think, I think if we do it right, it could be really fun and, and kind of give people the same feeling that the movie gave them, which is you know, I think the reason that movie is so beloved is because of how you feel when you watch it, which is really warm and mystical and fuzzy and happy. So that's really my only goal is to give people the same feeling that they had when they watched the movie.

I can't wait to see it. Last thing, would it be possible for you to enjoy a trolley ride at this point in your life?

There are there are a number of philosophical thought experiments that involve trolleys for some reason. I don't know why, but there's a ton of them. And, you know, thankfully, because of those thought experiments are from like the 60s and 70s, you know, trolleys aren't really around anymore. I have been on trolley rides in San Francisco, we took our kids to San Francisco a few years ago, and we did the tourist thing of riding on a trolley and the whole time we were riding on it, I was like, oh boy, I hope there aren't five construction workers working on this track. And I hope that this trolley doesn't run out of control and threaten to kill someone and leave it up to me whether I pull a lever or not, because that's a lot of responsibility. So I think the answer is yes. But in a very limited and controlled way. I think I can still enjoy a good trolley ride.

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A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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