Are you a fan of Parks and Recreation, the bright-eyed NBC sitcom about life in a small-town government? Then why not treat yourself to some behind-the-scenes stories?
They’ll get you more amped up than a Mouse Rat concert at a Sweetums factory.
The first season didn’t go so great
In 2009, Parks and Recreation premiered with an abbreviated six-episode first season. And people… didn’t like it!
Critics called it an uninspired copy of The Office, and many found Amy Poehler’s character of Leslie Knope to be too flighty. So producers knew they had to change.
They dramatically retooled Leslie Knope, making her smart, type-A, less mean, and much more optimistic. And they solidified the tone and types for every other character. New York Magazine wound up calling it “the most impressive comeback in the history of broadcast comedy.”
The show borrowed from real life all over the place
Creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur researched local California politics, consulting with city planners and elected officials on how people in this capacity behaved. Ron Swanson was directly inspired by an official who told Schur, “I don’t really believe in the mission of my job.”
Writers also ripped real life political scandals from the headlines, localizing them for storylines. One episode featuring a government shutdown was directly inspired by the 2008 financial crisis. Also, real life politicians played themselves (including one memorable cameo from a Vice President whom Leslie had a crush on).
One memorable character is played by Poehler’s ex-husband
In season two episode “The Set Up,” Leslie goes on a blind date with Chris, a surreally rude and annoying MRI technician. They have anti-chemistry to the nth degree — all a fun meta-joke because he’s played by Will Arnett, of Arrested Development fame, married to Poehler at the time.
Arnett and Poehler had appeared in comedies together before, including in a failed marriage in Arrested Development, and as icky figure skating twins in Blades of Glory.
Sadly, they divorced in 2016 after having two children together. Poehler has since been linked with Parks and Rec guest star Nick Kroll.
Producers began the show before knowing what the show was
Daniels and Schur were fresh off The Office. They hired writers who wrote spec scripts of The Office. They used the same filming style as The Office. But one thing was for certain: It wasn’t an Office spinoff. So what was it?
They… didn’t know. But they had to start.
Aziz Ansari expressed his confusion when he heard about the project: “It could have been like, ‘Yeah, so it’s about you and Vin Diesel running a day care center together, and then at night you’re vigilantes, and you fight crime.’”
Once Poehler was signed, everything else started falling into place.
One cast member had an “off” relationship with the show
In seasons one and two, Mark Brendanawicz was the perfect cynical foil to Leslie’s bubbly optimism — never mind the fact that they had “a thing.” He was played with sneering perfection by Paul Schneider.
But Schneider was having difficulties with the show.
He mentioned in DVD commentaries that he didn’t know how to play the character because he didn’t know Mark’s motivations. By the end of season two, his character was written out of the show entirely — Schur said it was to account for Schneider’s film career. They never mentioned Mark again.
Aubrey Plaza got her role in a weird way
April Ludgate is everyone who’s ever had a job they don’t care about. She’s played by Aubrey Plaza with muted, deadpan perfection, even when she marries eternal puppy dog Andy Dwyer.
And you won’t believe how Plaza got the gig.
Casting director Allison Jones told Schur, “I just met the weirdest girl I’ve ever met in my life. You have to meet her and put her on your show.” Schur met Plaza, and said she “made me feel really uncomfortable for like an hour.” He custom-wrote her the part.
One star wasn’t supposed to be a star
Producers needed a crusade for Leslie to undergo. So they came up with a big ol’ pit, and a big ol’ goofball named Andy Dwyer to fall into it. He was played by a relatively unknown actor named Chris Pratt, and he was supposed to exit after season one.
But everyone loved Pratt so much, they promoted him to series regular in season two. Parks and Rec helped catapult Pratt to superstardom, and he now headlines franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World, and The Lego Movie.
All from a big ol’ pit.
Ron Swanson’s hobbies comes from real life
Sour on the outside, sweet on the inside, Ron Swanson believes in breakfast foods, small government, and not being friends with anyone. But did you know a couple of his components are based on his actor? Guess that adage of “write what you know” is true.
Nick Offerman, in real life, is a professional woodworker. He even has his own Los Angeles-based store, Offerman Wood Shop, where he sells his hand-crafted creations. So producers also made Swanson a woodworker.
Also, you’ll be pleased to know Offerman plays saxophone just like Duke Silver.
One of the Tammys has a personal connection
One of the wilder Ron Swanson mythologies comes from the women in his life, all named Tammy. His mother, “Tammy Zero” (Paula Pell), his first ex-wife, “Tammy I” (Patricia Clarkson), and his second ex-wife, “Tammy II” (Megan Mullally) all control him in different ways.
But only one controls Offerman.
He and Mullally, Tammy II, are married in real life. So when their characters engage in insane onscreen “physical activities,” it has an extra edge to those who know. They’ve also appeared together on Mullally’s NBC sitcom, Will & Grace, and have toured together in a live act.
So many regular cast members began as non-regulars
Schur liked Retta and Jim O’Heir so much, he cast them without knowing who they’d play. One joke in season two episode “Practice Date” solidified O’Heir’s Jerry as “the butt of the joke,” and Retta’s Donna got to “treat herself” with a more developed personality as the show went on.
Later additions to the cast were also planned as guest spots before developing into regulars. Billy Eichner started playing the loud and opinionated Craig Middlebrooks in season six before becoming regular the following season. And even mega-famous Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger was only supposed to have a couple episodes.
Some cast members wrote and directed your favorite episodes
Amy Poehler, in addition to starring, was also nominated for a dang Emmy for writing on the show. The nomination came for “The Debate,” an episode of monumental quality where Leslie debates Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd). Poehler wrote and directed several other episodes, including co-writing the series finale.
Beyond Poehler, Offerman wrote season four’s “Lucky” (featuring a memorably drunk Leslie Knope) and directed two other episodes. Adam Scott directed season six’s “Farmers Market,” which featured Andy’s debut of his children’s musician whirlwind alter ego, Johnny Karate. On the flipside, writers like Harris Wittels would make small performance cameos.
One character backstory came from an originally scrapped idea
When Schur and Daniels were developing the kernels of ideas that would become Parks and Rec, they kicked around a local politician trying to mount a comeback after a horrendous public scandal.
That was eventually back-pocketed… until the arrival of one character.
Adam Scott appeared as the TV-crush-ready Ben Wyatt in season two, eventually wedding Leslie and becoming her First Husband. And Schur knew he had the perfect character to apply the “public scandal” idea to. Wyatt had been a kid mayor of a town, before running it into the ground.
Its original title was changed for a curious reason
After Poehler was cast, NBC was ready to publicly announce the title of their brand new sitcom: Untitled Amy Poehler Sitcom!
Obviously, that had to eventually change. So Schur and Daniels decided on: Public Service. But that changed, too, for less obvious reasons.
When the New York Times discovered the final title would be Parks and Recreation, they asked NBC Entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman why. His response? “Can’t make fun of public service! Worried because we don’t want to seem mean about it.”
Guess they didn’t extend that same courtesy to Jerry.
The pit wound up being a bit of a pit
Schur and his writers’ original plan for the pit was to have it drive the narrative for the entire series, inspired by a real-life story they heard of a park that took 18 years to build. In the series finale, it would finally become a park. But plans changed.
By season two, Schur realized the pit had taken too much time and writer attention (plus, it required a 24-hour guard). He also thought audiences thought the show was only about “filling a pit.” So, they filled the pit in episode “Kaboom,” and moved on soon after.
Some surprising movies inspired the writers
What influences our greatest comedic minds? Other comedies? For Parks and Rec, not so much.
Schur and his crew drew from The Contender, a hard-boiled political drama about a female Vice President played by Joan Allen, to influence their story of a woman in the male-dominated field of politics.
When Leslie and Ben started falling in love, Schur watched The Remains of the Day, with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, and applied it to his characters. That movie features a love forbidden because of Hopkins being a butler — Schur felt that “government servitude” was Leslie’s “being a butler.”
The series was full of production problems
They began shooting the show in February of 2009 — just two months before it was supposed to air. So they started banging out nine pages a day — all dramatically quicker than most TV shows would dream of producing. On top of all that, Poehler became pregnant, causing production delays.
At the end of season two, Poehler became pregnant again, causing production to film six episodes of season three immediately after season two wrapped. And then, NBC delayed season three an entire year so they could try airing Outsourced in its spot instead.
History told us which sitcom won.
Beloved recurring characters often began as throwaways
In season three episode “Time Capsule” (featuring Will Forte arguing strongly about the Twilight series), a small joke is made about April’s goth friend Orin. Writers loved that detail so much, they actually cast him later (Eric Isenhower) and had him appear in several episodes.
Perd Hapley was similarly just going to be a newscaster for one episode. But actor Jay Jackson knocked the role so far out of the park, the writers kept bringing him back.
And for Jean-Ralphio, everyone’s favorite incompetent entrepreneur? Writers just wanted to play with Ben Schwartz.
Heartbreak inspired one of the series’ classic scenes
This may surprise you, but Parks and Recreations won zero Emmys during its seven-season run. One year, they were nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series. And while they were shooting a celebrity cameo sequence, they found out they didn’t win. Morale was low. But it caused Schur to act.
He walked off set, letting the rest of the crew and cast keep working. And he decided, then and there, to write the scene where Ben proposes to Leslie. AKA one of the series’ best, most heartwarming, most astonishing, and still funniest scenes.
You ask us, they still won.
One season finale used an unorthodox technique
Season four saw the show tackling a long, fruitful arc: Leslie Knope running for city council. Obviously, she was the better candidate than Paul Rudd’s dumber-than-dumb Bobby Newport. But that didn’t mean she had it in the bag.
Not even when they filmed the finale.
Producers actually shot three different fates for Leslie — one where she wins, one where she loses, and one where she ties with Bobby. In other words, the exact paths of the episode title: “Win, Lose, or Draw.” Schur wanted flexibility — and to avoid spoilers from leaking.
Two different actors auditioned for a role that didn’t exist
Before Offerman was perfectly cast as Ron Swanson, he auditioned for a character named Josh, who you might remember as “a character that does not exist.” It was Rashida Jones’ original love interest, later turned into Mark. Offerman didn’t get the role because he — gulp — wasn’t “handsome” enough.
Adam Scott also auditioned for the show reading the same scenes as Offerman. And, in his own words: “I actually kind of blew it, and so I was obviously pretty upset—I really wanted to be a part of it from the beginning.” Luckily, he was eventually cast him as Ben.
Adam Scott is TOO GOOD AT ACTING
When performing a particularly tough scene with Poehler, like when Leslie and Ben got into an argument, Scott would commit hard. So hard, that when cameras cut, Poehler would take him aside and ask, “Are you mad at me?”
Scott’s tongue-in-cheek response? “No, dummy, I’m acting.”
Scott was on another critically-acclaimed comedy series at the time of his casting, the catering-set Party Down. Like Parks and Rec, that show boasted an incredible ensemble cast (including Megan “Tammy II” Mullally), incisive scripts, and kinda low ratings. It was cancelled after two seasons.
One wild scene was completely improvised
When you’re on a TV show long enough, you start to know your castmates intimately well. So when Poehler wrote “The Debate,” there was a sequence where Pratt’s Andy entertains some guests by reenacting the Patrick Swayze cult classic Road House. How do you think Poehler wrote this out?
It was simple: “Pratt talks about Road House.”
Everything else that happened on screen — even Pratt smashing the TV — was completely improvised by that charming madman. This wasn’t the first time Pratt went off the rails improvising — he would often surprisingly strip nude for scenes earlier in the series run.
Two cast members became real good friends
Before booking the role on Parks and Rec, Ansari attended the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre, which was co-founded by Poehler. And as luck would have it, they became even closer friends upon filming.
Poehler’s children once saw Ansari eating a turkey sandwich, and gave him the perfect nickname: Turkey Sandwich.
Once, during the filming of the first season, Ansari managed to get himself stuck underneath a shelf in his trailer, which is objectively the funniest thing ever. He emailed Poehler on his phone, who came and helped — right after she took a pic and sent it to the whole crew.
Poehler’s reasons for loving Leslie are adorable
In a panel celebrating the show’s 10th anniversary, Poehler said she related to Leslie’s optimism and ambition, with a couple key differences: “I’m lazier and more cynical and more checked out than she is.” She summed up Leslie’s appeal perfectly: “What’s cool about her is there’s nothing cool about her.”
Since Parks and Rec ended in 2015, Poehler has directed her first movie, Wine Country. She also reprised her Wet Hot American Summer role in two separate Netflix series. And, she reunited with Offerman to co-host Making It, a competition show about craftsmen.
An iconic part of the set happened for legal reasons
In the show’s first season, Ron Swanson had a picture of famed basketball coach Bobby Knight hanging in his office. Ron even delivered a speech about Knight at the end of the pilot. But when NBC had to remove the poster for legal reasons, producers needed an alternate solution.
Crew members started Googling pictures of other things Ron would like. And they found an anonymous brunette eating breakfast food. And that perfect picture is what hung in his office the rest of the show. Offerman loved it so much, he wanted to take it home after the series wrapped.
NBC straight up lied about a key wedding
At the end of third season episode “Ron & Tammy: Part Two,” another dissection of that ex-couple’s toxic relationship, NBC aired a curious promo, imploring viewers to go online and check out Andy and April’s wedding registry.
But wait — Andy and April weren’t married. Did NBC just spoil an upcoming story?
The network said it was an honest mistake, meant to jokingly refer to Ron and Tammy’s wedding registry. A writer put in the wrong names.
But: That was a bald-faced lie. The promo was performed as intended, it was just meant to accompany Andy and April’s upcoming wedding episode.
The last season’s big choice came from a strange request
In its seventh and final season, Schur and his team turned heads by jumping ahead two years after the sixth season. The premiere episode, “2017,” said it all, existing two years in the future of its airdate.
What prompted this curious comedy structural shift?
Well, at the end of season six, Leslie and Ben have triplets. In real life, Poehler had just had her second child, and was a little tired of dealing with small children. She kindly requested if they could skip over raising babies, and two years into the future they went.
The head writer’s favorite line is not a line anyone wrote
Schur had his pick of the litter when assembling his writers’ room. The best and brightest comedic talents handcrafted perfect jokes, garnering regular praise from cast and critic alike. But one of Schur’s all-time favorite jokes of the entire series was a straight up improvisation from Pratt.
Season three’s “Flu Season” is one of the GOAT episodes. As everyone gets sick, everyone gets a chance to shine. At one point, Andy types Leslie’s symptoms into WebMD, and tells her it says she might have “network connectivity problems.” An incredible joke from the mind of Pratt.
Producers chose the theme song unusually
There were only three weeks until the Parks and Rec premiere. And they didn’t have a theme song.
So music company BMI sent out a mass email to composers, telling them they had five days to submit. The winners? Gaby Moreno and Vincent Jones, who were nominated for an Emmy.
Schur picked this track of all the others because it represented the American heartland to him. He thought it summed up Pawnee in a matter of seconds, and complimented the bright and cheery optimism of Leslie.
Moreno has gone on to release several independent singer-songwriter albums.
Two cast members met in a very odd way
While their on-screen characters eventually became close, Poehler and Offerman’s first meeting was… interesting.
It was 1993, and Poehler was startled to meet a young actor who had RED HORNS SHAVED INTO HIS HEAD.
Now, Offerman was in an independent theatre production of A Clockwork Orange. But still!
Offerman was everyone’s first and immediate choice for Ron. But before Parks and Rec came into his life, he played a memorably naked role in HBO’s Deadwood. Offerman also auditioned for Michael Scott when The Office first began.
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