'Emmy Watch' interviews with Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, and Parks and Rec exec producer Mike Schur
Season 4 of NBC’s Parks and Recreation revealed more about the extravagant taste of Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) — both at work, with his doomed business venture Entertainment 720, and at home, with his Diamond Collection bed and breakfast amenities. “It’s always just kinda like, ‘Well, where did he get all this money from to buy all this stuff? It’s never really quite explained,” Ansari says with a laugh. “That’s the fun with all the characters in our show: They’re all very different from what you normally see on TV. They’re weirder than most TV characters, but the more you see into their world, the funnier it is.”
To that end, season 4 also taught us about the things Tom considers potential deal breakers in a relationship. No. 3 on his “Oh-no-nos” list: Not loving ’90s R&B music. He was shocked when Ann (Rashida Jones) didn’t know who Ginuwine is after Donna (Retta) shared that he’s her cousin. Watch a clip below. Ansari takes us inside the scene, which just might help you understand why you and Ann like wannabe playa Tom (even if it’s against your better judgment).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why is this scene one of your favorites?
AZIZ ANSARI: When you have a character that you’re playing so much, it’s fun to create interests for them and things you imagine they really like, and then, whenever it’s appropriate, you bring them up. Early on, I decided he’s gonna be really into clothes, and I’d always thought he would be really into ’90s R&B for some reason. So anytime a scene has come up where those interests needed to be put on display, I have go-tos of what I know he likes, in my head anyway. I got that script and the whole thing about Ginuwine was so funny to me because my brother has always thought that song “Differences” was so funny. In the video, he’s sittin’ on a chair and the lyrics are just so heartfelt [sings] “My whole life has changed.” I thought that was such a funny specific for Tom, and then the absurdity of him being Donna’s cousin. It’s like, I guess that could happen? [Laughs] It was just kinda funny that they just went for it. “Yes, he’s going to be Donna’s cousin.” I thought it was so funny to get to play how freaked out Tom would be that Ginuwine was Donna’s cousin. It’s not like Usher. Ginuwine isn’t the most famous R&B player ever but Tom’s world just like explodes. He can’t believe that he’s only so many people removed from someone he respects that much.
EW: It was just last week, right, that you and Conan O’Brien serenaded a member of his audience with “Differences.”
AA: Yeah. [Laughs] I was in Chicago and they were doing shows there and we came up with that bit. I was like, “Oh, it would be funny if I serenaded someone. There’s no song that makes me laugh more than ‘Differences.’ Let’s do ‘Differences.’ I thought it would be a subtle nod to any Parks fans that picked up on it.”
EW: Parks and Rec EP Mike Schur has told EW in the past that you’re very good at knowing where the line is keeping Tom funny but not sleazy. Where is that line for you?
AA: I kinda know it when I see it or feel it. If we get a script and something feels a little bit too much, I always go up to Mike or the writers. It’s important to keep Tom likable. You want him to be a loveable goofball more than a sleazy dude that you don’t want to be around. The trick to that character is to be able to get away with a lot stuff that you wouldn’t normally be able to get away with, selling it with a certain charm. Maybe if someone else said that stuff you’d be like, ” Oh my god, get this guy out of here!” but for some reason, because he says it with a smile, it’s able to kind of work. With that whole Tom-Ann story line, it’s about toeing that line. She knows he’s kind of an idiot, but she’s somewhat charmed by his antics and sees a sweetness underneath. With Ann’s character, the reason she’s with him in some of those episodes is she’s seen glimpses of what he’s really like when he removes all of the bravado. She knows that silly stuff is ultimately coming from a good place. He’s just kinda dumb. [Laughs]
EW: Do you know what Tom and Ann’s status will be in season 5?
AA: I don’t know anything about next season. I haven’t had a chance to talk to the writers about what they have planned, and we won’t get the script until we go back in August. I’m excited to see what they do.
EW: Anything you’re hoping for?
AA: I’m very lucky to work on a show with amazing writers and producers. I trust them to do a good job.
Four seasons into NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Nick Offerman has turned burly libertarian Ron Swanson into one of TV’s most well-defined characters. It’s impossible to read the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness and not hear his voice in your head, which makes it easy to take Offerman’s deadpan performance for granted. Perhaps that’s why we’re hoping Emmy voters revisit the September 2011 episode “Ron and Tammys,” in which Ron’s first ex-wife, Tammy 1 (guest star Patricia Clarkson), turns him into the anti-Ron Swanson (a “neutered wimp,” to borrow Leslie Knope’s words). Watch a clip below. Offerman reflects on his transformation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When it comes to Ron’s backstory, how much input do you have with the show’s writers?
NICK OFFERMAN: I have input in a very loose, general way. Like with [season 4's] Pawnee Rangers: For years, I’ve been convincing the writers of the validity of a scouting episode. I said, “You gotta give Ron a troop of scouts.” Or when we coached the boys’ basketball teams [in season 2], that was also at my urging. In this case, they wrote the line early on, “I have two ex-wives, both of them are named Tammy, and they’re both bitches.” When we came up with Tammy 2 [played by Offerman's real-life wife, Megan Mullally], we knew eventually we would probably meet Tammy 1. So there’s been a lot of discussion about Tammy 1, and also Ron’s mom, Tammy [played by Paula Pell]. But by and large, my input ends when they go into the writers’ room and flesh out the stories.
EW: What did you think when you first read Ron’s history with Tammy 1?
NO: I loved the perversity of her being my Sunday school teacher [Laughs] and a candy striper at the hospital when I was born [Laughs]. I loved the way that that’s kind of gross but also sexy in a twisted hot-for-teacher way. Patricia was the perfect person to cast. When her name came up, I was just over the moon because she’s always been an absolute hero of mine in the business. Only because she had [already] told me what a big fan of the show she is did I even think it was a possibility. She was initially trepidacious about saying yes, because she loves the show so much she didn’t want to ruin her perception of it in any way. Or like any actor, she was like, “Oh no, I don’t know if I could be on your show, it’s so great.” [Laughs] I’m like, “I think you’ll be okay, Patricia.” [Megan and I] actually just recently had drinks with her in New York. Sitting at a table with Megan and Patricia, I just can’t believe what a lucky son of a b—- I am to get to play somebody who had been married to both of those powerhouses.
EW: Tammy 1 prefers Ron clean shaven. Did the cast and crew treat you differently without Ron’s trademark mustache?
NO: Yeah, everyone was really freaked out. There was a real sense of having shorn Samson of his locks. And it really felt sacrilegious. That was by far the hardest, strangest thing I’ve had to do as Ron Swanson. Maybe it was predicated by the scene in [the season 3 episode] “Ron and Tammy II” when Ron lost half his mustache and had to get cornrows. To have him be clean shaven, wearing an Easter shirt, and turned into a little boy was so bizarre and foreign. And it was so hard to speak dialogue as Ron Swanson without a big mustache. Certain consonants didn’t feel right without a huge bristle brush impeding their exit from my mouth. Just the things Ron had to say — the cute way that he talks to his coworkers as well as Tammy 1 on the phone when he calls her [Laughs] — it was really hard to speak that dialogue without getting nauseous. The writing is like a big old aunt throwing her blousy arms around you and embracing you.
EW: But you don’t break character easily.
NO: No, I’m known for maintaining my stiff deadpan. I usually don’t laugh when I’m involved. The time when people get me is when I’m a bystander in a scene. Chris Pratt can really lay me out with something out of left field.
EW: At one point, Leslie (Amy Poehler) slaps Ron. Did she make contact?
NO: Yeah. Amy and I have the kind of relationship where we’re both old school hardcore entertainers, and so I don’t think it was even discussed. She just said, “Let’s see, the camera’s there… Alright, I’m gonna slap you right there.” And then boom. And I have to say we did a couple more takes of that scene than I would have cared for. I think I probably got slapped eight times. [Laughs]
EW: In the end, Leslie, Tammy 1, and Ron’s mother fight for Ron in an “old-fashioned prairie drink-off” involving Swanson family mash liquor. I feel like you have a good real-life moonshine story for me.
NO: It doesn’t play out like a great piece of storytelling, but I did a great play when I was in Chicago called The Kentucky Cycle. It’s the Pulitzer-Prize winning piece of drama, seven hours long, and I won a Chicago Jeff Award for it [in 1997]. It was one of the most epic theater experiences I’ve ever had. And on opening night, our director had gone to Kentucky and gotten us all a jar of corn liquor. And they tell me I had a very good time that night. I may or may not have sired a few children and definitely woke up in a strange apartment without any trousers.
EW: Yes, that’ll do. Ron also has tender moments with Leslie. Are those something you and the writers think carefully about?
NO: I think with every ingredient in the meal that we cook up week after week, they generally take care not to overuse any of our tastier spices. Just like the moments when Ron is hilariously macho or hilariously unfeeling, the moments when he’s touchingly heartwarming, we definitely try to keep them far between so that they maintain a strong impact.
EW: Which heartwarming moment stood out for you this season?
NO: The one that comes to mind is in the finale when Leslie’s disappeared, and I go find her in the city council chamber trying out her chair and Ron has to admit that he cares about her. We did it a bunch of different ways where, kinda like the Fonz never used to be able to say, “I’m sorry,” Ron really struggled with the words “We’re your friends. We care about you.” I think it was more effective in some takes where I would take a pretty good size pause before I could say the word “care,” but probably for time, [Laughs] they had to use a shorter pause.
EW: Viewers got so invested in Leslie’s campaign. Like, I had to fast forward when it looked like she was losing the debate because I needed to know it would turn out okay. A lot of people got teary-eyed when she finally won the election. I love when a comedy makes me care that much about a character. That’s special.
NO: I agree. It gets my every time, too.
EW: You’ve teared up watching the show?
NO: [Exec producer] Mike Schur is such a master of making me cry. When he delivers me personal news like, “You’ve got the job of Ron Swanson,” or when they handed me the script that had the Pyramid of Greatness in it — I read that scene and burst into tears because I can’t believe I’m the lucky bastard on the receiving end of this writing. I would love to see Mike Schur win a trophy more than anybody. I’m really hopeful on the show’s behalf. I think it would be nice to be recognized this year as the best comedy on TV. I feel like it’s been a little bit of a long time in coming, but I haven’t heard anybody with anything to say about the show besides it’s the best thing on TV. [Laughs]
EW: Looking ahead, what would you like to see happen for Ron Swanson in season 5 this fall?
NO: Mike and I have been talking about what’s happening with everybody next season. Each character is gonna have a new exciting life change. Leslie is gonna have the city council job. Ben Wyatt [played by Adam Scott] will take this job in Washington, D.C. I feel like they were hinting at Andy maybe getting involved in some sort of police work or going to the academy. [Laughs] I shudder to imagine Andy with a firearm. But we’re hoping to maybe see a new relationship develop for Ron. One thing Ron’s never succeeded at is maintaining a happy romantic relationship for any length of time. Maybe we’ll get to explore that a little bit.
In EW.com’s annual Season Finale Awards, readers voted Parks and Recreation‘s season 4 ender the episode most likely to earn someone an Emmy — that person being Amy Poehler. Parks and Recreation exec producer Michael Schur, who thinks there are about a dozen episodes from last season that could do that for Poehler, would obviously love that. “It’s very important to me that people know she’s never won an Emmy before,” Schur says. “I watched this happen with Steve Carell. I think if you ask the average person on the street how many Emmys Steve Carell won for playing Michael Scott, they would probably say, ‘I don’t know. Nine?’ The answer is zero, and it bummed me out deeply. Everyone who worked on that show with Steve feels this way. And now Amy is kinda in this weird similar position where she’s been nominated a bunch of times, and she’s been so good at what she’s done for so long, that I think everybody just assumes she’s been properly rewarded for that and she hasn’t. I hope this is the year that changes.”
Could 2012 also bring the show, which broke into the Best Comedy category last year, its first Emmy as well? Below, Schur takes us inside the episode he hopes voters will revisit.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why is “The Debate” an episode voters should revisit?
MICHAEL SCHUR: The main reason obviously is that it was a true Amy Poehler joint. She wrote it, directed it, and obviously starred in it. We put a tremendous amount of pressure on the episode. [Laughs] We knew we had Paul Rudd in the middle and then we were gonna get him for a couple at the end, so in order to increase the anticipation of his return, Leslie said to his campaign manager, played by Kathryn Hahn, “We’re gonna have a debate soon, and when we do, I’m gonna kick your opponent’s ass.” A huge setup, generally speaking, isn’t really a good idea because it means you really have to deliver something special if you call out how big a deal the episode is gonna be. But we did that. And it was her directorial debut. It was the biggest production we did all year. There were 400 extras, six cameras, crane shots, night shoots, and stunts — Ron Swanson climbed a telephone pole. It was a massive production and like everything she does, she pulled it off effortlessly. She prepped super hard. She watched that documentary The War Room about the Clinton campaign. We broke the story as a group, as we always do. In the outline, it was like, “So the debate is going well, and then this thing happens and this thing happens, and at the end, Leslie makes a big speech and it really moves everybody to tears emotionally and she saves the day.” Okay, go! [Laughs] There wasn’t a single pitch about what the content of that speech should be. That speech that Leslie gives at the end of the debate in that incredibly high-pressure moment is exactly Amy’s first draft. We did not change a single word of it from the moment she wrote it to the moment it aired, which is extremely rare in TV. You rewrite everything.
EW: And Paul Rudd’s reaction to her speech is priceless.
MS: That’s another reason why I would love people to watch it again. Paul gives such an amazing performance. There’s no scene of him behind-the-scenes. He’s only able to convey what’s going on in his character’s weird little brain in the context of the debate. He does such a great job of conveying a guy who is out of his depth, but is kinda trying hard, and has been drilled really hard by his people but he doesn’t fully understand what he’s saying. [Laughs] At the very end, it made us laugh so hard that he comes up and celebrates with Leslie as if this is something they accomplished together. And then he runs off the stage awkwardly in a way that indicates that he’s not even smart enough to understand how exits work.
EW: I’ve watched Amy’s director’s cut on Hulu, and there is footage of Bobby (Rudd) behind-the-scenes. Leslie and Ben go to find him and get in his head and he’s on the floor in the fetal position.
MS: We shot that, for exactly that reason, to be able to show that this guy’s in big trouble. But the episode had so much good stuff in it, we had to cut like nine minutes or something, and that was one of the casualties. One of the biggest reasons I think it’s maybe our best episode of the season is it gives everyone in the cast a chance to shine. Everyone has a big moment. Andy reenacts the movies for people. Nick Offerman sings “Wichita Lineman” at the top of a telephone pole. Aziz Ansari, Rob Lowe, and Rashida Jones have their story line where Tom makes a huge play for Ann. I think that’s when our show is best, when everyone in our large cast gets a chance to stand out.
EW: Let’s talk about Andy’s movie reenactments. How did those come about?
MS: We came up with the idea that Andy didn’t pay the cable bill, so when they tried to watch the debate on TV, there was no TV. I can’t remember who pitched the idea, but it was that he was trying to entertain people and distract them by reenacting his favorite movies. Again, this is like a perfect storm of goodness from our show: Amy went to Pratt and said, “If Andy were going to reenact a movie for people, what would it be?” And he said, Road House immediately. So she then went and watched Road House and like started to write Andy’s recap. Then she said to herself, “Why am I doing this? Pratt said Road House so quickly, that I’m sure all I have to do is go record him actually doing it, and then I’ll get the perfect Andy reenactment.” So she did that and essentially transcribed what Pratt really said in their dressing room. Which is a genius move as a writer — if you have the actor to write your scene for you, by all means do it. And then, even better was that Pratt, when he was reenacting it that day, he then added four or five things that were even funnier than what he said originally. Like there’s a moment when he clarifies what is subtext and what is not subtext. And then we always like to get a lot of alternatives for the jokes, so Amy asked him on set for one more movie Andy would do, and he said, “I would do Rambo.” But like the most recent Rambo, which Chris Pratt vehemently insists is the best Rambo movie. It’s very important for him to tell people that that’s actually the best Rambo movie. So it was the perfect mix of writer/director Amy knowing exactly how to use this amazing comedy machine that is Chris Pratt, and then Pratt turning that machine up to 11.
EW: I kinda wanted to see him do more of Babe.
MS: I had the same feeling. There was no more of it. That was the actual scripted line, that when you come back to him, he’s just finished Babe. But I thought, Ah, I really want to see how Andy would emotionally relate Babe to me. Which I think is a good sign, right? Leave people wanting more.
EW: In addition to Amy, Chris, and Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman also made our critic’s Emmy Wish List. When I chatted with Nick, he told me you have this wonderful way of making him cry. He said he cried when you handed him the script that included the Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness. Should I believe him?
MS: I believe that’s true. I believe I’ve seen him cry several times. Nick is like a writer and showrunner’s dream. First of all, he’s just a wonderful human being. He also is just incredibly grateful for being able to play this role. He’s been a little bit of a square peg in a lot of different round holes. This part was obviously designed for him, and he settled into it immediately. He’s so happy playing the part and being a part of the team that he will just come and hang out in the writers’ room or on the set when he’s not even shooting. That’s a very rare thing anywhere, a person who loves his or her job so much that he or she goes to that job when he or she doesn’t have to. I remember he got very emotional and weepy on the night our series premiere aired because it was suddenly real. Sometimes he’ll call me and leave me a voice mail that’s just two minutes of him telling me happy how he is, and how great he thinks the show is, and how grateful he is to be a part of this. I play them for my wife, who’s also a writer, and she thinks it’s a bit or something. She can’t believe that it’s real, that someone would be that sincere and grateful and humble and emotional. It’s really who he is, and it’s amazing.
EW: One moment I’ve always wanted to talk to you about is actually from last season, when Ben first told Andy that he has feelings for Leslie and Andy’s response is “You’ve chosen well.” That’s not what one of Liz Lemon’s coworkers would have said about her. I just love that Leslie is actually appreciated.
MS: We take great pains in all the episodes to show how much her friends’ happiness means to her and the crazy lengths that she’ll go to to help her friends when they’re in trouble. Like when Ron is in trouble with his ex-wives, she’ll throw herself on a number of different grenades for him. In the first ever Ron and Tammy episode, Ron saw that happen and it really affected him. It laid the foundation for the rest of their relationship. Part of the theme of the show is if you’re that kind of person, that will come back and help you. That was the whole design of last season for us: When she was in a crisis and her campaign managers pulled out, her friends said, “Screw it, we’ll help you.” That’s the essence of who the character is and the world she inhabits: She’s a person who is so genuinely mindful of the people around her and wants so badly to help them succeed and achieve their goals and dreams that she’s now in a situation where there’s no length to which her friends will not go for her. It’s a little bit of a friend fantasy. [Laughs] She’s what everyone wishes their best friend could be like.
EW: Last but not least, let’s talk about Leslie’s relationship with Ben. I’ll find myself rewinding scenes, like the one in the finale when he tells Leslie he never wrote her a concession speech, just because a smile on Adam Scott’s face looked so genuine. You believe Ben loves Leslie, and there’s no question that she deserves that love — which feels rare for a female on a sitcom.
MS: He’s a very intuitive performer, and I think he very early on figured out what kind of guy this was and what kind of lady Leslie was, and how it would be that he would fall for her. My favorite line, it’s a tiny moment that probably flew right by most people, is in the Valentine’s Day episode. Leslie has set up this insane scavenger hunt for him that has like 25 clues spread all over the city that are incredibly difficult to decipher, and Ben’s rushing around with Andy and Ron trying desperately to solve this incredible Leslie puzzle before he’s supposed to meet her for dinner. When they get to JJ’s Diner, the end of the clue says like “Only 22 clues left to go.” Ben says, “22? God. Come on, Leslie, give me break.” Then he says to no one, “Well, this is the woman I have chosen to love.” Her insanity and her intensity is what he loves about her. It’s why he’ll do things like the scavenger hunt, which is important to her.
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