"Parks and Recreation" Came Back Tonight

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Parks and Recreation Scooplet: Guess Who Is Getting a Twitter Account?
“There’s a little bit of art imitating life for my character this season,” Parks and Recreation’s Retta reveals to Vulture. In case you weren’t aware, the comedian, who plays the parks department employee Donna, has become famous on Twitter for telling like it is when it comes to what she’s watching on TV. Jezebel has already dubbed her The Best TV Recapper on the Internet, and series boss Mike Schur told us that the writers cooked up a storyline inspired by Retta’s very popular real-life ramblings (available at @unfoRETTAble), which are eagle-eyed and merciless when it comes to prime time’s dodos. And so, Donna’s getting a Twitter account. Several episodes into Parks’ new season (premiering September 20), she will sound off about a new (fake) movie 140 characters at a time. Retta says her alter ego has questionable taste. “I’ve watched the movie [she will be tweeting about]. It’s really bad, but Donna loves it,” she says, adding that she's pretty excited to come up with the colorful tweets. “The writers are gonna let me do some of my own lines. People who know me will think it’s hilarious.” Sadly, there are no plans yet for Donna’s Twitter account to exist in the real world.

Retta is currently tweet-capping the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and she’s really not a Faith fan). But, like us, she’s dying to resume the love-hate relationship she has with her favorite punching bag and NBC sibling Smash. “I’m pretty excited,” she says. “Jennifer Hudson’s gonna be on and I wanna see if there will be some diva action between her and Megan Hilty. I didn’t like Ivy so much all cracked out. ‘Uhhh, settle down.’ But when she was just a bitch? That’s my favorite. I love to hate people.

"Parks and Recreation" breakout character Ron Swanson is the widely beloved, heavily quoted backbone of the series, which returns September 20. Here, actor Nick Offerman talks to Co.Create about how the character was originally conceived and how he and the writers rubbed off on each other.

It seems unlikely that the breakout character on personality-driven ensemble sitcom Parks and Recreation, which is anchored by comedic heavyweights Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari, would be the one played by journeyman actor Nick Offerman. But it’s true; Poehler’s Leslie Knope may be the heart and soul of the show, but Offerman is its Ron Fu@king Swanson.

The eminently quotable Ron Swanson is a unique specimen on television. He is the epitome of masculinity, without being a caricature. He has pronounced political views, without being preachy. He has a mighty, walrus-like mustache.

Like all great sitcom characters, Ron Swanson gets laughs for behaving in a way that the audience recognizes he would behave. We know this man. The writers have given him facets on top of facets. Part of the appeal, though, seems to have been built into Nick Offerman already--the commanding tone, the easily narrowed eyes, the almost preternatural calm and rare fits of maniacal glee. The truth is that the character is an ongoing collaboration between the actor and the show’s creators.

Offerman is busy these days, with upcoming roles in Smashed and Someone Up There Likes Me, as well as his one-man show American Ham at UCLA on September 29th. However, Co.Create caught up with the multi-talented actor recently to find out how much of Ron Swanson is him, how much had to be invented, and how he landed the role of a lifetime.

The creators originally had me in for another part and it seemed like we all really got along, and they let me know that they really wanted me on the show. NBC didn’t like me in the part that they had me in. There was maybe a lot of buzz around this new character, though, and fortunately for me, as soon as the part hit the table, they turned it in with my name on it. Then it took 4-5 months for NBC to agree to it.

There were a few broad strokes to Ron at first--they knew he was a libertarian who worked in the government, and they were going to mine comedy out of his reticence to get anything done as the administrator of the Parks and Rec department. Once my personality came into the mix, they then took some of the many attributes that I bear, that one might call “jackass attributes” and said, “Here’s a funny person--this guy has some real jackass qualities that we can paint into the character with these personality traits.”

They created the show very organically, I think. Aziz [Ansari] and Aubrey [Plaza] and even Amy [Poehler] to an extent, were cast first, and then they sort of built parts around them. For the rest of the roles, they had a similar construction technique. My first meeting with Mike Schur, one of the two creators, about Ron Swanson, we almost opened the meeting by saying, “Well, this guy has a kickass mustache.” And I don’t usually wear a mustache. I think Mike had once seen me at an audition for The Office with a mustache, so that was where we started.

There was a side of my demeanor--I’m not always stoic and expressionless like Ron, but sometimes I am. So I think Mike took that plainspoken, no-bullshit side of me, and liked that color a lot. They found it incredibly hilarious that someone would have a wood shop and make things out of wood for fun so they laced that into the character. But you know, I feel like it’s a hard thing to put your finger on. It’s more just general feelings from our personalities, but by and large, most of the gold that was spun on this show comes from the brilliant minds of the writers.

To my knowledge, they came up with the idea and the whole rounded personality of Duke Silver and his seminal albums Hi Ho Duke, Smooth as Silver, and Memories of Now, completely unaware that I spent my entire youth as a jazz saxophone player. When they sprung the idea on me, I asked whether they knew I played tenor sax and they had no idea.
It was a beautiful marriage of their imaginations and my real life. It’s one of my absolute favorite attributes of the character.

Another thing is, when I get on a job, one of the first things people say is, “Can we work Megan [Mullally, Offerman’s wife] into this? We happen to know you’re married to one of the comic legends of our day--do you think she might come on our show?” And so that came up quickly at Parks and Rec, and it wasn’t long before they came up with the idea of my crazy bitch ex-wives named Tammy. So Mike Schur came to me and said “We have this horrible, crazy bitch who’s a librarian--do you think that Megan would do it?” And I put it to her like that, and she said, “Yes. Can I take my top off?”


At the end of the audition process, my last step was to do a couple of scenes improvising with Amy as our two characters. And I think a lot of the dynamic between us two was born of those two improvised scenes. They started the ball rolling, they created the frame of the character, then us two clowns sit down and say “Okay, here’s our take on what you provided us,” and everyone else goes “Oh, that’s funny. So let’s make a show.”

There are a few of us who are always tossing out pitches. Wherever we can, it’s collaborative, so if one of us has an idea for a funny line or a funny notion for another character, we’re welcome to mention it to one another. It’s just a fun game of how can we make everything the funniest.

In the script it’s surprisingly simple. [The specific faces Ron makes.] If you’re a fan of the show, as we are, when you read the script, you get it. When Leslie puts Ron in a situation where he does the decent thing despite himself, everyone knows Ron, so they know that would not be his inclination. At most you’ll get a sentence of description, like “Ron chews his mustache” but they never go so far as to say “Ron looks surprised at the outcome of the story.”

Mike Schur asked me over the summer whether I wanted to write an episode, and I’d secretly been dreaming about it. I knew that I was scared, as anyone in their right mind would be, but I knew I had the safety net of Mike Schur and his roomful of writers to save me if I should stray outside of the line in any direction too far. That gave me the comfort to just sit back and take these characters and this world, like the coolest set of toys anybody ever had and I just got to play with these toys, and it just made it so much fun to put words in the mouths of all these characters that I love.

I grew up in a very decent country family in the middle of Illinois, so instead of writing myself a big, huge storyline, I laid off of Ron because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being too narcissistic in my script--giving myself all the fun. So much so that the network mentioned they wanted some more to happen, so after I finished my first draft, it was suggested that we add in the part where Ron ends up getting the girl at the end of the episode. That’s not what originally was going to happen.

As for having him eat a lot of meat, well, that’s just where we start. It kind of goes without saying. You might as well write, “Ron takes a breath of oxygen and exhales.”

Nick Offerman On 'Parks And Recreation' Season 5, Lucy Lawless And Ron Swanson Fan Art
Ron Swanson is getting some lovin' during Season 5 of "Parks & Recreation" and Nick Offerman is excited about his new love interest. Just who can romance Ron and not be named Tammy? None other than Xena herself, Lucy Lawless.

"It's so funny," Offerman told The Huffington Post during a phone interview. "When we came down to figuring out who it was going to be, we realized that the world of popular culture had been creating the perfect candidate for many years: the female champion of the universe."

Lawless is joining the cast as a single mom who catches Ron's eye, but that's not the only change for the new season. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is now part of the Pawnee City Council, leaving Ron to pick up her slack in the parks department. It's safe to say there's a new dynamic this year. Read on to see what Offerman had to say about the changes and what's in store for his beloved character.

Congratulations on getting a new love interest who is not named Tammy.
Thank you! Yes, it's very exciting.

I talked to Lucy back in February and she said she was up for the role of Tammy 1, but "Spartacus" got in the way. I'm really excited she's finally able to be on the show.
That makes two of us.

She's in how many episodes?
I'm not sure, honestly. I know at least three or four. I'm not positive because it's an ongoing -- we make it up as we go along. I'm not sure what her contract says, but hopefully 28. [Laughs.]

What's it been like shooting? It's a new dynamic for Ron.
It is, honestly. Having Ron have a chance at something real actually made me kind of nervous in the scenes because it was a new side of Ron that we haven't explored. I felt like a high school kid at a dance or something, maybe asking a young lady to dance for the first time because usually when he gets involved with a woman, it's because he can't control himself and there's some sort of impulsive sexual mania taking him over. But in this case, they sort of meet and see in each other the possibility of something through much more down to earth, realistic means and so it was really quite fun. It was really fun also to just have someone who has such a statuesque presence. Lucy is such an incredible leading lady that I haven't had the opportunity in my entire career to stand next to someone like her and speak dialogue, so it's pretty exciting. [Laughs.]

So you were a fan of hers before?

My favorite work of hers has been "Battlestar Galactica." It's been one of the many incredible boons of my dream job is I get to work with people who walk among the giants. [Laughs.]

Can you tell me two truths and a lie about Season 5?
We have not seen the last of the Tammy flavor in the Pawnee goulash ... Ron makes a new friend who he might rather eat than shake hands with ... Tom and Ann fall in love and stay together and it's purely sexual.

What's the dynamic like in the department now that Leslie is on Pawnee City Council?
The dynamic in the department is pretty shaky because not only is Leslie busy elsewhere in her new role as City Councilwoman, but April has gone to Washington, DC with Ben to assist him and his work managing a campaign there. Ron is being looked to to pick up the slack and actually get something done for the first time ever because he's always had Leslie covering his fanny. There's a bit of stumbling, there's a bit of a slipshod quality to the department because we're slapped in the face with just how much Leslie got done. It takes three of us to make up for what she accomplished. Beyond that, just the fact that April is absent makes Ron very sad because there's no one to protect him from people trying to get into his office and ask him for things.

I watched the blooper reel from Season 4. I couldn't stop laughing. Is set always like that?
Uh, no. I'd say set is only like that 78 percent of the time. The other 22 percent is only amusing - 22 amusing, 78 gut-busting hilarious.
We're so spoiled. It's because -- honestly -- it's all just because the writing is so good. That allows us to work fast. We never have to stop and say, "How do we fix this scene?" or "How do we fix this story?" We just say, "Alright, that scene was hilarious, now let's do this next hilarious scene." That gives us time to play with each other and laugh and to embellish things and try and make one another laugh. That's the most fun.

When you just spoke about the writing, it reminded me about how outraged I was that "Parks" wasn't nominated for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, but I'm happy it was honored in the writing category.
Yeah, for the first time. That was very gratifying and you know, who cares. Those things are inexplicable. When my mom is outraged every year when I don't get nominated or the show doesn't get nominated, I say, "Well mom, I just want to remind you that if I ever do get nominated, it's the same jackasses that didn't nominate for three years." If I ever get one, then there's going to be 12 other mothers cursing the Emmy voters. It's nice just to be in the position where that's even in the conversation.

Not many men can say that they've had their facial hair auctioned off for charity, so that must be pretty surreal.
It was really ... weird. Somebody jokingly suggested that to me a couple of years ago and I thought, "With the way the Internet has sort of an obsession with Ron Swanson, that just might work. It might just be a great idea to raise some money for charity."

I figured out how to do it. I used to do a lot of my own prosthetic makeup for the theater and so many times in my life I've cast my head in plaster and built pieces. There was a great makeup artist named Mike Mekash I was working with. He works with this place called Tinsley Studio and they're one of the big houses in town. They do all of the high-end monster stuff and vampire movies and stuff, so we just came up with a plan to do it. I have to say, I'm glad it turned out well because it would've been pretty humiliating to go to all the trouble and then it gets auctioned off for $25 to my assistant. I do have to say it all seemed really funny and we pulled it off. He did a beautiful job of preserving it and carefully shaving it off in one piece. Then he cast my face and made like a sort of marble bust of the lower half of my face and then reattached the mustache. Once I actually got the object in my hands, I realized how incredibly creepy it was. The only difference was in anatomical location, but it might as well have been my toenails, you know? I was like, "This is really gross. It's my DNA." But I put my personal feelings aside because it's much more than that, to the fans it's Ron's mustache, which is something I'm down to get behind.

You mentioned the Internet's obsession with Ron Swanson, which is definitely real, what's the best creation that you've seen?
Oh gosh, that's a great question. My wife and I have been tickled pink with all of the art that is inspired by Ron. I don't know, I guess the most magnificent -- there's a great little ceramic piece that looks like -- do you remember the cartoon character "The Shmoo"? Shmoo was like late '80s and he was like a white amoeba-like blob who could take any shape. There's a ceramic figure that's like a little white blob with Ron's hair and mustache. I think he's either holding a coffee cup or a little plate of bacon. My wife really loves that one. So many of the paintings are so cool because they take Ron and then they extrapolate something about him and make this really weird piece of art that is just really fun to see. There's a huge illustrated poster of Ron shirtless. Have you seen that one? He's all sweaty and he has tattoos of Tammy 1 and 2 on his shoulders.

And there are flames and the chest hair is shaped like the mustache?
Yeah. That seems to me, if there was a prize winner, I feel like that's the most magnificent. [Laughs.] It's pretty crazy.

Can you tell me about the show you're doing in Los Angeles? Is it stand-up or a one man show?
I guess it's a one man show. I say that I'm not a stand-up -- I'm a humorist, like a foul-mouthed Garrison Keillor. I've been doing it at colleges across the country this year. It's called "American Ham." It's my 10 tips for prosperity and it's an evening of anecdotes, cautionary tales and song with minor nudity. It's really a lot of fun. It's a new thing for me -- performing as myself -- but we seem to be having a good time, the audience and I.

Do you have any special guests planned?
My wife's new band called Nancy and Beth will be opening for me. They are amazing. It's embarrassing to follow them. They are just so genius. It's [Megan Mullally] and Stephanie Hunt from "Friday Night Lights" and their voices together is just astonishing. If you ever get the chance to see my wife sing on a stage, run don't walk. It's such a gift and we also have a very special surprise guest that night, Sept. 29 at UCLA.

Aziz Ansari, wired to joke
It's early morning on set at NBC's "Parks and Recreation" as a bleary-eyed crew adjusts the sound and lighting in a faux courtroom on a Burbank soundstage. Aziz Ansari, who plays the fashion-savvy, ladies-man wannabe Tom Haverford, stands on the sidelines intently reviewing the script on his smartphone. Which is funny because in the scene Ansari is about to do, his character is charged with "driving while tweeting" and sentenced by a judge to "a week without screens."

"Wait ... nooo!" Ansari pleads in character at the scene's end. He fidgets on the witness stand like a drug addict in withdrawal and maniacally attempts to maneuver one last tweet before his phone is confiscated. "Hit send, bailiff! Send!"

Alan Yang, who wrote the episode for the show's fifth season, chuckles from behind the director's monitor each time Ansari delivers the line. He and the show's other writers often mine Ansari's life for material and know that the comedian, who regularly tweets about his pop-culture obsessions (he has more than 2 million Twitter followers), would recoil at even a day without screens.

Between takes, Ansari suggests jokes to Yang and at one point asks Craig Zisk, the episode's director, "Can we try it with me saying, 'Please, your honor, tonight's the season finale of "Suits" on USA!'"

There's a collective burst of laughter; the idea flies.

Ansari, the first person cast for "Parks" by creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur -- even before Amy Poehler -- is a writerly comedian, rooted in stand-up. He is at home performing in tiny alternative rooms like the Meltdown, in the back of an L.A. comic-book shop, on television and in major amphitheaters nationwide. On Thursday and Friday night he brings his third stand-up tour, "Buried Alive," to Los Angeles' Orpheum Theatre

His sensibility is hip yet inclusive, pointed but not mean. And he's become something of a "Where's Waldo" of the digital zeitgeist, riffing on and appearing in pop-cultural currents gone viral. Recently, his face has been Photoshopped onto several classic hip-hop album covers that are being passed around the Internet, and there's still talk about his appearance in last year's Jay-Z and Kanye West video for their song "Otis."

The man also likes to eat. But don't call him a "foodie."

"That just sounds weird," Ansari says. "I prefer plain old, general man of good taste."

And enthusiasm. When he confirms dinner plans, he emails, "Rice balls, here we come!"
Several hours later, Ansari settles into a corner table at Little Dom's in Los Feliz, deftly navigating three fully loaded plates: a kale salad, a tuna melt with fries and, yes, those long awaited, mozzarella-stuffed rice balls. He talks animatedly, fork and knife cutting the air as he gestures, moving between the plates like a seasoned, late-night DJ spinning multiple turntables.

But there are none of Haverford's eye-rolling, schmoozy ticks. Instead, dressed in a basic striped polo shirt, Ansari is surprisingly humble kicking back at his favorite neighborhood haunt.

The humor flows -- all night, in fact -- but it's less yanked from a reservoir of trusty one-liners and more in the form of observations, curiosities and insights. There's much on Ansari's mind these days, like romance, marriage and babies -- or a lack thereof. At 29, the still-single Ansari -- a self-described "indecisive commitment-phobe" -- finds domestic responsibility terrifying, if hilarious. In fact, it's the focus of his "Buried Alive" show.

"It's about being scared of hitting that point in life where you're settling down and the feeling is almost like being buried alive. I couldn't imagine having a baby ... or getting married now," he says. "But I love hearing about other peoples' lives, their relationship stories. That stuff is always super fascinating to me."

His inherent curiosity drives much of his joke-writing. Ansari is a funny urban anthropologist, a writer-performer who scribbles observations in a pocket-sized Moleskine notebook (classic black, lined) and has been influenced by the autobiographical humor of Louis C.K. and Patton Oswalt.

"Patton writes about what it's like to be a new father, Louis writes about what it's like to be newly divorced and raising kids," he says with the faintest hint of a Southern accent. "My stuff is, like: the guy who's not married and has no kids and is kinda scared and bewildered by it all."

Ansari regularly peppers people around him with relationship questions, this reporter not excluded. Suddenly, the tables are turned and he's the one firing off the questions. "How old were you when you got married? How long did you date beforehand?" He is particularly fascinated with how people meet in the modern world -- "just the randomness of it all," he says.

His parents -- his father is a gastroenterologist and his mother manages the medical office -- came together in an arranged marriage in southern India before immigrating to rural Bennettsville, S.C. (population 8,949), where Ansari grew up.

"My dad says they talked for 30 minutes and a week later got married," Ansari says. "People hear that and it's like" -- he leans in and widens his eyes -- "'Oh my God! Are they OK?! Do they hate each other?!' But their marriage is great."

Ansari researched marriage and divorce statistics for "Buried Alive," and during the show he chats up audience members in the front rows, asking them personal questions, and then riffs on their answers. The crowd work, whether in 3,700-seat theaters or intimate clubs, gives each show a unique touch, city to city, he says.

One thing Ansari avoids onstage are easy jokes about being Indian. Talking about ethnicity in his stand-up is important to him, he says, "Just in ways I think are more interesting than, like, doing an accent of a guy who works in a gas station."

This spring, for example, he sent an Ansari look-alike to be interviewed in his place on Anderson Cooper's talk show. It took a minute before Cooper caught on to the prank. The clip has gotten more than 180,000 hits on YouTube.

Misrepresentations of the American South irk him as well. On growing up as the only person of color in elementary and middle school, he says he experienced no racism. "People hear [how I grew up] and think: 'Oh my God! Are you OK?!' But it wasn't bad. There's plenty of ignorant, dumb people everywhere, and there's plenty of thoughtful, super-nice people everywhere."

As a kid, Ansari loved Chris Rock's HBO specials, but he was far from a myopic comedy nerd. Tiny Bennettsville didn't even have a movie theater to nurture any far-flung aspirations of comic fame. Instead, Ansari pursued a marketing major at New York University. He tried his hand at stand-up the summer of his freshman year, at the urging of friends who thought he was funny. His debut at Greenwich Village's Comedy Cellar, during a new talent night, felt completely natural, he says. No nerves. No looking back.

"The joke-writing ability wasn't there yet, but I was really comfortable onstage," he says. "I never had any aspirations of putting out big specials or being an actor. It was more like: 'Lemme just keep writing good jokes.' I started going to open mikes ... I've never taken a long break from stand-up since."

Daniels first spotted Ansari on his MTV show "Human Giant," which ran for two seasons starting in 2007. "Around the time I was making a deal to do a new show for NBC, I saw the 'Viral Video' sketch from 'Human Giant' in the writers room at 'The Office' and thought it was the funniest thing I had seen in years," Daniels says. "Mike [Schur] and I ... met with Aziz and decided he was too good to pass up."

Ansari turned down a third season on MTV to take a chance on "Parks."

In another risky move, Ansari famously released his last comedy special, "Dangerously Delicious," in March directly to his fans online as a $5 download. The move was partly inspired by C.K., who did the same thing a few months earlier, but Ansari says he was also simply embracing the future.

"I saw how many YouTube views I had versus how many DVDs I sold," says Ansari of his 2010 Comedy Central special, "Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening." "That's how people want to consume that kind of media now."

Ansari estimates YouTube clips from "Intimate Moments" received around 150,000 to 200,000 views apiece. DVD sales figures aren't available, but "Intimate Moments," the audio album, has sold nearly 61,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

He plans to release his next special, from the "Buried Alive" tour, in cutting-edge digital fashion as well, though he's not sure what shape that will take. He might put it out as a movie first, he says, then release it online a few months later.

Now Ansari, who last year costarred with Jesse Eisenberg in the action comedy "30 Minutes or Less," is currently developing one of three pitches he sold to Judd Apatow. The script, which he's co-writing with former "Human Giant" director Jason Woliner, is about two disgraced astronauts who travel back to the moon to clear their names. He also has a small part in the Seth Rogen comedy "The End of the World," about the apocalypse hitting during a party at James Franco's house. And he'll costar with Danny McBride in a Mandate Pictures release about seeking revenge on a Michael Phelps-like athlete who has a three-way with Ansari and McBride's girlfriends.

As Ansari cleans off his Little Dom's plate, he jokes about his latest food crush, a doughnut shop in Glendora called the Donut Man. "Yeah," he says, "plaque-worthy." He and Woliner have a food club (called, not surprisingly, Food Club) with friends like Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric. They don captains hats and show up at restaurants, announcing their presence.

The rating system is simple: If the food is deemed worthy -- as it has been at L.A.'s Animal and Ink -- the restaurant gets a plaque featuring Ansari et al in their hats, staring authoritatively into the distance.

"We thought it would be funny to treat it super-serious. 'Oh, hi, we're here for the Food Club dinner?'" Ansari says. "It's so absurd, it's all done in jest."

And how do people respond?

He shrugs, then laughs: "Always fascinating."

Aziz Ansari Is Pretty Sure Anna Wintour Will Sign Off On His New Vogue for Kids Magazine
While waiting to interview designer Scott Sternberg after his boy. by Band of Outsiders show yesterday I saw Aziz Ansari hanging around. So I had to treat myself and grab a few words with one of my fave comedians.

Fashionista: So what brings you here?
Aziz Ansari: I’m covering the show for Vogue for Kids. But there’s no kid’s stuff, so I don’t know why I came. All of the stuff, none of it is available in kid sizes.

That’s weird.
I don’t know why they sent me.

So what kind of shoots are you working on right now?
For Vogue for Kids? Lot of overalls stuff. Mainly covering a lot of Oshkosh stuff.

Sexy kids?
No no no no. All conservative. A lot of really high end stuff. Sally Ferragamo for kids, Valentino for kids.

So does Anna Wintour know you’re doing this?
You know, I’m kind of just doing it on spec, and then when it’s done, I can present it to her and be like, ‘Vogue for Kids, what do you think?’ And I’m pretty sure she’ll just sign off on it.

I’m pretty sure she will too.

Sex-Crazed Seniors and Political Warfare: A Visit to the Parks and Rec Set
PARKS AND RECREATION SET, ELYSIAN MASONIC TEMPLE, LOS ANGELES, WEDNESDAY, AUG. 29 – “Does anyone know what we risk when we have unprotected sex?” Amy Poehler, as new city councilman Leslie Knope, asks a few dozen assembled senior citizens. They pipe up immediately: “Heart attack.” “Broken hip.” “Falling in love.” After a couple of takes getting through the list (there are more replies from the crowd), Chris Pratt, Retta, and Rashida Jones can’t help themselves and begin to laugh. So does Poehler. “I could listen to you guys do that on a loop for the whole day,” she tells the geriatric cast. She’s in the midst of shooting season five’s fourth episode, which finds an outbreak of chlamydia among Pawnee’s senior citizens, and Leslie is trying to curb it with sex education. Back in character, she begins demonstrating how to put a condom on a banana when a senior named Marvin raises his hand. “That’s all fine and good, but what if the banana is soft and mushy … ” The episode’s writer, Alan Yang, cracks up quietly while watching the monitors. Moments later the lesson is interrupted by the town’s morality watchdogs, who show up to remind everyone about Pawnee’s “Abstinence Only” Sex Education Law.

The botched operation is just one of several initiatives that Leslie will have trouble enforcing in Parks and Recreation’s fifth season. In tonight’s premiere (9:30, NBC), she and Andy visit Ben, now a congressional spin doctor, and April, who decided to go as his intern, in Washington, D.C., where Leslie also has plans to personally apply for funds to clean up a river in Pawnee and quickly discovers her needs aren’t exactly a priority. “She realizes what a country mouse she is, what a small fry in terms of big-time politics,” says Poehler. “D.C. can make people feel that way.” In the second episode, she’ll attempt to pass a tax on soda to help stave off obesity in kids (an unlikely gamble in Sweetums-proud Pawnee) and in the episode shooting today, "Sex Education," it looks like she’ll be thwarted again in her plea to teach contraception to the senior citizens. Poehler says the frustration is palpable. “Leslie’s not sure how to do everything as a city councilwoman, her boyfriend’s out of town, she’s trying to do it all and nothing’s really working. She got this dream job that she fought for and now she’s wondering if it was the right move.”

“Sex Education” is a standalone story, meant as a “straight-up comedy” break from the focus of Leslie’s tangled new reality in which she’s flip-flopping between her city council and parks department jobs. (“If I had been tweeting while reading that script,” Retta says, “I would have written, ‘Donna’s found the nursing home that she’s gonna be in when shit slows down.’”) Yang says making this self-contained episode was a deliberate decision. “We wanted to reassure viewers it wasn’t going to be a whole new show in season five,” he says. Especially since there have been major changes to the show, which at times has been confusing. “It sometimes seems like all the characters have a lot of different jobs now,” concedes Yang. In the scene currently being filmed, for example, Ann, Andy, and Donna are there to help Leslie with the seniors, even though Donna and Ann don’t technically work for her in her city councilwoman capacity. (“Obviously this is not a parks department situation,” Retta says. “But everyone there is always going to be supportive of Leslie no matter what, because she’d always be supportive of us.”) And back on the set at the CBS Radford lot, Leslie’s city council office has been set up within spitting distance of her parks department office. “Leslie’s new office can see directly into her old one, which is kind of funny, and she struggles with that. Even me, Amy, I miss my old office.” Seated next to her, Rashida Jones nods and says with a surprisingly authentic wistfulness, “I miss your old office too. So many good times there.”

And there have been other adjustments, too. Adam Scott hasn’t been around because Ben is working in D.C. “We really haven’t done any scenes together at all so far,” Poehler says. But the lovebirds do Skype, and as Poehler describes those scenes, she and Jones veer off into a tangent about what would improve the Skype and Facetime experience. (Jones suggests that the programs come with a lighting kit so everyone looks better and Poehler thinks a black and white filter would also be good. “Things would look very serious,” Poehler says. “Like if you went, ‘Amy, I have to tell you something,’ and then switched on the black and white option!”)

But before the two actresses can file a patent for these ideas and become tech billionaires, they must get into a more contentious head space, as they are about to film a blow-up between besties Leslie and Ann.“This is a rare sighting,” says Poehler. “You’re seeing Leslie and Ann fighting. It does not happen. [They’re] the second love story on the show.” In the scene, Ann is dressed in a cowgirl outfit with braids, the byproduct of dating a cowboy, and Leslie calls her out for losing herself in yet another relationship. “Ann’s sort of the full-blown version of what she has been for the past couple of seasons,” Jones says. “She’s having a little bit of an identity crisis and it incites some big questions that she’s needed to ask herself for a long time about how she approaches relationships.” Poehler nods and laughs. “There’s some crazy stuff coming out of Ann this season.” (Good news for those who have felt the habitual straight woman hasn’t had enough to do to distinguish her character.) “Like, good crazy funny stuff. And it’s not just her. Everyone’s lost their bearings.”

Chris hasn’t exactly bounced back from having been dumped by Jerry’s daughter and rejected by Ann. Turns out his fling with Jennifer Barkley (Kathryn Hanh) didn’t stick either, and the loneliness is about to catch up with him. “He has a lot of existential angst,” Lowe says, “which always made me laugh. That right underneath that unrelenting exuberance is just a bit of despair. This is the year he’s going to try and fill that pit with something different than just exercise and positivity. Nobody can keep Chris Traeger down. Not even Chris Traeger.” Then there’s Andy, who will hit some bumps on his way to the police academy. “It was terrible,” Pratt says of shooting the episode two scene in which Andy will try to train for a two-mile run. Compounding the problem was Pratt’s new diet; the actor’s trying to gain a lot of weight for a movie he’ll be shooting later this year. “It was like Mars hot. At one point I take off my clothes and lay down on the track and I am breathing really heavy and I just breathed in all this track dust and rubbed it in my eyes,” he says. “It was just not a good day.”

But back to the task at hand, which is to have fun with these seniors. “We have been trying to break an episode about safe sex for a while and we kept trying to do it with teenagers but never really found an angle,” Yang says. Not until, that is, they found inspiration in something real. “I forget who brought it into the writers room, but there was some actual newspaper article about outbreaks of STDs in senior centers. We didn’t make it up.” Now at the mic, Leslie is half-heartedly driving home a new no-sex message from a pamphlet titled, “So You Think You Know More Than God.” Andy butts in. “Really, just don’t have sex. Just don’t do it. It’s gross.”


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Retta will co-host Anderson Live on Friday. Check local listings.

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Prayer circle that the Emmys get it right this weekend, but I won't get my hopes up.