Ask folks on the set of “Parks and Recreation” what they like best about the place and, immediately, they’ll say, “the murals.”
Filling the walls of Pioneer Hall, they depict various moments in the history of Pawnee, Ind. “A Lively Fisting,” “The Pawnee Zoo” and “The Trial of Chief Wamapo” are among the most politically incorrect paintings you’ll find. Staffers say they can be replaced – with other, equally offensive – paintings to give the appearance of more hallways.
A salesman in Pawnee, for example, is tied to a stake near the mall in one. In another a pioneer man is seen punching a woman. In a third, a man is selling his child to Native Americans for food.
As she walks through the set, Amy Poehler giggles. “They’re bad,” TV’s Leslie Knope says. But that’s the point.
“Parks and Recreation” isn’t around to celebrate the accomplishments of city government. It’s here to expose them. When producers created the show, they wanted to avoid one problem they encountered with “The Office” – real people. Because it’s set in Scranton, Pa., “The Office” frequently heard from residents whenever writers offered a discouraging word. With “P&R,” there’s no real Pawnee to consider.
So, when the set designers decided to include photographs of past civic leaders, they used ones of staff members. In Poehler’s TV office (she’s a mid-level bureaucrat in the parks and recreation department), she has pictures of real celebrities (Larry Bird, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton) and faux relatives (Pamela Reed plays her mom). There’s also a photograph of Poehler as a child, sporting yarn-tied pigtails.
In department head Ron Swanson’s office, boxing and food posters fill the walls. Meanwhile, at his assistant April’s desk, you can find plenty of office supplies – and a stack of business cards. Even though she doesn’t need them, “I’ve got cards,” Aubrey Plaza, who plays April, says with a big smile.
Down the hallway, you can find the workspace of April’s boyfriend Andy (played by Chris Pratt). It boasts his shoeshine stand (and, yes, he is pretty good at shining shoes), copies of his band’s CD, candy and a host of photographs. Like the other characters’ offices, it bears the extra work of its stars. Pratt, Plaza, Poehler and others take care in making the set as personal as possible.
“That’s what’s great about being a part of the inception of a show,” says Rashida Jones, who plays Leslie Knope’s best friend Ann. “You get to suggest things. When I was on ‘The Office,’ I was a guest star and I always felt like an outsider. But that was to be expected – they all sit in one room.”
Here, there are many nooks and crannies. Jones’ house, for example, is on an entirely different stage. In the city government space, she warms to the courtyard. “It looks so real,” she says. “They’ll even bring in pigeons.”
And the murals? “They’re so offensive...and we have to pass them every day.”
For the recent Harvest Festival, cast members went to Pierce College where a corn maize and other locales had already been constructed. “We never would have been able to build that,” says Executive Producer Michael Schur. “It’s a massive, sweeping, giant tractor-and-corn-maize festival. We shot that episode out of sequence because if we had, the week that we would have been shooting it was like 148 degrees here and the actors would be dead now.”
(The festival’s star – Li’l Sebastian, the miniature horse – however, is in a corral just outside the set. And, yes, he is a hit with visitors.)
For “Parks and Recreation,” the Harvest Festival represents a shift in the show’s tone. For Leslie, it’s a chance to prove what she’s able to do as a government employee. “Leslie’s realizing her big dream of building a park is so much harder than she thought it was,” Poehler says. The festival is a way for her and others “to save their jobs.
“The people that work together in this department are a community. They start to bring people into their community and relationships happen, but in a very real way.”
Because the series didn’t start airing its third season until January, producers had the ability to tweak episodes after they had been shot.
“We got every episode – from the conception to the editing – exactly the way we wanted it without any time pressure, which is an incredible luxury,” says Schur.
Even better? Time fosters creativity.
When writers were trying to create Pawnee’s stories, they realized a place with bad karma (and awful murals) would also have sister cities around the world.
“The running joke is that all of Pawnee’s sister cities are sites of just horrible tragedies in the world,” says actor Adam Scott.
“Someday if the show is a huge success,” he says, before Poehler interrupts. “We get to go to Pyongyang.”