‘Parks and Recreation’ gets on the political seesaw
Amy Poehler and Kathryn Hahn are standing under hot lights, dressed in power suits and discussing potential blackmail. They are shooting a scene for the upcoming season finale of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” one in which Hahn’s Jennifer Barkley — the Blackberry-addicted, ultra-savvy political consultant — attempts to bribe Poehler’s Leslie Knope, perpetual optimist, one-time deputy of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department and current city council candidate.
“How about a year’s supply of Sweetums candy?” Hahn offers, promising a 365-day sugar high courtesy of Knope’s campaign rival and heir to the Sweetums corporation, Bobby Newport.
Poehler is momentarily tempted. “Now hold on a second . . . ” she whispers to her boyfriend/campaign manager Ben Wyatt, played by Adam Scott.
It’s a funny moment and the actors nail it on multiple takes. But after huddling with two fellow producers, Michael Schur — co-creator of “Parks and Recreation” and the episode’s director — decides it needs a new bribe. (Why the bribe? That’s a spoiler that the “Parks” team has deemed classified information.)
They run the scene again, and this time, Barkley offers something really enticing. “I can give you Joe Biden’s home phone number,” she says.
It’s a ridiculous statement, a wry political reference and an inside joke that refers to the torch Knope carries for the 47th vice president of the United States. And that puts it smack in the show’s wheelhouse.
“Parks and Recreation,” in its fourth season on NBC, prides itself on being a show about quirky bureaucrats as well as, paradoxically, an apolitical enterprise. Some of its characters may espouse certain philosophies — Ron Swanson’s live-and-let-live- while-eating-bacon brand of libertarianism, or Leslie’s stereotypically liberal belief that government can solve all problems — but party affiliations have studiously been avoided.
“One of the rules we laid down early on with Leslie, I mean long before she ran for office, is that we were never going to use the words Democrat or Republican in reference to her, or anybody else,” Schur said during a phone conversation a month after shooting the bribe scene.
Schur and his fellow writers have stuck to that rule even while riffing on current events. (Previous episodes have tackled controversies involving the validity of Leslie’s birth certificate, relations between the United States and Venezuela, and gay marriage . . . between penguins.) But this season’s campaign plotline could be a turning point for both the series and the ambitious Knope, whose female-aspirational office decor features photographs of both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.
Can Knope, a character who came to TV life less than three months after President Obama’s inauguration, beat one-percenter Bobby Newport (played with affable cluelessness by Paul Rudd) and score a victory for hardworking government officials with integrity? And even if she wins, can she maintain that integrity as an elected official?
“Leslie Knope is the child of ‘Yes we can,’ you know,” says Poehler. “She’s the person who believes that no matter how much power you have, you can make a difference. You can contribute. You can change things. Her kind of blind spot is how slow and hard it is, how slowly change happens.”
While that may suggest that “Parks and Recreation” is using its campaign story line to comment on the national political climate, Schur says that’s not the case.The election plot “really was more dictated by the natural progression of the characters and their lives than it was that this is an election year,” he says. “But it was a nice dovetail that we had the idea in a year when there was a national campaign.” That dovetailing has injected “Parks and Rec” with a bit of inside-the-Beltway juice.At a fundraiser last month in New York — one where Aziz Ansari, who plays Tom Haverford on “Parks and Rec,” spoke — President Obama noted that his older daughter, Malia, is a “big ‘Parks and Recreation’ fan.”
A few days after Obama’s remarks, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — a very real union that represents actual government employees like the ones in fictional Pawnee — held a pro-Knope rally outside of its D.C. headquarters in what was, admittedly, a shameless attempt to persuade Poehler to speak at its annual conference. The group also posted a YouTube video that shows its members phonebanking for Knope while eating her favorite food, waffles loaded with whipped cream.
“We love the show because too often public service workers are vilified by the media,” explained Tiffany Ricci, an AFSCME employee who helped organize the Leslie Knope advocacy.Even Vice President Biden seems to be aware of the show’s, uh, references to him. (“He’s on my celebrity sex list,” Leslie previously confessed. “He is my celebrity sex list.”) “The Vice President encourages all citizens to get involved in public service,” Biden’s press secretary, Kendra Barkoff, said in an e-mail when asked to comment on Knope’s crush. “We here in his office have followed Ms. Knope’s career with interest and wish her well on her upcoming election.”
Yet before you assume that “Parks and Recreation” is actually bluer and more pro-Obama than its stated apolitical stance indicates, consider the man who has emerged as perhaps the most beloved character on the show: the aforementioned Ron Swanson, staunch advocate for guns, manual labor and the end of taxation, with or without representation. The “Parks and Rec” personality unofficially responsible for the most Tumblrs, YouTube montages and other assorted online memes, he’s the ultimate antigovernment government employee. Proof: In the April 19 episode, he was promoted to assistant city manager even after stating, “I do not believe the position nor the entire government should exist.”
“I always like to think that [‘Parks and Rec’ co-creators] Greg Daniels and Mike Schur are to blame for coming up with the perfect piece of candy that the American psyche was kind of craving,” says Nick Offerman, the man behind Swanson. “And it happened to be just a sort of normal, blue-collar, plumber-like man who likes meat and brunettes and breakfast foods and lives by a simple code.”
Perhaps it’s that combination of viewpoints — Swanson’s open frustration with government, Knope’s warm embrace of it and, for good measure, Tom’s belief that get-rich-quick capitalism can save the day — that makes“Parks and Rec” so right for these times, like a more sarcastic, oddball, localized version of “The West Wing.” In fact, if the ethos of the show could be distilled and turned into a candidate for any political party, it seems fair to assume it would win.But despite its loyal fan base, it hasn’t been winning in the Nielsen ratings.
“Parks and Rec” began its fourth season by consistently grabbing 4 million-plus viewers each week, but in its new 9:30 p.m.Thursday time slot, immediately after “The Office,” about 3.4 million people watched last week. (ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and CBS’s “Person of Interest,” its competition in the 9 p.m. hour, snagged 9.8 and 8.8 million sets of eyeballs, respectively.) NBC has not yet announced whether it plans to renew “Parks and Rec,” although, given the media and online attention it continues to attract, that seems likely.And if Knope’s tenacity — dare we say, the audacity of Knope? — leads her to continue climbing the political ladder, it could open new story line possibilities for Poehler’s protagonist. Perhaps, even, a move to Washington?
“She’s not a complacent person,” Schur says of Knope, who will debate Rudd’s Newport in the April 26 episode, directed by Poehler. “She really loves her job and she really loves her town. But she’s antsy. She wants to move up in the world and I don’t see any reason to deny the character that pleasure.”
“The show is about the fact that there’s a lot of people who work together who have nothing in common except for the fact that they work together,” notes Poehler. “That really describes, to me, national politics.”
Q+A: Aziz Ansari, Overachiever
Ever since James Brown relinquished the title of "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," it's been up for grabs. One recent, if seemingly unlikely, contender: Aziz Ansari. From his role on NBC's Parks and Recreation and his self-released stand-up special to movie roles and that goofy American Express ad, the South Carolina native is quickly becoming omnipresent. He is also, at the moment, touring across the country, which has brought him to this week's Moontower Comedy and Oddity Fest in Austin (sponsored in part by Esquire). We spoke to him over the phone about his fictional home state, the fear of growing up, and why writing stand-up is harder than it looks.
ADAM K. RAYMOND: So I'm calling from the one place in the world where everyone in Pawnee [Parks and Recreation's fictional Indiana town] wants to be.
AZIZ ANSARI: Muncie?
AKR: No, Indianapolis. You know, where all the glamour is.
AA: Oh, oh.
AKR: Have you spent any real-life time in Indiana?
AA: I don't think I have. I'm doing Indianapolis on the tour, but I haven't been in Indiana much.
AKR: When you come here, you should eat this thing called a pork tenderloin sandwich. It's a slab of pork hammered into the size of a plate and deep-fried.
AA: Whoa, that sounds pretty crazy.
AKR: The craziest part is that it comes on a regular hamburger bun and extends out about five inches in all directions.
AA: Wow. Alright, I'll look into it.
AKR: So you're officially on your Buried Alive tour now. That means everything from the special you just released is retired, right? Is it hard to let the material go?
AA: By the time you record a special, you've been touring the material a while, and you've made it the best version it can be, so you're kind of ready to put it behind you.
AKR: Louis C.K. is doing a new hour every year. Is that what you're trying to do?
AA: I don't know about once a year. I don't get enough time, with filming Parks and Rec, to tour everywhere I want in a year. The last one I did was longer than a year so I could go to some cities I really wanted to go to. But I think everyone thinks Louis is a little out of control with how quickly he's turning over material. I saw him when he was editing the special [Live at the Beacon Theater], and I was like, "Dude, you hardly even toured this. You toured it for like three months. You need to go tour this." He was like, "I don't know. I just want to put it out."
AKR: Comics talk all the time about how crazy Louis is for doing that. What's so hard about it?
AA: You don't think it sounds hard? It's the hardest thing. I should hang up the phone.
AKR: No, no, that's not what I meant.
AA: To come up with a good hour of material is so hard. I mean, look at plays and stuff. They're still doing Death of a Salesman. It's the hardest thing to come up with an hour of material that can consistently keep people laughing. And are you just going to do it in one city and never perform it again? You want to tour it. That's the whole point. I mean, look at musicians. You go to any Jay-Z concert, and he plays his hits. Comedians don't have hits. You have to have a whole brand-new hour. You have no hits to rely on. It's the hardest thing.
AKR: I wasn't trying to say it sounds easy.
AA: It's just that, if you're a comedian, and you retire your material and start from scratch, it's fucking hard.
AKR: I get it. I mean, some guys tour the same material for years and years.
AA: People don't do that as much now. Yeah, some comedians will tour and do these classic bits all the time. But now with YouTube and Comedy Central, people see your stuff, and they don't want to hear you do that again.
AKR: How many minutes of material did you write for this tour?
AA: There's a lot of stuff that gets thrown out. It's constantly getting changed and crunched up and edited. It took eight or nine months to get an hour of really good stuff. I feel really good about this one. I think it's my best one. I think each one's better than the last, so I'm excited about this one.
AKR: Is there some kind of progression with Buried Alive?
AA: It's way different than the other hours. This one's a lot more focused on themes. It's about the fear of having kids and seeing your friends have kids. It's about marriage, and how hard it is to meet someone you really like. So it's three themes that are super-relatable, and that's a lot different from my other specials.
AKR: Is Buried Alive a reference to anything? It made me think of the Ryan Reynolds movie.
AA: Well, first of all, that movie's called Buried, so that might say something about its success.
AKR: Yeah, fair enough.
AA: It came from an idea to make the poster look like these old-timey magician posters. Then I just thought about calling it Buried Alive because that sounds like a magician show title. And it also fits the themes of the show — fear of adulthood and how your life changes after you have kids and get married.
AKR: Are you going to end up producing and releasing this one on your own, like the last one [Dangerously Delicious]?
AA: I don't know. I'm happy I did it, but I probably won't put out the next special for another two years. Who knows what the landscape will be at that point? It wouldn't really make sense for me to speculate.
AKR: You do a bit on Dangerously Delicious about porn Web sites, and you mention a fake one, "reallifedickparty.com." Have you actually visited it?
AA: Yeah, I think I had to buy that for legal reasons. I actually heard on Twitter from someone that he knew the porn scene I was talking about.
AKR: The thing about the donut?
AA: Yeah. I think that would be the craziest thing for me — if one day I meet some girl, and she's like, I'm the donut girl!
AKR: Speaking of donuts, you're pretty publicly into food. Shouldn't you be fatter?
AA: I have an amazing metabolism. I'm sure that'll be gone one day. But I like to exercise, too, so I don't think I'll ever get really fat.
AKR: Sounds like a good plan.
AA: Wait, so this is for Esquire, and you're in Indianapolis? Are you just visiting or something?
AKR: No. My wife got a job, and I moved out here for her. Great guy, right?
AA: See, that's exactly what this show is all about!
Amy Poehler Attempts to Explain the ‘Headboard of Infamy,’ and Other Woodworking Updates
A few weeks ago, Parks and Recreation star and expert woodworker Nick Offerman told Vulture about his plans to carve a “headboard of infamy” for co-star Amy Poehler. So when we caught up with Poehler at last night’s Time 100 Gala, we asked whether she could explain what a “headboard of infamy” actually is. “I don’t know,” she answered. “But it’s so regal, and there’s so much expectation. And I want to fulfill it for him. I just feel like it’s a weird Little House on the Prairie moment. I don’t know. I don’t know what it is!”
So, has Offerman carved anything else for her, since he's a master craftsman and all? “Well, I have a 2-year-old boy. My second boy’s name is Abel. And we talk about making the Abel Table. You know what he has made me? He has made me happy and fulfilled and all those things. But he hasn’t made me a piece of furniture yet because I feel like he and I both are the crazy sentimentalists on the show. Nick and I could cry every day, all day about how lucky we are. We put too much import on everything. So I think we’re probably waiting for, like, the perfect table. So I should probably just have him, like, quickly make me a bench and just get it over with.”
Aubrey Plaza, meanwhile, has managed to get a dining room table and two bookshelves from Offerman. “My dining room table is like a slab of eucalyptus trunk, and it’s awesome,” she explained. “He made two benches to go with it, and it’s really craggly and kind of rough around the edges.” Does she pay him? “Yes, he charges us double.” As for that "large wooden dildo" that Offerman was carving per request, neither Poehler or Plaza could identify the castmember in question — though both had an idea who might be behind the order. “That sounds like a Pratt request," guessed Poehler. "It was not me! Not me! I shall not take credit for that.” Plaza's take? "I think it’s for himself. I’ve heard that in his spare time, he carves as many penis and balls as he can."
Chris Pratt's character on Parks and Recreation, the pea-brained Andy, wasn't supposed to stick around long. But Pratt played him with such wide-eyed, open-hearted glee that he became a regular. He sneaks up on you again in the big-screen comedy The Five-Year Engagement, as Jason Segel's spazzy sidekick, Alex, who essentially steals the movie. You might not recognize the former Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. waiter in his next, shockingly buff incarnation, as a soldier in Kathryn Bigelow's untitled film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Chris Pratt, action hero? That's no joke.
GQ: This is a transition moment for you, from Parks and Recreation and Five-Year Engagement to Moneyball. Now you're heading into the new Kathryn Bigelow movie. How does it feel?
Chris Pratt: It feels great. I'm not sure it feels a whole lot different than maybe the last ten years have felt, you know? Because I feel like the effort and the work is sort of the same. I'm just kind of plugging away, and just more things are lighting up. To go to the Oscars for Moneyball—that was pretty amazing. And to be able to go work with Kathryn Bigelow—that's going to be pretty sweet. Hopefully I don't have to go back to being a waiter. That's still my main goal.
GQ: Me too. I waited tables forever.
Chris Pratt: Did you ever have those, like, waiting-tables dreams?
GQ: I still do. And they're horrible.
Chris Pratt: They're like the worst nightmare you can have. You're totally in the weeds. You have like six tables. You forgot to put the order in. You're sweating, and you wake up and "Oh, my God. I'm so glad."
GQ: Did any of that come back to you while you were working in a restaurant on the set of Five-Year Engagement in the kitchen and falling for Alison Brie?
Chris Pratt: No. I had no experience in the back of the kitchen, so there wasn't any of that stress coming back. But it was fun. And I think it's going to be a really great thing for Alison because her character is just fucking bonkers, man.
GQ: Do you see any similarities between Alex in Five-Year Engagement and Andy on Parks & Recreation? I did.
Chris Pratt: Well, yeah. I see the similarities. I don't know what it is, but typically when someone's obnoxious, they're not really likable. And Alex and Andy are obnoxious. With Andy on Parks and Recreation and even Bright on Everwood is this: That guy who was probably a douche in high school, who may have peaked in high school, what happens to that guy? All three of these characters are guys who probably have their best days behind them. But, with that comes a sense of sort of a learned humility. What makes the characters endearing may be that they're forced to realize that they're not as badass as they used to be. And then if you play the character who's learned that lesson, it's really hard to dislike that person. Hopefully people like them.
GQ: All three seem so grateful when things work out. When Alison Brie does sleep with Alex, he's just so psyched: grinning from ear-to-ear. And somehow that's really endearing.
Chris Pratt: Yeah, both Andy and Alex are a little bit chubby and schlubby, you know? There's something nice about that. If Alex had super-ripped abs and came out in the morning and was like, "Yeah. I screwed your sister," you'd be like, "Gross. Ewww. I don't like that guy." But because it's like a major victory for him to have sex with anybody, you're onboard.
GQ: The audience roots for your guys to get laid and be successful, whether it's Parks and Recreation, Five-Year Engagement, even Moneyball. And then things click: You end up with Aubrey Plaza, you end up with Alison Brie. They're kind of secret studs in a way.
Chris Pratt: I don't know why the characters I'm playing could possible end up with these people. I don't even know how I ended up with the woman that I'm with!
GQ: Glad you said it. You're cool—but Anna Faris?
Chris Pratt: Dude, totally. I married way out of my pay grade. I have no idea how that happened. She's so goddamn funny and so good. She is a legit comedy powerhouse. But I'm not going to question it too much. I don't know what it is, man. I guess chicks dig love handles or something.
GQ: And now you're losing your love handles, training with Navy SEALs for Kathryn Bigelow's film.
Chris Pratt: I don't have any delusions. I don't think I would make it through Navy SEAL training. Those guys are incredible, amazing physical specimens, but you have to kind of try to at least look like you could go through that. You're not going to see some weird Andy pratfalls in the middle of the Osama bin Laden raid where I fall down and have pie on my face. I think as long as you're being truthful in whatever role you're playing, people will buy it. There comes a point where an actor can pick whatever movie they want to be in. I don't think I'm at that point yet. I'm still fighting really hard to get any role I get. If it's comedy, I go for the laughs. And if it's drama, I try to tell the truth, and try to play the real stakes of whatever scenario the character's in. It's weird because there are two versions of what I'm doing. One is what I've seen myself doing every day for the past ten years, and the other one is what people will recognize from the work. People can say, "You're making this transition into doing dramatic roles," but I've been working hard at dramatic roles for a really long time. I just haven't gotten any of them!
GQ: I wouldn't have guessed that you were such a serious hunter, such an athlete. Did Bigelow?
Chris Pratt: I certainly didn't go out of my way to hide it. I was like, "It's probably good for her to know that I like to kill shit." I think like if you'd asked me or any of my family or friends as a kid, and said "Hey, Chris is going to be an actor when he grows up. What's he going to do? He's going to play a Navy SEAL, or he's going to play a shoeshine guy who falls down on rollerblades?" I think most people would probably pick the Navy SEAL. Actually, they probably would say, "No, Chris isn't going to be an actor. He's going to be in the armed forces." I went camping every summer. And I went bird hunting, deer hunting as a kid, and just got out in the woods. And I drank beer with my old man and my older brother and we became men out in the woods. That's how we identified ourselves. And I still very much enjoy it, you know?
GQ: Can you tell me something about the Bin Laden film?
Chris Pratt: I'm not supposed to talk too much about it, but I think it's safe to say that I'll be playing a Navy SEAL. And the movie focuses on the ten-year hunt to get Osama Bin Laden. But I can say this: I'm not an actual seal. I am a human.
GQ: Your characters never give up until they get the girl.
Chris Pratt: Yeah, you need the perfect mix of confidence and ignorance. So you think you're enough, and you don't realize that you're not.
GQ: You always get the girl. Got any sage romantic advice?
Chris Pratt: For all three—myself, Alex, and Andy—it's like, drop the games. Just be comfortable with who you are. The truth is that any amount of trickery or wearing cool shirts with rad designs or using pick-up lines, or any of this bullshit like trying to neg girls, isn't going to matter. It won't pay off when she realizes that you're full of shit.
Girls like that quiet confidence. And not in a way like "I'm a dick and I don't care." Just: "Hey, I'm comfortable with who I am." You want to be with a girl who likes you for you. Just be yourself and forget all of the stuff you read in GQ magazine.
Interview: "The Five-Year Engagement" Star Chris Pratt On Living In A Van & Pretending Brad Pitt Is Nobody Special
On the highs and lows of "homelessness":
"Living in a van in Hawaii with my friend Zeb at age 19 was maybe the greatest time of my life. We told friends we had a beach house. In a way we were homeless, but at the same time we were able to transcend the difficulty of home ownership. There was no liability, no overhead. We were truly free. Getting three Mickey’s Ice 40s for $6 was a positive too… But there were fleas and mice that also lived in our van. And we didn’t have anywhere to go to the bathroom."
On his first movie:
"I have no regrets about getting my start in Rae Dawn Chong’s Cursed Part 3. I have…the opposite of regrets, whatever that word is. I went from living in a van to having a car and a reel and my foot in the door in Hollywood. I learned how to hit a mark… But, actually, I probably didn’t learn anything. If you watch the movie, I’m fucking awful. The movie’s terrible and I’m especially terrible. My friends have told me it’s the worst movie they’ve ever seen."
On playing cool around Moneyball co-star Brad Pitt:
"The best acting you do in an audition where you’re reading with Brad Pitt is just sitting down and pretending you’re not sitting across from Brad Pitt, like it’s no big deal. I knew they wouldn’t hire a guy who would be openly excited to work with him, who felt like he got lucky… But if there’s any regret I have about Moneyball it’s that I never let myself have that moment to be like, “Goddamn, I’m working with Brad Pitt! I’m working with Brad fucking Pitt on this movie!"
On fat jokes:
"I’m not a big fan of mean-spirited humor, making somebody feel small. I have no problem making fun of myself, but I don’t like to make fun of somebody else—unless it’s so far behind their back that they never know about it… But I didn’t feel so bad wearing a fat suit in What’s Your Number? Those weren’t fat jokes making fun of fat people; they were fat jokes making fun of the fat person I was playing. And look, I can get away with fat jokes. I was fat as shit last January."
On gaining and losing weight for roles:
"I gained 50 lbs. for Ten Year and got really watery, really fat and pink, like a little piglet. I’d sleep in every day, be lazy… But as fun as it was, I never felt nearly as good as when I’m trying to lose weight. I grew up a wrestler, so working out and cutting weight and dedicating myself to something physical is something that I really love. I try to stay right in the middle, so I’m like six weeks to two months away from whatever weight I want to be."
On being married to Anna Faris:
"It’s good that both Anna and I are in this business. There’s a mutual understanding that traveling for a job is part of the machine and a mutual respect for the priority that our work has to take, sometimes even over our relationship. We’re not gonna pile any guilt onto that situation… But at the same time you gotta check in. You can’t just trust that everything’s gonna be fine. You gotta make visits. You gotta be romantic still. You gotta make sure that your relationship is a major priority as well."
On the secret to improvisational comedy:
"I think the key to improv is life experience and having used comedy as a defense mechanism, whether it was to get out of fights or tough situations, combating bullies or a mean parent or whatever… But I would also say that 30% of it is writing combined with lying, a couple nights before you’ve got a scene, looking at the scene and writing yourself 10 extra jokes, and then, on the day you film, saying those jokes as if you just came up with them."
Chelsea Peretti Interview
A romcom by Ben Schwartz got picked up thr
Watch Rob Lowe on Letterman. He was also on the Today Show, but whatever.
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