Catch Mike Schur's show 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' Wednesday nights at 8PM on SBS VICELAND, and catch up via SBS On Demand
You may not know Mike Schur's name, but you know his shows: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation, The Office and The Good Place. While each is unique, they share a core interest in portraying everyday interactions. The producer and writer is a master at capturing the oddities of the workplace, and how we bond with strangers we've been randomly grouped with and asked to treat in a "professional" manner, whatever that means. The joy of Schur is that he understands the silly nature of office politics, local government bureaucracy and law enforcement. His shows are filled with optimists, cynics and morons working, for better or worse, together. There's an overarching sense of optimism, too: one of the overarching themes of Schur's shows is that his leading characters are good at what they do solo but become unstoppable as a team. His contemporary reworking of the workplace comedy has marked Schur as one of the most important writers in American comedy right now.
In the grand tradition of American comedy writers, Schur got his start in college—and a good one, at that. He was president of Harvard's iconic humour magazine the Harvard Lampoon and like many of its alumni went on to write for Saturday Night Live. He's one of the brains behind the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler era of Weekend Update—the first time two women hosted the longest running segment on the show.
Schur's first job post-SNL was adapting the British comedy series The Office for an American audience. He was part of the writing team assembled for the series. Sure, the first season suffered from trying to emulate the British series too much, but something miraculous happened in the second when it decided to do its own thing. The season two premiere, "The Dundies" (written by Mindy Kailing), focuses on an office awards night and is a huge departure from season one. Whenever someone talks about the US version not being as good as the British series, "The Dundies" is where you can call bullshit. Season two solved the major problem with how the series would deal with its boss, Steve Carrell's Michael Scott. Rather than create an American copy of David Brent, Scott became a dunce. A nice guy desperate to fit in but socially incompetent. Give a person with those flaws the tiniest bit of power and they'll use it to gain popularity. But a boss is in an awkward position because they're not there to be liked, and Scott's day is dedicated to trying to be affable instead of working.
Schur mastered the controlled chaos of a workplace of The Office. In most workplace shows the setting is merely a randomly allocated stage for odd characters to bounce off each other. Cycle through every major workplace comedy, and nearly every profession has been covered. Cheers did a bar, Scrubs did a hospital, 30 Rock did a television show and Newsradio did news radio. Sometimes it seems like writers are just pitching professions before a word hits the page. But The Office had to function with some sense of reality because of the way the show is made in a documentary style format. In order to believe we're following "real people" we need to buy into the reality of a modern office. During his time writing on the show Schur hilariously explored how a workplace lucks into finding the right mix of strangers who work well together. When you pull back on the odd social dynamics of a workplace it's no surprise Schur was able to find the silly side.
Schur created Parks and Recreation next and refined the formula once more. Another workplace, but with a political bent. Parks and Recreation takes place in a local government parks department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. If the corporate environment of The Office was hilarious, the bureaucracy of government in a small American town is lunacy. Parks and Recreation is built around the mindset of Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope, an optimistic public servant who is like a sun to everyone in her orbit. It's Schur's most relentlessly optimistic show because Knope loves her town and its government. Knope's boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), is her exact opposite; a libertarian who believes the government should be privatised. The clash of Knope and Swanson's ideals creates the show's best moments. Parks and Recreation is rare when compared to a sharp, cynical, political comedy like Veep. There are times when Schur is poking fun at the low stakes of local government, and the town of Pawnee a little slice of wacky Americana, but we're so invested in Knope's cause that we want the system to work for once. And why the hell can't it? Like The Office, Parks and Recreation finds wit and heart in a workplace, but this time it's one associated with inaction and red tape; Schur mirthfully hacks through it.
One of Schur's shows with the greatest difficulty curve is Brooklyn Nine Nine, because it's tasked with making cops funny. A difficult gig in the American political climate when it comes to police brutality and racism controversies around #blacklivesmatter. Rather than having detectives crack jokes over dead bodies—something the show quickly avoided early on—it excels where Schur's other comedies have by focusing on the oddities of office life. Brooklyn Nine Nine finds the fun in how cops blow off steam with a majority of the show set within the police headquarters. Cops are required to do a lot of paperwork so it makes sense that this part of the gig would require a significant amount of time off the streets to get everything filed. And this leads to boredom, which is where we find the cops of the nine-nine in most episodes. The divide between a cop craving action and the one who is focused on administration is exemplified by Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Captain Ray Holt (Andre Braugher), who are similar to Knope and Swanson with their dueling ideals. Brooklyn Nine Nine is a mashup of the workplace environment of The Office and the politics of Parks and Recreation but it never ever treats the work of the police flippantly. It has a huge amount of respect for cops and finds the humour in the way they decompress from a stressful job.
Schur's latest show, The Good Place, could only have been greenlit off the back of Schur's previous success, because there is nothing like it on television right now. Trying to explain the premise to a mate is a challenge. But here goes: The Good Place is an existential comedy about the afterlife. Everything about it screams "passion project" and there was speculation the show was too clever to survive beyond its first season. But after a gobsmacking twist finale, the show was approved for a second season and Schur's hit streak continued. It's hard not to see why, because The Good Place switches effortlessly between profound and silly with an incredible joke hit rate. Tiptoeing around spoilers, The Good Place frames the afterlife as a workplace for eternal beings who are tasked with designing how life after death plays out for good and bad people. In The Good Place we learn there's a point system dictating whether humans go to the good or bad place for eternity. Ignoring a text message mid-conversation will earn you good points but heating up fish in an office microwave will earn you bad points. It's a frivolous system, but so is life. And there's a profound meaningless to The Good Place that makes it one of the darkest television shows when you pull back on what it's really about. Yet under Schur's guidance the show spends time analysing how our actions frame us as people but it does so from beyond the grave. There are very few comedies that are able to be hilarious and philosophical at the same time.
In the scourge of hit American sitcoms with Chuck Lorre's name attached to them, Schur is the remedy. His shows are funny and warm but never saccharine. They are as smart as they are stupid. Schur is working with the full comedy spectrum and it's a stunning balancing act, which is all playing out on mainstream television. Make it a priority to watch anything with his name on it: Michael Schur is a genius.
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