‘Nick Offerman and I used to make out every year for the blooper reel’: Oral history of Parks and Recreation

Nick Offerman, Amy Poehler and the cast of ‘Parks and Rec’  (NBC)
Nick Offerman, Amy Poehler and the cast of ‘Parks and Rec’ (NBC)

Can you believe it’s been 15 years since we first visited Pawnee? Beginning back on 9 April 2009, offbeat mockumentary Parks and Recreation first welcomed us to this weird and wonderful fictional town, courtesy of its relentlessly optimistic parks deputy director Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler).

Together with her mustachioed boss Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), beautiful best friend Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), entrepreneurial assistant Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), utterly over-it intern April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), loveable layabout Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the show’s colourful ensemble, Knope and her adventures in small-fry bureaucracy gave us a comedic look inside the frequently bizarre and often all-too-relatable world of local politics.

That’s the elevator pitch. However, over time, Parks and Rec became so much more than a fly-on-the-wall workplace comedy that started its life as a spin-off idea, capitalising on the success of America’s take on The Office. Under the guidance of that show’s boss, Greg Daniels, Parks and Rec co-creator and writer Michael Schur defied near-constant cancellation threats to transform his new show into a fully realised world, packed with scene-stealing regulars, big-name guests like Paul Rudd, Bill Murray and Michelle Obama, and more moments of genuine heart than even its cast expected to find.

Its cheery vibe escaped screens and translated directly to viewers, too. Whenever real life gets a bit much, many of us often find solace in the comedy comfort food of sitcoms – and no show is more incessantly happy, uplifting and restorative than Parks and Rec.

So, as the series turns 15 years old, we return to Pawnee to catch up with many of its key players, including co-creator Schur and stars Poehler, Ansari, Jones and Jim O’Heir (aka office klutz Jerry/Gary/Larry/Terry Gergich), to reflect on the show’s rocky beginnings, eccentric world-building, impromptu dance parties, political guest stars and lasting legacy of hope.

‘It wasn’t exactly an Office spin-off but the tone and the ethos behind it was...’

After achieving what many deemed impossible and translating Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s gamechanger ‘The Office’ into an American TV megahit, showrunner Greg Daniels enlists ‘The US Office’ writer Michael Schur to start work on a new show with a similar mockumentary style

Michael Schur (co-creator): Greg Daniels was my mentor and taught me everything I know about writing half-hour TV. The British version of The Office was, among comedy writers at least, the most revered piece of art that had been created for TV. He had taken on the challenge of adapting it [for American audiences] and literally everyone thought it was a terrible idea. However, he’s so thoughtful about the way he broke things down to figure out how to Americanise it that [The US Office] became one of the most successful TV shows of all time.

Amy Poehler (Leslie Knope): I had been on Saturday Night Live for seven or eight seasons and knew I was looking for a life change. Then Mike Schur came to me with this idea. It definitely felt nerve-wracking but also a great next thing to do. Saturday Night Live is great but you have to know when to move on, so it was just great timing.

Rashida Jones (Ann Perkins): As far as I remember, it was never really going to be a spin-off of The Office. I think people just thought that because I was the common factor [having played Karen in The US Office] but there were so many rumours about what this was or wasn’t going to be and they were figuring it out in real time.

Aubrey Plaza, Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones in ‘Parks and Rec', the show that invented Galentine’s (NBC)
Aubrey Plaza, Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones in ‘Parks and Rec', the show that invented Galentine’s (NBC)

Schur: One of Greg’s many theories is that the premise of a show should be very boring so the thing that’s interesting is its characters. It’s a very smart observation. Local government is a very dull setting for a show but in 2007/2008, we were coming off of the world collapsing. The financial crisis had hit, the world’s financial markets were teetering and America was coming out of this 25-year fever dream that said free market economics was the answer to all the world’s problems – and that predictably blew up in everyone’s face. Suddenly everyone was, hilariously, turning to the government for help.

Poehler: We were coming off of this “Yes we can” post-Obama optimism of “one person can make a difference” and [the show] was really about the Sisyphean task of a person with power feeling like they can make change. That was Leslie’s giant [character] arc – how do you stay engaged and not get corrupted by the fact that local government often feels like a futile attempt at staring into nothingness?

Schur: Greg and I made a pretty safe bet that for better or for worse, people were going to be caring a lot more about their governments and paying attention to the ways in which their governments helped them or hurt them. It wasn’t exactly an Office spin-off but the tone and the ethos behind it was.

‘I thought to myself: I’m going to be the asshole that ruins Amy Poehler’s career’

With his concept locked down, Schur started recruiting his Parks Department staffers, led by Poehler’s tirelessly optimistic Leslie Knope. ‘Parks and Recreation’ made its debut at 8.30pm on 9 April on NBC and it wasn’t long before Schur discovered he was onto a winning formula. However, critics had other ideas…

Aziz Ansari (Tom Haverford): They really liked this one sketch about viral internet videos that [his comedy troupe Human Giant] did and basically cast me off of that. I don’t think [the character was pitched]; I feel like I just read the script and it was like, ‘You’re this guy!’ I trusted [Schur and Daniels] based on their track record and was more excited about them than anything – and, of course, the cast seemed really great. I knew Aubrey [Plaza, played April] and was very excited about Amy being our lead.

Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson): [Asking what Schur saw in me is] like asking burnt umber why Rembrandt had a use for it. I am but a lowly earth tone. I think it must have been something about the impossibly slow cadence of my speech and unremarkable looks providing a valuable complement to the rest of the lead cast.

Poehler: Lowering the power that Leslie had but raising the stakes was always super fun. I just thought, oh, I think I can play her. She’s optimistic in that she does believe there can be an answer to something but what was great for comedy is that she was often just trying to get things done to get even, a leg up or gain some sort of power. She was no saint and that was fun to play. It was a dream job. I got to go into a room with people I loved, point at them and tell them what to do.

Jim O’Heir (Jerry/Gary/Terry/Barry Gurgich): I initially auditioned for Ron Swanson but two weeks later, I got a call saying they wanted me to consider auditioning for Jerry. My agents didn’t know if I should do it because they’d been told that they didn’t know what was going to happen with this character and they didn’t want me to feel like an extra. I thought, these are the guys who did The Office and I knew what had happened to Kevin, Phyllis, Stanley, Angela. All of those side characters had become major players. For me it was a no-brainer. I said: “I’ll risk it.”

Schur: We started with Leslie and then thought, who should surround her? She needs a very apathetic intern and then you meet Aubrey Plaza and are like: “Yep. That’s who that should be.” She was a left-of-centre progressive idealist so her boss should be a right-of-centre libertarian who doesn’t believe in anything that she’s doing, then you meet Nick Offerman, look at his moustache and you’re like: “That’s the guy.”

Offerman: A lot of Ron’s practicality was, I believe, inspired by me, as far as being an avid outdoorsman, woodworker, and all-around generally handy person. Those attributes, though, were merely decorations on the main structure of the character. The first materials I saw were all about how libertarian Ron hated the government and bureaucracy, and how he thought that capitalism was the only altar at which to worship. The writing was hilarious and layered, and I just hoped that I could live up to it with the set of tools I brought to the job. Fortunately, my taciturn nature and severe demeanour served as a strong foil to Leslie Knope’s ebullience and enthusiasm.

Poehler: Working with Nick was a gift. He uses five words when Leslie uses 100. He’s super private and Leslie lives everything out loud so it was super fun to bounce up against him. I would literally often be poking, pushing or getting in his space physically. Nick’s a big imposing guy, even though anyone who knows him knows he’s a giggly softy, but he has a lot of typically masculine qualities – he can build a boat and has a moustache. It was really fun to dance with him as a character and a person.

Offerman: Mike and I agreed at our first meeting for the role that Ron would have that stache. It was a no-brainer and hardly required mentioning, like, “Ok, so I’ll use my own two legs for Ron, and breathe oxygen, and, you know, I’ll have a brambled moustache. Duh.”

Jones: Leslie is such a leadership-forward, controlling optimist who’s always corralling and recruiting people for her own idealistic fantasies and I was the foil for her, or the straight man. I’m not sure how far the writers got in thinking she’d start to buy into Leslie’s contagious excitement but to begin with [Ann] was just this person who has a problem and wants somebody to fix it, then she becomes charmed by how much Leslie is giving her. I think [the writers] thought it’d be a nice balance.

Ansari: All the characters developed over the course of the early seasons with the actors and the writers figuring it out together. We started feeling what was fun to do and then kept at it until the characters became what they became. That collaboration is a great instinct that I’ve taken with me to my other work.

Ansari, who played Tom Haverford, says the writers and actors worked together to develop the characters (NBC)
Ansari, who played Tom Haverford, says the writers and actors worked together to develop the characters (NBC)

O’Heir: We kind of had two bosses; Mike was the showrunner and king of the writer’s room and Amy was the queen of our set. They had a no assholes policy so when you showed up, you knew you were in for a good time.

Jones: [Chris] Pratt was so appropriately named. He’s this incredible physical comedian with this golden retriever energy. His character Dwyer was supposed to be a sort of skinny, indie-rocker dude but Chris came in and just blew everybody away. It had to be him.

Offerman: Pratt could really get me because he’d come from even far beyond left field. There is a Marx Brothers-level comedy genius hidden within that Adonis.

Schur: We got feedback early on that Leslie was coming off “ditzy” and that was horrifying because that was not the intention at all. The intention was to say she’s very smart and capable but doesn’t have any real nuts and bolts understanding of how to manoeuvre within the entrenched old-boy network power system of government.

Poehler: In the beginning we were fighting for survival. We had a really bad launch, in my opinion. We were kind of mislabelled when we first came out, as an Office spin-off, which we were not.

Jones: There were some critics who championed us but the [viewing] numbers were not an indication that it was widely watched. It really took streamers to make the show as beloved as it is now.

Schur: We made some adjustments [to Leslie’s] character at the end of the first season, basically to show that she is smart and good at her job and not stupid or ditzy – she just doesn’t have any political acumen. At one point, we actually talked about calling the show The Education of Leslie Knope, and the idea was to take a person who doesn’t have any understanding of how to manoeuvre in politics and show her learning that over the course of seven years. That wasn’t the title but that idea became our North star.

Poehler: The show is a success because of Mike, the team he assembled and the vision he had. He’s so sharp and an incredible writer who cares very much about his characters.

Schur: It was a nightmare for a long time. When the show started, nobody liked it. For about two months when we were making the first six episodes I couldn’t sleep because of the pressure. I thought: I’m going to be the asshole that ruins Amy Poehler’s career. She was coming off one of the most successful runs on SNL history and was one of its most beloved cast members. I was convinced the story was going to be: “Everything was going great until she met Mike.” It was the most scared I’ve ever been professionally, and it wasn’t until the second season where I could sleep again.

‘The show invented Galentine’s Day... It’s a real thing – and I definitely celebrate it’

Putting their rocky start behind them, Schur and his team of writers started having a blast leaning into what each of its stars brought to their characters, all while building the sprawling, wider world of Pawnee, Indiana.

Ansari: The idea of Tom being this guy who’s trying to be a business mogul in a small town in Indiana was always fun. Entertainment 720 was probably the peak of that stuff. We had a great time doing it. The poor guy surely lost all his money in crypto but hopefully he evolved enough not to do that. I can even hear him saying “crypto”.

Schur: The final coup was Adam Scott [as Ben Wyatt]. He was like the final piece of the puzzle and when he and Rob Lowe [who played Chris Traeger] came in at the end of the second season, that’s when the show finally clicked into gear.

Offerman: If you enjoyed that show then you have some awareness of the top-drawer dialogue and one-liners that we were even on a regular basis. Serving as the vessel for those writers was just an absolute privilege. They concocted the medicine and we lucky clowns got to administer it to the audience. Every week, opening up the new script was like a Christmas morning where St Nicholas had professionally engineered your gifts to be the most absolutely gratifying to you specifically.

Jones: As time went on, I had a whole storyline about how I was dating everybody and looking for my true love and I felt like I was kind of in that period of my life when the writers were telling that story. There was also this idea that Leslie thinks Ann is just the most incredible woman in the world even though she’s pretty regular and normal. I think that tickled them.

Poehler: Rashida and I were dear friends before the show started and we love each other. She’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen and I tell her that regularly, much like Leslie does. I also think it was sadly refreshing to watch a show where women were working together and getting along. I just thought, in my experience, I don’t fight with the women in my life about boyfriends and stupid s***. We have each other’s back and are trying to process life together.

Jones: Amy and I felt that when you saw a lot of movies and TV there were these stereotypical characters where everybody’s always telling their friends all of the mistakes they’re making – but the truth is, most friends are incredibly supportive, have similar interests and tell each other when they’re killing it. We wanted to be able to show that – this deep support that women have for each other – and it came incredibly naturally. It’s the love story you can depend on when everything else goes wrong.

Poehler: We’re very proud of it. One of my favourite moments is near the end of the show where everybody comes back for the reunion and Leslie pushes Ben aside and says: “Ann’s here!”

Jones: The nicknames Leslie gives Ann were so poetic. The writers grabbed onto that and kept going because it made them giggle.

Poehler: It was aggressive complimenting, like a light form of violence. The show invented Galentine’s Day too. It’s a real thing and I definitely celebrate it.

O’Heir: Everything changed for Jerry during the episode where we had to find dirt on each other. Mark Brendanawicz [Paul Schneider] says to Jerry: “I heard your adoptive mother smokes pot.” And Jerry’s crushed. Mark goes: “You didn’t know she smoked pot?” And Jerry says: “I didn’t know I was adopted.” That was the moment the writers realised who Jerry was going to be in the office – the guy who’s made fun of.

O’Heir as the man with many names in ‘Parks and Rec’ (NBC)
O’Heir as the man with many names in ‘Parks and Rec’ (NBC)

Schur: Once we had that idea, we just started making Jerry this object of ridicule, but because the show was very kind-hearted we thought, OK, if we do this, we have to say he absolutely has the best life of any of the people on the show. That’s why he’s so happy.” So Christie Brinkley played his wife and he has three wonderful daughters who all love him. Everything about Jerry’s life is incredible so nothing at work really affects him.

O’Heir: People say “they were so mean to Jerry”, but diehard fans know that when push came to shove, they always had his back. Chris Pratt would often be like “Jimmy, this one seems really rough…” when they were doing bits against Jerry but I’d be like: “Dude, it’s all good. I’m on board 100 per cent.”

Offerman: Engaging in such salacious comedy with my wife [Megan Mullally, played Ron’s ex-wife Tammy II], who is also a comedy hero to me, also caused me to giggle regularly with gusto. She makes me laugh so easily in real life, and she also pushed my buttons so easily that it can be very hard to keep a straight face with her.

Poehler: There was a scene early on where I was stress eating a waffle and it was funny. Then later Leslie was in the hospital and Ben brought her waffles and they just became her food. Someone recently asked me at a Q&A if I liked waffles and I said I like them but I don’t love them and there was a gasp from the audience. That’s how good of an actor I am.

Schur: One person wrote a joke where Ben liked calzones, and everyone made fun of him and that became a defining character trait. Now, when Adam [Scott] goes to restaurants, sometimes waiters will just bring him calzones.

‘We would have dance parties in our trailers…’

Instead of being concerned about near-constant cancellation threats, Schur doubled down on the weirdness of his characters and their world, inviting some big-name guest stars and political figures along for the ride too. Meanwhile, his cast was busy forming bonds that would last long after the show ended.

O’Heir: The writer’s room thought it would be funny to turn Jerry’s name into a Jeopardy question: “Which character had five different names throughout the run of a series?” It was funny but it used to make us all crazy because everyone knew me as Jerry for many seasons. We’d be doing a take and they’d yell: “Cut! He’s Larry now.” We kept getting confused. People ask me what Jerry’s real name is. His legal name is Gary but I was hired as Jerry so that’s all I ever knew. There’s Larry, Gary, Terry and then technically a fifth name Barry, which I had during Andy’s Johnny Karate kids show. So five names over seven seasons.

Poehler: Nick and I used to do a thing every year for the blooper reel where we would end a scene by making out and the crew would hate it. Everybody hated it and it really made us laugh. It was like watching your aunt and uncle making out or something.

Jones: People love to point at me and shout: “Ann Perkins.” They just scream it when I walk by.

O’Heir: I had one guy drive by me and yell at me, “Thanks for ruining the Harvest festival, Jerry!” while I was leaving a restaurant. Of course, I wanted to scream: “I didn’t lose Lil’ Sebastian, it was Tom!”

Offerman: I’m not ready to talk about [the death of Lil’ Sebastian]. About the unimaginable loss of that magnificent little horse, who was so smart that he had a degree from Notre Dame University. Why would you bring up something so obviously traumatic, you smug bastard journalist? Is this supposed to be a “Gotcha”?!

Ansari: The cast was just stacked with talent. Sometimes it was Ron going in on a strip club buffet, other days it’s Andy saying something incredibly dumb and charming or April being April. You can see on YouTube a blooper clip when Adam Scott and I had the scene with Mo Collins [who played Joan Callamezzo] and she says, “I’m going to powder my nose, among other things,” and Adam says: “Is she going to powder her vagina?” That was probably the hardest scene to not break in in my entire acting career.

Schur: I was really excited about creating an entire city that would allow us to comment on the way America functioned, both in terms of its government and its people. We talked about The Simpsons all the time because it had thousands and thousands of tiny characters who can drop into any episode at any time just to make a joke.

Poehler: What I loved about Parks is that it just kept adding more people, more characters and more story. It didn’t get stingy with what was successful, it stayed very open. Jeremy Jamm [Jon Glaser], Jean Ralphio [Ben Schwartz], Tammy 1 [Patricia Clarkson] and 2 [Megan Mullally] – we created this world.

Ansari: Jean Ralphio was obviously very ridiculous. Him and Jenny Slate [Mona-Lisa] together? Even more so. Detlef Schrempf [as himself]? That was random and hilarious. Ginuwine [as Retta’s cousin]? Completely surreal and he smelled amazing. Mo Collins as Joan Callamezzo – she was always on fire. I particularly remember losing it when we saw Joan’s apartment and those absurd portraits she had of herself. And of course – Lil’ Sebastian.

Jones: We spent a lot of time together and often ate lunch together. Afterwards, you’d have this lunch slump so we would have dance parties in our trailers. We’d crank a song as loud as we could – “We Found Love” by Rhianna or “Dead and Gone” by Justin Timberlake – and bounce up and down. It actually worked.

Schur: Someone wrote a joke where Leslie was creating an online dating profile where she says her ideal guy is someone with the brain of George Clooney and the body of Joe Biden so then it was like: “OK, she’s obsessed with Joe Biden.” He was vice president at the time. His camp had watched the show and thought it was funny. It all came together very quickly and suddenly we were in the vice president’s office and he was shooting a scene with us. We shot with him two more times and again for the finale. He was a very good sport and happy to be associated with the show.

O’Heir: We had Michelle Obama, John McCain... a lot of different political people both Republican and Democrat.

Poehler: We had all different sides of the political aisle [guest star on the show] and I can’t imagine that happening now.

Jones: The season where we had Paul Rudd and Kathryn Hahn on was the absolute best. During our free time on set, we took a picture of me, Kathryn, Amy, Adam Scott and Rudd and we had this fantasy of being in like a Nineties, David Kelly-style procedural show called Philly Justice where we were all playing law clerks in Philadelphia. We became obsessed with it and so did the writers. They ended up writing it as an entire episode of a different show which we started to actually shoot. We shot 15 pages of a show that doesn’t exist with our free time.

‘More people watched the show during the pandemic than when it was airing and I don’t think that’s a coincidence…’

‘Parks and Recreation’ officially came to an end on 24 February 2015 with a future-set finale that sent each of its characters off into the sunset in a way that was unexpected yet in keeping with the show’s positive vibes. It’s still a bittersweet memory for those involved but an experience that has gone on to have an unexpected afterlife…

Schur: Finales are tricky. We wanted everybody to know these people are going to be OK so we thought, why don’t we leap into the future and show them that it’s not perfect but everybody remains happy and together? It allowed us to lay in all of these fun things about what happens to Leslie, Ben, April, Andy and everybody. At the end of the day, the finale is very much in keeping with the tone and mood of the show as a whole.

Poehler and Schur, with the cast of ‘Parks and Rec’, celebrating the 100th episode (Getty)
Poehler and Schur, with the cast of ‘Parks and Rec’, celebrating the 100th episode (Getty)

Poehler: If our beginning was bumpy, it felt like we really stuck the landing. I’m very proud of it because Leslie would’ve worked hard to make that happen too. When Mike pitched the idea of the time jump I was very nervous. I thought we were going to bypass all these feelings and goodbyes and I was wrong. It propelled the show. Leslie’s whole ethos is to keep moving and that’s what the show did.

Offerman: I realised how powerfully that moustache would be associated with Ron, so I just decided to kind of retire it. It was kind of an immediate gut call that occurred to me as soon as Parks ended. I’m so grateful that the world of entertainment has allowed me to continue assaying other roles without said lip-thistles, and I hope to one day maybe dust it off and send it back out into the fray.

Ansari: It was such a great experience and we got out at a good moment but whenever I see a Parks cast/crew on any of my future jobs, I light up in a way that’s truly a testament to the group. I saw our camera assistant Tsang at a camera test and I hadn’t seen him since we wrapped the show – I gave the guy a hug, stood back and told him I had to give him another hug. That’s the level of the bond we had there.

O’Heir: It was the worst. I’m a sentimental guy to begin with and I’m terrible at goodbyes. I cried for like two weeks. It was rough but we still have the Parks family text [group] so we’re still in each other’s lives all the time.

Jones: I credit the fact that we were always about to be cancelled as part of the reason why we were so close as a cast. We always thought it was about to be over. In a way, it was the best thing ever because it really did feel like we were on a team.

Schur: I think more people watched the show during the pandemic than when it was airing and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When the world is crazy and scary, TV shows can provide a kind of stability that people crave. TV allows you to watch characters slowly change over long periods. You settle in with them, welcome them into your home for a half hour a week and hang out. It’s like having a collection of friends you check in on and become invested in. We had a very, very good cast of people and they created something through the writing and their acting that was inviting to people. Even though the world is completely upside down from what it was then, it has a sense of optimism that I think is reassuring to people.

Poehler: Playing Leslie expanded my life and she was definitely good for my mental and physical health. She was this engine who had to keep things going. I’m proud of the choices we made together about what she would and wouldn’t do. She felt like a real human. Even now, I have so many people come up to me and say, “She’s the Leslie Knope,” and I’m like, “What does that mean?” I think the “Leslie Knope” is somebody who’s fierce and determined, sticks up for her friends and what she believes in and is a little bit myopic at times. That’s what people are like when they say they’re like Leslie. She was like a Marvel superhero of local government. I’m super grateful that people respond to the show – and me too. I get it and love it and I’m so proud to have been a part of it.

‘Parks and Recreation’ is on Freevee with Prime Video, Apple TV+, Sky TV, ITVX and more digital services