A Conversation with Mike Schur: “Can Television Make Us Better People?”

A Conversation with Mike Schur: “Can Television Make Us Better People?”


[applause]>>[Dean Sarah Mustillo:] Good evening. On
behalf of the College of Arts and Letters it’s my pleasure to welcome you here this
evening. Michael Schur has been a leader in developing some of the most innovative and
hilarious shows on television. He began his career in 1998 writing for Saturday Night
Live. Early in his career he was faced with the ultimate challenge when he was tasked
with producing the very first weekend update news segment following 9/11. Jimmy Fallon’s
first joke was, and I quote, “the search for Osama Bin Laden is continuing and authorities
believe he may be hiding in a small dark place completely alone. The CIA is now investigating
theaters showing the Mariah Carey movie ‘Glitter.’” [laughter] Schur wrote about this experience:
“When someone would write a great sketch or joke about something so scary and mystifying,
there was a real cathartic laugh that you would get from the audience.” As someone
known for making upbeat optimistic sitcoms—in fact, his new sitcom is even titled “Sunnyside”–Schur
has also built a career out of finding humor in the gravity of life’s challenges, such
as the drudgery of office life with an insensitive, narcissistic boss in “The Office,” the
difficulty of impr oving a community through small-town government in “Parks and Rec,”
and the test of grappling with our awareness of death and moral consequences in “The
Good Place.” In making comedy out of life’s provocations, Schur offers a touchstone for
television viewers to think through these ideas in their own lives. This also makes
him an ideal guest for Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, which asks its faculty
and students to think hard about the good life, and tasks them with finding ways to
use the liberal arts to help make the world a better place. It has indeed our pleasure
to host Mike in the College today, and he’s been a great sport as we’ve kept him running
around all day long. This morning he spoke to several hundred freshmen in the “God
and the Good Life” course who are all reading Kant and Aristotle and hatching plans to ensure
that they don’t end up in the Medium Place. [laughter] Over lunch Mike met with 17 Film,
Television, Theater and Philosophy majors who’ve been taking a deep dive into the
production and philosophy behind “The Good Place.” They’ve seen every episode multiple
times, and have had the chance to ask burning questions about what makes the show tick.
Every week for the next month, those students will have the chance to learn from other members
of the show’s production process, from NBC-Universal execs, philosophy professors who consult on
scripts, and even an expert on fan reception and cult devotion to the show. Tonight we
want to welcome you into that conversation. As with our students, we want to give you
a behind-the-scenes peek at how hit shows like this are made, and at the same time we
want to explore the deep ideas about humor, ethics, human relationships, the common good,
faith, and the afterlife that bubble under the surface of these shows. In the College
of Arts and Letters we love taking up big, complex, and incredibly important questions
like: how do we become better people? how can we work together to improve the world?
and examining these kinds of questions from every angle. We are the preeminent place on
campus where diverse perspectives and challenging questions are welcomed, and where knowledge
can be explored for its own sake, whether it comes from ancient writings or hit tv shows.
We’ll see tonight both philosophy and television offer us a framework for discussing questions
that we all wrestle with and can have a hard time talking about, a topic on which Mike
Schur can certainly offer an instructive perspective. Finally, this project with Mike has also been
evidence of how much fun our faculty and students can have in the process of exploring these
questions, especially ones that cross disciplinary lines and enable a variety of scholars to pitch in and share
their expertise. Everyone involved in organizing this event, including the logistics team of
Chloe Leach, Joann Norris, Christine Grandy, the “God and the Good Life” manager Justin
Christy, the College’s academic advancement director Maria Di Pasquale, and the Communications
and Media Relations directors Kate Garry and Amanda Skofsdad, have relished the chance
to help facilitate this unique opportunity to mix intellect and entertainment in the
pursuit of the truth. We’ll pursue this goal tonight in conversation with Mike Schur,
with the assistance of moderator, Associate Dean Peter Holland, who offers his own expertise
in this area as Associate Dean for the Arts and McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare Studies.
Peter will now explain the format for tonight’s event. [applause]>>[Peter Holland:] Good evening, everyone.
I am indeed, as Dean Mustillo said, Associate Dean Holland. And I must therefore in some
way be related to the director of seven episodes of The Good Place, including the legendary
“The Trolley Problem” in series 2, who was, as I’m sure you all know, Dean Holland.
[laughter] We must both be in the Book of Deans. Joining Mike Schur on the platform
this evening is Megan Sullivan, the Rev. John A. O’Brien Collegiate Professor in Philosophy
and Director of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. She is also the creator of
“The God and The Good Life” course. I have to say, Megan, it took me a while to
realize that when people talked about GGL, that was what they meant, not some abbreviation
for Google. [laughter] Chris Becker is Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television,
and Theater, and she is among many other talents a producer and co-host of the Aca-Media Podcast,
the official podcast for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and she runs the amazing
Notre Dame Film Society which screens on Sundays. And if you don’t go regularly, you should.
What we’re going to do is have some questions and discussion up here on the stage, and then
turn it over to you for questions from the audience. Plenty of time for you to ask questions,
there’ll be some roving mikes going around. Now panelists, I want you to think of me as
Judge Shawn, so if any of you speak emotionally I will of course retreat into my cocoon. [laughter]
It is Shawn who in series 3, episode 11 told us (and this matters to me as a Shakespeare
scholar) that he spends time torturing William Shakespeare by describing the plot of the
Entourage movie. [laughter] The torture works just as well on panelists, and I will remember
this later. So let me ask you what has to be the first question: Can television make
us better people? Megan?>>[Megan Sullivan:] Who came up with this
question? This is the worst.>>[Holland:] Not me!>>[Sullivan:] So, I first saw The Good Place
maybe like a week after the pilot came out, and I remember sitting on my like big blue
couch, being on Facebook kind of zoning out, and noticing about five minutes into the show,
oh my gosh! This is a show that is about utilitarianism! Like they are teaching people about utilitarianism
on this tv show. Does anybody know? I got on Facebook and immediately started with “are
you guys seeing this? Have you seen this philosophy show yet?” One of the things that’s really
cool about it, and this is gonna answer your question so don’t worry—one of the things
that’s like amazing about what Mike has done with this show in particular is, even
if you’ve never taken a philosophy class, which is a
horrible shame, but even if you’ve never had the experience of taking a great philosophy
class—you’re getting, I know, it’s a disgrace. Some of the key like thought experiments—the
whole point of philosophy is not learning about what dead people thought about important
questions. It’s about engaging with those questions yourself. And the way you do it
with philosophy is by being posed these challenges that kind of throw you off your keel, that
raise new questions about whether you’re making the right moral decisions or what kind
of decision you would make in this tough scenario. And you watch every episode of The Good Place
and you’re getting one of these thought experiments and you’re being tricked into
learning the kinds of things you would learn in a really great moral philosophy class.
So you might think, if you’ve got a show that’s able to deliver these thought experiments
in concentrated humorous doses once a week to the mass public, that television might
make us better people. But that depends on this other assumption that just thinking through
the thought experiments makes us better people. Like thinking through the trolley problem
and whether you kill one person to save five people is going to help you on the road to
moral improvement. And a bunch of the philosophers that we study think, not good enough. You
can’t just, like, absorb these puzzles and think about it and entertain it in your living
room and then feel like smart-brained about yourself at the end of it. That’s a term
that we learned from Mike. You’ve gotta do something. Like you have to have conversations
with other people. You’ve gotta apply the thought experiments. You have to make the
jump of like watching this trolley problem dilemma with Chidi is kind of similar to whether
or not I think the military should sacrifice one person, one innocent civilian to save
a bunch of soldiers. And you’ve gotta wrestle with the real-world implications for your
own life of these moral puzzles, which I think one of the super interesting questions for
the discussion tonight and for what Mike is trying to do with this show is, are we watching
the show and then doing the next thing that it would take to become better people? Like
having these conversations, making the application to like the really hard to talk about issues.
It’s like funny to watch Chidi go through a moral dilemma, but it’s another thing
entirely to try to have these conversations about politics at Thanksgiving with your family.
And if we have the bandwidth to do that then maybe television is making us better people.
And if we’re not doing that, then maybe we need to change how we approach the medium
of television.>>[Chris Becker:] Alright, gauntlet laid!>>[Sullivan:] That’s what I learned in
our class this week! [laughter and cross-talk]>>[Becker:] So from the television perspective,
from the television studies perspective, I mean television’s number one job is to make
money full-stop period, right? It’s not to make us better people. But I don’t think
that precludes a potential impact of personal improvement from viewing it, and at the very
least this class has already, we’ve only had now three sessions, but it’s been a
lesson in how much joy a show can bring to people. And we can debate tonight I think
what it means to become a better person. But I like to think finding joy and pleasure in
life is part of that, and part of making this whole journey worthwhile, and I hope I’m
not getting too emotional to bring the cocoon [laughter]. But another part of it is I also
study television less for what happens when it’s out in the world—there are plenty
of people who study that kind of thing—and more so how it gets on to the tv screen. And
yes, all of those people are employed because they make money for networks and studios and agents
and producers and on and on and on. But I also know from first-hand experience of sending
graduates out into the industry that a vast majority also have a sincere desire to tell
impactful stories, to move audiences, to educate them, to entertain them, to give them joy
and pleasure, and then to give themselves creative fulfillment. And again, I think those
are all parts of betterment. It doesn’t always work. There are tons of forces working
against that, and I, we teach that in television studies as well. But I think there’s something
to be said for the creative intention and effort, and that’s something I’m also
looking forward to exploring here today. Not just what television can do for all of us,
but also what television does for someone like Mike and the people he works with. So
I think those are also things to consider.>>[Holland:] That set you up!>>[Becker:] Yeah!>>[Mike Schur:] Here’s what I would say.
I would say that if television can’t make us better people, then nothing can [laughter]
frankly, because television is the, like it or not it’s a flawed medium in many ways,
but it’s also the quintessential at least American art form of the twentieth century
and twenty-first century. There’s no, nothing that American citizens engage with more on
a daily basis for more time than television. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? But
you know, mass appeal art is incredibly effective at being one of the only things in a sort
of fractured world at creating common experiences. When the movie “Phantom of the Opera”
came out, I think it was “Phantom of the Opera” — didn’t they recently make that
into a movie? “Cats” is coming out — yeah. Oh no, I’m sorry, it was “Les Mis.”
So “Les Mis,” this movie comes out of “Les Miserables,” and Les Mis ran on Broadway
I think at the time it had the record for running the most number of shows on Broadway.
And in the opening weekend that the movie was out more people saw it that day than had
seen it combined on Broadway over the course of twenty years because that theater seats
600 people, and even if it runs every day for twenty years, if you make a movie, you
know, five million people can see it in one weekend. And the same is true, even more so
actually, television, you know, there are — I was recently told that the total number
of people who’ve watched the pilot episode of The Good Place is 39 million. That includes
it obviously airing, and then being on Netflix for three years and having been on Hulu and
having been on NBC.com and all the other crazy places where tv shows are available. 39 million
people have seen that half-hour of television. So if it can’t, if it has no effect on the
populace, on the people who are watching it, a) we’re screwed as a people because it’s
the only thing that can do that, and b) why are people engaging with it so much? If they’re
not getting anything out of it but entertainment, I don’t think that people would continue
to watch it as much as they do. So Megan would say that like most philosophers would tell
you, that it doesn’t matter. You can’t become, you can’t try to become a good person.
One of our philosophical advisors is a woman named Pamela Hieronymi. She teaches at UCLA.
She’s coming to the campus in three weeks, and I met with her when I was first working
on the show, and I was like here’s what I want to do. I want to do this show, and
I sort of explained the basic way it would work. And she said, there’s one fundamental
problem with your idea, and it’s that you can’t try to become a better person. It
doesn’t work. And I was like, what do you mean? And she was like, it just doesn’t
work. Philosophers would tell you that it doesn’t work. And
I was like well, did any philosopher think that you could try to become a better person?
And she was like, I mean Aristotle. And I was like great! I got one. [laughter] I got
one. That’s all I need. I need one to justify this idea. But I think that that’s on a
like abstract level. I think on a practical level, any art form that millions and millions
of people are engaging with on average six to eight hours a day, every day, that has
the ability to do something. And I think the show’s argument and my personal argument
would be that yes, it can make you a better person. And that’s the explicit goal of
this show. So again, if I’m wrong this whole last four years of my life has been for nothing!
[laughter]>>[Holland:] I’m so sorry. We’ll get
to the vote on whether it’s been for nothing later. What happens if we flip the question?
In one sense you flip the question and it looks much easier. Can television make you
a worse person?>>[Schur:] Oh, of course. Are you kidding?
Oh, it’s doing that all the time. Yes. Television is excellent in making people worse. Most
things that are on television, if you watch them, will make you a worse person, I think.
I believe that. I would say eighty percent, call it eighty to ninety percent of things
that are on television, just the act of watching them will make you worse. [laughter] I’m
not kidding! Television is a terrible thing. It’s a very powerful weapon, and much of
the business of television, to your point, is aimed solely at a sort of financial transaction.
If I can do something that will make people watch this more, then I can raise the ad rate
at which I sell ads and I will make more money as a television producer. What a bad incentive
system that is! I believe that where you come from, I’m assuming based on your accent,
your system—>>[Holland:] South Bend. [laughter]>>[Schur:] South Bend, Indiana. I guess I
was—touché, I was wrong. No, the system of news, for example, in other countries.
The news media largely is state-supported, which means it’s government-supported which
means it’s taxpayer-supported. And it is essentially non-profit, much of it. Some of
it isn’t, but most of it is. Can you imagine the difference in news coverage in this country
if it were a non-profit industry? I mean, so much of every news channel on every side
of the aisle and every direction is sensationalized in order to make money. And that’s terrible.
The whole point of the news media is it is supposed to just present, it’s supposed
to look around and say here’s what’s happening and present it to you straightforwardly for
information, not for money. And the number of individual times that I have watched any
number of news stations in this country and seen something that was purely, obviously
aimed at profiteering, it’s constant, it’s wall-to-wall. And that’s a terrible situation,
I think. That’s a very dire situation for our republic and for a democracy to have news
be weaponized for money. So yes, television is better at nothing more than making people
bad. It’s excellent at it, and it’s a huge problem. It’s not exaggerating to say
that the shows that I’ve done have attempted in some way to be a tiny, largely ineffective
countermeasure to the idea that this thing that I believe in as an art form and as a
public service, it’s been corrupted and—it’s not even been corrupted. To say it’s corrupted
means it’s not being used for its intended purpose. It is. It was intended to make money,
so it hasn’t been corrupted. It’s just been weaponized. And I’ve tried my whole
career to aim at the opposite outcome. I don’t know to what extent I’ve been successful,
but—and I’m not alone. There’s a lot of people who feel that way and would say
that they, that it’s important that there be people who are making television that is
intended to do good instead of evil.>>[Holland:] But your record shows that you
can do that and make money.>>[Schur:] Thank you, yes! [laughter]>>[Holland:] But not only you, but also the
organizations for which you make the programs.>>[Schur:] It’s just a medium, right? It’s
not, you can use it for anything you want as long as it becomes economically viable
for the people who are making it. And so there’s nothing to say that it has to be used for
evil, there’s nothing to be said that you have to use it to make terrible reality shows
that exploit people, or very lowbrow shows that—or sort of like prurient shows that
traffic in extreme violence towards women. And there are dozens and dozens of those.
You don’t have to do that. That will work, because people are, people in the world are
scared and there is a certain kind of a show that’s been very popular over the last,
say, twenty or thirty years that says the world is really scary, but we’re going to
present a group of superheroes who can keep you safe. And those superheroes might be detectives
who can examine the tiniest strand of hair, one strand of hair dropped in one place and
they can solve the crime of the serial killer. Or they can protect the world from evil invaders
or whatever. And those shows, not in all cases but in many cases are using extraordinary
violence, usually toward women, to make you more scared and then to make you watch their
shows and then to make themselves more money. I find that distasteful and unpleasant to
watch and to engage in, and so you can use it for that but you don’t have to. I think
more people maybe shouldn’t use it for that. [laughs]>>[Holland:] Chris, do you want to come back,
to think further about this problem? Because might what you’re describing, particularly
mentioned reality shows, you mentioned action—let’s say before the universe is blown up by evil
genius number 97. You didn’t mention in that, comedy, which can also be reinforcing
those stereotypes…>>[Schur:] Sure.>>[Holland:] …notions of violence and all
kinds of other things. Chris, I just wondered about how you think about this as a trajectory
across the history of television.>>[Becker:] Yeah. Well, television is so
much and so many things, and that idea like television’s good or television is bad,
there are so many things to that and so many categories within that. And even within those
categories, like you can find problematic things like good examples of reality television,
bad examples and good and bad of this. And you could do the same thing with novels. But
when you say novel you think of a fancy book by an important writer that’s intellectually
important. But a lot of times with television it’s like oh, that’s the crappy stuff.
And so I think that’s part of it. And that’s part of like what we try to do in TV Studies
is respect the entire spectrum of things. And also another thing that comes to mind
is the notion of, one thing we try to equip our students with is media literacy. Understanding where
these images have come from, who produced them, why they were produced, who was behind
the camera, who was producing it. You know, what network, what studio, all those kinds
of things. Because the better you understand what you are seeing and how it was formed,
the more you are empowered to then—you could watch something and not be, and this sounds
too—I don’t know—susceptible is the word I want to use, but I don’t quite mean
it that way. The more you have a handle on understanding where those images have come
from, the more you’re equipped to, you know, essentially kind of properly use them in a
certain way in your everyday life. So that’s, I mean that’s part of what I think is the
purpose of television studies.>>[Holland:] Megan, philosophers, philosophy
as a discipline, it’s not noticeable for its sense of humor.>>[Sullivan:] What?? [laughter]>>[Sullivan:] We were talking about this
earlier, actually. Go ahead.>>[Holland:] Well, I was going to ask, would
you ever have expected that the space in which The Good Place can make an intervention through
comedy is towards a response to and an understanding of philosophy as an intellectual discipline?>>[Sullivan:] I will say I’m shocked that
the shows works. It’s totally awesome that this works, and it’s making a lot of philosophers
feel great about their job prospects. Because you’re right, we’re not usually, there’s
a joke: a philosopher sits down on an airplane and the person asks them what their job is
and they say, philosopher. And they’re supposed to say oh, what are your sayings? I never
get that on airplanes. When I sit down on airplanes next to somebody and they ask me
what my job is and I say philosopher, I always get “I hated that class!” Just like high-level,
jargon, boring, dry. And that is probably the stereotype. And that’s true. A lot of
philosophy books are not like a laugh a minute, mostly because they’re pretty dense. But
there have been, you know, going back to Socrates—we were talking about this at the hotel earlier.
Socrates is really funny. That’s what got him killed! He was going around provoking
people. He was making people who thought they were really smart feel stupid, and he was
doing it in a public way. People were laughing at these politicians and doctors because they
didn’t know what they were talking about. And you can see, you can totally see the spirit
of Socrates in somebody like Steven Colbert, or in shows like The Good Place. Certainly
in like top political satire right now that’s provocative. And the reason that it works
as satire is because it’s asking the hard question that’s making people uncomfortable,
but then lightening up on the pressure just at the right time. And that’s also what
got Socrates killed, is he just forgot to take his foot off the gas at the right time.
So I think, you know, there’s definitely an element to the tradition of philosophy
the last 2400 years that plays on humor to try to get people to talk about something
that’s really uncomfortable. A lot of writings on death, I think also, you have to play with
humor to get somebody to stick with the argument long enough, because it’s just so devastating
to think about normally. There’s an interesting question. This is one we gave the students.
There’s a really wonderful paper by this living philosopher at UNC named Susan Wolf, called “Moral Saints,” which—I
don’t know if you’ve read it, Mike, but you’ve read everything so I wouldn’t be
surprised. She basically argues that anybody who is trying to be as moral as possible would
not be a good person. Like you wouldn’t want to be their friend. You definitely would
never invite them to a dinner party, because partially they would be incapable of having
a sense of humor. Anybody who’d gone like full-throttle into the moral life or like
totally committed themselves would end up like Doug Forcett, if you’ve seen Season
3, which you should have. But would just end up living a kind of joyless existence of really
trying to strictly follow the rules, and moral demands that life places on us can be just
so overwhelming that they make it impossible for you to have a self and certainly impossible
for you to tell jokes or go on misadventures. And one of the things that I love about virtue
ethics, and I love about the direction that the show has taken, is certain moral codes
are like that. They just put you in a straightjacket and they don’t leave any room for you to
be wacky or weird anymore. But the Greeks totally thought that that was a part of the
good life. Misadventures and drunken dinner parties.>>[Schur:] They’re always drunk, yeah.>>[Sullivan:] They’re always drunk! And
thinking that whatever the truth, there is a truth out there about what it is to lead
a great life, this is part of it and you, you know, you practice what you preach. Like
you have to have really funny jokes if you really believe that, and you also really have
to believe it and own it.>>[Schur:] When I was first researching the
show, I just put myself through a course of study of whatever I could find. Like I just
read everything. And when you start reading this stuff, one thing leads you to another
thing to another thing. It just goes on forever. You can read until you die. And I came across—the
way I got to Pam Hieronymi, actually, who’s a professor at UCLA, was I read a paper written
by a colleague of hers who argued essentially that the number of moral choices that we have
to make every day of our lives is so great, and the inevitability of failure when you
make those moral choices is absolute, not just high probability but an absolute probability
that you will fail as a moral agent when you make those choices. And since you do not get
a say in whether you want to be born to the earth, it is immoral to have children. You
shouldn’t have kids. We should all stop having kids because it’s not fair to them,
because they’re gonna become grownups and make a bunch of moral choices and they’ll
fail. And the pain, the psychic pain and the emotional pain of failure at making a moral
choice is so great that it’s not fair to them because they didn’t get to weigh in
on whether they want to be born. So you should just stop having kids and everybody should
die. [laughter]>>[Schur] So I read that and I thought, well
this is a comedy show, so I have to keep reading until I find a way to make this funny. I mean,
obviously that is unintentionally a very funny paper. Like that’s a very funny conclusion
to come to. And we were talking about Peter Singer recently. Peter Singer is a utilitarian
who teaches at Princeton, and Peter Singer is an extremely strict utilitarian to the
point where he has calculated an amount of money that it takes in each country basically
to live a decent life. And that means rent and food and clothing and shelter, and you
know, you get a bonus of a little extra money if you have a child or whatever. And he basically
says that this is the amount of money it takes to live, and every
dollar you make that’s more than that, you don’t need and you should give it to someone
who needs it. And that leads to some very funny conclusions, right? Because it’s like
well, I love my dog. He’d be like, get rid of the dog, right? Get rid of the dog. You
don’t need it and you’re valuing, if you’re spending a dollar on dog food and there’s
a person in West Africa who needs, who’s gonna die of malaria unless he gets a malaria
net to cover his cot because he sleeps outside, and he needs a malaria net to keep mosquitos
away or he’ll die of malaria. And if you give a dollar, if you spend a dollar on dog
food, you could use that dollar to buy a malaria net and save a human life and you’re valuing
your dog more than that human life. And it’s kind of compelling!! Like it kind of traps
you in this weird thing where you’re like, I have this really comfy blanket that I really
like and it costs eighty dollars! That’s like sixteen human lives! [laughter]>>[Schur:] You look around your house and
you start thinking like all of this is, I’m murdering people is what you think. So there
are ways in which the discipline leads to very funny conclusions. It’s just that the
people who thought of them maybe didn’t think they were funny. And so the show is
an attempt to sort of like traffic in that, right? If you watch the show—I said this
earlier, but Eleanor’s reactions, Eleanor Shellstrop’s reactions to learning each
new philosophy are sort of mine. Like you can follow my self-education in this discipline
through watching her learn stuff from Chidi. For example, she learns about utilitarianism
and Chidi says, you know, it’s very simple. You do the thing that leads to the best results.
So you do, the right action is the one that leads to the most good and the least bad.
And her reaction is like, LOVE IT! Nailed it. This one’s simple, I get it. I don’t
have to do a lot of reading. I love this one, let’s go with this one. And he says, well
there’s a problem because it leads to some bad conclusions. Like you could torture one
innocent person to save five people. Is that fair? And she’s like, Goddamit. [laughter]>>[Schur:] And that was my reaction as I
read through the 2500-year history of philosophy. It was a continual feeling of like oooh, this
one seems right. And then learning no, there’s a lot of problem with it. It turns out there’s
a lot of problems with everything.>>[Becker:] And someone has to say it: and
this is why we hate moral philosophy professors.>>[Schur:] There you go!>>[Holland:] The gift that keeps on giving.
I’m still trying to imagine that moment when you tried pitching the show, right? So
I’m gonna make a series which is a comedy and I’ve been good at making this happen
before. My track record is good. And this one …>>[Schur:] Remember the other things I did!
Keep that in your brain.>>[Holland:] Yes. And they were pretty serious,
but not half as serious. This is gonna be about philosophy and how to live a good life,
and you’re twelve seconds into the pitch and you’ve lost them completely.>>[Schur:] Well, to their credit, no. They’re
very smart people, the people who run the studio that pays me and the network that ultimately
pays them. They’re very smart people and just to back up for one second, they made
a terrible decision to basically give me a guaranteed season of tv, whatever I wanted.
They said whatever you want to do. And I was very grateful, but I also thought this is
not, this is a thing that most people don’t get, right? Most people, you have to make
a pilot and you have to sell it and you have to tell them about it, where the show’s
gonna go. And you have to do a lot of legwork and you have to hope that people like the
pilot. And they let me skip the line because I had done other things for them that they
liked and which had made them money. So I felt like I sort of owed it to the concept
of writing to do something weird. Like, you know, I had been working on tv shows that
amounted to a collection of goofballs in an office working together in sort of an ensemble
way, and I’d been doing some version of that for ten straight years. And I thought
well, I could do that again. I know how to do that. But now they’ve given me this other
chance to kind of do whatever I want. And I really felt like it was sort of incumbent
upon me to take a big swing. So I did. They may have, I may have lost them completely
after twelve seconds, but it was too late, there was nothing they could do. But honestly,
I pitched it as a show about what it means to be a good person. And that’s a lot less
scary than saying this is a show about dead people who read moral philosophy. [laughter]>>[Schur:] And they liked it, and also it
should be noted I got Ted Danson and Kristen Bell to be in it. And when you get Ted Danson
and Kristen Bell to be in the show they will let you do whatever you want. So they never,
to their credit they never flinched. They understood it, they got it, they could see
it. It was, I didn’t just pitch the show—when I pitched it to them I pitched the entire
first season which, because I again, it was a constant series of moments of thinking of
what I, ironically because of the show, I kept thinking “what do I owe this person?”
What do I owe to this person?>>[Holland:] Yes.>>[Schur:] Later I hadn’t read Tim Scanlon’s
book “What We Owe to Each Other.” It would later become the kind of spine to the entire
show. But I kept thinking, well I owe it to other writers, frankly, and to the idea of
writing to come with a big swing. And once I decided that I thought well what do I owe
to the people who are paying me? I owe them not just a single idea or a pilot idea, but
I owe them an explanation of how this whole show is going to work. I owe them the relative
comfort of knowing that I have a plan. Because it might be a scary idea to execute for them
if I didn’t have a plan. So I kept sort of taking stock of what I owed and to whom,
and that made it easier to navigate what could have been a much dicier process.>>[Holland:] It’s funny, because what you’re
describing sounds like an episode in The Good Place.>>[Schur:] It does. Yeah.>>[Holland:] …in which there’s a plan
and then what is my obligation having been given the opportunity to plan, what is the architect’s
obligation having been given the opportunity to design a city, a community, a place.>>[Schur:] Yeah. There are many wonderful
things about having made this show for four years. There are also many drawbacks, and
one of the drawbacks is that I have become Chidi-esque in my life to the point where
when a relatively simple dilemma arises in my life, and I go well hang on a second, my
wife’s eyes roll back so far in her head that I can hear it. [laughter]>>[Schur:] And that, but that is, I don’t
think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s bad if you get to the level that Chidi is
at where it literally paralyzes him. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing to take another
two minutes at some important moment in your life and sort of consider what is the decision
I’m making, why am I making it, could I make a decision that’s better, and if so
what’s that decision. I do that a lot more now than I used to. I used to do it a lot
because I just did. I’m sort of a deliberate person. But I do it all the time now, and
I really do feel like that is part, that is a huge part to me of being a better person
is in a moderate way, nothing in excess, in a moderate way second-guessing yourself. Second-guessing
what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and just taking a second to think if there’s
a better option.>>[Holland:] Obviously the answer to how
we get television to be more open to shows that have intelligence and thoughtfulness
and are still extremely funny is for every studio executive to take courses in philosophy.
We would of course offer them immediately…>>[Schur:] And we’d start by asking them
to take courses in television production… [laughter]>>[Holland:] So how do we make not only,
make sure not only that television is making people better if it can, but that we make
better television? And is there a Medium Place for television, because there’s an awful
lot of Bad Place to television.>>[Schur:] Man.>>[Holland:] Chris, do you want to take a
first…>>[Becker:] No! How are we gonna fix television,
Mike? How are you gonna fix it mostly?>>[Schur:] Well, so okay. There’s two parts
of my answer to that question. The first is practical. Television is not dissimilar from
like an ancient culture’s oral tradition of storytelling. The job of being a show runner
is very weird and specific. It is so weird it is not even credited in the credits that
run after a tv show. There’s no credit that says “show runner.” But it’s the most
important job on any tv show, and the reason—I don’t know why there’s no credit that
says show runner, but it’s just a very weird job. So here’s a very standard trajectory
for what a show runner is. A standard trajectory is you go to Hollywood or New York and you
get your first job as a staff writer on a tv show, and you have no idea what you’re
doing and you stink at the job. And hopefully the show sticks around or maybe it doesn’t,
but then you get a second job and you’re like at a story editor level. And then maybe
it’s a decent show and it’s around for a couple years and you move up the ladder
a little bit. And now you’re let’s say twenty-six or twenty-seven and you’ve worked
in tv for like three years and you’ve written a couple of episodes. And you have an idea
for a pilot and you’re like oh, this is interesting, and you write the pilot and show
it to people and they go this is really good. And then like boom, boom, boom, boom you sell
it to a network and they love it and they cast it and they make the pilot and then they
go to Orlando and a shopping mall and they throw it in front of a hundred people and
the hundred people really like it and it gets high test scores. And then what happens is
a network goes to that 27-year-old person and says, here’s a hundred million dollars.
Hire two hundred people and make an entire season of this idea. And if that person, if
that 27-year-old hasn’t been paying very close attention to every aspect of every job
that she has had in that short window of time, she will probably fail at that job. Because
nothing at all prepares you to spend a hundred million dollars of other people’s money
making an entire season of television! Nothing prepares you for that. And so the only way
that it works is if you a) pay very close attention to the people who are teaching you
passively or actively how to do the job. And again, if you’re a 23-year-old who just
got your first job and you can pay rent and you’re so happy that you have enough money
to fly home some weekend to surprise your grandma for her eightieth birthday or something,
the last thing you’re doing is thinking long-term “I should be really focusing on
the mechanics of like the production process.” Why in the world would you pay attention to
that? All you want to do is write jokes. And so the only way that it’s a successful process
is if there is what amounts to an oral tradition. What it amounts to is you have to sit at the
feet of someone very smart and wise and you have to ask them a million questions and they
have to be patient enough—and this is very rare—to answer those questions. So that
by the time you luck into that situation where it’s time for you to spend a hundred million
dollars of someone else’s money, you actually know how to do it. I got very lucky in that
regard. First of all I worked at Saturday Night Live and there’s a bunch of people
who’ve been there forever and there’s a lot of institutional knowledge about how
the show is run. And then I worked at The Office and Greg Daniels, who adapted that
show, is a very professorial gentleman who spent a lot of his time—that first year
the only writers on that show were me, Mindy Kaling, and BJ Novak. The three of us had
written a sum total of zero half-hours of television in our lives. [laughter]>>And he very, very patiently essentially
taught a class on storytelling, on script-writing, on tv production, on editing, on all that
sort of stuff. He didn’t have to do that. He just did it ‘cause that’s what he likes
to do. And so when we got to the point where someone was throwing money at us to make a
show, we actually had an idea of what to do. That’s very rare. So when you ask the question
like how do you make better television, a lot of it doesn’t have to do with the medium
of television, it doesn’t have to do with the ideas, it has to do with there being a
system in place to actually teach people how to do it. And then, here’s the second prong,
I didn’t forget about the second prong. The second prong is right now, that first
prong is running out of control. It is running rampant because there are more places making
more tv than ever before. They’re taking more risks and spending more money on ideas
from more people. So now if you’re a 23-year- old there’s a whole new problem, which is
from the minute you get your first job you’re thinking how do I get the hell out of here
and get into my own show. And the chances are, like if you write a script it’s never
been, there’s never been more of a chance that it will work. So now you have people
taking over this really weird job that no one prepares you for even in the best of circumstances,
and you’re getting that job when you have absolutely no business getting that job. And
I know that I sound kind of like a crotchety old guy saying these kids today, what with
their phones and whatnot. But it’s really true, and it doesn’t have to do with like
longing for a better age, because I believe the age we’re in now it’s better than
it was when I started. But it does have to do with this weird quirk of the job that no
one teaches you how to do it unless you’re actively seeking out to be taught. And that
is a very rare thing. And so I fear that there will be, that in this, you know, amount of
television has gone like this, right? And what you would hope for is that the, you know,
the good stuff has also expanded. But my fear is that the good stuff is gonna stay the same,
and actually in terms of the actual number of shows that are good and well run and have
good ideas behind them, the mediocrity is gonna increase. And that’s a bummer, because
now the business of television has caught up to the ideas and can sustain more ideas.
And it would be a shame if not enough people learned how to do the weird job in order to
succeed when they get their good ideas in front of an audience.>>[Holland:] I’m trying to work out which
member of the panel with a paycheck flew home to surprise their grandmother on her eightieth
birthday! Sorry. We come to the fork in the evening, and I do mean fork in our sense,
not in The Good Place sense, where we turn to questions from the audience. And we have
some plants for the first three questions.>>[Sullivan:] No pressure!>>[Holland:] No pressure on you. So if we
can have a mike down to here, please.>>[Becker:] And while we’re waiting on
that I’ll just throw in another way to improve television, is for more Notre Dame graduates
to go into television. And students who have had television production courses and philosophy
courses and theology and calculus and all kinds of things. So, there.>>[Holland:] You’re each going to ask a
question one after another, and then the panel can select from amongst those three questions
how they answer or combine them together.>>[Schur:] Oh, wow.>>[Holland:] No pressure.>>[audience member:] I was wondering in addition
to just being a funny show, how much of the interest and success of it you think comes
from this sort of era we’re in where ethics are kind of in the headlines for not the best
reasons, but they’re out there, and also just sort of people questioning the systems
and how their choices play a role in those systems continuing.>>[Schur:] Okay, I’m not supposed to answer
that. We just have to wait…>>[Holland:] Not yet.>>[Sullivan:] You’ve gotta remember all
of them.>>[Holland:] You’ll be tested on them later.
This will be on the test.>>[audience member:] So when you made The
Good Place, as you mentioned a little earlier I think, you were given this amazing opportunity
to take like your very original vision for a show and turn that into, you know, a finished
product. But, you know, in order to do that you had to work with, you know, an entire
team of writers and beyond that, you know, cast and crew, production designers, etc.
So as a film student, you know, I find it a lot of the time difficult to collaborate
on creative work especially like that. So I’m wondering, you know, what are the challenges
of doing that kind of creative collaboration and what do you think it brings to the show
as a whole?>>[Schur:] Okay, ethics (a), collaboration
(b), okay.>>[audience member:] So my question is, in
Season 3 Chidi and Simone work on a joint neuroscience and philosophy project. So when
answering life’s big questions, which area of thought do you like to turn to: is it philosophy,
neuroscience, religion, or something else, and why?>>[Schur:] Okay, what do I do now?>>[Becker:] You can also just answer a question
that wasn’t even asked! [laughter]>>[Schur:] Where am I from? Ann Arbor, Michigan [laughter]>>That’s true, by the way. I apologize.
Okay. Collaboration. Collaboration is my favorite part of my job. I’ll start by saying that.
I find it inspiring and wonderful and vital to the process by which I personally work.
That’s not gonna be true for everybody. No one can collaborate with David Lynch, right?
No one. Why would you try? Like Marv Frost collaborated with him, but I think he collaborated
with him by being like okay, David Lynch is going to do his thing and then I will try
to shape it into something that could actually be filmed. But sometimes David Lynch doesn’t,
he makes movies and he doesn’t collaborate with anybody, and anybody collaborating with
him would dilute the process by which we get David Lynch films and I don’t want anyone
to dilute the process by which we get David Lynch films. So nothing says you have to collaborate
with people. I mean, other writers. You do have to collaborate with other artists, production
designers and costume designers and stuff. But that collaboration, there is a benevolent
dictatorship version of a tv show or a movie where it’s just this is my vision, please
help me execute my vision, and if it doesn’t match my vision I’m gonna ask you to try
to, you know, fall in line. That’s okay as long as you’re treating the people that
you’re saying that to respectfully. If you’re ranting and raving and stomping your foot
and screaming at people and firing them for their miserable failure, that’s not okay.
Although there’s a whole lot of people in Hollywood who’ve gotten real rich doing
that. But I don’t recommend it just as a way to
live. So there’s nothing that says you have to collaborate with other artists or writers
in terms of like executing an idea or conceiving of an idea. You do have to collaborate with
a lot of other people to make anything good, unless you are doing a one-woman show about
Mark Twain or something and you’re playing him and you’re doing all your own makeup.
In that case, go crazy. Also by the way I would love to see that show, it would be great. [laughter]>>But just, I think that the only thing that
is required of you or is incumbent upon you is to treat people respectfully, and as long
as you’re doing that then you can execute, if you want to execute a singular vision,
execute a singular vision. Like there’s nothing wrong with that. That was (b). C was
what discipline do I fall back on when answering these questions: I don’t know anything about
neuroscience.>>[Holland:] That’s the next project.>>[Schur:] That’s the next show. But we
had a character in Season 3 named Simone, and in Season 4, who is a neuroscientist and
we designed that character and then we went—we were like there has to be a human being somewhere
on earth who knows about both neuroscience and philosophy. And we found one who’s name
is Joshua Green who’s a professor at Harvard who wrote a book called “Moral Tribes,”
and we consulted him. He was a consultant on Season 3 of the show. And we sort of asked
him like if you were going to do an interdisciplinary study combining philosophy and neuroscience
what would it look like? And he was very helpful and helped us sort of design that aspect of
the show. I found the process of reading philosophy for this show to be wonderful and exhilarating
and so annoying, just so annoying and painful and sad and miserable and great, and so fun
you guys! But it’s also really awful. And mostly what I really liked about it is I knew
a very small amount about the subject and just decided to try to learn more. And I have
that feeling about a number of things. One of them is neuroscience. I knew this much,
and now I know this much. But I think the joy for me is learning about something new,
something that I don’t know anything about. I didn’t know anything about local government
when we started Parks and Recreation, and I met, I went and met with a lot of people
who work in local government and their stories are fascinating. If you’ve watched the show
Parks and Recreation, there’s a character in Parks and Recreation named Ron Swanson.
So you know who Ron Swanson is. So we had this idea, Greg and I had this idea for a
person who worked in local government who was a libertarian and who believed that the
government should be dismantled and thrown away. [laughter]>>And we thought that was really funny, but
it was like, well that’s not believable, right? So we went to this local government
near where we live in LA and we were speaking with this woman who was very lovely and she
was showing us around and telling us how things work. And we said listen, we have this idea
for this character who actively works in local government but also believes that, is a libertarian
and believes that government should literally be dismantled and thrown in the garbage. Is
that just too silly to work? And she said no, I’m a libertarian. [laughter]>>And we kind of stared at her, and she went,
“I’m aware of the irony.” And we were like, alright. So it turned out there is nothing
that you can propose about local government that is too absurd to be true. So that was
also exhilarating, to meet people that I didn’t know anything about their lives and I learned
about their lives, and then we infused the show with that stuff. So I think the more
important thing in terms of having one thing that I would fall back on is the idea of learning
about new things. I think that’s more fun. And I forget question A). Oh! Ethics, I got
it. So this show was conceived of in early 2016, and I wrote the pilot and we did a lot
of the work for the first season in early 2016 before the presidential election of 2016.
And I thought we were doing something that was completely abstract, and that the idea
of a show about ethics specifically and ethical behavior and what it meant to be a good person
through the lens of ethical behavior was just a piece of art floating in the universe. And
then over the course of the next three and a half years the word “ethics” has appeared
on the front page of every major newspaper on more days than it has not. And that was
completely coincidental. So I think it’s been really interesting to make this show
in this era. It was completely unintended. It did not set out to be any kind of commentary
on the current political situation or the current socioeconomic situation of America
or anywhere else. It just happens to have weirdly dovetailed with national events. So,
I mean that’s not bad. I think that’s good, but we, luckily for us, we realize,
our characters are all dead and so they don’t know anything that’s going on on earth and
as a result they can’t comment on it. And we, we wanted to avoid the current political
climate anyway, because the current political climate has very little frankly to do with
the history of philosophy. And we wanted to avoid it anyway and then we had a loophole
for how to avoid it which was they’re all dead and they don’t know anything about
what happened. So we avoided it until, basically up until the present day. We’ve avoided
talking about American politics.>>[Becker:] Then I have a quick follow-up,
because your show which premiers in two weeks or a week, deals with immigration. And so
it seems like that will be…>>[Schur:] Yes. I’ve found another outlet
for how to comment on America. Although that show, yes, the show Sunnyside that Kal Penn
is starring in, that I didn’t create. I’m producing it, my friend Matt created it, he
was a writer on Parks and Rec and The Good Place. It’s not overtly, I mean it is a
political show just because immigration is a political football that’s tossed around
a lot, but the show itself is attempting simply to tell stories about people who want to get
their citizenship from a bunch of different places. They’ve a bunch of different backgrounds
and it is not, our goal is to never say the word Trump out loud, first of all because
I feel like we’ve heard that word enough, and also because that’s not the point of
the show. The point of the show is to tell stories about people who want to get citizenship
through a comedic lens. And so we’re trying to keep it apolitical as much as we can.>>[Holland:] Good luck with that ambition.
More questions from the audience? I’ll try and find hands. Somebody just under the gallery.
I’m trying to look around, I promise I will be as fair as I can.>>[audience member:] Is this on? Okay. First
of all, a huge fan. So how do you balance humor and philosophy? So my favorite episode
of The Good Place is the trolley problem. I think you very accurately represent
the trolley problem, but you also have this amazing comedic spin on it. How do you like,
how do you continually balance just the seriousness of philosophy with the humor in The Good Place?>>[Schur:] Well, the trolley problem to me
is inherently hilarious. [laughter]>>It’s like a very, very serious philosopher
said, imagine you’re on a trolley and there are five people on the tracks and the brakes
fail and you can pull a lever and divert the trolley and only kill one person. What do
you do? That’s hilarious. I mean, like what a choice! Like, are you kidding me? There’s
no third option here? I mean I first heard about the trolley problem in college about
a hundred years ago, and I believe when it was first brought up in the class I was in
I laughed out loud. And it has remained a source of comedy for me forever. And then
the more you read about it, the more hilarious it gets, right? The more it’s like, well
would you, there’s a janitor at a hospital and there’s five people who need organ donations.
Would you murder this janitor and harvest his organs to implant them in the five—I
mean, what world are we in? [laughter]>>That’s, I mean first of all, hilarious
that you’re a doctor and five patients come in. One’s missing a liver, one’s missing
two kidneys, one’s missing a heart, one’s missing a brain, like what happened in that
town that led to this?? But I always thought it was funny. So part of the fun, philosophy–no
offense—can be a little trying, a little dry, a little dense. But what’s wonderful
about philosophy is that occasionally you wade through like 700 pages of impenetrable
prose and then the philosopher will say like, here’s an example. And then they throw out
something like the trolley problem and you’re like, why couldn’t you have made the whole
book this stuff because I can understand this! So that, to me that was what the show was
going to be always, was like I said when I pitched the show, to go back to this question,
I said to NBC, I promise I won’t make it feel like homework. And in like the third
episode Chidi’s standing at a blackboard and it says Philosophy 101. So I lied to them.
But that was what I meant by that, that there are aspects of philosophy, of moral philosophy
that are very funny and which are phrased and put into contexts which are inherently
comedic. And if we could just get to that moment. That doesn’t come until Season 2
but I felt from the beginning like if I could make this show last until we get to an episode
where we can do the trolley problem, we’ll be fine. Because it is so funny. And we talked
about this earlier in the other class, but there are, there’s like I don’t know,
how many varietals of the trolley problem are there? There’s hundreds, like it just
keeps branching out and branching out and branching out. And people write more and more
articles about like well here’s another example. And one of them, there’s a guy
on a boat and there’s a volcano erupting on an island and there’s fifty people on
the north end of the island and only one on the south end, and it’s like where do you
go? It’s like, well get away! You’re on a boat, get out of there, get away from the
erupting volcano, how about that?? So the, it’s easy with stuff like the trolley problem.
It’s harder when you’re talking about Tim Scanlon’s book, What We Owe to Each
Other, which is itself very dry and very hard to sort of get across. But you have a bunch
of really funny writers and you have a bunch of really funny actors and you just figure
out ways to write jokes about it. And it was a real challenge for the writers a lot of times, but the trolley problem,
that was easy. Give me a hundred trolley problems and I’ll keep the show on forever. [laughter]>>[Holland:] I’m still having problems
with trolley problem number 7 which is where Chidi kills five William Shakespeares to save
Santa Claus. [laugher]>>[Schur:] We actually had a debate about
that. That’s a little throwaway joke, but we had a debate about like well, what would
he do? And we figured out that he was like well some people don’t like Shakespeare
but everyone likes Santa Claus, I guess I’ll kill off Shakespeares. [laughter]>>[Holland:] My career is over. Question
down here?>>[audience member:] First, on behalf of
everyone in the Humanities, thank you for giving us street cred with your tv show. It’s
made a difference. Two-pronged question, philosophy and comedy. I just want to hear your riff
on two tv shows that I think are really significant in these two realms. Philosophy: Bojack Horseman.
Doing something very different with philosophy than what you’re doing, but would like to
hear what you think about the show and its relation to The Good Place. Comedy: a show
that is to me basically my second religion, Arrested Development. What do you think that
show…>>[Schur:] So you’re like an anarchist
or something like that? [laughter]>>[audience member:] I’m a never-nude.
What did that show do to the comedic landscape, and how does comedy after that show, does
it relate to it, especially in your comedy? What do you think about that? Thank you.>>[Schur:] Okay. So this is gonna sound like
a copout, but I have a moral code, which is I don’t like to talk about other comedy
shows. I’ll happily talk about dramas, but I don’t like to talk about comedy shows
with even ones I like (wink, wink) because I feel like it’s, comedy people commenting
on other comedies is just a bad idea. And also even if you’re talking about shows
that you like and you don’t—if someone says what are your favorite comedies that
are on the air, and you mention eighteen shows, you will forget to mention one that you a)
like and b) your friend works on, and then that friend will call you and say what the
hell, right? So without commenting specifically on those two shows, which I can say I love
both of those shows. You’re right, they’re doing very different things. Arrested Development
was the first, for the first time in the single-camera world, there’s multicamera shows are ones
in front of an audience, right, you can hear the laugh track. Single camera shows, they
aren’t only shot with one camera but they’re more filmic and there’s no laughter. There
have been some great multicamera shows that were sort of experimental and broke the mold,
like Seinfeld for example. Arrested Development was a real watershed in single-camera world,
which is where I live, because the storytelling was
so intricate and so complex and moved so quickly, and it made a lot of people including me,
feel like greatness was achievable on network television. Like that was a really important
moment. The Office came on about a year and a half I think after Arrested Development,
and I don’t know if The Office survives without Arrested Development. I think there’s
a lot of shows that might not have survived without Arrested Development because it proved
that you could make a half-hour comedy that intricate and complex and layered and multidimensional,
and have a cast that big, that many talented people in one place and have it work. So that
was a very important show, I think, in the history of—when someone writes the definitive
history of tv comedy 2000 to the present, it’ll probably start with that show, I think.>>[Holland:] Question over here.>>[audience member:] Hi. This is not philosophical,
sorry Megan. But I would just really be kicking myself if I didn’t ask. How did the character
of Mose get conceived of and how did you end up playing him? [laughter]>>[Schur:] I, I truly believe I could somehow,
someday cure esophageal cancer and when I died my obituary would say, “Michael Schur,
who portrayed the Amish neck-bearded farming Mose on The Office, and also cured esophageal
cancer, died today at the age of 97.” Okay. Briefly, part of Greg Daniels—Greg Daniels
started at SNL just like I did, and at SNL everything is, all the job titles are sort
of indistinguishable. Writers act and actors write and everybody, it’s a big sort of
mess. And he believed in this sort of creative power of that idea and that’s why Mindy
and BJ and Paul Lieberstein who played Toby, they all acted on the show. I wasn’t a performer
so I didn’t perform on the show and I didn’t particularly want to. There was a terrible
reality show in probably 2004 or 2005 that was mean-spirited and cruel and awful called
Amish in the City. And the premise of the show was they took eight meat-headed dingdongs
from LA, just hard-bodied, hot 23-year-old dingdongs. And they brought them to a house
in the Hollywood Hills and they were like you guys are gonna live here and it’s gonna
be awesome. And then they also took eight, I think, Amish youths on Rumspringer and brought
them to the house and said here are your roommates. And it was awful. It was a train wreck in
exactly the way the producers intended it to be. One of the very lovely, kind, sweet,
generous, wholesome Amish youths was named Mose. And he had a very low, odd voice and
he was very sweet and he made little wooden toys for his new roommates and they were not,
you can imagine, interested in receiving wooden toys from him. And I was complaining about
the show and how mean-spirited it was in the room, and Greg pointed to me and went like,
you’re gonna play Mose because it was part of the backstory of the show already that
Dwight Schrute had Germanic Amish roots in Pennsylvania, and he should have a cousin
on the beet farm and it should be you playing Mose. And I was like ha-ha-ha. And then he
sort of like in a hazing way just made me do it. Now side note: there’s one other
detail that’s important here, which is my natural facial hair growth is a neck beard.
I cannot grow hair on my cheeks. All of the men in my family are like this. My mom’s
brothers can’t either. So he noticed, that helped, right? He noticed that my beard was
just… and so he made me do it. And the first episode, he made me grow a real beard. He
wouldn’t even let me—it’s really awful behavior— [laughter]>>He made me grow a real beard and we shot
the first episode I had to do was in a part of the sort of exurbs of LA called Disney
Ranch, I think it’s owned by Disney. And it’s this wide-open chunk of land with a
couple little structures on it where people shoot stuff. It was August something, it was
128 degrees, I had a neck beard, I was wearing wool clothing and like old boots. And I didn’t
even get to talk, like they didn’t even let me talk. And I hated every second of it,
I really did. And then they loved how much I hated it, and so they made me do it again.
They made me do it like fifteen times, and I hated it every time. And the more I complained
about it, in true like older brother fashion, the more they made me do it. So that’s the
whole story, and I hated it. [laughter]>>[Holland:] I’m now wondering how you
work this into the next generation, who it is in The Good Place who’s going to go through
an ordeal like that.>>[Schur:] I feel like just surviving that
experience without murdering all of them gets me in.>>[Holland:] Question over there?>>[audience member:] I’m going to bring
it back to philosophy. So just like I also had no experience with philosophy until I
took Professor Sullivan’s class, and I was like immediately very interested in it. Were
you interested in moral philosophy before you came up with the idea of The Good Place,
or like did The Good Place inspire you to learn about moral philosophy?>>[Schur:] I was interested in it before.
I took a couple classes in college and I really liked it, but I just sort of didn’t pursue
it that much. And then a number of things happened over the years that cropped up in
my life that made me think like oh, this is a moral philosophy question, like this is
something I could answer if I were smarter or knew more about this subject. And then
when I, so when I conceived of the idea for the show, the first round of sort of reading
I did was about religious conceptions of the afterlife, which are fascinating. All of them
are fascinating, and they’re all intertwined and they borrowed from each other in really
interesting ways. And it was great, it was like a really wonderful sort of month and
a half of just indulging in this academic pursuit. And then I realized the show wasn’t
about religion, it was about ethics, and I had wasted my time. And I put it away and
I started a new course of study which was moral philosophy, and as soon as I started
reading it I was like yes, this is correct. So like I had a baseline interest in it, I
think, at a very shallow level. But I didn’t really know a whole lot about it. I went to
Harvard and at Harvard there’s a very famous class called Justice that a man named Michael
Sandel still teaches? Does he still teach it?>>[Sullivan:] It’s unclear if he still
did, until very recently.>>[Schur:] There were two classes that everybody
took. One of them was called Justice and one of them was called Thinking About Thinking,
which was Sandel, Robert Nozick who’s a famous philosopher, and Alan Dershowitz. And
the idea was they would throw out a topic and then Nozick would talk about it philosophically
and Sandel would talk about it sort of moral or legally, and
Dershowitz, yeah, would talk about it legally. It was basically three guys on stage listening
to the sound of their own voices. The joke on campus was—it was called Thinking About
Thinking—the joke on campus was it was called Talking About Talking. [laughter]>>But everyone took those two classes because
it was this sort of big-picture introduction to all of these ideas. I took neither of them,
and I regretted it. As soon as I started doing this reading I really regretted it because
it would have given me a much stronger foundation for reading on my own. Sandel has a book that
he wrote called Justice that is sort of a survey of all the stuff he teaches in the
class, which I really enjoyed. I read the book instead of taking the class. I really
enjoyed it, it helped me a lot sort of like organize the basic thoughts. But no, it’s
all, the fault of error in the show is mine and not my teachers’ I would say.>>[Holland:] One last question.>>[audience member:] I just wanted to start
by saying thank you because your shows have truly shaped my life, and—>>[Sullivan:] Have they made you a better
person?>>[audience member:] I have gotten into many
arguments with my mother about it and I truly feel like I have. But during my first week
here at Notre Dame, because I’m a freshman, it was very hard adjusting to campus and Season
3 of The Good Place had just come out on Netflix so I binged the entire thing of course over
the weekend. And there’s one scene in the finale where Eleanor looks at Janet and says,
“so just tell me what it is. Tell me the meaning of life.” And she responds with
“when nothing seems to make sense, when you find something or someone that does, it’s
euphoria.” And that has stuck with me throughout my entire time here, and I just want to say
thank you for that. But now on a more brighter note—>>[Schur:] When you say it stuck with you
for your entire time here, you’re a freshman, you’ve been here like an entire week! [laughter and applause]>>[Becker:] But it feels like a lot, it feels
like a lot!!>>[audience member:] That is also very true.>>[Schur:] It’s a lovely sentiment, but
you’re also like, it’s not that lovely…Like get in touch with me in a few years if it’s
still stuck with you.>>[audience member:] If you give me your
contact information I will. [applause]>>[audience member:] But anyway, so your
shows feature some of the strongest love stories that I have ever seen with Leslie and Ben,
with Ann and Chris, with Michael and Holly. I’m so sorry, I’m a little shaky.>>[Schur:] You said Amy, and that’s the
actress’s name. Amy was on the money.>>[audience member:] What inspires you to
bring these powerful love stories to these shows, and also it would kick me if I didn’t
ask it, what did Jim write to Pam in the teapots? [applause and laughter]>>[Schur:] So I was asked that earlier and
I’ll give you the same answer. I actually wrote the letter by hand, and I will never
tell anyone what it says. It was a long discussion, it wasn’t just me coming up with it. There
was a long discussion with all the writers and everybody, but we made a sort of blood
pact that we would never tell. So to your first question about love stories. So okay.
Comedy writing in general is the domain of misfits and weirdos and anxious people, and
people who are concerned with being cool. And mushy love stories are the opposite of
all of those things. Mushy love stories are about sincerity and honesty and openness and
vulnerability, and those are all qualities that comedy writers generally speaking don’t
have. And the great risk of writing, of sort of making room in a show for romance, and
not just romance but sort of like unabashed romance, like romance that’s just—I’m
not trying to do this in like a cool way, I’m just saying like people on earth are
bumping into each other and they’re being vulnerable with each other and they’re having
moments of openness and honesty that are, and exposing themselves, their souls to each
other. That is a thing that most comedy writers, and most humans on earth, shy away from because
it’s scary. It means that you are sort of walking out on a very shaky tree branch and
sort of presenting yourself and you’re risking your friends and your cool comedian buddies
and your cool LA folks laughing at you and saying like you’re lame and you stink and
whatever. But there aren’t any good shows without love stories, alright? And there aren’t
any good books without love stories, I think, at some level. And that doesn’t have to
mean romantic love. But that means like human vulnerability and the sort of, the fear and
the risk-taking that comes with being vulnerable around other people. So Greg Daniels, who
taught me how to do this job, said from the beginning about The Office, he’s like we
are going to take time in every episode to be serious and to make room for that stuff.
And it’s gonna be weird and people aren’t going to like it. He told NBC, when the show
was airing, he was like people aren’t going to like this. They’re not going to like
the show. When you test this show people are gonna say it’s bad. And he sort of prepared
them for it, because it was, I mean the show then was groundbreaking in a number of ways.
It was a mockumentary which hadn’t been done. It was really slow and deliberate. It
had a very downbeat tone to it. It was fluorescent lighting and it didn’t look pretty. And
it had this weird inversion where the normal show formula is the love story, the main love
story is at the center of the show and then in the side, in the corner there’s a wacky
boss who comes in and the wacky boss makes some jokes and then he leaves and then the
focus, the audience focuses on the love story. And the British version of the show, and then
the American version of the show, inverted that. And they were like, this whole show
is about the wacky boss, and it’s about him and what a weird psychological profile
he has. And we’re gonna take this love story and we’re gonna shove it into the corner
and you’re going to get this much of it every week. That was a very revolutionary
idea at the time, and people didn’t like it. But Greg’s point was, we are never going
to do an episode of this that doesn’t have that little
piece, that little kind of, that little chunk of time, fifteen seconds or thirty seconds
or forty-five seconds of every episode. It’s gonna have no jokes and it’s gonna be uncool
and it’s gonna be sincere and it’s gonna have a sense of two human beings on earth
relating to each other in a way that’s vulnerable and honest and real. And that was just, that
was a non-negotiable part. Even the dumbest, silliest episodes of The Office have that
somewhere in them, and that’s just how I was taught. And it seems like a very good
formula to me. And so that idea carried into Parks and Rec, and in that case, by the way,
I was working with a woman, Amy Pohler, who lives for that stuff. Her whole life and creative
career is about like being gushy and gooey and real and kind of vulnerable and funny
at the same time. And so you just keep working with people who share that sensibility, and
you just reaffirm your commitment every week to saying like yeah, we’re not gonna only
be cool and funny and hip. We’re gonna elbow out time in every episode we do to make sure
that human beings can relate to each other honestly at some point. And at the end of
it, you get to the end of two hundred episodes of The Office or a hundred and twenty-five
of Parks and Rec and you have a real sense of who they are as human beings instead of
just ciphers who bounce around and say dumb things. And it matters. I really believe it
matters. I think the reason that people like you who are eighteen years old are watching
The Office, a show about a paper company in central Pennsylvania is because, it’s not
because you care deeply about the American paper industry, but because those emotional
stories and those emotional connections are so real and tangible and you feel like they’re
meaningful to you. So that’s just, I think that’s the best way to do it.>>[Holland:] Megan, Chris, final comments?
Anything brief you’d like to add? Not necessarily about The Office.>>[Sullivan:] I would just say thanks. Dean
Mustillo mentioned this, but Mike has been on campus and pretty much going nonstop since
7:30 this morning with our crew. But it’s been totally fantastic to have this conversation,
and I think the students who’ve been participating can verify that you can take something that
seems trivial and fun like a 22-minute sitcom on television, and if you look at it at the
right angles and at a place like Notre Dame and with the right kinds of resources, you
can stretch it out into like ten-hour nonstop conversations with lots of different angles
and still be surprised. Like all these questions tonight were really surprising. So that’s
just like, it’s cool.>>[Becker:] Yeah, and we’ve been planning,
you know, the class, everything since January. This was, you know, we started with lunch
at Allie’s and just, you know, and Megan said Mike Schur was coming and we were like
what could we do, like let’s make things happen from this. And this is one of the things
that I love about Notre Dame, that you can have an idea like this and everybody is all
in and like let’s do this. So we’ll come to classes, we’ll do a public talk, we’ll
have him interact with, you know, the second Dean Holland he’s interacted with in his
life. [laughter]>>Like all of these possibilities. And I
think that’s, you know, we’ve been planning this for so long and this has finally gone
on exactly like we’d hoped, maybe even better. And so it’s just so great to see this happen.>>[Holland:] So we know that some bits of
television, the ten to twenty percent that you described, might be able to make us better
people. I know that sessions like these do. We, I want to say thank you and bring it to
an end. But there is a very special announcement to come from Dean Mustillo first.>>[Schur:] I’m so scared right now! [laughter]>>[Holland:] Be very afraid.>>[Dean Mustillo:] Before we let Mike return
to Los Angeles and the production of his new series Sunnyside, premiering on NBC on November
26, following the final season premiere of The Good Place, we have one final task to
attend to. Those of you familiar with Parks and Recreation remember Li’l Sebastian,
a mini-horse beloved in Pawnee, Indiana. For those of
you who are not familiar, we’ll show you a clip. [clip] [applause]>>Sadly, Li’l Sebastian passed away in
2011, but his memory lives on at Notre Dame. In honor of your visit and that mini-horse’s
extraordinary life, we have decided to officially dedicate the popcorn stand in the DeBartolo
Performing Arts Center to Li’l Sebastian. [wild applause]>>One floor above the Regis Philbin Studio
Theater will sit the Li’l Sebastian popcorn popper. Please allow me to read the citation.
“From the University of Notre Dame: the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center hereby declares
this the Li’l Sebastian Memorial Popcorn Popper, a life and legacy of delighting crowds
from Pawnee to Buckingham Palace to Kuwait will be honored forever by delighting crowds
at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center with buttery, freshly popped popcorn. Animalis
legend amicus equus Pawnee perfectum.” [applause]>>[Schur:] That’s wonderful. I can’t
believe I wrote that joke seven years ago and now he actually does have an honorary
degree.>>[Mustillo:] Thank you all for being here
tonight. Please enjoy the rest of your evening. [applause]

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