The stars of Parks and Recreation gathered Tuesday at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre for PaleyFest to discuss the long-running NBC comedy and to answer questions from fans.
Moderated by comedian Patton Oswalt, who memorably guest-starred on the sitcom, the night began with a screening of the Season 6 episode “Galentine’s Day” in which Leslie (star Amy Poehler), feeling the loss of best friend Ann (Rashida Jones), decides to rate the female parks department employees on their suitability as her replacement. As Leslie alienates the female staff, her husband Ben (Adam Scott) and co-worker Tom (Aziz Ansari) take on the local tent-rental king (guest star Rob Huebel) while Ron (Nick Offerman) tries to get a moment away from his new baby only to end up babysitting Andy (Chris Pratt) on a survey of the parks.
As the episode came to a close, show co-creator and executive producer Michael Schur arrived onstage with most of the Season 6 cast, each walking out with their own gag as Oswalt called their names: New addition Billy Eichner, who plays crazy Craig, and Ben Schwartz, who guest stars as Tom’s terrible friend Jean Ralphio, each waved to the audience; Jim O’Heir (Garry/Jerry/Larry) and Retta (Donna) filmed the audience on their phones; Scott moonwalked, Poehler ran in giving everyone thumbs up; Aubrey Plaza (April) flipped everyone the bird, Offerman kept taking off, and putting back on, his jacket as he model-walked across stage; and a newly buff Guardians of the Galaxy star Pratt, whom Oswalt introduced as “annoyingly slimmed down,” climbed into his chair backward.
Schur began the panel portion by explaining the casting process for the show, joking, “It turns out when you put Amy Poehler in your TV show, other people want to be in your TV show!”
While he and Poehler knew each other from Saturday Night Live, Schur cited unbelievable luck in being able to cast Pratt, Offerman and Plaza, who were virtually unknown at the time but have taken off since then. “No one was employing him!” Schur said, pointing at Pratt as the audience laughed.
Oswalt then asked Poehler about getting into character as the loveable but deranged Leslie Knope.
“You have to work with your raw materials, and I have really crazy eyes,” deadpanned Poehler, who then thanked for fans for watching the show and for packing the Dolby Theatre.
“This show became owned by the people who watched it, it came alive,” saidsaid, pausing as she was drowned out by cheers and cries of, “We love you, Amy!”
“I’m going to cry!” Poehler laughed, to more cheers.
Oswalt asked Poehler and Scott about another tearjerker, the proposal scene between Leslie and Ben in Season 5. The two revealed that while improvisation was a big part of the show, they played that scene exactly as written.
“We were walking up the steps to go do our scene with Vice President Joe Biden, and we just found out that -- by the way, who cares -- but we just found out we weren’t nominated for an Emmy,” Poehler said, “And Schur was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to go to my hotel and write the proposal scene.’ He wrote that scene, and that’s our show in a nutshell.”
Oswalt and the cast also touched on another show-defining relationship the show: the platonic one between Ron and Leslie. Schur explained that he never wanted Ron and Leslie to get romantically involved and had to continually shoot down story ideas for the two, characterizing the politically opposed pair the “Mom and Dad” of the office.
“The attitude is when people want a dad they vote Republican and when they want a mom they vote Democrat,” he explained. “Like, Republicans are stern and tough and about personal responsibility and war and stuff like that, while Democrats are like, ‘Poor people should have food!’
Schur said that while Ron is a staunch anti-government Libertarian and Leslie is a card-carrying Democrat, the two still have a lot of respect for each other. “We wanted to say one guy can have one set of extremely fervent beliefs that run completely contrary to the beliefs of his coworker and they can still just get along and respect each other and admire each other and find things in common, and they can sit down and have a glass of whiskey together at the end of the night,” he said.
Turning to the third established relationship, Oswalt asked Plaza and Pratt whether they saw the marriage between the cynical April and the happy-go-lucky Andy coming.
“I saw it in a dream, a fiery nightmare,” Plaza joked as Oswalt and Pratt laughed. The two then said the storyline rose organically, and they praised the writers for pairing the two awkward characters.
“Looking back now it looks so intentional,” Pratt said. “April and Andy are just meant to be together.”
Pratt laughed as the cast touched on Season 2’s “Hunting Trip” episode, as he was the only one in the cast who actually hunts -- and for that episode Andy had to remain in the office with April. Detailing the series of physical mishaps filming at the hunting lodge, including nearly falling when trying to run in heels for a scene, Retta told the crowd she was actually scared of director Greg Daniels. So when he called for Donna to cry, “I lost my shit!” Retta laughed, miming tears rolling down her face.
The cast and Schur also praised O’Heir’s physical comedy chops as the klutzy Garry/Jerry/Larry. Schur admitted that as a prank during the first cast screening of the Season 6 premiere, which featured O’Heir’s character in the main credits, rather than show a picture of O’Heir, they put in an “Image Not Found” placeholder. Schur also spoke about casting Christie Brinkley as Jerry’s wife, explaining he only felt comfortable with the entire office making fun of him only if he had, “Secretly, the best life of them all.”
Going back to his questions, Oswalt pointed at Offerman. “Nick, you did full frontal in Deadwood.”
“I just wanted to say that. Moving on!” Oswalt added after a pause as Offerman and the crowd cracked up.
Looking at the character of Ron Swanson, Offerman and Schur revealed that Swanson’s woodshop is actually Offerman’s real one, a detail the writers added to the character after visiting the actor’s home.
“When we were starting the show and they were getting to know us all, I kept saying, ‘Hang on, I have to turn off my table saw,’” Offerman recalled. “Eventually they said, ‘What is this table saw?’” He then invited the writers to his woodshop for an afternoon. “They were poking around and said, ‘You, sir, are a nerd.’”
“Oh, yeah, you were the nerd when the writers showed up at your woodshop,” Schur said.
Offerman said he also plays the saxophone, a detail Schur didn’t know when they came up with Ron’s secret life as jazz musician Duke Silver.
Speaking about the show’s improvisational elements, Schwartz cited the gag of his character popping into frame from different angles, while Schur named Plaza as the author of one of his favorite improv scenes.
“She’s in this kid’s face and she says, ‘If you ever do this again, I will rip your head off,’ the kid is staring at her, but she’s leaning in really, really close as she’s screaming at him and there’s a beat and she goes, ‘Kiss me, and there’s real terror in this kid’s face!’” Schur recalled as the audience laughed. “He makes the slightest move and she goes, ‘Stay away from me!’ Then when we break from the scene the kid went, ‘Oh, my God!’”
Poehler also said she enjoyed Pratt’s improvised two-minute summaries of movies, before she and the others named as a favorite Oswalt’s filibuster in which he explains his plans for a crossover between the Star Wars and Marvel films.
Oswalt then began the Q&A, laughing as Poehler indicated to the stage hands that she wanted more to drink. She was passed a giant bottle of white wine, which she shared among the cast.
The first question came from a fan watching the live stream online, asked the actors about their favorite guest star.
“This is awkward for me,” Schwartz joked as the cast cracked up. While the ensemble named Schwartz and Oswalt as their favorites, Louis C.K., Henry Winkler and Jenny Slate also made their lists.
“I’d do Megan Mullally -- in about 45 minutes,” Offerman joked about his real-life wife, who portrays Ron’s ex Tammy II.
“And we did this little thing with Michelle Obama, too,” Poehler added to thunderous applause.
The next question came from a young woman who had flown in for the panel from Detroit, and asked if the cast felt the show was an accurate representation of the Midwest.
“Do you think it is?” Poehler responded. The fan replied she thought there was a lot the show got right in terms of community and civic spirit. Retta said she recently met a lot of people from Indiana at a party, “And I was like a freaking rock star!
A shaking teenage boy stepped up to the microphone only to forget his question when he realized his image was projected on the theater’s big screen. “Oh shit!” he gasped as Poehler and the cast laughed and then gave him a standing ovation. The boy then mentioned Poehler’s “Smart Girls at the Party” and asked how much she identified with the ambitious and feminist Knope.
“Oh, we’re pretty much the same person,” Poehler laughed. “What’s cool about her is that there’s nothing cool about her.”
Scott and Schur told another fan that while there were no plans to complete Ben’s stop-motion film Requiem For a Tuesday, viewers will get to see more of Ben’s complicated board game The Cones of Dunshire.
The next fan began by referring to Parks & Rec as “the tits,” only to be stopped by Poehler, who made him agree never to use that phrase again.
“Don’t, don’t say ‘tits’ anymore,” Poehler admonished as the audience laughed. He then asked her what she thought Leslie’s career endpoint should be, pausing as the crowd called out “President!”
“I don’t know, I’d like to have a happy ending for her -- but I don’t even like to think about an end for her. I know it’s coming” she said, adding, “I love that her dreams are big but her power is small.”
Poehler then instructed the Paleyfest staff holding microphones to go into the middle of the audience, which permitted a woman to stand up and she loved the show and felt Poehler was “an inspiration.”
“I really picked well!” Poehler laughed. The fan then asked the cast what inspired them about their characters.
“The amount of ass she gets,” Retta said.
“What inspires me about Crazy Craig?” Eichner joked as the cast laughed. “He doesn’t hold anything back!”
O’Heir answered that he admired Garry/Jerry/Larry’s work ethic, and that the rest of the office always had his back even if they made fun of him. Poehler said she enjoyed how openly and fiercely Leslie loved her friends, and being in charge.
“I am told at my job to eat a great deal of bacon, and also eggs and steak and drink scotch,” Offerman joked.
Plaza named April’s “priorities” and her love for Andy, “the stupidest man in the world.”
“He is the stupidest man in the world,” Pratt agreed as Plaza laughed. “Knowledge is very dangerous!”
On that note, Oswalt brought the panel to a close, fans rushing the stage for an autograph as the panel played themselves off stage with the clip of Oswalt’s Star Wars/Marvel filibuster scene.
Parks and Recreation airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.