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The secrets to a satisfying sitcom finale, according to Parks and Rec's Michael Schur

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The final season of Parks & Recreation wraps its run at 10 pm Eastern on Tuesday, February 24 on NBC. This season has been a beautifully emotional, nostalgic spin through some of the best moments on one of the best sitcoms of its era. Freed from the burdens of having to keep all of the characters in the central small-town setting of Pawnee, Indiana, the series has begun scattering them to the winds in episodes that are as hilarious as they are moving.

Before the show's one-hour finale aired, I talked to the series' co-creator and showrunner, Michael Schur, about the things he's learned in making the final season of a long-running sitcom. He was kind enough to provide me with 13 lessons. Should you ever find yourself wrapping up your beloved TV comedy, you would do well to take these lessons to heart.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed for length.

1) Writing the last episode can feel like you're killing characters you love

I was very surprised about how difficult I found the final episode to be to write. It wasn't because the story wasn't broken properly or we didn't have a clear-eyed mission statement. It was simply the actual act of writing it.

I found some old procrastination techniques. Some college-era procrastination techniques kicked in. And I questioned my own writing in a way that I hadn't in a while on the show, because I started to feel the pressure of not just, "Is this a good joke?" or, "Is this scene unfolding properly?" but like, "Is this an appropriate scene as one of the final scenes that would ever be written and performed and shot on the show?"

"Oh God, I'm killing these characters as I write these final words." That was very hard to overcome.

In the final scene of the finale, the idea was that every character gets one last little joke or comment. I was like, "In this last scene, everybody should say one thing, and that one thing should be kind of a representative sample of what that actor or that character meant to the show."

That scene took me about three days to write. It's like three-quarters of a page long. I wasn't anticipating the real sense of like, "Oh God, I'm killing these characters as I write these final words." And that was very hard to overcome.

2) Look to great shows of the past

We had a regular date in the writers' room. During lunch, we would watch series finales — at least once a week, really.

Michael Schur (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

We watched the Cheers finale. We watched the Friends finale. We watched The Sopranos finale, The Wire finale, Six Feet Under. We watched Frasier, I think. It started off as, "Oh, this will be a fun way to spend our final season," but it ended up being incredibly instructive.

When I was in college, there was a seminar that was offered on last words. Literally the organizing principle was the last words that people say before they die. I remember thinking, "That seems like kind of a thin perspective. How are going to spend an entire semester on that?" But people who took it really liked it, and I think it's because the last words of a person were jumping off point, to discuss who they were and what their relevance was to the culture.

I found the same to be true of the final episodes of shows. It's instructive just in terms of how people handle it differently — structurally, dramatically, or comedically. But then it also made me think about that whole series and what I remember from the series, and that gave me a sense what effect we wanted our finale to have on people. Both in terms of it as a episode that stands alone, and also one that represents the final statement of the series as a whole.

3) The best endings have a sense of circularity

I thought one of the best seasons of a drama that I'd ever seen was The Shield season five, where Forest Whitaker came in. They were going all the way back to the pilot. The event that happened in the pilot [a brutal murder] for that show was truly shocking. And then to dedicate an entire season years later to the events of that pilot, was awesome. It was so rewarding for viewers, I think, to say, "This is a universe where the actions of the characters matter so much that they're still reverberating years later."

Obviously, the final season of The Shield did the same thing. The last episode of that show had Vic Mackey confessing to that crime, among other crimes that he had committed. It's very pleasing for people who have watched an entire run of a show, to feel like the beginning of a show mattered at the end.

[The circularity] came really from realizing that we should use that Jason Bourne quote of "This is where it started for me. This is where it ends," which Leslie says in the premiere this year. The story of this show is a woman who had big ideas and big dreams and started small, and in the season seven premiere, it's not like she's the president of the United States or anything, but her career has advanced a considerable amount. And when she sees an opportunity to do what she wanted to do at the beginning of the show on a much larger scale, it just seemed like a good dramatic conceit.

That was the jumping-off point for Leslie, but we did it with all the other characters. We had April suddenly questioning the fact that she had taken this internship [with the Parks Department prior to the series' beginning] and then just had not given another thought for a long time about what it is she wanted to do. The Johnny Karate episode [focused on the kids' show of Andy Dwyer, played by Chris Pratt] was a celebration of how far Andy has come. It just felt like the right thing to do in the final year to go back to where all the people were when we first met them, and then see where they are now and see how their lives have changed.

This is not revolutionary thinking for a TV show. But it especially made sense for this one because the story of the show, in large part, was about these people and their lives changing and shifting throughout the year, and so it seemed like a good idea for us, specifically.

4) The West Wing nailed its ending — learn from it

We spent a lot of time planning and conceiving of the final year. We took a West Wing approach to it. I really love the final season of The West Wing, and I especially loved the last half-dozen episodes. Instead of waiting until the finale to wrap up everybody's stories, they spent the last half-dozen episodes really focusing on individual characters. You got to spend an appropriate amount of time with each of the characters in their own main story. And that led to a much greater sense of completion and resolution to me, than if they had tried to cram in everybody's final story. If C.J. had been one-sixth of the finale instead of 75 percent of her own episode at the end, it wouldn't have been satisfying.

We took the same approach, and we split up the characters over the course of the year and said we're going to do one big story for every character. So Ron had his episode with Leslie, where they were locked in the Parks Department and you got to hear his story. And you got the Johnny Karate episode, and April got the trip to Washington with Leslie. Tom got to propose to his girlfriend. Donna got married, and Garry became the mayor.

5) Take time to wind down the world of your show as well

We made a big list at the beginning of the year of all of the [minor] characters that we thought we owed a final moment to. Some of them like Councilman Jamm (Jon Glaser), for example, we had planned in season six for him to hook up with Tammy (Megan Mullally). That was actually in the finale. We had to cut it for time. Going into season seven, we were, like, '"Oh, we've got that." And that's where we conceived of the episode where we see Leslie and Ron have to put aside their differences to help him escape her clutches.

We knew Perd Hapley was going to pop up constantly, and Joan Callamezzo was going to pop up all the time. There were trickier things, like I really wanted to try to get Paul Rudd back, and Paul Rudd is Ant-Man. So it's hard to get Ant-Man to leave the Marvel Universe in Atlanta and come up, but he was very game and he came and did it.

We just had to be really on the ball with stuff like that, to make sure that we got everybody. We didn't get everybody back that we wanted too. Lucy Lawless's schedule just didn't ever work out, which was a bummer. And there were a couple people like that, that we really wanted to have back one more time and we didn't get them back.

But I think we did a decent job of hitting a lot of the main weirdos who lived in the town. Like Sam Elliott. We got in touch with Sam Elliott and said, "We'd like to have you back one more time." The biggest problem there was that because he was shooting Justified, he didn't have a mustache. I'm like, "All right. We'll take Sam Elliott without a mustache, over no Sam Elliott."

6) Listen to your actors

I had talked to Aubrey back in season two or three. I had a conversation with her one day, and I said, "You know, we have this vague idea about April, that if the show lasted a long time, that the final image of April would be that she was moving into Leslie's office and sort of taking over Leslie's mantle in Pawnee." Because that would have been a nice journey for April, from a disaffected intern to someone who was actively involved in the town, and Leslie has rubbed off on her.

Aubrey immediately was like, "No, that's not her future." And I said, "Why do you think that?" And she was like, "I don't know. I just feel that April can be affected a lot by Leslie and how Leslie views the world, but I don't see her staying in government. It just doesn't make sense to me." Once she said that, I was kind of like, "Well, I just can't just ignore that."

It rattled around in my brain for a long time. One of the big things this season was figuring out how you reconcile those two things — how you reconcile the fact that Leslie was a mentor for her, but also that she wasn't just going to become Leslie? That was something we spent a lot of time talking about.

7) If it feels like the right place to end, it probably is

Amy and I started talking about [when to end the show] in the middle of season six. And this exact plan was the plan that we came up with and thought was the right plan. Once we talked to NBC about it, and they agreed to it, I haven't second-guessed it.

I mean emotionally, I've certainly felt like, "Wait, where is everyone going? Come back." But intellectually and deep down, I know that this was always the right plan, and I’m very happy with the way that it turned out. I haven’t really second-guessed in any meaningful way, other than it just bums me out that I don’t get to hang out with my friends anymore.

8) In a final season, you can take big chances — like a three-year time jump

When you tell a story about a bunch of people in real time, it’s hard to make big leaps in the way that the characters are with each other. One of the most exciting things about imagining [the time jump] when we first start discussing it was that you could significantly shake up a key relationship, which is what we do with Leslie and Ron.

We started the season with them having had a terrible falling out. If we had shown them having a falling out in real time, it would have been super depressing. Nobody wants to watch the slow disintegration of a friendship told over many months. But when you jump ahead three years, you get to skip all that stuff and get right to the part where they're about to reconcile and get some real storytelling juice out of what's happened.

Anything that seems like a pipe dream, it takes a lot of work to just get the pipe dream to come true

We didn't want to, but if we had wanted to, we could have had April and Andy be separated or something. Or we could have had Tom be in jail. You can take this sort of big leap without having to show every detail of how it slowly got to that point. And it just seemed like it was fun. It was exciting to think about writing everything from big-picture stories to small-picture jokes about how Shia LeBoeuf is a wedding dress designer now.

Because we knew it was our final season and because we knew we were only doing 13 episodes, we also knew that it didn't have to sustain itself for very long. If you do that in the middle of your run and you have to sustain it for three or four years, it's going to wear thin. But when it's only sort of a final coda to a show, it seemed like definitely something that could sustain itself for that long.

9) People want to feel like their time spent watching a TV show was worth something

I think that the essence of sitcom writing or conception is that you want to believe that the people you're following have some kind of special bond. You want to believe that this isn't just a random assortment of people.

In the British Office, Tim and Dawn end up together, but Tim has no meaningful friendships with anybody really in the office. David Brent tells Finch to go fuck himself, and he doesn't work there anymore, and Gareth is running the place, and no one likes him. You would also have to say that that's probably the bleakest piece of art that you could reasonably call a sitcom that's ever existed in modern culture.

The British Office was 12 episodes and a two-hour finale. If you had spent a lot more time with them, you would have needed more out of that ending. But because that was all you got, you were happy with the little tiny scraps of happiness that they slipped into it at the very last second. Literally! That two-hour finale is brutal, absolutely brutal. It's gut punch after gut punch, and they train you so well, because all that it takes is Dawn kissing Tim [for you to think it's a happy ending].

In fact not only that. When Dawn drives away in the cab and opens Tim's present, and it says, "Don't give up," or whatever it is, you're satisfied with that as a happy ending. That's as good as we're going to get. Then when she comes back and kisses him, you are so thrilled, and you're so happy just that David Brent found a woman who might go on a second date with him. You're so happy that he told Finch to go screw himself.

They just trained their audience to expect nothing, so that when you got a little tiny something, you felt satisfied. But realistically, 125 episodes of this show or 200 episodes of Cheers — you just need more out of an ending, in order to feel like it's really satisfying.


10) Let your characters' most distinctive qualities shine

The show has always been pretty explicitly feminist, in the sense that it was presenting a woman as the main character. Her intelligence and acumen for her job were never in question.

She wasn't being received the way we intended her to be received in the first season, and we made some adjustments, mostly to the way people reacted to her. [And after that,] no one ever questioned her abilities or laughed at her, except for people who were, themselves, the point of the joke. Now it's like, when she says something feminist or when she tries to do something, the people who are [laughing at her are] obstructionists or old doddering misogynistic goofballs, like Councilman Milton.

A lot of it is just the way Amy is as a person. You don't have to do very much work to show that she's a good role model, and that she is presenting a good model for what women can and should be. How they should be treated, and how they should be respected, and how their basic drives and hopes and dreams are things that matter.

"It's the smarties that freak people out." I think that's totally true.

There were episodes like the one that we aired this year, where she gets caught in the political trap of being the wife of "a candidate," which is something that has driven me nuts for a long time. It drove me nuts 20 years ago when Hillary Clinton said, "This isn't a Tammy Wynette situation. This isn't a Stand By Your Man thing." And then got yelled at by everybody. Everyone was angry at her.

There's a thing that Kathryn Hahn's character says to [Leslie] in an episode, which is like, "It's the smarties that freak people out." I think that's totally true. I think that the idea of having Hillary Clinton be in the White House just made Newt Gingrich just go nuts. It was just too much for him to handle. A lot of that generation of old white dudes who were looking at young intelligent woman, who went to law school and were very smart — they wanted no part of that. So we would sometimes sort of explicitly try to call out those lazy, misogynistic reactions that people have to women who have the gall to suggest that they might have some ideas too.

11) Getting Bill Murray to appear on the show takes a lot of work — but it's worth it

I think the best method to make [Bill Murray appear] is to have Amy Poehler and Aubrey Plaza and Rashida Jones and yourself and like seven other people work on him continuously for five and a half years. I think if you can pull that off, then you have a fighting chance. Having him on the show was this thing that Amy had put out into the world like The Secret or something. Like, "If we say it enough, it'll happen."

I think the real answer is anything that seems like a pipe dream, it takes a lot of work to just get the pipe dream to come true. But the previous work that was done was I feel like we created an environment on this show that was fun, and where everybody enjoyed it. Every time someone was out in the world, whether that was a cast member, or it was a side character, or it was a person who had worked on the show for one day, the way that that person would talk about the show was in a very positive way.

I think that that — in some intangible way — sort of contributed to Bill Murray showing up at the 11th hour. If you make your show really fun to work on, then people will want to work on it.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated when the Parks and Recreation finale is airing. We regret the error.
Lead image: NBC

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