All it took was one email from Mike Schur, the co-creator of Parks and Recreation, to get the gang back together again. But to accomplish the scripted special, it took weeks of work and a village of helpers.
Schur said Pearlena Igbokwe, president of Universal Television, came to him about reuniting the cast for a table read of an episode. Schur looked at the episodes "Emergency Response," "Flu Season" and "Flu Season 2," but quickly moved on from that idea "in part because it felt like I was terrified of seeming like we were trying to make light of what is the most serious international crisis in a hundred years."
"And also, because I quickly felt like if we were getting the cast together, that doing a table read of any old episode was kind of like a waste," he said.
Once Schur reached out to the cast—Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Rashida Jones, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Aziz Ansari, Retta and Jim O'Heir—about doing something together, he said he got responses within 45 minutes. The instantaneous and resounding, "Yes!" was very much keeping in the spirit of the original series, he said.
"It sort of made me want to cry a little bit…I sort of said to NBC I'll look into this. And I sent out this email and the responses are so quick and so instant and so instantly positive. It just made me so happy. It was very much in keeping with the spirit of the show when we were making it," Schur told press. "It was kind of astonishing that—I mean, forget about how famous they are, getting any group of 10 people to respond to you over an email in 45 minutes feels like an accomplishment. So, it really was lovely and like I said, it was very much in the spirit of the way that we used to make the show. It felt like everybody was rowing in the same direction and at the same speed and so it just made me really happy to watch those emails come pinging into my inbox one after another."
During a walk with his wife, Single Parents co-creator J.J. Philbin, Schur said he realized the reunion needed to be a scripted one, something totally original with the characters from Pawnee dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
With the cast on board and the idea in place, Schur drafted Morgan Sackett to direct and wrote the episode with Megan Amram, Dave King, Joe Mande, Aisha Muharrar, Matt Murray and Jen Statsky.
"I reached out to some of the old writers because I didn't think I could write it myself. It seems like too big of job. So, I reached out to six of the old writers from the show, who all instantly, just like the cast said, yes, they would love to do it…We wrote the script, we conceived of and wrote the script in about two and a half days which was insane. Maybe three days total," he said.
Schur credited Sackett, Dean Holland and Valeria Collins with playing key roles in getting the special together. Since everybody was adhering to social distancing measures apart, production sent the cast tripods, iPhones, lights and mics. Then Schur, Sackett, Holland, Collins and occasionally an editor would zoom through a computer on the side of the actor and watch as they recorded their parts.
"They had to be their own camera people. They had to hit record and then stop, and they had to take themselves and say, take three and then clap for sound," Schur explained. "So, it was really slow and laborious."
So, how quickly did this all come together from conversation with Igbokwe to finished product? "I'm trying to remember. It's very hard to remember the actual date, because time has no meaning anymore," Schur joked. The cast spent four days filming their parts and then footage went to the editors and The Good Place graphics team who "did a ton of graphics and a ton of visual effects to make it not look like everyone was just sitting alone in their houses staring at the computer."
"I mean, beginning to end it was, I don't know, from the very first conversation I had with Pearlena to the time that we were done with it…I don't know, three weeks total, I think? Something like that. Again, I've lost all track of time as most people have, but it just happened really, really quickly and that's a testament to the massive number of people who very kindly and generously sort of donated their time and put everything—put a lot of their stuff on hold…in order to make it happen," Schur said. "So…like the show was when it was on NBC originally, it was a sort of gigantic, wonderful, collaborative team effort on behalf of hundreds of people seemingly. And I'm just very grateful to them and I know I'm waxing a little poetic here, but it really was sort of lovely to watch everybody come running back to help."
A Parks and Recreation Special airs Thursday, April 30 at 8:30 p.m. on NBC. At 8 p.m., NBC will air The Paley Center Salutes Parks and Recreation.
(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)