Making Local Government Funny in 'Parks and Recreation'

Writer Dan Goor talks about turning bureaucracy into comedy

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Courtesy NBC Universal

Local government agencies might not seem like the most interesting topic for television, but NBC’s Parks and Recreation, now in its fourth season, has found a way. Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, the show depicts a group of public officials and their interactions with the intricacies of local government.

Co-executive producer and writer Dan Goor talked with me about why city government works well as the basis for a TV show, the real-life public hearings that have inspired the writers, and the comedy of bureaucracy. Oh, and also gay penguins.

What makes local government good television?

When we first started this, we went to the city hall of Burbank or Pasadena and we watched a town meeting with the city council. And in that town meeting they devoted probably 40 percent of the time to a woman who got up and complained about how the local pound had misplaced her cat. And the cat’s name was Whiskers. It was ludicrous. She got up there and said 'I want to talk to the city council about Whiskers. I have been here before and I’m hoping I will not be here again.' And basically what happened is the city pound had, without properly notifying her, given the cat away to another family and the other family wasn’t willing to give it back. And she was like, 'This is not just about me. I want laws passed to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.' We thought the city council was going to laugh her out, but they were like, 'OK, next we’d like to hear from the chief of police.' And he came up and said 'We’ve looked into the Whiskers matter,' and it was this huge investigation.

So I think one thing we really like about local government is that you can tap into the natural passion that people have for government but you can do it in more ridiculous way. I think also what really appeals to us about local government is the character of Leslie Knope, a local government worker who wants to affect change. And because she’s in local government, she’s able to affect that change. So we can play with that idea of one woman against the bureaucracy or against the powers that be. But within the context of local government, that one woman has a chance.

Do you feel like that character is, at its core, intended to be an inspirational one?

I think that character has become more and more an inspirational one. I think to some extent she was intended maybe to be empathetic more than inspirational. There are times where what she does is a success and that’s inspirational, and there are times that she runs into a wall, and I think we can empathize with that. I think it’s more aspirational than inspirational, just in the sense that we hope that our elected officials are like she is. But we’re also not unrealistic about that, and we have other elected officials in her office that aren’t like she is. We have Ron Swanson and Tom Haverford.

Are any characters in your show inspired by or based on real life politicians or bureaucrats?

No, but I think that they are inspired by archetypes that are out there. There’s no one-to-one correlation between any real person and our characters. In fact we’re very careful about that.

Do you or any of the writers have any experience as local government officials?

No, but we have a consultant who’s a city planner in one of the cities right outside Los Angeles.

As you’re coming up with ideas for story lines, do you ever find yourself almost getting too real in a boring or wonky way, like writing episodes about zoning changes or waste management?

Yes, that definitely happens. But I think we always, in the end try to let funny conquer wonky. And sometimes there’s funny in what’s wonky. When we were first coming up with episode ideas early along in the show, we were a lot more tied to the exaggerated idea that it takes like 27 years to build a park. Before we actually started writing the show, we talked a lot about nuanced, wonky, step-by-step episodes more closely tied to what actually happens in local government, and we quickly realized that it was much more fun to have Leslie chain herself to a fence in order to stop the destruction of a historic gazebo, or to have someone shoot Ron Swanson in the head during a hunting trip.

It’s a little more exciting than the bureaucratic process of building a city park.

Yeah, But, that being said, there is funny stuff in that, too. There’s so much comedy in real government all of the time. The real things that hare happening are so ludicrous. We did a story in season two where Leslie has two penguins, and she does a cute marriage ceremony for these two penguins. And then it turns out that they’re gay. She marries them and then someone goes 'they’re both boys.' And her whole thing is 'it’s cute, it’s just cute, I don’t have a stance on gay marriage,' and obviously this was just a lens for us to look at gay marriage. But it turns out when we were researching the story, two gay penguins actually did get married in a real zoo promotion, and there was a protest!

How often do you take story lines from the actual news or real government process?

Nothing is really ripped from the headlines, but I think there are things that are influenced by stuff that’s in the news. We had a story this year where Leslie releases her book about Pawnee and in it she claims that she was born in Pawnee. But then they find out that her birth certificate says that she was born in the neighboring town of Eagleton. So it’s a birther story. But we’re conscious of the fact that she’s not president and its not the same situation. We’re not "Law and Order." Although it would be fun to have a triple homicide or something.

Maybe next season.

That’s the natural transition. Basically what I’m saying is season six of this is going to be Leslie and Ron are part of an elite counter terrorism force. That’s what happens when we run out of local government stories.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.