Inspired by his experiences creating “The Good Place” for NBC, Michael Schur is joining Traverse City‘s National Writers Series to talk about his new book “How to Be Perfect.” Before this February 4 event, dive into this exciting Q&A on everything from Schur’s life growing up in Michigan to who really created Galentine’s Day (Schur or Leslie Knope?!).
Michael Schur wishes he were here. Though to be fair, Michael Schur also tells me he wishes he was anywhere and everywhere promoting his new book, How to Be Perfect.
“It’s sad—this is the first book I’ve ever written, and I had these fun dreams of going to very small bookstores in Sioux City, South Dakota, or Sioux Falls, rather. Wait, Iowa? Which one’s which? I can’t remember,” he says. “The point is, I had this dream of going to all these tiny little bookstores and reading aloud to eight people because I thought that would be kind of a fun experience. Instead, I’m in my house Zooming.”
While Zoom is perhaps slightly less fun than an intimate live reading at a small bookstore, Schur will be joined virtually by far more than eight people on Friday night for a National Writers Series event. The gathering will be hosted by actor/comedian Ed Helms, former Interlochen alum and co-creator (with Schur) of Rutherford Falls on Peacock.
How to Be Perfect is a conversational, easily accessible, briskly-paced book about morality, ethics, philosophy and the many theories on how to be a good person that have been passed down through the ages. It emerged from his experiences creating “The Good Place” for NBC, and spans the millennia from the teachings of Aristotle to Kant to Harry G. Frankfurt, a Yale professor whose paper titled “On Bullsh*t” fits perfectly into these lessons.
It’s really good at breaking practices like Ubuntu and Deontology and Utilitarianism down into concepts that are relatable and approachable. Within the first dozen pages you feel like you’re getting insights into the universe from a very funny friend; a few dozen more and you’ll probably already be finding ideas that could change how you view the world.
Spoiler alert: Michael Schur may not, in fact, actually be perfect, but his thoughts on how to get there are certainly more qualified than most. We spoke with the Michigan native about his Ann Arbor roots, the process of writing a book versus a television script, the potential lifespan of the book itself and settled one of the mysteries of the origins of a new American holiday.
NWS: You were born in Ann Arbor, but you moved away early. Do you have any memories of your life in Michigan?
Michael Schur: I don’t. I left, I think, when I was two. My dad was in grad school at U of M; he went to law school there, and then I was born in his first year of law school. Then when he graduated they moved [because] he got a job in Connecticut. I am still fiercely loyal [to the University of Michigan] in part because my dad is fiercely loyal.
I grew up a Michigan football fan and basketball fan. I still have Michigan sweatshirts and T-shirts. I thought I wanted to go to Michigan for a long time, my dad took me to a game there when I was a sophomore in high school. I saw Desmond Howard in his Heisman Trophy year, and I was like, “ I’m all in—I’m going to Michigan.”
And then when we got there, it was October, and the wind was so cold. It was like the wind was blowing in my face, no matter which direction I walked. Like somehow like I would if I were walking north, the wind was in my face. And I would turn and go east, and then the wind was still in my face. And I remember thinking, “I love cold weather but this is something else entirely.”
So I ended up not going there, but I still rep the colors. I do have that tribalism in me instilled in me by my dad.
NWS: I also noticed there are a couple of references to Ann Arbor that I think you snuck into Parks and Recreation.
Schur: Yeah, and in “The Good Place,” too. The real Eleanor Shellstrop was a Michigan Law School graduate, which was a little tribute to my dad. And [“Parks and Recreation” characters] Chris Trager and Ann Perkins moved to Ann Arbor when they left the show in season six. I still do have a fondness in my heart for it.
Photo by Marlene Holston
Photo by Marlene Holston
NWS: You’ve written for TV for years, but this is your first book. How did the process change for you when you sat down to write hundreds of non-TV-script pages?
Schur: It was hard, largely because TV writing is completely collaborative. Like you might write a pilot by yourself, but then you welcome into your world 10 or 12 other funny and smart people who start pitching new ideas and it becomes this giant team effort.
There were times while I was writing the book where I would get to a point where I wanted to read a joke or explain something, and my instinct was to look around the room and say, “Who can beat this? I wrote this joke: who’s got something better?” And then I realized it was only me, and that no one was coming to my rescue. So it was definitely a different mindset.
The weird thing was that it dovetailed with the pandemic—I sold the book on February 1, 2020. And so I sat down alone to write it, but also everyone was alone. The whole world was alone. And so I think that actually helped, because I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.
I didn’t feel at any point like I was sacrificing anything by staying alone in my office and working on the book, which would have been even more painful. So that made it a little easier, but it was it was I found it very challenging, obviously, by a factor of ten. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written by myself.
NWS: The book is very rooted in the present day, with references to COVID-19 and the January 6th attack on the Capitol. You’re also discussing texts that are literally thousands of years old. Did you ever at any time think about the possibility that this book might be still read in two thousand years?
Schur: I mean, I would be thrilled that they read it in two days. That would be plenty for me. The goal here was not to revolutionize the field. I am not an expert, I have no ability to revolutionize the field of philosophy or to write one of those books. It was really intended simply to be my understanding of this stuff presented conversationally so that people might engage with the subject when they were not otherwise inclined to engage with it.
Because I really did have this feeling as we were working on the show [“The Good Place”] that these ideas are great, they’re so helpful and they’re so useful and there’s so many of them, and yet they’re just presented so academically that they’re hard to engage with. So no, no part of me thinks this will be read in two thousand days, much less two thousand years. That was not the goal.
There are theories that can help you figure out why some actions are better than others. And if you know those theories, or at least you’re conversing in them to a very minimal degree, you might end up making a better decision than the one you were about to make. Or at least you might understand why the decision you made was the right one or whether there was one that was better.
That was all I’m after, really. I’ve been referring to it as an exit interview that I conducted on myself at the end of the show to see like, what did I learn? Do I understand it? How can I present it to other people? How can I talk about it to other people in a way that might help them like it helped me?
NWS: The book is also hugely informed by your experiences creating “The Good Place,” but I was wondering if you’ve looked back at any of your prior work and saw even deeper tendrils in anything from your other shows like “Parks and Rec” or “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
Schur: Yeah, to some extent. You know, “Parks and Rec” dealt with political ethics fairly frequently, and political ethics are its own beast. They certainly overlap with the general conceptions of ethics, but political ethics are a very specific animal. So Leslie [Knope, played by Amy Poehler] was very frequently coming into contact with questions of political ethics, and regular ethics, too. I just wasn’t making it explicit because it hadn’t occurred to me. That wasn’t the point of that show.
The point of that show is to make a point about government, how we think about government, about why we demonize government in this country, and what government can be if people are correctly motivated and endlessly and tirelessly working to make their towns or their municipalities or states or country better. So, yeah, the basic questions of ethics have always been of interest to me, they just weren’t the main focus of that show in a way that they were with “The Good Place.”
The pitch for “The Good Place” was, “this is a show about ethics and moral philosophy,” and it was baked into the center of the whole thing, which is why obviously Chidi is literally a professor of moral philosophy. So yeah, I think at some level, I’ve always been interested in these questions. I just didn’t make them the centerpiece until “The Good Place.”
NWS: One final slightly off-topic question. We are less than two weeks away from celebrating America’s newest favorite holiday: Galentine’s Day. The internet credits Leslie Knope as the creator, but since you’re credited as the writer of the episode, I just want to know: Who’s really came up with Galentine’s Day?
Schur: I wish I could remember exactly. I’m always hesitant—I have a sort of faulty memory when it comes to who pitched what in writers rooms. I did write the episode [but] I honestly don’t know whether I was the one who said, “What about this?”
Aisha Muharrar, who was a longtime writer on the show, was very frequently the architect of a lot of Leslie Knope’s big ideas. So it’s certainly possible it was her. Dan Goor, who created Brooklyn [Nine-Nine] with me, same thing— I honestly don’t remember who was the first person who said, “Oh, what if Leslie has a holiday she celebrates called Galentine’s Day.” It was some person on the writing staff and then the writing staff as a whole—that’s all I can remember.
Again, these things are team efforts. But I am perfectly happy saying once and for all that it was Leslie Knope’s idea. I think that’s appropriate. Probably at some level, if you think of it metaphorically, everything that Leslie did is at some level Leslie Knope’s idea. Because the way that Amy played that character, and the way that character existed in our minds, she deserves all the credit for all of the ideas that she actually expressed on the show.
So let’s go ahead and just say it’s Leslie Knope’s idea.
Michael Schur and guest host Ed Helms will discuss How to Be Perfect on Friday, Feb. 4th in a virtual NWS discussion. Visit the National Writers Series site to purchase a ticket for the event. You can also purchase a copy of the book with a 20% NWS discount from Horizon Books.
Karl Klockars is the communications manager for the National Writers Series. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.