If there’s anyone who knows something about contemporary comedy, it’s Mike Schur.
The comedy writer has created some of the most beloved TV shows of the past decade including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place and Parks and Recreation, and written for others such as The Office US (where he occasionally popped up onscreen as Dwight’s cousin Mose).
What his works have in common, besides being hilarious, is that they’re generous. They’re generous to the characters and to the world. They’re imbued with a kindness and a sense of optimism about what people can accomplish if they’re present for one another.
Most importantly, they never punch down.
“The worst thing I could ever be accused of is punching down, because I really hate that. It’s an abhorrent human instinct,” Schur told news.com.au over Zoom. “Punching down is easy, gravity is helping your fist move faster.
“To me, it’s the biggest sin in the world. Not just for comedians but for anybody. Punching down is what bullies do. So, if you’re engaging in that in comedy writing or anything, you’re just being a bully.
“The people who were my mentors never did it and actively disliked the people who did.”
And don’t get him started on comedians who whinge that so-called “political correctness” and “cancel culture” is strangling comedy and free speech. Actually, do, because Schur makes a lot of sense and his work is proof positive that those complaints are bunkum.
“Those people are bad at comedy, they’re lazy,” he said. “They’ve been doing comedy a certain way for a long time and they’ve got an hour-long set that they perform at stand-up clubs or they’ve got a certain way they write scripts, and they are too lazy to write something new. That’s all that is.
“It’s the weakest and lamest argument. No, [political correctness and cancel culture] are not strangling. It’s never been easier and better to be a comedy writer in America or the world than right now. There’s more comedy being made, and there’s more good comedy being made.
“And if you have that attitude, it’s because you’re lazy and you just want to keep using the N-word or whatever in your act. And you don’t like it that people are saying, ‘Hey, maybe you shouldn’t do that’, you should quit and get a job at a grocery store or something, because we don’t need you anymore. Go away.
“There’s never been a generation that didn’t complain about the generation that came after it, and that’s all that this is. It’s people complaining because they’ve been doing things a certain way for 25 years and now there’s a new generation that’s doing it differently, and they’re worried about being pushed out of the business.
“You can be edgy and you can tell great stories and you can be really funny without objectifying people or making them feel less than. And that’s always been true. If you don’t see that, then that’s your problem. You have to wake up.
“I’m talking specifically in my head to one person, but I don’t want to say whose name it is.” No amount of cajoling convinced Schur to give up the name of the person he’s talking to.
Yes, Schur is not one to hold back. Prolific on social media, he has strident opinions on the state of America and the world, regularly lambasting far-right politicians or commentators.
Surprisingly, his political views don’t seep in through his work, and he’s created characters such as the anti-government libertarian Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation.
Of course, Swanson, is a very Schur character in that he is, at the heart of it, a good person who always comes through for his friends, and finds commonality with the progressive Leslie Knope.
Another strange bedfellows pairing anchors Schur’s latest TV show, Rutherford Falls, a comedy he co-created with actor Ed Helms and writer Sierra Teller Ornelas, the latter of whom he worked with on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
The series is centred on two characters, Nathan (Helms) and Reagan (Jana Schmieding), best friends who live in a town named after Nathan’s ancestors who “founded” the place.
Nathan is obsessed with his family heritage, even runs a museum dedicated to his brood, and arcs up when there’s a town proposal to move a statue of his forefather – not because of any specific unsavoury links but because it’s a traffic hazard.
The Native American Reagan is also in charge of a heritage museum, even though it’s often mistaken for a casino gift shop. They find themselves in conflict when their town is divided over its past, a reckoning neither history enthusiast can fully grasp at first.
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There’s a distinction between difference and division, something Ornelas wants to get across in the series.
“It’s about holding two things in our hands at the same time,” she said. “What I love about the show is any one of the characters could be the protagonist in their show, and none of them are all good and none of them are all bad.
“In America at least, we like these clean narratives of heroes and villains, and I think that’s why people are compelled to certain ideas of people. And what I like about Nathan is he’s genuinely a good person who has some blind spots.
“Everyone believes that they’re doing what they’re doing for the right reasons, and they all have the same intention, which is to protect their histories and their cultures. Watching that clash happen among people who are friends is really interesting.”
Ornelas was brought into the project by Helms and Schur who came up with the original concept, but both had felt half the story was missing. That half of the story was the Native American side, which Schur called the “original history” of the land.
Ornelas had worked with both Helms and Schur previously, and is best known for her work on Superstore. A sixth-generation Navajo woman, she is one of five Indigenous writers on Rutherford Falls.
She not only has the lived experience of her culture but grew up around museums – her mother is a well-known Native artist and Ornelas spent summers working at the British Museum with her mum.
“I had a lot of friends like Nathan,” she explained. “I was excited to talk about who this person’s counterpart could be because I’d been in friendships like that.
“A lot of the conversation we had in that first meeting was, ‘What is American history, what are the narratives we cling to, and what are the narratives that are brushed aside in order to keep clinging to those narratives?’”
Schur said Rutherford Falls wants to muddy up the unnuanced takes on American history and “play around in the slop” – because the past isn’t sanitised and the predominant narrative isn’t always the only one.
“This is the country where the western was born, where there’s a sheriff with a white hat and criminal with a black hat. We refuse to traffic in ambiguity, we don’t like it. If you’re looking for that kind of simplicity, [Rutherford Falls] is the wrong place.
“This is a comedy show and we want it to be funny and entertaining. We’re not trying to wag our fingers and make people feel bad. We’re trying to say, ‘This stuff is really messy.’
“If you embrace the fact that it’s messy, it’s OK, nothing bad is going to happen to you. You’re not a worse person if you embrace the messiness that’s inherent in all of our lives and pasts.
“If you don’t understand your past, you can’t understand your present and you sure won’t understand your future.”
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