Michael Schur, Creator of “The Good Place” — How SNL Trains Writers, His TV University at “The Office,” Lessons from Lorne Michaels, Wisdom from David Foster Wallace, and Exploring Moral Philosophy with “How to Be Perfect” (#565)

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“The thing that SNL teaches you is to not be precious with your own material.”

— Michael Schur

Michael Schur (@KenTremendous) created the critically acclaimed NBC comedy The Good Place and co-created Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the Peacock series Rutherford Falls. He is also an executive producer on HBO Max’s Hacks and Netflix’s Master of None.

Prior to “Parks,” Michael spent four years as a writer-producer on the Emmy Award-winning NBC hit The Office. His first TV writing job was at Saturday Night Live, where he spent seven seasons, including three as the producer of “Weekend Update” with Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon.

Michael’s new book is How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question.

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

Michael Schur, Creator of “The Good Place” — How SNL Trains Writers, His TV University at “The Office,” Lessons from Lorne Michaels, Wisdom from David Foster Wallace, and Exploring Moral Philosophy with “How to Be Perfect” (#565)

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES…

Want to hear an episode with another SNL alum? Have a listen to my conversation with Sarah Silverman, in which we discussed what it means to be one’s own best friend, the comfort zone of worrying, why you should never miss the chance to mourn at a comedian’s funeral, and much more.

#563: Sarah Silverman — How to Be Your Own Best Friend, Lessons from Therapy, and Grabbing Joy Where You Can Get It
  • Connect with Michael Schur:

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SHOW NOTES

  • How did Michael get involved with The Harvard Lampoon, and what did the audition process look like? How was the writing process different during his time there than it might be in a comparable publication today? [05:58]
  • How performing live comedy is like Roman gladiator combat, and what Michael learned during his seven seasons as a writer for Saturday Night Live. [12:53]
  • Michael shares his David Foster Wallace story, and his own thoughts about adapting Infinite Jest into a miniseries. [20:03]
  • Why did Michael decide to leave SNL and continue his career in Los Angeles? How did he wind up writing for the US adaptation of The Office in spite of being unsure that such an adaptation was even a good idea? [31:10]
  • Why does Michael consider the opportunity to work with The Office showrunner Greg Daniels “the greatest stroke of good fortune” that’s ever befallen him? What did he learn from the experience that SNL didn’t teach him? [39:12]
  • What is the F = ma of sitcom writing, and how did this play into character development on The Office? [44:35]
  • If Michael’s house were burning down and he only had time to rescue five things, what would they be? [53:20]
  • How did Michael become a rare book collector? [57:45]
  • Where did Michael’s alter ego of Ken Tremendous (and Fremulon, his equally fictitious place of employment) originate? [1:01:13]
  • With television networks often skittish about deviating from proven formulas, how did a show as unique as The Good Place come about? [1:08:10]
  • How the seed of the idea that became The Good Place was planted by an outrageous car repair bill. [1:16:15]
  • Michael once joked that he would love How to Be Perfect to do for moral philosophy what A Brief History of Time did for astrophysics. If that’s a tall order, what would he consider an acceptable takeaway for its readers? [1:27:58]
  • What qualifies the legitimacy of a philosopher? Is it when they can get people to actually read (and understand) their work? [1:32:58]
  • If Michael could have a drink or dinner with any philosopher, living or dead, who would he choose? [1:39:53]
  • What two philosophers would Michael choose to have on speed dial for his own personal instruction? [1:43:36]
  • What comics in my own collection do I most treasure? What kind of D&D characters did I tend to play in my youth? [1:49:11]
  • Michael’s most worthwhile failures (and one recurring failure that still gives him nightmares). [1:51:17]
  • Michael is sorry if his billboard offends you. [2:01:28]
  • Who are Todd May and Pamela Hieronymi, and how did they become The Good Place writers’ room emergency contacts? [2:06:00]
  • Why Michael encourages us all to get educated about ethics by any means comfortable (and if that includes reading How to Be Perfect, so be it) where the proceeds of book sales will be directed, and other parting thoughts. [2:10:12]

MORE GUEST QUOTES FROM THE INTERVIEW

“There are ethical components to almost everything that happens, and we are better off when we pay attention to them and really try to untangle them and wrestle with them.”
— Michael Schur

“I’m verified on Twitter as an imaginary fictional personality. It’s amazing.”
— Michael Schur

“I think that if everyone who worked in Hollywood had to work for one year at SNL, in general, things would be a lot better. From a creative standpoint, the thing that SNL teaches you is to not be precious with your own material.”
— Michael Schur

“[Moral philosophy is] like someone wrote a recipe for a chocolate chip cookie that’s both delicious and helps you lose weight and build muscle mass, but the recipe is 600 pages long, and it’s written in German, and no one is ever reading it. If you could somehow take what they wrote, synthesize it, and talk about it conversationally with people in a way that isn’t condescending, but it is engaging, then that might be of use to people.”
— Michael Schur

“I just recommend ethics as a life improvement strategy.”
— Michael Schur

“Even when I do the wrong thing —which is frequent—I take a tremendous amount of pleasure from wrestling with the questions, and from at least having some kind of scaffolding or structure that I can go to and think about and use to examine the problems that I face in my life.”
— Michael Schur

“Comedy for performance, it’s like the Roman Coliseum. A bunch of people give you a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and then it’s up to you to figure out what to do next.”
— Michael Schur

“I would so much rather my kids take classes in ethics in high school than advanced math or biochemistry. Nothing against those subjects, but I think that the two subjects that are woefully undertaught in this country, and that are really the foundational underpinnings of everything that I think is important for the continuation of society, are ethics and civics. I think understanding the way governments work and understanding the way that ethics work, and the way that we treat each other are vitally important.”
— Michael Schur

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4 Replies to “Michael Schur, Creator of “The Good Place” — How SNL Trains Writers, His TV University at “The Office,” Lessons from Lorne Michaels, Wisdom from David Foster Wallace, and Exploring Moral Philosophy with “How to Be Perfect” (#565)”

  1. Based 100% on your discussions about Tonal, we’re ordering one — however, they have a slightly better deal for “heros” (front-line COVID workers and family) to which we are entitled. I hope there’s a way for you to get credit (and compensation if that’s your deal) from Tonal. Thanks for pointing us to this product.

  2. Tim, The phrase “how to be perfect,” or “how to live the best life”, reminds me that they are both topics that are very well answered by Miguel Ruiz’s books. Start with four agreements and keep going. They helped me create a fuller sensation of being loved by , well , the All in everywhere. A lot of presence and awareness . More loving of humanity than Wareness by de Mello, in my opinion anyway.
    It would be amazing if you were able to interview him or one of his sons who is also an author. hoping this is helpful for others too.

  3. This was a great listen. I love listening to comedy writers. I think it was really interesting (1) how he reacted the guy that wanted his bumper fixed and (2) how we ultimately was able to understand why that reaction was wrong. During the first half of that story I was fuming thinking about what I would do to someone that brought up hurricane katrina as an excuse for not paying for their property damage. I can’t imagine how mad the speaker would have been if someone spilled a Budweiser on his precious copy of Moby Dick, and responded “it’s just a book and people are starving.”

  4. As a current a current UCL student, I felt so relevant when Michael mentioned Jeremy Bentham, and then thoroughly enjoyed being put back in my place when he referred to it as “this London university”. 😀