Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Michael Schur (@KenTremendous), creator of the critically acclaimed NBC comedy The Good Place and co-creator of 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.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO: You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs, this is Tim Ferriss, welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today is Michael Schur, Schur, Schur, depending on who you ask, on Twitter @KenTremendous, we’re going to ask about that. Mike, Michael, 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. His new book is How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question.
Michael, welcome to the show, thanks for being here.
Michael Schur: Thank you so much, I’m very excited to be here.
Tim Ferriss: I thought we would start with something we chatted about just a little bit before pressing record, and that is The Harvard Lampoon. I have this fascination with The Harvard Lampoon, and I would just love to perhaps offer you the mic to introduce The Harvard Lampoon to people, and also describe how you entered the fray, how you actually became part of The Harvard Lampoon.
Michael Schur: The Lampoon is this very old institution at Harvard, it was founded in, I think, 1876, and it is this weird satirical comedy magazine that has just been plugging along for now almost 150 years. And there’s a couple interesting things about it, one of them is that the alumni are numerous and very high achieving. William Randolph Hearst was in The Lampoon, and so was John Updike, and so was George Plimpton, and a million comedy writers from the ’80s to the present who have written for Letterman, and The Simpsons, and SNL, and all these shows. Conan O’Brien was the president of The Harvard Lampoon twice, which is a very rare thing.
It’s just this weird little humor outlet that people who were obsessed with comedy learn about at an age. I learned about it from just noticing that it kept popping up when you would see certain movies that you thought were funny. Doug Kenney wrote Animal House, and he was on The Lampoon, and Jim Downey, who was a legendary comedy writer at Letterman, I think he was Letterman’s first head writer, and wrote so many of your favorite SNL sketches throughout history, he was on The Harvard Lampoon. So when I applied to college, that was on my essay for Harvard was I want to come here because I wanted to join The Lampoon. So when I got there, that was goal number one for me, was joining it. There’s an audition process, you have to write material, and then the pool of people get to winnowed down, and then they accept a few writers every semester.
Tim Ferriss: I have to imagine by the time you got there certainly it was thought of almost as a feeder into these careers in comedy, and therefore there had to be quite a wide funnel in terms of people interested in becoming part of The Lampoon, they can’t accept everyone. What did the audition process look like? What constituted the audition process?
Michael Schur: The Lampoon was a pure, to the extent that it could be, was a pure meritocracy.
There were artists, writers, and there were business people who sold ads, and if you were trying to get on as a business person it was like, did you sell enough ads? If you did, you got on, if you didn’t, you didn’t. If you were an artist you drew a bunch of pieces, you were critiqued and given notes by the other artists on the staff, then they voted on who their favorite artists were. Same with writing, you wrote three pieces, comedy pieces, the subjects were up to you. You were winnowed down from the total number of people trying to get on to half that, and half again, and then they would bring six to eight people to the election and then vote, however many that they wanted they would vote on. So this was part of the sales pitch, was that it was a meritocracy.
So I decided to test that theory, because I was skeptical. So I submitted my pieces, the first time I tried out, I submitted anonymously, or to the extent I could. I only wrote my first and second initial, so they didn’t know whether I was male or female, they didn’t know who really who I was at all. And I made it past the first cut, and they have a cocktail party for people who make it past the cuts, and I showed up and they were like, “Oh, you’re that guy.” They was like, “Welcome, congratulations,” and I was like, wow, it really was anonymous. They didn’t know who I was, they didn’t care, they just were like, are these things funny or are they not funny?
So then you did that again, you sent in three more pieces. You had got notes, there was another round of cuts, and then there were elections. And you just waited in your room for the full day not having any idea what was going on, and then they would show up and say yes or no, and if the answers yes, then you got brought into this week long semi, really hazing, it’s a parody of a frat hazing week, but you spend a week getting indoctrinated into the world of The Lampoon, and then you remember and everything is great.
Tim Ferriss: The writing pieces, and this is rewinding the clock, so I recognize that this is asking a lot, but do you have any recollection, with that paradox of choice situation where the topics are up to you, how you chose what you would write about? Are there any constraints, like 500 words or less, thousand words or less, is there-
Michael Schur: There were, I wish I remembered. They put a page limit on them, because it’s prose comedy, it’s a kind of comedy writing that isn’t done that much anymore. The closest analog that people might be familiar with is something like the “Shouts and Murmurs” page in The New Yorker. A lot of Lampoon people have gone on to write shouts and murmurs pieces for The New Yorker. Prose comedy used to be much more common. Magazines used to have the humor, PJ O’Rourke wrote humor for Rolling Stone, and people would write humorous pieces for The New Yorker, or for any number of different magazines. It doesn’t really exist anymore, like many things involving print media.
The only one I remember offhand is I wrote a piece, speaking of The New Yorker, that the premise was it was a series of increasingly angry letters being written to you by The New Yorker because you hadn’t re-upped your subscription yet. Because at the time, I’d been gifted a subscription as a freshman in college by someone, probably my dad, who thought, well, you’re a college man now, you ought to read an intellectual magazine. And then it lapsed and I started getting these really angry letters that were like, “What’s the deal? How could you have betrayed us like this?”
Tim Ferriss: And so you legitimately were getting these indignant letters from The New Yorker?
Michael Schur: Yes, I was.
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible.
Michael Schur: And they kept offering me the free tote bag if you re-upped, and I remember just continuously thinking, I don’t want your damn tote bag, man, leave me alone. So I wrote a piece that was five or six in a series of letters asking you to re-up, they just got increasingly antagonistic and aggressive. So it was that sort of thing, and that’s one page, you know what I mean? That’s 500 words, or 600 words or something. And brevity is the soul of wit, and so if your piece was too long they would often hack it down and tell you to make it shorter and stuff. So you’re not talking about 20-page-long humorous short stories. These are short little bursts, these are shouts and murmurs level bursts of humor. I’m sure somewhere in a box somewhere in my house is my original pieces that I submitted, but at least for my memory they’re long gone.
Well, you know-
Tim Ferriss: -Oh sorry, go ahead.
Michael Schur: I was just going to say that is one of the great things about comedy as a discipline, is that stand ups will tell you that the reason they like being stand ups frequently is because there’s a vote. You write a joke and you perform it, and the audience votes immediately whether or not that joke is funny. And it’s not quite as immediate in TV or movies, or some other forms of comedy, but there is a sense of you don’t know whether you have gotten it right, and then you get a reaction from people that’s visceral, that says you’re on the right path, or you’re not, or you kind of are but you could spruce it up a little bit.
That’s what made Saturday Night Live so great. We would do a dress rehearsal at 8:00 on Saturdays, and there would be a live audience, and you’d run the sketch, and then some jokes would work and some wouldn’t, and then it would end at 10:00, and the show goes alive at 11:30. So this thing would occur to you, which is I could either leave it alone, do nothing and get exactly probably the same reaction that I got the first time, or I can try to fix this, I can cut this joke that didn’t work, I can try to write a better punchline. There was an immediacy to it that was weirdly comforting because sometimes you make things and months and months and months go by and then they float out into the universe. Comedy, very frequently, especially comedy for performance, it’s like a Roman Coliseum. A bunch of people gives you a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and then it’s up to you to figure out what to do next.
So I really like that about comedy in general. You can certainly write jokes that don’t work that you still believe in, and you can cling to them if you want to, but you also know no one’s ever going to laugh at this. And if you’re okay with that, that’s fine, you can leave it in your movie or your show, but you at least have the information that you were looking for very quickly.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about SNL for a moment. I was going to ask you about lessons learned at SNL, but there are a number of different ways I could frame the question. Another would be, how do you think you would be different had you not had the SNL experience as a comedy writer/producer/fill in the blank. I’m just curious, because I think I have read somewhere, and I’m paraphrasing here, that you think everyone, or any comedy writer should do a tour of duty, if possible, at SNL for a period of time. I’m sure a lot more people would like to than can. But what were some of the lessons learned, for lack of a better way to phrase it?
Michael Schur: So many. I do believe that, by the way, 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. So from a creative standpoint, the thing that SNL teaches you is to not be precious with your own material. You generally have about four minutes to do whatever you’re going to do. With rare exceptions, you’re talking about four minutes, and so you write a sketch and it’s five minutes and 38 seconds long, and you go in with a red pen and you just make giant X’s on your script. Cut this, cut this, cut this, this didn’t work, change this. And after doing that every week for seven years, there’s almost no joke or piece of writing that I could put into a script that I would think, that cannot be cut. It just trains you to say anything can be cut, and if it improves what you’re doing, then cut it.
And I think that’s a really hard lesson for some people to learn, especially when, depending on where people come from, what their backgrounds are. If you grow up in a system, I mean creatively grow up in a system that doesn’t train you not to be precious with your own material, and then you achieve any kind of success, you are almost always way too precious about your material because you have this personal belief that you did this alone, you figured it out, you cracked the code, and how dare anybody tell me to cut this or cut that, or how dare these executives think that this is too long. And as a result, you can look around right now on your streaming service of choice, and you can find a lot of shows and movies these where you think to yourself, that was about 25 minutes too long. I liked it, it was good, but man, why was that so long? And the answer is almost always, they just didn’t get tough enough on their own material.
So SNL is just ruthless about that. Lorne Michaels has many aphorisms that he likes to dole out to you as you sit at his feet and he dispenses his wisdom, but one of the things he has been saying for I think about 50 years is, the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready, the show goes on because it’s 11:30 on Saturday night. And that ethos permeates everything, and it reinforces this idea that you work on it and work on it and work on it until it’s done, and then you’re done. But the level of success you have with any individual sketch is a little bit up to whether or not, it’s based on whether or not you are tough enough on your own material. So that’s a great lesson, that’s a really, really wonderful lesson for a writer of any kind to learn.
Another thing it teaches you, and by the way, I should note, if you meet and work with anyone who went through the SNL gauntlet of fire, everybody has that same attitude toward their own material. So when you’re talking about an actor, like Andy Samberg. So my friend Dan Goor created Brooklyn Nine-Nine, we got Andy Samberg to star in it. Andy Samberg was a very well known and beloved comedian, and was pretty famous on his own right thanks to his own work, and yet when we would show him cuts of Brooklyn episodes in the early days he would go, “I’m bad in this scene, cut me out of this, cut this, cut my joke here, it doesn’t work. Cut this, cut this.” It’s a very rare star of a TV show who will say, cut my material. That’s not the typical attitude for number one on the call sheet, star of the show, guy on the poster. Usually those people are like, “Wait, I want more, I want more, put me in this more, put my face on TV more.”
People who went through SNL judge comedy and material based on only, is this good? Is it funny? Does it work? Is it fast? Is it quick? Is it enjoyable? That’s a wonderful trait in a producer/actor. Amy Poehler’s this same exact way. So everybody who goes through this system has this sense of, it’s not me, it’s about the end product, and if the end product is made better by removing me, or removing scenes I’m in, or lines that I have, or jokes that I have, then remove them, because we all win if this thing is better. So there are other ways you can learn those lessons, SNL is just a particularly blunt force trauma way to do it. It’s a very intense sledgehammer to the head over and over again that drills this idea into you.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m going to return to the end of your SNL tenure, but before we get there I wanted to ask about, I’m not going to say the antithesis, because I don’t think that’s totally accurate, but perhaps a contrast in styles, or at least someone who is not purely encapsulated by brevity is the soul of wit, and that is David Foster Wallace. It seems like you have a long standing fascination with David Foster Wallace. How did that start? Why is that the case?
Michael Schur: Well, there’s an extremely long winded version of this story, I’ll try to make it only slightly long.
Tim Ferriss: This isn’t morning TV, so we can go as long as you want.
Michael Schur: February of 1996, I am at the end of my junior year in college, and Infinite Jest comes out. And my friend Rebecca says to me, “Hey, have you heard about this book? Everybody really likes this book, we should go buy it.” We went to the Harvard bookstore and we both bought a copy of the book. I read the book, I started reading it that night and I didn’t stop until I was done. Something about it just altered my brain chemistry and changed the way that I thought about literature and writing and the world. It’s one of those things, everybody has a story like this about some piece of literature, it clicked. I heard an audible click in my brain as I was reading it.
And I was looking for a senior thesis topic for my senior year, and I went to my advisor and I said, “This book literally just came out this month, and I know that what I’m supposed to do is pick like a DH Lawrence novel, or a Henry James novel, or some other, or Billy Budd, or something, but I just want to write about this,” and to his credit he was like, “Sure, go ahead. It’s your thesis, you write about what you want.” So I ended up spending an entire year then writing about the book, and thinking about it in terms of how it fit into the postmodernism canon.
And around, I can’t remember now, maybe October of the following year, Wallace came, he was on a tour, and he announced that he was coming, or maybe it was that spring, I think it was that spring. He announced a book tour and he was coming to the Brattle Theatre, which was in Cambridge. So I was president of The Lampoon at the time, and one of the things The Lampoon does is it gives out awards to people, and it’s always a joke. The Hasty Pudding is the old famous 18th century social club at Harvard, and they give out a man and woman of the year award. And it’s always literally Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, or whatever, it’s the most famous people of the world, and they all come.
So The Lampoon would do a parody of that and they would say, our man of the year is Randy “Macho Man” Savage, and then we would Randy “Macho Man” Savage come and give him a big fancy dinner and present him with a giant trophy, and whatever. So we used to have celebrity dinners from time to time, so unilaterally, without even asking anyone else who worked at the organization, I decided that David Foster Wallace was going to get an award from The Harvard Lampoon, which I titled, I think, “Novelist of the Millennium,” or something. So I’m just a college junior and I called his agent and said, “Hey, I’m going to level with you, we’re making this up, we’re just completely making this up, this award, but it’s a really cool building, and it’s a fun group of people, and he’s going to be in town, and if he wants to come, we would love to host him for a dinner.”
So I was working on my thesis about a week later, my phone rang and I picked it up and said, “Hello?” And the person said, “Hey, this is Dave Wallace, is this Mike Schur?” And it was just Wallace calling me on the phone, and he wanted to know… So my heart is pounding, it was very surreal. And he was like, “Look,” he had gone to Amherst, and he knew what The Lampoon was, he was at Amherst in the early ’80s, and he said, “It sounds really fun to come there, but I’m very press shy, and I don’t want a whole big hullabaloo.” And I was like, “Listen, man, we’re just making this up, we just want to have you come hang out with us. If you want to come hang out with us, we don’t have to do any public ceremony, or whatever. Just come and hang, we’ll show you the building, I think you’ll really dig it.”
So he did his reading, we brought him back to the cast, and we just had a big dinner with him with the whole staff. And by then a bunch of people on the staff had read the book and really loved it, and we just hung out with him, and he was great. And we had an amazing conversation. I have a picture on my wall, I’m staring at it right now, of me lighting a cigarette for him. If my house is burning down and I have only time to grab five objects from my house, that’s one of the ones I’m grabbing.
So that began a correspondence between the two of us. He was an excellent corresponder, he wrote letters to hundreds and hundreds of people. Frequently when you would get a letter from him it was a half of a piece of paper that he had just torn off, with a jagged edge. And he would just scribble a note and say, “Checking in and seeing how you’re doing,” or whatever. He was at Illinois State teaching English, and we corresponded for a while. And I tried to get him to come to SNL to see the show, because he was obsessed with television, and I thought it would be really fun for him, but he was too shy and he’d never made it.
He eventually moved to California and taught at Pomona, and we lost touch. And I kept thinking in my head, because I moved to California, oh, I should reach out to him now that I’m out here, and I never did, and then tragically his mental health problems caught up to him and he committed suicide. And it’s one of those great tragedies in my own personal life that I didn’t more aggressively pursue. I mean, he had a million correspondents, I think. When you read stories about him you’ll often read, a lot of people have the story of, I wrote him a letter out of nowhere and he wrote me back and we corresponded for five years, it was a thing he did, so I don’t think I’m special in any way. But I really do regret not trying to rekindle our little epistolary friendship when I moved out to California.
So long story only slightly longer, at some point I had the thought that it would be a really interesting writing challenge to adapt Infinite Jest into not a movie, because that’s impossible, and not an ongoing TV show, because that’s also impossible, but some kind of limited series. And this is years ago now, this is probably 12 years ago. At the time, a thing that’s very commonplace now, like Mare of Easttown was like this, a six or seven hour mini series that has a very high budget, and stuff like that, that didn’t really exist back then.
But I tried to convince people that it would be a really good book to adapt into something like that, and I had optioned the rights to it. I had gone to his estate and made my case as a guy who could be trusted with this book which is so important to people of my generation, and they had given me the rights to it, and I tried to get people interested in it. And it was taking off a little bit, and it looked like it might happen, and then for a number of reasons it just didn’t happen, among them that the people who control his estate became just generally wary of Hollywood for a number of reasons and didn’t really want there to be a lot of adaptations of his material. And I was like, well I don’t want to do anything that would ever make any of you feel uncomfortable, or make you feel ill at ease.
So I just backed away, I let the option lapse, and that was the end of my involvement. But there was a brief moment in time back in, I’m going to say 2008, ’09, ’10, somewhere around there, where I was like, I think I’m going to spend the next four years of my life trying to adapt this enormous ridiculous book into an eight hour mini series. It would’ve been a very, there’s the sliding doors thing where that could have been the way my professional career went.
Tim Ferriss: Have you ever thought, or would you ever resurrect that goal to adapt in some fashion, Infinite Jest?
Michael Schur: Have you read the book? I hesitate to ask.
Tim Ferriss: I haven’t, I’m not going to lie, I have not. I’ve read a bunch of his writing, mostly shorter stuff, String Theory, and a lot of the shorter stories, but Infinite Jest, I was just too intimidated by the sheer magnitude.
Michael Schur: By the bulk of it?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, just the bulk of it, yeah.
Michael Schur: I won’t say that I would never consider it again, because if you ask me what my favorite book is, it’s probably the answer. That’s probably my favorite book I’ve ever read. There’s a problem with adapting it now, which is that the book was, so it came out in ’96, he wrote it over the eight years prior, and the book imagines a very near future. It’s almost a little Black Mirror-y, if you’ve seen that show.
Tim Ferriss: I have.
Michael Schur: Where it takes place in… So it came out in ’96 and it basically takes place from 2000 to 2008 or so, and he’s projecting forward and extrapolating into what he saw going on in society, and imagining the slightly warped, slightly fun house mirror version of what the world is going to be like. Now, of course, we’re 20 years past the date when he was imagining it, and so in order to do it, and in order to honor the book properly, you would have to do your own version of what he did, which is look at the world now and project forward from here, and you also would have to be as good at that as he was, which is saying something, because among other things in that book he basically predicted FaceTime and video messaging, literally what you and I are doing right now, there’s a whole section in the book about that.
The president of the United States is a celebrity who is obsessed with germs and is a moron who doesn’t really understand the way anything works, but it doesn’t matter because he’s really popular. There’s all these, he called his shots and and a lot of them came true. You’d have to be as good as a fictional futurist as he was in order to do a good job. I don’t know that I am, or that anybody is really. So, I’ll never say never, but it would be even tougher to do it now than it would have been then.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a tough assignment. That would be very, very tough, not impossible, but tough for the reasons that you mentioned. As you were describing the challenge, I was thinking of Motherless Brooklyn and what Edward Norton did with that.
Obviously, his colleagues and everyone else did with that novel because they had some creative challenges with respect to how the characters… Although, it is set in a somewhat contemporary landscape within the novel, speaks like old-timey gangsters to one another.
Michael Schur: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: They had to make a lot of changes with the film adaptation, which I thought worked really, really well, but I’m way deep in the ignorance pool on this one. This is way beyond my pay grade.
Let me flee the landscape of David Foster Wallace and go back to the end of SNL. How did you choose what you would do after that and how did you choose the timing if you chose it? I don’t know.
Michael Schur: I didn’t really choose it. It chose me because I was dating a woman who is now my wife, who had moved to LA years before, and we had been long-distance and it had gotten to the point where it was like, “Well, if this is going to work, either I have to move to LA or she had to move to New York.” It made a lot more sense for me to move to LA because that’s where all the jobs were.
So, I had been at SNL at the time I’d made the choice. I’d been there for about five and a half years. I had this realization, which was, SNL is a little bit of, I guess you call it a golden handcuffs kind of a situation. Because normally, when you work on a TV show, even in the best of times, you’re hyper-aware of the fact that this is going to end. At some point, this show will end and you will need to find a new job. SNL, unique among television shows in the last five decades, never ends.
It just goes on forever. The situation is, you’re working in New York, you make a very good living. You have a really cool job that anyone that you meet when they find out what you do, wants to talk to you and hang out with you and it could never end. You could just do it forever. I basically gave my twenties to that show. I started when I just turned 22 and I worked there until I was 29.
I left in part because I realized that if I didn’t achieve escape velocity, I might just stay there forever. That’s not the worst thing in the world, right? You only work half the year, because you have all these weeks off and make a good living. I bought an apartment in Manhattan when I was 25. It’s an amazing life, but I just had this sense that if I wanted to do more creatively, I had to leave.
All of these things lined up, my feeling like I had gone as far as I could go or that I wanted to go really, my then-girlfriend, now-wife living 3000 miles away, the end of my twenties, all of those things coalesced and I just decided, “Okay, this is going to be my last year.” So, halfway through that year, I went to LA, for the first time professionally and started meeting executives and taking these general meetings, which are all identical.
It’s really crazy-making, you have six identical meetings a day. You go into a room and you’re meeting with the vice-president of comedy at Fox and the assistant says, “Would you like anything to drink, water, Diet Coke?” You say “No, oh thank you.” You go in and you meet the senior vice-president of comedy at Fox and you chat amiably for 50 minutes, almost to the minute, it’s 50-minutes long.
Then, you leave and you get back in your car and you drive somewhere else and you go to another waiting room. Now, you’re meeting with the senior vice-president of comedy at 20th Century Fox and you’re like, “Wait, these are different places.” Yes, one of them is a network and one of them is a studio and you go into a room and the person says, “Would you like a water or a Diet Coke?”
You chat amiably with this new person for 50 minutes and it just keeps going and going and going. You write samples, I wrote a, Curb Your Enthusiasm spec script. I think that was it actually at the time. If those people like your samples, they’ll send them to the people, who have new shows coming on the air or the existing shows, looking for writers. You’ll go on a hundred more meetings with those people.
So, I created, I wrote this pilot called Welcome To Happy, and it’s a sitcom about six people who are friends and they live in Chicago and you watch their pilot and then they go, “I really loved your script”, and you say, “Thank you so much. Your pilot’s so good.” Then, you chat amiably for exactly 50 minutes. Then, you get back in your car, then you drive across town to some other person.
It’s this kind of endless, just treadmill of meetings. Out of that giant morass of meetings, there were a couple of people who really liked my sample and had an opening. A couple of them were new shows. One of them was an existing show, but the guy who was the most interested in me was Greg Daniels, who was adapting The Office from the British show, from the British version to the American version.
I loved The Office, The British Office, I found it to be maybe the greatest comedy that had ever been made. I thought it was a work of pure genius. I thought that the idea of adapting it for America was incredibly stupid and foolhardy and would never work in a million years.
Nonetheless, I took the meeting with Greg, and instead of going to a place and having a hmm and then going here in 50 minutes and then you leave, he and I talked for about half hours. He was immediately much more specific and also much more interested in going in-depth about many more things than anybody else had been. He wanted to know all about how I wrote my script, why I did certain things within the script.
He wanted to know about, my wife had written for another show called Coupling. That was an adaptation of a British sitcom that hadn’t worked. He asked me a million questions about it why did I think it didn’t work? What was it about the adaptation that fell short? At one point, in the middle meeting, he said, I have a bad back. Would you mind if I lay down on the floor? I said, “No, go ahead.”
So, he just laid down on the floor in front of me and the whole thing was just after 50 identical meetings with 50 different people in every level of Hollywood. That meeting was special and interesting and weird and captivating.
I left that meeting and I sent my agent an email and it said, “I don’t know if that guy’s going to offer me a job, but if he does, I’m going to take it because I think he’s going to teach me how to write. I just get the sense that he’s like a professor and he knows how to do this. He sees the matrix code behind stories and I think he could teach me how to write.”
He offered me the job and I took it. That’s exactly what happened. He taught me absolutely in a collegiate professorial way, how to write stories, what makes them good, what makes them bad, what makes a character work good or bad.
Plot and motivation and character, all the stuff that you need, he taught a class, he taught a PhD-level class and I soaked it all up. It’s the greatest stroke of good fortune that’s ever befallen me, I would say, is falling into Greg Daniels’ world.
Tim Ferriss: I have so many questions about your time with Greg. It’s hard for me to even pick a place to begin. The first thing that I’ll ask, which is probably the easier question to answer is when you sent that email to your agent, did you still think the show was not going to work, but you didn’t care because you were going to get an education or did you come out convinced that it had a chance of working?
Michael Schur: It’s a good question. In the email, which my agent still sends back to me every once in a while, as a reminder of the beginning of this journey, what I said. I believe I said something like, “I don’t know if the show’s going to work, but if it doesn’t work, it won’t be because of that guy.”
The reason won’t be, that the guy in charge, doesn’t know what he is doing. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but there’s no one that gives it a better chance of working than Greg Daniels. I had that instinct after that one meeting. I just knew from the way he was talking about it and approaching it, that if there was a Hail Mary’s chance of this actually succeeding, he was the quarterback who was going to throw the ball.
It really was based on… I don’t know that I was an immediately like, “Oh, wait, I was wrong. This is a great idea to adapt The Office.” I don’t think I got that far, but I definitely felt like he was approaching it from a completely different angle than I would’ve ever imagined anyone would approach it. I was right. He did and that’s why it worked.
Tim Ferriss: At that point, recognizing that, and I’m going to use the wrong terminology so I apologize, but that sketch-comedy is very different from what he was aiming to do. What did you feel that you were missing, in terms of skillset or that you most wanted to learn from him?
Michael Schur: I was missing everything. The answer is everything. Sketches are single ideas, single comedic premises, executed as quickly as possible and then you have one big joke at the end and you get out. That’s all it is. It’s an observation about the world or a comedic premise that you introduce to the audience, develop as quickly as you can milk it for all it’s worth.
Then, it’s a tissue, you throw it in the garbage. You pluck it out of the box, you blow your nose, and you throw it in the garbage, and it’s over, and you don’t have to worry about anything else. You don’t have to worry, what happens to these characters tomorrow. Who cares? Tomorrow is Sunday, there’s no show. Long-form TV writing is a completely different animal.
The thing that SNL can teach you, potentially that is relevant is just how to be funny, like what’s funny, what are funny ways of observing the world or things you’ve noticed about people or ways to write jokes, craft language, that sort of thing. But long-form TV writing is you’re establishing characters and you’re slow-cooking them over, hopefully in The Office’s case 200 episodes.
These are not tissues anymore. These are carefully honed and crafted dollhouses with miniature furniture in them, that all need to be properly sanded and painted and placed in these really specific ways. You have to keep coming back to them and you’re building them. You’re building this dollhouse slowly, piece-by-piece, brick-by-brick, over the course of a decade in when it works.
All of that stuff was new. All of the whole idea of saying like, “How do you pace out a character growth over multiple episodes, multiple seasons? How do you establish interesting relationships and dynamics that you can go back to over and over again? What are the deep veins that when you’re mining… How can you tap into the deepest possible vein so that there’s the most material there?”
All of that stuff was brand new and completely unknown to me and by the way, to most people who were on the writing staff. That was what he was teaching us. What he was teaching us was, “This is not about being funny. Jokes are easy.” If you get a bunch of funny people in a room and you say, “Hey, this is a scene where Michael Scott is leading a diversity seminar and he doesn’t have any idea how to run a diversity seminar.”
You get eight comedy writers in a room, they’ll come up with a bunch of funny jokes. What’s important is why is he doing that? What is the character trait that’s led him to be the person, who thinks he has the ability to run a diversity training seminar when he definitely doesn’t? What are the circumstances under which he would try to pull this off in front of documentary cameras that are there, documenting every move?
Why is he looking at the camera here? What’s going on in Jim’s life, that he’s in love with this receptionist named Pam and she won’t? She’s engaged to this guy named Roy, who he hates. How does that fit in, all of those layers and all that grist for the mill, that was unknown to me?
It was what Greg was so good at imparting was, “This is the stuff you have to care about now. It’s not about making a funny joke and then getting out and letting the audience clap and then throw to the musical guests so they can perform a song, that’s old, that’s SNL. This is not SNL. This is an entirely new animal.”
Tim Ferriss: All right. I’m going to follow up on the professor. I’ve read in, I think it was an interview of sorts, profile in Vanity Fair, this is from 2008, that one of the mission statements or the mission statement for The Office could have been, “Let’s make sure they’re all changing”, speaking to that character development that you mentioned. “You can’t be too fast, it can’t be overnight. It has to not necessarily mirror reality” but it’s one possible mission statement.
What I would be curious to know, and if there’s a better way of phrasing this question, feel free to answer a different question, but let’s just say that the professor was actually teaching a PhD class or a seminar, what do you think he would lay out in the first-class or few weeks of class?
Are there any other lessons? An alternate question would be, can you tell a story about a specific instance, a teaching moment that you recall while being at The Office?
Michael Schur: Oh God, yeah. This is a real, “How much time you got” a deal, because I could…
Tim Ferriss: I got as much time as you’d like.
Michael Schur: Okay. I’ll answer that. I’ll answer both of the questions which are different. The day-1 stuff, the PhD-level class, day-1, in the same way, that a professor of Newtonian physics would write F = ma on the board, and then everyone would scribble it down in their notebooks or type, I guess. It’s showing you how old I am that I’m still imagining people taking notes with a pen.
Tim Ferriss: I still scribble.
Michael Schur: There you go. The F = ma of sitcom writing is, here’s what matters in stories. What matters is characters, motivations for doing what they do, the plots, having good twists and turns in them because comedy is all about thwarting expectation. If people see something common, then they won’t laugh being surprising. Escalation is another big one.
If you see a story where the same thing happens, two scenes in a row, you get bored. Whatever happens in the second scene has to be bigger and more intense than what happened in the first one. There are certain things that I think you would establish as F = ma type rules that you would then undermine.
You would say, there’s a certain quality that executives like to refer to as likability, which is a reductive term. But it essentially means that if people, if audiences don’t, in some way, identify with characters, they don’t like those characters. In the world, we’re in now and this has been true probably since roughly speaking, The Sopranos came onboard.
Suddenly, the main character of the biggest show on TV was a sociopathic mobster who killed people regularly. You wouldn’t call it strictly speaking likability, but you might call it relatability. You might say, the main characters on a show, or they have to have some aspect of them that people can see in themselves, or at least identify with or say, “I have a cousin who’s like that or something like that.” Those are the amino acids.
That’s the basic, building blocks of life. As far as teaching moments there, as many aphorisms as Lauren Michaels had about comedy, Greg has just as many. I’ll give you one example. I wrote an episode of The Office in the second season. It was a Christmas episode and it was an episode, where they were doing a Secret Santa.
So, they’d each drawn a name and they had, “This person is buying a little gift for this person and this person is buying a little gift for this person” or whatever. The premise, which was really funny was that Michael didn’t like his gift. So, Michael’s gift came from a character named Phyllis on the show. She had knitted him some oven mitts and he just didn’t like them. He didn’t think they were a big enough gift. He had gotten, he had drawn Ryan.
Ryan was the temp played by B. J. Novak. He had drawn Ryan in the Secret Santa gift exchange draw and he had bought Ryan of Video iPod. Even though it’s a classic Michael Scott thing, because there was a $25 limit or whatever, because he was so desperate to be loved, just bought this kid a $400 Video iPod. He gave a Video iPod to his person, and then he got his gift, a woven oven mitt, and just lost his mind.
So, he changed it from his Secret Santa to a Yankee swap, which is where you can swap your gift for any of the other gifts. It’s another game because he wanted to unload the oven mitts and get something better. When I wrote the episode, I did this thing, where I was like, “Okay. Well, the reality, I’ve been a part of many secret Santas in many offices and I know how you do it. You do a draw.”
So, I put all the characters’ names into a hat and I did a real draw. I said like, “Okay, Oscar is drawing now.” I picked it out and it was Creed, “Okay, Oscar’s going to buy a gift for Creed.” I did it the way it would really be done. There was one of the characters had Angela.
Angela’s a character on the show, who was very uptight and fairly religious. She was very prim. She didn’t curse. She didn’t do anything that was like… She was just very, very uptight. I had in the script, that someone bought for her, a vaguely Christian self-help book that was… It was seven habits for following in the light of God or something like that.
It was just one of those books that are perfectly lovely and helpful for people, who are looking for some guidance in their lives and who are religious. It didn’t factor into the plot at all. It was just a detail of the script that’s what she got. Greg was like, “Now, we should come up with something else.”
I was confused because I was like, “It’s not even a joke, we don’t even make a joke about it.” It’s just literally, she opened the gift, and then that’s what it is.
But he was like, “Yeah, here’s the thing, though. We already know that Angela is religious and we already know that she is the person, who would buy a book like that or who would like a book like that. What would be better is if there was something that were in the overlapping area of the Venn diagram of what we already know about her and what we can learn about her. That would broaden her character. That would make her into a more interesting person, dimensionalize her a little bit.”
What we came up with was, that she loved those photographs that people take, where babies are dressed like adults. There’s like a weird corner of the photography world where it’s a baby but dressed like a jazz musician with a fedora and a toy saxophone. I don’t know why, but somehow that was like, “That’s perfect. That is exactly the thing that she would try.”
Tim Ferriss: I interrupt for a second. How the hell does that come out of the ether? Did it just pop into someone’s head? How did it land there?
Michael Schur: I can tell you definitively that I did not pitch it because I believe I was completely unaware of this phenomenon. That’s why you have a room full of funny people because you just say, “Okay, here’s the character, here’s the subject matter. Pitch on what she would like. Pitch on some aspect of the culture.”
I wish I remember who, someone pitched that and immediately was like, “Oh my God, that’s perfect. I don’t know why, but that’s perfect.” So, we changed it to someone got her, this poster of two babies, dressed like jazz musicians. Again, it didn’t factor into the episode in any meaningful way, but that poster with the was then added to the set.
She put it up next to her. Later in the season, we designed an entire episode over the fact that another person, who sat near her hated it so much, that an HR complaint was lodged against her. It flowered, it just bloomed into this thing that lasted for years and years.
Greg’s thing and this is what that Vanity Fair article is referencing was like, “At the end of every episode of the show, you should have at least a little bit more information about some of the characters than you did before the episode started.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Michael Schur: It doesn’t have to be a huge thing. It doesn’t have to be like, “My dad was arrested as a serial murderer or something.” It doesn’t have to be some gigantic thing. It just has to be a little bit more than what you knew before. As long as that’s the case, the show continues to be more interesting and grow and expand.
Tim Ferriss: That was a fantastic example. Thank you. That was great. God. Yeah. I’m taking, taking notes also. I need to study Greg.
I am going to ask you about the pitch for a good place. How it was pitched before we get there, though?
I want to come back to, I don’t want to say a throwaway comment, but a passing comment that you made, which was, if I could only take five things from my house as it was burning down, you mentioned the photograph of you lighting a cigarette for David Foster Wallace, what are some of the other things that would be on that shortlist?
Michael Schur: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Why?
Michael Schur: I played this game a lot with myself, but here are the rules of the game if you want to play it with me. The rules are, your family and your pets are safe, so you don’t have to worry. One of those objects doesn’t have to be a human being or an animal. You assume that nothing in the house is going to be salvageable after you remove these five objects.
So, you can’t hedge your bet. You can’t say, “I’m going to take these things” and then hope that this other stuff survives. You’re saying like, “This is it. The house is burning to the ground. You get five things.” I’m not actually sure that photograph is probably top five, but I also have a copy of Infinite Jest, that Wallace inscribed to me when I met him, that is probably if I had to choose, that’s probably the one I would take.
I might take both of them that way. Maybe, that’s too much David Foster Wallace. I think I would take that book. I’m a book collector. I collect first editions. Among the rarest book I have is I have a first edition copy of Moby-Dick that is in incredibly good shape. It’s really, really a rare copy of that book. Because obviously, back then, no one really cared about paper quality or acidic paper or anything else.
This copy happens to be extremely bright and crisp. I would probably save that just because I feel like that would be cruel to let that burn up in a fire. Most of the objects, in fact, the only real objects that I care about I think are probably books. There’s a writer named David Halberstam, who is a sports writer, he was a friend of my wife’s family. He was a Red Sox fan, I’m a Red Sox fan.
In Christmas of 2003, he inscribed a copy of one of his books to me with a long message about how he really thought 2004 was going to be the year. The Red Sox had just gotten Keith Foulke, a relief pitcher, and Curt Schilling as starting pitcher. He might put them over the top and they just lost a heartbreaking playoff series to the Yankees.
He wrote this thing that was like, “I really think this could be the year.” Then, it was. 2004 is the year they won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. It would be awfully hard not to rescue that piece of literature for my house. The end series when I play this game is usually five books. Oh, I’ll tell you. There’s one thing that isn’t a book that I would save, which is after The Good Place ended, I got a call from my agent that said, “Where are you? I need to send you something.”
And I was like, “Just send it to my house.”
And he was like, “No, it has to be hand delivered.”
And I was like, “All right, what is it?”
And he was like, “I don’t want to tell you what it is, just wait.”
A messenger came to my office and handed me an envelope. And it was a handwritten note from President Barack Obama, saying that he had watched The Good Place and really liked it. And the cognitive dissonance, I guess you would call it, of receiving that object and opening it and reading it in his own hand was … My hand started shaking because I thought, “I shouldn’t be holding … I should be wearing gloves or something in order to read this.”
And it’s incredibly meaningful to me. And I framed that letter. That letter’s also on my wall underneath the picture of David Foster Wallace smoking a cigarette.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Is it on a White House letterhead or does it have a jagged edge? Is it from a restaurant place mat?
Michael Schur: It’s the back of a Denny’s menu, yeah. Yeah. That would make this even better.
Tim Ferriss: Contrasting styles.
Michael Schur: I wish it were. I wish he had done the maze on the front of the Denny’s menu and then on the back, just dashed off a note to me. That would be amazing.
Tim Ferriss: How did your book collecting of first editions start? Don’t worry, I’m not going to spend an hour here, although I could, but how did that begin? What was the beginning of the collection where you’re like, “Oh. Oh, this is now a thing for me.”
Michael Schur: My uncle Steve, who now lives in Ireland, was a book collector. And he introduced me to it when I was a teenager. And when I was a kid … I’ve always been a collector of things. When I was a kid, my dad’s former college roommate for my fifth birthday, bought me a bunch of baseball cards. And to this day, I can recall the sense memory of opening the plastic around it. It used to be called rack packs, where there were three sections of cards. And I remember ripping them open, I remember holding the cards in my hand and flipping through them and the tactile sensation of that is incredibly drilled into my memory and I became obsessed with them. And I spent all my money on baseball cards and plastic sheets to put them in. And I organized them and I collected full sets. And later when CDs came out, the feeling of buying CDs and holding them and opening …
It’s almost fetishistic, in the way that I think of those collections. I just loved it, I just loved that feeling of building a collection of something. I’m clearly predisposed to this but my uncle bought me a couple first additions of books that I liked. And when you collect books, you get incredibly fussy about … They can’t be in direct sunlight and the humidity in the room has to be at the right level and it’s all this ridiculous hobby stuff. But one of the things you do is you take the book cover off and you put it in this plastic Mylar stuff to keep it from getting spilled on or keep dust off it or whatever. And the feeling of that plastic in my hands and the sheen, the shininess that it made the book look like … It’s literally no different than what libraries do, right. It’s the library, it’s that plastic that goes around the covers of library books.
Again, something just lit up. It hit some pleasure center in my brain. And I started becoming a completist, where I would say, “Okay, I have a first edition copy of Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov because I really love that book, but now I have to get all of his books.”
Tim Ferriss: [inaudible 00:04:22.
Michael Schur: The whole thing, “I got to get all of them.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Michael Schur: And so there were certain authors that I just started collecting and I just wouldn’t be truly happy until I had gotten first editions of all of their books. And for a while, I was doing this with no money. We did not have a lot of money growing up at all, and like most people in this country, I took on an enormous amount of student debt. And yet, it didn’t slow me down at all. Any money I had for my student jobs, it was going right to used and rare bookstores. And in the early, early days of the internet, I was scouring eBay for obscure copies of Don DeLillo novels that someone might not know the value of and stuff. It started from that. It just was a thing that my uncle did, who got me into it and it’s continued. It’s only burning brighter as I age and now actually make money. It’s dangerous, I have enough money to spend on these things now. And it’s not slowing down, if you’re wondering.
Tim Ferriss: Is there anything that you are currently most coveting? Say anything that is burning for you?
Michael Schur: It’s a good question. The answer honestly is no. I’m at a weird point in my personal collection, where I’m no longer a completist in that sense, because I love … John le Carré novels. I love John le Carré novels but now, the way it happens is if I read one of his books I haven’t read before and I like it, then I will go out and buy the first edition. And it’s not that hard because John le Carré was a wildly successful author. They printed tens, if not hundreds of thousands of copies of most of his books. It’s not like they’re hard to find or particularly expensive as a book collecting goes. Now, it’s more like if I read a book … I just reread A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I really loved when it came out. I think it won the Pulitzer the year it came out. I really, really loved it. And she’s got a new book coming out and I was like, “I haven’t read Goon Squad in so long.”
And I went back and reread it, and it’s just as good as I remember it. And so I was like, “Oh, my God. I don’t have a first edition copy of A Visit from the … This is great.”
And so I went to a site. And again, she was a fairly successful author and it’s not super hard to find. Now, it’s more of a thing of if I read a book and really connect to it, I will then as part of completing the journey of reading the book, I will buy a first edition copy of it to add to my collection. I would say it’s no longer fetishistic in the way that it was when I was a younger man. It’s now really only personal. If I love something, the way I celebrate it is by buying a rarer copy of it and then adding it to my shelf.
Tim Ferriss: Man, I would love to see your library sometime. I know this is just a first date, so I’m getting ahead of myself. But in any case, we are going to get to the pitch for The Good Place, I promise, but you’ve mentioned number of things that I have to pick up on and you can make this as long or as short as you like. You mentioned sports writing, can you please explain Ken Tremendous?
Michael Schur: Sure. The explanation is not super interesting. I was in college and I was walking home from somewhere and the … I’m obsessed with crazy names, always have been. I loved Monty Python growing up, and one of the best things about Monte Python is that all of the characters and their sketches have bananas names. And I loved, loved, loved, crazy names. Again, this was like something got rewind in my brain at a fairly early age but I was walking home and the name Ken Tremendous popped into my head as a funny name to use in something. I didn’t know what, it was just like, “That’s a funny name.”
Because Ken is a normal, boring, straightforward name. And then putting the word tremendous after it just made me laugh. I went back to my dorm and I jotted the words, Ken, tremendous, down on a piece of paper. I thought maybe there was a short story or a comedy piece for The Lampoon or something, where I would use that name. Later, when the internet really began to be the place where everybody spent their time and avatars and online handles became a way for people to cloak themselves, I thought, “Well, this scares me. The internet scares me, it’s dicey. I don’t really want anyone to track me or know who I am, so I’m going to just do everything I do on here anonymously.”
And I chose Ken Tremendous as my internet name. I used to run a blog with a couple of my friends. There was a sports blog called Fire Joe Morgan, that was us complaining about bad sports writing and bad announcing. On that blog, I was Ken Tremendous. When Twitter started, I was like, “I don’t know what this is but I don’t want it to be me, so I’ll make it Ken Tremendous.”
And just everything I do online just became Ken Tremendous. And what’s endlessly funny to me, is that … Well, first of all, long ago I stopped trying to hide the fact that that’s me. If you Google Ken Tremendous, my picture shows up. It’s not like I’m trying to pretend to be anonymous. But about two or three years I think, into being on Twitter as Ken Tremendous, they sent me one of those notices that’s like, “We’d like to verify you.”
And I was like, “But it’s a fake name. What do you mean, verify me? That’s ridiculous.”
And I wrote back on the DM thing, I was like, “You know that this isn’t my real name.”
And they were like, “Yeah, don’t worry. We’re verifying you.”
And I was like, “Okay.”
I’m verified on Twitter as an imaginary fictional personality. It’s amazing.
Tim Ferriss: That is amazing, Ken Tremendous. Yeah, I remember [inaudible 01:12:35].
Michael Schur: It’s a good name, right.
Tim Ferriss: It is. When I was doing some original research before we even booked this and I found you as Ken Tremendous on Twitter, I was like, “Is this possibly accurate?”
You just never know because on one hand it could be. And I love these stories. I know a number of people are pretty well known but they have these ridiculous handles because they in the beginning, A, might have had concerns about security or privacy or B, they were like, “Twitter, this is never going to be anything.”
Right. Then that’s how you end up with Angela Merkel’s [hotfuzz487 01:13:13] or whatever. I’m making that up, that’s not a real example. And you’re like, “How the hell does that happen? “
I have to ask about Ken Tremendous.
Michael Schur: Is a very weird aspect of my life but it is very funny to like have an alternate personality. The backstory for Ken Tremendous for some reason is that he’s a pension plan monitor at a made up company called Fremulon Insurance.
Tim Ferriss: Wait a second, do I know that word for some reason? Why do I know Fremulon?
Michael Schur: Fremulon became my production company’s name.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right.
Michael Schur: Yeah. At the end of all my shows, there’s a graphic for an imaginary company called Fremulon. There’s a whole other metaverse thing going on where there’s a company called Fremulon and a guy named Ken Tremendous working at it.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it is fantastic. It is so good. You mentioned the five things in the house you’d take with you. You’re like, “This is a game I play quite often with myself.”
Michael Schur: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Is that an exaggeration or is that true? And if it’s true, why is that a game that you play with yourself so often?
Michael Schur: No, it is true. And I think it’s because I’m not a particularly materialistic guy. I’m not bragging about that, I’m just stating a fact. I don’t have a lot of things that I care about. I’m not a wrist watch guy or a clothes guy or a car guy. For whatever reason, I’ve never … I literally never wash my car, never. Unless it’s so dirty I can’t see through the windshield. And it feels like a potential death trap. Because I don’t care and I just think it’s a box that gets me from point A to point B and I don’t care what it looks like. And, if they get dented, I don’t care. The thought of spending money on car upkeep is bananas to me. And I don’t hold it against people who do care, honestly. If that’s your thing, that’s your thing. Great, more power to you.
But because I don’t have a lot of objects I care about, when an object enters my life that I do care about, it gives me a moments pause or an opportunity to reflect on what I have that matters and what that means about me at a different age. When I was 25, what were the five things that mattered to me? How is that different from 35 or 45? It is weirdly a game I play a lot with myself and I think it’s … I’ve never really thought about why but I would guess that it’s a way for me to check in on my life, to see, “What’s in my surroundings that has value to me, or that matters to me? And why does it have value to me or matter to me at that moment?”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I do. Sounds like I need to play this five things gain more frequently with myself. I wish I had done it and recorded it though, over time.
Michael Schur: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That would actually really provide a lens. Alas.
Michael Schur: Yeah. If you could go back and say like, “Here’s my list every year.”
Tim Ferriss: And that would be certainly, a more effective way of achieving what I’m hoping it’s achieving, which is to give you some pattern in your life, or to give you some path you can follow of like, “Here’s where I came from, here’s where I am now.”
Michael Schur: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about one place you were, which I assume … Now, I’m not going to go play by play through the entire chronology of course, because I think that people can do plenty of their own research on that, but The Good Place and the pitch, how did you pitch that? Did you basically have cart blanche to do whatever you wanted and therefore, you didn’t really have to pitch or how did it come to be? And for those people who do not subscribe to my newsletter, I am a huge fan of The Good Place, wrote about it in my newsletter 5-Bullet Friday, which went out to a few million people long, long, long ago. And it was a real Trojan horse for me because it was recommended to me as a funny show and that was it. And that’s how it got started. Then I was like, “Wait a second here, this is a Trojan horse for all sorts of stuff that I would not expect.”
Emmanuel [inaudible 01:17:44], didn’t see that coming. What was the pitch?
Michael Schur: When Parks and Recreation ended, Brooklyn Nine-Nine was still on the air but Parks and Rec ended and the people running NBC said to me like, “We’d like you to do a new show and you can do whatever you want.”
It was one of those deals, “And we will guarantee a 3 episode season.”
Now, even today, the business has changed so much that that’s far more commonplace today than it was at the time. At the time that was a very exciting, “Oh, my God. They’re not going to make me do a pilot and then look at the pilot and then determine whether they’re going to put it on the air, and then order a small number of them and maybe cancel it after five if the ratings aren’t good.”
All of the pitfalls of a new show were at least temporarily removed. When they made that offer, which was very kind of them, I had a thought which was like, “Man, I owe it to myself and I owe it to the idea of being a creative force on television, to try something insane.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Michael Schur: I had been doing something essentially the same at that point for a decade, which was writing stories about a group of people in a place on earth. The Office was a group of people in an office in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Parks and Rec was a group of people who worked at a government office in Indiana. And Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a group of people who were police officers and detectives in New York city. And those shows were so fun and great but they were within the same general umbrella. And I thought like, “Man, I could do it again. I could come up with a group of people who were working on the international space station or a group of people who work at an ice cream parlor in Belize but it feels like I’ve been given this opportunity and I ought to take a crazy swing.”
They really wanted a family show. I had never done a family show. And so being a good, rule following soldier, I put a lot of thought into, “What would it look like for me to do a family show?”
And the truth is, there’s not that much that’s very interesting about my family. I’m a middle class white guy who grew up in a suburb of Hartford, Connecticut. And there’s a lot that’s been said at about people like me on television, and my family on television. And so I had this idea for … I had the nascent idea for The Good Place rattling around in my head and had for a couple years. In little tiny pieces, this idea had been bugging me. And so I thought about that and I started to get excited and I developed it on my own time. And it just became very obvious, that was the interesting idea.
And of the many, many rules of creation or of writing that have been taught to me over the years by a new number of very smart people, the best and most trustworthy is write what’s interesting. Don’t fake it. If you have to fake it, if you have to try to tell people that your idea is interesting, then you’re dead, right? It just seemed like the best idea I had and the most interesting. And then that presented a number of challenges. For example, “How do you sell a TV network on the idea of doing a show that’s explicitly about moral philosophy?”
That’s a tough sell, and so …
Tim Ferriss: Question number one, what is moral philosophy, right? Yeah.
Michael Schur: Yeah, yeah. And how does it work on Tuesday at 8:30 on NBC, right? I did a couple things to try to make it palatable to my bosses. One of them was, I worked way harder and for way longer developing the idea than I think I would’ve normally if I were writing a show about six goofballs in an office somewhere in Pennsylvania. Although, pause for a second to say that Greg worked for an entire year on developing The Office before he ever met with me or any of the other writers. He put an enormous amount of work into that show. But my point is that I worked harder on figuring out what the story was for the entire season, because they’d given me an entire season to work with, than I think that I would’ve normally. I had the entire season mapped out before I pitched it.
The second thing I did, is I talked to Greg Daniels … I talked to Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, who I wanted to play the main parts. And they had expressed interest in playing those parts. When I went in to pitch the show, I said, “Here’s the show.”
And I laid it out for them. I told them what the pilot would be, I told them what the themes would be. I told them what the general arc of the entire first season would be. And I said to them, “I’ve been working on this for a long time. If you have a lot of questions, I promise I’ll have answers for you. There’s no aspect of this that I haven’t thought about.”
I also told them that Ted Danson and Kristen Bell were at least theory interested in being in the show, which helped a great deal, because once you have Ted Danson and Kristen Bell in your show, they don’t care what it’s about. It could be about anything. Those are two big stars, right. And the last thing I did, and I think the most important thing I did was I said, “Listen, this is a show about what it means to be a good person. And the engine for this, the mechanism, is the study of moral philosophy. And that’s not going to be shoved into the margins. It’s not going to be a casual reference here and there. It’s going to be the guts of the show. It’s going to be in every episode of the show. One of the characters is a moral philosophy professor who is going to be teaching people stuff.”
And I know that that might seem like a risky idea but I promise you, it will not feel like homework. It’s going to be funny and it’s going to be entertaining and I think that moral philosophy has in a way that no one maybe would think of at first glance, is actually a very funny discipline to me, it’s the thought experiments are really funny and the people who invented these theories are really weird and funny. I said, “I promise it won’t feel like homework.”
Now that being said, the third episode literally begins with the character Chidi, standing at a blackboard with Philosophy 101 written on it. And I was like, “Oh, boy. Maybe I spoke too soon.”
But that was how I not only convinced them to let me do it, but also tried to reassure them that I wasn’t going to bore people to tears, that it was like, “This is a show about moral philosophy but I also fundamentally understand that it’s a half hour sitcom on a major network that needs to have jokes and funny stories and plots that are entertaining.”
And I just asked them to trust me, and they did. And it was really cool of them that they let me take this wild idea and run with it.
Tim Ferriss: And you are very good at taking these thought exercises right, or these problems that philosophers are attempting to tackle and divorcing them from the, “I’m so serious.”
… pedantic vocabulary that can just be so problematic. And the language that usually accompanies it, which is just impenetrable in some cases. And I really appreciated the trolley problem episode, which people should check out. You mentioned that the idea or some semblance of the show was percolating in some fashion for some time. Why was that?
Michael Schur: Well, I think because it’s a subject that interested me before I even really understood that it was a subject. The concept of making ethical choices or trying to make better ethical choices than the ones you made, or coming into contact with ethical dilemmas and then wrestling with them, that was something that I always found really interesting. There was an event that happened in my life where my wife bumped into a guy going about one mile an hour in traffic. And there was a cop there. They were both rubbernecking, or at least my wife was rubbernecking at another accident that had happened next to them. And so there was already a cop there. We saw that there had been this little ca-chunk, and he came over and he looked everything over and he says, “I don’t see any damage here.”
And my wife and this guy exchanged numbers and went on their way. And then we got a bill in the mail for $836 I think, because the guy said his fender needed to be replaced. And I lost my mind a little bit, because again, I’m a dude who doesn’t care about cars and I found this to be ridiculous and overly fastidious. And car culture just annoyed me. Also, and I write about this as well, it was literally the day of Hurricane Katrina almost destroying New Orleans. And I had friends who lived in new Orleans. And I love New Orleans, my wife and I had gone there on a vacation fairly recently before that had happened. And it was just one of these moments where I just lost my mind.
And I said to the guy … I went and looked at his car. And if you shined a flashlight on it, you could see that there was a little L-shaped … Not even dent, a mark, a little tiny indentation. I think that my wife’s license plate holder had just pressed into his fender tiny bit and you could barely make it out. And I said, “This is not $836 of damage. I know that that’s what it costs to replace offender but this is ridiculous and this is why car insurance rates are so high. And how about this?”
I said, “I’ll donate $836 to the Red Cross and we call it even.”
And the guy was like, “I want my car repaired, man.”
And I was like, “Well, that’s my offer. Think it over. Tell me what you want me to do.”
And so I went back to work, I was at the office. I went back to work and I told everyone the story, and then they started getting angry and being like, “That’s so obnoxious, how can this guy do that?”
And then other people started going, “I’ll add a hundred bucks, tell him it’ll be $936 to the Red Cross.”
And then people started piling on another 200, another 50, another, 20, whatever. Then I was like, “Wait, there’s something here.”
I started a blog basically, and I said like, “How much money will you donate to the Red Cross for the Katrina relief fund, if this dude decides not to fix the bumper on his car?”
And it exploded. And it went to $5,000, and then it went to 10,000, and then it went to 20,000, and it started circulating. And I started getting press requests from Good Morning America and NPR and these places. And my wife and I were like, “This is amazing. We’re going to save New Orleans all by ourselves. We’re going to do it.”
And then all of a sudden, one night on the second night or the third night, we were talking about everything that was going on and we suddenly both got stick to our stomachs and we’re like, “We feel bad and we don’t know why. There’s something wrong with this, this is bad. Oh, my God. This is bad.”
But we didn’t know why. And I was like, “I need someone to tell me why what I’m doing is bad, because I’m pretty sure it’s bad.”
I went on the internet and I looked at up a bunch of philosophers who taught ethics and I called them on the phone and was like, “Will you talk to me? I’m just this guy. Here’s what happened, will you talk to me about what I’m doing?”
And they all said yes, because it turns out as I write about in the book, philosophers love talking about philosophy. They’re so excited to talk about philosophy at any hour of any day. They in different ways, walked me through a bunch of arguments as to why what I was doing was bad. And by the way, some of them didn’t think it was bad. Some of them thought like, “Look, Aristotle writes about shame and the importance of shame. And if you feel no shame, you have no sense of disgrace. And what you’re doing is essentially shaming this guy into what you see as a better value system than the one he currently has.”
And I was like, “Okay. But also, shaming people doesn’t sound like a great way to spend your time.”
And they’re like, “Well no, it’s not great to shame people like this.”
And whatever. And so I just ended up having a dozen conversations about this. I talked about it to every … I was so annoying. I’ve never been more annoying in my life, because this is all I could talk about. We went to a wedding, my wife and I went to a wedding and we sat next to this guy I had gone to college with who I knew was very smart. And I was like, “Hey, give me your take on this.”
And I told him the story and he was like, “I’m outraged.”
And I was like, “I know, right”
And he was like, “No, I’m outraged on his behalf. You’re being an asshole.”
And I was like, “Oh, no.”
And so I just couldn’t stop … I couldn’t get over the idea that there was a right answer. That was both main mistake and the beginnings of what’s now a lifelong interest in the subject, is I was like, “Well, there’s got to be a right answer.”
And what I eventually realized is, “No, there’s no right answer. There’s a bunch of theories that will say here’s why what you’re doing is a little bad or a little good or more good than bad or whatever, but there’s no one … “
You’re not going to suddenly turn a page in a book, read something and be completely satisfied that everything is answerable. This is a complicated, weird, confusing situation. The effect that this had on me was to coalesce years and years and years of what I would call a amateurish interest in the subject, right. It was a thing that I would read an article about some ethical dilemma and be like, “Oh, that’s interesting. I’m interested in this.”
Or something would happen in my friend group or with my family and a little sense would … Something would flitter around in my brain, and I would think like, “This is a subject I’m interested in,” but it was very, very casual, and then that incident with this minor car accident and the way that I pursued trying to get to the bottom of what was right or wrong about it just clicked. Something clicked into gear, and then it became a thing that I thought about all the time, and that I really cared about, and was at the center of my life. So that’s all the backstory for how the show came about, but it really is. I can trace the show to that event, and that event was in 2005, and the show started in 2015. So it was at least 10 years of prep in some way, or shape, or form to get me ready to write the show.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. So a very important question. What did you do in the end of the day with the scratched bumper?
Michael Schur: Great question. So after talking to… I talked to a lot of professors and professional types, and the last guy I talked to said, “Listen, I don’t even really think this is a philosophical question. I think what I would say is you’re kind of being a jerk to this guy, and you shouldn’t be a jerk to people.” Those are the exact… He used the word “jerk,” which was a great old-time-y word.
Tim Ferriss: Did you call this guy out by name, or did you leave him anonymous?
Michael Schur: No. As I write about in the book, I made a couple good decisions amongst many bad ones, and among the good ones I made were I never named him. I never showed a picture of his license plate. I never sent…
Tim Ferriss: You didn’t dox him on the internet?
Michael Schur: Yeah. Before doxing was a thing, I didn’t docs him, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Michael Schur: So that conversation with that particular professor made me think like, “Yeah, like this guy has no idea any of this is going on. There’s something fundamentally unfair about that,” and so I called him up. The way it had been left, a mere three or four days earlier, when I had gone to see his car was… because all this happened so quickly. So three or four days earlier, it was like, “Here’s my offer. I’ll donate this money to the Red Cross.” He was like, “Let me think it over,” and we just made vague plans to talk again soon. So three or four days later, I think I called him and was like, “Hey, buddy. Let me explain what has happened,” and I told him the whole story. I told him everything. I was like, “I’m going to come completely clean to you.”
I told him everything that had happened, and I apologized profusely because what I really realized is that the thing I was engaging in that made it so unfair was what most people today would call whataboutism, right? Like he was saying, “Hey, your wife bumped into my car, and I need to replace the fender,” and I was saying, “Yeah, but what about hurricane Katrina?” It’s like, “All right. Yeah. Hurricane Katrina is terrible. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that your wife bumped into my fender.” Right? So I basically said like, “I’m really sorry. This was not fair of me to do. I’ve cut you…” I had cut him a check, and it was in the mail. I said like, “The check is in the mail,” and he said, “Okay. Thank you, and maybe I’ll make a donation. Maybe I’ll give part of it to the Red Cross.” I was like, “Great. I hope you do, but you’re under no obligation to do that. Nice doing business with you.” That was the last time we ever talked.
So it was just a really fascinating, weird, little moment that for whatever reason ignited this thing in me that was like, “I think this…” I think what it made me realize importantly, and this really is what led to the book and the show, was the idea that these things happen all the time. That is obviously a fairly extreme example, but we’re constantly milling around, and bumping into people, and having interactions that where one person feels slighted or wronged in some way. Somebody cuts in front of them accidentally at the line at the grocery store, or pulls into a parking spot when another person was about to pull into the parking spot, or whatever. These little, mundane interactions that we have with other people have, I realized, significant ethical dilemmas to them very frequently, and our choice becomes, “Am I going to care about that or not?”
I could not care about it, right? I could just say like, “Whatever.” You could forget about it the moment it happens, move on with your life, and never think about it again. But I felt like because I went through that, that there… I couldn’t shake the idea, both that there are ethical components to almost everything that happens and that we are better off when we pay attention to them, and really try to untangle them and wrestle with them. So that was really the… 10 years before the show was pitched and written was really the beginning of this journey for me was coming to the realization that ethics matters, that I think that it’s important that ethics matters, and that you try to get to the bottom of these things when they pop up.
Tim Ferriss: So How to Be Perfect, right? So How to Be Perfect, subtitle The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, which is tantalizing to say the least. How did you decide to do a book? Right? I mean, I think that most people think of you as a writer, but they would think of you as a TV guy, and books are writing, certainly, and one would hope, but they are a different animal. Why do a book? I should just preface my preface by saying I read somewhere, I don’t know, for research for this conversation a line of sorts that I just loved. So I’d love to hear you expand on it, which is you would love the book to do for moral philosophy what a brief history of time did for astrophysics.
Michael Schur: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I think something along those lines, which is a hell of a goal.
Michael Schur: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So, mic is yours. Where’d you’d like to go?
Michael Schur: Well, what I meant by that, and I was being a little facetious because I think that book sold like 38 million copies or something, so I don’t want to… It was tongue-in-cheek, but what I meant by it and continue to believe is that that book, which I read when I was I think in high school, took this subject that most people would say, “There’s no way in hell I am ever going to engage with that subject. I’m not going to spend my free time, my precious free time reading a book on astrophysics about black holes, and singularities, and event horizons, and… No way. No way. I won’t understand it, and it’s pointless.” Right?
Yet, he had a way of making all of that stuff both entertaining and also fascinating without being condescending. That was what’s really remarkable about that book is that he does not condescend you. He says at the beginning of the book that he’s not going to include any mathematical formulas because his editor told him that every mathematical formula he included in the book will reduce his audience by 50%. So he’s like, “All right. There’s only one mathematical formula. It’s E=mc2. I promise. That’s the only math.” But it wasn’t in a condescending way. He was just saying like, “Look, I get it. This is weird and hard, but I think it’s fascinating. I’ve devoted my life to thinking about it, and I feel like you can get something out of this.”
Then, he talked to you like you were a grownup. He talked to you like you were an adult with a brain, and I set out that as my goal because I feel after spending so much time wrestling with this stuff… Again, in an amateurish way. I’m not a professional. I’m not an academic. I don’t have a PhD. I didn’t really even study this stuff in college. I just read a lot of it, talked about it a lot with a lot of people. I think that it’s the kind of subject like astrophysics that people would think like, “No way. I’m not doing this. I’m not going to understand it. It’s pointless to even try.”
When I was reading it, I had this thought that I couldn’t escape, and the thought was these are the smartest people who ever lived. Right? Generally speaking, they’re among the smartest people who ever lived. Aristotle, and Kant, and Locke, and Hobbes, and Jeremy Bentham, and David Hume, and all of these people. You would put them in the top millionth of 1% of all of humanity who have ever lived in terms of just brain power. Right? They spent their lives or at least parts of their lives trying to figure out how we could be better people. That was their goal that was like, “What is right? What is wrong? What’s good? What’s bad? How do we improve ourselves? How do we make the process of being alive on earth as maximally good as they can be?” Yet, they wrote their books so densely and opaquely, and at times, impenetrably and boringly that no one wants to read them unless you’re a philosophy major in college.
I remember thinking it’s 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. People might enjoy that, and so it was a little bit… The reason I wrote the book was that feeling mixed with the feeling, a personal feeling of when the show ended simply that I wasn’t quite done talking about this stuff yet. I just felt like I wanted to talk about it a little more and the show was over, and it’s like I wouldn’t know what to do. So I said like, “Well, what if I write a book that summarizes all of the stuff that I feel like I learned as I wrote the show?” That’s where we ended up.
Tim Ferriss: Have you done any long-form, really long-form writing between thesis about David Foster Wallace and the book?
Michael Schur: No.
Tim Ferriss: No, legitimate question.
Michael Schur: I have not.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Wow.
Michael Schur: Yeah, I have not.
Tim Ferriss: Good for you.
Michael Schur: I haven’t. I haven’t written anything longer than a feature film script since 1996, I guess.
Tim Ferriss: That speaks to how important you think it is, and I’m going to push back just a little bit in a sense, and that is you are not a professional philosopher. I don’t say what I’m about to say to insult any philosophers, and I’ve had some on the podcast, but there is no bar exam for philosophers, right? I think that you are… But the point I was going to make is that there’s a quote that I wrote down, which I think you’ve invoked at points from David Foster Wallace. “Novels are about what it means to be a fucking human being.” Right?
Michael Schur: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I think moral philosophy in a sense is also… could be described along those lines, and you seem to me to be a student of humans, human nature, relatability, character, character development. So it strikes me that you seem very qualified actually to write such a book.
Michael Schur: Well, that’s kind of you to say, and to a degree, I think you’re right in the sense that I think that anyone who spends a lot of time thinking about the human condition and whose job is to actively observe it, interpret it, discuss it, write about it, engage with it, which is what the job of being a TV writer really is. Being a TV writer, if you are lucky enough to be on a show that lasts for a long time, you have spent seven years, eight years, 125, 150 individual episodes with the same characters, and you have done that thing that Greg taught me to do, which is slowly expand their personality profiles, and their worlds, and their sets of motivations.
You’ve tracked them over big life events of sometimes getting married, or having children, or changing jobs, or whatever, and it does I think… First of all, you’re drawing from real lives of real people you know or real feelings that you and other people you know have had, or you’re imbuing the characters with those feelings, but you also… At the end of the line, you really have this sense of like, “I kind of get that character.” I know that character really well now. I’ve studied that character. I’m fluent in that character in a way that you’re rarely fluent with other people other than those really close to you, a spouse, or a child, or a parent, or a sister or brother.
So I believe that you’re right when you say that if you’ve spent that amount of time doing that, where that’s your job, the observation of the human condition and the interpretation of the human condition, imbuing characters on TV with those traits and those observations, and that kind of stuff, and you have a secondary interest, even a casual one in a humanistic discipline like philosophy, or it could be anything. It could be music, or academia, or whatever that you’re not necessarily a professional, but you at least are qualified. I think you’re qualified to talk about the subject in some long-form way.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I want to go on live TV and have a debate with a professional philosopher about who knows more. I think I would be in over my head to teach a class. I don’t think I’m qualified to teach a class. But to the extent that you’re talking about just qualification based on just time spent thinking about something, then I think I agree with you because I have spent a lot of time thinking about it and mulling it all over.
Tim Ferriss: Well, also, making it digestible, not just digest… digestible and entertaining enough that people will actually ingest and think about what the hell you’re trying to convey. Right? I mean, as you mentioned…
Michael Schur: That’s the key. Yeah, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: It’s like if you go to any campus bookstore and pick up the required texts from Philosophy 101, or 201, or 102, or whatever it might, I mean, good luck. I mean, if you want to get like a million people to read those books, like yeah, best of luck. That’s going to be a really hard task. It’s a synthesis.
Michael Schur: Yeah, and that’s literally… That’s the reason I wanted to write it. It’s that, the exact thing that you’re pointing out, which is like I think there’s a tremendous amount to be gained from engaging with the basic ideas that a lot of these philosophers put out there and not the real deep, intense philosophy grad school level philosophy stuff. Just the basics. The very, very basic theories are really valuable and can be really helpful. But in many cases, even engaging with the basic ideas is really hard, and it’s their… The primary texts are not, I would say, strictly speaking, enjoyable to read. They’re just not that fun.
Pick up Critique of Pure Reason. Flip through a couple pages and tell me how psyched you are to polish it off in your free time on the beach. Forget it. The average person, even the way above average person who’s more interested in philosophy than the average person is not going to read Critique of Pure Reason on a chaise lounge by the pool on his or her summer vacation. So that’s exactly the impetus really to write the book was like if I can just relay the nuts and bolts of this stuff as I understand them and as some of my professional philosopher friends have helped me understand them, I think there’s real potential value for people in terms of how it can improve their lives.
Tim Ferriss: I think the basics are the basics for a reason in the sense that Michael Jordan would still practice free throws, right, at his peak because there are certain foundational elements, right?
Michael Schur: Right. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I shouldn’t say irreducible, but these foundational pieces that have incredible utility, and then you can get into the intellectual masturbation stratospheric level where it’s like, “Okay. You want to hang out with Wittgenstein and talk about magicians and like, “It depends on what is, is, isn’t it?” You’re like, “Oh, come on. You don’t need 700 pages on that. Give me five. I need to go get some fucking groceries,” and I need to decide…
Michael Schur: Right.
Tim Ferriss: I think this is an example you’ve given, whether or not I… Do I take the grocery cart and put it back, or leave it where it is? Like, “Okay. That’s something I need to process today.”
Michael Schur: Yes, 100%.
Tim Ferriss: So let me ask. Of course, I mean, it’s my job to ask questions. So I don’t know why I keep introducing the fact that I’m asking questions, but if you could have drinks or dinner with any philosopher, alive or dead, just for entertainment value, is there anyone who comes to mind?
Michael Schur: For entertainment value? So that’s a different question.
Tim Ferriss: Not entertainment. No, no. Let me redact that. It doesn’t have to be for entertainment value. I’ll leave it broader than that. Just drinks or dinner. You can choose one or two.
Michael Schur: A lot of philosophers’ lives are unknown, right? No one knows really what Aristotle was like as a guy. So some of them, I have to eliminate just for that reason. The name that comes to mind is Jeremy Bentham, who was an 18th century English philosopher, who is essentially the guy who invented what’s called utilitarianism, which was very much in favor for a while, then completely fell out of favor, and recently has come back into favor in academic circles. Utilitarianism essentially is do more good than bad. That’s how you’re an ethical person if the things you do create more good, or happiness, or pleasure than they do pain, or suffering, or unhappiness.
The reason I would want to have drinks with him though is because he was also a true weirdo, like a truly weird guy who when he died, he told his friend that he wanted his body to essentially be preserved, and his head to be specifically preserved and his skeleton to be preserved, and he wanted to be put on display at this university in London. He didn’t found this university, but he was a spiritual founder of it. So he said, “Basically, stuff me like a scarecrow, and preserve my head, and put me on display so that as students for the next hundred thousand years walk into this university, I will greet them as they walk in.”
So they tried to preserve his head, and it didn’t work, and his head… It was disgusting failure and was miserable. So they created a wax head, and they put it on his skeleton, and they dressed him in one of his old suits. He’s still there. You can go see him in his wax head and skeleton, and his suit are still at this university. He was just an oddball, eccentric guy who seems like… and in his writing, some of which is impenetrable in the way that a lot of 18th century writing now seems impenetrable, but some of it is really fun to read. He wrote little fun poems, sometimes little jaunty, rhyming poems about his philosophy, and he was a goofball. He was a weird guy, and I feel like he would be very fun to drink Brandy with at some dark, wood-paneled club in England somewhere.
I mean, there’s a lot of philosophers that it sounds like it would be fun to eat or drink with, but like some of them… I bet Nietzsche would be fun to have a meal with, but also, he accidentally helped create the Nazis, and so it would be a hard not to bring that up over your chicken paillard or whatever you’re eating. A lot of the philosophers in the book and a lot of philosophers in general like a lot of people from the last 400 years are now problematic for a number of different ways, and I don’t know of off hand. I’m sure that Bentham… Bentham also argued for a lot of things that not a lot of people argued for back then. He was, I would say, a protofeminist and a big equal rights guy. He was an animal rights advocate. He seems unbalanced from what I know of him, which again is not super deep, but he seems unbalanced to be less potentially problematic than a lot of the people that you might choose for this dinner you’re imagining.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I wonder how problematic we will be in 50, 100 years. Probably very, but let me ask you then if you could have the call a friend or Siri feature for two philosophers. Another way to approach this question would be, if you could pick one or two to just rely upon instructionally, and this is individual to you, right, but are there two who you particularly identify with as finding tremendously helpful to you in whatever sense that that translates?
Michael Schur: Sure. Yeah. Aristotle is the first one that comes to mind because Aristotle’s whole thing… Aristotle created what is now called virtue ethics and his… He didn’t try to write a rule book, right? He didn’t say, “Do this. Don’t do that. This is okay. This is not okay.” What he says is there’s a number of things, qualities in a person, personality traits, call them what you will, and that that matter. Those things are courage, and generosity, and magnanimity, and things like that. His goal was find the exact right amount of all those qualities. He called them virtues, and he said if you can nail that dead-solid midpoint of all of these qualities, that’s what a good person is. Right?
So it’s important that you be courageous, but if you’re too courageous, you will be rash. HIs example is a soldier storming over a hill and trying to take on an entire army by himself and just getting shot. If you’re not courageous enough, you’ll abandon your… At the first sign of trouble, you’ll abandon your unit and flee in the other direction, and then that’s not good either. So the key is like be courageous enough to do your job, but not so courageous that you act rashly.
So that process, I find the most forgiving of human foibles and weirdnesses, and the most humanistic of all of the theories. I find it to be the most inviting. It’s the most forgiving, I think, of the mistakes that we are bound to make as people because you’re going to screw up. He knows you’re going to screw up. You’re going to be too magnanimous, or not courageous enough, or too generous, or whatever, and he says like, “That’s okay. You’re going to blow it. Just check in. Do an accounting of what you’ve done, and then adjust, and keep aiming towards that dead-solid, middle, perfect spot.” Right?
So I find him to be the most friendly, I guess is the word for it. Right? He’s like the friendliest philosopher because he doesn’t… Like Kant basically says, “If you screw up, you’re dead to me. I won’t even look at you if you make a mistake.” Right? He’s just very, very sticklery, and Aristotle isn’t like that. He’s like, “Hey, life is hard. It’s complicated, and it’s weird. We’re all going to make mistakes. The key isn’t whether you made a mistake. The key is what do you do now? Like if you’ve registered that you’ve been too much of this or not enough of that, next time, get a little better.” That is just very lovely to me. I find that philosophy to be the most inviting.
So he is definitely one of the two I have on speed dial if I can. He also, by the way, granted he lived 2,400 years ago, but he thought slavery was totally fine like he’s a lot or Aristotle writing that’s like a defensive slavery, and you’re like, “Oh, come on, dude. Come on. Don’t blow this for me. I was so into you. Now, you’re talking about how great it is to have slaves.” But the other one would be William James. So William James, much more recent, lived in the lat 19th century, early 20th century. His theory is called pragmatism. I also find pragmatism incredibly inviting. He didn’t really invent it, but he developed it.
Pragmatism basically says the only thing that matters is what’s true, right? If something is true, then we can rely on it, and we can use it. Pragmatism will use any means necessary to get at a fact, a truth, something that we can rely on, and hold in our hands, and know that it’s real. So he doesn’t say you have to be a utilitarian, or you have to be a religious dogmatist, or you have to be a Kantian. He doesn’t care what method you use as long as you get to some kind of truth or fact, and then base your decision on that truth or fact.
There’s something just very lovely… I describe it in the book as the jambalaya of philosophy, right? It’s like throw everything into the pot, everything we’ve got. Use whatever we can. He doesn’t care what theory you use or how you arrive at the truth as long as what you’re arriving at is the truth. So I really like that approach because in a modern world… I mean, for him, the modern world was like 1896 or whatever. For us, the modern world is 2023. Things have already… or 2022. Things have already gotten so much more complicated than they were a hundred years ago, but he was looking around at an increasingly complex world and saying, “We don’t have time to only use one theory here. We got to use all of them. We got to use everything we have. Every tool in our tool belt, we should be able to use at any moment in order to arrive at something that we can agree upon is true.”
So I feel like on my speed dial, I’ve got Aristotle to just like rub my back and tell me everything is going to be okay and then, “Keep trying, man. Keep going.” Like putting one of those silver marathon blankets around me when the world is too wearying. Then, I’ve got William James to be the guy who’s like, “All right. Let’s walk through what we know. Let’s get to some kind of fundamental truth that we can rely on.” I feel like those two guys would work well in concert with each other.
Tim Ferriss: I have a lot of reading to do. I’m looking forward to my first edition of How to Be Perfect. I think it’s going to… I need a plastic, a plastic jacket and inscription possibly.
Michael Schur: You got to get your Mylar, man.
Tim Ferriss: I know.
Michael Schur: You got to protect that dust jacket. That’s where all the value is.
Tim Ferriss: I do know Mylar because I still have every comic book I collected as a kid, which is several thousand comic books. All Mylar bags and backed.
Michael Schur: Really?
Tim Ferriss: Not that I’ve done much with them. They’ve really just sat there, but still.
Michael Schur: What is the crown jewel of your collection? If you could only say five comic books, what are they?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, man. Oh, for me…
Michael Schur: I’m not a comic book guy, so this is all new to me.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Michael Schur: I don’t know anything about comics. What do we got?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, these are not… I mean, you keep in mind I was working as a busboy on Long island and buying what I could with very meager funds. So I don’t have any particularly valuable comics, I don’t think.
Michael Schur: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I would probably save the comics that introduced me to specific characters and specific artists. So a lot of Jim Lee basically resurrecting the X-Men. I would save McFarlane. I would probably grab some Punisher War Journal. Long story. Things that had some… made some indelible mark on my childhood, which is the same reason I still have all of my Dungeons & Dragons.
Michael Schur: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: I have my modules. I have Fiend Folio. Dungeons & Dragons had a formative impact on my childhood, and for those wondering, gray elf was my particular race, preferred race. Drow elves or “Drow,” I’m not sure how you pronounce it, were interesting to me. Chaotic good also preferred, but I’m getting into the weeds a bit, so let me… I completely lost track of where I was, but that’s nothing new. We’re not really deviating from philosophy because philosophy is everywhere even if you don’t recognize it. Right?
Michael Schur: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: If you decide not to care about philosophy, well, that’s your… I mean, it’s part of your philosophy is deciding not to care.
Michael Schur: Correct.
Tim Ferriss: So it’s inevitable not to, I feel like all roads lead back to David Foster Wallace. But the commencement speech about, what is it? This is water or this water, I can’t recall. Yeah. Just so people aren’t on the reference. I think he begins with this joke slash parable of two young fish swimming along, and they pass an older fish, and the older fish says, “How’s the water boys?” Something like that. And the younger fish continue on, and then they go, “What the hell is water?” Right.
Excellent commencement speech, actually ties into a lot of what we’re talking about. But when we look at your bio, so you’re talking about Aristotle and the marathon blanket. When life gets tough, or when you’re feeling particularly weary. When we look at your bio that I read in the introduction. I mean, it just seems like step up to the plate, home run, home run, home run. Just batting a thousand, right? That’s maybe the impression, because that’s what bios are intended to do. They don’t list the mistakes and the failures. Do you have any favorite failures? By which I mean a mistake, a failure, whether it was viewed that way by you or by other people, that you learned a lot from, that was particularly valuable, that set you up in some unexpected way for a success later, anything? Do any failures come to mind? However you might define that.
Michael Schur: I mean, I’ve failed once, so no.
Tim Ferriss: That’s good because I was kind of trapping you with the How to be perfect, title. A book with such a title cannot be written by a charlatan. Please continue.
Michael Schur: Yeah. So my failures are that are value, are sort of smaller scale than I think you would think. There have certainly been projects I’ve developed, pilots I’ve made, show ideas I’ve had that never went anywhere. You go along the process, you’re making them, you write the script, they say, “No, thank you.” You make the pilot, they look at the pilot, they say, “No, we’re not making this.” That kind of failure is very common, very typical. I don’t think that they have taught me as much as some, I guess what you would call smaller scale failures.
So going back to SNL for a second, so here’s how SNL works. On the Monday and Tuesday of every week, you sit around your office and you goof around and you write sketches. And usually, the way it usually goes, is you stay up Tuesday night until like nine in the morning, you stay up all night and you write all night. And then on Wednesday there’s a read through. The host comes in, and Lauren comes in, and the cast sits around a giant table. And the crew piles into this room, and they read through 45 or 50 sketches over four hours, and just one after another, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And then there’s a meeting afterwards, and Lauren and the head writers, and producers, and the host, all kind of pick, here are the dozen sketches we’re going to do this week.
So there’s a specific kind of failure at SNL that is so painful and visceral, that I still, and this is not an exaggeration, it’s not, I’m not saying this for effect. I still have occasional nightmares about this particular failure, okay? The particular failure is, it’s the third hour of the read through, your sketch is number 28 in the rundown. Lauren reads the title of the sketch here, this title, okay next sketch is, Caveman Olympics by Mike Schur. And the people start reading the sketch, and then whatever the joke of the sketch is, is sort of sprung. The first joke comes up and it dies, no one laughs even a tiny bit.
And what you know is that there’s nine more pages on that joke premise coming. And the first one didn’t work, and all you have is nine more pages of it. And what happens next is the sketch is dutifully read by the cast and the host. And the only sound in the room is the sound of like 110 people turning pages in a sheet of stapled paper. That’s the only sound, it’s just the like, shh, shh, over and over again.
And it is like, if you’ve ever wondered whether flop sweat is real, I actively flop sweated, so many times in those moments where I was like, I want to die. I want to get up and run out of the room screaming, because this is so painful. It’s all of these funny people. In my era, it was Will Ferrell, and Molly Shannon, and Traci Morgan, and Tina Fey, and Jimmy Fallon. The funniest people in the world, and all of your peers, all of the writers who were also the funniest people in the world. And you cannot make one of them laugh for one tenth of one second.
And as painful as that is, and I experienced it so many times. As painful as that is, what happens is if you can survive it, you get to the other side of it, and nothing bothers you. There’s literally no kind of institutional failure that can phase you anymore. That doesn’t mean you don’t get upset when things don’t work out, of course you do. It doesn’t mean you don’t get sad, or depressed, or need someone to talk to, or rely on. Or you don’t need Aristotle to wrap a metallic blanket around your shoulders when things don’t go your way, of course you do.
But in the creative world, that pain, that failure, that weekly sometimes failure, just absolutely thickened my skin to such a wonderful degree that I just realized, this doesn’t matter, this is sketch comedy. This is all goofing around. This is silliness. It’s not life or death. The stakes of this are not the end of the world. The stakes of this are like, did your sketch work this week? And that really evens you out a little bit. Because then the flip side of that coin is, you write a sketch and it kills, and it gets solid laughs all the way through.
And then it gets produced, and you mount it, and it works on the stage, it works in rehearsal, works in dress rehearsal. It goes on the live show, it works on the live show. You made the people in the studio laugh. Maybe even, in a rare case, at least for me, the sketch kind of goes a little viral. You see it pop up on the internet and people remember it fondly. When that happens, a thing you don’t think is I’ve nailed this, I’m good man. I know how to do this job, I’m a rock star. I’ve got this down. Because you know that your next four and a half minutes of brutal, silent, paper shuffling failure, is one week away. It’s going to happen next week.
And so it just keeps you in this range of reasonable reaction to the world that is pretty narrow. And you don’t get a big head, your successes don’t make you into a monster. And your failures don’t make you into a depressive person or a miserable person who complains and yells and screams and lashes out of people, because it just is a matter of course in your life. And I really think that kind of failure, especially at a young age for me, was so valuable. And I love it. I love that failure. I love thinking about it and keeping it close to my soul. Because I really think if you’ve experienced that failure, you cannot become a monster.
And that’s why not all, but the vast majority of people I know who went through SNL are really nice people. They’re just nice, and good, and kind, and they have a level head. And I think it’s because we just got all beaten up, and we ate that failure, we shoved that failure down our throats over, and over, and over again. And it just taught us that you can’t ever let yourself think too much of yourself, because you just have that institutional memory of failure.
Tim Ferriss: That retelling just makes my palms sweat just thinking about it.
Michael Schur: Me too, man.
Tim Ferriss: It sounds so bad, so bad. And what a gift also, right? To be…
Michael Schur: It, it is the greatest gift.
Tim Ferriss: Over and over again. Just…
Michael Schur: I’m telling you.
Tim Ferriss: Just taught that you cannot take yourself too seriously, right? Cause, God, the consequences of that will be just so severe.
Michael Schur: Yeah. And it’s not just that you can’t take yourself too seriously. It’s that you are not God’s gift to the world. I saw the greatest comedians of our generation bomb, week after week, after week. I saw Will Ferrell take huge swings and bomb. I saw Tina Fey take huge swings and bomb. And granted their successes were much more frequent than mine, or really anyone’s. Tina Fey’s batting average on that show in the six years I was there, was the highest of anyone’s. And she probably hit 400, which is great for a baseball player, and incredible for an SNL sketch writer.
But for most people, if you failed at your job, 60% of the time, you would be crushed. But because of the nature of the job, and because it’s constantly reminding you, this is an absurd way to make a living, right? This is ridiculous. You’re hanging out with your friends in an all office and making jokes all day. You can’t ever get to a point where you get too worked up, or too angry, or too upset about things, because it’s absurd. And you learn to take the successes with a grain of salt and the failures with a grain of salt. And I really believe that that failure, for me at least, was a tremendous gift. And I’m so, so grateful for it.
Tim Ferriss: I am glad I asked that question. Not that I’m taking credit for the answer, I can’t take credit for the answer. But let me just ask a few more questions. I could go for hours, but let me ask a question that is very often a question that leads to a dead end. So I will take the blame for that, if that’s the case. But here goes nothing. So if you could put anything on a billboard, metaphorically speaking, non-commercial, to get a message out to billions of people, let’s all assume they speak English. Doesn’t have to be a quote. It could be a question, it could be an image, it could be anything at all.
Michael Schur: So this is what I think I would say. And this goes back to a thing I wrote about in the book. The last chapter of the book is about apologizing. And what I say in the book is, this isn’t really ethics, apologizing isn’t an ethics question, because ethics has much more to do with whatever it is that you did that made you have to apologize, right? Whatever you do, whatever you blew it. That was probably an ethical question, or in many cases was. So apologizing isn’t really ethics. But I think it’s sort of ethics adjacent. I think it’s like, I describe it as an exit interview, after you’ve made an ethical decision that blew up in your face. Now here’s your exit interview. Why did you do it, what have you learned? Try to heal the wound a little bit of whatever the action was that caused this little problem.
And what’s interesting about apologizing I think, is that everyone is bad at it. And I will absolutely include myself in this. No one wants to do it, everybody flinches and holds back. When you know you should apologize to someone for something, you never want to do it. You put it off, you procrastinate, you have a conversation with the person you should apologize to and you just don’t apologize to them. And you’re like, “God dammit, why can’t I just apologize to this person?”
It’s a really hard thing for people to do because it’s icky. You feel shame, and your face flushes, and you get hot, and you start sweating. And it’s a hard thing to do. But I also think that it’s really important. And it’s a thing that in my life I have tried, I’ve worked on, really, really hard to get better at it. To become a person who recognizes when I’ve made mistakes and apologizes for them. Not eight months later, or ten years later, but in the moment. In the moment, I really try to be a person who says, “Oh no, I blew this. And I made a mistake, and I should immediately apologize and try to heal this little wound.”
I don’t think I’m succeeding at least a hundred percent or even fifty percent, at being that person. But I think I’m better than I used to be. And it’s not easy. And I’m very, very understanding of people who have a hard time doing it. There’s another version of a bad apology that we see all the time in the public sphere, which is when people say, “I’m sorry if you were offended,” or something like that. Which is not, that’s not an apology, man. That’s not an apology, that’s that’s you saying, “I did nothing wrong and you’re stupid enough to think that I did something wrong, so I’m sorry you’re so stupid.” That’s what that is.
So there’s a lot of bad apologies, there’s a lot of procrastinating, there’s a lot of delayed apologies. This is all of long-winded way of saying that I think if I could put up this imaginary billboard push notification or whatever, I think the message would be, Say, you’re sorry. And I would trust that all five billion people who read it, would think, “How did you know that I have someone I should apologize to?” Because we all do, everybody’s got something to apologize for, to someone. And I don’t think that all five billion people would apologize for whatever they should apologize for. But I’ll bet that some people, if they got a message from the Netherworld that said, “Hey, say, you’re sorry,” they would go, Yeah, you’re right. I should call Jim and apologize for that thing that I did to him last week, or whatever. That would be maybe the greatest chance of mass success on a utilitarian scale that I could probably achieve.
Tim Ferriss: I’m now imagining in my mind, driving down the highway and there’s actually a sequence of billboards. And the first one says, “Say you’re sorry.” And then the next one says, “I know it sucks, but it’s important.”
Michael Schur: Yeah, right. And the next one says, “You still haven’t done it, come on, man. You know you got to do it.”
Tim Ferriss: Todd May. So you spoke to a gazillion different, you spoke to slash harassed, slash pulled into conversation, many different philosophers, many different professors. Professor Todd May of Clemson, ended up as I understand it, being an advisor of sorts to The Good Place. Also, was involved in the book. What makes Todd special? Why Todd?
Michael Schur: The first thing that makes him special is that we were working on The Good Place in season two. And season two, spoiler alert, stop listening for a second if you haven’t seen the show yet. Season two and involves a… Michael, Ted Danson’s character, is an immortal being from the afterlife who is trying to learn, essentially human philosophy. And we had this moment where we were like, well, how in the world is an immortal alien, whatever he is, going to give a crap about human philosophy. He’s an eternal being. Why would he care about whether you correctly interacted with the human being in some small moment?
So we went looking, we were like, I wonder if anyone’s ever written about the morality of immortality? What happens if you’re immortal, does morality matter? And turns out someone did write about that, it’s Todd may. And he wrote a book called Death, where it’s a great book, it’s very short, it’s maybe a hundred pages and easily readable. And he talks about how mortality gives sort of shape and definition to our lives, because we know that everything ends. And morality is what helps us make sense of those lives while we’re living them. And if you’re immortal, then none of this matters. If you’re immortal, whatever. You make a mistake, big deal, you’re going to live for infinite number of years. The memory of your crummy mistake will fade over time and it won’t matter anymore, right?
So he happened to have written this book that was about the exact thing that we needed to learn about at that time. So I read the book and then I was like, God, this is a great book, this guy could really help us. I reached out to him, I had a zoom meeting with him to talk about out the book. And I found him to be the most lovely, congenial, intelligent, friendly, conversational person I had ever met, certainly within the realm of academia, but also maybe in life. He’s just a lovely person. And I said, “Would you ever want to come into our writer’s room and just talk to us about philosophy?” And he was like, “Sure.”
So he popped into our room, we did a zoom meeting with him. And then he came to LA once, and he came in and talked to us about a bunch of stuff that we didn’t understand. And he just became this kind of break in case of emergency. If we had a question about philosophy, we would smash the glass, pick up a red phone, it would be connected directly to Todd May. And we would say, “Please explain existentialism.” And he would explain it to us. And we would say, “Thank you.” And we would hang up and go back to writing the script. And so he just became that guy. He and a woman named Pamela Hieronymi, who taught at UCLA, became our two go-to advisors.
And when I had to write the book, or I wanted to write the book at the end of the show, I had just had such a lovely time working with him that I said, “I think I need someone who really knows his or her stuff to sort of sit next to me and look over my shoulder and make sure I don’t really blow it.” And so that’s the role he played. He was the guy who made sure that when I talked about philosophers and what they said, that I wasn’t getting it terribly wrong. And then would also explain to me a bunch of stuff I didn’t understand. It was just a happy coincidence that he happened to have written about the exact thing that we needed to know about at that moment. And then he just sort of joined the team and helped us out for the rest of the time the show was on the air.
Tim Ferriss: Just so I make sure I’m getting this right. The other name you mentioned is Pamela Hieronymi? So that would be Professor Hieronymi, as a philosophy professor? That is…
Michael Schur: Pretty great, right?
Tim Ferriss: Incredible.
Michael Schur: A wonderful name.
Tim Ferriss: SO good.
Michael Schur: Yeah, I know.
Tim Ferriss: That’s really outstanding. Well, this has been a lovely and a much longer than expected conversation. And I really appreciate you being so generous and patient with my never ending stream of questions. The book, I’m very excited about this, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, by Michael Schur. S-C-H-U-R, AKA, Ken Tremendous on Twitter and elsewhere. Is there anything else that you would like to say, any closing comments, complaints, requests to the audience, anything at all that you’d like to add before we wrap up?
Michael Schur: I guess I would only say that whether it’s my book or another book, and there are plenty of them that I think deal with this topic well, and conversationally. I would urge you all to do a bit of your own educational reading on the subject of ethics. I think that ethics is… I would so much rather that my kids take classes in ethics in high school than advanced math or biochemistry. And nothing against those subjects, but I think that the two subjects that are woefully under-taught 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.
And I hope that whether it’s from my book or from some other survey, or some other set of articles or anything. I really believe that people could greatly benefit from just the basic understanding of what these people said about ethics, how they work, the different theories that are out there. Applying them to your own lives. I know that I have gotten a tremendous amount of happiness and satisfaction from just, 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. So I just recommend ethics as a life improvement strategy. I think they’re really interesting and really valuable, and I encourage everyone to just poke around. Even if it’s literally reading a Wikipedia page or something, it really can, I think, be of great benefit to just about everyone on earth.
Tim Ferriss: Here, here. I fully agree with that and I’m going to… So that last question was a false summit, I apologize. I realize that I need to mention, or ask you to mention something, because I don’t think you’re going to mention it without some prompting. What happens to the proceeds from this book?
Michael Schur: Yes. So when I wanted to write this book, I had two thoughts back to back. One of them was that sounds really hard and really fun. And I think the fact that it sounds really hard and fun means I ought to do it. And the second thought was, it would be really weird to personally profit from a book about ethics and being a better person. So I am donating every single cent that I make from the book, from anything involved in the book from foreign sales of the book, the advance, the royalties, any speaking honorarium that comes from the book. It’s all being donated, a hundred percent of it, to charity. To one of five charities, potentially more down the line, if Todd and I, Todd is in on this too. I forced Todd to take a small payment for his professional time, but he is also joining me in donating the majority of what he makes as well.
So the first payment went to the IRC, which is a wonderful charity that you can find at rescue.org, that helps people in need all over the world. We’re donating one fifth of it to the Rainforest Trust, which buys and preserves rainforest land. We’ve got other charities lined up in the world of social justice, and legal justice. And World Central Kitchen was the second one I think we donated to. So anyway, I’m donating every single dollar I ever make from this to charity. So that’s another good reason to buy it, is you know that you’re also contributing to some good cause somewhere in the world.
Tim Ferriss: I love everything about this, which is premature because I haven’t read the book. But I plan on it. But I have really enjoyed this conversation. And I really appreciate you taking so much time. I know you have many options for what you may do with your time, and this has just been great. I really encourage people to check out the book, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. If it only delivers 20 percent, even 25 percent. Just think about…
Michael Schur: Think about how much better off you’ll be, that’s right.
Tim Ferriss: And for everybody listening, we will have links to everything, including the book, and anything else that we’ve mentioned. We didn’t even get to the specific episodes of TV shows that you rewatch like The Constant from Lost or The Fly from Breaking Bad, maybe another conversation.
Michael Schur: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: But I find you to be very fascinating, very engaging, and a very good teacher, just from this conversation. Which makes me very optimistic about this book, which is also reflected in the writing from The Good Place and elsewhere. So I’m very, very optimistic about this. And for those people listening, you can find all the links and resources at tim.blog/podcast as per usual. And until next time, just say you’re sorry, God dammit, just get around to it. And thank you for tuning in.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.