Tuesday, April 9

Michael Schur: ‘It is a daily punch that people are against masks’ | the good place

PMaybe it’s a symptom of only communicating on Zoom for two years, but I’ve noticed a direct correlation between how long people make you wait at the start of a meeting and how nice of a person they are. A minute late? They may be having technical difficulties. Five minutes? A little cheeky. Ten? Worse than Satan himself.

I’m telling you this because my interview with Michael Schur was supposed to start at 5:00 pm But, and I really can’t overstate how weird this is, he clicked online at 4:59. “I like to follow the rules, man,” he shrugs when he realizes how happy I am for his punctuality.

As the creator of Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, perhaps the two best American comedies of the last decade, Schur’s love of rules has served us well. Parks and Rec focused on Schur’s belief in the positive potential of proactive government. Meanwhile, The Good Place was even more direct. It was an afterlife comedy, paced like a thriller, asking explicitly what it meant to be a good person, according to the criteria established by three millennia of moral philosophers. If the premise sounds dry, the show was wildly entertaining.

A Passage to Indiana... The cast of the fifth season of Parks and Recreation.
A Passage to Indiana… The cast of Parks and Recreation, fifth season. Photo: NBCU/Getty

Something similar could be said about Schur’s new book, How to Be Perfect: The Right Answer to Every Moral Question. It is his attempt to package everything he learned about moral philosophy during the making of The Good Place in the most accessible way possible. It’s an absolute breeze to read; funny, illuminating and revealing, despite its potentially heavy subject matter.

“Well, that was the impetus to do it, and the show,” he explains from his home in California. “I realized that this is the most vital writing ever done by a human being, and it is dense and impenetrable. The way I started to think of it was like these people were writing recipes for chocolate chip cookies that were delicious and healthy and would help you lose weight, but their recipes were 800 pages long and written in German.”

Spending an hour with Schur is an absolute balm. There is something reassuringly fatherly about how reasonable and inquisitive he is, and how unfazed by moral confusion. This seems to be something that those around him revel in as well. “I have friends who text me like, ‘Hey, my cousin borrowed money from my brother and it seems a little unethical,’” he says. “People are going through their own moral dilemmas, and I’ve become an amateur expert on them.”

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It's a wonderful afterlife... The season pilot of The Good Place.
It’s a wonderful afterlife… The season pilot of The Good Place. Photograph: NBC/Getty

I must confess that I fell prey to this myself during our time together, basically using it as a philosophical fortune-telling machine to help clarify issues I’ve struggled with. Inevitably, the conversation quickly turns to Covid.

How to Be Perfect touches on the pandemic several times, but Schur admits it was hard not to make it the focus of the entire book. “The pandemic is a perfect way to talk about morality,” he says. “Every time you leave your house, you are faced with a lot of moral choices that involve how do you interact with other people, how do you treat other people, what are your responsibilities, what are other people’s responsibilities at the family level, the local level. , the state level, the national level, the international level. It’s pretty crazy that it coincided with the book he was writing about how to make better decisions.”

Overwhelmingly, a great aspect of moral philosophy is understanding that we share the world with other people, and that it is in everyone’s interest to be decent, but the pandemic has also revealed hidden reserves of selfishness. Is there a philosophical explanation for not wearing a mask?

One star is Pawnee…Amy Poehler as Deputy Director Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation.
One star is Pawnee…Amy Poehler as Deputy Director Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation. Photography: NBCU

“Ayn Rand is extremely popular because it’s basically a ‘get out of jail free’ morality card, right?” Schur begins. “She says, ‘No, actually, the more selfish you are, the better you are, and the better the world is.’ Now, that is a true and profoundly crazy philosophy. It’s bananas on bananas. However, because it is so attractive to people who may have a selfish outlook, they have a moral basis for behaving that way.”

One of the problems, he explains, is our vague definition of freedom. “It’s a huge word,” she continues. “There are no checks and balances on the concept of freedom. However, when your freedom impinges on the health and safety of others, it would be natural to find a membrane where the limits of your freedom meet the well-being of others. But they’re screaming and yelling about not having to wear a mask at this McDonald’s and hitting you over the head with an American flag. All nuance is lost in those arguments.”

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It’s hard not to get discouraged. “It’s a real blow to the stomach,” he agrees. “It’s a daily punch in the gut that so many people have taken that position, because it just means other people’s lives don’t matter to them, and what else do we have? If you don’t care about anyone else, then what are we doing? What are we doing here?”

Danson with the stars... from The Good Place, season four.
Danson with the stars… from The Good Place, season four. Photo: NBCU/Getty

An entire chapter of How to Be Perfect is devoted to a subject that probably did not concern Aristotle: how to separate art from artist. We live in a world of troublesome favorites, and we still lack a clear consensus on how to overcome the ugliness that comes when someone whose work we love does something personally unforgivable. In the book, Schur talks about his lifelong admiration for Woody Allen, even going so far as to credit Sleeper with sparking his interest in comedy. (Allen has been accused of sexually assaulting his daughter Dylan in 1992; he denies the allegations and was acquitted by two subsequent inquests.) Where are you now with his work? I ask.

“I think I can still enjoy the old Woody Allen movies that were meaningful to me,” he begins. “I think that artistically he is a genius. But the key is not to hide from the other things. When I watch his old movies, they still bring back memories of when I first saw them. But then part of me says, ‘he just remembers the other stuff.’ It sucks because it means that instead of enjoying them 100%, I only enjoy them 74%, but I think the problem is that you can’t ignore the reality of who the person is or get rid of the work entirely. . You have to land somewhere in the middle.”

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NYPD team... The cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, another Schur production.
NYPD team… The cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, another Schur production. Photography: Alamy

Having covered the larger issues, I try to end the interview by heading back into lighter territory. A running joke in How to Be Perfect is Schur’s dislike for pineapple pizza. So he imagines that I invited you to my house and without realizing it I serve you Hawaiian pizza. What do you do for a living? would you eat it?

“First of all, thanks for breaking down probably the most important moral issue of our time,” laughs Schur. What happens next is pretty much the philosophical equivalent of seeing Paul McCartney pull Get Back out of nowhere.

“The answer is yes, I would,” he says. “I would eat it 100% and not say a word about it. I know this to be true because I am a vegetarian.”

Oh God, I shudder, knowing that even in this hypothetical situation, I have committed an unforgivable crime.

“There have been times in my life when I went to someone’s house and I forgot to tell them I’m a vegetarian, and they serve hamburgers or hot dogs or whatever,” he says. “The embarrassment and awkwardness of saying, ‘Oh, I don’t eat meat,’ puts them in such an unpleasant position that I never say anything. The importance of spending this one meal of all the meals I eat in my life as a strict vegetarian does not outweigh the social propriety of accepting the gracious offer of a meal created for me by someone else. I don’t feel like I compromised my entire value system because I ate chicken salad.”

At this point I start to feel bad for not asking him if he ate meat before serving him an imaginary pizza.

“Okay,” he reassures me. “The world keeps spinning. Everything is fine. I mean, afterward, I’m definitely going to talk shit about you,” she adds. “Because anyone who likes Hawaiian pizza deserves to be talked down to. Not even morally. Just what happens to that guy if he thinks Hawaiian pizza is a good thing to serve someone?

Michael Schur pauses, having successfully interrogated the philosophical underpinnings of dining etiquette. Your version of Curb Your Enthusiasm would be wildly different from Larry David’s, I mean. “I don’t think it’s that funny,” he laughs. “It would be like, ‘Well, actually, that’s a good point.'”

How to be perfect: the correct answer to each moral question is now available through Quercus


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