‘The Good Place’ Creator Michael Schur on Ethics, Civics, Optimism, and the Lessons of ‘Lost’

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‘The Good Place’ Creator Michael Schur on Ethics, Civics, Optimism, and the Lessons of ‘Lost’

Parks and Recreation had a motto: it was essentially that ‘optimism is better than pessimism.’ It’s really easier to be pessimistic. Nihilism and cynicism are always going to be an easier path because they require nothing of you except a shoulder shrug and an eyeroll.”

Over the last decade or so, trust and faith in government has plummeted and the general outlook for humanity has gone from bleak to bleaker. And many of our most popular shows—even our greatest shows—have reflected the darkness and complexity of our world, from the brutality of Game of Thrones to the brutal satire of Veep. But Michael Schur’s shows, Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, have stood out in this landscape for being bright and shiny, sweet and warm, full of optimism, bright colors, and generally good humans helping other humans.
That doesn’t mean they haven’t reflected the times in their own deeply political ways. Parks and Recreation, which follows a small local government and centers on the eternally competent Leslie Knope, was conceived as a statement on the Obama administration’s faith in government’s ability to help citizens and its “incremental” approach to effecting change. And The Good Place, about a group of deceased souls working to change the system that sorts us into heaven and hell, was borne of Schur’s belief in ethics—and came at a time when morality and ethics were making headlines daily during the Trump era. Both series won Peabody Awards for these brainy—but still uplifting—approaches.
Schur has now taken his belief in philosophy for the masses a step further, writing a funny and accessible guide to ethical thought called How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question (see below). In this exclusive Peabody Creators interview, we talked to Schur about why philosophy and civics should be standard grade school fare, why his shows are so optimistic, and how Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof played a key role in the development of The Good Place.

Peabody: You wrote this book for regular folks to understand ethics and you made this whole TV show that was about ethics. Why do you think it’s important for us to understand philosophy?

MS: I don’t think there’s anything more important to understand on earth. I mean, I’ve been thinking about this stuff for the better part of a decade now, and it has occurred to me more than once that I would so much rather that my kids learn ethics in school than, I don’t know, chemistry or something. But the chances that my children are going to have a career in chemistry are extremely small, and the chances that they’re going to encounter ethical dilemmas—it’s literally a 100% chance. They’ll face an ethical dilemma today, and they’re in fifth grade and seventh grade. And what is necessary, I think, to have a little more success in navigating these ethical dilemmas that we face isn’t a PhD from Oxford, it’s literally just having a nuts-and-bolts understanding of the very basic ideas that these people have been talking about for 2,400 years. And if you just learn the really simple headlines of each of these theories, it greatly improves your chances of successfully navigating any difficult situation you find yourself in. It’s not a guarantee, you’re still going to blow it all the time, and make mistakes, and cause pain and suffering. But you at least will have an idea of what to do. And in my life I have encountered, like most people, a large number of situations in which I was like, “Well, I just have no idea what to do right now. I’m absolutely at a loss.” And now, at least when I blow it, which I still do all the time, at least I can get something out of it. At least I can say, “Oh, you know what I did is, I didn’t think about this aspect,” or, “I forgot to use this theory.”

Peabody: It’s so strange that we do not teach this in school from the beginning.
MS: Oh, it’s bananas! And especially when you think about the fact that the ancient Greeks, who basically established the concept of public schooling, this was the first thing they taught. They taught ethics, oratory, and civics. And we now do not teach ethics, we rarely teach oratory, and barely teach civics. We don’t teach people how to be citizens, and we don’t teach them how to negotiate ethical dilemmas. And I mean, what more evidence do we need than American life 2015 to the present that civics might be an important thing for us to understand, and that ethics might be an important thing for us to understand?

“There’s some connective tissue you could find between, say, Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, which would be that our reliance on other people and their reliance on us is very frequently the difference between a good, functioning, flourishing society and a completely disrupted or failed society.”

Peabody: Do you have a unifying philosophy of your shows?

MS: Yeah, it would probably be something like “other people matter.”  There’s some connective tissue you could find between, say, Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, which would be that our reliance on other people and their reliance on us is very frequently the difference between a good, functioning, flourishing society and a completely disrupted or failed society.  And that the bonds that we form with other people aren’t just friendship and romantic, but societal and civic.

Peabody: Your shows are also quite optimistic. And you’ve made them mostly in a difficult time in America. Why the optimism?

MS: Parks and Recreation had a motto: it was essentially that “optimism is better than pessimism.” It’s really easier to be pessimistic. Nihilism and cynicism are always going to be an easier path because they require nothing of you except a shoulder shrug and an eyeroll. And optimism requires a lot of hard work and nose-to-the-grindstone behavior in order to achieve the outcome that you are optimistic about. Parks and Rec took the position that optimism is the better way to live, that it leads to more happiness in your life, and if people are cynical and pessimistic, then when things go wrong, all they do is point to them and say, “See? There was no point in trying.” We’re here for a certain number of years, we have a certain number of experiences and relationships and things that we can try to accomplish, and you can either hope for the best or you can expect the worst. And I just feel like it’s better to hope for the best.

Peabody: You’re also very interested in, it seems, small town government and community. Where did that come from?

MS: Well, with Parks and Rec, Greg Daniels [who adapted The Office for American TV] asked me to do that show with him. We stumbled on this idea. We had been writing The Office for four and a half years or so at that point, and the genius of The Office was that they invented a company that allowed them to make a lot of observations about corporate culture that weren’t, like, “This is a takedown of, you know, Amazon.” It was just that everyone had worked in an office at some point in their lives, and so 98 percent of the audience was familiar with the setting, and with the kind of rhythms and little annoyances and little foibles of fluorescent lights and cubicles and stuff. And so Greg and I were looking around at the world and thinking about what this new show should be; at the time, it was 2007, and so the economy was collapsing, and it just became very clear that the government was going to play an enormous role in peoples’ lives in a way that it maybe hadn’t since the Great Depression. It occurred to us that if we did a show about small-town government, we had the opportunity to do for the public sector what The Office had done for the private sector. We could invent a whole town, and then get into the nitty gritty of local government, which is where the rubber really meets the road. This was the thing that had been demonized, and continues to be by roughly half the country. And our feeling was the government is just a group of people that aren’t very different from the people, like in The Office, who are just filling out forms and trying to make gears of society turn in an efficient way to the best of their ability. Do they suck at it? Sometimes, yeah, of course they do. But that doesn’t mean that they’re scary or dangerous or evil or bad.

Peabody: Switching gears to The Good Place: What was the pitch process for that like? It’s a little out there.

MS: It is, yeah. The basic first idea was there’s a sort of afterlife paradise. We’ve all been playing a video game without knowing it, we have a points total, and the top scorers get to paradise, and everybody else gets tortured forever. And someone gets in who doesn’t belong there due to what appears to be a clerical error. It’s fun because Eleanor is hiding in plain sight and trying to earn her place by actually becoming a good person. But the premise is so out there, as you put it, and so huge and so cinematic—in the sense that it doesn’t seem like a TV show, it seems like a movie. So I thought, I don’t think I can pitch this until I have an understanding not just of who the characters are and how the show will work, but how it can continue, right? I needed to have a thorough understanding of how this would work over multiple seasons. Eventually I came up with—spoiler alert!—the idea that they’re actually being tortured, that it is actually the Bad Place, and that this whole thing is an experiment. As soon as I had that idea, I was like, well, now I get it, because now I know what season 2 is, and I can imagine what season 3 would be. I basically waited until I had the entire first season beaten out in my head. When I pitched it, what I said to NBC was, “You’re gonna be scared as I start this pitch, and I promise, by the time I’m done, you won’t be scared anymore. Like, I don’t know if you’ll like it or not, but you’ll at least know, like I do, how it can actually be a TV show.” 

Peabody: Was there a reason you wanted to definitely do it as a TV show? You could have done it as a movie. Is it just as simple as you had a contract with NBC?

MS: Well, to some extent, but also, I imagined it as a show about a woman who gets incrementally better as a person over a very long period of time, and TV’s a better medium for that. You know, movies are wonderful, and I love them. But it’s one story told in 100 minutes. And I was like, if I’m telling a story about people who very, very, very gradually work on themselves and find little ways to improve or make slightly better choices than the ones they used to make, TV’s a better medium for that kind of story. So part of it was just, yeah, I have a contract with NBC and they asked me to do a show. And part of it was that I really felt like in order to tell the story properly, it needed to be told over a number of half-hours, not just one, 100-minute chunk.

Peabody: You mentioned in your Peabody acceptance (see below) that you didn’t expect the word “ethics” to be central to national conversation every day for the run of the show. Was The Good Place, and the Trump era, a turning point for you in terms of what you want to do with your work?

MS: Not really, honestly, because the entire first season aired before he was elected. I felt like some combination of kismet and random chance had led to a point where we were discussing ethics every day. The national story of the day was frequently a question of ethics like, “How is he going to account for the fact that he has all these private business interests?” And the answer was, “He’s not going to care at all.” And then it was, “How are we going to deal with the fact that [then-Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is the secretary of transportation, and she has private business interests that could be affected by the decisions she makes as the secretary of transportation?” And the answer was, “She’s not going to care at all.” These people were just going to absolutely steamroll over the very concept of ethical conflicts in a number of ways. And, look, Trump didn’t start this, right? Dick Cheney ran Halliburton, and then started a war, and Halliburton got all the private contracts, and they still do stuff in Iraq. So it’s hardly the case that we were on the right track as an ethical nation, and then, suddenly, this guy came along and blew it all up. He just capitalized on what he saw, I believe, as a country that doesn’t care. And the truth is, we don’t care about this stuff. Trump just has less shame than most people who are president and so he flouted it, and was utterly unmoved by any attempt to make him account for his decision-making. So it wasn’t a turning point, really, in terms of my own life, or what I’m interested in. It was interesting to have his presidency dovetail with doing a show that was explicitly about the subject.

“(Parks And Rec) was really about the Obama era, and about the idea that Obama was an incrementalist and Leslie Knope was an incrementalist. ‘Let’s make this town 1 percent better than it was yesterday’ was the basic idea of that show.”

Peabody: So it sounds like you see Parks and Rec and The Good Place as reflections of their political times.

MS: Yeah, Parks and Rec was explicitly designed to be that. It was really about the Obama era, and about the idea that Obama was an incrementalist and Leslie Knope was an incrementalist. “Let’s make this town 1 percent better than it was yesterday” was the basic idea of that show. Obama was less about enormous revolutionary change than he was about saying, “Let’s just grind it out and make everything a little better than it was before, make slightly better choices, make deals where we can.” The transformative piece of legislation he passed was health care, and he spent a year trying to get Republicans on board with any part of the plan, and they strung him along, and then eventually said, “We’re not interested.” So he had to go over their heads. But he was always a guy who preferred to do things in concert, and in a sober and reasoned way. It’s difficult work, and you’re often not rewarded for it, and you’re not going to be lifted up on people’s shoulders and carried off in a triumphant parade. You’re going to probably get nothing but grief and pain and misery for your work. But that’s not the point. The point is that your job is to try to improve the place where you live. So that show is implicitly about it. The relationship that The Good Place had with current events was essentially accidental. But it still was interesting.

Peabody: How did you approach The Good Place in a practical sense? Did you plot out full seasons at once?

MS: Yeah, the show was so intricately constructed that we could not do what you usually do in sitcoms, which is to say, “Alright, what should this episode be about? What are some fun stories?” Every episode had to build directly off of the one that came before it, so our models for how the show was going to work were shows like Breaking Bad and Lost. Damon Lindelof was the first person I ever pitched the show to.

I had the idea, and I was like, “This is not something I’m familiar with, I need help.” He and I had just met and become friends a couple months before. I called him and was like, “Hey, can I run this idea by you?” We went out to lunch and I told him that we were going to play a game called “Is This Anything?”, where I was going to pitch him an idea and his job was to tell me whether it was anything or nothing. And one of the things that he told me was that Lost came so close to just running off the rails in season 2. The reason was that he didn’t know where they were going. He said, “If you’re doing a show that’s heavily serialized and you’re going for this sense of wild momentum, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll just derail.” His advice was to always know what the end of the season is, and you’ll be okay. I took that very much to heart and decided that I was never going to start shooting a season if I didn’t know how I was going to finish shooting that same season.
Peabody: You got to learn from Lost’s mistakes. This is a show where you kind of set out to tell people the meaning of life, to some extent. That’s what’s scary about shows like yours and Lost and some others, where it does have that feeling that you’re going to have to end it in a way that says something. Did you feel that pressure?

MS: Yeah, no question. Once we knew what the final season was going to be, and once we knew that the end was that they get to the Good Place for real, then the question was, “Okay, and then what?” I didn’t want what you would think of almost as a romcom ending, where the last thing you see is them sailing off for the Good Place. One of the things that we had learned from philosophy over many years was that any concept of eternal looks problematic, right? This is true in religion, and philosophy, that everybody comes to the same conclusion, which is if you were immortal, you’d be miserable. Because you do everything you can possibly do, and then it’s like, no matter what the thing is that you can imagine, you will get sick of it. Like, ice cream forever gets boring. Todd May, who is one of the philosophers who helped with the show and also helped me with the book I wrote, wrote this book called Death, a wonderfully titled book. The thing that he wrote that really struck a chord with me, and actually led me to reach out to him in the first place, was that mortality gives meaning to our lives. Without mortality, there’s no such thing as meaning, because you just, you do everything you want, you do every good thing you can think of. You do every bad thing you can think of, everything in between. So once we had that idea, I didn’t know whether it was going to be successful or not, because you never know that, but we at least were like, “Okay, this is how it has to go. We have to have these people reach an actual ending in their lives.”

“Mortality gives meaning to our lives. Without mortality, there’s no such thing as meaning, because you just, you do everything you want, you do every good thing you can think of. You do every bad thing you can think of, everything in between.”

Peabody: What are you into right now? What are you watching that you think is great?

MS: What I loved so much is The Great on Hulu. [Creator] Tony McNamara invented a new tone, which I didn’t think was possible. I have no idea how he invented it or how it works. I want to be a scientist and put it under a microscope and examine it at a molecular level, because I think it’s so interesting.

And the best show on TV is The Doghouse: UK. It deserves ten Peabody Awards. It’s a reality show from England where there’s this dog rescue out in the countryside, and you follow three or four people, who come in looking to adopt a dog. Then the people who work in the shelter try to match a dog with the people who are coming in and you get so invested. You’re watching the first episode, and you’re like, “Oh, this is cute. I like this show.” And by the end of the episode, you’re like, “If these people don’t take Rufus home, I swear to God I will kill myself.” Like suddenly it feels like the most important thing in your life is whether this couple that you’ve never met before adopts this dog that you just learned about one second earlier. And then, and by the way, what happens at the end is they jump forward in time, and you see whether it worked. And sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it’s like, “We took him home and he just …  he was too energetic. And my mom has a bad hip and she couldn’t walk him and we had to send him back.” So then, three episodes later, you’re back with that dog and you’re like, “Oh please, oh, please, oh please, somebody adopt this dog because they almost had a happy home and then didn’t.” It’s devastating and great. 

Peabody: What did winning a Peabody mean to you?

MS: It’s such an imprimatur of quality and of meaning that I got flooded with congratulations from all sorts of people. What the effect is on the shows, I have no idea. I will say this, that I started at [Saturday Night Live], I was there from ‘98 to ’04, and Lorne Michaels has a lot of extremely funny things that he says to you when your sketches are bombing. When you’re doing a sketch in dress rehearsal, you watch it under the bleachers with him on a monitor. He gives notes as the sketch is airing. By the way, it’s so nerve wracking, like, it’s just so scary. You would write a sketch that was, you know, called “The Farting Scientist” about a scientist who couldn’t stop farting, and the people would be acting it out and there’d be all these fart noises. And the audience would be maybe tepidly laughing, and if it was that kind of sketch, if it was puerile and stupid, Lorne had this thing that he used to do: He would take his headphones off and he would say, “I’ll call the Peabody committee.” Meaning, congratulations, you’ve written the worst, the dumbest, most childish, and worst thing that he’s ever seen. So when I won a Peabody Award, the first person I thought of was Lorne Michaels, because that was like, “Oh my God, somebody called the Peabody committee, and it actually wasn’t because I had written a dumb sketch about a farting scientist. It was because I actually did something that people thought was good.”

A Moment From ‘Parks and Recreation’

A Moment From ‘The Good Place’

Dive Deeper

Further Reading: ‘How to Be Perfect’ by Michael Schur

Schur got a crash course in philosophy as he wrote The Good Place, and in this book he shares what he learned about the last 2,400 years of ethical thought—in a funny, readable way meant for regular folks. Drawing on the theories of Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and other philosophical superstars, Schur explores ethical questions such as “Should I punch my friend in the face for no reason?”, “Should I lie and tell my friend I like her ugly shirt?”, “Do I have to return my shopping cart to the shopping cart rack thingy?”, and others. And he does it all with a fact check from Professor Todd May, the author of several books on philosophy, including Death.

Where to Buy: Simon & Schuster

Schur’s Peabody Acceptance for ‘The Good Place’

Where to Watch: PeabodyAwards.com

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