Script Apart: 'The Good Place' Creator Michael Schur Talks Great Comedy
In The Good Place, the acclaimed philosophical sitcom that ran from 2016 to 2020, an all-knowing genie with infinite knowledge of the universe exists, named Janet (played by D’Arcy Carden). The show’s creator, Michael Schur, is kind of the Janet of modern sitcom writing. From his work on the early seasons of The Office to Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, both of which he co-created, the Michigan-born storyteller has helped revolutionize TV comedy.
Signs you’re watching a Michael Schur show include: hilarious cold opens, zippy dialogue full of malapropisms and mayhem, engaging characters, and beneath it all, a lot of heart.
How does he do it? I found out in an hour-long conversation for my podcast Script Apart.
Each week on Script Apart, great writers revisit their first drafts of great movies to discuss what changed, what didn’t, and why en route to the big screen. In our very first episode devoted to a TV show, Schur revisited his first draft of the pilot to The Good Place to look at how it evolved and share some of the pearls of screenwriting wisdom that helped him create it. Here are just a few of the many lessons learned…
It’s Your Characters, Not the Setting, That Matter
Schur learned a vital lesson from his mentor on The Office, Greg Daniels, that he considered key to that show’s success. “Your setting for a show should be as boring as possible. What you want is for the characters to be the thing that steps forward and speak to the audience,” he says, using the likes and Friends and Cheers as examples. “What’s the premise of Friends? Five attractive people drink coffee together!”
When working on The Good Place, he clung to the idea that characters are what makes an audience stick with a TV show – even though he was setting the show in a decidedly un-boring setting. “If you make a show [that focuses on having] a big shimmering premise, what happens is, that burns off… it has to be about characters you can fall in love with.”
Let Your Show Yell You What it Wants to Be
How do you build out an initial idea into an ensemble comedy full of engaging supporting characters? The trick is to build out backward from your protagonist and the challenges they’re going to be experiencing. “The initial idea I had was there is an afterlife that’s extremely restrictive,” says Schur. “I knew Kristen Bell would play a character who through some sort of clerical error had been given an eternity in this paradise when, based on her life, she was very clearly ticketed for the other place. As an act one of a pilot, that felt juicy. I could see exactly how it’d work: the beautiful, Edenic paradise and all the people who deserved to be there, then this Arizona trash-bag who clearly doesn’t. I asked myself: what does that lead to?”
The answer was a spiritual mentor who could help her try to earn her spot in The Good Place (Chidi, played by William Jackson Harper) and a character who Eleanor’s opposite, designed to irritate her in comedic ways (Tahani, played by Jameela Jamil). “The next steps were all very logical,” says Schur. “I just had to pay attention to what the show wanted to be.”
For more tips and secrets from the making of The Good Place, listen to the episode in full above, supported by ScreenCraft.
Want to hear more from Michael Schur? He'll be there at this year's ScreenCraft Writers Summit! Register here!
Al Horner is a London-based journalist, screenwriter and presenter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Empire Magazine, GQ, BBC, Little White Lies, TIME Magazine and more.