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The morals are the story - TV icon Michael Schur talks new book ‘How to Be Perfect’

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You know who Michael Schur is, even if you don’t know you know.

Simply put, Schur is one of the creative forces behind some of the most beloved television programming of the past two decades. His wry wit and delicate sense of the absurd has contributed to some all-time great shows.

This is a guy who, after a few years spent on the writing staff at “Saturday Night Live,” would go on to work on NBC’s classic sitcom “The Office” before going on one of the all-time runs in the history of comedic television.

He and Greg Daniels co-created “Parks and Recreation,” which first hit the airwaves in April of 2009 and ran for seven seasons. While that show was still running strong, Schur’s next creation, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” debuted in 2013 and only recently concluded after an eight-season run. And in 2016, Schur turned moral philosophy and the afterlife into “The Good Place,” which wrapped after four seasons.

Think about that – this is a guy who played a major role in four of the definitive sitcoms of the 21st century and played a huge part in the creation of three of them. Michael Schur has worked on more seasons of excellent TV than there have been years starting with a 20.

(Now, I’ll confess that my fandom extends in a slightly wonkier direction, as I am a longtime fan of Schur’s work as baseball blogger Ken Tremendous – RIP Fire Joe Morgan – and his delightful partnership with the sportswriter Joe Posnanski on the eponymous Poscast, currently available wherever you find such things. He also holds an affinity for David Foster Wallace’s seminal “Infinite Jest,” which, as a dude who majored in English in the ‘90s, I totally get.)

You might think, “Wow! That’s a lot!” Particularly when you take into account all of the other projects that Schur produces and/or develops – can’t wait for his upcoming “Field of Dreams” show, by the way. This is one busy dude.

And so he wrote a book. OF COURSE he did.

Schur’s book – his first – is a nonfiction work titled “How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question,” published by Simon & Schuster and out as of January 25.

(See our full review of "How to Be Perfect" here.)

This book was born out of Schur’s relentless research of moral philosophy for “The Good Place.” While he got what he needed to craft the meticulously detailed and deep afterlife of that show’s world, there was still so much more meat on that bone. If you’ve ever done research on a subject for creative purposes, you might know that feeling – you’ve got what you need, but you want to keep digging and see just where the rabbit hole takes you. Some of us spend hours on Wikipedia, Michael Schur writes a book, because again – OF COURSE he did.

While you might not think that an introduction to the vagaries of moral philosophy – your utilitarianisms, your existentialisms, your deontologies – would be ideal comedic fodder, just remember that this is Michael Schur we’re talking about here. This is a fun and funny book that also turns out to be a thoughtful way to make these complex ideas more understandable and relatable, using ethical quandaries drawn from real life as a framework for that exploration.

Basically, this is a book that investigates what it means to be a good person (or at least choosing to try), as well as the philosophical and psychological underpinnings that come with that choice.

Mr. Schur was kind enough to take some time to answer some questions about “How to Be Perfect” for us here at The Maine Edge. He talked about what inspired him to write the book and some of the ideas expressed therein … and lightly scolded me on behalf of one of his creations for a presumptuous assumption I made about a certain meat-loving woodworking libertarian and his possible connection to a dour European thinker.

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A Q&A with Michael Schur

The Maine Edge: You’ve been a TV writer for years, but “How to Be Perfect” is your first book. What made you decide to tackle this particular subject as your debut?

Michael Schur: It came directly from working on "The Good Place." To write that show properly, I realized early on, I needed to read a lot of moral philosophy. And after I'd read a lot of moral philosophy, I realized I needed to talk to people who could help me understand what the hell I'd just read. After all of that reading and talking, and then writing and producing, I felt like the ideas put forth by these geniuses over the years could be of great service, but they were often so densely written and impenetrable no one wanted to engage with them. A book that tried to talk about those ideas conversationally (and humorously) seemed like it could be of some use to people.  

TME: Considering how packed your schedule seems to be, how did you even find time to write a book? What was the process like, shifting from the group-oriented world of the writers’ room to working largely on your own?

MS: I sold the book almost exactly two years ago, and wondered to myself whether I would have the time to do it properly. And then — not sure if you remember this — a global pandemic swept across the earth, and suddenly my work schedule cleared up in a hurry. The book wasn't easy to write, and generally it's a lot more fun to collaborate with other smart and funny people, but it did give me something to concentrate on in the first year of being trapped inside my house.

TME: Turning these at-times dense ideas into something that is both comprehensible and entertaining to a lay reader had to have been a challenge. What was your approach to blending utility and comedy?

MS: The same as my approach to writing episodes of the show: I tried to understand what I was reading, and then tried to discuss it the way I would if I were explaining it to a friend at dinner. Humor makes everything easier to understand.

TME: How did you decide on the questions/ethical dilemmas that serve as the book's chapter headings?

MS: Sometimes I just tried to find questions that got the ideas of the chapter across as efficiently as possible. The first chapter, for example, is about the very most basic nuts and bolts of what being a "good person" even means, so I tried to come up with the simplest possible question: "Should I Punch My Friend in the Face for No Reason?" Other times it was about posing a question I thought people would relate to, or which they might've asked themselves at some point in their lives, like "Do I Have to Return My Shopping Cart to the Shopping Cart Rack Thingy?"

TME: Did you find that spending so much time steeped in these varying philosophies noticeably impacted your own behaviors and perspectives? Which concept has most fully stayed with you?

MS: I was always a pretty rule-oriented person, as I write about, but I would certainly say that knowing all of this stuff about ethics has changed the way I approach problems in my own life. I still screw up all the time, of course, because we all do. But at least now when I screw up I have an understanding of how I screwed up and can maybe do better the next time. 

TME: Was there a philosophical idea or ideology that you wanted to include in the book, but for whatever reason couldn’t find a space for?

MS: Not really. Which is not to say I covered all of ethics — far from it. I just picked the people I liked and wanted to write about, and wrote about them.  

TME: The Trolley Problem makes for an interesting through thread across the different schools. Did you come across any other thought experiments that captured your attention?

MS: There are a bunch that crop up a lot in modern life—the Free Rider problem is everywhere, right now, with questions of vaccines and masks and so forth. It's one of my favorite things about philosophy: the thought experiments, no matter how long ago they were invented, are often incredibly revealing ways to look at problems in contemporary society.  

TME: While “The Good Place” is largely structured around these tenets of moral philosophy, do you find that some of these concepts were present in characters or stories found in your other work? One could argue a strong Kantian vibe for Ron Swanson, just as one example.

MS: Sure, although Ron would not take kindly to you suggesting he is an adherent of a European philosopher. I don't think I deliberately stirred any specific moral philosophy into a character before “The Good Place,” but I've also been thinking about this stuff for a long time, so it's certainly possible that some of it snuck in there somewhere. 

TME: What is the primary thing that you hope people take away from this book?

MS: The most important step in living an ethical life (or anything close to an ethical life) is deciding that you care, one way or the other, whether you're living an ethical life. This is not a test you take once, nor is it a test you can get an “A” on. It's a lifelong process of trial and error and incremental improvement. But nothing gets better unless you decide to try. 

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 January 2022 13:59

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