Voices and Ideas

Michael Schur's Comedy of Ethics

By Lakin Allen

Known for his work on hit TV shows The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation, and The Good Place, Michael Schur writes quirky, behavior-driven, and irresistibly human comedies that draw upon his background the liberal arts. His current show, The Good Place, as the title suggests, is about ethics. When asked if he knew ethics would be a good source of comedy, Schur claims he “didn’t know it…[but] suspected it.” After three seasons and the final season airing this fall, Schur can count this series as another success. 

After earning his bachelor’s degree and graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University, where he majored in English but also took philosophy classes, Schur continued on to write for SNL and eventually found his way as a writer and actor on The Office. This success launched his work for many other NBC comedies, with The Good Place as his most recent creation. “There were other moments in my life, different little events, where I found myself immersed in some kind of weird moral dilemma. It became a passion accidentally — studying ethics. It became a way for me to untangle odd moments in my life that I really enjoyed, and I loved talking to people about it,” says Schur. 

After reading a lot of philosophy in the last five years, Schur decided to take a leap of faith and pitch his idea to the producers. He had the whole season plotted out because of the high concept of the show. “In fact, we had to be incredibly detailed and specific about where everybody was going because the whole thing fit together like a giant kind of holistic jigsaw puzzle, and if we did anything that didn't fit in with the reveal that came at the end, we would be screwed because people would go, ‘well that doesn't make sense,’” says Schur. 

After the show was accepted, Schur knew he wanted to stay true to its roots in the humanities, and the individual reading and research he had engaged in when conceiving the pilot. Pamela Hieronymi (ΦBK, Princeton University), a UCLA philosophy professor known for her work in moral psychology, became a consultant for The Good Place. Schur contacted her after coming across a paper on Hieronymi’s website about “what it takes to become a good person and, in particular, a puzzle that comes from the fact that being a good person requires you to have certain kinds of motives.” Schur believed in exploring these questions and hired Hieronymi onto the show. She taught ethics and philosophy to a room full of comedy writers she claims “were really interested in being in the role of student.” 

When asked about the current era’s skepticism surrounding the academy and the humanities and how she responds to this culture, Hieronymi suspects “that this aspect of our culture is changing . . . that [the period of time we’re in] may bring back interest in the larger questions about how we should live our lives and how we should get along.” This is exactly why she is pleased with the publicity and popularity The Good Place is receiving, and why she introduced Schur to the work of long-time Harvard philosophy professor T.M. Scanlon (ΦBK, Princeton University). His book What We Owe to Each Other has become a cornerstone in the show’s plot, and Scanlon’s lessons continue to be developed throughout the seasons.  

The show will end with season four, and the final episode of The Good Place will air December 19. As co-star Kristen Bell recommends, “don’t watch it alone, and hold the hand of the person next to you — even if it’s a stranger.” “You will finally see what we owe to each other . . . . This will be worth it. It will give you a lot of feelings — and one is a strong sense of satisfaction. Not only will the ending be worth it, you’ll understand why the whole thing was worth it,” says Bell. 

While Schur admits that wrapping The Good Place will be “bittersweet,” he will be serving as executive producer for NBC’s new comedy, Sunnyside, which premiered its pilot episode September 26. Schur also resigned with NBCUniversal and will be creating a new comedy, Rutherford Falls, for their newly named streaming service.   

ΦBK member Lakin Allen is a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in journalism with minors in Spanish and Italian. She loves traveling the world and meeting new people over a good cup of coffee (or gelato!). She hopes to use her degree to continue learning from and sharing people’s stories. The University of Kansas is home to the Alpha of Kansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.


(Posted on 10/8/2019 )