The TED Interview
Michael Schur on every moral question ever
August 18, 2022
[00:00:00] Steven Johnson:
Welcome to the TED interview. I'm your host, Steven Johnson. Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Aristotle's Virtue Ethics. Jeremy Bentham’s Principle of Utility. If you took a college survey class on moral philosophy, these ideas might ring a distant bell. But you also might be familiar with them if you happen to be a fan of the network TV sitcom The Good Place. Over the course of its four. seasons the show somehow managed to explore a 2000-year history of moral philosophy inside the standard package of a 22-minute scripted primetime comedy.
[00:00:43] Michael Schur:
It's a classic cautionary tale, right? You move to Hollywood, you get seduced by the bright lights and the fast cars, and before you know it, you're reading 18th-century German philosophy.
[00:00:54] Steven Johnson:
That's Michael Schur, the creator of The Good Place on the TED stage earlier this year. He's recently written a book documenting what he learned, researching moral philosophy to make The Good Place. You can tell from the title alone that it's going to be more entertaining than reading, say, John Stewart Mill.
It's called How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer To Every Moral Question. Now, working high-minded discussions of ethics into a sitcom was a new twist for sure. But The Good Place shared some core qualities was some of the earlier series he helped create, now-classic programs like The Office or Parks and Rec.
What unites all these shows is that they manage, in our polarized and cynical age, to tell stories about people doing their best, despite their many flaws, to be kind and compassionate working together for a common goal, whether the goal in question is selling paper in Scranton, Pennsylvania, or improving civic life in Pawnee, Indiana.
Many of Schur's series belong to the genre of workplace comedies, the Dunder Mifflin Company, the Parks and Rec department, the police headquarters of Brooklyn 99. And since one of the themes of this season is the future of work, we thought it would be interesting to ask sure whether the shared space of the office still had an important role to play in a post-COVID world, and if through this conversation, we end up learning how to be perfect along the way, well, so much the better.
[00:02:41] Steven Johnson:
Michael Schur, welcome to the TED Interview.
[00:02:44] Michael Schur:
Thank you. I'm very happy to be here.
[00:02:46] Steven Johnson:
We're thrilled to have you on the show for, for a number of different reasons, for like a dozen different reasons. First, just your voice is, I think, wonderful for podcasts. You know, just the, the shows… You’ve written a wonderful new book and there's so much to talk about, but one of the things that was really lovely about the timing of this is that this is part of a series that we're doing on workplaces and, and the future of work.
We've, we've been through this radical reinvention of what work looks like over the last two years, and obviously, you have co-written or co-created two of the defining kind of popular narratives about what work looks like in, in The Office and Parks and Rec. And so we wanted to kinda start by talking about that. And in thinking it over the other day, I was thinking that, you know, there's a really interesting long history, with the sitcom in particular, of workplace narratives.
I, I think probably more than any other form, like I was straining to think of, you know, great workplace novels or great, you know, workplace films and they're just, I mean, there aren't that many of them I, I think.
[00:03:51] Michael Schur:
[00:03:51] Steven Johnson:
But if you think back over the history of TV, I mean, you go back to Mary Tyler Moore, obviously, even parts of Dick Van Dyke show, where, like, some of the great scenes in that were in the office and Murphy Brown. Cheers, in a way, was kind of for main characters.
[00:04:05] Mike Schur:
[00:04:05] Steven Johnson:
It was, it was a workplace comedy. And so I guess my first question is, what is it about that setting that, that makes both, you know, rich storytelling possibilities and character arcs, but also comedy possible? What drew you to that kind of environment?
[00:04:23] Michael Schur:
Well, I mean, generally speaking, you divide your day into three parts: work, family, and sleep. Can't write a show about what happens when you're asleep. Um, so you have family and workplace as your options, and you know, family shows are wonderful, but there are limitations to who can be in a family show, and some, and in the past that hasn't been a problem really. We're just all in the family. Here's the family, here's the… This is a portrait of a, a specific moment at a specific time in American history. And these are the types of people and the generational divides and stuff like that.
But workplaces, anyone you can, you have the, the world's oyster you can put anyone you want in a workplace. And the shows that I've created or worked on, starting with The Office, Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine-Nine that are set in workplaces, part of the pitch is… when Dan Gore and I were pitching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, one of the things we said was, literally, anyone can be a New York City police officer. Anyone like the, any age, any gender, any ethnicity, like you get, you get to broaden the scope of who can be in the room. So that has always been part of the attraction to me.
And then the other part of it is that you don't really, I mean, you don't get to choose your family, but you sure don't get to choose who you work with. And so, you know The Office as the sort of early example of this. The part of the genius was the, of The Office, the British Office, which then Greg Daniels adapted into the American Office is this, there's a line in the British office where Tim, the character Tim is say—says, um, “You, you know, you spend eight hours a day with people and the only thing you have in common with them is, is that you share this little bit of carpet.”
So when you form a friendship or, in his case, fall in love with someone coincidentally because you worked with them, that is such a marvelous and wonderful and, and interesting thing that this, these two people from two different places happen to be thrown together on the same piece of carpet and they developed this relationship. There's something kind of magical about that. Like you, even though you don't get to choose your family, it's still… You pre-love them, you know, like you, you have a relationship with them that is defined by the situation. And it feels more magical and interesting, I think, at least romantically, when it happens at work because you think like, “God, how, how lucky is this that I happen to have been thrown onto this bit of carpet with this other person?”
[00:06:55] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. That’s really interesting. One of the things that your work has been, this has been much remarked about, about your work and the, and the arc from the British Office, um, to the American Office and then to Parks and Rec is a, a transition of, um, kind of earnestness, or, um, and you know, one of the things that, that struck me looking back over your career is, is you're a little bit younger than I am, but we, we grew up in the nineties where the, the kind of the dominant success story of comedy was Seinfeld. And, and as part of that, a little later, the UK Office, both of which are very dark shows.
Um, you know, Seinfeld famously had that slogan of no hugging, no learning. And all the characters are fundamentally flawed, like fatally flawed, and, and there are no real redemption arcs.
[00:07:47] Michael Schur:
[00:07:47] Steven Johnson:
Certainly in, in, in Seinfeld. And, you know, it actually kind of occurred to me watching the, The Good Place, which we'll get to, is that all the backstory scenes with Kristen Bell's character feel like she's a Seinfeld character.
[00:08:03] Michael Schur:
[00:08:03] Steven Johnson:
Like she could be kind of a slightly more misanthropic Elaine in a, in a funny way.
[00:08:08] Michael Schur:
[00:08:08] Steven Johnson:
And so you kind of jump into this world where actually doing good in the world and, and having a, you know, a moral integrity is, is suddenly important in a way that it never was in Seinfeld.
And The Office, other people have said this, The Office is kind of the transition point in a way. The American Office, um, particularly in Steve Carrell's character and, and Michael Scott, that he, he seems to kind of evolve a little bit. You know, he starts off and he is kind of a unlikable but comic figure and he, he becomes, uh, you know, more of a sweetheart over, over time, and you kind of end up rooting for him despite all his flaws and very different from Ricky Gervais’s vision of things in the UK Office. So I guess the question is, how conscious were you guys of that at the time? Was that a deliberate strategy or did it just kind of evolve over time?
[00:08:59] Michael Schur:
No, it's all we talked about, right? Um, the, the David Brent, Ricky Gervais's character, um, and remember, they only did 12 episodes and then a Christmas special. So we're talking about a very condensed…
[00:09:12] Steven Johnson:
[00:09:12] Michael Schur:
It’s almost a movie. You know, it's much closer to a movie than it, than it is a, an ongoing series, but the Brits have a much higher tolerance for that sort of humor than Americans do. The Brits will give you 99.75% offbeat, downtrodden, cynical, unpleasant, like, like, uh, dark humor, and then in the last, and it's quite literally in the last, I don't know, 30 seconds of the hour-long Christmas special, he tells his friend, his awful friend Finch, to eff off. And because Finch and Neil, the other guy that he's talking to, are making fun of the woman that he, that he brought to the Christmas party, and it's like the, for the first time in the entire 12 episodes and Christmas special, you think like, “Oh, you know what? He's standing up to the awful people, and he has a soul, and he's, he's gonna be okay.” Like it, but they literally, until the last 30 seconds of the character.
[00:10:16] Steven Johnson:
[00:10:16] Michael Schur:
They’ve put you through the wringer, and they, and they, or they can do that because again, the audience has a much higher tolerance for that, sort of like every episode ends in this terrible downbeat.
The American office adapted the same worldview for the first season. We did six episodes, and for the first season, those episodes all ended, or at least I think all, most of them ended on one of those really, like, unpleasant notes, like it left the, the last thing that the audience experienced was something like sad and troubling, you know.
And, uh, it turned out that no one liked that in America, that they… I think we now, you know, that was 20 years ago. I think that audiences now have a higher tolerance here for that sort of thing. But at the time it was like, “Are you kidding me? Why am I watching the show? This is so depressing.” And between seasons one and two, The 40-Year-Old Virgin came out, and we all went to see it, and we came back for season two, we had almost gotten canceled, and Greg Daniels basically said, “We have two choices: we can take some of. The winning charming sweetness and optimism that Steve Carrell is capable of as a performer and stir it into the character. Or we can get canceled. Those, that's what's, those are our two options.”
[00:11:33] Steven Johnson:
[00:11:33] Mike Schur:
And he's like, “We're gonna take, we're not gonna fundamentally change the show. The show is still gonna be a satirical look at workplaces, and it's going to have that kind of downbeat humor in it. But we are going to end every episode with a little ski jump, a little uptick of optimism and hope.” I remember taking a walk around the crummy lot where we were working at the time and all the writers thought he was making a huge mistake.
[00:11:59] Steven Johnson:
[00:12:00] Michael Schur:
We were all like, “This is insane. He's blowing it. He doesn't understand.” Comedy writers love nothing more than, like, cynicism and downbeat endings because it's like, “God, does everything have to be a joke?” And blah blah blah.
And, and we thought it was cool that we were doing this show that had this approach to humor and we all, I remember the conversation very clearly. We all thought he was making a huge mistake. Of course, he wasn't. He was exactly right. And with his vision, we managed to maintain the integrity of the kinda sense of humor of the show, but just stirred in a little bit more optimism and happiness and upbeat endings. And it's the difference between a show that would last 12 episodes and then get canceled or last 200 and be thought of as one of the great American sitcoms of all time.
[00:12:48] Steven Johnson:
The episode that I remember as a, as a viewer, and I think this comes later, I can't remember what season it's in, but it really hit, hit home to me is the episode called The Local Ad.
[00:12:59] Michael Schur:
[00:13:00] Steven Johnson:
[00:13:00] Michael Schur:
[00:13:01] Steven Johnson:
You know, he, there's this kind of internal battle to make an ad for Dunder Mifflin. And Michael Scott wants to make, ‘cause he's got a vision, but you're not totally sure what his vision is. And you kind of assume his vision is gonna be terrible or you know, you know, amateurish or whatever and they end up, you know, the corporate powers be end up making their own ad basically, and it's awful. And at the end you see in a bar, they show the ad that, that Michael had made, and it's kind of wonderful. You know, it's actually very sweet. It's actually very creative.
[00:13:32] Michael Schur:
Yeah, its… it doesn't, it, like if you listen to the voiceover, it's nonsense, right? It's just corporate babble, but it's got an inherent sweetness to it and a kind of, like, DIY feel to it that's really charming and sweet and yeah, like the, the story begins with him thinking that he, it’s like he… The key to unlocking Michael Scott was always, he wants to be Steve Jobs, right?
He thinks of himself as Steve Jobs. He thinks of himself as this, this visionary, this innovative business leader who's, who's really like, got his finger on the pulse of like, what makes a corporation great. Meanwhile, he's running a branch of a crummy paper company in the middle of nowhere, right? And so that's how he thought of himself.
And then the, the fun of it was the people, the ad guys show up and they're like, “We've shot the ad already. This is a three-second shot of your staff waving to the camera like, this is… That’s all we need from you.” And he's like, he won't, he won't accept that. He's like, “We have to nail this. We have to get it right.”
And in the old, in the season one version, what would've happened is he would've made that ad, and it would've been humiliating and embarrassing for him.
[00:14:37] Steven Johnson:
[00:14:37] Michael Schur:
Like it would've, everyone would’ve, like, rolled their eyes and averted their eyes. And in the new version, the version that Greg designed between seasons one and two, it's like, he, of course, he gets embarrassed and he's ridiculed, and the ad guys think he's ridiculous and, like, he ends up, they end up just waving.
But, we get to see his ad. And like you say, his ad is sweet and charming and cute, and he's so proud of it because, he, it's like, it is the vision that he had and he, he doesn't care that it looks really crummy and that the video's grainy and the voiceover's nonsensical. Like, it’s an act of love for him and the people that he works with.
[00:15:46] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. All the, all the people have roles in it.
[00:15:15] Michael Schur:
Yes. Everyone's in it.
[00:15:18] Steven Johnson:
It brings everyone together. It, it adds, what is this slogan? It has this great nonsensical slogan. It's like “A paper company for a paperless world” or something like that.
[00:15:24] Michael Schur:
It's a, yeah, it's exactly, I think that's exactly what it's, Yeah. It's “a paper company for a paperless world.”
[00:15:29] Steven Johnson:
Sounds beautiful, but you're like, “Wait a second, that’s not a good company to have at all.”
[00:15:31] Michael Schur:
Yeah. One of my favorite jokes we ever did on the show was, there's a great episode where Ryan, the temp, um, invites Michael to speak at his business class, and Michael again puffs up with pride and he's thinking of himself as like a guest speaker and like, um, um, like, like an honorary, like he's getting a PhD or something.
You know, like he's giving the commencement address at Stanford and he comes there and what he realizes slowly is that Ryan’s sort of project was to say that like, it's only a matter of time until Dunder Mifflin disappears because paper is disappearing, and we don't do use paper anymore. And that suddenly dawns on him that like, that's he's, it's not, he's not there to be celebrated. He's there as an example of a person who's running an obsolete company.
[00:16:15] Steven Johnson:
[00:16:15] Michael Schur:
And, at the end of it, there's a moment where he says, it's so, it's such a funny, subtle joke, but he says like, “You're wrong. Everybody's wrong. Like paper will always be here. Paper is here to stay. Write that down.” And then it cuts to the crowd, and they're all typing on laptops. [laughter]
So that was a huge thing for us. And that show was like, he, it's a, it became, part of the charm and part of what we did in terms of reorienting, the way that the audience related to him was we pointed out that he's an underdog.
[00:16:44] Steven Johnson:
[00:16:45] Michael Schur:
He’s a guy who loves a company that has no future, and there's something kind of sweet about that.
[00:16:49] Steven Johnson:
In a way then, the, the, the shift to Parks and Rec, which you co-created with Greg Daniels, um, is you, you have an equally eclectic, diverse mix of characters sharing that little bit of carpet, um, who are lovable and idiosyncratic in various different ways. But there’s an actual mission inside the office of civil service.
[00:17:17] Michael Schur:
[00:17:17] Steven Johnson:
Um, that is itself kind of morally valued by the overall frame of the show.
[00:17:23] Michael Schur:
[00:17:23] Steven Johnson:
Um, so it kind of takes up the earnestness to, to a new level while keeping all the great comedy and great characters. Um, how did that idea come about?
[00:17:33] Michael Schur:
Well, um, a couple key things that went into it were, we had invented this, uh, private sector company in order to do satire about capitalism and the private sector and business culture and everything else. And so that it was sort of a logical leap to say like, “Well, if we invent a whole town, we can do it about the public sector, right? We can… We can have an entire community with media figures and teachers and government workers and businesses and whatever we want, and do for the public sector what we did for the private sector with The Office.”
The other thing that was going on was, it was 2007 and 8 when we were developing that show and the economy had completely collapsed and, um, the, you know, the auto industry, among others, had been bailed out by the government and it became very clear that one way or another, the government was going to be playing a much more active role in American life than it had in a very long time. And so, it seemed like a natural thing to say, like, “Look, this is a comedy show. We're not doing a searing, uh, you know, political investigation of the role of government people's lives, but people now are aware of their governments a lot more than maybe they used to be. And we might need, we might have an opportunity here to show like, ‘What's the good version of this? What is the, what's the version of a government, the boots on the ground, local government that helps people and has a mission to make people's lives better?’”
So that was the origin story of it. And then, you know, over time, like The Office, it changes and shifts, and you get romances and you get friendships and you get, you know, you get a sort of broader scope. But it began from that point of like, let's just watch someone in the government relate to the people that she works for.
[00:19:27] Steven Johnson:
It felt to me as a viewer that the vision of it is, there episode one, season one.
[00:19:33] Michael Schur:
[00:19:34] Steven Johnson:
I, I, I don't, I mean, I, you can see that change that you discussed, um, with The Office, but I, I don't know. I just felt like you, you knew exactly the world you were gonna inhabit from early on in that, that show.
[00:19:45] Michael Schur:
I think we knew the, I think we knew what we wanted to do. I don't think we were very good at it for a couple of episodes. Which is fairly typical, but, you know, we, did… They do testing. They do like audience testing for pilots very often. The feedback that we got was that Leslie Knope was coming off as ditzy. And that was so horrifying to me because that was the exact opposite of how we wanted her to be portrayed.
Like, we wanted her to be incredibly smart and driven and an idea machine. Um, but someone who just didn't have the, the like, sort of acumen to play the game of politics. And so she was constantly, like, running around and bumping into walls, and the fact that she was coming off ditzy was really distressing. So we did our, again, we did what Greg did with The Office. We did, like, a sort of forensic analysis and we realized that we were still, in some weird way, in the first like two or three episodes, we were still, we were taking the Michael Scott principles and applying them to Leslie Knope. And that was a mistake because she wasn't Michael Scott.
[00:20:55] Steven Johnson:
[00:20:55] Michael Schur:
That is not who she is. And, and the interesting thing was that the, the, the way that we, we didn't change, honestly, we changed a little bit of how we wrote her. Amy, I think, naturally changed a little bit of how she played her, but really what we did was we changed the way that other people talked about her because, like, Michael Scott was super annoying, right? And he made annoying jokes, and he thought he was hilarious. And other people would then either talk about him and how annoying he was or would just glance at the camera with a look on their face of, like, “Can you believe I have to work for this guy?”
And we were doing some of that with Parks and Rec, too. And so really all we did is we changed the way people reacted to her from like rolling their eyes and being annoyed to being like, “Man, she's really good at this.” Because that was the intention always was, that she was really smart and had a million ideas, and so just by changing the characters around her and the way that they related to her, we were able to kind of shift the audience's perspective of what kind of character we were trying to present.
[00:21:56] Steven Johnson:
One just side note that I'm curious what your kind of TV history, um, theory about this is. One thing you, you know, you use a ton in The Office, that you just alluded to, and I think you do in Parks and Rec, but you don't do in The Good Place, um, is that mockumentary reaction shot of a character, just looking at the camera being like, “What the hell?”
[00:22:15] Michael Schur:
[00:22:16] Steven Johnson:
Um, which is just bizarrely entertaining. Like it can take a kind of funny line and turn it into a really funny line.
[00:22:22] Michael Schur:
[00:22:22] Steven Johnson:
Just seeing someone, Um, where do you think that came from? Is it. Is it in—
[00:22:29] Michael Schur:
The mockuemtary shot in general?
[00:22:30] Steven Johnson:
That shot, that reaction shot? Is that in Spinal Tap?
[00:22:33] Michael Schur:
Spinal Tap is, was, was our, like it was our touchstone for a lot of that stuff. Yeah. I mean, I think the, the British guys perfected it.
[00:22:41] Steven Johnson:
[00:22:42] Michael Schur:
What’s fascinating about it though, is that the reason that it works really well throughout 200 episodes of a show—anything you do 200 times is gonna get boring or has the risk of getting boring. Right? But the reason that I think it, it worked really well in The Office is that we were really specific about the different kinds of ways that people looked at the camera.
And this is getting really granular. I apologize, but—
[00:23:08] Steven Johnson:
I love this stuff though.
[00:23:09] Michael Schur:
But, um, it was, it wasn't, and this, a lot of this, a lot of the credit here goes to the actors too, but they didn't all just look at the camera and roll their eyes. Jim looked to the camera like it was his friend, right? It was like, “Finally, there's a person here, right, who, who sees what I have been living for the last however many years.” Like “You're my friend, and you see this too,” right? Dwight would look at the camera like “I am awesome. And you know, I'm awesome and I wanna make sure you know I'm awesome.”
Michael would look at the camera very frequently, like, “Oh no,” right? ‘Cause he would say something stupid or racist or whatever and would go, “Oh, right, there's a camera here.” And then he would have to spin for the camera. So they all had these different relationships. So that little device has now, is now very common. At the time was brand new for American TV at least.
It, it adds this whole layer of specificity of character and, and because it's the camera, it's also the audience. Like the audience feels what the camera people would feel. So it's, it really, it worked so well for, um, for The Office and it worked really well in places for Parks and Rec. We did it a lot less on Parks and Rec because—
[00:24:19] Steven Johnson:
[00:24:40] Michael Schur:
For partly ‘cause once we figured out the difference between Leslie Knope and Michael Scott, we realized like, “Oh, Leslie is a incredibly honest and sincere person. She wears her heart on her sleeve. There's no reason for her.”
We imagined it early on as like, “Oh, she's gonna be doing the same thing Michael Scott does.” Which is like saying something and then catching herself and spinning like a politician. But we eventually realized, like she doesn't spin anything. She just says what she feels all the time.
And so Amy kind of naturally stopped looking at the camera. If you look at those later seasons, there's very few glances to the camera from her. Um, so it's, it's like this living, breathing aspect of the show that changes and evolves over time as the characters do. It's really cool.
[00:25:01] Steven Johnson:
Thank you for diving into that. I love, I mean, all these little kind of formal conventions that people, I think, experience and it really shapes your show, but I think in some cases they're not even aware of what's happening. They’re really, I think building blocks are really interesting.
[00:25:14] Michael Schur:
Yeah. I think it's good that they're not, I don't think it should be… I think it should be acting, ot should be functioning on a subconscious level. Yeah. Like I don't think it's, if it's too showy and too overused or whatever, it's not gonna work. It has to be a, it has to be a sort of subtle aspect of aspect of a show for it to work.
[00:25:43] Steven Johnson:
I wanna transition through this question about the workplace and the future of of work.
[00:25:48] Michael Schur:
[00:25:48] Steven Johnson:
So just recently you wrote an essay for The Guardian that was really looking at, at the future of the workspace coming out of the COVID pandemic, and you, you made a kinda wonderful defense of getting back to the office on some level.
[00:26:02] Michael Schur:
[00:26:03] Steven Johnson:
I'll just read here. You, you have this great line where you say, “But, but something will be lost if we stop working while surrounded by others. There will be one less place on earth where we have to negotiate with people we didn't choose to negotiate with.”
So where do you, do you think we are inevitably… Is this a cause that we need to fight for to get back into these shared physical spaces, or are we inevitably gonna be pulled back to it because we do wanna have that physical interaction with people?
[00:26:27] Michael Schur:
No, I think we have to fight for it, and I don't think that it is a pure cause, because flexibility of physical location is a real godsend for a lot of people. People who, um, have childcare issues or family care issues, people who have long commutes, people who are on budgets and are saving money. And I think that for some people, it is unquestionably better, and they should be allowed to continue to do it.
But I do think that there's a, there’s a, there’s a flip side of this, and I think it's more, uh, cynical and I think that side of it is that companies have saved an enormous amount of money by not having to provide basic infrastructure and services and food and stuff for people, and I don't want us not to go back to the office for that reason.
I think that's the danger, and you see it in my business. Comedy writing is a collaborative enterprise. It requires a group of people to be in the same place at the same time. The energy to be trapped by walls and to have the, the fertile idea generation that comes out of those sessions is irreplaceable.
We've been doing it on Zoom for two years. It stinks. Nobody likes it. No one can look at a computer for more than a certain number of hours. There’s… The internet goes down, people get kicked out of the Zoom. Like it just, it stinks. It's so much worse. And obviously, that's a very specific example, but I think that there are a lot of businesses that are not purely what you would think of as creative endeavors that benefit greatly from just having people in the same place and being able to see each other.
I think people's moods improve. No one is happy or… No, I shouldn't say no one. The majority of people, I think, are not meant to stay in their houses alone for the entire day, never actually being in the same place as someone else. So much of the, of productivity and of, of just creativity and everything else comes from milling around and getting a snack and talking about what you watched on TV last night, or talking about the, the game that you saw or whatever.
We're social animals and we're supposed to be around other people, and I don't want this to become a situation where the combination of corporate greed and convenience means that we're like, “All right, everyone j ust stay in your houses all day.” I think that's really bad. That further atomizes the human race in a way that I think is very dangerous.
[00:29:00] Steven Johnson:
One of the other phrases that you use in the, in the essay. Which I thought was really fascinating as you describe workplaces as ethical laboratories.
[00:29:09] Michael Schur:
[00:29:10] Steven Johnson:
Explain that and then we can take that into thinking about The Good Place and, and your book.
[00:29:15] Michael Schur:
In order to, um, understand other people, you have to be around them, and they have to annoy you. That's just the deal. You have to get annoyed by people in order to figure out how to work out problems that you have. Right?
And The Office was nothing but a series of episodes about the small ways that people annoy each other, and the, and the navigation around those annoyances. Right? And they are… Where I'm talking at the level of like, there's an Office episode where someone, um, put something in the microwave, and it exploded, and they didn't clean the microwave. And Pam goes on this mission to find out who did this. And, um, those like, that's a perfect example of like, this isn't an, like the, the first stop in your sort of experience of this is: “I, the people I work with are so annoying, I hate them. They're so inconsiderate. Why don't they just clean 'em after themselves? Like, what is wrong with these people?”
The second step is like, “How do we solve this problem? Like what do we do? What's the right move?” And she does a bunch of things in an episode that are a little bit passive-aggressive. She leaves a note, an anonymous note, and then everyone gets angry at whoever left the anonymous note. And then she has to kind of defend whoever left the anonymous note, you know? And so she's, and so she learns a lesson, right? Which is like, okay. Passive aggression isn't the right way to handle a problem like this. So these little tiny things, these little moments of irritation or of like negotiation, without those, you're just in your own home by yourself, getting angry at things, maybe tweeting about them, but generally not solving problems. Like you have to and, and the solving of problems gives you a little bit of a structure or a foundation for like the next time I'm in this situation like this, I now have more information and I will do a better job.
And I really do worry that we have, it's become possible now to program your life the way that you program, like, a Spotify playlist. You can only watch the news that you wanna watch. You can only hear the voices of the people that you know, you already like. There are sophisticated algorithms that take what they know about you and feed back to you only things that they know that you will approve of. That's a really dangerous world, and I, and I, I, it's just, it becomes like, you know, reinforcing your, the beliefs you already have instead of having to get into a situation where you meet other kinds of people or hear about other kinds of things and get to experience them.
[00:31:44] Steven Johnson:
Another thing that is central, to, um, The Good Place in particular, but it shows up in a lot of your shows and, and it's something I, I feel like is also an underappreciated part of, of great narratives is to, to me, great stories are not about action or mysteries. But the, the narratives I find myself most moved by, are ones that involve decisions. Complex decisions. When you have a character that reaches some kind of threshold where there's a bunch of different variables and it's a complicated, you know, not clear what the right path is and watching them kind of decide, and this is like, you know, from Middlemarch to, to Breaking Bad. I mean, Breaking Bad is just like one series of artful, but terrible decision. Right? You know, stacked up over time. And one, I guess my first question is, is that something you think about when you're writing? Do you think about kind of decision points in terms of the storytelling? Or is that just something that kind of comes up?
[00:32:45] Michael Schur:
No, I I, of course, you do. I mean, that's the basis of all plots is just like, who ma—who, who's deciding? What are they deciding, right?
[00:32:53] Steven Johnson:
[00:32:53] Michael Schur:
But the, I think the thing I would, I would maybe deepen that by one level by saying there is an incredible, um, level of acumen involved in the way that Breaking Bad was plotted.
[00:33:08] Steven Johnson:
[00:33:08] Michael Schur:
Right? It’s an, it's an amazing step by step by step investigation of a person who breaks bad. Right? And the, the artistry that they put into that show in terms of the way that it was plotted out is incredible.
Those decisions tell a psychological story of a person who was always a monster, always had a monster inside him and was looking for an excuse for it to come out.
[00:33:36] Steven Johnson:
[00:33:26] Michael Schur:
And he, his justification of his actions gets harder and harder and harder as you, He's, you know, he's doing it for his family. Right? It’s like he's dying. He needs to make sure his family is taken care of. He's a chemist. “I'll make crystal meth and I'll sell it.” And for so long he's going like, “I just need to provide for my family. I need this much money. And then my family will be secure. My son will be okay.”
And after like a year of that, you're like, “Hey man, you can't justify this anymore. This is insane. It's making me, really hard for me to root for you.” And then you realize, “Oh, he's a monster. Yeah, I'm not supposed to root for him. He's a terrible, terrible, terrible person with this awful dark beast inside him.” So, and then the next leap as a viewer is, “Oh, the point of this show is it's a cautionary tale.”
It's, “We all have monsters inside us, and if we get too good at justifying the bad things that we do, the monster will come out and will ruin people's lives.” We won't probably murder as many people as Walter White did, but it'll be bad. And so those decisions, the plot level decisions require a tremendous amount of artistry, but they don't really become affecting or matter unless there's like an interesting emotional or psychological story that's sort of underpinning it.
[00:34:49] Steven Johnson:
In your book How To Be Perfect, um, you tell a story about an event that happened: a one-mile-per-hour car accident, and I wanted to bring it up because it, it sounded like from your description of it, that it, that that was one of the key events that led both to you thinking about ethics and moral philosophy, which led to The Good Place. And to, to, to writing the book, um, How to Be Perfect. So, tell us the story.
[00:35:18] Michael Schur:
So 2005. My wife is in a small, very, very slow fender bender. Police officer doesn't see any damage. They exchange numbers. We get a claim for $836. It's happening during Hurricane Katrina. My wife and I had just been there on a trip, and we're very in love with New Orleans at that moment, and we were uncharacteristically affected by that event, even though we don't have a personal attachment to the city or anything.
So I go and look at the guy's cart and if I, if I strain very, very hard, I can just barely see this little crease, just very faint. And I got very angry, which is not, uh, typical for me. And I said, “You know, this is absurd and this is why car insurance is so expensive.”
And I made him an offer, which was, “How about I donate $836 to the Red Cross in your name and let this crease stay on your bumper?” He said he would think it over. I told all my friends about what happened and they started pledging more and more money if the guy would agree not to fix his car. And soon it was $5,000 and then $8,000, and eventually, within like a day and a half, it was $25,000 would be donated to the Red Cross if the guy would retract the damage claim.
I started a blog. I got media requests. It was the first thing I know of that went viral in that way. And I was like, “This is great.” And I literally in my head, I was going to save New Orleans by myself, like I was, I was gonna be a hero. And then at the exact same moment, my wife and I got sick to our stomachs and we didn't understand why. We were just like, “This is bad, this is wrong. We don't know why.” And I realized that something I was doing was unethical, but I didn't know what it was. And so I started reading ethics. I started reading philosophy and like when I say reading, I mean like it's three in the morning and I can't sleep. And I'm like flipping through things. The internet.
I called a bunch of philosophy professors and was like, “Can I run this problem by you? Can you help me?” Eventually, they gave me a bunch of different things to read and a bunch of different opinions. I eventually made the conclusion that what I was doing was indefensible. I called the guy, he didn't know any of this was happening.
That was the other thing. He had no idea this was happening. He was just, like, waiting for my check to show up. So I eventually, I called him, I copped to the whole thing. I sent him a check and I was like, “I'm really sorry.” And he was very kind and forgiving. And um, I then went to the blog and I told everyone what had happened and said, “Please donate this money anyway. I know that you pledged it… you pledged this money if this guy wouldn't fix this car. But I now have come to the conclusion that he should fix his car and I should pay for it. Yeah. And so please donate it anyway.”
And $25,000 or $27,000 or something got donated to the Red Cross. So, it was a, it was this weird tangled, knotted event in my life that made me think the, the main feeling I had was, you know, “I've read all this philosophy in the last three days, and it's all fascinating. And if I had read it a week ago, none of this would've happened, because I would've known that what I was doing was unethical. That it was not morally okay for me to shame him for something that just happened to him that has nothing to do… The Hurricane Katrina has zero to do with his, with this car accident.”
And I just had this overwhelming feeling like if I had been better prepared, and I would've not made this mistake and caused myself a lot of agony and caused him agony and whipped up this whole firestorm, and I just started thinking of ethical theories as, as the preparation that we all should do in order to just live life on earth. And I kind of think it’s, like, a responsibility that we all have to understand. You're not, you're still gonna get everything wrong. Like everyone's still gonna blow it all the time. Like it's not like it guarantees success, but I think you have a much better chance of, of avoiding problems and of getting things right if you at least have a basic nuts and bolts understanding of the theories and how they work.
[00:39:15] Steven Johnson:
It, it's, so, um, impressive that you were able to take this interest in ethics and moral philosophy and in a sense turn into two different forms. One, a sitcom, as we talked about, something that really hasn't been done before in an explicit way, and, and then a really entertaining book. I've probably read, you know, 6,000 descriptions of like the Trolley Problem, and yours is by far the most entertaining.
[00:39:39] Michael Schur:
I’m glad to hear it.
[00:39:40] Steven Johnson:
And but also in insightful, I mean, I love this idea of like, why are so many people still on the tracks? Like what is going on?
[00:39:45] Michael Schur:
Yeah. All philosophy thought experiments are absurd. It's always like “A group of people are standing motionless on the top of a volcano.” You're like, “Why? Why? What are they doing?”
[00:39:54] Steven Johnson:
But, um, well, I think one of the—it, it, it comes out a lot in, um, in The Good Place and in the book is The Utilitarian Tradition. And Bentham in particular, who was a very wacky guy as you, as you point out.
[00:40:09] Michael Schur:
[00:40:10] Steven Johnson:
But for, for those who, folks out there listening don't know about it, Bentham's idea is this, this core concept that, you know, your choices in life should be about maximizing pleasure in the world and minimizing pain in the world. Um, and even has kind of like units of measure for both, which is pretty funny. And so in some ways the, the leaderboard in The Good Place—
[00:40:32] Mike Schur:
Yeah. Very utilitary.
[00:40:33] Steven Johnson:
—is applied Bentham, right? Um, I think it's one of those theories when you first hear it, you're like, “Well, that sounds good. Like that's a good model. I can understand that intuitively.” But it ends up being thornier. Can you say something about that?
[00:40:49] Michael Schur:
Yeah, like he called it the Greatest Happiness Principle, and he basically said, “You should create more hedons”—which are units of, of happiness or pleasure—“than dolors”—which are units of pain or suffering.
And it is the theory of all of the theories. It's the one that most often people go like, “Oh cool, I get this, I get this. I can do this one. Let’s… I’m a utilitarian now ‘cause I understand this.” The problem is, there are a lot of very troubling conclusions that you come to when you only think about a, a, a key, key to the theories that everyone's happiness and sadness is the same, that there's no class system.
He was a socialist, and there was a real desire to level the playing field and say like, “It doesn't matter whether you're in the House of Lords or you are a lowly lamplighter, you are the same. Your happiness is the same, your sadness is the same.” Great. Love it. The problem is, is you think like, okay, well the first thing, the first problem is that means that 51% of any population could, um, like just basically rule 49% of the population in a fascistic way. Because in theory, 51% of the people being happy and being the in-crowd and 49% being unhappy, well, more, more happiness than pain. So you're okay. Yeah. So, you know, another problem would be like in the trolley, in a version of the trolley problem, you might say, okay, “I’m gonna… There are five people who need organ transplants. I'm gonna murder this healthy person, harvest his organs, and give them to the five people who need them. I've created more happiness.” Five people stay alive, only one person dies. So that's an allowable event.
So John Stuart Mill, who is his disciple did a lot of work to correct some of those problems by, he was focused on the, in the tyranny question, he basically said, tyr—freedom is the most important thing, and so any system that involves tyranny is not allowable because the, the 51% would be made sad by the fact that they would realize that someday they might be in the minority. And so they're sad. You have to add their fear of the future to the calculation when you are calculating the pain and happiness that you've created. You can't just think about the action or the person who is directly related.
You have to think about, “Okay, everyone in society now knows that this happened and it could someday happen to them.” So in my case, a perfect example, the Utilitarians gave me a way to think, “Oh, maybe this is okay, this fender bender thing, because yeah, this, I'm being annoying to this guy. I'm being moralistic and high and mighty, but all this money's going to hurricane victims.” So, a strict utilitarian might say like, “Hey, good, good work. That's fine.”
But, how annoying would it be to live in a world where you know that every time you have this, some minor dispute with someone, that person could just open the newspaper, find an unfolding disaster, and then say, “How dare you care about this when polar ice caps are melting, or whatever?” And so, everyone would be a little sad. And so the total amount of sadness in the world is actually much higher than you might have thought at first. So it's, it's very, it’s, it's deceptively simple, um, because you think like, “Oh, I get it. More pain is bad, more happiness is good.” But then when you start to like investigate how that, how you calculate that and what that really means, it gets, it just as fuzzy and confusing as any other theory.
[00:44:11] Steven Johnson:
Someday we will have moral health apps on our phone that will just be calculating these, these things.
[00:44:18] Michael Schur:
You know what's really wild? Um, there's a guy named Joshua Greene, who's a professor at Harvard who was a consultant for a while in The Good Place, and he did this really interesting piece about driverless cars, right?
[00:44:28] Steven Johnson:
[00:44:28] Michael Schur:
So, and the, basically the trolley problem has applied to driverless cars. And it's this problem where, like, imagine a future in which these cars and machines can speak to each other, essentially, at the speed of light. So two cars are driving in opposite directions on an icy road, and they both spin out and they're, they're going to crash.
And the cars, in the blink of an eye, have the following conversation. Like, “Okay, we're gonna crash, and there will likely be some fatalities here. Who’s in your car?” And the other car says, “I've got a 61-year-old woman with type two diabetes and a 14-year-old grandson who, uh, is a straight A student, who do you have?”
And is like, Well, “I've got a 39-year-old woman who's pregnant and a 19-year-old boy who just got out of prison for armed robbery.” And they go like, “Okay, well let's calculate the future utility of these lives.” And that decision leads to how they arrange their wheels and collide with each other so as to maximally save the lives they've deemed more valuable than the other lives.
That's very dicey, right? Right. Like that's, that's a scary world. And what's even scarier, as he pointed out, is how did they make these calculations? Well, we programmed them to do that. Like that's the only way that they can do it as of now. Tere’s no full AI. Right? So, the, when you start getting into these calculations of like more happiness than sadness, it seems like, “Oh, that's easy.” And then you play out these scenarios and suddenly it becomes terrifying to think about how, how those decisions would get made.
[00:46:05] Steven Johnson:
Um, one, I think really powerful thing that you do in, in the book, kinda introducing the ideas of the postwar moral philosopher John Rawls, is you have this a sequential description of all the chain of events where you were lucky, that led to your success in your career. And it, you know, we don't have to go through, people can read the book and read it all, but I just, to me it seems like a really wonderful exercise for people to do. Um, everyone should write something like this.
[00:46:36] Michael Schur:
I agree. Yes. Um, I fully agree that ca—that's a thing I've been thinking about. It was actually quite literally, my wedding toast to my wife was a similar thing of like, I I, I made a list of all of the things that had to break exactly the right way for the two of us to meet and get married. And so I've been thinking about it for a very long time. It's kind of all I think about, and there's a philosopher or a social scientist really named Robert Frank who teaches at Cornell, and his, he has a book on Luck and the Myth of Meritocracy that really affected me and put a fine point on a lot of things I've been thinking about. And basically what he says is, that there is no, it doesn't diminish your accomplishments to recognize that a lot of what happened in your life is due to luck, including stuff that happened before you were born, like how your parents met and, and what kind of people they are, and whether they're smart or not, or whether they are successful or not.
Like there's so much stuff. You, you are c—you come into the earth, the product of a certain amount of luck, good or bad, and it only continues from there. And so I think all the time about, in addition to working hard and thinking that I'm pretty good at what I do, that the, my career and my life is the result of like endless amounts of fortunate events that broke the right way at the right time.
And I don't think that it takes anything away from anything that I've done to just recognize that. And I think what it gives you is the recognition that there are people who are just as talented and smart and capable who aren't as lucky, who didn't have the things go exactly the right way at the exact moments that you did. And that leads to having empathy for people whose lives didn't turn out that well.
[00:48:21] Steven Johnson:
Well. Well, Michael Schur, uh, I feel like I'm a much better person from this conversation.
[00:48:27] Michael Schur:
It’ll be $20.
[00:48:28] Steven Johnson:
I’m sure it will wear off. It's just fascinating to talk to you and thanks so much for coming on the TED interview.
[00:48:34] Michael Schur:
My pleasure. Thank you.
[00:48:38] Steven Johnson:
The TED interview is part of the TED Audio Collective. This episode was produced by Allie Graham. The show is brought to you by TED and Transmitter Media. Sammy Case is our story editor, Fact-Checking by Meerie Jesuthasan. Farrah Desgranges is our project manager. Constanza Gallardo is our managing editor. And Gretta Cohn is our executive producer.
Special thanks to Michelle Quint and Anna Felan. For more information on my other projects, including my latest book, Extra Life, you can follow me on Twitter at @stevenbjohnson or sign up for my Substack newsletter: Adjacent Possible.