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‘The Good Place’ Comes to Boston: Creator Michael H. Schur '97 and Actor William Jackson Harper Talk Representation in Comedy

Michael Schur and William Jackson Harper
Michael H. Schur '97 and William Jackson Harper discuss "The Good Place" at WBUR CitySpace.

It’s not every day that a popular sitcom references John Rawls and Ariana Grande in the same episode. Yet “The Good Place” regularly alternates between registers academic and pop cultural. Created by Michael H. Schur ’97 and starring Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, and Ted Danson, the show will air its fourth and final season premiere on Sept. 26 on NBC.

Looking ahead to the upcoming premiere, Schur and Harper stopped by WBUR CitySpace in Boston for a discussion of the show’s philosophy moderated by Colby College philosophy professor, Lydia Moland. Backstage at CitySpace before the Sept. 17 event, The Harvard Crimson sat down with Schur and Harper for a conversation on representation, dense philosophical rants, and controversial comedy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Harvard Crimson: Michael, many of the shows you’ve created seem to take the form of ensemble comedies, or are set in workplace conditions. What is particularly interesting to you about that environment?

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Michael H. Schur: About a workplace setting? I mean, a couple things. My first job was on "The Office," and that was kind of the ultimate workplace show. And that's how I learned to write.… There's something very American about setting a show in an office because it's a place that feels universal. Everybody has to go to one, or most people do, at some level. And also, I'm a white man from suburban Connecticut, and I have a white wife and two white children, and there's nothing interesting to say about my family life at all. There just isn't. There have been so many TV shows about every version of my family… So a workplace, like a police precinct, or a local government office, or essentially, what amounts to the afterlife, means anyone can be there. You can get people from everywhere. They can look however you want them to look, and the possibilities are greater for me personally, because there's nothing interesting about my life.

THC: It’s interesting that you bring up diversity, because it’s such a pertinent question in comedy at the moment. “The Good Place” is an exemplar for diversity, from race to sexuality. Has that been at the foundation of the show since its inception? Has it taken on a new light recently?

MHS: That idea of that being important has been around in my life for a lot longer than this show, but there were a couple of important things to me about the beginning of the show. Because we were saying, “This is just a sample of good people on earth, people who won the ‘good job award’ for being good,” we had a bunch of rules in the beginning. In the casting of the main characters, I was like, there's gonna be one person from North America, one person from South Asia, one person from East Asia, one person from Africa. That was a rule now. There was a little bit of a trick because the Buddhist monk from Tibet turned out to be a Filipino dirtbag from Jacksonville. But still the main premise held. But then also in the background, the people milling around… We broke down very roughly the demographics of the world. 40 percent of the people you see walking around in fact are actually East Asian, or Asian, including South Asian. Because if you lumped all of the people on earth into a room and picked them at random, that's what you would get, right? So we did stuff like that, because it was important to me, that it not seem like anyone had an advantage. It's like a "Moneyball" universe where anyone can achieve. It's just about your actions and not about what your starting block level was, right? So we did that.

In the pilot, Eleanor says, "Who was right about all this?" And Michael says, "The Jews were five percent right, the Muslims are five percent right, the Christians, right, everyone's like, five percent right. Right?" So we were trying to signal like that. This is a system that's mathematical, that has nothing to do with people's beliefs or anything on Earth, except for your actions, because anything else starts to get religious or cultural. And I really wanted this to be purely ethical… You couldn't do this show if you had four people from, you know, suburban Massachusetts.

THC: Will, what extent of creative freedom did Michael give you with the character of Chidi?

William Jackson Harper: [jokingly] None. You know, I feel like we're all allowed in the show to get pretty weird and make really odd choices… You never really felt straitjacketed. But I think just because the narrative is so specific and so tight — you know, I think that myself, as well as the other actors on the show — we really wanted to get it right. We really wanted to just see if we can, you know, fulfill our mission. But you know, also, it's just that there's not a lot of room to just sort of, go for it. Because there's things that are very tightly plotted that we have to do, we have to make sure play later, and … our job is to be in that world as fully as we can, rather than just like...

MHS: Freelance.

WJH: Yeah, freelance. Just making up stuff.

MHS: It would've been funny to see you guys try to improvise.

WJH: There's no way. You know what I mean? Like, I have no idea what I'm talking about most of the time. So if I start improvising, you'll know very quickly.

MHS: Just do a tight, 10-minute Hume.

THC: Right, there are so many philosophical rants on the show. How did you prepare for those rants?

WJH: Actually, you know, it's weird, I usually would take the language and just [organize] it by ideas. There's the way that it's printed out in a screenplay format, and I would just basically take the ideas … I'm trying to get across, and put those on a line by itself.

MHS: Did you actually retype it? I didn't know that.

WJH: Especially when I had something particularly dense, I would have to do that just so I could map out the ideas more clearly, individually for me for myself, so I could actually play with them and play the scene a little bit more effectively, rather than just trying to get it out, you know, by rote.

MHS: I know people who have hand-written their lines out. Yeah, there's something about having a tactile connection to actually writing the language.

WJH: Yeah. I know a lot of actors that do that, actually. But for me, I needed to get the ideas put together. And that helped me pretend to have some kind of grasp what I'm saying.

MHS: It's cool, man.

THC: Do you think that being so immersed in this dense philosophical material has had any effect on your personal life? Do either of you think it has made you become more civically engaged?

MHS: People really want to know that. We get asked that a lot.

WJH: [jokingly] Yeah, um, I'm still trash. But I do. It’s funny that you say civically engaged, because I think that I'm actually a little bit more engaged civically and politically than I have been before.

MHS: Really?

WJH: Yeah. You know, there's a platform that this show has provided me, but on top of that, the ideas do sort of work their way in a little bit. Especially the climate we live in now, it seems like there's a sort of iteration of an antihero type… I find it irksome, and I feel like I need to resist that in some way. And so I found myself in positions where I'm going to protests and, you know, making calls and doing that sort of thing that I never did before.

MHS: I wonder if you hadn't been on the show, if the culture would have done that to you, by itself.

WJH: Maybe, but you know, I think the show does put a lot of those ideas front of mind now.

THC: “The Good Place” occupies such an interesting place in the pop culture landscape right now because it interrogates how to be an ethical person. Political correctness is an important conversation that's happening in comedy at the moment. For instance, Shane Gillis recently got fired from “Saturday Night Live” for his remarks about Chinese people. Last spring, the Lampoon was censured for publishing a sexualized image of Anne Frank. What is your approach when it comes to writing about or performing potentially sensitive matters? Is that something that you think about a lot when you're writing?

MHS: The people that I make TV shows with and I have a policy that has been reduced to the simple idea: No assholes. That's the idea. Don’t hire assholes. It’s remarkably effective.… And as a result of that policy, it's a pretty fun place to work, right? It's pretty loose and pretty nice. Everyone treats each other with kindness and respect and dignity, at a level that we shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back for treating people with respect and graciousness and dignity. That should be a baseline of how humans interact with each other… There's the backlash from, you know, the “cancel culture,” “the mob is coming for you.” It's like, you're being an asshole. Look... If you're the only guy in the world, who can fly a spaceship and land it on the asteroid and drill a hole in the asteroid and put a nuclear bomb and blow it up to save Earth, you can say whatever you want about Asian people, because we don't have a choice, right? But if you're one of three new people who's joining a 46-year-old sketch show, and you do that, then you're an asshole, and go away. We don't need you.

There's this weird mentality when people do stupid things that are offensive, and then what happens is first, they say, “Well, that's what comedy is, and comedy needs to be combative, and it needs to push boundaries.” It's like, all right, settle down. You made a joke. That dude made a joke that was old and tired and offensive 50 years ago. The idea that that’s somehow cool and edgy and groundbreaking — that's the same shit that people have been doing for decades and decades and decades. And so, that argument doesn't work.

And then the other argument is, "Well, can you say anything? You can't say anything nowadays!" No, you can. You can say whatever you want, as long as you don't treat people horribly disrespectfully, in a way that's reductive and stupid and asshole-ish. I'm just so sick of the backlash. He did the bad thing. And then people are like, “Yeah, that's bad.” And then he gets offended, and other people defend him and get offended. Don't defend that guy. Defend good people. There's a lot of good people who don't do shit like that. I'm cursing a lot, but I just don't understand it... The idea that there's some purity in being able to say whatever you want or that you're stifling creativity — no, you're not. That's not creative. That thing that he said is so boring. It's so boring. Everything he did is so boring. It's been boring and offensive and old for hundreds of years, so forgive me if I don't think that you're a revolutionary Lenny Bruce genius for saying the same shit that people have been saying forever.

THC: [to Harper] Anything to add?

WJH: Not really. I think to piggyback on what you're saying, it's like, A) it's lazy. B), It's never funny. It's never funny. It's one of those things where, as a black dude, someone will make a joke that throws black people under the bus, and then I don't laugh at it. It's like, “Oh, you're offended.” No, I'm not. I'm actually not offended. The joke was bad. I'm a little bored and disappointed. That's annoying. You know, it's because I guess for me, a lot of those things are less hurtful and more just like — it's more like a mosquito that keeps buzzing by your ear. Like, "Oh, stop it." Stop.

MHS: Let someone who's had a new thought in the last 180 years walk in and join the conversation.

WJH: You completely lose the element of surprise when you go to that sort of boiler-plate, offensive stuff. You know, it's because it's not surprising. These are the things that everyone's, you know, racist grandparents have said a million times over. It’s boring.

— Staff writer Kaylee S. Kim can be reached at kaylee.kim@thecrimson.com.

— Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at caroline.tsai@thecrimson.com.

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