Michael Schur created NBC’s “The Good Place,” the acclaimed sitcom about becoming a better person, even after death.
His latest project expands this quest. Schur’s new book, “How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question,” covers in a fun, thoughtful, and sometimes provocative way what he’s learned while researching philosophy for the series.
Yet even Schur, a two-time Emmy winner and a really smart guy, is struggling to understand the choices some Americans are making during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every time someone said, ‘I don’t wear a mask because I believe in freedom,’ it’s like you’re only thinking about half the equation there. You’re only thinking that ‘about your action. You don’t think about how your action affects others,’ he said over the phone.
“It’s mind-boggling to me that the next thought in your mind isn’t, ‘OK, what effect will my action have on the people around me?’ And the answer, obviously enough, is well, those people could get sick and die.”
Timely is a word for “How to be perfect.” Engaging and meaningful are two others. Schur will talk about his book during a virtual event at 7 p.m. Friday of the National Writers Series at Traverse City, the nonprofit group that invites top writers like Margaret Atwood and David Sedaris to have thoughtful discussions with Northern Michigan audiences.
Friday’s live chat will be hosted by Ed Helms, who currently stars in Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls,” a comedy Helms co-created with Schur and Sierra Teller Ornelas.
Schur, who lives in Los Angeles, has a soft spot in his heart for Michigan, especially Ann Arbor, where he was born. Of course, he’s way too ethical to pretend he remembers anything from life in college town until he was around 2 years old.
“I have no memories, but I’m still fiercely loyal,” he says. “I still support (University of) Michigan sports, I represent the colors, I do all of that stuff. I feel the connection even though I have no real memory of ever living there. … Michigan doesn’t It’s just an idea in my mind.”
Her affection for college was plain and clear in “The Good Place,” which starred Metro Detroit native Kristen Bell as Eleanor, a self-absorbed woman who mistakenly travels to the equivalent of heaven. after his death. In a scene from the first episode, Bell wears a University of Michigan Law School t-shirt, while everyone else is dressed in corn and blue (the UM colors) with chevron stripes.
(Side note: “The Good Place” also featured several actors with Motor City ties besides Bell, including Maribeth Monroe, Eugene Cordero, and Marc Evan Jackson, who lived here as a member of the Second City Detroit troupe and whose the Detroit Creativity Project continues to help the city’s students develop skills through comedy improv workshops).
Schur’s credits include writing for “Saturday Night Live” (where he was in charge of “Weekend Update”) and writing and producing for “The Office”, where he also played Dwight’s eccentric cousin, Mose from the Schrute beet farm.
After co-creating “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Schur went solo on “The Good Place,” which ran from 2016 to 2020 and earned 13 Emmy nominations. The inventive comedy centered on Eleanor’s efforts to earn her place. in the right place, but he also took a stimulating look at what constitutes a good life.
“How to Be Perfect” was inspired by the reading Schur did to ground the series in deep thoughts as well as comedic adventures. The book may draw inspiration from great thinkers like Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Albert Camus, but it’s entertainingly done with chapters titled, “Should I lie and tell my friend I like her ugly shirt?” Do I need to return my purchases From cart to cart Rack Thingy I mean… It’s over Theand “I just did something selfless. But what does it get me?
As Schur writes in the introduction, it’s easy enough to assume that a person’s aspiration for good doesn’t matter, given that there are billions of people in the world and that many of them are hardly models.
“There are corrupt politicians, complicit CEOs, and people who don’t pick up dog poop when their dogs poop on the sidewalk, and evil dictators…so it’s hard not to wonder if a nobody being “good” even counts.. Or, to put it like I did when I started reading moral philosophy and thinking about this huge, knotted and tangled mess: What am I supposed to To do ?”
Schur is not intimidated by such questions. In fact, he seems to enjoy addressing them and explaining his view of what lies at the heart of ethical living.
Schur says, “The book makes it pretty clear that what I personally think is that the most important thing about trying to be a good person on Earth is that you care in some way about to be a good person on Earth. If you care one way or another, you will at least try all the time. And when you fail, as is inevitable, you will have a better chance of learning why you failed.
The title of the book, of course, is meant to be ironic (which explains that missing T in the word “perfect” on the cover of the book). “You have to settle for the idea that you’re never going to succeed,” he stresses. “You’ll never get to a point where you’re like, ‘I’m done! I’m ethical! End of story!’ It just doesn’t happen.
According to Schur, he likely inherited some of his fascination with moral dilemmas from his father, a philosophy student at Harvard who earned a master’s degree in linguistics and a law degree at the University of Michigan. As Schur explains, “His adviser told him, ‘Congratulations, you have a master’s degree. There are no jobs in this department. Go do something else.’ So he went to law school.
Schur himself majored in English at Harvard because the philosophy “sounded scary and difficult”. He thinks his lifelong interest in ethics has been evident in most of his TV projects, not just ‘The Good Place’.
“It might sound like a grand thing to say, but I think every show is about ethics on some level. Ethics is nothing more than questions of the best and worst kinds of actions and how we do them. design, and how we negotiate them, and how we get there as what we’re going to do.”
After “The Good Place” ended in early 2020, Schur was busy selling the book around the time the pandemic hit. “It almost blocked out the sun. … It was honestly a bit difficult not to do the whole book about the pandemic and how people were reacting to it,” he recalled.
The past two years have brought to light the central question of ethical behavior, notes Schur: “What do you think of other people and what do we owe these people?
Still, he wants potential readers to know that “How to Be Perfect” isn’t meant to be a homework assignment. He admits to being bored by some of the philosophy tomes he’s read, which only encouraged him to explore moral and ethical thinking in a fun way.
When asked if any of the great philosophers were funny, he notes that German philosopher Kant is “probably the least funny human being who ever lived.” But the issues covered by the philosophy are timeless and important, notes Schur, including contemporary hotspots like the ability to separate art from artist.
Spoiler alert: Schur doesn’t offer easy yes or no answers on this.
“If you want to be Kantian about it, you can’t come up with a rule that says, ‘If a person behaves badly, I won’t support them.’ Because bad behavior ranges from being a bit rude to being a waiter until Harvey Weinstein did,” he says. In general, Schur does not favor one-size-fits-all answers to ethical dilemmas. He thinks the hard truth is that you have to constantly fight some issues and do your best.
Having worked with some of the biggest names in modern sitcoms – Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg, Bell and Ted Danson, among them – Schur seems eminently qualified to weigh in on artists who are loved. Do good people make better comedies? “I think so,” he says, “but I would also say there have been some really awful people who have done good comedy. I don’t think that’s a requirement.”
Schur adds, with his knack for reflecting on the meaning of life in a relatable way: “I much prefer to work with kind, kind, happy people rather than tortured, miserable, cruel people.”
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at [email protected]
Traverse City’s National Writers Series Features Michael Schur
A virtual event at 7 p.m. Fri. with guest host Ed Helms
Buy tickets and Schur’s book “How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question) at NationalWritersSeries.org.