#565: Michael Schur, Creator of “The Good Place” — How SNL Trains Writers, His TV University at “The Office,” Lessons from Lorne Michaels, Wisdom from David Foster Wallace, and Exploring Moral Philosophy with “How to Be Perfect” | The Tim Ferris Show

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Key Takeaways

  • “The show doesn’t go on because it is ready, the show goes on because it’s 11:30 pm on a Saturday Night” – Michael Schur quoting Lorne Michaels
  • Don’t be precious with your own material
    • This advice goes past writing, holding your beliefs too tightly can prevent you from growing
  • Jokes are easy, stories are hard
    • A story is making a generally not-funny-thing funny based on character depth and circumstance
    • He learned this writing on The Office
  • “Comedy for performance is like a Roman Coliseum” – Michael Schur
    • Live comedy demands an immediate response, instant approval or disproval
    • Differs from TV and movies
  • Ethical dilemmas are frequent and subtle in our everyday lives, we are better off when we pay attention to them
    • Moral philosophy is the basis of Michael’s show The Good Life
    • Continue reading for some of Michaels favorite philosophers

Intro

Key Resources Mentioned

  • How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur
    • Intendeds to reverse the negative stigma around philosophy without being condescending
    • Encourages everyone to achieve a better understanding of ethics
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
    • Michael’s biggest inspiration
  • Philosophers to research:
    • Jeremy Bentham – essentially invented utilitarianism (do more good than bad)
    • Aristotle – knew the correct balance of virtue ethics (he’s the friendliest philosopher)
    • William James – developed pragmatism (truth is the only thing that matters, no matter the method)

The Harvard Lampoon

  • The Harvard Lampoon is a satirical magazine founded in 1876
    • Michael only attended Harvard so that he could be a part of the Lampoon
    • The magazine was a major feeder system into prominent opportunities in comedy
  • Operated as a true meritocracy – the best material was voted on and published
    • Michael sent in his first comedy pieces anonymously to test the meritocracy
    • His piece passed – If you’re funny, you’re in

Saturday Night Live Lessons

  • Michael believes every comedy writer should do a ‘tour of duty‘ on SNL, here are the lessons:
    • Don’t be precious with your own material – anything can be (and sometimes should be) cut from the script
    • “The show doesn’t go on because it is ready, the show goes on because it’s 11:30 pm on a Saturday Night” – Michael Schur quoting Lorne Michaels
    • SNL is a set of golden handcuffs – the show tempts you to stay forever because it never ends

The Office

  • Michael thought the British version of The Office was the greatest comedy ever made and originally thought adapting it for an American audience was a stupid idea
    • Took the opportunity anyway because he had a feeling that Greg Daniels was going to be an incredible mentor
    • “I don’t know if this show is going to work, but if it doesn’t work, it won’t be because of Greg” – Michael Schur
  • Writing deep character development in The Office was the most challenging for Michael
    • With SNL sketches, the characters are meant to be used up and thrown away
    • Characters with depth can make not-funny-things funny
    • At the end of every episode, you should have a little more information on the characters than when you started
  • Michael discusses writing the episode of Secret Santa / Yankee Swap
    • He wrote out the names, put them in a hat, and made the random gift assignments as you would in real life
    • The gift Angela received was a poster of babies dressed like jazz musicians which contributed to her long-term character arc. There was a future episode dedicated to it.

The Good Place

  • Michael wanted The Good Place to be a show about moral philosophy, how to be a good person
    • Moral philosophy and the thought experiments associated can be quite entertaining when boiled down
    • There are no right answers, just a bunch of theories that are a subjective combination of good and bad morals
    • Ethical dilemmas are frequent and subtle in our everyday lives, we are better off when we pay attention to them
  • Every show he had ever written was about a group of people in a particular place, he wanted this to be different
    • Wrote the entire script before even pitching the show
  • Michael received a handwritten letter from Barack Obama pretty much saying, “I like your show

Philosophy

  • How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur
    • Intendeds to reverse the negative stigma around philosophy without being condescending
    • There are great crossovers in understanding character development and moral philosophy
  • Philosophers Michael would want to have drinks and dinner with:
    • Jeremy Bentham – essentially invented utilitarianism (do more good than bad)
    • Friedrich Nietzsche – it would be hard not to bring up his role in creating the Nazis over a glass of wine
  • Two Philosophers Michael would have on speed dial for advice:
    • Aristotle – knew the correct balance of virtue ethics (he’s the friendliest philosopher)
    • William James – developed pragmatism (truth is the only thing that matters, no matter the method)
  • Many philosophers come in and out of favor over time given the circumstances
    • Tim ponders how problematic his podcast will become over time (50-100 years)

David Foster Wallace

  • Michael was so inspired by Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace that he wrote his senior thesis on it
  • Every year at The Harvard Lampoon, they hold a parody award show. Michael nominated David Foster Wallace as Novelist of the Millennium.
    • Even though the event was a joke, David came anyway and became close with Michael
    • There are complications with Michael potentially recreating Infinite Jest – David committed suicide and his correspondents are very wary of Hollywood’s ability to recreate his material.

Advice to Comics

  • The advantage of stand-up is that there is an immediate vote. Unlike TV or movies, your audience decides whether your joke is funny immediately.
    • “Comedy for performance is like a Roman Coliseum” – Michael Schur
  • “Brevity is the soul of whit” – Michael Schur
    • One of the lessons he learned early on in his comedy career
  • Jokes are easy, stories are hard
    • A story is making a generally not-funny-thing funny based on character depth and circumstance
    • He learned this writing on The Office
  • Write what is interesting
    • Your idea isn’t interesting if you have to tell people that it is interesting

Michael’s Billboard and Closing Thoughts

  • “Say you’re sorry” – Michael Schur
    • Apologizing is hard, but recognizing your failures is the first step to healing and growing
  • Ethics and civics are the most undertaught disciplines in America
    • Understanding how people work and how governments work are large building blocks in your life-improvement strategy
Tim Ferriss Show : , , , , , , , ,
Notes By Drew Waterstreet

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