TV writer and producer Michael Schur doesn’t believe you can become a better person. But in the grand scheme of things, he’s not sure it matters.
“To me, the meaning of life is to try to be a better person today than you were yesterday,” Schur told IndieWire. “And I don’t think you’ll succeed.”
Schur said that no matter how benevolent your intentions, it’s unlikely you’ll incrementally improve yourself, every single day, without falter, until the inevitable moment of your death. People screw up. It happens.
“But the meaning of life isn’t to be a better person today than you were yesterday, it’s to try to be,” he said. “You can still go to sleep and say, ‘Well, I tried. I failed today. I blew it. I got angry and lost my temper when that guy cut me off in traffic. I took the last bit of coffee in the break room, and I didn’t make a new pot. And I knew that it was my friend Sarah’s birthday, and I just couldn’t get around to calling her and wishing her a happy birthday. Yeah, I failed! I failed a bunch of times, but I was actively trying.”
Anyone who’s seen his latest series “The Good Place,” knows that’s only part of the answer — don’t worry, the other half is coming — just as they recognize why he’s being asked the question in the first place. After creating a beloved comedy about American politics (“Parks and Recreation”), Schur expanded his view beyond this world to the age-old question of what comes next.
Questions about life, death, and the meaning of our actions continue to surface, and Schur has found a unique connection with his audience by actually providing rational, human answers. They may be simple. They may be specific to one or two people within his windy story, but they speak to everyone’s innate search for understanding. Bridging the gap between philosophy and entertainment, “The Good Place” has become a cultural touchstone for anyone looking for answers to life’s biggest questions, and that’s not something every network sitcom can pull off.
Schur’s comedy, about a group of recently deceased humans trying to become better people so they can get into heaven, is built around elements far more complicated than most sitcoms.
“Mostly what you get in comedy are tropes,” Schur said. “You get caricatures, like ‘This is a dumb guy. This is the charming lead. This is the uptight person’ — whatever. You do that because comedies are meant to entertain you. You watch them for a half hour, and you know when Joey Tribbiani comes on screen he’s going to say something dumb and that will be funny and I’ll laugh and I’ll move on. To some degree, that’s necessary for comedy — [including] shows I’ve worked on. But there haven’t been as many comedies that want to get lost in the nuance of people or the weird inner lives of people.”
In “The Good Place,” characters are given ethics lessons on Friedrich Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant. Decades-old thought experiments are acted out with visceral (and bloody) consequences. Episodes can act like experiments themselves, dedicating half-hour blocks to evaluating theories like utilitarianism and determinism.
Schur knows these are big ideas, noting how entire societies have been struggling to answer “What does it mean to be a good person?” for thousands of years. But he chose his subject and genre with purpose. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is both good and bad — depending on your tolerance for never picking up the tab — and watching her learn if she should go to The Good Place or The Bad Place needed to be told as a comedy.
“I think there’s some advantage [to comedy],” Schur said. “This stuff is really weighty — it’s not easy for me, at least. […] So I think there’s a benefit in trying to tell these stories through comedy. We have to be funny and tell compelling stories, so there’s not a ton of time to really lay down complicated philosophical ideas. We sort of get into the basics of them and then we tell the story using them.”
“When we bring up any big, weighty idea, we’re trying to approach it from the point of view of just a normal person,” he said. “Not a philosophy scholar, not a Phi Beta Kappa from the University College of Oxford who’s been knee-deep in this stuff for 20 years. We wanted to raise these ideas in ways anyone can understand them and relate to them, and if people want to go off later and do their own research or do their own readings, fantastic.”
Why ‘The Good Place’ Is Connecting
Publications like Vox and The Guardian are digging deeper into the philosophical discussions raised on “The Good Place.” YouTube videos are being made to explain things further, and even those hoity-toity institutions are using the sitcom to better educate the masses. Like plenty of significant pop culture before it, the show is becoming a tool for learning, even though its creator still claims only a “Wikipedia entry-level” understanding of ethics.
“I think what this show has done, it’s been ethical therapy for me,” Schur said, noting how everyone with the means to see a therapist should absolutely do so. Just like his own therapy provided “a scaffold” to see inside himself, the show has “given [me] these new ways to think about behavior, a new vocabulary, and these new wellsprings of information I can draw from. I can have more intelligent conversations with people and with myself about human behavior, what’s good and bad about it, and why I think it’s good and bad.”
But setting aside improved communication about hard-to-discuss topics, what role can TV hope to play when examining questions that scholars have struggled with for so long? Can “The Good Place” be more than entertainment?
Schur argues it doesn’t need to be, even if it transcends that base service for some viewers.
“I think the point of making TV shows or movies is to entertain people, and I think there’s just as much value in an incredibly funny and well put-together farce, let’s say, that has absolutely no moral message at all, or no depth of character, or anything, I can personally derive as much pleasure out of that — out of an incredible production of ‘Noises Off’ — as I can from watching like, ‘8 1/2.’“
“I don’t want to ever suggest the way I do TV or the way my fellow writers do it or the way we’ve done it in the past is better or worse than any other way,” he added. “I really don’t think that.”
The Meaning of Life — For Now
Still, all of that study for “The Good Place,” all of that time in a room with “really smart people who have really interesting views,” all of that effort put into answering what it means to be a good person adds up to this: Michael Schur has a theory for the meaning of life.
“To me, the meaning of life is to try to be a better person today than you were yesterday,” he said. “And the corollary to this is when you blow it, just own it, man. Just own it! It’s very hard to do. It’s embarrassing. I’m not great at it. I’m trying very hard to be better at it, but when you blow it — whether it’s small, medium, or big — just try to own it. Just say, ‘I’m really sorry. I blew it. But I’m going to try to do better.’ If you can do those two things, if you can try to be better today than you were yesterday, and you can own your own mistakes in an honest and straightforward way, that to me is the meaning of life — at least at this moment.”
To get all that from a TV show says a lot for the series itself, especially when Schur’s derived philosophy may not be the same one fans learn along the way. “The Good Place” is a show asking a lot of big questions, but taking the time to search for answers is what’s turned it from great television into a cultural touchstone.
“The Good Place” Season 3 finale airs Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBC.