Parks & Recreation: Cast First, Characters Later

Since my last post was so downer-y, here’s a link to a piece about a show that I think is on its way to achieving something like greatness, Parks & Recreation. This is an interview with Aziz Ansari (Tom), who talks about the fact that  the producers didn’t actually have a character for him to play when they hired him:

Take his first meeting with Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, the successful sitcom masterminds behind the American version of “The Office.” The duo was looking to cast an upcoming NBC show and thought Ansari might be a good fit—even though they had no idea what form the concept, story line, or characters would take. “They were like, ‘You’re someone that we think might be cool to have in the mix,’ ” recalls Ansari. “I was like, ‘I’ll be honest with you: This is pretty much my dream job.’ “

Of course there’s no generalized rule about whether it’s better to come up with a character and then look for someone to fit that character, or to cast a performer and build a character around him/her. It goes both ways, and can work great both ways. Parks does seem like a show that was built in large part around performers, since it’s a star vehicle for Poehler, and filled out the cast with people like Rashida Jones and Ansari that the producers knew they wanted to work with.  Nick Offerman was someone they’d been trying to find a part for on The Office, without success, so they found a spot for him on the new show. That might help explain the show’s slow start (they couldn’t really know who these people were until they saw them in action, since the characters were conceived as excuses to use these people), as well as how much it took off once the writers could connect performer with character.