NBC’s Thursday-night comedy ABBY’S stars Natalie Morales as a military veteran who opens her own bar. But not just any bar – Abby’s is a proudly unlicensed establishment that’s under a canopy in the backyard of Abby’s rental home. It’s a big hit with the neighbors. New landlord Bill (Nelson Franklin) at first freaks out when he sees Abby’s, but Abby and her customers soon bring him around. Created by Josh Malmuth, ABBY’S has the distinction of being one of the very few television comedies ever shot for a live audience outdoors, rather than on a soundstage.
Michael Schur is one of the executive producers of ABBY’S. Schur worked as a writer/producer on the American version of THE OFFICE. Schur also co-created PARKS AND RECREATION and BROOKLYN NINE-NINE. He also created, solo, NBC’s extraordinary afterlife comedy THE GOOD PLACE, which ended its third season on a cliffhanger.
At a Q&A session for ABBY’S, Schur talks about the new series, but in a follow-up discussion with a small group of reporters, what will happen next on THE GOOD PLACE looms large.
Schur explains during the panel what drew him to ABBY’S as a project. “For me personally, it was just Josh, who I’ve known for a while. He has worked with my wife [writer/producer J.J. Philbin] on a number of shows, and he said, ‘I have this idea,’ and I liked the idea. And that is about the extent to which I think about things like that. The idea seemed cool, and immediately, it was like we could actually try to shoot this outside. The biggest selling point for me was, that would be different and interesting and weird and fun. And so that is as far as the calculation got on my part was, I like to try new things, because it’s fun to do that, so you don’t get bored. And this seemed like a good idea. I like Josh, and we could do it outside. That was the entirety of my internal calculus on this. And then as it went along, it just got more and more fun. Natalie was on PARKS AND RECREATION, and I’ve known her for a long time. And I’ve always loved and admired Neil [Flynn, who costars as Abby’s customer Fred]. Neil is an actor that, even if you don’t realize it, you have loved him for a very long time. He has been really fun for a very long time, and he disappears. It’s crazy to say this, because he’s 7’8” [Flynn is actually 6’5”], but he disappears into these comedy roles.”
Flynn had just wrapped up starring in nine seasons of the ABC comedy THE MIDDLE, which made him available at exactly the right time for ABBY’S, Schur adds. “At the time we were casting this pilot, my daughter, who was eight years old, got really into THE MIDDLE. THE MIDDLE was on our TV all the time, and I was having this feeling, like, goddamn, Neil Flynn is so funny. And then suddenly, that was the right guy for the role. So these things have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies a little bit. If you just like an idea and you commit to it, and you try to put it together with good faith and good intentions, fun things happen. And that’s sort of the story of the show, for me, at least.”
Since ABBY’S is set largely in a bar, and deals mainly with the proprietor and the regulars, is Schur concerned about comparisons to CHEERS? “I would say that when Josh and I were beginning to plan the show, we were acutely aware of the fact that, no matter what we did, the show would be compared to CHEERS, would be seen through the filter and the lens of CHEERS. And that was really freeing, because we still were like, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter, right? We could cast all ninety-year-old women, and people will still go, “That’s kind of like Sam”.’ There’s nothing you can do. So we stopped trying. We stopped caring about trying to outflank that inevitable comparison. We just decided to do what I have learned in my life is always the thing to do, which is cast the best people for the parts, regardless of who they are, or what they look like, or anything. So that was what we did. Natalie was the best person to play this part; we cast Natalie. Neil was the best person to play his part; we cast Neil. But if you see similarities, that’s great, because in my opinion, I’ve said this many times, CHEERS is the best show, and that’s the best cast, and it was the best written, and it was the best acted show in the history at least of comedy.”
Why do bars work so well as a comedy setting? Schur replies, “The draw, to me, is simple, which is, every comedy show, at some level, is just about getting a bunch of funny people in the same place, right? And so the draw of the bar, to me, especially an outdoor bar that’s in someone’s backyard, was immediately evident to me. The regularity of the woman next door who has kids and comes over at the end of every night when her kids are asleep to just have a couple or seven glasses of wine before she goes to sleep, and the idea of a woman starting that bar in her backyard, just because she had worked a bunch of other places and didn’t like the way she was treated, the way that people told her what to do, it all fell very naturally into place. It was like, if the goal is to get a bunch of funny people in the same place, this is a very simple way to do it. They’re so much in the same place, they sit in the same seats every day. So that was the easy sell for me. You never have to worry about how to arrange a story so that everybody collides and interacts with each other, because they’re just there all the time.”
ASSIGNMENT X: The premise of ABBY’S hinges on being able to keep an actual bar running in a backyard without getting shut down by the police. How realistic is this?
MICHAEL SCHUR: Well, there are real unlicensed bars in people’s houses. The idea came from [series creator] Josh Malmuth visiting a situation exactly like that in New Orleans. They do exist in the world. The street that we shoot on, Wisteria Lane [previously used in DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, on the Universal Studios lot], ends in a cul-de-sac. We’re at the end of a cul-de-sac. And on one side of the house we’re shooting in is the house that Beth [Abby’s neighbor and bar patron, played by Jessica Chaffin] lives in, ostensibly. And on the other side, it’s mostly forest and woods. We walked it out, and we’re like, ‘This could happen.’ If you paid off the neighbors, and if one of the neighbors was one of your best customers, you could probably pull this off. We play the music pretty low, it’s not super-disruptive, it’s on the edge of a cliff, so there’s no one else around. And that was important to us. ‘Is this possible, could this really happen?’ And we determined that it was. And I won’t hear no for an answer.
AX: And if a police helicopter flew over it, it would just look like there was a canopy in the yard …
SCHUR: Well, I don’t want to give any spoilers, but at one point, in one episode, Bill, who’s very nervous about being caught, comes up with a plan for how to deal with a potential situation in which the police show up, and he actually executes the plan, and the plan is successful. So it’ll be answered for you.
AX: Someone had joked about doing crossovers with ABBY’S and another show of yours, SUPERSTORE. Can you do crossovers with SUPERSTORE and ABBY’S with THE GOOD PLACE? Maybe somebody gets bonked on the head and has a near-death experience?
SCHUR: You’re saying crossovers between THE GOOD PLACE and another show? That will never happen. [laughs] I want to make this very clear – that will never happen. End of story. I’m literally drawing a shower curtain between the universe and that idea.
AX: D’Arcy Carden, who plays Janet on THE GOOD PLACE, posted a photo on the Internet of her as Janet with Little Sebastian, the miniature horse from PARKS AND RECREATION. Does that count as any kind of a crossover?
SCHUR: Part of the fun of doing the show has been just for literally no reason to drop PARKS AND REC Easter Eggs into THE GOOD PLACE. And we’ve done it, I don’t know, a dozen times. And that was a total coincidence. That was for an episode of THE GOOD PLACE where all the animals are walking around. We decided just for old times’ sake to get Little Sebastian back. And then D’Arcy took that photo and said, ‘Can I post this?’ And one of our producers said, ‘If she posts that, it will break the Internet.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, go ahead, who cares?’ [laughs] So I like the idea that Little Sebastian is floating around in Heaven somewhere, and being attended to by Janet. That’s a nice thought to have. But it’s not a crossover.
AX: How has THE GOOD PLACE writers’ room been gearing up for Season 4?
SCHUR: [Initially], just panicking, just white-hot panic.
AX: Is it fun on THE GOOD PLACE to write yourself into a corner and then have to find your way out of it?
SCHUR: Yeah. That’s fun in every show. But it’s the most fun in [THE GOOD PLACE]. Because it’s insane. The corners of the show are the most insane corners, so the first two weeks of every year, except for Season 1, have been all of the writers just staring blankly at each other, and then quietly getting in our cars and driving home.
AX: With Chidi, played by William Jackson Harper, having had part of his memory wiped, so that he experiences the quasi-Good Place as if he’s never been there before, are you going back full circle to first season in some ways?
SCHUR: Yeah, in a way we are, by design. But there are some key differences. Like in this case, there’s only one person that won’t remember what is going on, and there are a lot of different power dynamics. But the idea is always to change everything, and somehow still do the same show that people have been watching, so hopefully that’s what happens this year, too.
AX: Which character or storyline are you most excited to explore next season on THE GOOD PLACE?
SCHUR: Well, I would say it’s equally split between the romantic stories and the actual plot. The plot is so fun – just the basic, what’s going to happen to all of humanity is a pretty good question to be asking in terms of a plot, but I really like the romances, Eleanor [played by Kristen Bell] and Chidi, and Janet and Jason [played by Manny Jacinto], and so I think it’s probably an even split, I would say.
AX: Do you up the ante for D’Arcy Carden every season?
SCHUR: We have a few things. I don’t know if we’ll ever achieve anything that’s bigger, you would say, than her literally playing every character in the show [as she did in the episode “Janet[s]”], but the most fun part about writing for an actor like D’Arcy Carden is that the world is your oyster, and you get to dream up insane scenarios to play, and we have a couple that I think are going to be pretty fun.
AX: You have brought in Chidi’s old girlfriend Simone, played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and gossip writer John, played by Brandon Scott Jones, who is poised to aggravate the character of Tahani, played by Jameela Jamil. Are Eleanor and Jason going to have problem visitors as well?
SCHUR: The idea is that the Bad Place chose people who were specifically meant to smart-bomb the lives of the four main humans. So Tahani didn’t know that guy John at all, she’d never met him, but he was there to torture her. In Chidi’s case, obviously, Simone was someone he actually knew, so the rule is, they were chosen because they’re specifically bad for the four humans. [The Bad Place] wouldn’t have known that [Chidi was going to get his memory wiped], so Eleanor has another one on the way.
AX: Is it weird for you that most of the follow-up questions for this panel on ABBY’S are about THE GOOD PLACE?
SCHUR: When I was here for PARKS AND REC, all the questions were about THE OFFICE, when I was here for BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, all the questions were about PARKS AND REC. It’s just what happens.
AX: What would you most like people to know about ABBY’S?
SCHUR: That it’s really good, and funny, and the cast is wonderful. And that it’s worth watching.
This interview was conducted during NBC’s portion of the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
Related: Interview with THE GOOD PLACE director Drew Goddard
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Article: THE GOOD PLACE and ABBY’S: Interview with executive producer Michael Schur plus the scoop on Season 4 of THE GOOD PLACE