The untold truth of Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation quietly became a cult favorite thanks to its cast of quirky, eclectic characters and hilarious one-liners. The show premiered in 2009 and ended its run in 2015, yet the Emmy-winning comedy continues to earn more and more fans thanks to streaming services. Whether you're a devoted super fan who'd love to move to the mythical community of Pawnee, Ind. or a relative newcomer who can't get enough of this particular brand of bureaucracy, we've got all the behind-the-scenes details and dirt to juice up your coffee ... or Snake Juice. 

Which stars' real-life talents made their way onto the show? Who wasn't intended to enjoy a long story arc on the hit series, and who jumped ship early? Believe it or not, there was even a time when the show's entire future was in jeopardy. From epic improvisations to highfalutin Easter eggs, this is the untold truth of Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation was inspired by The Office and The West Wing

It's probably no surprise that Parks and Recreation was initially conceived as a spin-off of The Office. With its low-key tone, hyper realism, and mockumentary format, Parks and Recreation looks a lot like The Office. The two hit TV series also have cast member Rashida Jones in common, and both shows sprung from the minds of Office writer Michael Schur and creator Greg Daniels. But how much do you really know about Parks and Recreation's birth story?

In 2008, reports surfaced that SNL star Amy Poehler was considering joining a spin-off of The Office, alongside comedian Aziz Ansari. Soon after, Deadline reported that Daniels resisted NBC's request for a pure spin-off in favor of a show that was just stylistically similar. At one point, that series was going to be called Public Servicebefore producers settled on Parks and Recreation.

The series also drew inspiration from another acclaimed NBC predecessor: The West Wing – the White House-set drama that co-starred Rob Lowe as presidential adviser Sam Seaborn. Lowe claims the brain trust incorporated his old show's DNA into his new show. "When the Parks and Recreation producers were asked to develop a spinoff for The Office, they said, 'Let's do the comedy version of West Wing," Lowe told Entertainment Weekly. "I thought, 'Wow, that makes perfect sense.' It seemed like a good fit."

Parks and Recreation made big changes after Season 1

Despite a team of veteran hit-makers from The Office and a cast full of comedic heavy-hitters such as Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, and Chris Pratt, the first season of Parks and Recreation was not an instant classic. "The series doesn't jell out of the gate," critic Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (via Rotten Tomatoes). Brian Lowry of Variety said the show "seems inherently limited by what its protagonist has in abundance — imagination." David Hinckley of the New York Daily News said the series wasn't "ready for primetime."

Maybe it wasn't, because after its first season of six poorly-reviewed episodes in the spring of 2009, Parks and Recreation underwent a massive retooling. "It was like a discovery period..." writer Norm Hiscock told Uproxx. "In the second season we just decided we would embrace that she's a do-gooder, she loves her job and she wants to be the face of good government." In the middle of Season 2, the show changed even more, adding actor Adam Scott as geeky former teen mayor turned Deputy City Manager Ben Wyatt and Rob Lowe as health-obsessed City Manager Chris Traeger.

Chris Pratt was only supposed to be a guest star

Chris Pratt played lovable goofball Andy Dwyer, a role that originally wasn't supposed to last more than a handful of episodes, but according to GQ, because Pratt played the character with such "wide-eyed, open-hearted glee," producers decided to keep him on the show through its season finale.

Towards the end of Parks and Recreation's run, Pratt's star in Hollywood rose exponentially, thanks to roles in movies ranging from Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy to the Osama bin Laden drama Zero Dark Thirty. Despite becoming a mega-movie star, Pratt never considered ditching the show that made him famous. "That would never happen. I would never f**king ever leave this show!" he said at a Television Critics Association press event in 2015, per IGN.

Nick Offerman can actually play the sax

Speaking of Ron Swanson, fans know that the stern, yet tender character had a stage name on the show as slick and sexy saxophonist Duke Silver, leader of the Duke Silver Trio. What many may not know is that Offerman actually can play the sax in real life.

Series creator Mike Schur told Pop Sugar, "The Duke Silver saxophone playing is also a real-life Nick Offerman thing. Nick really plays the saxophone, that's really him playing in the episode from season two ... There's no end. We could probably just base episodes around Nick Offerman's real-life skills and have a long and happy run." Funny enough, writers didn't know about Offerman's hidden talent when they wrote it into the show. "It's funny, there's a real simpatico with the writers and myself," Offerman said, according to TV.com.

Some of Parks and Recreation's most epic moments were improvised

What do the following Parks and Recreation bits have in common? An ill Chris (Rob Lowe) orders his body to "stop pooping." Andy (Chris Pratt) enters Leslie's (Amy Poehler) flu symptoms into the URL bar of a web browser and diagnoses her with "network connectivity problems." The Parks Department staff goes off the rails under the influence of the brutal liquor known as Snake Juice. Not only are these three of the funniest (and most famous) sequences in the entirety of Parks and Recreation, but they were also all improvised. 

At a cast reunion at PaleyFest 2019, creator and showrunner Michael Schur discussed "fun runs," a shooting policy wherein the crew tried to leave five minutes at the end of the shooting of a scene "for the actors to just do whatever they want." Once in a while, those improv explosions would generate new lines and new jokes, and then cast and crew would shoot the scene again with that spontaneous golden material. "It deeply bums me out that I'm a writer, and I should be able to write things that are as good as this," Schur quipped. Amy Poehler reportedly directed the episode where everyone gets drunk on Snake Juice, and the cast's wild behavior (including reserved Ron Swanson dancing while wearing a tiny hat) was all part of a concerted attempt to get Poehler to laugh.

Jim O'Heir (aka Jerry/Gary/Larry) tried to be Ron Swanson

Jim O'Heir plays the character everyone else loved to make fun of, Jerry Gergich. While it's hard to imagine O'Heir in any other role, he originally auditioned to play Ron Swanson. "You never know who's going to be in a room for an audition, so I always try to be prepared," Gergich told Uproxx. "I had heard Greg Daniels was going to be in the room. That adds to the pressure. I put in a lot of time into the audition process. I think my take was stern like Nick, but I feel like I was more affable."

The role, of course, went to Gergich's eventual co-star, Nick Offerman. In retrospect, Gergich admits the show made the right choice. "The thought of anyone else playing the character other than Nick Offerman is beyond absurd," he said. "I would like to see the tape now, just to see how I did it. But I remember laughing a few times, which is very much not who Ron turned out to be."

Amy Poehler prompted the show's unexpected time jump

At the end of Season 6, Parks and Recreation unexpectedly jumped three years into the future. The sudden time lapse was jarring for a number of reasons, particularly because actress Amy Poehler's character had become pregnant with triplets. As it turns out, babies played a key role in the decision to fast-forward the script. 

"I saw Amy Poehler at Aziz Ansari's birthday party and she was like, 'I'm not working with babies, so I told them we're doing a time jump so I don't have to work with babies,'" co-star Retta told Vulture. "She was like, 'I just had two kids. I've had my share of babies for the last three years. I'm not doing another year of babies. Especially triplets.'"

That decision wound up opening doors creatively for the show. "It seemed like a way to skip the slightly tired sitcom stories of, 'They're new parents and their sleepless nights are so crazy!'" writer Michael Schur told Yahoo!. "We could skip the pregnancy, the birth, all that stuff. And also just in general, the idea of Leslie taking a new job, we'd already seen that ... So it was like, 'Oh, we can skip three years of that!'"

Nick Offerman really loves woodworking

Nick Offerman's character, Ron Swanson, is an avid carpenter on the show. Interestingly enough, Offerman actually has his own woodworking business called Offer, which he runs with his lookalike dad, Ric Offerman. The company is based out of the actor's wood shop in East Los Angeles, which offers everything from tables to storage to bedroom sets and even boats. Offerman also wrote a book, Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Fundamentals for Delicious Living, in which he talks about his love of woodworking.

He has used his skills with lumber and various saws to spread goodwill both personally and professionally. Alongside his Parks and Recreation co-star Amy Poehler, Offerman hosts the NBC crafting competition reality show Making It. The actor also attended a Parks and Recreation 10-year anniversary cast panel event at PaleyFest 2019, where it was revealed that after the show wrapped, Offerman sent his fellow Pawnee performers a very special, one-of-a-kind gift. He stole some doors from the Parks Department set, took them book to his woodworking shop, and fashioned them into canoe panels for everyone, finished off with the Pawnee city seal.

Did the show throw Mark Brendanawicz in the pit?

Parks and Recreation featured another huge change in its early days. In the beginning, Leslie Knope is still into her ex, a city planner named Mark Brendanawicz, played by prolific indie movie actor Paul Schneider. As the series changed, that character grew incredibly pointless. "I signed up for a specific character that was changed in mid-season," Schneider told ScreenCrush. "And, all of a sudden, I was kind of confused and kind of having a lot less to do." 

Schneider walked away from the show after the end of its second season, which made the writing staff rethink its long-term plans. Co-creator Michael Schur told the Los Angeles Times that he'd based the Mark character on a government employee he'd met while researching the show. "His career had a very interesting trajectory, which is he worked for the government for a long time as a city planner and he got so fed up with the lifestyle and the red tape and the bureaucracy, that he ... moved into the private sector," only to get sick of that and return to government work. Schur had intended for Mark to follow a similar path over the course of Parks and Recreation.

The slide that is being presented to you now is the one about Perd Hapley

Parks and Recreation built up an extended universe of strange Pawnee residents. One of the most memorable was Perd Hapley — the incompetent, grammar-butchering local newsman and host of Ya Herd? With Perd. He at least tries to sound like a serious reporter with his verbose sentence construction: "This is where the controversy of this story gets even more controversial."

Actor Jay Jackson portrayed Perd, a role that probably came easy to him, considering he's played characters credited as "Anchor," "News Anchor," Reporter," "TV Host," "Field Reporter," or "Newscaster" nearly two dozen times in everything from Scandal to Pretty Little Liars to The Orville to Dexter. "People would say [I'm] typecast," Jackson told NPR. "Well, it's not typecast. It's all I know how to do." He's not joking. 

Jackson is a former news reporter who spent 22 years covering breaking news for Los Angeles TV station KCAL9. Jackson also runs a service that helps young reporters make demo reels — they play reporters covering mock news stories with Jackson as the anchor. 

The Cones of Dunshire became a real thing

Parks and Recreation character Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) is a man of passion. He's really into '90s band Letters to Cleo, calzones, Game of Thrones, and table-top games. During a brief period of unemployment in Season 6, he utilizes his love of games to create "a brand-new gaming experience" — a bewildering, inscrutable, prop-heavy concoction called The Cones of Dunshire. Among its intricacies: Eight to 12 players (some of whom are "warriors," "wizards," or "mavericks") roll dice to see how many dice they'll roll. The goal is to acquire cones by building a civilization. It all seems too comically absurd to ever be a workable game, and yet people keep trying to make a real-world version of The Cones of Dunshire.

Settlers of Catan publisher Mayfair Games, which built the game at the behest of the show, even attempted a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a retail version. It fell short of its target, but at GenCon 2014 in Indiana, Mayfair offered exactly 33 tickets to fans who wanted to play. All those tickets sold, even at a price of $100 each. Proceeds were donated to the Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana.

Octavia Spencer auditioned for the role of Donna Meagle

According to Laughspin, the actress known as Retta wasn't the only woman who auditioned to play the hilarious Donna Meagle on Parks and Recreation. "My manager called and said they were casting a pilot," she revealed. "Octavia Spencer and a lot of other of my 'types' were there."

Of course, Spencer's career turned out just fine. About three years after Parks and Recreation premiered, she won an Oscar for her role on The Help. A few years after that, she was nominated for a second Oscar for Hidden Figures. Plus, if Twitter is any indication, Spencer and Retta are friends in real life, which begs the question, where is their TV show?

Parks and Recreation is laced with Infinite Jest references

Generally speaking, novels are regarded as "high culture" and TV sitcoms as "low culture." Parks and Recreation is one of the classier, artistically significant TV comedies, but a sitcom nonetheless. However, it does have an episode full of references to David Foster Wallace's acclaimed, complicated, 1,079-page 1996 novel Infinite Jest. Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur is a devotee of the postmodern classic, which Time called one of the best novels of the past 100 years. At one point, Schur even owned the movie rights to the book, but, seeing as how Infinite Jest is probably far too gargantuan and detailed to ever commit to film, he did the next best thing: paid tribute via an episode of his TV show. 

In the 2013 Parks installment titled "Partridge," Infinite Jest references abound. Ben and Leslie visit Ben's hometown of Partridge, Minn. (a character in Jest is from Partridge, Kan.) Ron deals with a lawsuit served by the firm of Gately, Wayne, Kittenplan, and Troeltsch (Those are all Jest character names). Ben is treated for kidney stones at a hospital named after Jest debt collector Gene Fackelman, and parents-to-be Ann and Chris take the Incandenza-Pemulis Parenting Compatibility Quiz, which also draws its name from characters in the novel.

Chris Pratt is the comeback kid

With this many comedians and funny people in a cast, there are bound to be some bloopers, and Chris Pratt was the Parks and Recreation set's king of such mischief. In one outtake, Andy Dwyer (Pratt) is supposed to propel himself over a counter and then get rid of a briefcase he wasn't supposed to swipe by tossing it. Somehow, Pratt manages to nail a light switch with the projectile, turning off the lights. Co-star Rob Lowe calls the act "f***ing hilarious." 

Another time, Pratt really needed to let some gas escape during filming ... so he waited until the cameras were rolling to release just about the wettest fart ever captured by recording equipment. Or maybe it was a bit more than that. Pratt jokes that he "s*** his pants on camera." 

Pratt is also responsible for an absolutely filthy bit of improvisation that caused just about the entire Parks and Recreation cast to break character. That one is not necessarily suitable for government work — or any work — so we'll just leave the clip right here