The Good Place Creator Michael Schur on How He Made Philosophy a Pop Culture Phenomenon
I wanted to know if The Good Place’s creator Mike Schur had actually read all those books—and whether he thinks we should too.
I’ve called you under false
pretenses: I actually just want to talk about Ted Danson. Is he as amazing as I think he is—please don’t break my heart and tell me he’s not.
He's more awesome than you're imagining. Whatever you're imagining, it's more than that. He calls me on the phone sometimes just to tell me that he had a really nice day at work, that he was really grateful to me for putting him in the show.
When we were first doing casting, I texted Seth Myers, because Seth and he are friends and I
Mike Schur, with
microphone, talks with the cast of The Good Place, from left: William Jackson Harper, Kristen Bell, D'Arcy Carden, Ted Danson, Manny Jacinto, and Jameela Jamil
That’s all I needed. Thank you for your time… Ok, I also want to ask you about
class on the show. The show takes place in this alternate reality where there's no real poverty. There's happy TV wealth, but none of it is supposed to look real. Your four characters come from vastly different backgrounds, and have very different resources, and that’s going to be a big part of their moral decision making.
It's very plainly not fair to expect the same actions out of the richest man in the world and the poorest person in the world. That's insane.
To me, it's entirely dependent on the circumstances of the person doing the action. Now it depends on what the action is, it depends on the results of the action, it depends on the intention of the action, blah, blah, blah, but it's very plainly not fair to expect the same actions out of the richest man in the world and the poorest person in the world. That's insane. No reasonable system would expect those two people to behave the same given the same circumstances, nor would that reasonable system expect that the rich person deserves, in some way, the same amount of credit for doing something very simple.
Let's say the action is giving a dollar to a charity. Well, for Jeff Bezos, who has 165 billion of those dollars, that action is utterly worthless. That's insane to give him any credit for giving one dollar to a charity. But, if it's a person how makes four dollars a month, and that person takes one dollar and gives it to a local orphanage, that's insane. That's 25
Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, Kristen Bell, and William Jackson Harper with Maya Rudolph
Peter Singer wrote this thing about Buffett when he pledged $30 billion to the Gates' Foundation. He said, "People are saying Warren Buffett is now the greatest philanthropist of all
Yes, and there’s the broader question of whether charitable donations are even the right way to evaluate goodness here. if you plundered the world for $60 billion, if you’ve helped shift an economy away from stability, jobs with benefits, a system where corporations have an obligation to their workers over a lifetime, to one where no one's accountable to anybody's long term prosperity, do you have an obligation that goes beyond just giving half your money to malaria research, not that there's anything wrong with giving half of it to malaria research. That's great.
To me, you owe somebody something. No matter what you owe a bunch of people something, and when you are the richest man in the world, you have
When you are the richest man in the world, you have extreme responsibility to the world you live in to pay it back for some of what you've achieved.
The person who eventually automates the trucking industry is going to be responsible for millions of people being out of work, almost instantly. So, now the question is, you're going to make a ton of money off of automating the trucking industry, now, how are you going to balance the world.
Let's back up: How much required reading is there to be a writer on this show? Did you have a reading list before you get started? Did someone come in and do a seminar on philosophy?
So, I did a bunch of reading on my own while I was conceiving of the pilot and before anybody got anywhere close to meeting in a room. I was like, "I have thousands of gaps big and small in my education about this stuff, and I just need to plug them as quickly as possible." I read a bunch of surveys, just books that were like, "Here's the entire history of western philosophy in 400 pages," that kind of thing. I also then got specific about stuff as I would make notes. I had a big document and as I would make notes to myself, I would keep seeing the same names come up over and over again, and I would go, "Okay, well this seems like the thing I need to read that's a little more specific about this area."
Tahani, Eleanor, Jason, and Chidi
I’m so relieved to hear you read surveys. Thank god for a summary.
What I would just say to people, "You can either read all of What We Owe to Each Other by Tim Scanlon, which is incredibly difficult to read, it’s a real slog, or you can read the six paragraph Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on that book, which will probably give you enough to get by."
When I hired the writing staff, I wrote a 20,
Chidi and Eleanor
What I said to the writers was, "You are under no obligation to read any of this stuff. This isn't homework, this is not assigned reading. There will be no pop quizzes. However, these are fun, big, meaty, chewy issues and I think what's going to make this show really fun is if we can really not pull our punches, actually try to work this stuff in."
Did you study philosophy in college? Was this your big moment to unleash your senior thesis
on the world?
No, I was an English major. I think I took three philosophy classes in college. I liked it though. I thought it was fun. It didn't end up becoming my thing, and I am now
The path that got me here is very odd. It was just an idea that I liked, that I had. My first round of research that I did, I read a bunch of books about different conceptions of the afterlife. They're all currently sitting on the shelf behind me staring at me and mocking me, because I read about Manichaeism and I read about Muslim beliefs of the afterlife and I read about Christian beliefs of the afterlife and I spent a lot of time on it and it was very interesting, but then I realized that it was pointless because this show is not about religion, it was about ethics.
Those of us who aren't murderers or saints, we have this gray fog where you're like, am I good or bad? Am I a thumbs up or thumbs down? Am I a 73 on the meta critic scale of humanity or an 82 or a 56? What's the difference and why?
I kind of wasted two months doing religious after life conception research and then, it was by doing that, that I had the realization that what I wanted to explore was ethics, so I switched over and that's how I got here. It wasn't like the culmination of my long 20-year plan to unleash moral philosophy onto pop culture. Quite the opposite.
So the writers don’t have a required reading list?
No. The writers are a bunch of smarty pants, and they did their own reading, and they researched stuff and they'd send me things—Hey, listen to this Radiolab episode, or listen to this lecture that I read or look at this thing that this futurist said about the whatever. They enjoy doing their own stuff.
A panel discussion of the Good Place writers, from left: Marc Evan Jackson, Mike Schur, Megan Amram, Jen Statsky, Josh Siegal, Dylan Morgan, Matt Murray, Cord Jefferson, Kassia Miller, Dan Schofield, Andrew Law, Chris Encell, and Rae Sanni last month in Hollywood.
At one point, one of our writers, Dan Schofield, found this book called Death by philosopher Todd May. It’s a meditation on what it would mean to be ethical if you were immortal, basically. What happens to the concept of morality if you're immortal and why is it that death gives shape to our lives? It's a wonderful, 150-page book and I read it and was like, "Oh my God this is
He was in, I don't know, Denmark or Norway or something at a conference, and I asked him a million questions and he gave me a million answers, and he's a delightful guy and luckily for us, his entire career has been devoted to the idea that you can do rigid academic philosophy in a way that, as he puts it, "Any smart person ought to be able to understand."
That’s pretty much the premise of
The Good Place right there.
We have two academic advisors. He's one of them, and the other one is a woman named Pamela Hieronymi. She teaches at UCLA and Tim Scanlon was her thesis advisor. I wrote to her and was like, "Can I pick your brain?" And we went and met for coffee in Santa Monica and I asked her a million questions and she came in and gave us a lecture on the trolley problem, which is the thing that she teaches in her intro class. So when we were doing the trolley problem episode, she came in and walked us through the trolley problem, which was really fun.
Eleanor, Chidi, and Michael find themselves in a trolly problem
The “Trolley Problem” is another example of something I think about a lot when watching
The Good Place. In a vacuum, moral philosophy and a popular television sitcom are at the polar ends of the cultural spectrum. Philosophy can feel maddeningly abstract and dry—divorced from the weirdness of the real world. But on The Good Place, these are not hypothetical paradigms, they're the set up for a show. The trolley problem is real—all of a sudden you're on the trolley. All of a sudden, your characters are immortal beings. Turns out TV is the best way to make philosophy not a hypothetical question.
My personal frustration with philosophy is really just that it's too hard and too abstract. I find it all fascinating. I really enjoy reading about it, but you can get lost very quickly. I mean, you can learn about Rawls' veil of ignorance pretty easily in its basic form. I could explain it to anyone in two or three sentences. But Rawls didn't write two or three sentences about it; he wrote a 600-page book about it, and if you try to read that 600-page book, it'll be like, "What the fuck am I looking at?" So, basically, the fun of this has been that Eleanor and Jason and to some extent Tahani and other people in the show, even Michael, they get to express my-our views on how annoying philosophy can be.
And then further, we get to take the abstract concepts that we're reading about and turn them into actual jokes. They can be on an actual trolley, murdering actual people who are working on actual tracks, and it's purely for fun and sport. It’s visual, but it's also the idea that it's one thing to sit around in a dark room somewhere in Germany in the 1700s and muse out loud about categorical imperatives and stuff. It's quite another thing to just live in the world and move around the world and interact with people and try to enact your beliefs.
Todd May told us this really funny story which was that he became a very strict existentialist when he was in college or grad school. In Sartrian existentialism, it's basically all you are is your choices. That's all people are, is just a series of choices. People would say, "Hey man, do you want to go to this party tonight?" And he wouldn't just say, "No, I don't want to," or "I'm busy," or whatever, because he felt like that was what Sartre would call philosophical suicide. That would have been him hedging or not being truthful or honest or whatever. So instead he would say, "I choose not to go to the party."
That’s a very Chidi thing to do.
Yes! And of course it was really annoying and everyone kind of rolled their eyes at him and he wasn't very popular, because putting actual existentialism into practice is annoying. The fun for us has been to take these complicated ideas, show the impossibility of living them. The important thing isn't, are you living a life of pure Kantian thanatology. What's important is, are you just trying to become a good person? Are you thinking about it? Is it something that matters to you? Are you attempting to improve yourself or be kind or be generous or be curious about the world and TV actually is a good medium for that because it's additive and cumulative. You get to do episode after episode, after episode and track the character's progress as they move along and try to make their lives better.
Another thing I keep thinking about is that one of the tensions of the show is that knowledge won't save you. Chidi is the most ethically constipated person in the world. He can't do anything because he's read everything.
Yes. I think specifically the point I would say is, knowledge alone will not save you. Eleanor has the opposite problem. Eleanor has zero language and a really good gut. We like to talk about her antenna a lot—she has
Right. And then I feel like Jason and Tahani are the two poles of truth. Jason has no guile—he can’t think a thing without saying out loud. And Tahani has fooled everybody including herself.
That's right. Her whole problem is motivation. In her mind, the reason she never questioned for a second whether or not she belonged in
One of the worst trends in the world to me is this thing where people will do something extravagant and then they'll take an equal amount of money and donate it to a charity, like a global warming charity. It's like a weird, medieval paying for your sins thing. I mean, obviously, it's good to donate that money to charity, but you can’t buy yourself out of sin.
Eleanor and Michael
There's a moment in this season where Jason holds up a little sack of money and he says, "Man, there were so many times in my life when this amount of money would've helped me so much." It's an amount of money that Tahani wouldn't think twice about and it's our little way of saying, we understand that the ability to ask these questions and discuss them, means that you're doing pretty well.
We try not to ever forget that it's an extreme luxury to be able to have time and energy and money to even pose these questions and chew on them.
You're not starving, You're not sick. There's a certain level at which it's a luxury to be able to ask these questions and we're trying both for ourselves and for the characters, not to ever forget that it's an extreme luxury to be able to have time and energy and money to even pose these questions and chew on them.
I feel like in the show, you're mostly evaluating goodness, not badness. You're not judging people's crimes so much. There's some discussion of Eleanor being a selfish person or hurting people or whatever, but nobody is bad because they've done bad things.
At the extreme ends of the spectrum, everyone agrees on things that are universally bad and universally good. Murder is bad. Loving your children is good. That applies to everyone. It's not that interesting to get into that. That's why in our show, the four main people are not murderers or arsonists, nor are they the most
All right. Well, I think we've discussed all of the issues.
We did it, we fixed everything.
Now I just have to pray that my recorder worked. I have a lot of anxiety about whether I’ve successfully recorded things. I’m convinced everyone has a better system than I do, but I don’t really think that’s true. I feel like so much of the world is explained by the fact that we all think that other people are doing it in some super professional, hyper elaborate technical way, but in fact, everybody is just ... everything is janky and held together with duct tape. Like in the first episode of this season, I love the janky computer room that demons are in. That’s such a true picture of how things really work.
Yeah, the entire world, at every level, every business, every organization, every military operation, every plan, everything, is the equivalent of a six power strips plugged into one power strip that's plugged into the wall.
I’m going to actually end this there. That’s perfect
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors