Michael Schur: ‘It’s a daily gut punch that people are anti-mask’

Perhaps it’s a symptom of only communicating over Zoom for two years, but I have noticed a direct correlation between the length of time that people keep you waiting at the start of a meeting and how good a person they are. One minute late? Maybe they’re having technical difficulties. Five minutes? Bit cheeky. Ten? Worse than Satan himself.

I’m telling you this because my interview with Michael Schur was due to start at 5pm. But , and I really can’t overstate how rare this is, he clicked online at 4:59. “I like to follow rules, man,” he shrugs when he realises how overjoyed I am at his punctuality.

As the creator of both Parks and Recreation and The Good Place – perhaps the two finest American sitcoms of the last decade – Schur’s love of rules has stood us all in good stead. Parks and Rec centred on Schur’s belief in the positive potential of proactive government. The Good Place, meanwhile, was even more forthright. It was an afterlife comedy, paced like a thriller, that explicitly asked what it meant to be a good person, based on criteria laid out by three millennia of moral philosophers. If the premise sounds dry, the show was wildly entertaining.

You could say something similar about Schur’s new book, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. It is his attempt to package everything he learned about moral philosophy during the making of The Good Place in as accessible a manner as possible. It’s an absolute breeze to read; funny and enlightening and revealing, despite its potentially heavy subject matter.

“Well, that was the impetus for doing it, and the show”, he explains from his home in California. “I realised that this is the most vital writing that’s ever been done by humans, and it’s dense and impenetrable. The way that I started to think of it was like these people were writing recipes for chocolate chip cookies that were delicious and healthy and would help you lose weight, but their recipes were 800 pages long and written in German”.

Spending an hour with Schur is an absolute salve. There’s something reassuringly paternal about how reasonable and inquisitive he is, and how unflappable in the face of moral confusion. This appears to be something that those around him revel in, too. “I have friends who send me texts like, ‘Hey, my cousin asked my brother to borrow money and it seems a little unethical’” he says. “People are going through their own moral quandaries, and I’ve become like an amateur expert to them.”

I have to confess that I fall prey to this myself during our time together, basically using him as a philosophical fortune-telling machine to help clarify issues I have struggled with. Inevitably, talk quickly turns to Covid.

How to Be Perfect touches on the pandemic a handful of times, but Schur admits that it was difficult not to make it the focus of the whole book. “The pandemic is a perfect way to discuss morality”, he says. “Every time you leave your house, you’re being faced with a bunch of moral choices that involve how you interact with other people, how you treat other people, what your responsibilities are, what other people’s responsibilities are at the family level, the local level, the state level, the national level, the international level. It’s pretty wild that it coincided with the book that I was writing about how to make better decisions.”

Overwhelmingly, a huge aspect of moral philosophy is understanding that we share the world with other people, and it serves everybody well to be decent, but the pandemic has also revealed hidden reserves of selfishness. Is there a philosophical explanation for not wearing a face mask?

“Ayn Rand is extremely popular because she is basically a ‘get out of jail free’ card for morality, right?” begins Schur. “She’s like, ‘No, actually, the more selfish you are the better off you are – and the better off the world is.’ Now, that is a truly and deeply bananas philosophy. It’s bananas on bananas. Yet because it’s so appealing to people who might be inclined to a selfish outlook, they have a moral basis for behaving that way.”

One of the issues, he explains, is our woolly definition of freedom. “It’s such an enormous word,” he continues. “There are no checks and balances on the concept of freedom. However, when your freedom impinges upon the health and safety of others, the natural thing would be to find a membrane where the limits of your freedom meet the wellbeing of others. But they’re screaming and yelling about not having to wear a mask in this McDonald’s and beating you over the head with an American flag. All the nuance is lost in those arguments.”

It’s hard not to be despondent. “It’s a real gut punch,” he nods. “It’s a daily gut punch that so many people have taken that position, because it just means that the lives of other people are uninteresting to them, and what else do we have? If you don’t care about anyone else, then what are we doing? What are we doing here?”

An entire chapter of How to Be Perfect is dedicated to a subject unlikely to have bothered Aristotle: how to separate art from the artist. We live in a world of problematic faves, and we still lack clear consensus on how to work through the ugliness that arises when someone whose work we love does something personally unforgivable. In the book, Schur talks about his lifelong admiration for Woody Allen, even going as far as crediting Sleeper for kickstarting his interest in comedy. (Allen has been accused of sexually assaulting his daughter Dylan in 1992; he denies the allegations, and was was cleared by two subsequent investigations.) Where are you with his work now, I ask.

“I think I can still enjoy the old Woody Allen movies that were meaningful to me,” he begins. “I think he’s artistically a genius. But the key is to not hide from the other stuff. When I watch his old movies, they still evoke memories of when I first watched them. But then some part of me is like, ‘Just remember the other stuff.’ It sucks because it means that, instead of enjoying them 100% I’m only enjoying them 74%, but I think the problem is that you can’t either ignore the reality of who the person is, or get rid of the work entirely. You’ve got to land somewhere in the middle.”

Having dealt with the bigger issues, I attempt to end the interview by steering back into lighter territory. One running joke in How to Be Perfect is Schur’s dislike for pineapple pizza. So imagine that I invited you to my house and unwittingly serve you Hawaiian pizza. What do you do? Would you eat it?

“First of all, thank you for breaking up probably the most important moral question of our times,” Schur laughs. What happens next is roughly the philosophical equivalent of watching Paul McCartney pull Get Back from thin air.

“The answer is yes, I would,” he says. “I would 100% eat it, and I wouldn’t say a word about it. I know this to be true because I’m a vegetarian.”

Oh God, I cringe, knowing that even in this hypothetical situation, I’ve committed an unforgivable crime.

“There have been times in my life where I’ve gone to someone’s home and forgotten to tell them that I’m a vegetarian, and they serve burgers or hot dogs or whatever,” he says. “The shame and the discomfort of saying, ‘Oh, I don’t eat meat,’ puts them in such an unpleasant position, so I never say anything. The importance of me spending this one meal out of all of the meals that I eat in my life as a strict vegetarian does not outweigh the social propriety of accepting the kind offer of a meal created for me by someone else. I don’t feel like I have compromised my entire value system because I had some chicken salad.”

At this point I start to feel bad about not asking if he ate meat before serving him an imaginary pizza.

“It’s fine,” he reassures me. “The world keeps spinning. Everything’s fine. I mean, afterwards, I’m definitely going to talk shit about you,” he adds. “Because anyone who likes Hawaiian pizza deserves to be talked shit about. Not even in a moral way. Just, what’s wrong with that guy if he thinks Hawaiian pizza is a good thing to serve someone?”

Michael Schur stops, having successfully interrogated the philosophical underpinnings of dinner etiquette. Your version of Curb Your Enthusiasm would be wildly different to Larry David’s, I say. “I don’t think it’d be that funny,” he laughs. “It’d just be a lot of like, ‘Well, actually, that’s a good point.’”

How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question is out now via Quercus

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