At the same time, he felt that as a comedy writer, he could bring a unique lens to the subject.
“The smartest people who ever lived have been working really hard for thousands of years to try to explain to us how we can be better people, and how we can improve ourselves, but they wrote so complicatedly and densely and opaquely that no one wants to engage with it,” Schur said. “It’s like a chef had come up with a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that were both delicious and also helped you lose weight, but the recipe was 600 pages long and written in German, and no one read it. And I thought, if we could just translate that to, like, a human language, this would be very helpful.”
In some ways, the topic felt unavoidable. Schur, 46, has been preoccupied with how to be a good person for as long as he can remember.
“I have been interested-in-slash-obsessed with the concept of ethics my whole life,” he said. “There have been moments when I’ve confronted something about my own behavior, where I realized I was behaving in a ethically questionable way, or had wandered into some complicated situation, that seemed like I would be better equipped to handle it if I knew what the hell I was talking about, ethically speaking.”
Writing a book about the quest for ethical perfection, Schur risked coming across as unbearably pedantic or worse, sanctimonious, but he grounds his overviews of abstract doctrines in self-deprecating digressions. He confesses he still has books by Woody Allen on his shelves and hasn’t been able to renounce him even after allegations of sexual abuse came to light. He describes the self-loathing he would feel whenever he left a tip at Starbucks but paused to make sure that the barista saw him do it. He agonizes over his privileged status as an educated, affluent white man, worries that his hybrid car is still bad for the environment and frets that the money he spends on baseball tickets and other luxuries could have gone to people in need. (He’s donating his earnings from the book to several charities and nonprofits, he said.)
Born in Ann Arbor, Mich., and raised in Connecticut in a casually Unitarian family, Schur has had a charmed career that he attributes to a series of lucky accidents, beginning with the day he stayed home sick from school and his mom let him watch Allen’s movie “Sleeper.” At Harvard, where he majored in English, he joined the Lampoon, a comedy magazine that has served as a pipeline for TV writers, and those connections helped him land a job as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” in 1998.
He was later hired as a writer for “The Office,” and around the third season, he signed an overall deal with NBCUniversal. He went on to cocreate “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” both wholesome workplace comedies. When the network gave him free rein to make a show about anything he wanted, he pitched “The Good Place.”