I am an evangelist. Once I find something that I like, I completely devour it and all media around it, and then set on a path of converting as many people as possible. My dedication is intense and all-encompassing and I’m sure some will call it just a smidgen psychotic. I’m okay with that.
When I found out that two of my favorite causes – NBC’s Parks and Recreation and The Memory Palace podcast (an addictive, witty and always moving collection of history that has fallen through the cracks of your schoolbooks) – were connected in a most unexpected way, I was ridiculous giddy. The book Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America was introduced in the Season Four episode “Born and Raised,” as Deputy Director Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) embarks on a small tour to promote the release. However, being a fictional character (it’s hard to believe that sometimes, I know), real-life writers needed to be drafted. Nate DiMeo, journalist and The Memory Palace creator, joined the writing team of Parks and Recreation to craft Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America, a historical look at the fictional town of the NBC series. I knew that the combination of his storytelling and the Parks and Rec writers that create new facets of Pawnee every week would be utterly brilliant.
Nate discusses the initial ideas for the book, how everything had to go through the Leslie filter, and why mini-horse Li’l Sebastian is a lot like waffles.
How did you get involved in writing the Pawnee book?
I’m a friend of [Parks and Rec creator and Executive Producer] Mike Schur. Mike’s wife, JJ Philbin, and my wife, [Leila Gerstein, The CW’s Heart of Dixie creator,] wrote together on The OC. [Through] couples-and-work related things, Mike and I both realized that we like a lot of the same stuff, have a lot of favorite books in common, and have the Boston Red Sox in common, and are just generally copasetic across the board.
At some point, [Parks and Rec creator] Greg Daniels thought it would be fun to do a low-key fake photo book about Pawnee like Arcadia Press put outs — like Westchester County, [New York] in the old days. I think Mike thought it would be cool if the ridiculous Pawnee history was grounded or echoed in real history. He’s a fan of Memory Palace, and he thought that I would be good at doing that.
We kind of talked about that briefly, but then the possibility of doing it grew larger, Hyperion was involved and Mike was very into the idea of doing a tie in episode, because it was a perfectly natural thing for Leslie to be writing. He knew he could write a funny episode and relished the idea where Leslie wrote this book because she loves her town so much.
I came on board to engrain very specific Memory Palace skills to this thing. Early on, I kind of conceived of what the book contained and what could have gone down in its history. In the beginning, we all thought it would be a little bit more historic based. As we went down the road, I was setting up bits and passing some of them on to the writer’s room, they were taking the ball and writing with it, and we had all this material that I don’t think Mike or I were expecting to be in there — a lot of it really killed.
Alan Yang, who is a super talent on the staff, wrote the hysterical Scientology parody where the town is taken over by a cult (Zorp). To this day, I can’t look at it without cracking up. It’s also one of the only things that neither Mike nor I added a joke.
That, in particular, really expanded the scope of what we felt we could do with the book, and so from there we just kept writing. Mike took on a lot of the character essay stuff and a lot of Leslie’s introductory material and a lot of the “24 hours of Pawnee,” which is a straight rip of the The New York Times “36 hours in [Blank]”. We did have to be realistic. There probably wasn’t 36 hours worth of stuff to do there. I just kept feeding him essays. It was delightful.
With this book bring “written by” Leslie Knope, how did you balance the wackiness of Pawnee versus the often non-ironic way that Leslie approaches the town?
Mike is really inspired by things like old Mad Magazine collections and books that we both grew up on in the 70’s that were just chock full of gags and little runners. We just wanted to have as many funny things on the page as we could, and also have it be a varied reading experience.
But while we’re doing these absurd bits and these jokes, we say that there wasn’t a single thing in there that we could not justify to ourselves that Leslie would have included. Even things like why would April be allowed to write that ridiculous thing about how much she doesn’t like Pawnee Community College.
We’re like no, Leslie is trying to give April and opportunity to step up and she’s frustrated that she’s not, but she’s still pushing through it and you can see that in the 170 footnotes. I feel like Parks fans should feel like they were cared for in the process.
What’s something that you guys would have loved to put in there but just couldn’t rationalize it from Leslie’s point of view?
There isn’t really anything – there were a couple of things that felt too crass or edgy for Leslie. I believe that Nick Offerman wrote the bulk of Ron’s essay on basketball, and there are times where it is sort of extraordinarily vulgar. No one has ever heard Ron Swanson curse, so we had to figure out whether Ron would have done that. Hyperion and NBC standards aside, we just really had to realize that Leslie would never go along with that. There are definitely a lot of essays that were changed to more fit with Leslie’s vision of things.
The other thing was, as silly as things [in Pawnee] were, we wanted to ground it in the idea that this could actually be a functioning place. Obviously things get really broad and there are some jokes and some true absurdities, but there were a few jokes that made us laugh to no end that we just thought they went too far. It was interesting to figure out where the line was.
What is your favorite piece written by someone else, and by you?
Mike is really a talented, gifted dude, particularly when he handles a lot of the character essays, [especially] the Ben Wyatt essay. Ben was really not an entirely fully-formed character when we were writing the book, as a team they were still getting a handle on Ben and it was just coming together.
But Mike sat down and wrote the Ben Wyatt ode to why he likes Pawnee that’s just genuinely lovely and also funny. He does that a lot. I love the introduction – I love the fact that he had the confidence to write a five paragraph to Bloomington, Indiana.
Emily Spivey, the creator of Up All Night, did a lot of the Joan Callamezzo biography. My favorite thing that kills me every time is when Joan’s mom, after having a drunken fight with her Marcus Bachmann-like husband, ends up waking up in the morning holding a concrete nativity sheath. That moment tells you so much about what it was like to grow up in Gary, Indiana for Joan Callamezzo, and to me it’s an incredible, beautiful, hysterical little moment. It may be my single favorite set of words.
[Some pieces of mine that] have nice writing would be “Paint along with Pauline,” and the bit about the history of the strip club expansion.
You mean when all of a sudden there were eight strips clubs that opened up in 2003?
Exactly. Most of those are nice bits of writing. The other thing that I found so fun was the reflections on the Harvest Festival.
As I was writing I realized that Leslie would have included some [reflections] and some would be funny. There had to be a couple that were straight up not funny at all, to have confidence in the world where it’s a place that you can have these dramatic moments just like the fact that it’s a fucking ridiculous place. I could write a couple of sincere things that were moving odes to people’s towns and pass them off to Mike expecting him to go, “Indeed, let’s put these things that aren’t jokes in there.” It was very nice.
Did you write most of the book together or did you go off and then send Mike pieces?
A lot are pretty straight collaborations. I’d pass something on to Mike and then he showed me some changes and there would be a paragraph that he just killed. Having not done any comedy writing before, it’s amazing to go through the jokes that stayed and the paragraphs and the complete essays that stayed, and then also the seed of something that someone who is a trained professional came in and made kill.
I do a lot of historical stuff, but then as we went on and we looked to see what needed to be rounded out, I would chime in and say, “I think this town needs more business profiles” and suddenly the infographic about the hair salon with puns in their names would pop up.
I absolutely love that. How long did it take you guys to come up them or were you just throwing out anything that made you laugh?
There was very little that didn’t work immediately. We would start writing and then it would take off. It was delightful. Mike, in particular, has a real gift for coming up with absurd names that sound real but aren’t at all, so it’s fun to sneak things in. It was fun to sneak in the names of people we knew. The one that I came up with that I’m the most proud of is “Harry and the Handersons Haircutting and Nail Salon,” but then Mike threw in “The Assassination of Your Too-Long Bangs by the Coward Gina Veramopolois” which kills. I am having trouble not rolling on the floor laughing at that. It’s the most ridiculous, wonderful thing.
It was very fun because Mike very early on set a really high bar. He really wanted this to not be a throwaway. The thing the Parks and Recreation fans should know is that it could not have been more lovingly and hands on handled by the person who is most responsible for creating the world with the show creator. It was a true labor of love and an around-the-clock affair.
What was your personal experience writing about Pawnee?
It was literally one of the most fun things I’ve done in my adult life, which was coming up with funny crap that happens in the world of Parks and Recreation. It was also very satisfying. We sit around and write and tell jokes for several hours. My single favorite moment with the book is that [right before our deadline,] we probably spent nine hours in Mike’s office reading the whole thing through and punching it up and cutting things. As a radio person and as a podcaster, I don’t get a chance to do that. It’s a lonely gig.
It felt like a privilege to be able to add to the world of the town, particularly when I would write something that I knew was sound, good, and funny. Beyond that, coming from journalism on the one hand and then from the weird history stories that I do where so often I am thwarted by facts — I’ll hear some anecdote that I think is amazing and then I’ll go back and find out it’s like one third true, if I’m lucky — I have to find a way to either ditch it or find a way to make the new, less interesting facts sing.
It was unbelievably liberating and fun to be able to just sit there and go Aha! The Sweetums Factory was started by a guy who liked Coca-Cola with cocaine in it, but his was with morphine and he was constantly tripping.
Mike has done quite a few interviews about the show and it’s obvious that he’s so thoughtful about the show and about his characters and about the universe as it exists. It makes sense that the book would be so thoughtful as well. Even from my own perspective, a lot of fans love that there is so much respect from the writers for the characters on the show. Mike’s words translate well into the show and translate well into the book as well.
I think that, too. He sets the tone and the agenda and comes up with some great ideas and then lets people who are super smart and creative and talented come in and bring their ideas. It’s a ridiculously high-end [writers’] room there, and he keeps folding them into the world and makes sure that things stay on track. He does a hell of a job at it.
This is my first book but I was privy to all these marketing conversations about how it’s going to be in Leslie’s name and how is that going to appear in the book. It makes perfect marketing sense to have Leslie’s name on it, but I realized what actually would sell it best to Parks and Recreation fans is that it’s made by the creative team behind Parks and Recreation. If you flip open the book and you see my name first, I wouldn’t want people to think it’s farmed out, when really the ship was entirely steered by Mike and the way that he steers the show.
There was a tie-in book for Twin Peaks, like years and years ago that was written in a similar sort of way. It was very thoughtful guide to the town of Twin Peaks and really fleshed out the town that you saw on-screen. Part of the reason that I love the Pawnee book is that it just has so much care for the show and it’s really respectful of the fans of the show, kind of in this whole “we’re in it together and we all love this crazy little town” way.
Well that’s nice to hear. I appreciate that.
I have one very important question for you. How do you feel about Li’l Sebastian? Do you get the appeal or are do you not just understand the appeal of the mini horse?
First of all, he’s a little horse and that’s awesome. Little horses are great. But for me, it’s one of those things that Mike and I talked about when we were coming up with conclusions [for the book] – Li’l Sebastian is the waffles referenced [in the final chapter].
You know how Junior’s Cheesecake in Brooklyn is supposed to be the greatest cheesecake in the world? It might be. I ate it and you know what? The cheesecake is delicious. I don’t know if I’ve ever had better, but it also wasn’t all that great. So there are limits to how good some things can be.
Leslie said at the end of “Born and Raised,” and the end of the book, that somewhere out there are the best waffles in the world, and I love these waffles and why can’t we have the best waffles in the world? I feel like Li’l Sebastian is the same thing. He’s a little horse that they have decided to love and praise and be amazed by, and therefore he is the greatest little horse in the world.