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Leslie Knope & Michael Scott: How Two Very Different Bosses Set the Tone of Their Respective Sitcoms


It’s been 15 years this month since Parks & Rec began dazzling us with its relatable humor and made the cast household names.

With our multiple-article celebration, we’ll look at several aspects of the beloved sitcom, including how closely it related to its partner, The Office, despite having two distinct perspectives.

The Office and Parks and Recreation often run together in the minds of sitcom fans of a particular era. Both shows aired on NBC and overlapped for many of the same years.

Michael Scott and Leslie Knope - The Office

Both were in the mockumentary genre, and both shows achieved popularity and award attention. Both had a second life in the early days of binge-streaming when new audiences discovered them.

Both were set in workplaces, and both were put in a smallish city in which the universe of characters sprawled continuously over the run of the show.

Michael Scott at the Dinner Party  - The Office

Greg Daniels, who “developed” the American version of The Office, is the co-creator of Parks & Recreation, and the latter show even began development as a spin-off of The Office.

The other co-creator of Parks and Recreation, Michael Schur, was also a writer on The Office, among several people who wrote for both shows at different times.

A tale of two bosses

In addition to the formula of filling its cast with many different varieties of funny people, each show built its cast around a lead character, someone with a decorated career in comedy before their arrival on that show.

Steve Carell, before his casting as Michael, had spent several years as a correspondent on The Daily Show and starred in the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which was filmed before The Office and arrived in theaters after its first season.

Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope  - Parks and Recreation

Amy Poehler, the top-line star of Parks and Recreation, founded the Upright Citizens Brigade theater, leading to a long run on Saturday Night Live and roles in movies such as Mean Girls.

However, Poehler’s Leslie Knope was far from merely a female analog to Michael Scott. They were very different characters, largely because they did very different jobs.

The little differences

Much like the British show from which it was adapted, The Office was about a boss who was seen by most of the other characters as a blowhard.

Like Ricky Gervais’ David Brent before him, Michael Scott desperately needed to be liked, which was always a challenge, whether in dealing with the corporate bureaucrats above him or his underlings.

Michael with Pam  - The Office

The writers of The Office had difficulty getting a handle on the Michael character in the show’s early seasons, which was part of why the series had trouble finding its voice until the third season.

At first, especially from The Office Season 1 Episode 2, “Diversity Day,” in which he handled racial matters clumsily, Michael was so awkward that he was almost hard to watch.

Later, the show further revealed Michael’s personality, even his softer side.

Leslie Knope, on the other hand, mainly emerged fully formed, with the series having a handle on her right from the start, even if the show itself took some time to find its eventual voice.

Public and private

Amy Poehler in the rangers  - Parks and Recreation

One big difference between the shows was that while The Office took place in the private sector, Parks and Recreation was about a local government department where the characters were all public employees.

This came through most of all with the Leslie Knope character.

Leslie was a public employee with a deep-seated, altruistic belief in the public good. The years when Parks and Recreation aired were less cynical than today when such an attitude was more in tune with the times.

Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), on the other hand, was a libertarian ideologue who didn’t believe in the public purpose of the work he was doing, and disagreements between him and Leslie were a significant source of the show’s humor.

Ron isn't laughing  - Parks and Recreation

The Office drew comedy from personality conflicts but rarely discussed such ideological disagreements.

In addition, both series were sometimes criticized for being too nice to their characters as the seasons went on, and conflict was de-emphasized in favor of overarching niceness.

Parks and Recreation, in particular, often made minor Pawnee characters the butt of the joke rather than any of the regulars.

Other key differences

Leslie - Parks and Recreation Season 8 Episode 0

Leslie Knope, while her enthusiasm was sometimes an annoyance to those around her, was established as more competent and better at her job than Michael was.

She also, at least most of the time, enjoyed a more uncomplicated personal life than Michael did.

No relationship Leslie had was ever nearly as dysfunctional as Michael’s with Jan (Melora Hardin), and she ended up in a happy marriage with Ben (Adam Scott).

Furthermore, while Michael offered occasional hints at a dark side and possibly tragic backstory, Leslie did not. The overall tone of each series matched that of its protagonists.

Dinner Party - The Office

Of course, Steve Carell left The Office during the seventh season, returning for one episode near the end, and the series continued for multiple seasons without him.

Amy Poehler went the distance on Parks & Recreation, with the series’ endgame making clear that her sights were set way beyond Pawnee, Indiana.

Sure, Michael Scott had a mug on his desk that said “World’s Best Boss,” but his character was never entirely as driven by an overwhelming desire to be good as his Indiana public counterpart was.

Reopening Dunder Mifflin?

Scotts Tots Vertical - The Office Season 6 Episode 12

There have been rumors recently about a reboot of The Office, although it would presumably not involve the original cast.

The concept is a robust one that has been remade around the world.

But perhaps this time, the David Brent/Michael Scott equivalent will have a different type of personality than what we saw from any previous version or even that of Leslie Knope.

Stephen Silver is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow more of his work on his Substack The SS Ben Hecht, by Stephen Silver.You can follow him on X.

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