On September 29, 2001, SNL aired its first episode after the 9/11 attacks. That was the one Lorne Michaels opened by asking New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani if it was OK to be funny again and Rudy answered, “Why start now?” Later in the show came Weekend Update and perhaps the biggest question of the night — how would they make the fake news funny when the real news was so awful?
Here’s the item Tina Fey led Update with: “U.S. officials continue the search for Osama bin Laden. Reports suggest that bin Laden is most likely somewhere remote and barren, where he will not encounter others. The FBI has begun searching theaters showing the movie Glitter.” And from that Mariah Carey joke it was on to ones about Elton John, Viagra, and moose-hunting season.
I dig up this bit of ancient history because the man who was making his debut producing Weekend Update that night was none other than Michael Schur, who would go on to create Parks & Rec, The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and now Sunnyside. In a 2015 interview Schur recalled the one-line user manual Michaels had given him for running Update: “This show does not have a political point of view,” Lorne said. “Whoever is in power, you make fun of them.”
Well, if you follow Schur on Twitter — or rather, his sports alter ego Ken Tremendous — you know he most certainly has a political point of view, and that he is doing a lot more than making fun of the people currently in power. Schur’s feed is the 2019 version of yelling at the TV, except that 188,000 followers can hear him. It’s an unending stream of outrage and sarcastic outrage, aimed these days less at baseball idiots than at the current president and his enablers.
In 2001, posts like these would have gotten Mike Schur in trouble, but the 2019 Schur has a Milton Berle-sque contract with NBC and the respect of both creatives and bean-counters for his ability to nurture distinctive comedies with long shelf lives. He is the überproducer, clothed in immense power.
So when I heard his new one would be about immigration, my first thought was: Is this the moment when the political Schur and the comedy Schur finally come together? Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?
Well, maybe. To be sure, Sunnyside has the most ripped-from-the-headlines feel of any of the show Schur has worked on since he literally ripped jokes from the headlines. Kal Penn plays Garrett Modi, a disgraced politician in Queens, New York, who has just been turned out of office and needs a job. He winds up being asked to help a group of recent immigrants pass the U.S. citizenship test. Even though he barely knows the Constitution, Modi takes the gig, supremely confident he can wing this.
“The only thing you're truly great at is talking,” says his sister Mallory (Kiran Deol), whose couch he’s flopping on. Indeed, being cocksure and running his mouth is how Modi managed to get elected and re-elected despite being a corrupt and incompetent public official. Did I mention this doofus was from Queens?
So yes, it’s political. But you could also make the case, based on a single 21-minute pilot, that Sunnyside is the Mike Schur version of Community — a racially diverse group of oddballs taking a class from a total dick. Mostly, though, Sunnyside is a work in progress. As we saw with The Good Place and Parks & Rec in their first seasons, Schur has the confidence to put what he has on the screen and work with it as the show goes along. Penn and Matt Murray will actually be writing the episodes, and it’s possible they have no idea how political the show will be. That said, the reference to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the pilot is telling.
The supporting cast are all high-steppers who form an appealing repertory company. They also embody one stereotype or another about immigrants: Joel Kim Booster and Poppy Liu are shadowy superrich foreign nationals who are happy to bankroll Modi’s lifestyle so long as they don’t have to do much studying. Diana-Maria Riva is the obsessive worker holding nine jobs at once. Samba Schutte is the heart surgeon from Ethiopia who left that career to drive a cab in New York “because America is the best!”
And so on. As in many pilots, nobody gets more than a few introductory lines. Even Penn’s character feels like an outline of a character so far. But hey, it’ll be November before you know it. Network shows come at you fast, and soon Sunnyside will have plenty of episodes under its belt and we’ll have a better idea where it’s going.
I’m sure it will be great. But I do wonder if Schur will use his moral surety, industry throw-weight, and comedy platform to champion the immigrants and liberal immigration policies that built this country. Hopefully he's asking himself the same question.
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Sunnyside premieres Thursday, September 26th at 9:30 PM ET on NBC
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.