And the Meek Shall Inherit Pawnee
Parks and Rec was the nicest show on TV. Except when it was the cruelest.
When Chris Traeger left Indiana to carve a new life for himself in Michigan, the men of Pawnee's Parks Department gave him a farewell card. Jerry Gergich signed the card “GJLGG”—short for "Garry Jerry Larry Gergich Gengurch." He wasn't sure, he explained, which name to use. Outside of the office, he went by “Garry.” But at work, thanks to a mistaken boss he'd been, years ago, too polite to correct, he was known as Jerry. He'd later be known, after teasing coworkers decided to change his name again, as Larry Gengurch. After Traeger's departure, those same teasing coworkers would add more names, including Barry and Terry, to the list.
So here is a guy who found it preferable to be misnamed than to make a fuss. As Parks and Recreation ends its seven-season run, that tells you a lot of what you need to know about Jerry Gergich, who is one of the show's greatest characters and who is also, on the surface, one of its least interesting. A recent Deadspin ranking of the show’s regulars placed Jerry at #20, which is above Ben Wyatt but below a lecherous councilman, a well-endowed miniature horse, and “that one homeless-looking biker dude who shows up at every town hall.” Buzzfeed was more passionate about it, angrily declaring that “Parks And Recreation’s Jerry Gergich Is the Most Annoying Person Ever.”
Such sentiments seem, in one way, fitting. Jerry—wearer of plaid, taker of naps, frequenter of a dinosaur-themed restaurant named Jurassic Fork—has a way of angering people by virtue of his very blandness. Which may be why he has the unenviable distinction of being an ongoing victim of mockery on a show otherwise known for its niceness. Parks and Rec is often compared to Friday Night Lights, and it is, like NBC’s other series about passionate underdogs, bursting with the mix of hilarity and humanity we tend to shorthand as “heart.” Parks, at its gooey caramel core, is, as my colleague Sophie Gilbert summed it up, “about people trying to do good in the world.”
But then, awkwardly … there’s Jerry. Who has been on the receiving end of more outright, unexplained cruelty than any character from any TV comedy in recent memory. There’s the jar Jerry's coworkers put money into every time he does something mockable—funds they use, in a tradition known as “the Jerry Dinner,” to finance a nice meal that purposely does not include its namesake. There’s the time Leslie, pointing to a poster she’s mocked up of her colleague, declares that “Jerry’s face is the symbol of failure.” There's the time Andy, in extreme slow motion, smashes a pie into Jerry's face. There’s the time Jerry has a heart attack (an event proceeded by a string of Gergichian flatulence)—which is also the time Tom, rather than expressing concern for his coworker, bemoans people's failure to make a joke about a “fart attack.”
Haha? Sort of? “Dammit, Jerry!” runs like a refrain through Parks' seven seasons, reminding us that the world consists of cool and uncool people, and there are dire consequences for occupying the wrong category. Ron, at one point, describes Jerry as both a schlemiel and a schlimazel—meaning that “he is both the person who spills the soup and the person upon whom the soup is spilled.”
The Jerry-slandering hasn't been limited to the residents of Pawnee. The show’s writers, too, often seemed to have it out for their creation. All that farting! All that tripping! The fact that Jerry's idea of a dream vacation is escaping to his time-share in Muncie, and that he types his presentations to coworkers in Comic Sans, and that he is genuinely happy to receive, in lieu of a better present, socks! ("You can never," Jerry points out, "have too many socks.") When he was a teenager, in 1964, Jerry starred in a school production of Peter Pan … and made “a beautiful Tinkerbell." In an episode in Season Two, he lies about getting mugged in a public park (having, in actuality, fallen into a river chasing after a dropped burrito); the show effectively punishes him for the dishonesty by having him, during a presentation to the Parks Department, knock over an easel, and then, while bending over to retrieve it, splitting his pants and farting into the split. Another early episode, which finds city employees engaged in a competition to discover each others’ biggest secrets, features the following exchange between Mark Brandanowicz, Pawnee's city planner, and Jerry:
Jerry: “A little birdie told me you have two unpaid parking tickets.”
Mark: “Well, a little birdie told me your adoptive mother was arrested for marijuana possession.”
[Everyone laughs. Jerry stays silent.]
Mark: “Oh, you didn’t know about that?”
Jerry: “I didn’t know I was adopted.”
It’s a scene, apparently, that was a turning point for Jerry’s character. Writing it, Mike Schur, Parks’ showrunner, told the A.V. Club, “we realized that’s who he is: He’s the guy who wants to put his head down and get his pension, but is asking for it all the time. In the next three scripts—it was like throwing chum into the water—every script after that had 15 slams on Jerry.”
That asking-for-it impulse—dammit, Jerry!—is, on the one hand, understandable. Sweetness is often best balanced by the sour, and farts can be funny, and Jerry is, to be fair, really exceptionally flatulent. But for a show like Parks, with its wide-eyed optimism and insistent moxie, Jerry’s mockability presented a quandary: How do you introduce meanness into a show known for its niceness?
Call it the Jerradox. And in short order, Parks writers found a way to solve it: They made Jerry, as a character, much more than the (gaseous) butt of their jokes. They began emphasizing not just Jerry's shortcomings, but also his loyalty and his warmth and his kindness. They made him a talented artist (Diaphena!) and a skilled musician. They balanced Work Jerry—the schlubby office drone who is prone to forgetfulness and clumsiness and an ignorant reliance on Alta Vista—with Life Jerry. And then they gave that Jerry a life that is really, really awesome. They gave him a wife, Gayle, to whom he’s been happily married for thirty years, and made her supermodel-gorgeous (literally: she's played by Christie Brinkley). They gave him three daughters, all tall and blonde and similarly Brinkleyesque. They gave him, for good measure, an enormous penis.
And then a funny thing happened. As Parks began making nice with the character it had loved to tease, the show’s designated loser became, in a roundabout way, its moral compass. Mocking Jerry ceased to be funny, first to audiences and then to Pawneeans; learning to appreciate Jerry for all that he is became the mark of character growth. In one episode late in the series, Tom realizes, to his regret, that he missed years’ worth of kind emails from Jerry (he’d previously blocked his colleague's notes for being too boring). In another, Ann punishes Tom, April, and Andy for their participation in the Jerry Dinner by not allowing them to attend a party she's having. (Donna, having backed out of the dinner, gets an invite.) At one point, Ben stands up for Jerry (literally: he gets up on a chair, Norma Rae-meets-Dead Poets’ Society-style), declaring, passionately if extremely awkwardly, “Larry is my friend!”
Jerry, in short, became two characters, the Garry and the Larry, he of the #fail and he of the #blessed. That disconnect itself became a running gag on Parks. (When Ben first met Gayle, he tried to imagine explanations for her having married him. These included Gayle being temporarily blind, Gayle being a Russian spy, and Gayle having a brain disorder that causes her to see Jerry as a friendly hat.) And Jerryness itself, in the show's universe, came to mean more than being simply a government worker waiting out a pension. It also became something more detached and impersonal: a communicable condition reminiscent of the one endured by How I Met Your Mother’s walking jinx, “The Blitz.” In one episode in Season 5, Tom found himself at risk of becoming “the new Jerry.” Which would be, the show suggested, not actually a terrible thing. One could do worse, we were reminded again and again, than get a case of the Jerries.
In the series' second-to-last episode, after the death of Mayor Gunderson, Jerry—at the suggestion of Ben and April—becomes the new mayor of Pawnee. He is, at the insistence of Leslie, celebrated with a parade that culminates in a hot-air balloon ride over his new domain. “I’m flying!” the new executive exclaims, awkwardly and dorkily and wonderfully, as the balloon takes him up to survey his city. Here, pretty much, is what Jerry saw from that balloon:
Ron once described Jerry as someone who "shrivels up when you shine a light on him.” What Jerry's seven-season arc suggested, though, was the opposite: that while he may hide in plain sight, he is well worth the effort to discover. Jerry started out on Parks and Rec as a familiar stranger, the guy who is there but not there—the guy you know, but don’t really know. And he ends the show as the mayor of Pawnee. He ends the show, in other words, validated and vindicated. He ends the show soaring.
In that sense, Jerry is a hopeful stand-in for all the people who have talents and values that aren’t recognized by others—all the people who are unseen or ignored because they’re the wrong color or gender or size or clique. He is a reminder of all the potential contributions that are quashed through such failures of vision. We are all, basically, Jerry. We are all flawed and farty and meek. Our faces will all, at some point, be symbols of failure. They will all, at some point, be covered in pie. But Jerry also embodies something very fitting to the spirt of Pawnee: We are all, he reminds us, better and deeper and greater than we seem. We all walk around bearing hidden skills and secrets and heartaches and joys. We all appreciate the practicality of a good pair of socks. And we will all, at some point, be loved—both despite, and because of, who we really are.