I’m not into sitcoms. There’s something about the half-hour format that makes me impatient. And I’m not particularly into comedies either. I prefer hour-long drama type shows, that just happen to have a lot of wit in them. There was absolutely no reason why I should have loved Parks and Recreation. And yet I did.
My best friend had been on my case to get me to watch this one for a long time. We have very different tastes, but for her sake, I decided to check it out on IMDb. When I saw that the writing credits had names in common with The Simpsons, I decided that was a good sign. Everyone warned me about the first season, that you kind of have to push through it because the show hadn’t yet figured out what it was about. They were right. What eventually hooked me was how similar this show was to one of my all-time favourite not-a-comedy-but-witty shows, The West Wing. Later, I found out that was deliberate.
Parks and Rec creators Michael Schur and Greg Daniels had apparently been massive West Wing fans. When they courted West Wing alum Rob Lowe to play City Manager Chris Traeger, they apparently told him that the whole concept of the show was “what if The West Wing was done as a comedy”. It’s an apt description. I often refer to Parks and Rec as “The West Wing’s adorable kid sister”. What ties the two shows together, really, is the underlying theme of a group of good-hearted people, trying to make the world a better place. And I think this was what made Parks and Rec do for me that which most sitcoms don’t.
I hate to say it, but in my eyes, Chris Pratt peaked with this show. He can do as many stud-muffin, handsome-guy movies as he wants to, but as far as I am concerned, the name of every single one of those characters is “not!-Andy”. Andy Dwyer wouldn’t ever be someone I could date in real life, but as far as fictional guys go, he is adorable and brings me great joy.
Andy started out as Ann Perkins’s (Rashida Jones) deadbeat boyfriend, and he wasn’t much to write home about. He had broken both his legs when he fell into the pit behind Ann’s house (he was super wasted, as he accidentally says in front of the kids), and had become a large, flannel-wearing baby that she was taking care of. However,the production team liked Chris Pratt so much that they kept Andy on, even after he and Ann broke up. He worked at the shoeshine stand in City Hall, and soon he became the boyfriend of April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), who works on the Parks team. April has a personality like Wednesday Addams crossed with a rabid honey badger (and I mean this in a good way), and Andy is an exuberant, boyish, golden retriever of a human. Soon after they started dating, they impulsively got married. The two of them together are one of the great television OTPs, and their relationship is what launched Andy on his way into my heart.
Andy graduates from the shoeshine stand and gets a more respectable job as Leslie (Amy Poehler) Knope’s assistant. April was the one who volunteered him for the job. Not only do these two love each other like crazy, they support each other. April especially is great at managing her big lovable doofus of a husband. Andy is a musician at heart. He wrote Leslie her campaign song when she was running for City Council, and he wrote what was to become the anthem of the show—“5,000 Candles in the Wind”, a tribute to local hero Li’l Sebastian (he’s a tiny horse, and no one really knows why this town worships him as much as they do, but boy do they).
Sometimes he plays with his band Mouserat, and in S6E12, they are booked to play at a party of 6-year-olds. The rest of the band bails, scorning the idea of being childrens’ musicians. At April’s urging, Andy takes the gig himself, making up kid-friendly songs on the spot (“Stinky Feet Patrol”, “Everybody Pees the Bed”, and “Pick Your Nose”, for example) and letting the kids climb all over him. He loves it, they love him (and I love that unlike Andy Dwyer, Johnny Karate doesn’t go out of his way to sing like Eddie Vedder), and thus Johnny Karate is born.
Andy’s success as Johnny Karate builds, and by the last season, he’s got his own kids’ TV show. And S7E10 lets us get to see it ourselves. “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” has its own credits, fake commercials for local Pawnee businesses (“Paunchburger! Put it in your body, or you’re a nerd”), and features all of Johnny/Andy’s friends from the Parks Department. Turns out that this is to be the very last Johnny Karate show, because his wife (April Ludgate Karate Dwyer, of course) is starting a fabulous new job in another state, so they will be moving. April feels guilty about this, but she and the rest of the gang are going to send him off with an extra awesome, “This Is Your Life” kind of tribute show.
Practically everyone is in on it. The show’s announcer is none other than famous local newsman, Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson). Johnny enters with a flourish of karate-type kicks and punches, to the cheering of the kids in the live audience. He welcomes everyone to “the only show that’s all about learning, and music, animals, fireworks, waterskis, and above all, ice cream, pizza, ninjas, getting stronger, sharks versus bears, and above all, karate!” That should about cover it, yeah.
They’re all set to sing the Welcome Song, when—oh no! Someone has stolen Johnny Karate’s guitar! This looks like a case for (another of Andy’s characters) Special Agent Burt Macklin, FBI. All the kids don sunglasses in solidarity, as they cut to a black and white film noir segment where Macklin and the Chief (Andy’s friend Donna Meagle) discuss the need to recover the guitar. Macklin confides to his audience, “I’m drowning in the deep end of the pool, and the lifeguard’s off in the bathroom, pooping.” The situation is dire. Without that guitar, Johnny can’t play the Goodbye Song! Macklin swears that by the end of the show, that guitar will be found, and the thief will pay the ultimate price—a visit to the Funky Monkey Dunk Tank!
They created a special opening credits sequence for this episode, complete with a song. “It’s time to punch boredom in its stupid face! Drop-kick sadness into outer space! It’s the Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show!” I don’t know about you, but that’s everything I ever wanted in a theme song.
He tells the kids that this is a super special show, because it will be his last. They boo, but he tells them it’s okay because he’s moving to Washington DC with his wife for her awesome new job, and he’s “super proud of her and totally in love”. Side note—it bears repeating that one of the big things that made Andy so lovable as a character was how in love he always was with April. It’s unconditional, unwavering, and adorable. Did I mention he’s kind of a golden retriever? But I digress.
At Andy’s invitation to come out onto the stage and show them how cool she is, April joins him. She’s got her own regular segment on the show, April’s Animal Corner. April being April, it’s usually some creepy fanged beastie. When the beastie escapes, which you get the feeling happens often (Andy took it out of its cage to play hide and seek with it), that takes them to another favourite feature—Loose Animal In The Studio! Today’s Loose Animal is a Goliath Bird-Eating Tarantula. Remember that for later. Oh, and whenever they feature Loose Animal In The Studio, they have to roll an extensive disclaimer up the screen. It’s too fast to read, but I strongly urge you to go to Netflix or wherever you watch this and hit pause a bunch of times so you can read it, because it’s funny AF. Andy heckles his own disclaimer (“Bor-ring!”) as it scrolls up the screen.
Moving on, they officially start the day by singing “The Five Karate Moves To Success”. I have personally performed this song (and the Goodbye Song, and the L’il Sebastian song), and will happily share chords if you want them.
“Today we’re gonna make something, learn something, karate chop something
And then we’ll try something new, even if it’s scary to you
And finally we’ll have some fun being nice to someone because that’s the Johnny Karate way.”
More than just a great song, this is a list of goals for not just the show, but every day of your life. Segments feature “Make Something, with Carpenter Ron” (Swanson), “Learn Something, with Professor Smartbrain” (Ben Wyatt), “Karate Chop Something, with Mailman Barry” (Jerry, Larry, Terry, or whatever they are mistakenly calling Jim O’Heir’s character that week). When they get to “Try Something New, with Leslie Knope”, that’s when she and April break out the surprise Andy Dwyer retrospective, complete with a banner and a video tribute. Leslie Knope has never done anything by halves. Andy is off-script, and gobsmacked.
First block of fake commercials, in which my favourite is Ron Swanson’s own Very Good Building Company (“Hire Very Good Building Company for your construction needs. Or do not. I am not a beggar”. *glares into camera for several seconds, then looks at watch* “End of commercial.”) There’s also one for the Wamapoke Casino (“Slowly taking back our money from white people one quarter at a time.”). Now, back to our show.
Old friends drop by to pay tribute to Andy and his somewhat unorthodox rise out of the pit and into success. One such friend is the 14th Earl of Cornwall-Upon Thames, Sir Edgar Covington, OBE. While working for a non-profit organization, Andy helped “Eddie” out, mostly by extending his trip to London to be the earl’s buddy. Eddie drops by the studio to dub Andy a “loyal and true karate defender of the Queen’s realm”. He brought along a sword so there can be official looking dubbing and everything, and Andy is such a good egg that he lets his friend Ben (Adam Scott) get in on the dubbing too (Ben, naturally, whispers Game of Thrones quotes to himself while the dubbing is going on).
The second set of fake commercials features an ad for local restaurant, Paunchburger. It’s on YouTube, and if you can even watch it without gaining three pounds, you’re a better man than I.
Back we come, and now the tribute is focused on Burt Macklin, FBI. Real life Andy had tried and failed to get into the Pawnee police department, and he had taken it pretty hard. Macklin, however, was a great character for the kids, to say nothing of Andy’s sexy role-play fun times with April. A real Pawnee cop, Officer Randy, drops by the show to give Andy an honourary police badge as a parting gift, and to help him solve the Case of the Missing Guitar (remember that?)
Suddenly, who shows up in the studio, holding that very guitar? WWE wrestler John Cena! He agreed to come on the show because he assumed the fan named Andy he had been told about was some 10 year old kid. Regardless, he is there to give back the guitar and thank Andy for bringing martial arts and music to children everywhere. Andy, however, still riding the wave of honourary cop-ness, slaps a pair of handcuffs on Cena and brings him over to the Funky Monkey Dunk Tank.
The tribute continues, this time to Johnny Karate himself. Donna (Retta) sings “Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting, and they do a ceremonial thing with one of his old costumes, hanging it on the wall of the studio. So, even after he moves to Washington, there will always be a part of Johnny Karate here in Pawnee. April, meanwhile, has looked sadder and sadder throughout all of this. She knows he’s giving this all up for her sake, and she feels bad about it.
After the last commercial break (it’s an advert for the newly formed conglomerate of Verizon Chipotle Exxon), Andy comes back, all tuxedo-ed up, for a final thought. He thanks everyone who’s ever worked on the show for having made it the best job he’s ever had, and that this has been the best day of his life. Before the show ends, it’s time for a final checklist of the Five Karate Moves to Success, to make sure they got all of them. They made, learned, and karate-chopped somethings. They tried something new, and now it’s time for the last and most important thing, being nice to someone. Andy says he knows who needs it the most, and introduces his wife, when suddenly April runs out of the studio. Andy, camera close behind him, chases after her to see what’s wrong.
Through tears, April says she can’t make him give all this up for her, when he is so good at it, and it’s what he loves. Without missing a beat, Andy says, “but you’re what I love. You’re the only reason I have any of this. You believed in me, you supported me, and you make me happy. Happier than I ever thought I could be. Without you, I wouldn’t be anything. You’re what keeps me going…as long as I’m with you, I’m going to be happy. So we go to Washington DC, and then we figure out the next cool and awesome thing from there.” Lots of fans of Parks and Rec have worked Leslie and Ben’s wedding vows into their own (“I love you and I like you”). And those are great, but this is pretty great too. And if nothing else, it was a perfect Being Nice To Someone, and April appreciates both it and her big puppy of a husband a whole lot.
There’s not a dry eye (well, maybe that’s just me) nor an un-warmed heart in the house as the entire company gathers one last time, to sing the Goodbye Song. Everyone is there, even Champion, Andy and April’s three-legged dog. The only person possibly not happy is John Cena, who discovers the missing Goliath Bird-Eating Tarantula pretty close to his own personal space. April says, “I’ll help you, John Cena”, hits a button, and down he goes into the Funky Monkey Dunk Tank. Hooray!
This episode is a kind of microcosm of everything I love about Parks and Recreation, the half-hour sitcom that won its way into my heart when there was no earthy reason why it should have done. Like I said earlier, a bunch of goofy, good-hearted people, helping each other to make the world better. Andy in particular speaks to me because of his journey. He didn’t know how to do anything useful. He knew how to play video games, play guitar not particularly well, and be a crappy boyfriend. But he hung in there, kept himself open to new opportunities even after failure, and, almost by accident, found himself a place in the world where he was doing a real good, making other people happy. As the Goodbye Song says,
“Well it’s time for us to go, but I want you all to know
That karate’s not about fighting, it’s about knowing who you are
And being kind and honest as you’re kicking for the stars
That’s the Johnny Karate way.
Keep karate in your heart, and aspire to your dreams
And always remember you’re forever on my team
That’s the Johnny Karate way.”
Words to live by. Thanks, Andy. Karate out!