When Parks and Recreation ends its run tomorrow night we’ll be losing perhaps the finest sitcom of this century. Its greatest strength is its cast, which is as deep and talented as the legendary ones from Cheers, Seinfeld and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There have been eleven regular full-time cast members over the show’s seven seasons, and probably five of them could have been the defining breakout character on a lesser show. Yeah, Parks is a show with like five Fonzies. (And that doesn’t even include Henry Winkler, who shows up occasionally in a minor role.) With the show wrapping up tomorrow night, we’ve decided to rank the eleven full-timers, past and present, in terms of how hilarious their characters have been over the years.
Schneider didn’t stick around long enough to make a major impact as Mark Brendanawicz, leaving near the end of the second season. Both the actor and character have an easy-going charm that made him the Jim Halpert of the early, Office-indebted episodes. He was fine as the above-it-all normal guy wryly mocking the crazy people who worked around him, but as the show deepened its characters beyond being cartoons he no longer served much of a purpose. His role was effortlessly replaced by Adam Scott’s superior Ben Wyatt, who was enough of an outsider to highlight the peculiar nature of Pawnee while also being a funnier and more idiosyncratic character than Brendanowicz.
This low ranking is no knock on Rashida Jones. She was great as Ann Perkins, the steady voice of reason and perennial straight woman. By design she wasn’t given much to do from a comedic standpoint, although when called to the plate she almost always delivered. Ann brings the best out of Leslie Knope and Amy Poehler, and their friendship was a crucial part of making Leslie more likable after a rocky first few episodes.
And here’s where a ranking like this gets hard. Garry (we’ll respect the man) is hilarious as the office punching bag who’s also the most well-adjusted character with the most fulfilling family life. Jim O’Heir plays him brilliantly, rarely losing his good cheer despite constantly being disrespected by everybody except Donna, and acting suitably excited about such mundane business as his duties as a notary public. The only reason he’s this low is because this show is full of so many great characters, the rest of which are all slightly funnier and more developed than Garry.
To the show’s credit Donna’s supreme confidence isn’t played for laughs in the same ways that other sitcoms would probably pursue. Tom Haverford’s confidence is undercut by the expected sitcom incompetence and self-doubt, whereas Donna’s confidence is supported by action and a life of success. She’s probably the most capable character on the show, other than maybe Leslie Knope, and the bits of surprising backstory revealed gradually throughout the seasons are funny not because of how surprising they are but because of how matter-of-factly they’re presented and how they challenge the viewer to accept that a secondary character so often relegated to the background in the early seasons could have the richest and most fulfilling personal life of any of the main characters.
Chris Traeger can get a little too cartoonish at times, with his overly mannered way of speaking, extreme optimism and absurd devotion to healthy living, but that robotic demeanor fits the inhumanly good looking Rob Lowe. Affectations like always saying everybody’s full name never get old, and he is literally the MVP of “Flu Season”, which topped our list of the best Parks episodes. Whenever I think of Rob Lowe now the first thing I think of is a flushed Chris Traeger summoning every last bit of his strength and determination to command himself to “stop pooping.”
Ben Wyatt is more than the grim government functionary he first seemed to be. From his fixation with calzones and Letters to Cleo to his rock star status among the accountants at Tilton and Radomski, he revealed both a personality and a set of realistic but humorous interests that provided fertile turf for great material over the years. Nerdy obsessions like Game of Thrones, Settlers of Catan and his lifelike Batman costume are funny touches that also humanize him. Adam Scott plays the beleaguered serious guy well, but Wyatt is deeper and more idiosyncratic than a mere straight man.
April is the show’s most scathing and pessimistic character, a familiar depiction of what it’s like to grow up in a stifling and close-minded small town. She refuses to accept responsibility for much of the show’s run, even though she’s clearly smarter, stronger and more competent than almost anybody else in Pawnee, and despite constant well-meaning pressure from Leslie Knope. What makes her so funny isn’t her mannered weirdness, but the obvious struggle to accept her strengths and realize what she wants to do with her life. She grows into the perfect partner for Andy Dwyer because she has a similar disdain for reality but is also smart enough to channel his energy into constructive directions. If he’s a kid on a permanent sugar rush who gets too easily wrapped up in his own fantasies, she’s the sullen older sister who’d rather make up ridiculous stories and use caustic put-downs to counteract her boredom with everything and everyone around her. Plaza plays Ludgate’s world-weariness with the right mix of deadpan and faux melodrama.
Tom has slipped a bit in the comedy department since he grew up and became a successful restauranteur. His irresponsibility, selfishness and arrogance are what made him so delightful over the first several seasons, and although all three character traits persist, they’ve diminished greatly over the last season or two. That’s a good thing—characters should grow, and Tom is richer for it. The manic glee of the Entertainment 720 era was Tom at his funniest, though, and that’s well behind him.
Parks is clearly Knope’s (and Poehler’s) show. If this was a list of the show’s best characters, she’d be at the top. It’s a list of the funniest, though, and even though Poehler is consistently fantastic at comedy, Knope slides in at number three here. That’s no indictment of her, considering how stacked this show is. She scores laughs with her boundless optimism, her almost crazed dedication to work and government, her propensity to over prepare for everything, and the sheer overwhelming power of her love and commitment. Sitcoms tend to find comedy in negative personality traits, but the magic of Leslie is that she’s made up of positive characteristics that are so amplified and exaggerated that they can become annoying and unhealthy. She’s a great role model when reined in and one of the strongest women in the history of television, and somehow every week Poehler walks right up to the line of becoming too ridiculous or cartoonish while rarely crossing it.
Andy might be the most typical sitcom character on the show. He’s a big, enthusiastic dummy, always wrong about everything but with an infectious energy that makes it impossible to not love love him. His childlike excitement comes out most clearly when he’s talking about his rock band or about his various alter egos, from the FBI agent Burt Macklin to the possum tackler Andy Radical. Pratt plays the stereotype of the overgrown kid with such charm and dedication that it makes Andy one of the two funniest characters on the show, even if he lacks the nuance of some of his partners. From a purely comedic standpoint, it’s hard to top him.
Of all the iconic characters on Parks and Recreation, Swanson might be the most defining and the most evocative of the show’s era. Anti-government paranoia is nothing new, but it’s exploded in recent years due in part to the internet and the continued influence of Fox News and partisan talk radio. Swanson debuted the same year as the Tea Party, and although he’s not a member of any party, he espouses some of the same blanket anti-government rhetoric popular among Tea Partiers and libertarians. He could’ve wound up a typical parody of far right conservatives and manly man clichés, but sharp writing and an amazingly deadpan performance by Nick Offerman has made Swanson one of the best sitcom characters of all time. And although he’s threatened to turn into a caricature of himself at times over the last few seasons, the show has mostly been able to pull back when needed and reground him through his relationships with his friends and employees, deepening him as a character without sacrificing his strong ideals.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Find him on Twitter @grmartin.