During its rocky first season, Parks and Recreation faced much criticism for being too similar to The Office – Leslie was just a female Michael Scott, and Ron Swanson was the new Dwight Schrute. Setting it in the vibrant and weird Indiana town of Pawnee instantly assuaged some of these fears. Even during that first season, it was clear from the town hall meetings, where Leslie and company had to defend themselves against the many residents of Pawnee, that Michael Schur and his writers had dreamt up one of the most vivid communities for a sitcom. So, in honor of Parks and Recreation’s end, here are the ten best recurring characters on the show.
1. The Tammys
While it may seem unfair to group three characters together, especially in the top spot, Parks has too many amazing recurring characters to properly showcase in ten slots. Ron Swanson’s two ex-wives and his mother are therefore grouped together by virtue of having the same name, despite their incredible (and incredibly hilarious) differences. Tammy 2, played by Megan Mullaly as a librarian with a bottomless abyss of a libido, is my personal favorite of the three. Witnessing Mullaly play off of her real life husband Nick Offerman was truly a sight to behold. Their utter sexual destruction of a diner is a master class in physical comedy. But the episode that brought all 3 Tammys together is one of the best in the series. Oscar nominee Patricia Clarkson was the perfect ice queen of a first ex-wife, and one of the few actresses who could believably neuter the masculine presence of Swanson, while longtime SNL writer Paula Pell played a pitch perfect libertarian mother.
2. Jean-Ralphio Saperstein
Whether serving as Tom’s wingman and improvising raps about people’s names (but failing to stop on the rhyme), or as his business partner in increasingly ridiculous endeavors, Jean-Ralphio Saperstein was one of the first recurring characters to truly have a detailed, hyper-specific back story. Ben Schwartz played him pitch perfectly, being enough of a douche to always draw eye-rolls, but goofy enough to always draw laughs as well. Though at times the show flirted with too much Jean-Ralphio, Schwartz was always too talented of a performer and improviser to let his ridiculous character cause Parks to jump the shark (and casting original shark jumper Henry Winkler as his father was a wonderful touch).
3. Joan Callamezzo
The host of Pawnee Today, Joan Callamezzo is a powerhouse of alcohol, gotcha journalism (and gotcha dancers!), and sexual energy. Leslie Knope once claimed that Joan ran this town. She even has a signature cocktail: a tumbler of gin, with crushed aspirin around the rim. Mo Collins was delightful as Joan, delivering lines like “I’m going to go powder my nose… amongst other things” with a surprisingly believable slur. Her eyes always at the right amount of slightly unhinged, her animal-print dresses just the right level of extravagance for a small town talk show host – Joan Callamezzo will truly be missed once Parks goes off the air.
4. Perd Hapley
The purpose of this blurb is to show that Perd Hapley is a great character. Perd Hapley’s appearances never failed to delight me, and his awkward, stilted speech cadence is one of the best recurring gags on Parks. The character has gone on to define the actor who portrays him, as Shondaland viewers were shocked when Jay Jackson appeared on Scandal as a regular newsman, with unanimous disappointment that Perd Hapley did not exist outside of the Parks universe. But Perd wasn’t simply the best newsman in Pawnee. He moonlighted as, among other things, a movie critic and a television judge. A full episode of Perd’s movie review show Lights, Camera, Perd would be a heartwarming and believable story, and therefore receive 5 stars from me.
5. Barney Varmn
The lead accountant at Tilton & Radomski Accounting, played by John Balma, can proudly claim the title of “funniest accountant on a sitcom ever.” Varmn was the perfect character for Ben to play off of, and Varmn’s manic delight at each one of Ben’s accounting puns never got old. Their dynamic showed why Ben was such a good match for Leslie; no matter how many times he broke Varmn’s heart by accepting a job elsewhere, he always did it with kindness. Varmn was also memorably ambushed by Andy as part of Andy’s attempt to get April a job, and Balma’s physical comedy shone as he danced around the exploding firecrackers.
6. Craig Middlebrooks
At first, despite my love for Billy Eichner’s loud presence, I found it difficult to enjoy Craig Middlebrooks, Eagleton native. In the final season the writers finally found the right balance of Craig. As the new director of the Parks department following Leslie’s departure, Craig was given plotlines that no longer seemed forced; Eichner also grounded his performance and stopped shouting every single line like he does so wonderfully on Billy on the Street. His therapeutic device about repeating three things to calm down became one of my favorite bits of the final season. I hope there are countless takes of Eichner listing three things Craig loves, to be released as a special feature.
7. Li’l Sebastian
If I could get away with just writing the lyrics for “5,000 Candles in the Wind” for this entry, I would. No tiny horse has ever brought the world so much delight. Giving Nick Offerman opportunities to play sheer, giggly delight is something I always support, as well as giving Adam Scott more opportunities to play incredulity and puzzlement at something that the rest of Pawnee loves. Li’l Sebastian already had a worthy episode to send him out, and the best miniature horse on television deserves five thousand candles in the wind lit just for him.
8. Mona Lisa Saperstein
Despite being played by Jenny Slate, who gave an awards worthy performance in Obvious Child and also gave the world Marcel the Shell, I was not a fan of Mona Lisa Saperstein at first. She was hilarious as a caricature and as Jean-Ralphio’s sister, but given way too much to do as a love interest for Tom. Whether through the miracle of Slate’s burgeoning career or the writers recognizing that they had made a mistake, they reduced her screentime. In a sixth season episode, she knocks over a glass vase in Ben’s office while demanding money, and then walks off. This is the perfect use of Mona Lisa.
9. Brett and Harris
The two animal control guys, Brett and Harris (played by Colton Dunn and Harris Wittels), were always guaranteed a spot on this list, because Harris throwing a dead dove at April and Andy’s wedding is still one of my favorite Parks moments. With Harris Wittels’ recent passing, however, writing about them was more than a little bittersweet, and watching clips of them made me misty. Wittels had already made his mark as in the writer’s room on the show, but his character was such a good, on-screen example of his unique presence and perspective. Just over a week ago, a picture of Wittels in character as Harris with his head in some weird device was making its way around Tumblr; now, the comedy world lost an upcoming writer and performer. Rest in peace, Harris Wittels.
Everyone knew an Orin in high school; the pale and disturbingly quiet Goth student played by Eric Isenhower is by no means a groundbreaking character to write. Credit the Parks writers for taking such a familiar archetype and putting him in increasingly absurd situations and creating such a reliable sight gag. Orin as a sheep in April’s Human Farm. Orin as the Easter Bunny. Always wearing the same blank, somewhat haunting, mostly hilarious stare. His name, too, is just one of the many inspired and perfect names of the citizens of Pawnee.