Parks and Recreation: Why is Everyone So Mean to Jerry?

The rough treatment of Jerry Gergich is at odds with Parks and Recreation’s cheerful outlook, but every sitcom needs a punching bag.

Parks and Recreation Jerry
Photo: NBC

Parks and Recreation is undeniably one of the most beloved comedies of the 21st century, and a lot of that can be attributed to the show’s sunny disposition. While comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, South Park, and Parks’ direct inspiration The Office were often fueled by nastiness, cynicism, and boorishness, Parks and Rec used the unrelenting positivity of its main character and the warm relationships between its ensemble to create a feel-good atmosphere that naturally lead to laughs. 

Parks’ cheery portrayal of competent, well-meaning civil servants running into the grossly ill-informed, misplaced anger of their constituents has earned it the reputation of being the defining comedy of the Obama era. Throughout the tumultuous and divisive Trump presidency, populated with government employees who seemed as outwardly hostile toward the departments that they represented as Ron Swanson, fans and critics wrote about finding solace in old episodes of the NBC comedy. When reality showed us a spiteful, corrupt version of civic life, Parks and Rec was like a balm of niceness.

However, within Parks’ hopeful, friendly world, one particular piece of Trumpian ugliness often goes unmentioned in the gushing tributes to the series kindness — the treatment of Gerald “Garry/Jerry/Larry” Gergich. Most commonly referred to as Jerry as a sign of disrespect or just genuine apathy toward getting his name right, Jerry is the constant butt of the Parks Department’s jokes. 

Relentlessly bullied for his clumsy nature and ineptitude, Jerry is treated as one might imagine Donald Trump treats Chris Christie. Jerry is mocked moments after recovering from a heart attack, barely tolerated after a supposed mugging, and belittled after virtually every minor mistake. Parks writers try to make up for this by giving Jerry an idyllic homelife, content demeanor, and well-endowed manhood, but the mean-spiritedness of the Jerry material always has seemed at odds with the series genial vibe.

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Perhaps the simplest reason for Jerry’s rough treatment by his coworkers is that  every sitcom needs a punching bag. And it just so happened that Jerry became the guy through happenstance. “We didn’t really have a character for Jerry at the beginning,” creator Mike Schur told the A.V. Club in the midst of the series third season. “We didn’t figure out Jerry until the episode where all the characters are digging up dirt about each other. Jerry meekly says to Mark, ‘A little birdie told me you have two unpaid parking tickets.’ And Mark says, ‘Well, a little birdie told me your adoptive mother was arrested for marijuana possession.’ Everyone laughs, and Mark says, ‘Oh, you didn’t know about that?’ And Jerry says, ‘I didn’t know I was adopted.’ 

“As soon as we came up with that storyline, for some reason everyone was digging up dirt on Jerry. And 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. I remember having the discussion like, “We can do this, but we will have to do an episode where we show they care about him.”

There are a few examples of Jerry getting some love. Leslie comes to respect him after his retirement, Ben genuinely values his friendship and stands up for him, and Jerry eventually becomes the beloved mayor of Pawnee, but these moments feel few and far between. They certainly don’t make up for the constant trolling and cruelty Jerry is shown throughout the series.

Don’t get the wrong idea; Jerry jokes are frequently funny and add a little sourness to the sweetness, it just feels weird that the meanness is mostly directed at one man (though Kyle has a rough time too) and perpetrated by people like Leslie, who are otherwise beacons of kindness and compassion. In a political climate that could use a little bit more of Parks and Rec’s good qualities, let us go out of our way to show affection toward the Jerry’s in our lives — you know, the type of people that attempt to book the Four Seasons and mistakenly book Four Seasons Total Landscaping.