When the writers of The Good Place conceived the character of Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph), they asked themselves how the godlike figure would fill her ample downtime. As the third party settling conflicts of eternal reward and damnation, she must remain impartial, and know nothing of humanity—but she’s immortal, not immaculate, so she finds a loophole. As showrunner Mike Schur recalled earlier this week, the writers thought, “It would be funny if the way that she cheats is that she binge-watches premium television.”
And as devoted viewers of The Good Place know, The Judge gravitates toward a particular type of programming, headlined by hunky actors of a certain age: Mark Harmon, Kyle Chandler, and, in the show’s fourth and final season, anything where Timothy Olyphant wears a cowboy hat. When it comes time for the members of Team Cockroach to make their final appeal on behalf of all human existence in the season’s 10th episode, “You’ve Changed, Man,” they conjure up a secret weapon: Olyphant himself, duded up like U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Turns out Schur is just as big a fan of Raylan as Gen is, going so far as to sing the praises of Marshal Givens’ winning repartee for Vulture in 2015. He told The A.V. Club about how that essay, a birthday greeting, and meeting Olyphant in person eventually culminated in asking the Justified and Deadwood star to go “Full Stetson” for The Good Place.
AVC: Can you walk us through casting Timothy Olyphant in this cameo?
MS: Pretty early on in the season we were breaking this episode. The writers’ room on this show was way ahead all the time, looking way down the road because we kind of had to be. And we had this idea that [Team Cockroach] would hit a brick wall with The Judge and they would need something to keep her attention, and it was very quickly pitched: “If you’re The Judge and you’ve been doing nothing but bingeing prestige dramas for the last however many Bearimys, the way to do it would be to get Janet to conjure one of [The Judge’s] favorite handsome-devil guys, and that would keep her attention.
We thought about all the people she’s mentioned, but I know Tim Olyphant a little bit, and I had a pretty good feeling that he would do it. [Laughs.] I called him, and I said to him, “Do you know this show at all, because if you don’t it’s going to take a really long time to explain [Laughs.] what the hell you’re about to do.” He watches it with his kids, so I explained what [the cameo] was, and he was like, “Oh, that sounds great, I’m in.”
We had shot a couple episodes already, but we hadn’t shot any of Maya’s stuff because she was unavailable. But it actually worked out perfectly because when we got her in in the middle of the season—to go back and retroactively shoot her stuff she was in, including the premiere—we were able to start planting the idea that she was on a real Tim Olyphant jag. In the season premiere, she talks about how she’s finally bingeing Deadwood, and in another episode she mentions she’s just started Justified. When she’s just about to blow up earth, she pulls Justified season two DVDs out of her purse. We laid out all these little breadcrumbs that led up to the actual reveal. The whole thing kind of worked out perfectly.
AVC: So you had Tim onboard for it and then you laced the jokes in to set it up?
MS: That’s right. We were able to go back and plant all the jokes we wanted to set it up. It was really fun, because it feels like a magic trick. [Laughs.] It’s like a comedy Usual Suspects, where when you go back to the beginning of the season, you see all these little clues that Tim Olyphant was eventually going to pop up on the show.
AVC: It’s a real roller coaster in the way it’s set up, because there’s the feeling one of The Judge’s TV crushes might be behind that door in Janet’s void. It’s a bit of a surprise to see all of Team Cockroach there instead—but that’s followed by the surprise of Tim not just showing up, but showing up in Raylon Givens attire.
MS: I’m glad to hear that. The initial pitch was just “They get Timothy Olyphant there,” and then he sits next to her on the couch as they pitch this—honestly, it’s probably the most important scene the show has ever done, right? For three-and-a-half years, it’s been the investigation of the way human beings are judged and assigned to their eternal resting place. And it’s all come down to this moment where they have to completely redesign the system and pitch it to the person who can make it happen. And then we added in this insane thing [Laughs.] which was not just that Timothy Olyphant was there, but that he started making trouble for them, like they were defending their PhD thesis. To me, that was the real breakthrough that we had: He shouldn’t just be there, he should start investigating and poking holes in their theory [Laughs.] and getting really intense about it.
Were you a Grinder watcher?
MS: The thing that made him so perfect for this was—I don’t know if you remember this, but Rob Lowe’s character had been on [the fictional legal show-within-the-show] The Grinder and Timothy Olyphant, playing himself, had basically replaced [Lowe’s character] and was on The Grinder: New Orleans. And then Timothy Olyphant came into the world of the show, insanely, and there was an episode where the two of them got into an argument about which one of them was closer to being a real lawyer. [Laughs.] And they had a mock trial in front of an actual judge, to determine which of them was closer to being a real lawyer. It was bananas, and it was so funny, and it was like meta on 24 different levels.
So when I was trying to explain to Tim what this would be, it’s very hard to explain, but I knew that he would get it, and understand why it was funny. Because if he could handle [that Grinder] premise, he can handle any premise. [Laughs.] There’s nothing weirder than that.
He was the right guy for 500 reasons, but largely because, as a performer, he has this effortless calm about him, in the way that he engages with his work. That’s what was exactly required for this bananas idea we that we were letting out.
AVC: A lot of people probably still see him as Raylan, or they see him as Bullock from Deadwood, but he’s also done these great screwball performances on The Grinder and Santa Clarita Diet.
MS: He has this consistency, no matter what tone he’s in the middle of. I remember seeing Go and being like, “Who the fuck is that guy?” He was so good and he’s a total heavy at the beginning of the movie, but then he gets some real comedy scenes. Like in the scene where the gangster guy is about to shoot that guy through the arm in retribution for having been screwed over, and Olyphant is there, and he’s really into it in a weird way, but he’s freaked out about the mess. [Laughs.] And he’s laying out that they first think he’s the guy that they want. And then it smash cuts to him drawing a map, like “Here’s where you want to go.” He’s just completely unflappable in every role he does. I’m a huge fan. That’s the No. 1 reason he’s on [The Good Place]: I just love the guy and think he’s an incredible performer.
AVC: Was there ever any talk of having him done up like Bullock, or would that have been too complicated?
MS: The key is “What does The Judge want?” We just felt like Raylan is more her speed. When I was explaining the role to Tim on the phone, he said, “Am I myself, or am I Raylan?” And I said, “No no no: You’re you, but I think you’re edging toward the Raylan side of things. And he went, “Full Stetson?” And I was like, “Yeah, I think Full Stetson sounds right.”
But then, as I said that, I was like, “Oh, I have to ask for permission for this. I want him to look like Raylan, he’s going to be acting a little like Raylan.” I don’t know [Justified showrunner] Graham Yost, but I got in touch with him and asked for his blessing and he very nicely gave it. Which made me feel like, “Okay, as long as Graham Yost is okay with this, then I’m okay with it.”
AVC: You mentioned that you knew Tim beforehand—how did you first connect?
MS: It’s kind of a complicated story. I’ll give you the shortest possible version: I was such a fan of his from Deadwood, and I talked about Justified so much. And I wrote a thing for Vulture in Justified’s last season—Vulture does this year-end awards thing, and they asked me to judge the category Most Quotable Dialogue, and I was like, “I’ll do this if I can give it to Justified.” If you’re talking about line-for-line dialogue, I feel like that was the best dialogue on TV. And I was talking to my wife [Single Parents showrunner J.J. Philbin] about it, and my wife said, “If you ever leave me, it’s not going to be for another woman, it’s going to be for Timothy Olyphant.” [Laughs.] And I said, “You know what: You’re probably right!”
So my 40th birthday, my wife made a video for me of all these different people saying “Happy birthday.” And one of them was Timothy Olyphant—whom I had never met. She’d gotten in touch with him through her agent and he sent me this long birthday message, the crux of which was “I’ve heard you have a crush on me and you’re deeply in love with me, and that’s very flattering.” And it was amazing. I then got his email address and wrote him to thank him and sent him the thing I’d written about his show, and said “I don’t know if you ever saw it, but I wrote this about your show because I was a huge fan.” And then that started an email correspondence, then we eventually met each other and hung out a little bit and talked about TV and stuff like that. It came more from me just being in love with him. [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s more than a little bit of you in Judge Gen’s reaction to this, then?
MS: A hundred percent. Generally speaking, Judge Gen’s reaction to him is my reaction to him as a presence in the room.
AVC: Do you think the joke would still land if “Timothy Olyphant” weren’t such a fun, “Eleanor Shellstrop”-like name to say?
MS: It didn’t hurt. As you can tell by the way people react to him, they’re constantly saying his name. Like Gen said, “You made me an Olyphant?” which is a very funny thing to say. My favorite thing in the episode is something he just improvised, which was he asks a question, Eleanor says, “Yes, good question Timothy Olyphant.” And he goes, “Tim’s fine.” [Laughs.] That was just him, in that moment, goofing around, and we left it in because I thought it was funny.
AVC: If Tim wasn’t available, which of The Judge’s other TV crushes would you have considered? Was Mark Harmon in the mix?
MS: He was brought up. And then we thought about Kyle Chandler, because I think the first TV show she ever said she’s watching is Friday Night Lights. Tim was the first guy we called, so luckily we didn’t have to go to any backups. Mark Harmon, Kyle Chandler—she has a type, Judge Gen does. Right? The tall, dark, and handsome type. Luckily we got our guy.