'The Office' exit interview: EP Greg Daniels on the show's origins, playing to camera and Jim and Pam's 'slow burn'
The show, an Emmy winner for best comedy in 2006, was never the biggest hit, but it's arguably one of the more influential comedies of the past decade in terms of its style -- the mockumentary format it started is all over television now -- and its willingness to place character ahead of jokes.
In advance of the series finale on NBC, Zap2it spoke with the man who adapted "The Office" for American TV, Greg Daniels. In a wide-ranging interview on Monday, May 13, we talked about everything from how he got involved in the show to Steve Carell's departure and his decision to bring the show's documentary conceit home in the final season. Here's part 1.
PICS: The essential 'Office': 23 of our favorite episodes
We start by talking about his initial involvement in the show. Daniels says he didn't know anything about the BBC show Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant created until his agent gave him a tape to watch. The title didn't grab him, but once he started watching, he was hooked. He says he took a meeting with Gervais and Merchant largely as an excuse to meet them, while they were impressed with the work he had done on "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill."
"[We had a] commonality in taste, maybe, in terms of some of the stuff I had done on 'King of the Hill,'" he says. "It was pretty realistic for a cartoon and often poignant. I don't know. It felt like we were on the same page. So I got the gig."
Zap2it: The pilot was more or less a remake of the British show's first episode ...
Greg Daniels: About two-thirds their version and one-third new stuff. It felt -- every time you heard a line that you'd already seen on the English show, it was jarring. People were not loving that part of it, I would say. There was a lot of strategy behind it. Initially I figured we would try to sell this to HBO, but the person who loved it best was Kevin Reilly at FX. Then we were like, "All right, cool, FX." But then he moved and became the head of NBC. So we were like, "NBC?" It didn't seem like it would be the right home for this at the time.
I was worried that if I did a completely new story, I would get involved in the typical pilot note process, and they would start giving me notes and it would come out feeling like everything else that was on the air at NBC. So I was kind of daring Kevin -- it was like, "All right, you say you love it. We're just shooting it then. We'll just do this." And he did love it. He was fine with that.
I changed a few things. I accelerated the Jim and Pam story so you'd see some more of it in the pilot, because I knew we only had the pilot to convince people. I put a few things in, like the "World's Best Boss" mug and stuff like that. But it was a very good -- I always thought it was very good. But also at the time, I don't think the original British show had aired in America [BBC America aired the British "Office" in 2003, after the American version went into development but before it aired], and I think I was under the impression that it wasn't going to. I had the sort of mistaken impression that they would only see my version [laughs]. Because when I grew up, I had never seen the British show that "All in the Family" was based on. So I always figured, I don't know, I guess that's for people in Britain. But the world is very different now, so the moment that NBC started to do it, BBC America put [the original] on to time with our publicity and everything. So it became an exercise in compare and contrast.
What did you learn from doing the pilot that way?
I'm like a slow starter. Everything I've done has built, or has taken a while. Well, that's not true, but recently. And I think that's fine. When you do something unusual, the audience doesn't 100 percent know what you're up to in the beginning. And if you're doing a character comedy, they haven't learned the characters yet. And you learn a tremendous amount from the actors, if you listen, from the shooting of the pilot. I think that's fine, personally. I would say the good news is, I think we got rolling really quickly. By episode 2, we were all original and pretty good.
Which brings me to my next question. Several members of the cast have said that "Diversity Day" was when they knew the show was pretty special. Did the writers feel that way too?
Well, I felt that at the pilot because of the cast and the way they interacted and the way they acted. I thought this was really something special. I was the only writer around on the pilot, so the other writers can't use that one [laughs] as their point of reference. But no -- "Diversity Day" was episode 2, and one of the things about it is it was the quintessential "Office" episode in a way, in the sense that when you think about Michael's character and how a person like him would blunder socially and yet needs to be professional -- the biggest blunder he would make would be over race in the United States. So we went right at it in episode 2, and it was very fruitful.
I remember seeing it at the time and really liking it. But as I started to see it in syndication, I had it in my head that it came a little later.
No, it was only the second episode. [laughs]
Right. I just assumed that it was because sometimes comedies take a bit to find the groove, but you found it pretty fast.
Yeah. Again, we weren't really trying to rewrite the show in the pilot. It was more of a producing challenge. How do you find actors who will have this vibe? And how do you shoot something like this which has not been shot before in TV? The pilot director [ Ken Kwapis] and I had to kind of retrain all the department heads. They were so used to searching for perfection, and we were saying, "No, that's not the idea here." It's OK to have the sound be slightly off mic, it's OK to have the makeup not be perfect, it's OK to have the hair be messy. It was just hard to actually make it.
You had kind of a nontraditional audition process for the cast, right?
Yeah -- they were so nice. The fact that they gave us three days. ... We shot for three days, the screen tests. I had done a lot of improv work with them in the auditions, because I felt it was important to the style that it seem very un-writerly and not mannered, but very natural. I was hoping to find people who were funny performers but also could improvise. It was really fun, actually. And also there were little things we would develop that later helped us understand the characters a lot.
Is there anything you remember from that time that stands out?
I remember one thing that I liked was we had John [Krasinski] and Rainn [Wilson] -- we were pairing up different Jim and Dwight pairings, and I was giving them the suggestion that Jim comes back from the water cooler and gives [a cup] to Dwight, and Dwight hasn't asked for it. He's incredibly suspicious about why Jim has done this, and Jim's just doing it to mess with his mind. It's one of those things where they're not jokes. It's kind of like -- it's a situation, and just to see Dwight trying to puzzle out what this means, you know? Why is his enemy doing him a favor? And who could be funny in that kind of a situation?
Did you give much thought to how much Michael's neediness or self-conception as an entertainer were exaggerated because he was aware of the cameras? Would he have been the same guy if this were a non-documentary show?
No, that's the key. ... Even in the casting process, when I was auditioning people for that role -- we really wanted Steve, but I also really wanted to get Allison Jones to be our casting director. When I heard Steve was available, I was like, Great. As soon as Allison is on board she'll approach him next week, and in that intervening week he took another job, which was terrible. [The other job was on "Come to Papa," which would end up dumped in the summer of 2004 and lasted just four weeks.] Then we had to spend three months trying to cast somebody else for that role. During that casting process I had trouble getting the right performance out of people. I just didn't know what to tell them to get them to do it.
So I decided I would tape myself. I set up a camcorder in my office late at night when no one was around, and I tried to do all the lines. I realized that the one thing I could keep top of mind that would make it come out kind of appropriately, was that if I was thinking that one day, even though I lived in Pennsylvania, this would go national and Jennifer Aniston would be watching it in her house. And my hope was that maybe, she would watch it and want to have dinner with me. So that was my direction that I would give to people auditioning, was to be constantly having an eye to this person you desperately want to impress as being the viewer down the line. And it seemed like that improved everybody's performance, so that became a whole thing, the camera awareness.
So Michael might have been 10 percent less annoying had they not been filming him?
It was more like a motivation factor. It kind of made him desperate and scrambling. I don't know if you've ever had the experience where you call somebody and get their voicemail and you start to leave a message -- I guess you can sometimes change voicemail now, but when it was on an answering machine and you start babbling and are like, "Oh God, no." ... That's what it was like for him all the time. It kind of increased his comic desperation.
Once you started getting into production, did you leave the British show aside?
I think we were all pretty familiar with it, except for Steve. He didn't watch it to try not to imitate any of the rhythms of Ricky. But what's more present while you're shooting is the actors you are working with, and if you're kind of committing to this style where you're very realistic and you're going to be looking for behavior and improvisation and everything, then you're more influenced to write toward the performer. So a lot of times we'd be led astray if we went too close to the British one.
The metaphor that I felt when taking the show over from those guys was that they'd invented this toy, and they played with it for a few months and then stopped playing with it. And I was like, What are you doing? This is super fun -- it's a great toy. I'll take it if you guys don't want it. I think that's how the writing staff felt too. It was kind of like, We get it. We get what the game here is, we get these characters. We want to play with it ourselves.
How much did you know about the supporting cast at the outset, and how much were their characters informed by just knowing them for a while? Was Angela, for instance, just "prickly cat lady" at first?
Angela is a character that wasn't in the British show. She was kind of based on a woman -- I worked in an office building on "King of the Hill" in Century City. There was a woman who worked on another floor who was in the elevator all the time with me. At one point she said to somebody else, "I don't want to be a b***h, but ..." [laughs] And then she went into this thing just trashing this person. I was like, Oh -- that seems like a type, a good office type.
Angela was my sister-in-law, Angela Kinsey, so I knew her before the show. And Allison Jones, who cast the show, has the best eye in comedy and found people for us who would be willing to be pretty much extras on the hope that we would start to write for them. So Angela and Kevin and Oscar had this little accountants' area. They had just a couple lines in the pilot, I think, probably improvised. I knew somewhat what their characters would be, but not entirely. Oscar becoming gay was actually something that only happened later in the show.
I read that it was because the wardrobe department put him in a pink shirt?
Yes [laughs]. Yes it was. He wore a pink shirt, and there was a line where Michael makes some comment on it, he thought he was guy. We cut that line, but later we were like, "Actually, that would be kind of interesting." One of the things I liked about it was because the character wasn't gay in the beginning, [ Oscar Nunez] didn't play it in any particularly quote-unquote gay way. He was just being a very natural person, which I think was a good acting [choice].
Oscar and Brian [Baumgartner] and Angela would sit in their desk clump, and they knew each other from the improv world in L.A., and they would come with little bits. I had to walk past their desk clump to get to Steve's office from my office on set. And every time I would walk on set, they would go, "Hey, wait -- we want to show you something." They'd work out this little thing where, like, Kevin brought back some coffee for Oscar and spilled it on him, or there was some kind of -- they were talking about what they'd seen on television last night. They would work out these little scenes for themselves. There wasn't a lot of room for them in the beginning, because we were trying to establish the four main characters. So then we did webisodes with them, and they gradually -- we'd always write stories and then cut them in the editing room because we were long. But eventually they got on a lot more. ...
I had come from animation. When you think about "The Simpsons" or "King of the Hill" or something like that, the worlds tend to expand each episode, because there's no additional cost incurred to hire an animated character. So you just get more characters the more the stories expand.
There were episodes that viewers always looked forward to -- Christmas episodes and things like that. Was it ever that way in the writers' room, or was it just, This is our next one?
That's funny. I think Mindy [Kaling] always wanted to do the Christmas episode. I always liked to do the premieres, because there was a little bit of catchup where you hadn't seen what they were up to over the summer. The finales, we tried to put a lot of cliff-hanging elements in them. But a lot of it was just if you found a fruitful story idea, then you're really excited because it was fun to write. Sometimes you'd have a drier story and it would be harder to write.
In other circumstances, I would think that there might be pressure for Jim and Pam to become the center of the show. Did you ever get that sort of note from NBC?
The network was hugely supportive while Kevin was there, and after Kevin was Ben Silverman, who had developed the show with me. So I had a very nice run of understanding executives. By the time they left, we were successful and had been on for kind of a long time. But I thought one of the kind of genius aspects to the show Ricky and Stephen made was that they separated the emeotional characters from the comedy characters. [It was] like a Marx Brothers movie, where Groucho and Harpo and Chico are doing the comedy for the majority of the movie, and then Zeppo has a love story. Ultimately we didn't stick with that, but that's how it was in the very beginning.
The other thing about it was the type of love story it was. Because it was in close quarters and in public and it was kind of forbidden at first, it was a slow burn. So it acutally didn't work really well to put it front and center because you'd have to move it forward so much. If you think about "Diversity Day," the story of that episode for Jim was [he was] having just a terrible day at work, and then in a boring meeting Pam falls asleep on his shoulder. He's interviewed and says he just had the best day. That's the entire story. If he'd had to have been the A story and fill up all the twists and turns, that story would have advanced enormously. When you look at that story, it's only like five pages or something. Steve shouldered the vast majority of that episode going through his struggle. So it was great that they weren't the lead characters, because their romance could develop much slower and more realistically.
Was there any temptation to move it along faster?
We debated it a lot. The temptation is to not move it along faster, because if you move it along faster, suddenly you're in unknown territory and it's scary. Whereas if you just do these tiny little incremental baby steps, you're kind of in a safe, pre-thought-out area. So we kept trying to challenge ourselves and jump it forward faster than the audience expected us to. We didn't want the audience to get ahead of us and be like, "Ugh. When are they going to kiss, my God."
And in doing it that way, the obstacles they had to go through didn't feel as contrived.
We talked about obstacles a lot. It was important that there always be an obstacle, because we felt they were really soulmates and were very good together. So if there were no obstacles, they would end up together very quickly. So we had a lot of different obstacles -- that was a big part of it.
Jim going to Stamford seemed like something someone in his position would really do.
What I really liked about that was that at the end of Season 2, the idea was kind of floated. I think most people would have assumed we weren't going to do that because we know where the set is and we know who the other actors are, so he can't end up in Stamford. That's just one of those yanks that they throw into stories. But then we built a whole other set and cast a whole other office. I think people were surprised he was in a completely different town at the beginning of the episode.
In Part 2 of the interview, Daniels discusses spinoff ideas, the end of Carell's time on the show and his decsion to reveal the documentary crew this season. Read it here.