The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History

The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History

by Andy Greene
The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History

The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History

by Andy Greene


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The untold stories behind The Office, one of the most iconic television shows of the twenty-first century, told by its creators, writers, and actors

When did you last hang out with Jim, Pam, Dwight, Michael, and the rest of Dunder Mifflin? It might have been back in 2013, when the series finale aired . . . or it might have been last night, when you watched three episodes in a row. But either way, long after the show first aired, it’s more popular than ever, and fans have only one problem—what to watch, or read, next.
Fortunately, Rolling Stone writer Andy Greene has that answer. In his brand-new oral history, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s, Greene will take readers behind the scenes of their favorite moments and characters. Greene gives us the true inside story behind the entire show, from its origins on the BBC through its impressive nine-season run in America, with in-depth research and exclusive interviews. Fans will get the inside scoop on key episodes from "The Dundies" to "Threat Level Midnight" and "Goodbye, Michael," including behind-the-scenes details like the battle to keep it on the air when NBC wanted to pull the plug after just six episodes and the failed attempt to bring in James Gandolfini as the new boss after Steve Carell left, spotlighting the incredible, genre-redefining show created by the family-like team, who together took a quirky British import with dicey prospects and turned it into a primetime giant with true historical and cultural significance.
Hilarious, heartwarming, and revelatory, The Office gives fans and pop culture buffs a front-row seat to the phenomenal sequence of events that launched The Office into wild popularity, changing the face of television and how we all see our office lives for decades to come.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524744977
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/24/2020
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Andy Greene is from Cleveland, Ohio, graduated from Kenyon College, and is now a senior writer for Rolling Stone, where he's worked for the past fifteen years. He's written cover stories about Radiohead and Howard Stern and feature articles about Bill Withers, Nathan Fielder, Steve Perry, Pete Townshend, Stephen King, and many others. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: An American Workplace

Throughout the nine-season run of The Office, the Dunder Mifflin ware- house set was the filming location for everything from a brutal all-staff roast of regional manager Michael Scott to the casino party where paper salesman Jim Halpert finally gathered up the courage to tell his longtime crush, receptionist Pam Beesly, that he was hopelessly in love with her. But near the end of the seventh season, in the spring of 2011, it was used for a far more somber occasion: the real-life goodbye party for Steve Carell.

The cast had spent the entire day fighting off real tears while Carell filmed his final few scenes as Michael Scott, and now they were finally able to let them out as he gave a private farewell address standing next to an enormous white cake shaped like his already-iconic World’s Best Boss mug, a framed Dunder Mifflin hockey jersey, and four rectangular pizzas from his favorite Italian spot, Barone’s. Someone had even had the fore- sight to place a box of tissues on a red table just a couple feet away from Carell’s microphone, knowing tears were likely to come.

Nearly everyone who worked on the show—including John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Ed Helms, Mindy Kaling, and Rainn Wilson (still wearing the mustard-yellow shirt favored by his quasi-Amish beet farmer charac- ter, Dwight Schrute)—was crammed in front of a makeshift stage, and Carell addressed each department individually as he tried to keep the mood light after a rough day of shooting. “To construction,” he said. “Thank you for making it strong, durable, and able to withstand a strong pounding.” And then, with just minimal guidance from Carell, everyone gleefully yelled out Michael Scott’s (slightly problematic by today’s stan- dards) catchphrase in unison: “That’s what she said!”

He went around the entire room (“To set dressing and art, thank you for your constant tweaking and making something small look so big. . . . That’s what she said! To production, thank you for keeping so many balls in the air   That’s what she said!”) before he put down his prepared re-
marks, removed his reading glasses, and took a truly goofy moment and made it gut-wrenchingly sincere, just like many of the greatest episodes of The Office.

“I didn’t prepare really anything else to say,” he said. “This is over- whelming, obviously. It’s been a fantastic seven years for me. I was talking to [my wife] Nancy about it a few days ago as this was all hitting me and she said something that I thought really nailed it. And that was, ‘Well, your professional identity is wrapped up in this show,’ which I knew. And then she said so simply, ‘And they’re your friends.’ That’s really it. You’re my friends.”

On that last word, friends, Carell choked up so badly he could barely get it out and he had to run offstage toward his wife as cries of “We love you, Steve” filled the cavernous space. “I remember somebody wanted to do an ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ speech,” says Kate Flannery, who played boozy supplier-relations representative Meredith Palmer. “John Krasinski talked us out of it. I think it would have been too uncomfortable because Steve was just too emotional. We did put together a scrapbook for him with some old pictures. Steve actually gave us all Rolex watches that he had engraved. I wear it to this day because it reminds me that everything that happened did actually happen. I know it sounds crazy because things are so fleeting in the TV business, but we were family. We really were.”

When that family had first come together to shoot the Office pilot seven years earlier, Carell was the most famous face in the group only because everyone else was a complete unknown, many still working day jobs to pay the bills. Carell had just wrapped up a long stint as a Daily Show correspondent, but his recent shift into the world of sitcoms with support- ing roles on Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Watching Ellie and Tom Papa’s Come to Papa had been catastrophic. Both shows were canceled within weeks of NBC’s putting them on the air, leaving barely a dent in the public con- sciousness.

When The Office premiered on March 24, 2005, it seemed like it was destined to suffer a similar fate after airing a pilot that was practically a shot-for-shot remake of the original UK Office—a groundbreaking BBC show helmed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant—and was dismissed as a pale, pointless retread by critics. What saved it was Carell, who throughout the second season transformed Michael Scott from an unre- pentant asshole to a genuinely lovable doofus acting out due to crushing loneliness and a desperate need for love.

The show would limp ahead for two seasons after Carell’s farewell party, but even at the time most of the cast and crew knew that an Office without Michael Scott was a very dicey proposition. The main cast swelled to a ridiculous high of nineteen people in the final season, only underscor- ing the fact that, in the words of one writer, Michael Scott was a “load- bearing character” that the show simply couldn’t function without, no matter how many bodies they crammed into the Dunder Mifflin bullpen.

But time has dimmed the bitter aftertaste of those last two years and restored The Office to its rightful place as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, right up there with I Love Lucy, Seinfeld, Cheers, and The Simpsons. (Unlike those shows, however, The Office is a “single camera” show and presents the action through the eyes of a documentary film crew.) Bars across the country pack in hordes of college-age fans during weekly Office trivia battles, Comedy Central and Nick at Nite air the reruns nearly every night to enormous ratings, and Comcast recently shelled out $500 million to obtain the streaming rights from Netflix in 2021 so The Office can be- come the centerpiece of their new streaming service. (Netflix doesn’t re- lease numbers publicly, but according to multiple sources The Office is consistently their most popular offering, eclipsing even Friends reruns and their original hit shows like Stranger Things, Black Mirror, and Orange Is the New Black.)

The show started at a time when audiences had little reason to expect anything even remotely watchable from the four major networks beyond occasional brilliant flukes like Arrested Development or Freaks and Geeks. And after years of pathetic attempts to clone Friends, they’d resorted to soulless, paint-by-numbers sitcoms like According to Jim, My Wife and Kids, and George Lopez, complete with sappy music cues, wisecracking kids, and laugh tracks that went off after every lame zinger of a joke. Out of this scene somehow came a faux-documentary show about the sad, often des- perate lives of the employees at a struggling paper company.
Amelie Gillette (Writer, Seasons 7 and 8): Nothing on TV was like The Office back then. The comedy was small and it was dry. The people looked like real people, which was a rare thing, especially for a sitcom. It proved that you could do something romantic without being dramatic and that you can do something that feels real, that feels grounded, even though there is this artifice of it being a documentary that tricks you into thinking it’s real.
Jen Celotta (Writer, Seasons 2–6): What made The Office relatable, I think, was the fact that people were bored at their jobs. They felt like, “Oh, I can relate to this. I can relate to this feeling of having to sit at the desk next to someone who, outside of work, I wouldn’t necessarily be friends with.”
Lee Eisenberg (Writer, Seasons 2–6): We really liked cringe comedy and the show can be the cringiest of cringe comedy, but there was also a love story that was so compelling. You hadn’t really seen anything like that before where the comedy was so great and then in the background was this story that you’re just completely drawn to. You really gave a shit about all the characters.
Gene Stupnitsky (Writer, Seasons 2–6): In some ways it reminded me of a show like Friends where you laugh and you care. It’s so hard to pull that off. To make you feel something is the hardest thing.

Ken Kwapis (Director): The Office had the idea that the comedy was be- havioral. The stories weren’t joke driven. The comedy focused on human behavior. And I think one of the secret weapons of the show is that not only is the humor dry, but the show is literally dry. There’s no music.
J. J. Abrams (Director): I think what Ricky [Gervais] and Stephen [Mer- chant] created was a completely relatable, universal idea in the same way that [other British imports] Sanford and Son and All in the Family did as well. There are certain ideas—whether it’s about being the underdog, liv- ing with a bigot, or being in an office setting with people that you’re forced to make your family—that work anywhere. Obviously the David Brent character and Michael Scott were both a very relatable idea, the sort of inadvertently, unbearably offensive coworker. The nugget of the idea was so perfect and so rich that it could probably work in most any culture.
Clark Duke (Clark Green, Season 9): The Office replicated a thing that I love about Robert Altman movies in that it wasn’t afraid of boredom and silence. Those things can be powerful tools if you use them correctly. And people love watching shows about rich people, but you rarely saw some- thing about middle-class people in the middle of the country. It also wasn’t about somebody that had an overarching goal. So many shows are about somebody trying to better themselves or they have some big goal they’re trying to achieve, and that’s not what most of life is for most people, and The Office is not about that. It was just about day-to-day life.
Oscar Nunez (Oscar Martinez, Seasons 1–9): The great, great, great sitcoms of yore all had a simple premise. It’s character driven. Taxi’s just a fucking taxi place. Cheers is just a bar. That’s all it is. And we were just an office.
Larry Wilmore (Writer, Seasons 2 and 3): The Office introduced a differ- ent rhythm to network TV. It showed you don’t have to have these same rhythms. A lot of sitcoms were built around farce. It was always like, “Somebody doesn’t know this. Ooohhh.” The Office was just observational humor and comedy. It was very simple. Jim just looking at the camera is a joke as opposed to a structured joke punch line.
Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly Halpert, Seasons 1–9): We had the benefit of some trailblazers before us who were starting to steer the ship in a dif- ferent direction comedically, like The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Develop- ment, and Freaks and Geeks. There was this turn and it was all sort of happening around the same time, so I feel like there has to be some credit given to those shows as well because together there was this kind of new movement that happened.
Melora Hardin (Jan Levinson, Seasons 1–5, 7, and 9): I absolutely feel like this show couldn’t have been on the air at any other time in history. Back then, actors like me, and really the whole business, was turning their nose up to reality TV. We were like, “Uh, this is just awful,” because all of us know there’s nothing about reality TV that is real. It’s completely made up. But I also feel like that reality TV paved the way for this show because this show walks that line where it’s documentary-like even though it’s ac- tually completely made up. We got to play characters, but we get to play characters in a fictitious world that’s trying to be real and seem real. I think without reality TV, America wouldn’t have known what to make of The Office. They just would have been like, “What?” They would have never been able to wrap their brain around it.
Jason Kessler (Script Supervisor): Reality TV is what conditioned people for The Office. You had all these big splashy shows like The Bachelor and Survivor where people are used to seeing action where you cut to a talking head describing the interior emotions of what was going on in that mo- ment. So once the language of that became familiar with audiences, it was a stroke of brilliance to bring that into scripted comedy. That allowed The Office to do those smaller jokes where you get to notice something on camera that’s not exactly pointed to with a big, flashing light, but it’s a little joke in the background, just like when you’re watching a reality show and you kind of notice somebody doing something in the background andyou’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” You’re able to catalog that more once you’re familiar with the language of that style.
Paul Feig (Director): People had seen reality shows and all that, but they weren’t consuming comedy that way. I always credit YouTube for changing the way we look at things because so many people were having a lot of fun looking at real videos shot by real people, which were loose, and they weren’t jokey. If you look at just how comedy and TV, and movies, were before that, it was very joke driven. It’s setup, punch line, characters being a little bit broad and over-the-top and everyone was wisecracky and very Neil Simon–y, for lack of a better term. But then YouTube was real life captured and you have The Office, where the humor is all behav- ioral. It’s about how people are reacting to each other. For a lot of people in the public, and especially for younger people, there’s a strong aver- sion to jokes and the old style of comedy. People get very frustrated by jokes now.
Larry Wilmore: Some of the most interesting moments, to me, are the quiet moments. Seeing Michael through the glass in his office and seeing him lonely in there is very poignant sometimes. You’re seeing Pam torn at her desk, just torn with feelings over her boyfriend when there’s this guy in the office she has a crush on. You’re seeing Stanley just exhausted by Michael and he doesn’t even have a line, but he’s just exhausted. That would always make me laugh.
Alan Sepinwall (TV Critic, Newark Star-Ledger/HitFix/Uproxx/Rolling Stone): It’s an unusual structure in that Jim and Pam are the traditional protagonists in terms of narrative structure. They’re the ones you’re root- ing for, they’re the ones who are progressing. They’re mostly not the ones generating the comedy though. Pam is almost entirely a straight woman. Jim is sort of wry and making fun of Dwight and Michael and looking over at us, but the comedy is being generated by Michael and by Dwight. It’s almost like a Marx Brothers movie where you’ve got the young ingénue and her love interest. They’re part of what passes for plot in a Marx Brothers movie. And then Groucho and Harpo and Chico are actually the ones you’re coming to see.
Paul Feig: Before The Office, all comedy had to be super clever, super writ- ten, or it had to be really crazy and broad. What The Office did was they were just normal people, but they’re really quirky, and they’re stuck in a situation just like you and the weird people you work with. You’re the nor- mal person. You are Jim Halpert. You are Pam Beesly, the normal one of the office, and you’re going, “Look at all these fucking lunatics that I work with.” That resonates huge with an audience because they’re in on the joke, because the world around them is a joke. They are not surrounded by a world of jokes.
Nathan Rabin (TV Critic, AV Club): The British version and the Ameri- can version have this incredible element of pathos. So many TV shows are aspirational. They’re attractive people who live in really cool apartments and they have exciting lives and sexy jobs. And here’s one where even the most successful people and the most likable people have a depressing fuck- ing job and live in a depressing community.
Rob Sheffield (TV Critic, Rolling Stone): I think of Michael Scott as the archetypal TV figure of that decade based on the idea that the guy in charge is this total idiot, just like George W. Bush. You can’t picture Mi- chael Scott as a lower-level employee in the office. There’s no way that actually doing a job is something that he could do, just as there’s no way George W. Bush could’ve held any office besides president. That became the comic prototype of that era, not just in TV but in movies like Anchor- man or Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby. The tagline for Will Farrell in Talladega Nights was “A man who could only count to number one,” and that’s kind of the archetypal position that George W. Bush and Michael Scott occupied.
Aaron Shure (Writer, Seasons 5–8): My personal theory about why The Office was so successful then is because Bush was president and it was sort of the zeitgeist of, “What does it mean when the people in charge are in- competent?” And I sort of saw the central foible of Michael Scott was that there was a switch in his head and if he had flipped it most of his stories would go away. And the switch in his head was set on, “Your employees can and should be your friends.” And if someone flipped that switch he wouldn’t have as many problems, he wouldn’t have as many stories. I think part of why The Office is so popular today is there’s a different type of meditation on incompetence, who’s in charge and why.
Clark Duke: I’m not even sure you could make the show now because it was just so unrelentingly real at times. I feel like a lot of the stuff that came in its wake, even like Parks and Rec, was tonally so much brighter. But I like the darkness of The Office. That’s what made it so great to me.
Oscar Nunez: We knew we hit the lottery when we got that show. We’ll never be on a sitcom like this again. We can never top it.
Creed Bratton (Creed Bratton, Seasons 1–9): I don’t know what season it was, but we were sitting around on the set one day and Steve looked around at everybody and said, “We’ll never, ever have it this good again.” He’s not one to be making these generalized overview statements to every- body, waxing pedantic, but he did that time. It registered and I thought to myself, “He’s probably right,” and he was right. We’ll never, ever be on a TV show like that again. It’s just impossible.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Cast of Characters xiii

Introduction: An American Workplace 1

1 The Original Office 11

("I became fascinated with embarrassment")

2 Coming to America 24

("The Americans will ruin it")

3 Casting 33

("She just looked like a person who'd work at a paper company for twenty-five years.")

4 Setting the Stage 53

("It looked like they were shipping aluminum out of there.")

5 The Pilot 58

("That seems kind of dangerous.")

Key Episode 1: "Diversity Day" 65

6 Season One 71

("It felt like we were making a student film.")

7 The Fight for Survival 76

("Things literally got insane.")

8 Dwight 85

("He would have made a good Nazi")

9 Season Two 92

("It's a love story disguised as a workplace comedy.")

Key Episode 2: "The Dundies" 102

Key Episode 3: "The Injury" 107

Key Episode 4: "Casino Night" 111

10 The Rise of Creed 117

("I didn't know him from a hole in the wall")

11 Mindy 126

("I thought I had the scarlet letter on me.")

12 Season Three 132

("All of the Hondas and Toyotas turned into Mercedes and BMWs.")

Key Episode 5: "Beach Games" 149

13 Who Is Michael Scott? 154

("Loneliness is the most universal emotion.")

14 Filming The Office 162

("They perfected the art of shooting us like animals in the wild")

15 Season Four 176

("I would never have gotten them together till the end.")

Key Episode 6: "Dinner Party" 189

16 The Writers' Room 202

("I've watched grown men cry when they're being rewritten.")

17 Greg 224

("My image of him is of the absentminded professor.")

18 Season Five 233

("I feel like I'm in a horror movie and I'm the only one that sees the monster.")

Key Episode 7: "Weight Loss" 249

Key Episode 8: "Stress Relief". 256

19 13927 Saticoy Street 263

("You wouldn't want to walk around there at night, for sure.")

20 The Trouble with Movies 273

("You made it work for Ed Helms. You need to make it work for me.")

21 Season Six 278

("Are we jumping the shark? It shouldn't be this slapsticky.")

Key Episode 9: "Niagara" 291

22 Spin-off Blues 300

("Parks and Recreation should have been a spin-off")

23 Steve 305

("He would stand there and help every single person out of the van.")

24 Season Seven 313

("Somebody didn't pay him enough. It was absolutely asinine")

Key Episode 10: "Threat Level Midnight" 325

Key Episode 11: "Goodbye, Michael" 330

25 Meet the New Boss 337

("What if Queen Latifah becomes the manager?")

26 Season Eight 348

("It was Cheers without Ted Danson.")

27 Life in the Background 362

("I learned not to count lines in a script.")

28 Season Nine 371

("A lot of us were low on gas")

Key Episode 12: "Finale" 389

29 The Aftermath 402

("My fifteen-year-old niece is a fanatic")

30 Reboot? 411

("I hope we can do it before any of us kick the bucket")

Acknowledgments 419

Sources 423

Index 435

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